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A Silly Key: Some Notes on Soliloquy by Kenneth Goldsmith
Christian Bök

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Soliloquy by Kenneth Goldsmith constitutes an act of literary temerity, in which the writer lampoons the romanticism of lyric poets, who give voice to their most spontaneous meditations, pretending to cogitate alone and aloud as if to themselves, knowing full well that, in the gloom beyond the proscenium of the blinding desklamp, a politburo of ignored readers eavesdrops upon every uttered thought. Goldsmith transcribes, verbatim and unedited, each word that he speaks over the course of a week in New York City, recording only what he says to others, not what others have said to him, so that, as if watching a stage actor, playing the part of Hamlet, receiving only his lines, but no others, to memorize before a Broadway audition, we experience the lyric voice of the poet as nothing more than a lengthy excerpt from the screenplay of our daily lives. Goldsmith describes such "nutritionless" documentation as an act of "uncreativity"1 on a par with the readymade exercises of Warhol, who records the ennui of events themselves, parodying epistolary narratives, for example, in his novel A by transcribing biographical conversation in the form, not of couriered notes, but of telephone calls. Goldsmith implies that lyric poets have tuned out this other voice so that only one voice gets heard.

Goldsmith reveals that, while theatrical monologues often involve a dialogue with the self, in which one person takes on the role of both participants in a conversation, another self who might in fact speak aloud in such a dialogue must nevertheless take on the role of a third party, there to be excluded from the exchange, yet required to be its audience. Goldsmith parodies these discursive conditions of the poet through the hyperbolic deployment of ellipsis, excising any incoming voices that might intrude upon his own outgoing speech, thereby producing a text that reads very much like the overheard half of a telephone call-a condition made all the more ironic because much of the text does in fact take place on the phone, and only by context can the reader decide for sure whether or not a potential addressee stands in the presence of the author. The pleasure of perusing such a text arises from the challenge of filling in the missing context for these exchanges, particularly since the author often interacts with renowned artists and powerful critics, whose private remarks go unheard, even as the author talks among these people, gossiping about friends, divulging their secrets, insulting their careers, behaving in fact like a soliloquist, who pretends that his intimate thoughts go unobserved and unrecorded.

Goldsmith parodies the lyrical poetics of vernacular confession, revealing that, despite the desire of lyric poets to glorify the everyday language of their casual, social milieu, such a democratic utopianism often balks at the candour, if not the squalor, of ordinary language, so that in the end, the elite, poetic assertion continues to supercede the trite, phatic utterance. When Wordsworth wishes to articulate spontaneous expressions in a plainer, simpler diction, closer to actual, rustic speech, he still subordinates such colloquialism to the rules of clear prose, adorned with rhyme and metre.2 When Williams demands that poetry must validate the concrete language of quotidian existence, he still subjects his banal idiom to the formal rigour of concision and precision.3 When Ginsberg argues that an initial thought is a supreme thought, he seems to advocate the kind of unpremeditated transcriptions imagined by Breton and Desnos, but like them, he still subordinates his rhapsodic outbursts to the syntax of the rational sentence.4 When Antin transcribes his own improvised monologues, he streamlines them to make them seem more eloquent, more polished.5 When such poets profess to support the artless diction of common speech, they still refuse to subdue the formalities of their own literary artifice.

Goldsmith attacks the literary pretense of such common speech, demonstrating that lyric poets who purport to speak in the vernacular do not in fact do so because they do not, halfway through a thought, stutter words or corrupt ideas, neither repeating themselves nor redacting themselves, despite extemporizing, nor do such poets typically punctuate their talk with the ums and the ahs of, like, you know, phatic speech, even though words like "yeah" and "okay" probably represent the most commonly deployed language in our daily lives. Goldsmith suggests that the debased diction of offhanded discourse might provide a heretofore unexplored repertoire of musical rhythms, as revealed, for example, in a typical excerpt such as this one, in which the poet asks: "What does it look like?" and then responds with interest: "Yeah. Yeah. Uh huh. Wow. Huh. Right. Right. Right. Of course. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Right. Oh wow. Yeah. Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh, that's great. That's great."6 The poet suggests that the dyspraxia in even the most conventional conversation already offers, readymade, a radical grammar, as asyntactic and as asemantic as any literature by the avant-garde: "what modernism [...] has worked so hard to get [...] for the past 100 years has always been right under our noses!"7

Goldsmith thematizes such an artistic attitude when he talks about his job as a DJ on public-access radio at WFMU, where he orchestrates a musical program that broadcasts unpopular listening: "They[,] they[,] they[,] they encourage people that have never done this shit before. You don't sound like a DJ, you sound like a person. Lots of um's and uh's[….] [They] encouraged me to say um in the beginning[….] [Y]eah, you know, cuz I was reading something. Throw that away and just, you know[….] They encourage you to just swing it[,] you know?"8 Goldsmith adopts the role of a spontaneous broadcaster, who pretends to converse with an intimate audience, regaling us with the improv comedy of his own brazen patter, all the while scorning any listener who might demand a polished delivery. Goldsmith emulates in print his practice on radio, keeping his art lo-fi so that, like the scratchiest recordings of avant-garde retro-music played by him on a defunct machine with a crappy needle, his own voice skips and trips over itself, conveying the amateur rhythms of an ordinary language, no longer remastered by literature into a hi-fi art, where the perfection of form supersedes the experience of flow: "That way[,] I hear the music[,] I don't hear the system[,] the[,] the[,] I don't hear the format.""9

Goldsmith alludes to the overabundant, scatological condition of language, thematizing the "volume" of his speech, both the loudness of it and the muchness of it, accumulating ""every piece of shit word" and "all the crap that you speak"10-the sublime, general economy of wasted breath, misspent on meaningless interaction with the café waiter or the taxi driver. Goldsmith tries to envisage this volume as a number of either waterdrops or jellybeans, suggesting that, "[i]f every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard."11 While we might expect poets to demonstrate more eloquence on a daily basis than the average speaker, the soliloquist finds that his own monologue becomes a humbling exercise for him because, much to his chagrin, the project reveals that, despite dedicating vast sums of energy to the output of speech, we expend much of our own spoken labour, not upon anything of lyric value, but upon petty, if not nasty, tasks within language itself, conveying very few profound insights, even in moments of familiar intimacy. Words become disposable pollutants in a milieu of urban ennui, and language is sublime, not for its quality, but for its quantity-which in turn has an uncanny quality all its own.

Goldsmith thus makes an astounding commitment to an ethics of speech, owning up to all that he says, taking credit for each word, be it kind or mean, doing so without embarrassment despite the sociological consequences. While lawyers might now leap with evermore zeal to the defense of our copyright so that our words might receive due attribution, we often forget that we also utter disownable statements better left unassigned to us because we cannot bear to take credit for them. Who among us is willing to own all that we say behind the backs of our peers? Are we willing to be quoted as sources for our spiteful insults and our shameful secrets? How can any of us bear witness to our own sexual banter, our own casual deceit, all the stupid things that we declare in ignorance, but with authority-statements that, when attributed to us, require of us that we backpedal, that we apologize, renouncing our words, disavowing our ideas. Who can sustain such radical honesty? Certainly not the confessional poets-who pretend to offer up a voyeuristic, if not solipsistic, account of their privacy invaded, but fail to live for real under the unremitting observation now demanded by a panoptic audience (one for whom such drama never truly takes place on stage, but only behind the scenes).

Goldsmith puts at risk his social relationships for the sake of his poetic brinksmanship, particularly when he gossips about his dearest friends like, for example, the poet Andrews, to whom Goldsmith attributes a hardnosed frankness that, ironically, Goldsmith himself dramatizes (albeit with caveats of respect): "Bruce is really rough[....] He cuts[,] he cuts right to the bone[,] it's not a[,] he's not a polite person. Oh, he's very hardcore. He's a very hardcore[,] experimental writer. Very leftist politics. Great guy. Very probably my best friend, you know, my best[,] male friend in New York. Great[,] great friend of mine. Yeah, you know, just a great guy. A lot of people don't like him. He loves you. He loves you. Just don't get on the wrong side of Bruce. I never want to be on Bruce's wrong side. I mean, ew, yeah, oh.... That's what I feel[,] but I know people who have been on the wrong side of Bruce[,] and he's fearsome, yeah. Fearsome. Yeah, he's got a[,] a mind, you know, he's got an intellect that'll, you know[,] just shred anything in sight."12 Similar moments of honesty in the text have cost the author a friend or two, and many of us might feel relief that we ourselves have never known the author during this week of his work, thereby dodging, for a bit, the candid camera of his assessments.

Goldsmith takes pride in the fact that his soliloquy is relentless and unreadable, often describing his work as a genre of word processing or data management, in which our tedium is the message.13 Skeptics who might dismiss such an enterprise as entirely unpoetic fail to appreciate its surprising, narrative novelties, since the author does in fact create suspense for readers; first, by expressing recurrent anxieties about foreshadowed people; second, by conducting enigmatic dialogues with unintroduced people-so that, in both cases, the reader continues to peruse the text in order to discover either the awkward dialogue with the awaited person, still forthcoming, or the gossipy anecdote about the unknown person, already encountered. Goldsmith, of course, retells similar stories to diverse friends, creating space for dramatic irony, particularly when he changes details of the same tale to suit the persons present (behaving amiably, for example, with a person whom he has elsewhere maligned and insulted), revising the details of his stories with each recital. We see his patter evolve over the duration of the exercise, as he becomes more and more practised at repeating these riffs. The text begins to infold upon itself, opening up the gaps for an eventual speech while filling in the gaps of a previous speech.

Goldsmith even infuses his work with the self-reflexive, self-justified attributes of metafiction at the moments when he responds to queries about his project, explaining it to curators in an effort to sell it as an artwork. Goldsmith alludes in the text to "a Fluxus piece that was done where a gesture was substituted for an alphabet so that a theatrical piece was composed, you know, by way of letters and sentences"14-and indeed his work takes on the improvisational characteristics of such a performance, in which he must undertake a set of screen tests, learning to ignore the constant presence of the mic on his collar: "Well, I[,] I did a lot of tests[,] and I tried to get off of, uh, being self-conscious about it. I mean at first it was a little awkward and I did it like several days of tests and[,] yeah, you know, I was like watching what I was saying[,] and at this point it's like I'm just letting it[,] yeaah."15 The soliloquist, moreover, draws attention to the condition of his monologue not only when he buys batteries and cassettes to replace the ones used up in the flow of his talk, but also when he repeatedly enunciates the word "testing," introducing it into his speech, like a punctuation mark, as if to check not only whether or not the dictaphone is recording, but also whether or not the readership is listening.

Soliloquy almost resembles a script for a drama on stage or a movie on video, since the text does seem to outline lines to be spoken for the day (despite reading like a simulcast or a docudrama, its footage as raw as any on unscripted television)-and as technologies for such lingual storage become less expensive and more pervasive, we might witness the copycatting of such transcripts, perhaps for a period much longer than a mere week, each recorded and uploaded onto blogdexes everywhere for us to read out loud in real time. Goldsmith has confessed to me in conversation that his project now makes the viewing of films unbearable for him because the theatric dialogue in cinema sounds canned and forced. Goldsmith implies that, although theatre derives its impact from speech, the genre fails to reimagine the sum of our lives as a single stream of sequential utterances, all divorced from their original contexts, but recorded in the form of a book, one that MallarmĀŽ might recognize, one in which we might read the transcript of our complete lifetime within language, including not only our first words ever spoken, like the cue for a childish thespian debuting on stage, but also (on a more ominous note) the final words spoken by us at our expiry when, like me at this moment, we run out of things to say.


1Kenneth Goldsmith. ""Uncreativity as a Creative Process." Drunken Boat 5 (Winter 2002-2003). http://drunkenboat.com/db5/goldsmith/uncreativity.html.

2Wordsworth remarks that, while his lyrical poetry has adopted "[t]he plainer and more emphatic language" of the rustics, such discourse is "purified indeed from what appears to be its real defects"-i.e. "[r]ibaldry, blasphemy," even "drunken language." ("Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800)." Literary Criticism of William Wordsworth. Ed. Paul M. Zall. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1966. 18.)

3 Williams claims that poets must speak in the quotidian discourse of everyday language, ""[n]ot […] talk in vague categories but […] write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular"-i.e. "no ideas but in things." (William Carlos Williams. Paterson. San Francisco: New Directions, 1963. [vii].)

4Ginsberg of course provides one of the rallying precepts for the beatniks when he asserts: ""[f]irst thought, best thought." (Allen Ginsberg. "Cosmopolitan Greetings." Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. 13.)

5Antin admits that often he does modify each talk-poem when transcribing his recordings of it: "I felt free to add to the original material and expand it-with phrases or whole passages that were not in the original but belonged in the talk." (David Antin and Charles Bernstein. A Conversation with David Antin. New York: Granary Books, 2002. 63.)

6Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 58.

7Kenneth Goldsmith. ""A Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith." With Marjorie Perloff. Jacket 21 (Feb 2003). http://jacketmagazine.com/21/perl-gold-iv.html.

8Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 86.

9Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 86.

10Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 15.

11Kenneth Goldsmith. ""Kenneth Goldsmith and As Bessa: 6799" Zingmagazine 11 (1999). http://www.zingmagazine.com/zing11/bessa/index.html.

12Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 82.

13Kenneth Goldsmith. ""Being Boring." http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/boring.html.

14Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 175.

15Kenneth Goldsmith. Soliloquy. New York: Granary Books, 2001. 209.

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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