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Uncreative Writing
May 16, 2012

Book review: Uncreative Writing

Kenneth Goldsmith’s theories are fascinating, if not entirely convincing

The most appropriate way to review Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing, an inspiring, controversial and engaging critical survey-cum-manifesto, would be to simply copy and paste a previous review of the book and claim it as an original. Or perhaps a review of another book, or a chapter from a cookbook.

Goldsmith has made a name for himself as the most visible proponent of a strain of avant-garde American poetry that doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel of what poetry can and should be in the Internet age, but rather to push that wheel into territory that has previously been inhabited by artists.

Trained as a visual artist, Goldsmith, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has published 10 books of poetry, most recently the trilogy The Weather (2005), Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008), books that consist of transcriptions of radio broadcasts of the weather, traffic and sports reports, respectively. Two previous books work in the same fashion: Soliloquy (2001), a transcription of every word Goldsmith uttered over the course of a week, and Day (2003), a transcription of a complete issue of The New York Times.

Many poets and readers can – and have – complained that this is not writing at all, harkening back to Truman Capote’s famous complaint that Jack Kerouac’s work “isn’t writing, it’s typing.” However, those who can suspend their disbelief enough to watch a YouTube video of Goldsmith reading from Traffic at The White House May 11, 2011, will see that this writing – when read aloud at least – is actually quite engaging.

What Goldsmith is promoting, through his own poetry and in Uncreative Writing, is a conceptual approach to poetry that privileges the idea of the project over its actual outcome. As Goldsmith has said on numerous occasions, his books are extremely boring and don’t actually need to be read. On the contrary, they can be put down almost immediately and used instead as a launch pad for conversation. For conceptual poets, the materiality of language and the book-as-art-object is brought to the fore, forcing the lyrical “I” and the idea that poetry is about personal expression deep into the background.

For writers who came of age under the aegis of virtually any style of American poetry besides some of the more experimental movements that have come about since the 1970s, including language poetry and visual poetry, the idea that reappropriation should be construed as poetry is anathema. Yet, these ideas are not without precedents, both obvious and subtle. Reappropriation has a rich tradition in Anglophone literature, going back through William Burroughs and Brion Gysin to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, among others. Similarly, the idea that a poet cannot take full responsibility for the generation of words and ideas has been a fruitful concept for many, from Rilke and his angels, to Yeats and his spirits, to Jack Spicer and his Martians.

As if this wasn’t enough motivation to take Goldsmith’s ideas seriously, he is not only a consummate showman, the Andy Warhol of avant-garde American poetry, but he is also intelligent, playful and articulate, qualities clearly evident in Uncreative Writing, an extensive treatise on this type of writing that not only traces the practice of appropriation through a wide range of authors and texts, but suggests a way forward for both writers and teachers of “uncreative writing.”

Goldsmith is most intriguing and most convincing in his discussion of how the Internet has – or should have – modified the way we think about language. By creating a virtual reality that is essentially built on language through the use of programming codes, as well as through the proliferation of texts made possible through online publishing, the Internet has essentially surrounded us with language, changing the way we think about it in relation to the world around us and changing the way poets should work with words.

In the chapter “Toward a Poetics of Hyperrealism,” Goldsmith compares two poems “warning us of the pitfalls of consumerism”: Tony Hoagland’s “At the Galleria Shopping Mall,” an essentially traditional narrative poem about shopping, and a poem by Robert Fitterman, “Directory,” which “is simply a directory from an unnamed mall.” Fitterman’s poem is finer, Goldsmith claims, because “by doing very little, Fitterman has actually given us a more realistic experience than Hoagland, without having to resort to sermonizing to convince us of his point.”

Here, Goldsmith takes for granted that “traditional” poems are of value only for their ability to replicate experience, when in fact “the pleasure of the text,” to use Roland Barthes’ phrase, lies beyond the moral a poem may or may not provide, as well as the veracity of the experience it creates. It lies, at least partially, in the language and tropes the poet employs.

Elsewhere, Goldsmith writes “our notion of genius – a romantic isolated figure – is outdated.” But just how different is the figure of the “uncreative writer?” Goldsmith essentially posits that language has become an experience of its own, as much a part of everyday life as any other sensation. Put that way, his ideas are not as radical as they at first appear. Rather than positing the poet as an articulate individual in dialogue with nature – as was the case with Romantic poets – Goldsmith suggests the poet in the 21st century should be an individual in dialogue with language.

Goldsmith goes on to state that conceptual poetry is “populist” because it utilizes the language of commerce, the language of news, the language of everyday life, whereas traditional poetic language is not spoken language, and is, as Robert Lowell wrote, “heightened from life,/ yet paralyzed by fact.” But none of this can ignore the fact that creating unreadable books is essentially creating museum pieces. Everyone can recognize that Duchamp’s toilet is a toilet, but no one can actually urinate in it. Conceptual poetry and art may be in one sense populist, but it is not utilitarian.

Goldsmith’s ideas are not altogether convincing – at some moments, one can almost hear him grinning beneath his stridency, wondering ‘I wonder if I’ll be able to get away with this?’ After all, Andy Warhol, one of Goldsmith’s primary inspirations, said “art is what you can get away with.” Regardless, Goldsmith is an articulate spokesman for a truly fascinating movement of American poetry that has gained too much momentum to ignore.

The urge to be creative is fundamentally human and the concept of individual genius dies hard. Whether uncreative writing will ever be more than a fascinating sideshow remains to be seen.

Uncreative Writing
By Kenneth Goldsmith
Columbia University Press
260 pages

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