Getting the News from Poetry: Like Everything Else

Today's Reading: Kenneth Goldsmith, Day, pp. 107–146

    SOSLER-Carolyn Atlas. April 10, 1940-September 1, 1993.
    “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the gentle arid the very brave.” Hemingway.
    You are always with us. Pop, Neil, Andree

At the end of an obituary section filled with the boilerplate of American grieving—obituaries submitted by ad firms, the logistics of scheduling wakes and naming charities, the obligatory lists of surviving relatives—comes this rather mysterious, rather grim commemoration of a death already seven years past. Amidst a barrage of “deep sorrow” and “sincere condolences,” this dark, even bitter quotation comes as a sudden eruption of genuine, inconsolable grief—not just over the loss of a loved one, but over the universalized cruelty of a world that breaks us all while it kills the very best of us. (The original, from A Farewell to Arms, goes on to add that if you aren't among the gentle, brave, or good, “you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.) 

More than that, it’s a sudden eruption of the literary and the affective in the midst of Goldsmith’s anti-poetic, anti-subjective conceptual experiment. And not just because it quotes a famous literary writer: there’s also that improbable middle (maiden?) name “Atlas,” a flourish that would surely be too overtly allegorical for Hemingway. It’s tempting already to read the entire obituaries page as a kind of Homeric catalogue, a moment that more than any other connects this “poem including history” to the ancient heritage of epic poetry. In that literary frame of mind, it’s almost impossible not to make of this lightning flash of genuine feeling some kind of narrative climax, an emotional peak just twenty pages before the end of the poem’s long first section (otherwise known as the New York Times’ A section).

But then there’s that typo—“arid” for “and”—certainly introduced, like nearly all of the many, many typos in Day, during Goldsmith’s transcription. This particular typo has the tell-tale signature of OCR scanning, a shortcut that Goldsmith has openly admitted to using (and that undercuts any misconception of this book as the artifact of some kind of typewriter-based performance art). Though it originated with real humans—now rendered anonymous by the very intimacy of their signatures (or not)—this expression of grief has long since been cast away into the hands of machines. In fact, it was composed for that purpose, to be accepted for a fee, transcribed by interns, reproduced on mechanical presses, shipped throughout the country, read by—who? Likely no one in particular: a mass media version of casting ashes on the wind. And now gathered up by another machine, Kenneth Goldsmith’s optical scanner, and written back into the discourse of literature from which its central quotation was first lifted.

Within the context of the poem, this passage is written without ever being read—placed on the page almost literally without the intervention of human consciousness. Any affect that adheres to it, any thematic point that it seems to make, is purely by chance. Does the newspaper’s recontextualization as poetry demand that we impose this kind of ad hoc literary form? Or does it demand that we rethink our incessant commitment to constructing familiar orders out of even the most contingent messes? What’s written without being read is also read without being written—given meaning only on our own authority, at our own risk. Or is it?

It's a fantastic thing: the daily newspaper, when translated, amounts to a 900 page book. Every day. And it's a book that's written in every city and in every country, only to be instantly discarded in order to write a brand new one, full of fresh stories the next day. After reading the newspaper over breakfast for 20 minutes in the morning, we say we've read the paper. Believe me, you've never really read the paper. –“Being Boring”