Five years ago I was working on a novel called Fever Dreams of the Republic. Part of the conception for the novel was to update some of the techniques Burroughs had used to create novels like Naked Lunch and Nova Express for the digital age. Toward that end, I wrote a computer program in the Python scripting language that took as it's input a text file and produced as it's out put another textfile which was the result of feeding the words from the input file into the Google search engine and then stringing together the results from the abstracted webpages Google offered up. Dutifully I sat there feeding bits of my prose into the program then pasting it back into various places in the text where I deemed such nonsense belonged. Sometimes the results were interesting. Strings of words would pop up that seemed to comment on eachother in interesting ways, and I was excited that what I was doing was producing such interesting results. Until I tried to read through it, at which point I realized what Andre Breton had realized in the 1920's when he gave up automatic writing. That is, I realized that doing this sort of thing, generating text through aleatoric means and then presenting the really fucking boring results of it to the world as your work, was complete bullshit.
It's a lesson that Kenneth Goldsmith—who for all his flaws as a poet (some of which i will be outlining in this article) we are never-the-less indebted to for ubu.com and his work at PennSOUND— and his many admirers have yet to learn. Goldsmith freely admits, indeed, he brags about the fact that he's the most boring writer who has ever lived. He claims that he puts himself to sleep while proofreading his books. Why would anyone care about such a writer? My cynical side suspects it's yet another development of the bourgeois elitism perpetually expounded by Turner prize winners like Simon Starling, who seem to think that almost one hundred years after our forefathers started asking "What is art" in the various modernisms of the early 20th century, it's still enough to just ask the question. It is absolutely not. We have reached a point in history when it is no longer enough just to ask questions, but at this point in time, art will only have value, will only be interesting if answers, or their impossibility, are suggested and gestured at. In this, for poetry, the most obvious model is the poetic reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, whereby the reader takes it not as philosophy but an epic poem exploring the inner reaches of the mind.
I'm thinking about this now because I've just read Ron Silliman's essay on Goldsmith. In it, Silliman accuses Goldsmith of cultivating a cult of personality around himself. I disagree. What he's doing is tapping into the Emperorer's New Clothes element of fringe art and using it to create a Cult of Pretense and Boredom. What's weirdest about it, though, is how open he is about what he's trying to do, at least as far as the boredom goes.
It occurred to me that Goldsmith's project is exactly the opposite of what we're trying to do with Wet Asphalt. Central to my conception of art, the idea of good work, is that it must be interesting. The whole purpose of Wet Asphalt was our belief that interesting work exists and can be brought to the public. I often disagree with Ron Silliman's assessments of various poets on precisely these grounds. Rae Armentrout, a personal friend of Silliman's and one of the better known Language poets, is a writer I find mindbendingly dull. Not because the issues she tries to raise in her work are not important and not worth raising. They are interesting in and of themselves, but the way in which she raises them are so skullcrushingly dull that it's almost impossible for me to read her. I feel much the same way about a lot of the Language Poets, and it is here that I think the true differentiation between concept and execution, and the fact that execution has been given a great deal of weight in traditional systems of poetics, flowers. Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman are also language poets, and language poets whose work, particularly Silliman's, I find very interesting and engaging as poetry. That's something I can't say about most of their fellows. It is here that the crucial judgment has to take place, do the issues and theoretical ideas informing the piece matter, or does the piece itself? The question, posed in this way, shines light on the error of the language poets, and even more so post language poets like Kenny Goldsmith and Brian Kim Stefans in their championing of uncreative writing. The error is the one that conceptual artists make: they assume that the ideas behind a work matter more than the work itself, hence abyssmal artistic failures like "Shed-Boat-Shed" and Kenny Goldsmith recording every movement he makes over the course of an entire day.
The twentieth century began with a question about what art is. Artists like Duchamp, Tzara, Artaud, Beckett and Breton challenged conventional notions and forced audiences to examine a lot of pre-conceived notions about beauty and the value of the aesthetic. That's done now. It's time to move on. That now, in the early 21st century, people like Kenneth Goldsmith have come to the point where they have completely inverted prior valuations, to the point where boredom is what is aspired to, well, I find the tautological truth that what they're doing is completely uninteresting rather revealing.
This is not to say that interesting things can't be done with aleatory, chance composition, or mechanical writing. But you have to be careful with such tools, just as a welder has to be careful with his blowtorch. Merely employing them alone is not enough, they have to be employed in the right way, with skill and precision, as with Jackson Mac Low's chance compositions in Bloomsday, to cite one of my favorite examples. And at the same time, it's good that people like Stefans are experimenting with new media for poetry. The recently posted example in wet asphalt can show that such "FlashPo" compositions can be very interesting. But while there are great problems present in the use of Flash in particular as a tool, randomness itself is even more problematic and requires a steady hand to employ it. Not, I should like to say, the uncreative boring sledgehammer that is Kenneth Goldsmith.