When my children were little, I earned money, while staying at home, by being a transcriber. Little did I know that those women of my acquaintance who, having made the decision to not stay at home with their children but to continue instead with their glittering careers (composed mainly of long afternoons in stuffy offices trying not to fall asleep as their colleagues droned through dull meetings) and consequently looked down their immaculately made-up noses at me (no, no, it didn't rankle at all, I'm not in the slightest bit bitter, hem hem) were utterly wrong in assuming that transcribing was a menial task.
It turns out that, as a transcriber, I could have been a contender - in the poetic world at least. There is in fact, according to the 10 May 2012 (note, not 1 April, as you may assume by the time you've read the rest of this post) issue of the London Review of Books, a man called Kenneth Goldsmith who publishes poetry - or rather 'poetry' - that consists of transcriptions of radio broadcasts.
He has, for example, created a work called Traffic, which is his transcription of an entire day of traffic reports from New York. He has 'created' another called Sports which - you guessed it - is a transcription of the radio commentary of a sports event (a baseball game, as it happens, but I imagine it could have been taken from cricket or golf or even synchronised swimming and still produced a pretty similar result). He has also 'created' Weather - by now, I need not go into details; I assume it's pretty simple to work out the content of that one.
Goldsmith, with what I have to admit is an admirable level of honesty, describes what he does as 'uncreative writing'. He also happily admits that his books are 'impossible to read straight through. In fact', he goes on, 'every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly.' He claims that 'writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance'. If he is so concerned about textual abundance, I can't help wondering, why has he chosen to add to the problem with works such as Day, a retyping of one issue of the New York Times, and Soliloquy, a transcription of every word that he, the 'poet' Goldsmith, spoke for a week.
Unfortunately, Goldsmith is not an isolated prankster. There's a whole lot of these con-artists - sorry, I mean 'neo-modernists' - out there it seems. Another prominent figure in uncreative writing circles (where being unoriginal is the most highly prized quality, I assume) is a person called Tan Lin, who reckons, 'It would be nice to create works of literature that didn't have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats' (which makes you wonder what definition of 'literature' he is working from) and states that 'Today no poem should be written to be read and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them.'
My response may be absurdly blinkered but I can't help it. It can be summed up in just one word and that word is 'Why?' Why would what Lin describes be the best form of poetry? Why are transcriptions of newspapers or traffic reports worth any of our attention (except when we want to know the news or to find out whether the road home is navigable)?
If you have nothing to say, don't bother. Transcribing stuff is not a substitute for creating content. No-one has an obligation to write - there are already plenty of books in the world and keen readers are diminishing in number. On the other hand, if we are going to redefine poetry then I'm going to start a new school that is not about putting things down on paper at all. My poems aren't going to be written in any way - quite the reverse. A sequence of poems will be a sequence of hours in which I sit quietly reading. From now on, each time I finish reading a book, I'm going to call the whole process of having read it 'a poem'. And when I've created a hundred 'poems' - or maybe several hundred - I'll be expecting a Queen's Medal or even, perhaps a Nobel Prize.
Seeking the inevitable … - … *Book Review: ‘Poetry Notebook’ by Clive James - WSJ*. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)
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