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CONTEMPORARY POETS (8th Edition)
St. James Press, 2000
What initially distinguishes Kenneth Goldsmith differs from most other poets is that he took his initial degree in sculpture at an arts college (RISD) and that he has since mounted one-person exhibitions of its art in SoHo galleries. He was also included in Heights of the Marvelous (2000), Todd Colbys anthology of New York poets who do arts in addition to poetry, none of whom is portrayed in the bio notes as having an M.F.A. Goldsmiths work reflects a key esthetic difference between the art world and the literary world, especially of graduate writing students, in its extreme originality, as distinct from the slight deviance from currently acceptable styles more typical of literary MFAs.
The premise of one Goldsmith book, Fidget (Coach House Books, 2000) was, as he explained in its preface, "to record every move by body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday)." He continues in phrases verging on classic:
I attached a microphone to my body and spoke every movement from 10:00 AM, when I woke up, to 11:00 PM, when I went to sleep. I was alone all day in my apartment and didn't answer the phone, go on errands, etc. I just observed my body and spoke.
Hazards encountered in writing this long prose poem are incorporated into the work itself, as Goldsmith speaks of getting out of bed and interacting with objects in his space. On p. 31 is a description of masturbation that verges on classic and would be quoted here, were this not a "family encyclopedia."
He notes that he "began to go crazy," in contrast to the tradition of poets who write about an insanity that existed before they set pen to paper. Given Goldsmiths background, it is indicative that Fidget was first published--made public--as an exhibition at Printed Matter, a SoHo store devoted to "artists books." Later it was incorporated into a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris (16 June 1998) in which the singer Theo Bleckmann "stood high on a balcony in the museum and dropped sheets of paper printed with each word as he sang them." Goldsmith produced an electronic version acknowledged later in this entry. Only in 2000 did Fidget become a book.
Professor Marjorie Perloff, Goldsmiths most elaborate critic so far, commends the following passage from chapter 2 (11:00, pp. 7-8):
Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Tip of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words.
Perloff continues: "In breaking down bodily functions into their smallest components, Goldsmith defamiliarizes the everyday in ways that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as "Why cant the right hand give the left hand money?" Esthetically adventurous, Goldsmith works on the borders between "poetry" and "prose" and, more courageously, between poetry and "not poetry," not to mention the borders between "literature" and "art."
Not content with just book publication, exhibition, and performance, Goldsmith also collaborated in producing an electronic version in Java Applet. Here the text of Fidget is reconfigured by substituting the computer for the human body. As Goldsmith explains:
The Java Applet contains the text reduced further into its constituent elements, a word or a phrase. The relationship between these elements is structured by a dynamic mapping system that is organized visually and spatially instead of grammatically. In addition, the Java applet invokes duration and presence. Each time the applet is downloaded it begins at the same time as set in the users computer and every mouse click or drag that the user initiates is reflected in the visual mapping system. The different hours are represented in differing font sizes, background colors and degree of "fidgetness," however, these parameters may be altered by the user. The sense of time is reinforced by the diminishing contrast and eventual fading away of each phrase as each second passes.
While the scheme reflects esthetic expressionism, the art depends upon observing severe constraints.
Fidget reflects Goldsmith's earlier No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997), which is a 606-page encyclopedic text based on words ending in the sound ah (schwa according to phoneticians): a collection of words drawn from conversations, books, phone calls, radio shows, newspapers, television, and especially the Internet, that was arranged alphabetically and by syllable count (from single-syllable words beginning with A: "A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah air." Toward the end Goldsmith draws the texts from individual pages from unacknowledged sources, in a kind of update of Raymond Queneau's classic Exercise de Style (1947). Earlier he produced visual poems of overlapping letters, some of which were performed by the singer Joan La Barbara, whose renditions were collected on a CD.
Need I conclude that few other published poets, beginning with those featured in this encyclopedia, are working in Goldsmithian ways.