Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Original Thief

There's an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith called "Against Expression" up at The Academy of American Poets. It is all here.

His opening response to the question, "How would you explain conceptual poetry to a younger audience unfamiliar with the tenets of conceptual art?" sets the stage for things:

"The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable."

Long have critics and poets talked about the uselessness of poetry, but this is different. This is the first instance of a writer I can remember proclaiming that not only do his books not need to be read, those who wish to will be physically incapable of doing so. It's an interesting form of marketing.

Above content, style, or even the writing itself, Goldsmith foregrounds, unsurprisingly, the concept. What's important is how it's framed. Accordingly, the books Goldsmith has written consist of all of his bodily movements in a short period of time, a year's worth of weather reports, and every word he spoke within a week. He explains further, "It's not about inventing anything new; it's about finding things that exist and reframing them and representing them as original texts."

As great a conversation starter as this interview is, Goldsmith does get some things wrong. For example, "...we've never had the concept of lifting something that you didn't write and moving it over five inches, saying that it's yours, and claiming that it's a newly authored text," is simply not true. John Giorno, for example, added line breaks to the constitution and called it his poem back in 1964.

There's also the tension between his admission that this is not about doing anything new and his claim that this has never been done before. Theft, as a compositional tool, is as old as poetry itself. What's new is how prevalent and how willing we are to flaunt it.

This is sure to raise the ire of many (and it does, across the spectrum, as Goldsmith notes). Whatever your reaction, he is touching on important questions. Who owns the words they write? Can found objects be claimed as originals? What are the limits of what is called poetry?

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