On 73 Poems
Language precedes its users, just as "existence precedes essence," as Sartre intoned in the 50s. We learn to speak, to read and write, then we define ourselves by our choice of words, our arrangement of the materials. Kenneth Goldsmith, as culler and counter of syllables, as arranger and recorder of the word hoard, is a taxonomist of the language environment. With a sculptor's feel for the materiality of words, he slots his selections into triphammer staccato densities and naked totem verticalities almost as if they were carved in stone.
Candid, urban, domestic, celebratory, Goldsmith's New York ear for the present is insatiable. His gatherings have a way of preserving memory without imposing a particular story for that memory. In this he resembles Ron Silliman, poet and theoretician of the Language School, whose poetics argue word to word, sentence to sentence, rather than from predetermined literary form. Words accumulate, and in their sprawl we can see our world, ourselves in its midst.
The poems of 73 Poems (of which there are 79) work in sequences whose central optical linking device is overprinting. The bold type of one page is carried over to the next page, but screened to gray, with new bold type printed over it. Legible still, and active, the reader can't but acknowledge this visual pressure from "below," from "before," yesterday's poem affecting today's, a feature in the language arrangement of what's still to be read, ahead.
Goldsmith picks morphemes, words, and phrases fot their endrhyme sound as well as for their number of syllables. On his pages the word or phrase almost always increases in syllables from top to bottom, usually in increment of one. For example, in the two syllable lines "gain weight/jailbait/soul mate" (poem 7), the first letters g, j, and s follow the order of the alphabet. The three-syllable word "hesitate." which follows "soul mate," initiates a sequence of three-syllable words, themselves arrayed alphabetically, concluding with "watergate." A reader / viewer, interested in how work is structured, will discern these organizational principles. Technically, the taxonomist in Goldsmith is always aware of ordering systems; we observe the locations he assigns his language, whether by aural, arithmetic, or alphabetical demands.
And strangely enough, what his ordering systems generate, rather than a too-confining set of strictures, is a nearly chance-inspired freedom. Unpredictable juxtapositions send their probes into the reader's mind for fresh associations. Like a Picasso still-life, Goldsmith's poems are made out of common verbal objects but placed together on the same "table top," they trigger intricate pleasures, an important ingredient of which is his sly humor. The poet's ear for rhythm as reference combines in his feeling for youth's low and literature's high brows to yield a hiphop syntax of cultural signifiers, all the while being graphically gorgeous. And with his Mac laptop as portable studio, his constructs / palimpsests are never more than a fingertip away.
The overall, larger rhythm of his sequences inscribes broad curves of expansion, contraction, and expansion. The poems build toward language saturation, then begin to thin out, as if by a graphic mortification of the "pictorial space." By poem 25, the page is reduced to a single letter: I. Then what fascinates in subsequent pages is to watch this "I" take on flesh, fill out, transform itself from essential morpheme and central conflating pun (of eye with self), into something wholly other. Goldsmith's retinal with is pitched to honor even the modest difference between the letter "O" and the sign for zero. (In his font, the zero is noticeably slimmer than the O.) By the time we get to poems 41-46, all "language" has been eliminated in favor of pure pattern, a whirlwind of delta-shaped zeros (poem 44) making its run across the page. Then these too mutate into arabic numbers which themselves begin to be spelled-out, so that alphabetical language returns for the final sequences in which Goldsmith's late diminuendos and crescendos finally break out of the logic of his systems, freed to explore exception, asymmetry, contrapuntal presence. The work concludes with Brother Lover Mother Other, which is to say, full circle, back to the future, page one.
Along the way, embedded here and there like minerals in strata, Goldsmith includes many of his working credos. In poem 60 we read lines borrowed from John Cage: "I have nothing to say / And I am saying it / And that is poetry." This empty mind / active head paradox acknowledges the non-intentionality of the project, giving this artist's improvisations their theoretical underpinning.
Goldsmith understands language as threefold: sound, sight and sense (Pound's melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia). But because we cannot experience language's triple aspects simultaneously, we move from its sound, to its visual encoding, to its meaning in any number of unpredictable ways. Connected thus to aspects of Fluxus, to Concrete poetry, and to experimental writing in the computer age, Goldsmith's text art intersects with today's culture on all fronts. At the center of his "editing" terminal, the place from which he makes his choices, imagine a socially alert pop rich rap conscious scopophilic downtown art paladin, filtering a generation's legibility through its sensorium. 73 Poems (the title taken from a book by seminal modernist e.e cummings) makes voice visual, candor ingenious, the vernacular spectacular.
Geoffrey Young is the Publisher of The Figures, a small press in Western Massachusetts.