Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 21, September 2012)


With their collection, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith have sketched out a landscape of language practices which rub against the grain of some of the traditional features of writing and poetry. These practices, which Dworkin terms either ‘conceptual writing’ or ‘conceptual poetry,’ bear more in common with conceptual art practices than traditional poetry. In 2000 — contemporaneous with John Edward’s peak fame, and long after the concept became almost tired in conceptual art — Goldsmith published Day, “arguably the first wholly appropriated book in literature” (2010: 12), in which Goldsmith meticulously copied every word and letter from a day’s copy of the New York Times. The resulting 900-page book was published, very deliberately, as poetry.

The term ‘cold reading’ fortuitously suggests a kind of writing. In terms of contemporary poetics, reading/writing can no longer be effectively cleft from one another. There is no point whatsoever at which Day is writing and not reading, or reading and not writing. The movements are entirely contiguous. This quality is common to almost all the texts included in Against Expression in which preexisting language (be it literary, journalistic, technical, etc.) is re-written, -arranged, -presented. Cold reading/writing is based on the integration of generalized source texts (the kind of commonly acceptable statements which the Barnum Effect helps people to take on as specific to themselves), with experimental variations. As a language practice, it is heavily process based, as Edward himself says in the reading cited above. In fact, you can almost imagine that quote coming from Kenneth Goldsmith at a reading: I know this is hard… but I have to use my process.3 Indeed, Goldsmith knows that the making and consuming of process-based writing is hard. In making his book Fidget, which recorded his every move over the course of a day, he claims that the process was so “dry and tedious” that he had to get drunk half way through the day to make it through to the end (Being Boring). Conceptual writing is marked by a desire for the author, as Dworkin points out, not to “intercede too forcefully,” to follow the process, rather than giving in to a desire to represent, or to create affective moments (xliv). This push and pull to and from affect is common both to Edward and to writers like Goldsmith. The conceptual writer can create moments of affective language: “a bridge from nowhere to nowhere,” but the process dictates that it must be followed up by the aleatoric results of the process: “a bunch of crap thrown together” (1997: 97).