Goldsmith, Kenneth (Paul)

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GOLDSMITH, Kenneth (Paul)

Nationality: American. Born: Freeport, New York, 4 June 1961. Education: New York University, New York, 1979–80; Parsons School of Design, New York, 1980–81; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 1981–84, B.F.A. in sculpture 1984. Family: Married Cheryl Donegan in 1989; one son. Career: Has lectured at numerous universities, including Brown University, Stanford University, Ohio State University, University of Oregon, Princeton University, and Rhode Island School of Design. Since 1985 artist and writer. Artist-in-residence, Chateau de Bionnay, Lacenas, France, 1996, and Wexner Center, Ohio State University, 1998. Awards: Residency fellowship, Banff Center for the Arts, Canada, 1985; Artist grant, Artist Space, New York, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts/Mid Atlantic Visual Arts fellowship, sculpture, 1991. Address: 38 West 26th Street, 3B, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.



73 Poems. Brooklyn, New York, Permanent Press, 1994.

No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1997.

6799. New York, zingmagazine, 2000.

Fidget. Toronto, Coach House Books, 2000.

Soliloquy. New York, Granary Books, 2000.

Recording: 73 Poems, with composer/vocalist Joan LaBarbara, Lovely Music, Ltd., 1994.


Manuscript Collections: Poetry/Rare Books Collection, State University of New York, Buffalo; Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Visual Poetry, Miami, Florida.

Critical Studies: "Visual Voices—Written Language Is Central to the Art of Sean Landers, Kenneth Goldsmith and Joseph Grigely" by Raphael Rubinstein, in Art in America, 84(4), 1996; by George Condo, in Speak Art!: The Best of Bomb Magazine's Interviews with Artists, New York, New Art, 1997.

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What immediately distinguishes Kenneth Goldsmith from most other poets is that he took his degree in sculpture at an arts college and that he has since mounted one-person exhibitions at SoHo galleries. He was also included in Heights of the Marvelous (2000), Todd Colby's anthology of New York poets who do art in addition to poetry. Goldsmith's writing reflects a key aesthetic difference between the art world and the literary world, especially the world of graduate writing students. His poetry is extreme in its originality, as distinct from the slight deviances from acceptable styles more typical of the work of students in creative writing programs.

The premise of Goldsmith's book Fidget (2000) is, as he explains in the preface, "to record every move my body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday)." He continues:

I attached a microphone to my body and spoke every movement from 10:00 AM, when I woke up, to 11:00 PM, when I went to sleep. I was alone all day in my apartment and didn't answer the phone, go on errands, etc. I just observed my body and spoke.

The hazards encountered in writing this long prose poem are incorporated into the work itself, as Goldsmith speaks of getting out of bed and interacting with objects in his space. There is a description of masturbation that verges on the classic. He notes that he "began to go crazy," in contrast to the tradition of poets who write about insanity that existed before they set pen to paper.

Given Goldsmith's background, it is indicative that Fidget was first published—that is, made public—as an exhibition at Printed Matter, a SoHo store devoted to artists' books. A year later, on 16 June 1998, it was incorporated into a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, in which the singer Theo Bleckman "stood high on a balcony in the museum and dropped sheets of paper printed with each word as he sang them." Goldsmith then produced an electronic version, and it was not until 2000 that Fidget became a book.

Marjorie Perloff, who has been Goldsmith's most significant critic, commends the following passage from chapter 2 (11:00):

Walks. Left foot. Head raises. Walk. Forward. Forward. Forward. Bend at knees. Forward. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Stop. Left hand tucks at pubic area. Extracts testicles and penis using thumb and forefinger. Left hand grasps penis. Pelvis pushes on bladder, releasing urine. Stream emerges from within buttocks. Stomach and buttocks push outward. Stream of urine increases. Buttocks push. Sphincter tightens. Buttocks tighten. Thumb and forefinger shake penis. Thumb pulls. Left hand reaches. Tip of forefinger and index finger extend to grasp as body sways to left. Feet pigeon-toed. Move to left. Hand raises to hairline and pushes hair. Arm raises above head. Four fingers comb hair away from hairline toward back of head. Eyes see face. Mouth moves. Small bits of saliva cling to inside of lips. Swallow. Lips form words.

As Perloff observes, "In breaking down bodily functions into their smallest components, Goldsmith defamiliarizes the everyday in ways that recall such Wittgensteinian questions as 'Why can't the right hand give the left hand money?'" Aesthetically adventurous, Goldsmith works on the borders between poetry and prose and, more courageously, between poetry and what is not poetry, not to mention the borders between literature and art.

Not content with an exhibition, a performance, and publication in book form, Goldsmith also has collaborated in producing an electronic version of Fidget in Java applet. Here the text of the work is reconfigured by substituting the computer for the human body. As Goldsmith explains,

The Java applet contains the text reduced further into its constituent elements, a word or a phrase. The relationship between these elements is structured by a dynamic mapping system that is organized visually and spatially instead of grammatically. In addition, the Java applet invokes duration and presence. Each time the applet is downloaded it begins at the same time as set in the user's computer and every mouse click or drag that the user initiates is reflected in the visual mapping system. The different hours are represented in differing font sizes, background colors and degree of "fidgetness," however, these parameters may be altered by the user. The sense of time is reinforced by the diminishing contrast and eventual fading away of each phrase as each second passes.

While the scheme reflects aesthetic expressionism, the art depends upon observing severe constraints.

Fidget reflects Goldsmith's earlier No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 (1997), a 606-page encyclopedic text based on words ending in the sound ah (what phoneticians call the "schwa"). It is a collection of words drawn from conversations, books, phone calls, radio shows, newspapers, television, and especially the Internet. The words are arranged alphabetically and by syllable count starting with single-syllable words beginning with Aù"A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah air." Toward the end, in a kind of update of Raymond Queneau's classic Exercise de Style (1947), Goldsmith draws the texts from individual pages from unacknowledged sources. Earlier he had produced visual poems of overlapping letters, some of which were performed by the singer Joan La Barbara and collected on a CD.

It is safe to say that few other published poets are working in Goldsmithian ways.

—Richard Kostelanetz