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On Social Poetry after Kenneth Goldsmith

by Robert Wood

I come from nowhere: the suburbs of Long Island, a waste land bereft of culture … I know nothing of politics. I’ve spent the past thirty years in the studio. What do I know of the world? I know the network, I know art, I know music, I know literature. To think that I know more than that is preposterous.

Kenneth Goldsmith[i]

On March 13th 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith received a death threat on Twitter from Cassandra Gillig shortly after giving a reading. The reading took place at Brown University and was a remixed St. Louis county autopsy report of African American teenager Michael Brown, who was murdered by police and whose death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality including in Ferguson (Brown’s home town). Goldsmith’s performance was titled “The Body of Michael Brown” and the resulting commentary was widespread.

Goldsmith stands as the most visible figure of conceptual poetry. He has been interviewed for Playboy, The Colbert Report and performed at the White House.[ii] His visibility only increased after the Brown controversy and The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and others ran stories.[iii] Overland, Hyperallergic and The Poetry Foundation ran extended opinion pieces too.[iv] More recently there was a piece in The New Yorker, which attracted insightful responses from Cathy Park Hong and Brian Kim Stefans.[v] One aspect that has been absent in the Goldsmith-Brown debate is that “The Body of Michael Brown” is an appropriation of a representation not an appropriation of a real body.[vi] Thus, the author of the autopsy, the original creator, may have a legitimate claim of outrage for being plagiarised but others may have misread the action of the artist. This is not to disagree with Marjorie Perloff that it was in bad taste or that there has been a “structural racism” as demonstrated by Goldsmith’s defender Alec Wilkinson. However, by sampling the autopsy report Goldsmith also highlighted the state and focused our attention on what Louis Althusser called “the repressive state apparatus” that created the conditions for Brown’s murder in the first place.[vii]

If Goldsmith had done a neo social-realist spoken word slam, there may well have been applause, self-congratulatory compliments from left liberals intent on bringing Brown, Ferguson, #blacklivesmatter into the consciousness. But I would argue that this could be an aestheticisation of politics precisely because it lacks formal inventiveness.[viii] The object of criticism then is both those who murdered Brown and those who fail to see the radicalism of form in conceptual poetry itself. Within conceptual poetry though, as Hong points out, there is work being done that is social or committed. This was demonstrated to a loose degree by Divya Victor’s collated pieces for Jacket2 – “Conceptual writing (plural and global) and other cultural productions”.[ix] This was especially the case in “An affective response” by Aaron Apps.[x]

However, the immediate online debate’s thorough lack of historicising (no mention of Pound or Reznikoff), both in relation to poetry and poetics, seems to suggest it has mainly been an opportunity for the accumulation of cultural capital through personal identity politik. Nowhere has this been clearer that the moralising didacticism of the anonymous collective Mongrel Coalition.[xi] When the positionality of authors has been absent, people have been unable to sustain criticism within the frame of poetry, of taking Goldsmith as art for art’s sake or of recognising conceptualism’s diversity and merit. Only CA Conrad’s “Kenneth Goldsmith Says He’s an Outlaw” and Ken Chen’s piece “Authenticity Obsession or Conceptualism as Minstrel Show”, which both came later, challenged that.[xii]

So much of the initial criticism of Goldsmith’s Brown performance was about Goldsmith as a “white man”, so much so that it has tended to reify the liberal author function according to sets of criteria that do not adequately reflect lived and embodied experience let alone acknowledge his Jewishness or the “death of the author”.[xiii] It also assumed there was race solidarity, that people cannot be homonymic or fellow travellers. So, what is the white person to do? What are “we” to do after Barthes notwithstanding the self-promotion that has enabled Goldsmith to be a celebrity “Court Poet”?[xiv] I speak as someone who considers himself white and not.[xv] I as an author am not dead, though I do not necessarily want to suggest biographical detailism stand in for abstract “status groups”.

Goldsmith’s silence during and since the controversy has been conspicuous and his defenders have mainly come in private social media exchanges, especially Facebook, rather than through public channels. The reluctance to defend, exonerate, rescue Goldsmith is possibly due to the social reluctance to potentially position oneself as a racist as much as it is about the exhaustion of Conceptualism’s brand.

It is also important to note that what matters in America matters in the world such is the global reach of official avant garde culture. American hegemony is, of course, challenged internally and thus we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.[xvi] Indeed, conceptualism is a diverse and varied field with roots in previous avant gardes and other arts.[xvii] Kenneth Goldsmith is not in the same place as Vanessa Place; nor Erin Morrill, Craig Santos Perez, Myung Mi Kim, Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas Kearney, Jeremiah Rush Bowen or Joey Yearous-Algozin. Moreover, there is a difference between the everyday focused forms of Goldsmith’s earlier Day, Soliloquy, Fidget and New York Trilogy and the spectacular turn demonstrated by Seven Americans Deaths and “The Body”. Yet, what comes after, besides, next to Goldsmith, next to conceptualism after his Brown silence?


Bonito Oliva: You have said that the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.

Joseph Beuys: … I hold him in very high esteem, but I have to reject his silence. Duchamp was simply finished. He had run out of ideas; he was unable to come up with anything important … Duchamp … wanted to shock the bourgeoisie … He refused to participate. His “Pissoir” was a genuine revelation, a work which at that time undoubtedly had a considerable importance.[xviii]

In adapting Beuys’ comments on Duchamp one could suggest that Goldsmith’s silence on Brown has generated more heat than light; that his spectacular work admits a lack of ideas even as Day was a revelation. Goldsmith has on numerous occasions encouraged comparison between himself and Duchamp.[xix] He has stated privately that wants to do for language what Duchamp did for sculpture and also invites an art for art’s sake appraisal, which denies the politics of his work as suggested by the epigraph of this chapter. As a rejoinder we could look to Joan Kirner, when she stated:

Just by making a decision to stay out of politics, you are making the decision to allow others to shape politics and exert power over you. And if you are alienated from the current political system, then just by staying out of it, if you do nothing to change it, you simply entrench it.[xx]

I do not want to suggest Goldsmith is alienated or not, but to argue that there can be a politicised response to Goldsmith outside, beside, without the ideological frame of identity politics.

I want to draw from Beuys post-conceptually and focus on “social poetry”.[xxi] Post-conceptualism – a mode of thinking, approaches and a lineage (of people taught by Goldsmith and other conceptualists) – been excavated, presented and promoted by Felix Bernstein in “Notes on Post Conceptual Poetry”, as part of a special edition of Evening Will Come, which also featured writings by former students Sueyun Juliette Lee and Steve McLaughlin. Although there is discussion of aesthetics and politics in Bernstein’s work, particularly in relation to queer theory, there is little attention given to the frame outside liberalism or a critique through analogous structures. As yet, criticism of Goldsmith, and by extension Conceptualism, has not attended to criticisms of Duchamp.

Beuys’ critique of Duchamp, and hence my reading of Goldsmith, lies in his utopianism, which sought not to epater le bourgeois, but to transform every person into an artist, to find in the creative potential and daily labour of every individual a new social order.  As Beuys writes: “Politics has to become art, and art has to become politics.”[xxii] He goes further stating:

I think art is the only political power, the only revolutionary power, the only evolutionary power, the only power to free humankind from all repression. I say not that art has already realised this, on the contrary, and because it has not, it has to be developed as a weapon.[xxiii]

I want to give art the effectiveness of the whole creativity. Then I can give it more power and force, I can catch all the participants who are already researching, widen the direction for all people – I mean the majority in an equal way.[xxiv]

Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act.[xxv]

This idea of art encouraging freedom does not, of course, originate with Beuys, but it meant the expansion of his own practice. His early actions and his term “social sculpture” were malleable and wide-ranging, free-ranging ideas. There was the shift from gallery actions to mass plantings of trees, from teaching a limited number of students to public outreach and the founding of organisations, bodies, institutes. Notwithstanding the complications of utopianism (and even a certain mysticism that has been projected onto Beuys because of his “action” that saw him commune with a coyote), there was a strategic and material engagement with the world outside art, with politics, that is absent in Goldsmith.[xxvi] Central to this was the Seven Thousand Oaks project and the Free International University.

Beuys’ social sculpture was “how we mold and shape the world in which we live”.[xxvii] It was radical and dialogic: “Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from the teacher to the taught. The teacher takes equally from the taught.”[xxviii] As a corollary, “social poetry” is the language of how we mold and shape the world in which we live. As a term, it does of course refer back to social poetry as it has been applied to those in the Spanish Civil War, Texan Chicanos and Auden as well as containing within it reference to society, sociology, social realism and socialism. But these are historical references that re-affirm a definition that social poetry is poetry as committed commentary.

In referring to social sculpture we might want to think how “everyone is a poet”, how every language activity can be framed to be poetic, which surely comes as a sibling of Goldsmith’s early conceptualism that brought everyday language, the mundane metonymic detritus of conversation and the newspaper to the fore.[xxix] It is the re-discovery of the utopianism inherent in this framing that enables one to practice an “opening” “to come”, which has political resonance; we might yet find touchstones that have material implications in the spirit of early conceptualism. A social poet could indeed plant seven thousand eucalypts. A social poet could indeed recycle newspapers. A social poet may not need “felt” or “fat” or “hares” to keep him or her company in the language games that take politics as their cue.

This is to say nothing of M. NorbeSe Philip, Dionne Brand, Fred Moten or Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s anthologies (What I Say and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone).

All these poets represent the diversity within Conceptualism. In Victor’s edited pieces for Jacket2, there was also a particularly resonant concern with ecology in light of the climate-changed present that Beuys foreshadowed. This included a discussion by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett on her swimming poetry project in the United Kingdom and Michael Nardone’s “On settler conceptualism”. As Nardone writes, “I want a literature that engages the language that forms power relations – modes of supremacy and domination – in the world.” For him, this involves gleaning, cutting up, assembling language from various sources connected to the Mackenzie Gas Project in Canada. These were “transcripts of testimonies, broadcasts, manuals, newspapers, legal texts” that were then “rewritten, reframed, or reformatted within a poetic text”. Speaking of the broader terrain of Conceptual poetry Nardone writes:

They are tactics that continue to be tested and transformed in recent works framed within the milieus of Conceptual writing: in Carlos Soto-Román’s Chile Project: Re-Classified, a work that documents an attempted blackout of neoliberal terror; in Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, which dredges up and disrupts narratives of colonizing what is presently known as the Canadian prairies; and in Jordan Abel’s Un/Inhabited, an attempt to dismantle the entire pulp-fiction genre of settler-colonial romance.[xxx]

In thinking through method and responsibility in post-Conceptual terms, I want to focus on Kate Middleton’s No Land, which constitutes an example of what Daniel Falb calls a “terrapoetics” in the Anthropocene.[xxxi]

 Middleton’s No Land may be called a “gleaned” text. It is derived from This Unknown Island by S. P. B. Mais, which is an Englishman’s travel guide to England published in 1934. As Middleton writes:

I took each chapter and, instead of crossing out – creating an erasure – drew boxes around the words of my new text. I wanted still to be able to read Mais’s original essays: they are charming; charmingly outdated. Within them I found strange texts, windswept, saintswept …. If, as Dickinson has it, “Art—is a house that tries to be haunted”, these texts are haunted by what I have left out.[xxxii]

Mais’ text begins with a quote from Coleridge, firmly situating him in a Romantic and British tradition. His is a tour of the greats. By contrast Middleton refers to Emily Dickinson, placing her in a proto-modernist frame. Middleton’s is a tour of tours; it is meta. What then does it mean to haunt and be haunted by this text? It may mean to engage with the presence of forebears, particularly if one mainly works in a lyric tradition as Middleton often does; it may mean to haunt them, to reclaim them in return. It might also mean to allude to land that is haunted by spirits, yarlies and massacres.

Consider, for example, “II. On Bury Art”, which is Middleton’s gleaning of “II. Glastonbury: King Alfred and King Arthur”. Mais’ version begins with a discussion of where Camelot may be, which is to say it is contentious between Caerleon-on-Usk, Winchester, Tintagel, Damelioc, Killiwic, Camelford and Somerset. It is about ambiguity of place. But as the title conveys, it is to Glastonbury “we” are being called. As Mais writes: “there are many reasons why you and I should go … [for] here is the Holy Grail, here lies King Arthur”.[xxxiii] The journey to the site of that most fabled of British kings, of Christianity, is punctured by the everyday when a woman collapses in a waiting room – “a Hardyesque story in Thomas Hardy’s own country”.[xxxiv] Yet soon we journey through the countryside (“white-washed, yellow-washed, pink-washed cottages of thatch”) from field to farm.[xxxv] Mais concludes by saying:

It is good occasionally to unravel the tangled skein of our origins, to look back at intervals at the rock whence we are hewn. A visit to Glastonbury does this for us. It does more. It reminds us in youth we set out in quest of the Holy Grail. That is a reminder that I, for one, need.[xxxvi]

The chapter is a reflection on walking, on myth, on religion and on aging. It assumes a type of nationalism and references Old England with a sentimental and positivist tone. Its politics are subterranean but we can assume that Mais is discomforted by the intrusion of the modern world – “a car-park … and a cinema betray a strange obliquity of vision”.[xxxvii] At the centre of it is a rational, contained, nostalgic “I”. There is, we can gather, a liberal, Romantic, conservative politics.

What follows is Middleton’s version:

You know Camelot

know that the only true Camelot is a green knoll of midsummer

But you needn’t thread every moment with a clock of Arimathea

with the sacred cup under the Tor

buried between architecture and archaeology.

Be shepherded into fact and fancy. Harbour both—

.  .  .

In the Pilgrim’s Inn, a loft room is haunted by the panoply of green

a palimpsest set on a green hill

white-washed, white

-limed, white smocks and

smocks not so white.

Then another change:

the flat brown road, hedgeless at flood level.

Withies upright at the junction.

.  .  .

To reach      the orchards: pull against the door-post of the Great Flood

the monument: flatten between the obelisk and the bridge
over the Tone

the withy-bed: sell the unstable canoe, half-full of water.

After landing be content with the remnants of a blue silk flag.

(The monument is a severity                 of pardon and vigilance, a

black piled heap of black

shawls, blotted out by grey

rain, orientated by the Dog

Star.  A cinema. A strange

obliquity of grandeur.)

And you unravel the tangled skein of rock. More. Of grail.

Camelot is now a material thing – “a green knoll of midsummer” – even as it is also a historical idea. Speaking directly to us Middleton implores us to “be shepherded into fact and fancy. / Harbour both.” Fact and fancy are established as opposites only for the reader to be welcomed, sent, coddled, cuddled, held by both as if there were a dialectical synthesis between poetry and history. “Shepherded” with its connotations of the pastoral, with its field associations, and “harbour” suggesting a respite from the sea, ocean, storm, indicate that we are in a safe, if not bucolic place. This continues in the next passage; however, we are “haunted” at the inn – not all is serene and welcoming. It is a “palimpsest” suggesting that there are layers here, of meaning, of memory; that it is followed by variations on “whiteness’” allows one to open up into the possibilities not only of the colour spectrum but the politics of settlement in an English-Australian context. Race becomes visible. The “flat brown road” is Mackellarian and the junction where we are is uncertain. We have not quite reached where we are going with the poem – it is not a procession from lush, green kingdom to featureless brown frontier. There is a pre-emptive haunting here, as if all relations, all empires and kingdoms have ghosts, spectres, traumas.[xxxviii]

In Middleton the periphery is tied to the metropole in a complex tangle of relations. If we want to get there we must follow what we are told in the next section: “to reach” one must perform tasks, act in a certain way as if the poet can be a speaker from a place of experience. Once one arrives, once one lands, if ever one can, we are told how to feel – “be content with the remnants of a blue silk flag”. Flag, that symbol of nation, is merely a “remnant”, not a proud, unfurling, striking semiotic claim to virgin, unsettled land. “Pardon and vigilance” – opposites of the juridical system collide. With “black piled heap of black / shawls” we are held in wait over a line break to see if it is black “bodies” not shawls. However, shawls too, in their feminist connotation, haunt us in the tragic figuration as a piled heap – one remembers memorials of the daily in this iteration.

The Dog Star, which the naked eye perceives as a single star but is actually a binary star system, references Hesiod’s poetic Work and Days. This interplay and use both of a colonial reading background and a system of establishing binaries only to destabilise them suggests the open possibility, the indeterminate politics of Middleton’s work, and that is what gives it a generative power when read alongside other works of unoriginality. It may connect with Conceptualism at the level of method of construction, but in its ability to be read, in its ambivalent political caring for the land, No Land is decidedly post-Goldsmith by paradoxically being pre-Goldsmith and reminiscent of Charles Bernstein’s adaptation of Erving Goffman’s Asylums.[xxxix] As Peter Allen or Gertrude Stein might say “everything old is new again”.

Art does not have an autonomous status. If Goldsmith knew nothing of politics, he knows something of it after “The Body of Michael Brown”. Although Adorno asserts that a critical concept of the social is inherent to the artwork, he also holds that the production of art is always part of the larger process of social labour and hence division of labour.[xl] His idea of “entwinement” positions, on the one hand, a possibility of art against the demand for a correct image of social reality (in his case against the demand for social realism, or, for example, against Conceptualism as the inheritor of the avant garde that relies on a metonymic repetition of the everyday) and, on another hand, the threat of complete commoditisation, a threat that turns art over to the expectation of social entertainment (the slam as competitive spectacle).[xli] For as Beuys writes:

Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build a social organism as a work of art.[xlii]

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