The best part about Kenneth Goldsmith is you never have to read Kenneth Goldsmith
The common thinking goes: Poetry is like our civilization’s aging relative no one ever really cared about, but who everyone feels obligated to visit once a year, or at least to send a card. Even if we’ve never been moved to love this relative, we don’t want them totally forgotten. They may be a charity case—totally unable to support themselves in a market economy—but they have dignity and history on their side. I mean, all the holy books were written in verse! We can’t just let that pass away. So poetry trudges on, supported by foundations, universities, government, etc. Poetry is not dead, but it is on life support.
This begs the question: what do we mean by “poetry”? We mean, of course, that which appears on the printed page. The same would go for the printed e-page, which may be more accessible, but is met with a similar cultural indifference. This is usually where we start considering the advantages of this position. “Poetry is on the margins,” we argue, “a fine place from which to criticize the dominant culture.” Sure. But if a tree protests in the wilderness and something like 100 poets listen, does it matter? Honestly, probably not. Thus the fear that poetry is dead, or on life support, or a zombie art form. This is a legit fear.
But widen the frame of what we consider “poetry,” and that fear lessens. In fact, it becomes clear that the fear over poetry’s marginalization depends on our defining poetry as that which appears in print. If, instead, we include the spoken and sung lyric, then we find that poetry is everywhere. It shouldn’t be that difficult to extend our conception that way: we already routinely include things like Kenneth Goldsmith’s copy and paste works in our definition of poetry, so surely we can include that which accompanies music, which is far closer to the oldest and most routine definitions of the form than most conceptual work.
And when we include what I’ll term “music poetry,” we can argue that not only is poetry everywhere, but that we live in a golden age of the public poem. We should acknowledge that we also live in a golden age of shitty public poems, but as Andrew Dubois, quoting GK Chesterton, recently pointed out about bad gangsta rap, “a bad poet is nevertheless a poet.” I know, it’s cliché to say things like, “the Beatles are the best known poets of all time,” “Bob Dylan was the prophet of the jukebox,” and “Straight Outta Compton gave voice to a movement alive and well today”—but they are also without a doubt true.
Goldsmith might get a New Yorker profile and incite a controversy that gets some notice beyond the print poetry world, and Anne Carson might wiggle into the New York Times Magazine, but such figures remain minor blips compared to the cultural impact of our music poets. Most music poets are obscure artists and/or shitty poets for sure, but even so, the exceptions to that rule represent an incredible opportunity for poetry—quality poetry!—to reach the masses and offer up what poetry does best. That cannot be dismissed.
Consider the current moment, in which we are grappling with the causes and consequences of racial privilege and economic disparity. What can poetry bring to this?
The Roots on Our Troubled Water
Rap was made for protest songs. To the skilled practitioner, it offers a platform that can hook the listener’s ear while allowing for a nuanced argument to be spelled out. A speech is made for nuance and the sung lyric to hook the ear, but neither can do both at once like a rap song. It did not take long for rap to take advantage of that, with Straight Outta Compton’s “Fuck the Police” standing as a prominent early example. However justified and effective, that song was a provocation. It offers a blunt message, and as such doesn’t take full advantage of rap’s poetic capabilities.
Jump ahead a couple of decades and you find The Roots’ undun tackling a similar topic, but with a different end in mind. This is rap that takes full advantage of its literary capabilities, because rap was also made for the epic. Rappers have long been able to pull off the trick of the narrative poem: to keep the plot moving forward while the sound shimmies sideways, all the while unveiling a host of potential tensions. undun, like few albums before it, extended that ability to a full album, and in the process offered the world a brilliant, thought-provoking, and empathetic window into one of the most pressing topics of our times. I don’t have space here to really discuss undun. That would take a book. But the album’s value can be glimpsed from looking at the track “Light House.”
The song is framed by a metaphor set up over the two sections of the chorus. The first section hooks the listener in with a bouncy beat under a simple but irresistible cadence and rhyme scheme. Dice Raw raps:
If you can’t swizz-im then you’re bound to drizz-own
Passin out life jackets, ’bout to go di-down.
Get down with the captain or go down with the ship
Before the dark abyss I’ma hit you with this.
The first couplet offers a dark version of a common American sentiment, self-reliance, while the second undercuts that by suggesting the system’s rigged. The first couplet suggests the ocean is the economy, in which we survive according to our swimming ability. The second suggests that the economy was once a ship, meaning it protected the individual from that frightful prospect. In the event of the ship’s sinking, the individual has a way out: to get down with the captain. This suggests that in a sinking economy, only those with ties to power (the captain) will be saved.
The chorus’s second part is sung, and provides a metaphor for a weakened social safety net. “No one’s in the lighthouse,” we’re told, while “you’re face down in the ocean.” The individual, turned out by the economy, is now abandoned by the state and by society. The chorus ends, “it may seem like there’s no one there that cares if you drown, face down in the ocean.” That’s pretty much the bleak end of it. The individual is irrevocably lost, but that’s built into undun, considering that the album’s hero, Redford, is dead from the start (the story is told in reverse).
The chorus exists at a macro and symbolic level. It represents Redford’s fate as caused by massive civilizational shifts, and as such it is convincing. Taken alone, it adds up to a common post-recession, Occupy Wall Street argument. We’ve heard it before. That leaves the verses to flesh out something beyond it.
The verses are soliloquies, which are used throughout undun to give voice to Redford’s struggle. (These are spoken by multiple rappers, which suggests that Redford is more a composite of multiple alike characters with alike fates, rather than one individual). In many ways these speeches support the deterministic finality depicted in the chorus of “Lighthouse.” For instance, we’re told earlier in the album that “the pendulum swingin’ my way couldn’t be more blind,” suggesting that the individual is at the mercy of large, indifferent forces. Yet Redford’s predetermined fate doesn’t render him void of agency, and one of the album’s poetic achievements is in depicting the shreds that remain of his humanity.
Dice Raw takes the first verse, depicting a failed attempt by Redford to escape his trap through “cheap weed” and “cheap vodka.” This amounts to a slow self-destruction in front of a two-way mirror, while “the man behind the glass just laughs.” Then the haunting metaphor from the chorus returns, as “the waves come over my head and just crash.” Then a moment of hope arrives, the “water starts receding,” and positive thoughts combat suicidal ones. It’s a brief moment of light amid the darkness—the verse ends with the waters carrying him away—but along with his self-inflicted wounds, it a gives a sense that Redford plays a role, however ineffectual, in his sad fate.
Black Thought takes the second verse, and offers a more nihilistic speech. Here Redford emphatically gives up on life, with life depicted as “troubled waters neither one of us could swim across.” Again, we have the individual at the mercy of higher powers, but even so Redford chooses his reaction to it. He is deciding to “leave his memories here,” and confidently declaring that “face down in the past is where I’m bein’.” Equating the past with death, Redford actively denies the future, and instead “swims deeper,” away from it and toward death.
Redford was dealt a shit hand in life, no doubt, and the main effect of the undun is to drive home exactly how dire life is for this representative modern figure. But the presence of agency in Redford’s soliloquies makes it impossible to see him simply as a passive victim. Instead, he’s an active victim. No matter how hopeless his activities are, they are what make him a human being, and not just an economic pawn (though he is that too).
E Martin Nolan
Active vs. Passive Ambiguity
Compare that to the Kenneth Goldsmith piece that has caused all the recent controversy, and you notice a key difference. Both present ambiguity. Goldsmith’s piece ends with a description of Michael Brown’s testicles, from the autopsy report that makes up the whole of the piece. There is a powerful ambiguity there, for sure. Otherwise people wouldn’t have taken it so badly. But Goldsmith’s ambiguity is passive. He hasn’t explored it or developed it. He just puts it out there, making his selection of it the only active part of the piece. So that’s what people judge: his selection and, by extension, him.
The ambiguity created in undun, by contrast, is active. The Roots willfully create an ambiguity in their hero, making themselves distant from the art they’ve created. The audience is then forced not to judge them, but to judge the internal workings of the art itself.
But what does any of this have to do with the death of print? Maybe nothing, and that’s the point. We have here two works born during the supposed crises caused by the decline of print. Goldsmith doesn’t expect anyone to read his admittedly boring books. In doing so, he’s not only assuming that print is dead, but also that the creative tradition print carried is dead. That is where he errs.
The Roots, meanwhile, have only ever expected for their poetry to be known through performance, but that does not mean they dismiss the tradition created through print culture. Indeed, their work, if printed out, is formally quite old-fashioned. Yet they sell records today, spreading metaphors, motifs, rhyming couplets, funky rhythm, argument and misdirection, persona, etc., to audiences the size of which a conceptual poet will never, ever, reach. Just check out how The Roots got Pitchfork to do some pretty decent literary criticism in their review of undun (not great or very in depth, but they’re reading it for the literature of it, and pretty accurately). If that kind of close attention from a fairly popular site is not good for the notion of poetry as a popular art form, I don’t know what would be.
Print may live on. It may die. I don’t know. But I know this: poetry is not bound to its medium. As long as people use words, and have the freedom to do so, they’re going to be poetic. Even if the medium dies, the form doesn’t. What Goldsmith gets wrong is to think a paradigm shift could possibly cancel out an ancient tradition, or the human motivation that led to it. Just like the Internet didn’t get rid of our need for self-identity (how naive), it also didn’t get rid of an essential mystery like death. Thus, we still go in, en masse, for explorations of our moment in history, but also of things like death, both of which are taken on in undun. Goldsmith’s empty, hubris-filled moment will pass, and few will miss it. But the poets who brought to life the central tensions of our time, they will be worth remembering, no matter what medium conveys their work.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in Lemonhound, Contemporary Verse 2, Arc, The Rusty Toque, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (from McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.