Blog > Poet Goldsmith

At the symposium entitled “Poetry of the Americas”—an event held last spring at Princeton University—the organizers invited the poet Kenneth Goldsmith to read his poems. Well, this last phrase requires some explanation. Poet Goldsmith did indeed read a few poems, only that it was not very clear whether these poems were his and whether these were poems at all. Poet Goldsmith simply appropriated several texts from the media, some old historical reports about the assassination of the Kennedy bothers, the assassination of John Lennon, the assassination of Salvador Allende, and one report about the launching of a space shuttle from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It seems as if poet Goldsmith took very seriously the artist Kaprow (Allan), who once suggested that the verbal exchange between Houston’s manned Spacecraft Center and the Apollo 11 astronauts was better than contemporary poetry.

My most vivid memory of this event was when poet Goldsmith read the Chilean material. The process was painful, like the historical events to which those texts referred. He read first the transcription of General Pinochet’ orders to go ahead and bomb the presidential palace, and then he declaimed the broadcast of Salvador Allende’s last address to the people, the address delivered shortly before la Moneda palace fell. From the reactions of some in the audience it soon became clear that poet Goldsmith is not a very good speaker of Spanish…

…but this is irrelevant, for his struggle with a foreign language has produced other effects, revealing something else entirely. Poet Goldsmith’s readings in Spanish looked like a metaphor for “the painful labor of artistic creation”  – I hope I will be excused for using such an outdated language. It seemed to me that poet Goldsmith wanted to demonstrate to his audience the very process by which “things that have happened” turn into “things as they might happen”  – the old Aristotelian distinction between history and poetry. The reading of Allende’s last words to the Chilean people sounded “strange” mainly because of poet Goldsmith’ strong American accent and lack of Spanish language training, and the entire recital resembled an workshop in Russian literary formalism, where the attendance came to bear witness to the device of “estrangement” (or “defamiliarization”) – a procedure, which according to those early twentieth century critics, assists poets in giving birth to a new literary form, helping them renew the artistic attire that has been worn out by extensive and multiple uses.

When it comes to conceptual poetry—for, I would imagine that this would be a more or less accurate description of poet Goldsmith’s contemporary verse—one is faced, from the outset, with a series of questions: who is the author of these poems; what role does poet Goldsmith play; does the reading of a ready-made text by someone, who calls himself  a poet, turns any selected text into literature; what is today the role and function of poet Goldsmith; does he indeed posses magical powers; can he also transform metal into gold; can poet Goldsmith also replace one of those Text to Speech recognition softwares; can I, as a user, choose among different voices and intonations?

Over the past decades questions like these were asked more persistently within the art world, following the impact of Duchamp’s ready-made. Is poet Goldsmith suggesting that contemporary literature is still searching for its own Duchamp, or that it does not need one?


Octavian Esanu, written in the spring and posted in the fall of 2010.