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Making Sense of it All

Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head… (from Fidget, 1997)

We’ve all started to write a story or a poem by locating the reader in our own writing space, with our own immediate sensations. Sometimes you want, no, you just need the reader to occupy your body, to know what you know at that given point in time, because everything in that moment is important. You’ll give ludicrous details to help readers, stating that the angle of the shadow coming from the bathroom door at precisely 7pm gives you a sense of foreboding. Everything starts to mean everything.

But while writing like this can be an immensely rewarding experience, it’s easy to view this type of idea gathering as a gateway into the real story or the real poem, the by-product of writing what it is we actually want to write. In the end, we cast these details aside. But what if all those details really are what you want to write? What if they really do mean everything?

To take this point to a polar position, let’s explore a poem that’s centered only in the physical sense. Kenneth Goldsmith’s 1997 poem Fidget attempts to document every move he makes over the course of one day. Instead of writing his immediate self out of the poem, he maintains its focus. Of course, many details are mundane, as the opening quote details. But as the poem progresses, the language evolves to cultivate emotional cues. Important physical movements become textured.  Repetitive movements become repetitive. By focusing the reader to the quality of the physical action Goldsmith allows us to extract the emotional content. The experience is exciting.  From 19:00, wherein he eats:

…Over the spiny, spiny doubles back like a folded forget that. Hung against tongue. Tastebuds massage tastebuds. Lubricated roof of mouth compelling three circuses. All at once spittle. Bottom. Bottom of bottom of bottom budside cannot go because it’s black. Pothese stack. Death crumble when top of tongue presses upon them. Puffed out socks beneath tongue. Puffed when applied crumble into capillary-like berry. All held into place by extremely soft and moist is held is brink. Bind. Root in fact as in back as in bottom. Tongue finds right leg. As fine at very top straight piece of skin. Unpegged chip of tongue. Stealing very hard ridge. Very hard skin in its septemberary. And it runs as very far as it can back to the back…

By limiting himself to the senses, in this case just the physical sense, Goldsmith encourages readers to forget that they’ve come to the poem wanting more: a narrator, concrete details, anything that can act as an anchor. To understand the poem the reader must occupy the author and follow his every move. Only then can lines like “Puffed when applied crumble into capillary-like berry” truly make the tongue smile.  Explore more of Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work on his own site, or follow his avant-garde project UbuWeb.

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