Saturday, 26 September 2009

Another Day for Kent Johnson

A new book by Kent Johnson is now available. It's called Day and is published by Blazevox. It has had some good reviews, including the following by Juliana Spahr:

'If the 836-pp. Day established Kenny Goldsmith as without a doubt the leading conceptual poet of his time, the 836-pp. Day by Kent Johnson may well be remembered for nudging the politics of Conceptual Poetry out of blithely affirmative, institutional framings, and into truly negational critical spaces'.

Commendation indeed, if Spahr had actually said it, but it is a fabrication by Johnson, in keeping with the parodic tone he sets for the book, for indeed, Johnson’s Day is an exact reproduction of Kenny Goldsmith’s “work” of the same name. I’ve put “work” in quotes because Goldsmith would readily agree that the work in question was not “created” by him in any authorial sense. He describes his working procedure for the book as follows:

‘I am spending my 39th year practicing uncreativity. On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began retyping the day's NEW YORK TIMES word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page’.

His term for this procedure is “uncreative writing”, which is,

‘a constraint-based process; uncreativity as a creative practice. By typing page upon page, making no distinction between article, editorial and advertisement, disregarding all typographic and graphical treatments, Goldsmith levels the daily newspaper. DAY is a monument to the ephemeral, comprised of yesterday's news, a fleeting moment concretized, captured, then reframed into the discourse of literature’.

However, this arduous undertaking of retyping the whole newspaper is not all it appears to be, for he later contradicts himself by saying:

'But in capitalism, labor equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work. But the truth is that I've subverted this equation by OCR'ing [scanning] as much of the newspaper as I can'.

Johnson’s appropriation of the “work”, therefore, can be seen as a logical extension of Goldsmith’s procedural stratagems, and perfectly within the ethical scope that Goldsmith has allowed for himself (and presumably others) in the publishing arena. Indeed, if Johnson, or anyone else, for that matter, had not done this, it could be argued, convincingly, that Goldsmith had proclaimed his aesthetic in vain.

However, such a compliment that Johnson has paid to Goldsmith’s aesthetic could be seen as something of a poisoned chalice, in that it has painted Goldsmith into a corner. For if he were to sue Johnson, he would be seen as something of a hypocrite, and thereby lose some artistic credibility. But if he doesn’t sue Johnson, he will leave his other “works” open to the same fate as has been visited on Day in this instance.

Of course, Goldsmith could have avoided such a dilemma by simply publishing the book anonymously, but that is, perhaps, too much a council of perfection that not even his aesthetic could countenance.

Incidentally, it could be said that Johnson’s appropriation of Goldsmith’s “work” is, perhaps, the more innovative and audacious act in comparison to Goldsmith’s “original” gesture, which, I think most will recognise, was based on an already established artistic precedent.

Day by Kent Johnson is priced at $30, plus shipping and handling. ($300 for each of ten numbered copies signed by the “Author”, no charge for shipping and handling.) All copies come with specially designed, affixed stickers (on cover, back cover, title page, spine, etc.) to impart authorship, copyright, blurbs, and co-production. It can be purchased at Blazevox:

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Is Stephen Burt’s “New Thing” all that New?

I have just seen an article by Stephen Burt called ‘The New Thing: The object lessons of recent American poetry’ in the Boston Review in which he says:

‘For much of the past decade, the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’s famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, eleven years ago, called “elliptical,” what other (sometimes hostile) observers called “New Lyric,” or “post-avant,” or “Third Way.” Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine’s Debt (1993), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1998); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience’

He then sees a move away from this sort of poetry to that typified by (among others) Devin Johnston, Jon Woodward and Alice James. He describes this as follows:

‘The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. Woodward’s Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:

the slick
of rainwater converts each thing’s
outside to an image of
inside the only object without
a soul is the sun

So says one stanza; six pages on, another reads:

the tar they use to
fill the cracks shines orange
from the orange streetlights but
is blacker than the asphalt
which doesn’t shine

We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.’

My apologies for being obtuse but how does this sort of poetry exemplify anything new? Granted, in contrast to the poetry that Burt sees as non-descriptive and elliptical it is different. Nevertheless, it is not historically new in the development of poetic writing since High Modernism. On the contrary, it seems merely to represent a style of poetic writing that has always been active in mainstream poetry, namely that which has always relied on an empiricist aesthetic in describing phenomena. Indeed, Burt seems to acknowledge this:

‘This turn among poets to reference, to concrete, real things, has parallels, if not contributory causes, in literary academia. By 2001 there were books, articles, and anthologies devoted to “thing theory,” showing how literary works depend on the structures and histories of the “solid objects” (Douglas Mao’s term) that they might depict.’

Therefore, it is curious that Burt sees this as novel. He adds:

‘Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing.’

This statement could have been made at any point in history about mainstream empiricist poetry.

By the way, some of what I say in my article ‘Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers’ in Jacket magazine, may inform any discussion this blog entry fosters.