Kenneth Goldsmith, the First Poet Laureate of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, stood in front of a nearly-full Tyrrell Auditorium on Tuesday night. Known for wearing a pink suit on The Colbert Report and a paisley suit during a reading at the White House, on that night Goldsmith was wearing white suit and pants, a tie with broad pastel stripes and glasses reminiscent of James Joyce.
“This may be the last time I read this,” Goldsmith said. “From Seven Deaths and Disasters … I can’t promise it.”
He was referring to his book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, composed of news reports the poet transcribed and rearranged into poems. If that sounds uncreative, good, because it’s supposed to. Goldsmith is a conceptual poet, meaning he purposefully uses appropriation, word processing, unoriginality, falsification and boredom to create his work. The ethos of conceptual writing is this: if you understand the concept behind the work you don’t need to read it. This begs the question, why did Goldsmith travel from NYC to read at TU?
Beginning with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy, Goldsmith assumed the voice of a frantic reporter relaying information in real time. Listening to Goldsmith read his work feels familiar. The type of reports he transcribed are painful to hear, but still captivating to an audience raised on American media culture. The broadcasts were meant to be momentary, the reports fading away as the events were ingrained in the American psyche. Goldsmith reshaped those reports into poetry.
The audience was sombre and silent as Goldsmith read excerpts from all seven chapters without pausing to speak in between. The most impactful readings seemed to be the Columbine High School Massacre and the September 11 attacks.
For Columbine, Goldsmith read Patti Nielson’s 911 call from the library.
“I am a teacher at Columbine High School, there’s a student here with a gun,” Goldsmith read. “He shot out a window. I believe one student um, um, um. I’ve been um, I don’t if it’s uh, I don’t know what’s in my shoulder. If it’s just a piece of glass he threw, or what.”
In an auditorium full of teacher and students, Patti’s perspective of events was troubling on a personal level. The audience had experienced the news coverage surrounding 9/11 and saw how the disaster impacted America, but as a poem, the disaster felt much more personal. Goldsmith has manipulated the way information is presented to our culture by narrowing the focus on something widely shared.
The Kennedy assassinations, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the murder of John Lennon, the Columbine shooting, the September 11 attacks and the death of Michael Jackson—most Americans are familiar with these tragedies. It’s not only about the events, it’s about the individual’s relationship to them and how tragic information is relayed.
Goldsmith said his work is autobiographical, that he lived during each tragedy and remembers where he was when he heard the news. This was true for many of the older audience members in attendance, while the younger students may only recall the reports about 9/11 and the death of Michael Jackson.
Those in attendance were fortunate to hear a moving reading by one of the hardest working experimental poets alive. During his Q&A, Goldsmith drew the audience in even further, backing up his methods with sharp responses and explaining his process.
“Many of us have lived through something that’s much more profound than the shift from radio to television,” Goldsmith said, speaking about his work compared to traditional poetry. “This is the twenty-first-century, I want a poetics that reflects what it means to live in a digital world, and I think that’s the difference. It’s very much a continuation of modernist discourse but then it goes off into mimesis, replication, unoriginality and uncreativity in order to re-inspire creativity of the twenty-first-century.”
Goldsmith captured American anguish and caused the audience to look at America’s darkest memories in a new way.