Poetry, Language and the Weeping in the Grocery Store

Posted: September 21, 2013 in Chat
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I was given Poemcrazy (Three Rivers Press, 1996) by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, as a present. It was as an antidote to Uncreative Writing (Columbia University Press, 2011), by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Poemcrazy is a joy to read, lively and breathless, colourful and sunny. It is a ‘how to write’ book, a ‘keep a journal – and use it!’ book. All good sound advice and examples. All sense and pioneering positivism.

So what is it about Uncreative Writing?
Words, writes K Goldsmith and his avatars, are everywhere, all the time, endlessly streaming out of every portal, terminal… . Tv, radio, newspapers, magazines, journals, academic transcripts, all media pours it out, that is its purpose: opinions, information, entertainment, explanations, distractions, misdirections. ‘I do not wish to add more’ Goldsmith echoes conceptual artist Douglas Huebler.

Part of the argument is that there is more than enough of it already. This is an admirably conservationist response: cut-back, if anything: never add to it! Ok, his reasoning and especially his examples and sources read exasperatingly Wrong at times… it’s the results that count. And some, quite a few of the results, of workshops, have come up with interesting and stimulating material.


They do not ‘add more’ but re-combine, shape and edit what is already there, to show the vast combinations of possible results that are contained there. Is there an element of post-Oulipo here? There could well be.

One of K Goldsmith’s virtues is his compendium of memory-recall: he has access to a wide variety of fields of human activity. He can call on Gertrude Stein and Phillip Glass, Walter Benjamin and Liz Taylor. He extends the interrogation of identity, media and culture.

But, language – it has all already been used and re-used by people immemorial. Our older literature and history’s spews of words are exactly the K Goldsmith-effect, surely. We recycle words all the time. The ‘no more’ has been in operation as a political gambit a long time.

I do K Goldsmith injustices here, and the results must speak for themselves. His workshop and class-produced work is indeed stimulating. Some banal, no surprise there – we all have this about us; and some just a little bizarre – and that is certainly good for us.
Poemcrazy is all about tuning into life, and life that shouts its name. The cover is a joy, elegant in muted colours yet full of joie-de-vivre. The model must surely be a dancer: I admit I have a love of contemporary dance.


She gives examples where poetry has given children locked in themselves, a role, an attitude, an anger, a door or window into a larger dimension. It is stirring stuff. A colleague of mine who also runs classes has spoken of how sometimes what she can only describe as ‘magic’ happens, something bigger than the parts.

Susan Goldberg  begins by taking us on a poemwalk. This is an activity that now seems to be taking off all over the place. On her walk: California, warm, balmy… Colourful … one thing she noted was a war vet, no legs, rolling his wheelchair into the creek and splashing with pleasure.

This is one of the shades/shadows in Poemcrazy world. I go for shadows. Louise Erdrich in The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birthyear (1995), is another book I would stand alongside Poemcrazy on my shelf. They are both celebratory and life affirming. L Erdrich knows about shadows too.

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has a chapter titled Grocery Weeping. This is where I really connected, this was existential, anguished, this took the pulse of time and place. Friend after friend of the author conceded they too had broken down, wept in supermarkets, stores. What was it? The piled, over-accumulated ‘stuff’ of our lives – whether guilts, or just plain ‘things need doing’. Lives overburdened. Overfaced by the endless and useless open market system.

After the Iron Curtain came down Eastern Europeans found themselves confronted with choice-decisions everywhere, in everything; they were appalled*. We have been trying to navigate this increasing Sargasso all our lives, and still struggle: here they were pitched full into it. For me Grocery Weeping opened up the deep experiences of life, like a sea that touches many people, many shores.

For K Goldsmith words have actual weight, they are artefacts, objects in space, they take up room, burden electricity supply station trying to keep the internet going, and weigh down paper with ink. It is as if they were solid particles in our brains, clogging everything up. Words are commodities: excess are just dumped on tips and in despoilation pits.

Susan G Wooldrige’s words are also objects: she recommends testing their sounds by juxtaposing them, list and graph them to hear them with each other. Try mixing categories, give a noun colour, or sensation, for example. Make it new.

There is an attitude in these two books under discussion, of a kind of submissiveness to words.

If we take Ginsburg’s ‘Sunflower’ poem: your sunflower is very different from his, from the legless war vet’s sunflower. The difference is the bit that talks. Language is sunflower, communication is difference.


This is my problem with these approaches to language – their results can indeed be wonderful. But my world has a language that is full of shadows; the words suggest the whole experience, not contain, or even encircle it. My results are less certain; I want to be more embracing, more multi-dimensional, ‘cubist’.
I am coming to realise that it is perilous to cut off words from their shadows: the shadows keep us in perspective. We are a pitiful species on my dark days, and we are capable of the worst atrocities most days. Our moments of joy are rare and far between – and maybe, just maybe not earned or deserved. But that’s not how it works, we have the joy and it can be mixed in with the ugliness. Unless I hear both, the mix, it doesn’t speak to me.

I am also thinking here of the Black Mesa Poems of Jimmy Santiago Baca, how they engage with shadows, and strive for light.

To cut off language from its shadows and burdens is to leave it open to abuse. Advertising , Marketing – we all knew the violations of language, and by knowing that, the words always imply their real meanings.
But if their real meanings were no longer there? This happens a lot in use of linguistic image – so many times the ironic metaphor displaces the positive import it tries to support; the metaphor becomes the thing, and all implications lost.

Words are not to be trusted. They pull a lot of baggage with them. It has to be dealt with.

I wanted to hear the women in the grocery store, how they got to cope, or not; the war-vet, how he managed between-times, or not. And I wanted to hear an acid-dripping quip, full of air and earth, its constituents fizzing together – like the moment caught by the throat, then fed, and freed to the night.

*When the Iron Curtain came down certain persons in Eastern Europe/Russia took it on themselves to apologise to the West for the failure of the Socialist ideal. I did not hear certain people of the West apologise to the East for the world they were coming into: ‘Open the door./ Even if there is nothing there. / At least there’ll be a breeze.’ wrote Miroslav Holub most pointedly, in Prague, 1968.

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