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 mantra-like fashion."

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.

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