Monday, February 27, 2006

A non-critique of Kenneth Goldsmith's uncreativity

I noticed at the weekend that Ron Silliman had finally managed to capture this blog in his massive Poetry Blogroll - something I've been patiently waiting to happen for over 8 months (I never informed him of the existence of my blog as I was interested to see how quickly information seeps through the blogosphere - to date I believe this blog is listed in less than 10 other blogrolls, and may have been mentioned or cited in fewer than 20).

Anyways, being well raised by my mother I wrote Ron a quick thank you email, mentioning how much I appreciated his easy-to-read introductions and views on avant/post-avant poetry. He responded with a you're welcome, I think email the next day - which I wasn't expecting: he must get reams of email from strangers and nutters.

So where does Kenny Goldsmith come into this? Well, this is exactly the sort of thing I was thanking Ron for in my email. Before I read his post on Kenny Goldsmith's uncreative writing project I'd heard of neither: uncreative writing - as a project, a statement, a function of art - had never knocked on my front door or bothered my evenings with a phone call.

To quote Ron directly: "One of the major social functions of art is to reveal the world to us, its inhabitants. At this, Goldsmith is certainly an unqualified success" and "Goldsmith is not only revealing to us the world as it is, but by doing so in the most extreme ways possible, reveals the presumptions that lie behind our art categories as well". Yet Ron is critical of the endeavour: "It’s because his projects, by design, never stand on their own, that his commentators invariably turn back to the cult of Kenny". You do need to read the whole of Ron's post to appreciate these quotes in context.

Now my initial reaction on meeting the concept of Kenny Goldsmith and uncreativity was to, well, laugh. I like it when people undertake meaningless activities which can only have meaning for themselves. I don't know why Mr Goldsmith feels it's important to type out - word by word - a single issue of the New York Times from front page to back in a specific manner. It's not important for me to understand his motives to get pleasure from thinking about his activity.

(Though he does say: "But in capitalism, labor equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work. But the truth is that I've subverted this equation by OCR'ing as much of the newspaper as I can. And it works pretty well since The New York Times is typeset by computer; hence the OCR program doesn't have too much trouble recognizing the body text. However, when it comes to the fine print, particularly in the ads, I've got to input the text by hand." - which makes me wonder about the self-honesty of his endeavour).

Even so, I see the actions of someone spending the best part of 3 months retyping the entire content of a single newspaper as entirely equivalent to that of someone spending months building a model of a ship from matchsticks, or someone spending 24 hours watching sequential episodes of Desparate Housewives, or someone who toils for months on end to produce a lawn that nobody else can walk on, or someone who writes poetry and refuses to have it published by someone else ...

Aha! A connection. And just as most posts to this blog eventually gravitate to the extremely important subject of Rik Roots, so does this one.

I can appreciate the concept of Kenneth Goldsmith's uncreativity because I can see echoes of his project (as I choose to interpret it, eg a preference for private rather than public creativity) in my own work. The poetry I write, I write primarily for the pleasure I get from writing it, rewriting it, formatting and displaying it. Deleting it as and when I see fit. It is my endeavour, and the pleasure that others may gain from my work is, to me, incidental. The only pleasure I get from other's pleasure (or ire) in my poetry is the public face they put on that pleasure - as measured in the comments I get on the poems, the mentions I get in other people's blog posts. I can imagine that Kenny Goldsmith gets similar pleasures from people's attention to his work - though that's mere conjecture on my part, and I've no plans to email him and ask such a question.

A final thought: I get more comments on my conlanging activities than I do on my poetry. Sometimes I find myself thinking this is probably a reflection on my abilities as a poet. But most of the time I find myself thinking that it's a reflection of people's views on the Art of Contemporary Poetry. This is, I think, a good thought to keep safe as I continue my endless patroll of blogs and bulletin boards keeping tabs on my namecheck tally.


  1. "or someone who writes poetry and refuses to have it published by someone else ..."


    It's not a refusal if no one is asking, and they ain't asking me. Right? RIGHT?

  2. An audience of one is an audience nonetheless. That it is oneself makes it no less.

  3. Julie - you have to make people ask you, otherwise they won't, and then you miss out on the pleasure of saying no. Anyways, you were asked (at least once, I remember). Did you refuse?

    Ron - the question is not the volume of audience, but rather its centrality to the endeavour. My audience is peripheral to the relationship I have to the poetry I write, but I am still very aware of it after the fact, so to speak.

  4. Rik,

    I have refused before but, to my recollection, only people like I don't think I've ever refused someone legitimate, but they aren't exactly banging down my door.

    I guess I was just curious if you'd link not seeking publication to refusing it. Dammit, I'm lazy, not snooty!

  5. The audience I imagine for my poems is at least as critical of them as real life people, but the real audience tends to dislike different things.