Few living American poets have so thoroughly absorbed, and cleverly responded to, the avant-garde traditions in visual art and poetry - including Dada, Futurism, Concretism, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art - as Kenneth Goldsmith. With influences ranging from John Cage and Andy Warhol to contemporary hip hop and internet artists, Goldsmith has pushed the limits of late twentieth century poetics to both reinvigorate and pioneer aspects of visual poetry, sound poetry, the list poem, and digital poetics. If it is true, as Brion Gysin once remarked, that innovations in writing lag 50 years behind those of visual art, Goldsmith has steadfastly worked to bring the form up to date with the accomplishments of conceptual and performance art.
Goldsmith was born in Freeport, New York, to a family employed in the garment industry. He attended various schools in Long Island and Port Washington before receiving a BFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984. Since then he has had a successful career as a visual artist and creator of textual objects, as well as being a DJ for the alternative radio station, WFMU (91.1, New York), and the original editor and compiler of the extensive online archive of avant-garde poetries, Ubu Web
. Goldsmith lives in New York City with artist Cheryl Donegan and their son Finnegan.
As might be expected from his training, Goldsmith's initial artistic productions were sculptural, carved book-objects bearing ironic titles or concepts (for example, a 300 pound facsimile of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book). However, when these enterprises proved too labor-intensive for Goldsmith's increasingly linguistically-informed creativity he decided to devote himself to pure text-art. Personal contact with Marvin Sackner, and a visit to his collection of Visual Poetry in Florida, consolidated Goldsmith's knowledge of the international Concrete Poetry movement and the realization of the difficulty of finding visual and sound poetry in libraries or bookstores led to his desire to create the Ubu Web in order to increase awareness, and distribution, of experimental writing.
73 Poems (1993) is Goldsmith's first extended exploration of visual poetry in a mass- produced book form. It contains a series of 79 textual overlays (the title is an allusion to e.e. cummings's 1963 poetry collection - acknowledging his presence as the first major American visual poet) in which groupings of words are printed in bold text, with the same words then reproduced in a poem immediately following in a lighter text with a new word cluster imposed on top of it in bold. The effect is one of a palimpsest, with new associations being created through the simultaneous reproduction of two discrete poems, but it also provides a sense of continuity between each page. As the poems appear to expand and contract, moving to a minimalist arrangement of numbers and individual letters, before blossoming again to fully recognizable words, 73 Poems is one of the few visual poetry sequences (along with Emmett Williams's Sweethearts and Tom Phillips's A Humument) to engage with narrative progression. The choice of words for the poems also anticipates Goldsmith's later work in that it incorporates both "high" and "low" culture with quotations from T.S. Eliot found alongside those of Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones, as well as Goldsmith's characteristic attraction to quotidian phrases and end-rhyme (ex. "Gain Weight/ Jailbait/ Soul Mate/ Hesitate/ Penetrate/ Watergate" ). The book includes a CD recording of Joan La Barbara's vocal interpretation of these pieces - making these poems a valuable contribution to the history of sound poetry scores. A series of stenciled textual overlays, similar to those of 73 Poems, serve as illustrations for Bruce Andrews's poetry collection Tizzy Boost (1993).
The chapbook Gertrude Stein on Punctuation (1999) reproduces an excerpt from Stein's famous lecture "Poetry and Grammar" (1935) in which she provides a rationale for the use of certain forms of punctuation over others. This is followed by a series of three pages which consist solely of the punctuation marks taken from Stein's essay and arranged by Goldsmith. The free-play of syntax across the white page is visually-pleasing concrete poetry, but also foregrounds that which often goes unnoticed: that punctuation signifies, but is viewed as having low connotative value. While Gertrude Stein on Punctuation may mark the end of Goldsmith's explicit investigation of visual poetry, it does lead directly into his work with found material. As one of the tenets of concrete poetry was the awareness of the physicality of language - that words could be used as "concrete" objects in the construction of poems - so too, in collecting and listing words on the basis of their sonic properties, particularly end-rhyme and syllabic-count, over (but not to the elimination of) their semantic meaning, Goldsmith privileges the materiality of language.
For example, in No.105 (1992) Goldsmith collects, in a travesty of the rhyming dictionary, a series of words and phrases ending with the "ee" sound and lists them in alphabetical order by syllable count. However, whereas a classical guidebook's diction is derived from the standard corpus, with No.105 Goldsmith collects the slang, the colloquialisms, and vulgarity of the late 20th century, as in "Frisbee, fuck me, funky, geegee, germ-free, goatee, gnarly!, grody!, Gucci, H.D." (1). This practice is continued with No.109 2.7.93- 12.15.93 (1993) where the same process is applied to words ending in the "schwa" sound (such as, "ar" and "ah").
Yet both of these publications are mere groundwork for Goldsmith's magnum opus No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), which follows No.109 in collecting phrases ending in "r" sounds, but in this instance over a three year period, resulting in over 600 pages of text. Like his previous work in word collection, No.111 begins with single syllable words, and increases by one syllable in each section, until it reaches a conclusion of 7,228 syllables. As in the poetry of Andrews, No.111 excels at startling juxtapositions of obscenity, pop cultural references, idiosyncratic slang, and generational buzzwords. Amazingly comprehensive and wide-ranging in its references (including the just-emerging internet culture and its lingo) No.111 is - if we are to use such Poundian definitions as being the "tale of the tribe" or "a poem containing history" - the last significant epic poem of the 20th century.
Goldsmith's lifelong fascination with music (both popular and avant-garde), facilitated in part by his job as a radio DJ and music critic, is represented in 6799 (2000) and Head Citations (2002). In the former, Goldsmith simply lists, in alphabetical order, his LP and CD collection, drawing attention to the fact that his obsessive collecting tendencies are not restricted to language, as well to as issues of consumerism (the book is 92 pages long) and the occasional beauty of album titles and of contemporary rock group names. With Head Citations, however, Goldsmith is much more playful, presenting 800 misheard pop song lyrics (the title, for example, is a misreading of the Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations"). While not a significantly original idea, it is in keeping with the poet's interests in exploring the intersections of the aural and the oral.
The idea of collecting the quotidian takes a turn toward the personal with Fidget (2000), a transcript of the poet's every physical gesture taken over a 13 hour period. The fact that Goldsmith chooses Bloomsday (June 16th) 1997 to conduct this experiment suggests that he is engaging with James Joyce's attention to the minutae of daily life (and Goldsmith does follow some Bloomsian paths, masturbating, having breakfast, and walking along the beach) yet Fidget seems more an act of poetic defamiliarization, where common activities are rendered almost unrecognizable by the spartan text (for example, drinking coffee becomes: "Arm lifts. Swallow. Arm drops. Swallow. Arm lifts. Arm drops. Eyes move to left." ).
A logical successor to Fidget, where the individual's physicality becomes verbalized, Soliloquy (2001) captures all nuances idiosyncratic speech. Here, Goldsmith seems to expand upon Warhol's A: A Novel (1968) - in which the pop artist records and transcribes a friend's monologue for 24 hours - in that Goldsmith records his every utterance over an entire week. As with his work in concrete poetry, Soliloquy transforms spoken language into physical material. Designed to investigate how much a person speaks in an average week, the answer is 500 pages, or about 5 pounds.
Goldsmith's current textual practice involves exercises in "uncreativity." In Day (2003), the poet retypes the Friday, September 1st, 2000 issue of the New York Times, from left to right, ignoring distinctions between articles and advertisements, stock quotes and editorials. Reproduced in a single consistent font, the published text is an 836 page folio-sized tome, again demonstrating the physicality of language and the actual weight of linguistic material that most view as disposable. Although the gesture is perhaps more enjoyable as a concept than as a reading experience, the collection does provide numerous pleasures resulting from incongruous verbal juxtapositions and from the conflation of banalities with historical insight. Inspired by Cage's one-minute stories, Year (a work in progress) compiles the 60-second weather reports from 1010 WINS Radio in New York City for one year, exploring the narrative that arises from quotidian reportage as well as once again making everyday utterance manifest. Although each of Goldsmith's works is audacious and original, it is entirely consistent. As a collector, compiler, composer, and arranger of everyday speech and the discourse of common culture, Goldsmith makes readers aware of the linguistic matter all about us, and the potential for it to be materialized. Further, in his publishing decisions, few writers have done so much to interrogate the boundaries between art and life.
Further readings. Selected Primary Sources: Goldsmith, Kenneth, No. 105 (New York: Beans Dear? P, 1992); No. 109 2.7.93-12.15.93 (New York: Bravin Post Lee, 1993); No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1997); Gertrude Stein on Punctuation (Newton: Abaton Books, 1999); Fidget (Toronto: Coach House, 2000); 6799 (New York: zingmagazine, 2000); Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001); Head Citations (Great Barrington: The Figures, 2002); Day (Great Barrington: The Figures, 2003); --- and Bruce Andrews, Tizzy Boost (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1993); --- and Joan La Barbara, 73 Poems (Brooklyn: Permanent P, 1993) Selected Secondary Sources: Lin, Tan. "Information Archives, the De- Materialization of Language, and Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget and No.111 2.7.93-10.20.96" (
); Perloff, Marjorie, "A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith" (Jacket 21 : ); ---, "`Vocable Scriptsigns': Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget" ("Afterword" of Fidget by Kenneth Goldsmith. [Toronto: Coach House, 2000. 90-107]). Stephen Cain, Wilfrid Laurier University