Tuesday, July 07, 2009

 

Something Kenny Goldsmith wrote in the current issue of Poetry has been nagging at me:

Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. Why atomize, shatter, and splay language into nonsensical shards when you can hoard, store, mold, squeeze, shovel, soil, scrub, package, and cram the stuff into towers of words and castles of language with a stroke of the keyboard? And what fun to wreck it: knock it down, hit delete, and start all over again. There’s a sense of gluttony, of joy, and of fun. Like kids at a touch table, we’re delighted to feel language again, to roll in it, to get our hands dirty. With so much available language, does anyone really need to write more? Instead, let’s just process what exists. Language as matter; language as material. How much did you say that paragraph weighed?

This is the first paragraph of Kenny G’s introduction to the current issue of Poetry’s collection of flarf & conceptual writing, a follow-up to Geof Huth’s portfolio of vispo last November, primary evidence that Poetry – the magazine, that is – is gradually catching up with Poetry the website in showing off American poetics in all its glorious diversity, something that the magazine hasn’t even aspired toward since the untimely death of Henry Rago some 40 years ago. I’m happy to see all these kinds of writing suddenly appear in its pages after decades of relegating all modes of the post-avant to the status on the disappeared. So my basic response to the current issue of the magazine is pure joy.

Or would be if I didn’t have this nagging feeling. In a word, I think Kenny is right about one thing here: no one means a word of it. Or at least he doesn’t. Kenneth Goldsmith has been the king of disjunction. He means his poetry to represent a rupture with whatever has come before. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he’s well versed in the marketing principles that underscore the contemporary art world, and is convinced it would seem that they will work as well in the capital-starved demi-monde of verse as the galleries of Chelsea or 57th Street. If anything, Goldsmith is more 57th Street than Chelsea (let alone Brooklyn). So it’s worth watching the sleight of hand whenever he asks you to identify which shell contains the prize (in this case, The New).

The ringer – or at least the first one – in that paragraph is the second sentence, Goldsmith’s topic sentence, his attempt to shout a la Robert Grenier “I HATE SPEECH.” Is there any poet anywhere who has depended more, or benefitted more, from disjunction than Kenny G? Consider his masterwork Day, published in 2003 by The Figures. A transcription – a scanning, really – of The New York Times of September 1, 2000, Goldsmith makes it new precisely by his erasure of print’s little borders, so that story jams against story or ends even mid-sentence as with this example from page 13:

All this week, Mr. Bush has criti-
Continued on Page A22
PRESIDENT VETOES EFFORT TO REPEAL TAXES ON ESTATES

A part of what Goldsmith is doing here recognizes that readers have dealt with the abrupt changes of the new sentence for decades. One whole rationale for USA Today is that it only lets one or two articles in each edition “jump” to another page. Most newspapers, like the Times, routinely disrupt the reading experience to force the poor reader to shift from A1 (from which the example above was taken) to A22, coming across in the process all of the day’s ads that occur in the front section of the paper. The whole point of the Times & its peers in the rapidly dying world of print is to get you to turn the page. But even in 1982, when USA Today first appeared, the disjunction of the jump was being attacked from within the field of journalism itself.¹ To have noticed this in 2003 is not quite as earth-shattering as Goldsmith’s overheated prose makes it sound.

Furthermore, what is Goldsmith suggesting is so all-fired new? The use of found language being folded, spindled & mutilated in a variety of fashions, many of which look precisely like older poetic forms. How does this differ from Jackson Mac Low’s use of insurance texts in Stanzas for Iris Lezak, or Kathy Acker’s appropriation of the work of Harold Robbins or in re Van Geldern in the 1970s? Is Goldsmith arguing that the primary difference between K. Silem Mohammad & Bruce Andrews is that Andrews is sincere?

I don’t think so. But I don’t think he’s arguing against disjunction either. Rather, he’s pointing out ways in which disjunction is occuring at different levels than, say, just the sentence-by-sentence nature one finds in some language poetry. Its reach has expanded. Still, it’s hard to see precisely what the difference is between a flarfy text that is so bad it’s good (or vice versa) and the more writerly work of, say, Tony Lopez, whose Darwin, just out from Acts of Language, just might be the most beautiful book of poems ever written. Both make extensive use of language as material, a concept I dare say that is as old as The Cantos.

So disjunction is not dead. If anything, it’s more active – being used in more ways to more ends – than ever. And exhibit A is none other than Kenneth Goldsmith himself.

 

¹ It’s worth noting that Goldsmith’s claim to transforming the Times rests almost entirely on his run-together presentation of one page after the next. So you get to read sizeable chunks of stories before you get to the “Continued on…” He could have, as easily, truly run the pages together, line by line, so that a single line might take you through four or five stories, depending on the number of columns. But Goldsmith isn’t reproducing the New York Times so much as he is the experience of the Times & the truth is that any reader follows the text in chunks.

It’s also worth noting that USA Today is one of the major reasons why today’s dailies feel permitted to drop some home editions each week as they confront the fiscal limits of their death-spiral. Publishing just five days a week, USA Today has grown into the second-most-widely distributed English language paper in the world, after the Times of India.

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