Making Book by John Strausbaugh
New York Press, May 14-20, 1997

Sculpting With Words: It Figures

Kenneth Goldsmith's new book begins at what looks and sounds like the beginning of language itself:
"A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah, air, är, are, arh, arre, arrgh, ars, aude, aw, awe, Ayr, Ba, ba, baa, baaaahh, baar, bah, bar, bard, bare, barge, barre, Bayer, beer, bere, beurre, bier, bla, blah, Blair, blare, bleh, blur, boar, board, Boer, boor, bore, bored, Boz, bra, bras, Brer, brrrr, bur, burr..." And so on, C to "Za, zha, Zsa."
Section two begins with "A door, à la, a pear, a peer, a rear, a ware, A woah!" and proceeds to "Zima, zinger, zonder, zoospore, zooter, Zsa Zsa, zuder." He's up to three syllables in the next section (" center, off color, off kilter, oh brother, Oh mother!, oh yes there, old geezer, old timer, on vapors, on welfare..."), four in the next ("...Dr. Bronner's, Dr. Pepper, Sr. Sphincter, drain the monster, draw & quarter, Drew Barrymore..."), seven (A baby eating razors, a baby in a blender, a baby in the nuker, a bitcher and a moaner...") and so on--to 38-syllable "phrases" in section 38, 89 in 89, then 137, 232, 356, 601, 1193, 1887...
Until the final section, a single "phrase" that's exactly 7228 syllables long. And just happens to be the entire text of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner." And just happens to fit the rather rigorous rules by which the entire book is organized, something about every passage having to end with some variation on the "R" sound--ar, er, ur, etc.
Along the way, the book's stuffed with quotations from limericks and commercials, books and the Internet, pop songs and magazines, TV and movie dialogue, telephone conversations, journal entries, the National Enquirer and The New York Times and NYPress and, finally, apparently, everywhere else. It's a 606-page tour de force of ... something. Linguistic OCD maybe? As a colleague here said on leafing through it, if all of Dublin could be recreated from the pages of Ulysses, America could maybe be rebuilt form this. It's like this guy Goldsmith has tried to collect and put into some sort of intuitive poetic-logic order every sound, idiom, and rhythm of contemporary English-in-praxis. Organized by sound and syllable count, it all quickly takes on the roly-poly, humpty-dumpty rhythmical ridiculousness of doggerel and children's rhymes. Which is okay with Goldsmith, who laugh at it himself, calling it "a useless encyclopedic reference work" and "a rhyming dictionary taken to obscene lengths." Other points of reference range from Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa to those cabalists using computer-programmed Gematria to unlock the alpha-numerically coded secret messages in the Old Testament.
Even the title is about counting and listing: No. 111 2.7.93-10.20,96 (The Figures, $17.50). Even the publisher's name seems a glancing pun--The Figures. (It's a New England press that puts out experimental writers and Language poets like Clark Coolidge, Ron Padgett and Ron Silliman.)
Goldsmith works out of the Cable Bldg., where he shares a closet-sized office with a big dog named Babette, a computer, hundreds of vinyl LPs and a Mr. Coffee who looks like he gets lots of use. Now in his mid-30s, Goldsmith started out a sculptor--graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984--and he's always had a sculptural approach to language.
Literally, at first: in 1987, he cast a metal sculpture of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book that was so big and heavy you couldn't. "The idea was like the revolution that never got off the ground," he deadpans. Four Walls Eight Windows, which was getting ready to put out an edition of Abbie's collected works, asked if they could throw the book party at Goldsmith's then Forsyth St. loft, with the giant Steal This Book for photo ops. "I had this image of Abbie and me with our arms around each other," Goldsmith recalls--but Hoffman committed suicide before the party could happen.
Goldsmith's art developed backward, you might say, from whole books to the bits and pieces, the morphemes and phonemes, of language itself. Since the early 90s he's been showing at places like The Drawing Center and Bravin Post Lee Gallery, hanging large panels printed with various kinds of text on them. His 73 Poems (Permanent Press / Lovely Music, Ltd., 1993) was a series of visual poems juxtaposing--and visually overlapping--rhyming colloquialisms like JUST SAY NO /I WANNA B JACKIE O / SOCIALISMO O MUERTO. ("I wanted to make it look like conceptual art, but make it read like the juiciest trash you ever read.") As in Zen koans or Marshall McLuhans's "probes," the meaning can seem accidental, fortuitous--and revelatory. Goldsmith turned 73 Poems into a limited edition chapbook that included a CD by Joan La Barbara, the avant-vocalist best known for her work with John Cage, interpreting the visual poems as sound poetry.
As gallery art, panels of that stuff went over okay. But then, Goldsmith says, "I began including too many words for the art world audience, who do not like language, number one, and who want a quick hit, number two." Too many words? No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 was a three-year-plus (Feb. 7, '93, to Oct. 20 '96) collecting process of sounds, words, phrases, and whole texts organized alphabetically, phonetically, rhythmically and syllabically according to the rules he set for himself. Once he's into a project like this and his "antennae are up," Goldsmith say, he's hearing everything in rhymes and syllables--things on the radio, lyrics in songs, things you say to him. If it fits somewhere in his scheme, it goes in.
The result is a kind of mosaic map of Goldsmith's world, and ours, during the time he's collecting. For a project that could seam so meaningless, it has a strange immediacy, a kind of documentary feel. By the point you get up to bits of eight, 10, 20 syllables, the accidental meanings can be unaccountably humorous:
"nothing's gonna change my clothes every anymore, now get your meaty paws away from that buzzer, now there's a question that ought to get us somewhere, Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, objects of desire that once defined their eras, of course {NAK} (sense 2) i.e. "I'm not here", oh my sagging gonads, aching pulsating sore, "Oh!" she exclaimed "It's like a dick but much smaller!", On the next Phil: Real Incest and Real Survivors..."
On the other hand, they can be oddly moving, as though you're picking up echoes of the mood Goldsmith was in as he constructed a specific section: "Einstein once asked with sadness and wonder, either of the higher or the lower, Emily Dickinson worse than ever, emphasize how glad you are to see her, endure no light being themselves obscure..."
And when the bits get much longer, like 43 syllables, you get wonderful business like:
"Eeeaaarrrghh! I pictured smashing his face in...kicking his scrotum back into his torso...digging the fucker's eyes out...going for a field goal with his head over and over..., even if it is not good for us we become addicted. And we become enslaved. And when we become enslaved we are constantly thinking of that thing wherever we are, from the mountains to the prairies...FUCK MISS the oceans...NO NO HO CHI MINH...white with foam...1 2 3 4 WE DON'T WANT YOUR FUCKING WAR...God bless Amerika, grab me Chewie. I'm slipping--hold on. Grab it almost got it. Gently now all right easy easy hold me Chewie. Chewie! With a little higher just a little higher..."
If you count between the commas, there are 43 syllables in each of those segments. Or should be. "I counted every syllable in this book by hand," Goldsmith explains. In fact, after collecting all 606 pages' worth of fragments, he spent an entire year just counting and recounting the syllables. "It was this whole kind of churning through. Nobody has {computer} programs that could count all those things, so I had to count them by hand..., And I'm sure there are many mistakes, although I counted the entire thing through four times. I know there are still mistakes. I kind of figure they're still finding corrections in Finnegans Wake."
Goldsmith's most recent gallery show used language in a different, but equally eccentric, way. For seven days, he tape-recorded every word he spoke. Every word. From, "Good morning, how ya doin?" at the start of Day One to, "Good night Cheryl. I love you." (aw...) at the end of Day Seven. Then he transcribed the whole week, printed it on panels and covered every surface of the gallery with it. He called it Soliloquy (No. 116 4.15.96-4.21.96). The rationale was simply to see how much volume a week's worth of spoken language takes up. Or as he puts it in a kind of motto for the piece: If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard.
Goldsmith's love of sound (and maybe obscurity) comes out in another vein: he's been WFMU's DJ Kenny G for two and a half years. "A painter friend of mine was a friend of the station's, and they're always looking for DJs there because it's so fucking far out [in New Jersey]," he explains. "I got a phone call one day asking if I'd like to do a show. I said sure. It's always been a dream. So I threw an audition tape together and zap, I was on the radio."
Originally he did late-nights, but since January his "Unpopular Music" has been on Monday mornings, 9-noon. He has highbrow tastes, in a broad splay of idioms. He might segue from Giovanni Martinelli's "E lucevan le stelle" to the Ronette's "Baby I Love You." A recent program included stuff from the Beach Boys, Red Krayola, Steve Reich, Squadra di Bel Canto, Stravinsky, Noel Coward and Bob Dylan.
Besides designing Web sites--mostly from small presses, lit mags and independent labels--he's got a corner of FMU's site ( and keeps up his own really elegant site (, dedicated to the "largest visual, concrete, and sound poetry archive on the Web--and it's also the most beautiful," he smiles. He's right--it's a pretty amazing site. He's got dozens of RealAudio downloadable files of historical recordings by guys like Appolinaire and Kurt Schwitters performing their experimental poetics; concrete poetry by contemporary names like Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and Janet Zweig; a bunch of Clark Coolidge and Philip Guston's Picture-Poems, and a lot more.
I was thinking about the all the smarts and industry Goldsmith puts into his pursuits when I got to this bit at the end of No. 111, in that 7228-syllable (he counted, he counted?) D.H. Lawrence story about a single-minded kid and his rocking horse:
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.
"Well, I got there!" he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
"Where did you get to?" asked his mother.
"Where I wanted to go," he flared back at her.

(No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 is at Printed Matter or write to The Figures, 5 Castle Hill, Great Barrington, MA 01230,

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