Traffic reports and newspaper articles are not typical poetry material — but English lecturer Kenneth Goldsmith performed his poems with a unique twist at the White House on Wednesday as part of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Evening of Poetry.”
Goldsmith was one of eight artists, poets and singers to perform at the White House. He also led a workshop during the day aimed at educating students about the importance of poetry.
During his reading for the president, Goldsmith recited four poems — the first two by other authors about the Brooklyn Bridge. The second two were from his book Traffic and were transcriptions of traffic reports.
“Kenny is a figurehead for the experimental end of the poetry spectrum,” said Stephen McLaughlin, who works for the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.
His mantra is “uncreating writing,” said 2010 College graduate Kaegan Sparks, who was one of Goldsmith’s students. “He uses appropriation and conceptualism.”
At the workshop, Goldsmith explained that he uses fragments of literature that are already written to create poetry and told the audience that they “don’t have to work so hard” to make poetry.
“He teaches you to observe the ordinary and see the beauty of it,” College senior James La Marre said, adding that poetry workshops are important for students because this type of writing allows people to have a different “observation of the world.”
Although the workshop was advertised as a session for hundreds of students, it was more of a series of presentations by the poets and attracted a little less than one hundred students, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said that he was “a little surprised [the White House] asked Kenny. He’s as much of an avant garde weirdo as you can find.”
In fact, Goldsmith’s White House invitation “has been a little bit of an inside joke over the past few weeks among Kenny’s former students,” Sparks said, explaining that the other poets at the event such as Billy Collins and Rita Dove are much more traditional than Goldsmith and produce the “antithesis” of Goldsmith’s work.
Indeed, Goldsmith — who wore a multi-colored pastel suit in the afternoon and a paisley suit in the evening — evoked many laughs from the audience.
In choosing Goldsmith, the White House may also have intended to promote modern approaches to poetry and education, Sparks said, explaining that, “Kenny has been pretty outspoken about what technology is doing to improve education and all of the resources on the web.”
McLaughlin said Goldsmith was “well-received.” Although Goldsmith did not respond for a comment, McLaughlin said that he was happy to be performing at the White House. “He was really excited about it.”