How Poems Work
by Christian Bök

The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
Saturday, May 11, 2002

from No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96
By Kenneth Goldsmith

The Bride Stripped Bare, the buck stops here, The Carpenters, the coast is clear, The Cockateer, the cold shoulder, the comfy chair, the crack of beers, the crack of rears, The Deer Hunter, the diluters, the dirt master, the girl next door, The Godfather, the gondola, the great ickster, the horned screamer, the last supper, the letter "r," the life after, The Mad Hatter, The Marx Brothers, The Mouse that Roared, The New Yorker, The Pound Era, the reader hears, the room is awed, the same letter, the scent of her, the "seeded" draw, the skinwalkers, the slim reaper, the third gender, the unseen seer, the voice quaqua, The Watchtower, the . . . whatever, the who don't care, the Wonder Years, the working poor, the Yakuza,

-- published by The Figures, 1997

No. 111 is a volume-length poem that itemizes a lexicon of phrases encountered by the author Kenneth Goldsmith during his reading over the course of three years, from Feb. 7, 1993, to Oct. 20, 1996. Goldsmith responds to the tradition of conceptual art by compiling a sublime, but useless, compendium that arranges in alphabetical order all phrases rhyming with the letter R, sorting these entries by number of syllables, starting with entries of one syllable for Chapter 1, progressing through entries of two syllables, three syllables, even 100 syllables, until finally the book finishes with a complete transcript of The Rocking-Horse Winner, by D. H. Lawrence, whose story of 7,228 syllables ends on the word "winner."

No. 111 calls to mind the rhyming dictionaries used by versifiers to find the mot juste that might end the line of a sonnet. While most modern poets tend to avoid any obvious use of rhyme, many unitiated consumers of verse still regard rhyme as the defining characteristic of poetic speech. For such readers, rhyme provides a kind of rigorous standard against which the formal merits of a poem might be easily judged. For such readers, the constraint imposed by the euphonic, metrical patterns of rhyme supposedly aid in the rote recital of any didactic, cultural messages communicated by the poet. The above excerpt, however, does not convey any instructive information, but takes delight in the music of rhyme itself.

No. 111 responds directly to the polyvocal discourse of the digital economy by sampling some of its longer passages from chat rooms and home pages found on the Internet. The poem attempts to lend aesthetic structure to a discordant assortment of argots and motifs. The above excerpt, for example, consists only of extant rhymes that contain four syllables and begin with the word "the." The list crams together diverse examples of cultural detritus, skipping from a masterpiece by Duchamp to the catchphrase of Truman, juxtaposing references to books and commercial art, films and television ads. The poet implies that, when we pay sensitive attention to the music of words, no phrase, no matter how clichéd, is ever unpoetic.

No. 111 constitutes a kind of core-sample extracted from the everyday, millenial language of capitalism. Goldsmith suggests that, hidden among the fragments of adverts and sitcoms, there exist the broken lines of a titanic, rhyming poem in the process of being written by everyone. The disparate fragments of such speech compose a potential orchestra of noises, always venturing into chaos, but always returning to the same sound that acts like a punctuation mark within the language itself. The poet merely becomes attuned to this given sound, recording it whenever he hears it amid the cacophony of his life. The resulting poem escorts the reader through a series of hypnotic litanies, each one more complicated than the last one.

Christian Bök's most recent book of poetry, Eunoia, won the 2002 Canadian Griffin Prize.

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