People who don’t like Goldsmith’s poems tend to think that using another writer’s words, coherently or not, and arranging how they look on the page, are gestures that have no emotional power. They think that poetry involves one person addressing another person, or an object or a deity, and that cutting and pasting can’t do that persuasively, since it is essentially aloof, and the aura of the artificial adheres to it. In addition, they feel that arranging letters and words in patterns isn’t sufficient to produce poetry. A poem must also address a deep subject. Furthermore, the point of being a poet is to establish an “idiosyncratic lyric practice that can’t be assimilated into the practice of others,” a critic told me, adding that poetry derives from a writer’s consideration of his own “sensual, moral, intellectual, aesthetic” concerns. Lyric poets tend to be allergic to conceptual poetry. The poet C. K. Williams once stood up at a talk that Goldsmith gave at Princeton and said that hearing Goldsmith’s version of poetry made his heart sink. Williams, who died last week of cancer, told me that he objected to the word “poetry” “being used to characterize such silliness.” He said, “It’s removing expression and feeling from writing, but it’s also removing beauty.” The poet Charles Simic told me that he regarded conceptual poetry as being “like a violin played by a hair dryer. It could be fun, but neither Bartók nor Ashbery has anything to worry about.” The poet and critic Dan Chiasson, who writes for the New York Review of Books as well as for this magazine, said that most of Goldsmith’s work struck him as “dreary, overliteral pranks. I associate him with a certain kind of avant-garde spectacle.
I think the detractors of conceptual writing might have a point. The word “poetry” may be a problematic description for what it is. I generally avoid that word, when it comes to my own more conceptual work, and I find that doing so can have a positive affect on the impressions of its audience.