In: Education, Lyrics

Language Poetry

What follows began as a response in Ron’s Squawkbox comment window, but it started getting too long so I transplanted it.

I’m not sure I agree that “langpo as a social phenomenon demonstrated as broad a range in sensibility as one might imagine,” but at the same time I don’t necessarily consider this a shortcoming. The example of Fanny Howe is problematic: yes, it may be the case that she is a “Language Poet,” but the very fact that it is even necessary to suggest that a case needs to be made shows that there are dominant qualities associated with Language Poetry writ large which make her seem, at least from certain perspectives, a limit case in that regard. The same could be said to varying degrees about Michael Palmer, Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, and several handfuls of others. And these qualities, moreover, are not associated with Langpo simply as a result of popular distortion; they have been put out there by Language writers themselves, forcefully and repeatedly. If we take away certain key concepts—“non-referentially organized writing” (Bruce Andrews), “the breaking apart of the unified subject” (Barrett Watten), “antiabsorptive technique” (Charles Bernstein), and so on, we still have a considerable body of important writing, but we don’t have as coherent a theoretical framework within which to place it. These different elements, even if they have been consistently modified, reversed, or supplemented, add up to a recognizeable sensibility, or at least a discrete network of mutually sympathetic sensibilities. That’s what makes Language significant in the first place.

When I mention a difference in sensibilities between Language and New Brutalism, as opposed to a difference between observable poetic procedures and forms, I’m thinking of Language Poetry’s commitment, on the one side, to a metalingual objective, a self-conscious turning of the poetic eye upon the social operations of language via various defamiliarizing gestures and techniques, and then the New Brutalists’ investment, on the other side, in a romantic (“emotive”?) expressivism that starts from within social operations, not metacritically per se but with a repertoire of “diminished referentiality” effects which are available in large part due to the Language Poets’ work. What the New Brutalism has yet to articulate, if it is even interested in doing so, is what distinguishes it from so-called Ellipticist poetry, which deploys Language-oid disjunctive and fragmentary devices in the service of a nostalgic “return to lyric,” without regard to the political implications of such surface formal features.

All of this sounds as though my argument is starting to sag on one side, in favor of Language Poetry, and in one sense it is: the Language Poets have had one of the most collectively well-thought out theoretical and political “platforms” in the history of American poetry. Maybe the most. And this has been extraordinarily energizing, not just for the poets’ own work, but in terms of the powerful example it has set for following groups of younger writers who want a model for organized resistance, a way to position themselves both against an insipid mainstream that acknowledges only a ridiculously small percentage of the writing going on in this country as valid, and within a supportive community of writers who share ideas, connections, encouragement, etc. Newer experimental poetic communities that get stuck on perceiving the Language movement as an oppressive obstacle inhibiting their originality and freedom of expression may be at a considerable disadvantage, and thus reject what they see as the overemphasis on theory associated with that movement, may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining their originality and free expression in the face of corporate interests that will not hesitate to swoop in and co-opt any noticeable strides they make in gaining an audience for their work. (OK, I know, we’re talking about poetry here; it’s not like Exxon or GM is interested or anything, but you know what I mean.)

Here’s the other side, though: the collective work that I’ve seen from avowed New Brutalists and others who may or may or not be New Brutalists but have at least been associated with the term has interested me a good deal more than a lot of work I’ve seen elsewhere from post-Language-era groups (not necessarily distinctly self-identified as such, but connected by various lines of contact with each other in ways that imply somewhat unified group projects) that do have well-thought-out theoretical platforms. By and large, rule-of-thumb, I’d say that the more a younger writer’s work smacks of “pure” Language influence, the less inclined I am to want to read it, just as I get quickly bored by writers who are obviously trying to capture a “New York School” feel, or a “Beat” flavor, etc. There are many, many individual poets deeply influenced by Language whose work I admire and read, but when it comes to groups of writers who all speak the same theoretical language and turn out the same programmatic kinds of predictably disjunctive texts, texts that I have to imagine many Language Poets would find boring too, I get an overwhelming urge to flarf (not that Flarf has worked out all its issues of theoretical coherence either, but whaddaya want, I’m partial). I still find these writers more relevant than the ones who are publishing in most mainstream venues, but that’s about all: more relevant. Not necessarily “better.”

So I’m left for now with these unresolved priorities that are maybe contradictory, maybe not. Still working it out, here on the blog, day and night for your pleasure.

Comment Form

You must be logged in to post a comment.