Getting the News from Poetry: Market Crash

Today’s Reading: Day, pp. 202-448 (lots of skimming)

Contrary to my expectations, Day actually gets more interesting the more I read it. Maybe that’s because so much of its effect comes from scale and contrast—the more and more diverse information accumulates, the more unmanageably sublime and genuinely epic the whole mess seems. This effect hits a kind of crescendo with pp. 233-448, the massive list of stock prices and other sorts of financial indicators that takes up roughly a quarter of the book’s total length.

This ought to be the truly unreadable part of the book, Goldsmith’s own Chinese history cantos or “Oxen of the Sun,” and to some degree it is. I challenge anyone to read every character in these massive walls of numbers, in which, even for someone who understands the stock pages better than I do, any intelligible information is disassembled by Goldsmith’s left-to-right reformatting of the pages. Giving full attention to stretches of it may offer a kind of Zen-like calm, but my strategy was mostly to let my eyes skim quickly across the page, mostly looking rather than reading, letting names of various stocks occasionally snag my eye like rapids in a raging stream of raw data.

The effect is sublime, almost in Kant’s mathematical sense of the term—the sense of something so large as to seem endless, beyond the capacity of our imagination to conceive size. That’s only heightened by interruptions that turn into false endings, like the vodka ad that repeats the phrase “The same way my father made it” eight times (246), or the glib and ultimately inaccurate promise of “STOCK TABLES EXPLAINED” (256), or the several times the listings seem to spontaneously and maliciously start over from A just as you think you’re nearing the end, or every repetition of the call-and-response refrain: “Continues on Next Page,” “Continued from Preceding Page.”

Here is the mysterious machinery of capitalism that pervades our daily lives—right down to the price of a dozen eggs (343)—reduced to a sea of numbers, like looking at the green lines of code that compose the artificial world in The Matrix. Maybe it would be better to call this Goldsmith’s “Circe” or Hell cantos.

Goldsmith has talked about the edifying, surprising, and powerful experience he had in composing this book (for example, see the passage I quoted at the end of a previous Day post). In that light, his other, more often recognized claim that you don’t need to read the book in order to know it—that the idea is really all there is—seems at best contradictory and at worst selfish, denying his readers the same experience that, in preparing the book in the first place, he implicitly offers them. In part, I think this is just a bit of typically paradoxical Goldsmith self-marketing, discouraging you from reading the book in order to encourage you to buy it. But it also seems to be an effort to stake a claim to newness at the expense of a (I think more justified) claim to brilliance, an almost phobic denial of just how old-fashionedly, poetically powerful this book is.

Throughout my blogging on this book so far, I’ve repeatedly questioned whether the aesthetic, even narrative structures I’ve been imposing were really legitimate, whether it’s a permissible reading strategy to start constructing traditional artistic structures where there’s really nothing but accident. But now I’m thinking there’s no accident here at all. Yes, the individual, local effects may be fortuitous, but the fact that the book as a whole reads as some sort of modern epic—that’s the whole idea, that’s why he did it in the first place! That gesture of reframing is, in fact, the essence of Goldsmith’s transcriptional poetics: not just copying down ephemeral, low-status language, but revaluing that language through paratextual apparatuses (titles, chapter headings, etc.) that recast the New York Times as Ulysses or a week’s worth of babble as Shakespeare.   

Well, duh: I knew that. But somehow I’m seeing it in a new, more virtuosic light right now, perhaps because of my reading of The Brandon Book Crisis, a book that represents the moment of reframing within the content reframed, capturing the flash of inspiration in a way that makes it clear that Goldsmith’s witty tag “uncreative writing” is a total misnomer: Not only does this kind of work not strip out the creativity from the usual process of literary writing, creativity is almost the only thing it retains.

But I have a post all about The Brandon Book Crisis coming up soon, and this post is getting long, so maybe I’ll say more about this idea then.