Poetry for Today’s Busy People

July 24, 2011

A lot of people these days like the idea of poetry, but are frankly too busy to read it.

A conceptualist poet-guru called Kenneth Goldsmith has had a brilliant idea: poetry that nobody needs to read. He explains:

The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.

So, in a weird way, if you get the concept—which should be put out in front of the book—then you get the book, and you don’t even have to read it. They’re better to talk about than they are to read. It’s not about inventing anything new; it’s about finding things that exist and reframing them and representing them as original texts. The choice of what you’re presenting is more interesting than the thing that you’re presenting. You’re not evaluated on the writing or what’s on the page; you’re evaluated on the thought process that comes before ‘pen is set to paper,’ so to speak.

Mr Goldsmith’s idea meets a long-felt need. Often at dinner-parties I’ve noticed one guest burning to be as pretentious about poetry as the rest of us, but being modestly held back by never having read a poem since school. Now he just has to note a few of Mr Goldsmith’s wheezes, and when we’re discussing Wallace Stevens’s use of zeugma, he can now happily trump us. ‘Stevens? Isn’t he rather… readable?’ he will say with mild distaste and a sad shake of the head. ‘If only, instead of all those original images, he’d listed a year’s worth of weather reports? Wouldn’t that, ultimately, have been more profound?’ What could the rest of us do but nod sagely at the introduction of so fashionable an idea?
You can read more of Mr Goldsmith’s great ideas in an interview at Poets.org, the organ of the Academy of American Poets.
This idea excites me greatly. Maybe we should have an issue of Snakeskin devoted entirely to unreadable verse. What’s that? You thought we’d produced enough of those already? Philistine!


2 Responses to “Poetry for Today’s Busy People”

  1. Sam Says:

    Here’s a movie about it and him – http://ubu.com/film/goldsmith_sucking.html

    Check out his Head Citations 3 minutes in. It’s like Peter Sellars in his prime. Or it could be Sasha Baron-Cohen.

    He founded and runs UbuWeb, which is actually an amazing site.

    Here, for example, is Joseph Beuys doing pop music – http://www.ubu.com/film/beuys_sonne.html

    I enjoyed his Avante Garde All The Time podcast, because it is fun to listen to Kurt Shwitters and Gertrude Stein on the train. It seems to be semi defunct – http://feeds.poetryfoundation.org/AvantGardeAllTheTime

    I preferred him in the pork pie hat to the linen-n-beard guru garb. Jazzier.

  2. Sam Says:


    “Pleased to meet you, Kenny. So what are your interests?”

    “I’m interested in defamiliarisation of normative structures in language”.

    “How uncanny, too me”.

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