Description: Reading Roundup: Poetry
Date: 17 December 2003
I've been catching up with "post-avant," "progressive," "pomo," or, my favorite, "postlangpo" (post-Language) poetry since I starting checking out a number of blogs linked from Ron Silliman's blog this past summer. A lot of these poets take their inspiration from Zukofsky, so it makes sense that I try to figure out what they're up to. The more immediate inspiration for most of the poets I discuss below is the so-called Language poetry that flowered in the 1970's. You can access the famous journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E online if you're curious.
Language writing was a heavily theorized stew of Wittgenstein, Marx, Saussure, Charles Sanders Pierce, and other Big Thinkers. The original crew of poets (Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews and many others) wrote theoretical explanations of their work (I mean their "projects") that make for a useful, necessary really, grounding for the poetry. T.S. Eliot once said that to understand Ezra Pound's poetry you had to read his prose, and vice-versa, and I although the language poets rejected the political implications of the arch-modernists tropes of mastery, they certainly share this hermeticism. The place to start with the theory might be Bernstein and Andrews's The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, which features short essays by a lot of people, along with some nice appreciations of their influences, like Stein and Zuk. Bernstein has published many of his own _________ essays in three volumes (to date). I've been reading Content's Dream. That blank two sentences back stands for a quality I can't quite place. It's not that they're "lyrical," "lucid," "thoughtful," "insightful," though they are all those things. They partake in some of the same tactics that his poetry does: associative, rupture, humor, skepticism toward language, absolute belief in language, though a bit more directly. The unifying principal of langpo is that language doesn't reflect social reality, but constitutes it. "Language is the material of both thinking and writing.... thinking cannot be said to 'accompany' the experiencing of the world in that it informs that experiencing. It is through language that we experience the world, indeed through language that meaning comes into the world and into being" (61-62). The poetry therefore isn't discourse (or description, or documentation) but enactment or instantiation. Okay?
Take Clark Coolidge's At Egypt. Please. I've been meaning to read this book for years, ever since it was cited by Marjorie Perloff as an example of avant garde work that resorts to syntactic defamiliarization made necessary because imagistic innovation is immediately gobbled up by advertising and other media. You can see this in the opening: "I came here. I don't know you here./ I say this. I have lost such./...There is little sure./ It was a coming which was done." It's a long poem, 80 pgs in 11 sections, and I'm sure my reading is only partial, but my reaction to the book is that it's about how language mediates, no wait, constitutes, change, as figured by travel. This reading is informed by the five epigraphs, by Flaubert, Michael Palmer, Jabes, Rilke, and sumbuddy named Robin Cook. I won't quote these; you can look 'em up. I'm also intrigued by the form of the poem. Short sections of this book length poem are justified to the right, many of which in the early going contain references to a shadowy 'he.' I'm not sure what to make of it, but you can see what it looks like here
Another of Coolidge's books is called The Crystal Text. I haven't read it, but the implication I think is that writing is like a crystal: seemingly transparent yet opaque, focusing but dispersive. Christian Bok (there's an umlaut over the 'o' which I don't know the html for) pushes this equivalence in his Crystallography, which (mis)uses that science to understand poetry. For example, a stunning poem called "Diamond" appropriates terms of art to create a poetic equation: LIFE X FIRE = BRILLIANCE (all this is true)" Though Bok is playful and experimental (he cuts the word diamond apart and refashions it: "i am, and i/am, and/i am, and i/am, and/i die, amen") some of his work, particularly "Diamonds," is moving in a way that only the distance of heavily artificed work allows.
I already burned my Coolidge transition on Bok, but I make the rules here. Lee Ann Brown's Polyverse also uses some juicy epigraphs, one from Emily Dickinson ("There is a Zone whose even Years/ No Solstice interrupt--") and one from Gertrude Stein ("Any letter is an alphabet./ When this you see you will kiss me.") You can dismiss language-based poetry has trickery if you want: Bok uses some concrete techniques, and my first reaction to the word "polyverse" was a sarcastic 'ooo wow, she's overthrowing the hegemony of the unitary implicit in the linguistic construction of the basic paradigm of existence.' But looking at the poetry more closely, you see craft and music ("Rhythms silly/when you tink it/sneezy pretty/Crepe and crush"), and sophistication and lyricism ("I say these things not because they happen but because many things happen") to go along with good old-fashioned paradigm smashing.
Brown creates a sort of Language lineage out of women: her epigraphs and the dedication to Bernadetter Meyer, her "CoLabs" with Meyer, Hannah Weiner, Jennifer Moxely, and Lisa Jarnot, and her poems for quasi-riot grrls like Liz Phair and Polly Jean Harvey. I've toyed with the idea of investigating a women's lineage for postlanguage poets (of both genders). You could start with Anne Carson's Sappho, a translation which uses fragmentation powerfully, continue through Dickinson and Stein to the many significant Language writers who were women.
That route takes you through Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson. It is a book of criticism, though Howe is also a well-known poet. Dickinson is interesting because her "publication" method of home-made fasicles allowed for a great deal of contingency and reader participation. Though the editions we read give the illusion of a single text, she would regularly star words and provide alternatives at the end of the poem. Her poems are semantically and textually amibiguous. The nice thing that Howe does is in a sense 'recover' this famous and extraordinary poet from critical abuse: "The reductivist approach to writing signalled by the title of their book forces [Gilbert and Gubar, of Madwoman in the Attic fame] to worry unnecessarily that Dickinson choose not to celebrate and sing herself with Whitman; nor could she declare confidently with Emerson that 'the Poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the center.' She said something subtler." The bulk of Howe's book is a close and widely allusive of a single poem, "My life had Stood--a Loaded Gun." I haven't read Howe's poetry, but this book of criticism is as 'poetic' as can be.
I've brought up the idea of "lineage" of progressive poets, which helps them distinguish themselves from the current mainstream, which Silliman recently dubbed the "School of Quietude." That's a reductive opposition, between "post-avant" and SoQ, and it's really only good for proselytizing. But by God we need proselytizing! However, it leaves some poets, particularly John Ashbery, in a weird position. After all, Ashbery is easily the most prestigeous living poet, having had laurels and honors heaped on him. His style has been hugely influential, creating a sort of tribe that has significant power in poetry (which is like have significant power in Iceland these days). But he was once an innovator himself, before he started repeating himself in great quantity. I read The Mooring of Starting Out a collection of his first five books where he first developed his deliberately ambiguous, ironically beauracratic style: the fabulous "Decoy" begins "We hold these truths to be self-evident:/That ostracism, both political and moral, has/Its place in the twentieth-century scheme of things;/That urban chaos is the problem we have been seeing into and seeing into,/For the factory, deadpanned by its very existence into a/Descending code of values, has moved right across the road from total financial upheaval/And caught regression head-on." Ashbery is like a Kafka who heard somewhere that everything's going to be OK. In the first of his Three Poems (written in prose), he says that "life holds us, and is unknowable." The language writers would want replace "life" with "language," and aren't so content with ignorance.
I read these books over the course of the last few months. I paged through them all while writing this roundup, but forgive me if my impressions have dulled since I read them. One of my reasons for keeping this site is to save things I read from disappearing into the fog of memory, so in this review I'm at least trying to cut my losses. Toward this same end (memory), I hereby reinstitute the "/other/" feature from the early days of STL. The formal rule is now eleven things, mostly books, I've been occupying myself with in the last week or so. I'll explain why this number some other time.
books: Ashbery, Drawn and Quartered by Robt Creeley and Archie Rand, Connected by Stven Shaviro, Paratextual Communities by S. Vanderborg, McSweeney's 12, The Believer, Return of the King
movies: All That Jazz, Buffy Season 5, Alias Season 1
music: We're Only In It For the Money by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention