Last week at Brown University, the poet Kenneth Goldsmith delivered a new work called “The Body of Michael Brown,” based on the unarmed black teenager gunned down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014; the poem Goldsmith read aloud was a “remix” of the autopsy report. (Goldsmith made adjustments, like translating medical jargon and moving a comment about Brown’s “unremarkable” genitalia to the poem’s climax.) As he read for 30 minutes, the poet stood beneath a blown-up image of Brown in graduation cap and gown. Audience response was mixed—“mostly quiet.”
This was nothing new for Goldsmith, a so-called “conceptual poet.” He has devoted whole books to found texts: traffic reports, weather reports, transcripts of broadcasts. He once retyped an entire issue of The New York Times, and titled the result Day. He teaches a course called “Uncreative Writing,” in which “students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity.”
A century ago, Marcel Duchamp made a name for himself by attempting to place a signed urinal in an art exhibition; Goldsmith’s project is to install the prepackaged and prosaic into poetry. “I don’t write anything new or original,” Goldsmith assures us. “I copy pre-existing texts and move information from one place to another. A child could do what I do, but wouldn’t dare to for fear of being called stupid.”
Unsurprisingly, nearly a century after Duchamp’s readymade, Goldsmith has encountered substantially less bafflement and resistance than the Dadaist. It’s not just that we long ago internalized Duchamp’s provocations; it’s also that Goldsmith is, like Warhol, a PR pro, one of those savvy ambassadors who prefer the “mainstream”—a dorm-room noun, which Goldsmith has nevertheless dinged other poets with—to the margin. Goldsmith has appeared on The Colbert Report, served as MoMA’s Poet Laureate, and read traffic reports to President Obama at a White House poetry reading. And yet the persona he presents is earnest, feckless, hopeless. (Another era would have pegged him a primitivist.) “I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived,” he writes, straight face ruffled by the slightest of winks. You are meant to be scandalized—but charmed, too.
But although Goldsmith champions the repurposing of texts that browsers make plentiful—like autopsy reports—he is in fact a relentless author of original content: his own image. Goldsmith’s lively, mischievous personality can’t help but eclipse his ephemeral, incidental works. Ironically, then, he projects a greater sense of self than those staid contemporaries of his who take it for granted that poems are expressive, the issue of people.
"My books are better thought about than read."
As news of the Brown reading spread, however, that personality found itself in trouble. The Internet rightly pointed out that a white poet had appropriated and exploited the experience of a black victim of police violence. Cathy Park Hong, the poetry editor of this magazine, tweeted that “Kenneth Goldsmith has reached new racist lows yet elite institutions continue to pay him guest speaker fees.” Other outraged missives were issued, favorited, and retweeted. One tweet, an apparent death threat, got a Twitter account suspended. One wonders: Did the conceptual poet take solace in these acts of repurposing?
Articles lit up The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The National Post, Flavorwire. Goldsmith fanned the flame war with a Facebook post defending his performance, which he judged “powerful.” It’s sometimes said that an event like this breaks the Internet, but it really only manipulates it. One was reminded of the scene in Die Hard, where the FBI cuts the power to a building that has been occupied by terrorists. The terrorists are actually crack bank robbers led by Alan Rickman, who required the power cut in order to disable a lock and get to a vault. If Goldsmith is Rickman, then the rest of us are the hapless, predictable FBI, responding on cue to the poet’s provocation.
But I’ll bite. The poet’s stunt was offensive. And yet: Is this a case of an otherwise responsible subgenre going too far? Or does the use of Brown’s autopsy report expose a preexisting emptiness in conceptual poetry’s chest cavity? When Stephen Colbert interviewed Goldsmith about his book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, even Colbert removed tongue from cheek long enough to concede feeling uncomfortable. “When I read this I feel like I'm some sort of time traveling aesthete who is coming in to sample other people’s shock and tragedy,” he said. “I’m tasting their disbelief and the way it’s changing them forever... and it feels vampiric.”
The recontextualized text, of course, has less cynical, more responsible exemplars. One of the very best was produced by W. B. Yeats. In 1936, the Irish poet arranged Victorian critic Walter Pater’s prose description of the Mona Lisa into lines and put them at the front of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
“Only by printing it in vers libre can one show its revolutionary importance,” claimed Yeats, who felt that Pater’s prose had influenced a generation of poets. It was as if someone had unearthed a snippet of some seminal interview with Elvis, and tapped it for the lead-off track in a mix that included The Beatles, The Stones, and Dylan. Here is “Mona Lisa,” by Pater the Poet:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the Vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave;
And has been a diver in deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her;
And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
And, as Leda,
Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
And, as St Anne,
Was the mother of Mary;
And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
Only in the delicacy
With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
And tinged the eyelids and the hands.
Yeats was hardly a champion of free verse. But he found in Pater’s prose enough of the stuff of poetry—simile, alliteration, meter, anaphora—to justify the imposition of line breaks. Yeats’s was a controversial act of recontextualization; it used free verse, a fashionable mode among forward-tilting modernists, to lash them to a past some were leaning away from. But it was in the service of celebrating Pater, of bringing something beautiful to the reader’s attention, of trying to train our attention on the poetic possibilities of the language he had recovered and made strange. “Mona Lisa” places the Irishman in a tradition stretching back to other, more famous chisellors like Michelangelo, who saw blocks of stone pre-loaded with angels.
There are no angels in Goldsmith’s brand of conceptual art: no concealed music, no gems half-encrusted by context. There is nothing for the audience to discover, except its own frustration, outrage, or boredom—which earlier avant-gardists could at least pretend were necessary conditions to making the audience more critical. But the beneficiary of Goldsmith’s acts of recontextualization is Goldsmith, who doesn’t even require readers:
My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports. … I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership.
You don’t need to experience Goldsmith’s volume of weather reports nor have seen his reading of the autopsy report (which he has asked Brown University not to release); you need only know about them, have heard tell of them. The point of Yeats’s found poem is what someone else accomplished. The point of Goldsmith's was entirely selfish, was about what Goldsmith did or is said to have done. This is poetry as clickbait, hearsay, publicity stunt.
Did a recently shot black teenager look like sufficiently newsy fodder to a conceptual poet? Maybe not; maybe Goldsmith’s intentions were less cynical. But a subgenre that must cultivate buzz because it has renounced readers—because the author is dead, anyway—will find itself tempted to ever-escalating and offensive acts of provocation. In other words, the kind of conceptual poet Goldsmith has come to embody—Google-hit-grabbing, anti-humanist, insensitive—may have found himself at a dead end.