Patricia says "I want to be a major poet!" I do too. What does ambition mean in this field, arguably a field of diminishing returns?

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was sitting in an old friend's $25 million dollar apartment on Park Avenue, sipping a fabulous single malt. He's perhaps the biggest art collector in New York. He made is fortune on Wall Street and he collects amazing stuff and has an equally amazing place to store it all. Plastered on the walls and scattered across the marble floors everywhere were Gerhard Richters, Ed Ruschas, Louise Bourgeois, Yves Klein, Maurizio Cattelans, Tom Freidmans... you get the point.
After a few scotches, Glenn said to me, "So, Kenny. I used to love the works you showed when you were in the art world. Tell me, why did you leave to become a poet?" It was a good question and one which I asked myself many times. From 1987 until the mid-90s, I had a very good gallery career and could be considered by all measures a successful artist. I showed with a top gallery, made a handsome living from my work and regularly visited the types of apartments that I was sitting in at that moment. After some thought, I said, "Glenn, while I was a successful artist, I knew in my heart that I'd never be an important artist; I knew that, judging by the trajectory my career was taking, I'd never be able to change the history of the field. While other factors intervened -- mainly the fact that I was simply dying to write -- I was in poetry the chance to truly make a difference in the historical discourse. While the work itself was the determining factor -- again, I needed to write and nothing was going to stop me -- in art I saw career; in poetry I saw possibility." His face was blank and as he lifted his glass to his lips, he said incredulously, "So you went for history rather than money?" "Yeah," I responded. "I think that if you ask any artist, they'll tell you that a primary motivator to their becoming an artist would be to make history, not money. If one happens to make money along the way -- as many artists do -- all the better, but I think for many, the chance to change a field outweighs material gain." Really, he just couldn't understand what I was saying.
So, we find ourselves here in poetry, at the epicenter of nonmaterial gain. I think for some poets (and artists -- though from this point forth I'll be speaking on to the direct concerns of poetry), history isn't of major concern. Kwame recalled a few posts back a dear friend of his who wrote for herself without any ambition; while he expressed his respect for her practice, he couldn't conceive for himself an ambitionless practice. Kwame has thrown his hat into the ring of history. And judging by his career, he's got a damn good shot at being a part of that narrative.
So how do we determine if what we're doing has any historical impact at all? I think this all depends on how we define the poetry world(s) that we choose to inhabit. Speaking for myself, I see that in the segment of innovative (or experimental) poetry, there's a tremendous amount of work to be done. Surveying the field, it appears to me to be wide open. Compared to the art world where, after Duchamp, anything can be art, there's a sense that in poetry world -- even within more innovative camps -- that certain things are poetry and that certain things are not. Coming from the art world, this strikes me as an untenable & unsustainable stance, both aesthetically and historically and one that is bound to implode any moment.
What's at stake here? I have a very close friend who has been called the most radical of the first generation Language Poets and we've had an ongoing discourse for the past fifteen years. It seems that when we get to talking, we always end up splitting on certain issues. No matter how "radical" you might have thought Language Poetry was, this friend of mine keeps clinging to the concept of "poetry" as validating concept. He can't consider anything that doesn't look like "poetry" to be "poetry." Beyond that, he's deeply opposed to my generation's idea of the unedited text. He feels that if it's not edited carefully, he's not able to consider it as "poetry." In addition, if a piece of writing is not readable word-to-word, then it's not "poetry." Again, such qualities are all tropes of the next generation's writing, conceptual writing, where the accumulation is more important than word-for-word content; where close reading is abandoned in favor of distant reading; where editing is anathema to language management; a concept where all words are weighed by the pound, rather than by their intellectual or literary merit. In short, it turns out that my Language Poet pal has some very conventional ideas about poetry.
Now, it's always been my feeling that Language Poetry put the period on the end of the modernist sentence. If you're playing an innovative game, after Language Poetry, there's no more deconstructive work to do. That project has finished. The next step then becomes a reconstructive project that sees language as a whole again -- moving information -- but, like certain strains of postmoderism, acknowledges the cracks in the newly reformed linguistic vessel. To put it in art world terms, Language Poetry is akin to Abstract Expressionism and we, the next generation finds themselves in, metaphorically, 1961 with the reconstructive idea of Pop Art as the next logical move. Extending the metaphor, historically the possibilities of the 1960s lay before us.
So, history. Is there work to be done? Indeed. I often use Brion Gysin's quote from 1959 that poetry is 50 years behind painting. And if we take that to be true and our ambitions steer us in this direction, then the possibilities of changing / impacting this field at this moment are absolutely staggering.

Originally Published: April 27th, 2007

Kenneth Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most "exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry" by Publishers Weekly. Goldsmith is the author of eight books of poetry, founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb (, and the editor I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol...

  1. April 30, 2007
     Brian Hadd

    Deconstruction made me think, how is poetic license available now. Can I begin another sentence? Will I want an idea to begin or end or continuing what can come next?
    The Hood Company

  2. April 30, 2007
     emily warn

    I was walking along this sunny Sunday morning in Seattle wondering whether Kenneth had solved the poetry wars or had simply announced another bloodless abstraction antithetical to poetry when I looked up and saw a man and woman headed toward me, holding hands and pushing a lawnmower. They were causally but smartly dressed as if they were coming from a lazy brunch. Just as we were about to pass each other, the man shoved the mower onto a wide, very long parking strip where it instantly stopped in tall grass packed with dandelions gone to seed--any jiggling and they would fly away. The man and woman stood there staring at the machine. “You’re doomed,” I said. “Well, she said, “At least we got a lawnmower.”
    This made me think of Lorine Niedecker’s poem….
    “A lawnmower’s one of the babies I’d have
    if they’d give me a job and I didn’t get bombed
    in the high grass
    by the private woods. Getting so
    when I look off my space I see waste
    I’d like to mow.”
    (from New Goose poems)
    In this snippet of a poem, Niedecker pulls off a difficult heist. The entire poem is a supposed quote from one of her rural Wisconsin neighbors. This short speech documents how poverty wastes lives, and yet it also manages to gloat: our lives might be impoverished but we resist the constraints of the marketplace--no lawnmowers here. Instead of valuing the acquisition of private goods; the speaker, and by implication anyone who lives a life dedicated to poetry or the arts, value the possibilities of uselessness: “I see waste/I’d like to mow.”
    I’ve often thought this day-dreamy communion in the “high grass/by the private woods” is the source that poets draw from to change the art form. We submerge ourselves in real conditions, in a locale and its clan (say the Lower East Side, Orange County, or Jamaica), and in a symbolic tradition, (say a religion, spy movies, jazz, English literature, collecting robots, or visual arts). Out of this mix we manufacture poems that take their place in poetry and history, and influence what comes next. There is no end.
    While writing this a loud voice starts shouting–but that’s not true for all poetry. And another voice starts that tedious wondering about what is and is not a poem. As Kenneth points out: “Compared to the art world where, after Duchamp, anything can be art, there's a sense that in poetry world -- even within more innovative camps -- that certain things are poetry and that certain things are not.”
    What if because of the sheer number of poetic variants we can no longer define it? If all those variants claim to be poetry does that make poetry a borg, or the opposite of a borg? Instead of worrying about what it is, what if we realized that all the variants constitute one poem? This would be a similar to how post-human theorists view consciousness as a “society of mind” in which “a collection of autonomous agents each runs its “own program.”
    "In these models consciousness, far from seen as the seat of identity, is one modular program among many. It is distinguished by the continuous monologue it spins to create an illusion of a coherent and unified self. Alongside this monologue other modules are running their own programs, which often contradict the conclusions of the consciousness module.” (N. Katherine Hayles, “The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crush)
    In this particular poem Niedecker rejects ambition--the need to build a reputation based on subjectivity--the "private woods"--(A nod to John Clare's poems protesting against Enclosure?) and offers her poetry as a freed space, a commons. And yet for encouragement and comraderie, she depended on Zukiofsky, the epitome of a NY literatti, engaged in defining poetry and reputations--the recluse and the schmoozer were indispenable to each other.

  3. April 30, 2007
     Tod Marshall

    Or sometimes we see those conflicting impulses in the same person: Cid Corman (friend of Lorine), driven to reject the American poetry scene to pursue poetry (with a cap P) in Kyoto (thus, ostensibly, in isolation, a "private woods") but simultaneously writing thousands of letters and going to some length to see that his poetry reached the mowed lawns of the West.

  4. May 1, 2007

    Hi Kenneth. When you say it's an untenable position "that certain things are poetry and that certain things are not" I think that's right on, and I'd agree that there are so-called "experimental" or "avant-garde" poets who are just as conservative or rigid, in their own way, as (for instance) any new formalist or personal-lyricist. Whether it's uncreative writing, or an exploration of inappropriate material (as in flarf, or jennifer knox or tao lin or linh dinh or gabe gudding), I find poets who are working directly against the rather fusty definitions of what makes a poem and what belongs in a poem the most interesting. I think the real exciting stuff happens not in the objection "that shouldn't be there!" but in the question "what the hell is that doing there." Granted, that's asking readers to be adventurous, but then, readers are.
    I'll probably never get truly tired of reading a well-written poem, whether or not it is metered or could be a traditional lyric, or whatever, but there are so many other things to be done, and it's exciting to watch poets tilt at the taboos. It seems self-limiting not to wonder what would happen if this or that "bad idea" or "inappropriate" or "unpoetic" element entered in. Poetry's not a bronzed artifact, but a growing thing.
    I'm digging the new blog format here, by the way. The back and forth between the contribs is a neat dynamic.

  5. March 6, 2008

    To claim that "anything is art" post-Duchamp, as if this were a definitive and monolithic stance shared by everyone in the art world seems spurious. Isn't that an ongoing conversation?--in art and in poetry. And isn't the conversation part of the excitement? I doubt flarf would be as interesting if the whole world could come to a boring consensus that flarf is the exact equivalent to the Ode to a Grecian Urn. Same goes for the toilet.
    I teach an introductory poetry course filled mostly with students who are writing their first poems ever. Questioning what a poem is, and why, is a discussion that comes up with frequency in class. I find it hard to believe that either I or my students represent an avant-garde flank of poetry, yet we find a lot to argue about on the subject. No one ever comes up with a definition--who cares about that?--but if the question can challenge our practice--everyone's practice--so much the better.
    Perhaps Goldsmith finds the very question--"what is a poem?"--offensive. If not, why object to the dialogue? It's didactic, not to mention oppressive, to insist that there's only one legitimate answer--even if that answer is "anything."