One of the posts from the first week and half of April that most struck me was Mark Nowak’s on the 6th: “25 miners killed in West Virgina Coal Mine blast.” It is (apart from its reportorial relation to a tragic event) deliberately putting the question to the reader. And asking what? Nothing less than what the use of poetry is; in particular, can it be morally responsible and didactically deployed. Can it do more than make nothing happen? The title of the piece reads like a news bulletin. This too is deliberate. If you go to Nowak’s on-site biography, which I immediately did, you learn first that he considers himself to be a “documentary poet.” I did have a vague notion that this designation existed, but I needed to do a little digging to clarify what is actually meant by it. I’m glad I did.

My idea was that this might include some of my favorite poetry, curiously all of it non-English; books like Paveses’s Lavorare Stanca, the Portuguese poet Jorge de Sena’s book about the Brazilian salt mines, Conheço o sal... e outros poemas (Moraes, Lisbon, 1974), or Nazim Hikmet’s Things I Didn’t Know I Loved. Whitman, in all of his rolling grandeur, was driven to document his times; and yet Soviet social realism and the dictates of the writer’s unions bowdlerized the poet’s natural impulse to “report.” The poetry that I called “documentary” didn’t give up aesthetic criteria. That is, it remained, first and foremost, poetry. Was “documentary” a useful term, or did it fail as so many others before it: “confessional,” “language,” or “beat”.

Labels are created out of their cultural moments and often not by the writers or artists they seek to shelter. Though I think in Nowak’s case he is unambiguous. It is instructive (no pun intended) to read the blurb written by Howard Zinn on the back of Nowak’s new book, Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press). Not only does it make you want to read the book but it ends on a note of documentarian policy. “Coal Mountain Elementary is an imaginative and shocking reminder of what it means, in the most human and poignant terms, to be a miner, whether in this country or in China, or for that matter anywhere in the industrial world. It is also a tribute to miners and working people everywhere. It manages, in photos and in words, to portray an entire culture. And it is a stunning educational tool.”

Zinn doesn’t mince words: this book is a “stunning educational tool”.

There is always a reforming tendency behind movements such as Nowak’s, or Kenneth Goldsmith’s, who becomes the whipping post in Nowak’s short and passionate piece, which is, in part, a retort to the first in a series of posts written by Goldsmith and entitled “Provisional Language.” An article by Philip Metres, “From Reznikoff to the Public Enemy,” published here in Poetry in 2007, is very explicit and does a superb job at explaining the documentary movement. According to Metres, the documentary poem is meant to “testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence.” C.D. Wright’s major poem, One Big Self, is evoked as tutelary example for the movement, an “education”, in Zinn’s terms, in the suffering of others.

In his post Nowak takes particular exception with Kenneth’s Goldsmith’s notion of “provisional” language and his redefinition of the poet as a kind of minder of the machine, a figure somewhere between scribe and witness and driven, at the conceptual level, by an idée fixe – that of the barrenness of contemporary language in general and the impediment this creates for the poetic status quo.

Of course, when most of us think of lyric poetry, there is still a facet of self-expression that plays a strong role in both the ambition and the methodology of poetic creation. Both Nowak and Goldsmith eliminate, to the extent that this is possible, “self expression” from the equation. Both are, indeed, documentary in their approach. Goldsmith’s task is to represent what he sees as the inanity of what we might call language surge, a 21st century version of “information overload”, a term Alvin Toffler popularized as a kind of updating of the 1950’s notion of “sensory overload.” (see Wikipedia under “Information overload.”) Nowak, on the other hand, is interested in, especially, the linguistic authenticity of the oppressed (the classic approach of the documentarian), in their capacity to tell the truth about themselves, and, as such, about us, their oppressors. Both missions are highly moral; both seek to expose and represent an unrecognized paradigm that contemporary poetry should explore. Nowak takes umbrage at Goldsmith’s reductiveness, which is seen in an immoral light. Explaining his own work against the backdrop of Goldsmith’s onanistic aesthetic, he has the following to say: “Coal Mountain Elementary is a book comprised, perhaps, of what Kenneth Goldsmith in an earlier post called “provisional language” – culled verbatim from the testimonies of Sago miners and mine rescue crews, newspaper reports from the almost daily mine disasters in China, and curriculum for grammar school children produced by the not-for-profit, pro-coal American Coal Foundation. Yet, reading through more than 6,000 pages of Sago testimony and several thousand Chinese newspaper reports of mine disasters, I have found this language to be anything but a debased, temporary “mere material.” He continues, very much in the present, the television alive and crackling in the background, to even more explicitly infer the danger and immorality of Goldsmith’s program: “Reading and watching the reports from West Virginia last night and this morning, I guess I just can’t get myself to see words as ‘empty signifiers, floating on the invisibility of the network.’ I see them instead as heavy, deeply loaded signifiers of ‘news that stays news’ in the lives of underground miners who risk their lives each and every day across the globe."

Of course neither Nowak nor Goldsmith are without precedents. Nowak and documentary poetry in general might claim a pedigree in the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid and arguably two of the greatest didactic poems (though they are more than this) of the Western tradition, De rerum natura by the former and Metamorphoses by the latter. In terms of more recent forebears, descriptions of Nowak’s newest book put me in mind of Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant 1970 volume, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a collage of photography, reportage, found language and the sayings of the Kid himself. The book has a very documentary feel to it, but was written well before the codification of the category. Ondaatje’s book also pushes a bit a Metre’s somewhat well packaged definition.

In response to what she calls “Metre’s tidy classification,” Jessica Johnson, blogging in the Kenyon review in 2008 (, questions the efficacy of raising the documentarian approach to the status of “genre or kind” and wonders if other more “poetic impulses” can coexist with “the documentary impulse.” I share her ambivalence. She goes on to say: “I think there is something to it, but not quite what Metres’s tidy classification suggests. Instead of thinking of documentary poetry as a genre or a kind, it seems more appropriate to think of it as a current within poetry, both in individual poems and the tradition of poetry. It’s an impulse that’s been with us from The Aeneid to Henry V to The Wreck of the Deutschland to “The Whitsun Weddings” to Letters to Wendy’s. It has counter-currents, sure. To name a few: the magic- and myth-making current, observable in some of Yeats and in Merwin; the current of inventive language-play, ala Oulipo.

“It’s the coexistence of the documentary impulse with these other, more “poetic” impulses that makes the documentary notion relevant. The question, to me, is how well these currents and counter-currents can co-exist. What kind of sea do they make? Is the impulse to document necessarily undermined by the poem’s own demands, and vice-versa?”

Goldsmith would also document the current state of affairs and his precedents are all too clear. He aesthetic (he probably wouldn’t call it that…perhaps anti-aesthetic) is plucked straight from the dictates of the Language School and tweaked to accommodate a post-millennial nihilism that he sees embedded in the very fabric of the language itself. Charles Bernstein’s book-length didactic poem-essay, A Poetics, stands in a tutelary position (much as Wright’s poem does for Nowak) behind Goldsmith’s obsession with telephone books. Goldsmith’s new age “information overload” seems grounded in the critique of the term’s original owner Bertram Gross, a critique that reads remarkably close to Goldsmith’s, especially as it is spelled out in Gross’s The New Face of Power in America (South End Press, 1980; also Here is Gross on “managed information”:

“Information has always been a strategic source of power. From time immemorial the Teacher, the Priest, the Censor, and the Spy have helped despots control subject populations. Under the old-fashioned fascist dictatorships, the Party Propagandist replaced the Priest, and the control of minds through managed information became as important as terrorism, torture, and concentration camps.

“With the maturing of a modern capitalism, the managing of information has become a fine art and advancing science. More powerful institutions use world-spanning technologies to collect, store, process, and disseminate information. Some analysts see a countervailing equilibrium among these institutions. While computerized science and technology produce shattering changes, it is felt that the schools and the media tend to preserve the status quo. Actually, all these institutions have been involved in changing the world. Each has played a major role in easing the difficult transition from national to transnational capitalism by winning greater acceptance of manipulation or exploitation-even as it becomes more extensive and intensive - by those subjected to them. Only through managed information can volition itself be captured and, as Rousseau recognized, can minds be so perfectly subjugated as to keep "the appearance of freedom."

In chapter 1 of Classic, Romantic, Modern (1961) – a book well worth rereading – Jacques Barzum tells us that “[t]he one thing that unifies men in a given age is not their individual philosophies but the dominant problem that these philosophies are designed to solve.” As it was in 1961, our dominant problem is that we are living in an Alexandrian Age, one of debasement and decadence. According to Barzum, "[w]hen people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent." As I said above, Goldsmith finds that decadence in the language of the day, the very material with which poets would work. “Language has become a provisional space, temporary and debased, mere material to be shoveled, reshaped, hoarded and molded into whatever form is convenient, only to be discarded just as quickly. Because words today are cheap and infinitely produced, they are detritus, signifying little, meaning less. Disorientation by replication, mirroring, and spam is the norm. Any notion of the authentic or original is untraceable.” (fr. Provisional Language.) For Nowack, this same decadence is manifest in the contemporary poet’s lack of moral seriousness, in their inability to empathize with anything beyond their own narrow strip of turf and their failure to produce a language adequate to the times. Instead they simply repeat the so-called radical experiments of their teachers. Goldsmith’s approach, as that of the Language Poets, his immediate predecessors, suffers from two basic fallacies. The first is the fallacy of composition, which assumes that a whole has a given property just because its various parts have that property; and, even more tragically, the mimetic fallacy, which is the attempt to convey an emotional state or idea by writing in a manner that corresponds to that state. This is certainly not going to solve Gross’s critique of institutional manipulation. “Actually, all these institutions have been involved in changing the world. Each has played a major role in easing the difficult transition from national to transnational capitalism by winning greater acceptance of manipulation or exploitation-even as it becomes more extensive and intensive - by those subjected to them.” One does not solve the problem by endlessly copying out the terms of one’s own subjugation. Even with its possible limitations, which Jessica Johnson points out, Mark Nowak’s documentary poetry is the more radical solution to the Goldsmith dilemma.

Originally Published: April 13th, 2010

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...