Consider these page-turners for your next beach vacation: a transcription of all the weather reports from a radio news station recorded over one year, a re-typed issue of The New York Times, a chronicle of the utterances made by one person for an entire week, a similar account of every bodily gesture the same man made over the course of 13 hours, or 600 pages worth of words with rhyming r-sounds. Understandably, you’re probably not tacking these texts onto the bottom of your holiday wish list, much less considering them as notable for anything other than how boring they sound. But Kenneth Goldsmith—an avant-garde poet, experimental radio personality, and professor—considers these litanies to be poetry. In fact, the list is a small sampling of his published works.
“My books are better thought about than read,” Goldsmith said in an interview with The Believer. “They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports ‘on the ones’ (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about.” The thing to think about, specifically, is whether this type of writing should be considered literature.
Although he’s more apt to call one of his volumes a reference book or a thought experiment, Goldsmith argues that there’s something experientially interesting that comes from reading an Almanac-like text. “The moment we shake our addiction to narrative,” he says, again in The Believer,
and give up our strong-headed intent that language must say something ‘meaningful,’ we open ourselves up to different types of linguistic experience, which, as you say, could include sorting and structuring words in unconventional ways: by constraint, by sound, by the way words look, and so forth, rather than always feeling the need to coerce them toward meaning.
We live in an information-sodden age, one in which processing is sometimes mistaken for reflection.
“With an unprecedented amount of available text,” Goldsmith writes in The Chronicle Review, “our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists.” When it comes to artistic content, we’ve made and eaten a Thanksgiving dinner’s worth of verbiage. To continue the metaphor, the challenge, then, is how to burn off all of the calories and look good at the office the following workweek. “How I make my way through this thicket of information,” he argues, “how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.”
In addition to “writing” mind-numbing-slash-mind-exploding poetry, Goldsmith was a DJ at New Jersey’s WFMU radio station, teaches a class on “uncreative writing” at University of Pennsylvania, and spear-heads an avant-garde arts website, UbuWeb.
UbuWeb is a radical depository of donated and stolen art of various media, a “completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts.” Much of the website’s content will appeal only to the few high-conceptually inclined art geeks. In an interview with BOMB (which, in a very Goldsmithian way, is reproduced verbatim on the magazine’s website), he explains UbuWeb as “a way of flaunting all the rules, somewhat safely.” Avant-garde, it seems, has been waiting its whole life for the Internet. He continues:
I’ve actually found a major loophole in copyright culture, literary culture, in distributive culture which happens to be, for lack of a better word, the avant-garde—which nobody can understand. It’s so hard for people to understand this stuff. And number two, it’s really got no commercial value whatsoever. It has great historical and intellectual value, but people lose money when they try to release this stuff so most of it goes unreleased. So it’s been this, kind of, really beautiful grey area where it’s all out in the open and it’s all in front but you get a pass on it in a way that legitimate economies don’t give you that latitude.
Goldsmith’s work has garnered him some acclaim of late: He was invited to recite some of his work at a White House poetry event in May. If you ask him if the work is making a difference in literature, though, he’d probably respond cryptically with a handwritten list of all the nutritional information in a supermarket aisle and call it “Serving Size.”