There’s no denying Kenneth Goldsmith’s status in the modern poetry pantheon is firm. The man created Ubuweb, one of the best online resources for hard to find and out of print poetry and sound art and he also curates Pennsound, the best online compendium of 20th Century American poetry beyond comparison.
These two feats alone would be enough for him to be considered one of the most influential historians & figures in 20th Century and modern poetry, but I want to turn to his essays, which have been getting a lot of press & controversy at the moment from his book Uncreative Writing, published last year.
For those who haven’t got to grips with premise of the book, he neatly sums it up here, in front of Michelle Obama at the White House:
The idea of copying out pieces of writing, cut and pasting words, code as poetry are explored in the book Uncreative Writing – and I will be keeping a very sporadically updated diary of my thoughts reading the book over the next couple of months.
Now, I’m probably considered a fairly conservative poetry reader – my first poetry love was Larkin, I did my dissertation on Eliot, I’ve never even read any bloody Geoffrey Hill. But – as I’ve documented throughout the blog – I like to keep up with my contemporaries and new forms of poetry writing.
After taking Chris McCabe’s course at the Poetry School on experimental poetry, I’ve been fascinated by poetry created from alternative means rather than grappling with the muse in the mind gym. Rules, constraints and games, as I’ve found out, can produce exciting new work.
But, and I don’t have any other way of putting this, I also have a very subjective ‘bullshit’ meter, as everyone does. On leafing through Uncreative Writing, said meter was whacked out of its gourd and going haywire. Not sure how much I agree with Kenneth, or Kenny G as he’s known, that code and MSDOS is poetry per se, but I want to use this space to bring to light what he states and criticise, challenge and agree with him.
Chapter 1: Revenge of the Text
The first chapter is a primer to what I imagine will be at times a contrary and controversial polemic on writing. It’s probably my first real encounter with the concept of paratextual analysis i.e. taking in to account other aspects of a text including the typography, book cover, design etc as having a direct effect on the reader & the appreciation of the text.
Text and it’s impending revenge, is all in this chapter, and he spends the majority of it discussing the ways in which data and text is treated, transported and manipulated through the wealth of I.T. – everything from a malfunctioning on-flight TV to the surrounding information that accompanies the body of an e-mail.
He makes the good point that the fact we’re often writing on powerful laptops – with the opportunity to shape and edit text beyond what others could do in the 20th Century - means that the possibilities should make us question our position as writers. But it should also make us question what we write and how contemporary ways of communicating are already changing not how we write, but what we write, too.
He demonstrates this by sending himself an e-mail with ‘Mary had a little lamb’ written in to the main body of the message. When it comes back it contains a wealth of complex data which he didn’t write at all – I.P. addresses, date received etc. This text is self perpetuating and runs behind everything we do and, in Kenneth’s mind, gives creative writing, and writers, a huge potential to change their work.
I couldn’t help but think of this (potentially contentious) quote below from Steve Roggenbuck’s video ‘Am I even a poet anymore?’ when reading through the first chapter of Kenny G’s book. The video & quote is below:
Art is the creation of belief systems…how can you have a belief system if all you have is 80 page, black on white, 12 point font, serifs? God help me.
He argues a similar point which Uncreative Writing makes in its first chapter: everything can be considered literature.
The difference is here is that Steve looking through the other end of the Uncreative Writing telescope. When he says “My heart is like a thousand f’ing subdomains in the same f’ing website, you know what I’m talking about?” he’s using the intangible cavernous black space of the internet to exemplify the space in his heart.
Whereas Kenneth (first name terms) performs a close reading of the line of code for the W image on a Wikipedia page, he suggests that the tightly mapped letters and numbers that constitute the W could be read as having some linguistic, rhythmical and (possibly) emotional merit.
But here’s where I have a problem. He says that the code of the W is not poetry “nor was it meant to be”. Yet, before stating this, he highlights the work of Japanese poet Shigeru Matusi who writes ‘Pure Poems’ of 400 characters, which consists of 1s, 2s and 3s as Roman Numerals. When reading them, Kenneth states, they are hypnotic. And they are, for example, in the first two and a half minutes here:
The difference, I think, between the code and the numbers is very had to spot (bullshit meter’s batteries are foaming). Is it that Shigeru (I’ve carried it on, I’m continuing with first names) has chosen these numbers and they are meant to be read out that makes them different, even though, you could argue, that the material is largely the same?
It must be choice. This is a point Kenneth makes at the start of the above video, the fact that his students choose a certain text to copy and type up shows a lot about their personality and emotions without them creating anything original. But are we doing the same with words? Theres only so many times you’ll see the word iridescent in a poem without being able to think of petrol in the forecourt of a garage in Essex (or is that just me?)
In this way, coding and the surrounding text does offer new ways for the writer to express what he or she feels. The point Kenneth makes is that the writer can choose to instigate these elements in to their writing. Data i.e. numbers and codes is not information until the writer chooses to use them.
But does anyone really want to listen? I look forward to reading more.