nobility…. is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.
—Wallace Stevens, from The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words [page 665 The Library of America edition]
There is a limit at which the practice of any art becomes an affront to affliction. Let us not forget this.
—Maurice Blanchot, from The Writing of the Disaster [page 83, University of Nebraska Press]
There is a long, complex network of correspondences between these two statements. And today, via a perspicuous article in The New Yorker, Kenneth Goldsmith is at the nexus. Goldsmith’s critics on twitter love to exclaim, “Why are we still talking about him?” They love to exhort one another to ignore him. My own inclination before this year was indeed to ignore him. But now is not the time to do that.
The New Yorker article clarifies the background of Goldsmith’s approach to poetry, which is really not poetry at all, but conceptual art. It shows the possibility at least of some newfound humility on Goldsmith’s part. And most importantly it raises questions about what poetry in the 21st century is for.
To begin, let’s go back to the first sentence of Blanchot’s book.
The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.
What Blanchot calls “the disaster” corresponds to what Stevens refers to as “the pressure of reality”:
By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation. 
Such events, in Blanchot, are violent ones of any kind; they might be natural catastrophes or human acts of extreme violence. The event in terms of the Goldsmith nexus is, in a word, Ferguson. Or, in a name, Michael Brown. Or, in a phrase: Michael Brown’s body.
There’s no need to get lost in diffuse arguments over the theoretical uses of Goldsmith’s address at Brown University last March. We can take at face value the offense that it gave. Quite apart from any questions of poetics, it is clear that Goldsmith used the disaster—and I call it that because the pressure of its reality was potent at the time—of Michael Brown’s killing to advance his poetics, if not his own career. In other words, he should have known that the event was too fresh to be addressed in such a manner. It was a mistake. The nearly universal condemnation he received constitutes an undeniable failure inasmuch as it tips the scales far in excess of the galvanizing controversy that he clearly sought. In fact it cast his hunger for controversy into the worst possible light. And, as The New Yorker article makes clear, he knows it.
His critics may rejoice at the thought of Goldsmith backing out of the poetry world and safely into the arms of MoMA. But two things are worth bearing in mind. First, his statement that, “an artist’s right to make a mistake is much more sacred than anyone’s feelings” has nothing in common with Stevens’ concept of the nobility of the artist. An artist’s nobility is only as large as his own household, and so easily becomes a mere danse russe. It helps him live his life. And that is all. Goldsmith’s understanding of humility has a long way to go.
Secondly, The New Yorker article should make it clear once and for all how self-serving Goldsmith’s poetics is and always has been. What exactly is he interested in advancing, other than the cult of his own personality and his own career? I’m surprised that his ideas—all, as he proclaims, unoriginal—have been able to gain any traction at all, but perhaps people in the poetry world aren’t as versed in the history of the visual arts as I am. This is where all of the ideas come from—the Holy Trinity of Duchamp, Cage and Warhol—as he admits. The inclusion of the name Cage won’t surprise anyone who has studied modern art because of Cage’s essential role in the development of conceptual art. Goldsmith is an academic 20th century conceptual artist trying to be a 21st century poet.
Goldsmith calls himself “an old-school avant-gardist.” Think about what a strange phrase that is, and yet how perfectly accurate. The American avant-garde stopped being the preserve of American artists decades ago, when it was usurped first by critics and then by academics. Of course Goldsmith is a college professor. The American avant-garde has existed solely within academia for decades now. But it is not a true avant-garde. It is an Orwellian inversion of what the avant-garde has been historically. Goldsmith’s phrase, “old-school avant-gardist” reveals it exactly: it is the mere mimicry of original avant-garde methods and procedures. But of course imitating Duchamp in the year 2015 is a completely different action than anything Duchamp did. For one, the truly avant-garde aspect of it is totally removed.
If the avant-garde is no longer avant-garde (I can’t believe in 2015 I have to say this!) then what is it? Well, any number of things: a career, a paycheck, a gimmick, a doctoral thesis, a room at MoMA—one of those stale, unkempt, poorly lit rooms at MoMA, a cliché. Who’s sitting down now, and where, for four and a half minutes of silence, in thrall to whose argyle socks and beard? Stop talking about Kenneth Goldsmith!
Ah, but not yet. The New Yorker article asks the question of “who is allowed to speak for people who have been harmed or who have suffered”. Goldsmith complains that,
If all I can do is speak about what I know and what I am, all I can do is white and Jewish. I’m not willing to go down that road to restrict what I write about to what I am. That’s the end of fiction. That means a black person can’t have a white character.
One response might be: is being white and Jewish (and of course many other things that Goldsmith happens to be) not enough? And if not he to do it, then who? Who better qualified? Is this not one of the vital functions of poetry? Tell me who you are, exactly, in space and time, because no one else can do it? Yes, but there are all kinds of writers. And not everyone is born to be a lyric poet. Goldsmith, like any other poet, must find his own answer.
For me, Stevens’ point of view still holds. When the hashtag movement revved into high gear after Michael Brown’s killing, a lot of people I follow in social media were making a lot of noise trying, in effect, to bully me or anyone else following into joining the hashtag train. Silence, I was told day after day, was admission of guilt. Every day well-meaning people said that it was my moral responsibility as a poet to speak and write about Ferguson and #blacklivesmatter. But for me poetry is a necessary parallel voice. It is always parallel. Not separate. Not disengaged. Parallel. To whatever. Certainly to the disaster, to the kind of reality pressure of an event like Ferguson.
Change comes through real-world activities and behaviors spontaneously in real time. Precise forms of action, political and otherwise, can bring specific changes. How I treat my fellow human beings matters. Poetry is not such a form of action, nor does it serve them. Poetry serves to help freshen vision, so that one is better able to see, and then to act, in the real world. At its best it inspires. But it does not, like a sermon or a political tract, tell people what to do. And no one tells a poet what to write.
Rather than launch on a list of the things that poetry is not, I’d rather write about what poetry is. Imagine that the desired change has come: poetry is that. Imagine that everything has gone to hell: poetry is that. Poetry is the awareness of form and chaos in perpetual dance. Poetry is a discrete moment, whatever that moment might be. Poetry is destruction and creation, sometimes at the same time. It is a light on the movement of a mind. It is careful attention to order, knowing that order will be undone and a new one will be required tomorrow.
Write in order not simply to destroy, in order not simply to conserve, in order not to transmit; write in the thrall of the impossible real, that share of disaster wherein every reality, safe and sound, sinks.