Noticings: Kenneth Goldsmith + Joan La Barbara's 73 Poems|
Sulfur, Fall 1994
by Marjorie Perloff
The Chinese ideogram, whether "authentic or not continues
to have a decisive influence on the work of American visual poets.
The young poet and book artist Kenneth Goldsmith has just produced,
in collaboration with the singer Joan La Barbara, a book cum compact
disc called 73 Poems (Permanent Press, 1994). It's one
of the most beautiful books I've seen in a long time, especially
when one reads its texts (printed or rather drawn in black and
gray graphite on parchment-colored rag paper and framed on a white
page) while listening to La Barbara s unique vocalizations, of
which more in a moment.
In his Preface, Geoffrey Young quite accurately calls Goldsmith
a "taxonomist of the language environment." "The
central optical linking device," Young explains, "is
overprinting. The bold type of one page is carried over to the
next page, but screened to gray, with new bold type printed over
it." 73 Poems (the title is taken from e. e. cummings
but there are actually 79 poems in the sequence) is dedicated
to John Cage, and Goldsmith has clearly learned from Cage's mesostic
art, as well as from Fluxus artworks and Concrete Poetry, how
to make the most of morphemes, words, and phrases, arranged in
mathematical and aural forms that generate what Young calls a
"hiphop syntax of cultural signifiers, all the while being
graphically gorgeous." Here, for example, is a two-page spread,
the overprint text on the left ("CLEAN NOSE / FIRE HOSE /
NO BOWS /PLAIN CLOTHES / YOU DON'T NEED / A WEATHERMAN / TO KNOW
WHICH / WAY THE / WIND BLOWS") becoming the "subtext"
of "DEEP THROAT / RIGHT VOTE / TERRE HAUTE / BLADDER BLOAT
/ BILLY GOAT / CREOSOTE / DEAD MAN FLOAT / HALL & OATES /
YOU OLD GOAT / QUOTE, UNQUOTE" (FIGURE 1).
The pleasure of such texts is to watch one poem play off against
another and then modulate into a third, a fourth, a fifth, the
crowded pages of the opening section giving way to smaller and
smaller units until, halfway through the book we reach a "010"
figure and finally a solitary "I"; then the book fans
out again, picking up verbal momentum along the way.
As a verbal-visual construct, 73 Poems is consistently
elegant, witty, and original; its rhymes (e.g., "gain weight
/ jail bait / soul mate / hesitate / penetrate / Watergate")
producing exciting visual patterns, as is the case with the "Ts"
in this particular example on P. 7. But it is its musical dimension
that makes the book unique. When he finished writing the poems,
Goldsmith gave them to Joan La Barbara "to do with what she
pleased." La Barbara, who had made numerous recordings with
Cage, has developed an extended vocabulary of vocal sounds that
range from traditional song to a wild assortment of glottal clicks
and stops, inhaled notes, or overtone chant. Using tape, she also
produces multiple layers of her own voice. "The first thing
I had to do," La Barbara explains in a headnote, "was
to differentiate between the dark and light texts. The idea of
depth of field-the gray text in the background and the black text
up front-required using the full stereo field, almost like an
architectural space. ``Musical gestures that are only half-heard,"
the music critic John Schaefer explains in his prefatory note,
"perhaps buried under other layers of sound, may float up
to the surface, only to parade off the stereo field entirely....
La Barbara represents Goldsmith's insistent use of certain vowels
with a specific group of vocal sounds that repeat in an almost
The result is emphatically not just another instance of setting
poems to music. The zeros which occupy the central portion of
Goldsmith's book, for example, are represented by layers of microtonal
singing, in which, as John Schaefer explains, "the usual
gap from, say, C to C-sharp is subdivided into many microtones.
These notes, which are ignored by most Western music, are so close
together that they give the aural illusion of one set of notes
growing from another-an illusion matched by the movement of "O"s
and "O"s in the text. " And so 73 Poems
heralds a new direction in a poetry, planned and composed on the
computer terminal, executed as a word painting, and animated by
vocalization on CD. It brings the "poetry reading" into
the living room (or wherever else one happens to find oneself
with a CD player), making space new. An unusually happy marriage
of art and technology.