Poetry and Accountability

“I’m a poet,” Kenneth Goldsmith’s Printing Out the Internet project states, “and I feel that the internet—comprised completely of text-based alphanumeric language—is the greatest poem ever written.”  There’s nothing preventing Goldsmith from saying this, of course, but that doesn’t mean this statement is meaningful.  You can call the Internet a poem, but that’s not what people mean, generally speaking, when they use the word “poem.”  And this is what, from a Wittgensteinian viewpoint, makes the statement meaningless, because it relies on our ordinary senses of the word “poem” in order to have any punch, even as it says something that contradicts these senses.  Another way to think about this error: if the word “poem” is called into question to so fundamental a degree, how can we know here what “Internet” means?  Or “language”?  Or “comprised”?  Or even “—”?  There’s a tacit assumption on Goldsmith’s part that only the unstable term is the one he wishes to be.  To say “I feel that the Internet is the greatest poem ever written” is thus to express one’s confusion and superstition, and ultimate conservatism, about how language works.  Which, of course, calls the very beginning of the statement—“I’m a poet”—into question.  Certainly one should have a more solid grasp of the medium in which a poet works before self-applying that title.

A third way to think about it: if you understand all of the other words in the sentence “I feel that the Internet is the greatest poem ever written,” then you’re free to respond, “your feeling is incorrect.”  And this response doesn’t depend on your having any precise definition of “poem.”

Of course, Goldsmith doesn’t actually make this statement as an expression of literal belief, but rather as an expression of attitude.  This is clear from his follow-up observation that “As users of the web, we are all contributors to this poetic project—let’s call it the ultimate crowdsourced poem.”  Buzzword time!  Whatever you want to say a poet is, there’s a kind of baseline minimum that you need to do something interesting with language, so if we needed further cause to suspect that Goldsmith isn’t really a poet, it’s this penchant for trendy marketingspeak, uninflected with any subversive element save, perhaps, a knowing cynicism.  In this he is Jeff Koons, even as he claims to distinguish his brand of conceptualism:

“In the [change.org] petition [asking him not to print the Internet], people are saying the following: “While it is appreciated that Mr. Goldsmith plans to recycle the paper used in his art exhibit, reduction of usage is more important than post-usage recycling.” Do you think that your project bring [sic] damage to the environment? If the answer is yes, is that something that should be taken in consideration?

“All art is spectacle; all spectacle is material; and all material must come from somewhere. Relative to the rest of the art world—the spectacle of the Venice Biennale with its global carbon footprint, hideous yachts and private jets or the $35 million Jeff Koons strip-mined aluminum sculptures, created by one person for one person of the 1%—Printing Out The Internet, with its all-inclusive democratic attitude, nothing for sale, and a recyclable ending looks pretty good by comparison.”

The rationale by which Goldsmith spurns this plea to not waste what he calls “shitloads of paper” in order to fill a massive gallery space in Mexico City with printouts is entirely specious: logically, it amounts to gouging out someone’s eyes and saying, “isn’t it great I didn’t kill you?”  The picture of “the rest of the art world” sketched out between dashes only indicates how narrow Goldsmith’s purview is, as well as where his sights are set.  There’s something for sale here alright, but I don’t buy it.

The ethical problem with Printing Out the Internet isn’t limited to its primary environmental one.  According to Yahoo! News, “The project was inspired by, and is dedicated to, Aaron Swartz, the programmer-activist who committed suicide this year, and who had been accused by federal prosecutors of breaking various laws in the course of downloading a giant cache of academic articles from the JSTOR service.  Like Swartz, Goldsmith is a believer in information availability.  ‘The amount of what he liberated was enormous—we can’t begin to understand the magnitude of his action until we begin to materialize it and actualize it,’ Goldsmith said when reached by email.”  The trouble here is, Goldsmith isn’t like Swartz in the least; nothing is being made available, only taken and destroyed, and nothing is being risked. Swartz is simply a glib talking point, because there’s no relationship between “what he liberated” and the arbitrary accumulation of printouts Goldsmith seeks to assemble.  Among the “suggestions” he offers: “print out your own blog, Gmail inbox or spam folder.”  Does Goldsmith work for the NSA?  Why does he want to see people’s inboxes?  In light of the Obama Administration’s recently exposed PRISM project, such a suggestion is too clever by half.

Let me tell you a story about being a poet.  There’s nothing universal about this particular tale—doubtless every poet’s experience of being a poet is different—but there’s something about poetry and accountability here that I want to set in opposition to Goldsmith’s appropriation of Swartz.

For the past year or so, I’ve been trying to finish up a book of essays, Retrievals, that’ll appear next year from Wave Books.  As such, I’ve had to neglect some of my usual gigs, including writing on Bay Area hip-hop for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.  Earlier this year, however, I learned that Oakland legend Saafir, a former Warner Bros. solo artist and member of Digital Underground and Hobo Junction, had lost feeling in his legs as the result of complications from a spinal tumor operation, and was now in a wheelchair, destitute.  Word of his condition had leaked out through a post on Davey-D’s blog that went semi-viral, but the reaction had focused on sensationalistic and not wholly accurate details.  I didn’t know Saafir personally but his music meant a lot to me and, no matter how busy I was, I didn’t feel like I could not try to do something for him, even if it was just writing an article to give him the chance to tell his own story.  Some industry friends were setting up a website for donations, so I figured the very least I could do was publicize it.

After the article was published, we arranged to meet for lunch so I could give him some copies.  As I was about to hit the door, I also grabbed a copy of my most recent book of poems, Complications (Meritage, 2007).  Bear in mind, I never willingly bring my poetry into any hip-hop situation.  One or two friends in that world have wormed my poet-status out of me, but generally speaking, I keep it hidden because it’s not going to help me circulate there.  I’ve got verses like “picture my / punctures my / supercunt” that’d make most rappers feel funny about me; theirs is not a cosmopolitan world, and the fact that “supercunt” and “punctures” are anagrams will cut no ice there.  Nonetheless, while I’ve listened to lots of rap, only a very small number of rappers have had any influence on my poetry, and Saafir is one of them.

In Complications, I’d taken the title for an elegy I’d written for George Harrison, “Light Sleeper,” from the title of what’s perhaps Saafir’s best-known track, from his debut, Boxcar Sessions (Qwest/Warner, 1994), and this is noted with due solemnity in the book’s “Notes and Acknowledgments.”  But really I was nodding to a less directly citable pair of allusions in another poem, “Chanson de Goo Goo.”  “Chanson” was one of them ones; I’d poured everything I had into that poem.  At the time I felt like I had no choice.  Something Michael Palmer had said about the relationship between poetry and politics at a reading at 21 Grand in Oakland in 2003 had rubbed me the wrong way and “Chanson” was a response, cheekily dedicated to him.  Ten years later, I no longer remember what he said, and I’m sure I was overreacting; nonetheless, even back then I knew, if I was going to make this move, I had to deliver.  It had to be tight from start to finish.  And given my terribly uneconomical method as a poet—just hang back and wait—it took about three months to generate; just a few words would emerge at a time, which I would duly note with the patience of a stonecutter.  Everything takes place on a microscopic, Creeley-line, Joron-word level, and the poem relies on multiple generative principles.  Sometimes a word would emerge from a word, like “punctures” springing from “picture,” and then “supercunt” unscrambling itself from “punctures.”  Other times, I’d hear something—a phrase, or even just a rhythm I had to fill in—dictated from who knows what source.  Twice in the course of such dictation, lines from “Light Sleeper” intruded, resulting in a pair of distorted quotations:

i might vent
sarongs in my songs

[and]

my sleep
will be

light
and my
teeth

will de
light

I thought, what the hell, maybe Saafir’d get a kick out of all this.  He’s not sitting around feeling sorry for himself, but he’s going through a rough time, so my discomfort about bringing my poetry into the rap world was less important than offering him a little testimony about the importance of his art to me.  So over lunch, after showing him the Guardian layout—he’d read the story online and was pleased—I showed him Complications.  I’d already told him I’d used his title for a poem, so I showed him the “Notes” and “Light Sleeper” and then pointed out the allusions in “Chanson de Goo Goo.”  He paged through this last poem with genuine interest.  Then he looked at me through narrowed eyes and handed over the book.

“Read it.”

It’s difficult to describe my experience here, beyond the obvious feeling of terror, for never in a million years did I imagine I’d one day be sitting in front of Saafir reading this poem in which I’d lifted a few of his lines.  I can’t quite think of an analogous situation.  When Picasso incorporated African and Oceanic motifs into Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), he was gesturing to distant, anonymous traditions of art, without reference to a specific artist.  Li Po and Propertius weren’t about to get on Pound’s case for Cathay (1915) and Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) because they’d been dead for centuries.  Perhaps such moments are more endemic to performing arts; I think of some of Shock-G’s stories of performing with George Clinton and P-Funk, or things I’d read about Billy Wilder and Jean Renoir when they worked on films with Erich Von Stroheim, the unexpected confrontations with an admired original whose works they’d mined for source material.  But none of this fully gets at my experience here.  Saafir and I are both American males of the same age, but otherwise, we’re about as other from each other as two people can be, and here I’d taken a bit of his art and dropped it into my own.  Now I was being called to account.

I read the poem.  It felt good.  It’s ten years old at this point, and I hadn’t read it in some time.  But “Chanson” is a motherfucker, if I do say so myself.  Aside from Saafir’s “Light Sleeper” and Shock-G’s “Gotchoo,” the poem alludes to Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, William Barnes, William Faulkner, William Diaper, John Clare, Havelock Ellis, Star Wars, Scooby Doo, The Wizard of Oz, and The Beverley Hillbillies.  It’s as baroque as the Watts Towers but just as solid underneath its seemingly throwaway surfaces.  I wasn’t fooling around when I wrote it.  Nonetheless, I was keenly aware of a verdict awaiting me at the end of the poem, and make no mistake, wheelchair or no, I’m confident Saafir would have no trouble kicking my ass.  But I’m pleased to report it didn’t come to that.  After I finished, he nodded seriously, and said:

“You’re a cold writer, G.”

To say I was relieved at this reaction is something of an understatement.  The circumstances that had prompted me to write “Chanson” were entirely remote from Saafir’s own experience, but he could still relate to the poem and judge it worthy.  The circumstances of the composition are ultimately unimportant, because the poem has to stand or fall on its own and again, it stands, because I wasn’t fooling around.  So when I see Kenneth Goldsmith trying to prop up his project with the suicide of Aaron Swartz, I wonder what he’d do if confronted with Swartz himself, an impossibility, of course.  But how about his parents and his brothers, or his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, founder of the corporate watchdog organization, SumOfUs.org?  These people are not hard to get in touch with: rememberaaronsw.com; [email protected]  Why not bring the project to them and account for the use of his name?  Then maybe we can revisit this question of whether or not Goldsmith is a poet.

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