What Makes Us

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

Seven American Deaths and Disasters
Kenneth Goldsmith
powerHouse Books, 2013

Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819
John Seed
Intercapillary Editions, 2013

As Marjorie Perloff has repeatedly noted, much of contemporary lyric poetry is prose by another name—there is nothing beyond lineation that commends it to the poetic tradition. She may be wrong insofar as there is also the persistent presence of affect, which is, as Calvin Bedient has recently chronicled, also integral to the tradition, especially the expanded lyric tradition. (In his recent Boston Review article, Bedient argues for the affective “something more” running through everyone from Bishop to Artaud, a spectrum with its own uncanny frisson.) But, beyond this affective imperative, the kind of current work Perloff describes is essentially arbitrary. It has no formal properties other than persistent lineation, largely left-hand justification and a typically idiosyncratic sense of meter that roughly translates to something like ear-feel. Contrary to Bedient’s charge that conceptualism is feeling-less work, conceptual poetry, or poetry that involves formal constraint, is not a priori devoid of affect (leaving aside the easy Cagean riposte that boredom is also an affective affect), but is poetry that is resolutely devoid of arbitrariness. I.e., conceptualism is against the arbitrary as a formal matter. (N.b., chance is a formal property that is manifestly not arbitrary, as you doubtless agree.) For the fact of the matter is, all poetic “content” is arbitrary. Content meaning the stuff we stuff our poems with, the petit histories or leveled landscapes, or, in the case of our more dutiful sons and daughters, those exhortations to greatness or survival despite or because of the fierce subjektiver Geist that looks so good on spokespeople for the marginalized. We will witness what we believe matters, if not to us, to people like us. Ideology works most optimally when we bear frictionless witness, as Eileen Myles has often opined, through us on behalf of others like us. Us, keeping us real.

For what it’s worth, my conceptual aesthetic does not serve my affect: it does not convey my feelings about this or that to the world. I am not you, I am not even Us. My feelings about this or that viz the world are unimportant, only of interest, only occasionally, only to me. My poetry is not a means of emotive conveyance from me to you, each to his reach. It is a platform for you. You feel or not, as you like—a statement about rape, whether a flat juridical declarative or a two-line gag—is up to you to digest in whatever symbolic or imaginative order you like. That is, of course, ideologically like you. And thus, my form of conceptualism serves as a platform for poetry as such. Or the possibility, perhaps, of poetry as such. This is by way of throat-clearing—the cogito equivalent of the institutional affective trope of setting the authorial stage for the poem one is about to read (i.e., this is how I feel about my poem and now we will see how you feel about my poem and whether our feelings may, for some transcendental instant, commix in that melancholic partial way which reminds us of the swannish beauty of language, that is to say, ever dying, never dead).

So it is in this sense unsurprising that all the inches for and against, but mainly about, conceptualism of late tend to focus on the producer and not the product. Or at least not the text object product. This is the fetishization of the body of the Poet (as talismanic substitute for the poet’s soul—note the constant mentions of our relentlessly attractive attire, unremarkable in other venues of cultural capital), where the corpus of the worker substitutes for the corpus of the oeuvre. A fetishization that is as inevitable as it is vaguely tedious because what it does is leapfrog over the work at hand. No one could be happier than those who swallow the bait about not reading conceptual poetry, for they conveniently miss the corollary that one might at least think about it. It, again, referring to the text product. And, as Hume might note, one’s thinking tends towards a tisane of one’s passions. Or, as Bedient would put it, affect.

Though, as I like to say, less affect, more product. Because, in this point of terminal poetry, all we have are productions. Put another way, Proust is not some person, but an extended-play memoir, and that’s the only material that matters: the historical Proust, like the historical Jesus, could have been a prig or a pederast, a poufter or just a blowhard, and we are yet left with the dilations and desiccations of chez Proust. After all, it’s not history I’m after. As an aside, I may be suggesting that the fetishized personae of the Poet is also a poem, or at least a poetic product. But turning to the text products at hand:

Seven American Deaths and Disasters by American poet Kenneth Goldsmith (powerhouse Books, 2013) takes its overtly Warholian theme as tone and attunes it to the subject of the Poet in History, resulting in a heavily-curated culling of transcribed media accounts of seven significant American cultural moments. Let’s parse this. Significant meaning significant to the Poet. The Poet is articulated as such via generic product attributes presented to the consumer, such as the authorial name on the spine and pertinent inside parts, and the biography presented on the dust flap (as befits the future not-to-be). And the Poet as more subjectively or affectively articulated in the Afterword, neatly foreshadowed by the book’s epigraph, which is Wittgenstein’s aphorism, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The Afterword embraces this necessary provincialism: “all seven events depicted here were ones that I lived through which changed me, and a nation, forever.”

Thick Whitmanesque sentiment is spread as far and wide as the country itself—from the Poet’s bare-breasted “As I stood silently on the corner of Bleeker Street and Sixth Avenue watching the towers fall…” to the selection of TV channels covering the Event (local = New York), and by “cover” I mean taking torn threads of information and tatting them together into a tale that can be, and will be, told. We think we know the story but we only know the Event in retrospect. In other words, the story of September 11th for certain Americans does not, cannot, in its facts convey the “something more” that real poetry conveys—as evidenced in the anchors’ groping for coherence, which presupposes perspective, which comes only slowly, only aestheticization.

Ugh! Oh! I mean that’s…that’s…that’s…
That would that would that would And you
have to wonder how that
Let’s just think about this logically.
There is no logic.
Oh my God!
uhuha hijacked airairairliner.

The transcriptions are Reznikoffian topiaries: as such, commercials are included in the John F. Kennedy assassination, and omitted in the September 11th coverage, which is broken Empire-like, into Roman-numerated subsections. Columbine is represented by a declassified 911 call, and is the only piece that has no media inter-mediation. It is simply a cri de coeur, at sharp odds with any argument that media’s own violence acclimated those particular killers. The Poet’s Technical Notes state that the Space Shuttle Challenger reportage switches over from television to radio, suggesting a dematerialization of the medium mirroring the dematerialization of the spaceship. Song lyrics are included in the Lennon and JFK assassinations, serving as contrapuntal punctum in the latter, paratextual pathos in the former. There are no Michael Jackson songs interlarded in his Totengesang, which is presented as a tragedy, or, more accurately, a comedy, for only in comedy is the personae able to become a person. Nostalgia, it seems, is concomitant with shock. Too, it could be noted that all channels are in American English. History, as we all know, is still mainly temporal tourism.

Each death and disaster is set in a different font, and these fonts are a marked part of the materiality of the matter at hand. From the Establishment Times Roman serif of the JFK chapter to the Optima of the Challenger chapter to the Ariel of the WTC chapter, we receive our language, as we now receive language, visually and contextually—Optima is ironic or poignant only after we know that the spaceship, that romantic futur-ideal, went kablooey!—just as Times Roman does not have the same authority post-Camelot, post-Nixon (not newsworthy to the Poet), and Ariel is Plath-perfect for any aestheticized suicide. If, as Boris Groys has argued, Bin Laden was primarily a video artist, the Twin Towers were his great finished/unfinished masterwork, his La Porte de L’Enfer. Contrarily, the Iraq War has no punctum, and is therefore not a poetic Event.

In sum, there is a shape to the world as we read it, just as we engineer the receipt of our readymade subjectivities. Goldsmith crafts his poetry as a matter of history, as elegantly demonstrated in his White House performance, where the canonical trajectory from Whitman to Crane to Goldsmith became a fait accompli. Later, we can discuss institutionalization and the rather adolescent desire for purity. For us to be like us.


By comparison, Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819 by British poet John Seed (IntercapillaryEditions, 2013), a comparatively overlooked volume, makes History Poetry. After the Napoleonic Wars, England was beset with a host of domestic problems, from unemployment to famine; suffrage was restricted in the north. The Peterloo Massacre involved cavalry charging into a crowd demanding parliamentary reform, with predictable results. In a directly Reznikoffian mode, Seed turns eyewitness accounts into a long political-historical poem. Originally written in 1973, the manuscript disappeared in the drawer of a potential publisher, only to pop up again in 2012. There is in this an opportunity to reflect upon the different temporal climates of a work’s reception: what may have read as revolution-sympathetic poetry of the people in the early ‘70s, might be seen as conceptualist elitism and exploitation in 2013. But maybe not. Or at least not so fast. For again, the emphasis here is on the act of witnessing—this time, direct—evidencing its original orators’ belief in the thing itself that is already always absent from media’s waffling accounts. Which may be the difference between the readership contemplated by overtly affective poetry (modernist and postmodernist) and the other kind (conceptualist).

I heard the bugle sound—
I saw the cavalry
charge forward
sword in hand
upon the multitude.

Another:

a woman
had been standing
ten or twelve yards in front:
as the troops passed
her body was left,
to all appearances,
lifeless;

and there remained
until the close of business…

I.e., as moving and monumental as poetry is rumoured to be, for what is Poetry, what is Art, but the witnessing of a moment that causes one to say stay—no matter how unpleasant or insignificant the subject matter. See Guernica (a two-year old child was the first Peterloo casualty), watch The Clock (is there not a feeling running through the stream of tocks?). Seed, also author of numerous books of poetry, including the two-volume Pictures from Mayhew, states in his Afterword that his is and has historically been an Objectivist project. However, in this latest book, he also cites conceptualism as an aesthetic context. The afterword, then, in both text products, becomes the final poem—the Sonnet 154—in which the Poet plays at an answer to the call for the master. But in Seed’s book, the answer has to do with the search for punctum, rather than punctum as given. So when Seed rhetorically wonders, “Can a poem have a punctum?” The only response is perhaps a Duchampian: is it possible for a poem not to have a punctum? This is important, for this is the difference between a poetry that relies exclusively on ontology, and one that demands ontology plus logic, two different donnés, each to its reach, each necessary for a poetry of intellectual and affective integrity. Otherwise we might as well post gifs of cute kitties and dead babies and call it a day.

However, as luck and the dominant cultural winds would have it, the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times, announced on July 28, 2013 that the paper was hosting a one-time call for poetry. The best submissions of “Op-poetry,” selected by the Opinion Editors, who, after all, know a thing or two about rhetoric, will run in the paper’s August 25th edition. After noting what will not be permitted (the pornographic or otherwise offensive), and providing a whimsical list of possible form/content combinations, the Editors advise: “And be sure that, after reading your poem, we know where you stand on the issue you’re writing about.”

And that, my pets, is the difference between History, which is a matter of opinion, and Poetry, which is a matter of materiality. The materiality of language, dumb language, moves as we play our language games, and when we do not know how the game will out, then this the matter we may not speak about. I have nothing to say of rape, of torture, of hate, or at least not of these things to date, and I am not saying it, and this too is poetry as I know it. Or product placement.

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