Posts Tagged ‘Uncreative Writing’

In an earlier post I wrote a little of Ken Goldsmith’s thinking in his book Uncreative Writing. It is based on concepts of recycling text. The argument runs that there is more than enough text in the world – it is everywhere, in and on everything – so much text it is coming out of our ears, so to speak. As such meaning has become devalued. We are either isolated from any sense of ourselves by this loss of meaning, or we are so mapped out that there is no sense of our self anymore. The result is a kind of ‘screen shot’ of our time.

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One cannot but detect a strong political undercurrent to the ideas: distrust and disgust at political rhetoric, sloganeering and manifestoes. We live amongst their effects, our environments are their results.

His practice is to use texts, from any and every source, cut them up, enjamb them, mate them with each other… no, I made that one up… and ‘play’ with them. His results have been very interesting. There needs be a good, strong determining eye and ear in the arrangements.

Now the British Poetry School is running an open access course on similar principles: ‘Hackwriting’ and run by Alex Macdonald.

Found text is set with self text – and what results can be an exciting revitalizing of material.

And then I came across an article by Heather Glen, from 1983. It is titled ‘Blake’s ‘London’: the Language of Experience’. The article is reproduced in a book, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, edited by Kiernan Ryan, 1996.


Heather Glen gets us to look at Blake’s poem ‘LONDON’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks  of woe.


In every cry of every Man

In every Infants cry of fear

In every voice; in every ban

The mind-forged manacles I hear.

His notebooks had a slightly different version, and this draws out the intent of the piece. As it is here, the first stanza is a take on the period observation-piece we find in Defoe, Gay, Johnson. Theirs is a take on city life; they note the variety and variousness they find. For Blake the first stanza alters the stance: his earlier version had I wander thro each dirty street/ Near where the dirty Thames does flow.

So why change to charter’d? It is a term of the time used by Thomas Paine – his pamphlet explains how the term is double-edged: it can allow certain persons access to, say a region, place, but only by excluding the majority. To Paine it was a term that denoted control, exclusion, preferment.

Blake’s use shows knowledge of Paine’s argument: his denizens were very much the excluded, they were the chartered excludeds, who later we see populate Dickens’ novels.

So what of the term Mark? This would seem to a biblical reference to all those who wore the mark of Cain. This Cain was marked in blood, marked by God, but also very tellingly the maker of the first city of men. Blake emphasises his usage of the term Mark by drawing our attention to it, and also registers his sense of difference as ‘one who marks’, one of the angels, in effect, doing God’s dirty jobs of casting out people. In Blake’s sense we have a self-awareness in the poem, of his separation-by-observation of the populace.

The second stanza is auditory as opposed to the first as visual.  That last phrase ‘mind-forged manacles’ is a direct reference to a piece by Godwin. The argument is between conservative thinking and radical thinking. For the conservatives if the populace will not discipline themselves, their behaviour and appetites, then they will have to submit to being disciplined from without, by law and statute. Everyone had their place, and none must transgress: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate/ the lord made them high and lowly, and order’d their estate.  Blake leaves it open, but demarcates the options.

This highlights Blake’s attempts to wrest God from the hands of those corrupted by power and privilege, and interpret Him so the people could find Him again.

The latter half of the poem is different in tone:

 How the Chimney-sweepers cry,

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.


But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.


A sense of the mark is here again, Heather Glen, notes, in how the city walls at the time began to bear anti-war slogans. Also we see the industrial marking of city buildings.

There is much, much in the article that is truly fascinating. But my point is, before enthusiasm threatens to swamp it all: Is not Blake using a version of the technique of these new works? He brings in a selective range of pamphlet material: texts. He enjambs them with self-texts that reflect on the source material, as well as re-contextualise them.

By Blake’s time the rampant pamphleteering, and the endless stream from Grub Street were commonplace. The excess of material has a dual image: the literate among the populace were indeed growing rapidly, but access to concepts and ideas still restricted to University men. Thom Paine and Godwin, as two examples attempted to bring down the fire from heaven. Without the discipline of the university-tutored, what could the common person make of, say Hume, Kant, Hegel?


Of course, I am being a little disingenuous. One of the main characteristics of the writing being promoted here is its non-sequiturs. I think the idea is to ape/suggest the ‘fractured narratives’ and discourses of the city experience. In my earlier piece I used the phrase about this approach that it is ‘submissive’ to language. Here is another example of that. By setting out the fractured discourses, the broken thought, the non-carry-through of discourse and narrative due to the endless distractions of the city experience there is a critique of shallow thinking and short-term attention. And yet the non-sequiturs also promote them.

By, instead, deliberately developing discourse, thought and narrative we could, I suggest, do far more for future concepts of behavioural norms. The tendency over time is to see the novelty rather than the reasoning.

And also see how the New Historicism book recycles material, in this case, essays – and how therefore I am also reusing material, and putting it with self-material to give a recycled effect.

I’ll let you work out the rest.

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.