Poetry of Play, Poetry of Purpose: The Continuity of American Language Poetry 

John R. Woznicki

I. Poetry IS the pursuit of politics

"Let us undermine the bourgeoisie." Ron Silliman (qtd. in Hartley)
"Writing itself is a form of action." Ron Silliman (New Sentence 4)

The poetry of American postmodernity is often accused of reductiveness on two fronts. Critics see the "simplicity" of expressivist poetry leading to a deep but inconsequential subjectivity. The ludic word games influenced by French deconstruction theory seem bent on legislating the meaningless of our world.i But a group of poets who "play" with language also fit the Pound/Olson political tradition of legislating one's society through language. Bob Perelman, a leading member of the group known as the "language" poets who compose this political poetry, reflects on what he sees as poetry's purpose:

Poetry is really not written on a desert island. It's a social art. Some of my favorite poets imagine poets as antennae of the race or social receptors. We catch a whole spectrum of different voices and make something out of it. I think that's where poets most usefully exist, in hearing the variety of the society's speech and responding to that variety. (Interview with Bob Perelman)
Language poets see themselves as directly echoing Ezra Pound's message to act against inequities in a social system based on money instead of human value. Pound and Charles Olson not only considered themselves "receptors" or articulators of social conditions but agents to change these conditions. Language poets claim a similar role explicitly while disagreeing with past poets as to how to accomplish change. Though the language poet's program seeks political change through a non-totalizing use of language, the agenda they share continues this century's poetry of totality.
Where Pound emphasized economics, language poets comment on the imbalances of power reflected in the use of language by those in control. Like Olson's rant against the "sloganeers," language poets attack capitalist communication. Charles Bernstein, one of language poetry's chief theorists, notes how the inequality operates: "In a society with such spectacularly inequitable distributions of power, the very idea of public space has been befouled—not by the graffiti of the folk but by the domination of the means of communication by those dispossessed of their connection with just such folk" (A Poetics 5). Language poetry wishes to expose this unfit condition and eliminate the use of language by those who appropriate it in a "dirty," profitable way. Note Perleman's metaphors of undressing and cleansing in this excerpt from "Cliff Notes":
Because the languages are enclosed and heated
each one private a separate way
of undressing in front of the word window
faces squashing up against it
city trees and personal rituals of sanitation
washing the body free of any monetary transaction (Hoover 498).
Though Pound battered the dominant system with his unique use of language, language poets fault him for adding "natural" order. In his struggle against the universal he also became universal: "Pound, or part of him, wished to control the valuation of the materials he appropriated by arranging them in such a way that an immanent or ‘natural' order would be brought into being" (A Poetics 122). Pound's great achievement is his creation of poetry using ideological swatches from many social and historical sectors. His "complex, polyvocal textuality was the result of his search—his unrequited desire for—deeper truths than could be revealed by more monadically organized poems operating with a single voice and a single perspective" (A Poetics 123). Yet Pound's wish was ultimately to order these materials into a single vision for his readership:

Pound's ideas about what mediated these different materials are often at odds with how these types of textual practices actually work in The Cantos. Pound's fascist ideology insists on the author's having an extraliterary point of "special knowledge" that creates…order. (A Poetics 123)
Language poets reject coherence based on the human standard since that subject has already been determined, given a position in the hierarchy of capitalist society. Order based on an already fixed position is necessarily autocratic and totalitarian. Language poets see the objectivist/projectivist movement as an attempt "to rediscover a physical ordering of the language…within individuals (individualism is the codification of serialized "man"), operating on the metaphoric equation of a page as scored speech" (New Sentence 15). They consider the past art of Stein, Joyce, or Hemingway as subjective, "existing within the confines of the dominant reality" (New Sentence 15). Modernists, supported by Marxist critics like Adorno, believed in the autonomy and wholeness of their art outside the "grip of administered culture" (A Poetics 104).
Subjectivity is corrosive for the language poets; their removal of the subject parallels the modernist impulse to hide the speaking subject in poetry. For language poets, the subject always carries some "predetermined Truth of a pancultural elitism" (A Poetics 122-3), an Heroic Individual who, as an historical continuum that leads to some future utopia, must be relinquished. From Barrett Watten's "Statistics":
We are at liberty "to take ‘the' out of ‘us,' " to have selves "not here" in the machinery of the dramatic monologue to "smash, interrupt." (Hoover 536)
Instead of an order provided by an elitist subject, language poets provide diversity that looks not toward the future but at a present timelessness to express many different cultural perspectives. This, of course, casts doubt on the totalizing structure of reality and on the identity of the individual and his language.
Language poetry offers yet another linguistic art to combat capitalism. By definition, this poetry is "(sometimes) non-referential, (occasionally) poly-syntactic, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that (in some cases) enacts a critique of the literary" (Language Writing and Literary History 126). According to its unofficial manifesto, it intends to eliminate the notion of subjectivity: "Around 1970, a number of writers, following the work of such experimenters as Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky, began writing in ways that questioned the norms of persona-centered, ‘expressive,' poetry" (Benson 261). In the manifesto, the listed "experimenters" do not include Pound or Olson, whose personas cancelled out their politics. Language poets see even these "objective" poets as still carrying on propaganda through an ideological strategy that corrupts language. Contrasting himself with other avant-gardists, Bob Perelman explains, in his art, that language poets go about their political goals differently, although both schools wish to "make power" or restore agency to the reader/citizen:
Suppose within the girdle of the next quatrain
are now confined two mighty literary movements
whose poly-headed and abutting fronts
the perilous narrow years spin quite differently:

the Objectivists, in the marginalized trunks,
speaking American to one another as if to a crowd of energized
and the language writers, wearing codeless uniforms,
passing notes a bird would sing if birds would only read.


Piece out these imperfections with your writing. Into a fresher word divide and multiply each word and make imaginary power, that is, make power. (Language Writing and Literary History 138)

The language poets' power comes from changing language's representation and reproduction of reality.
For this reason language poetry studies capitalist language use. They take political responsibility by demonstrating how current language practice robs us of our agency and value. Their aim is to show "what qualities writing has or could have that contribute to an understanding or critique of society, seen as a capitalist system" (Hartley). Their anti-bourgeois agenda is summed up by Jennifer Moxley:
Instead we should annoy the power mongers by using poetic propaganda to launch a ruthless critique of them and their buddies and to expose the world of contradictions surrounding us. For poetry, my friends, is like, a sit-in at the luncheonette of language, and we should refuse to get up and walk across the street to the "poets only" diner. Poetry is the insistence that we partake in the expression of our lives, in all their various contexts and manifestations. (Moxley)
Moxley refers to the contention between language poets who believe they are attempting to change society and academic poets who have historically set agendas for how to read and write poetry, their values "part of a fabric of social constructions that maintains coercive economic and political hierarchies" (A Poetics 6), maintaining power by serving the bourgeois as professors and poet laureates.ii Jerome McGann refers to these two groups as poets of "opposition" and "accomodation." Poets of accomodation are the subjective ones mentioned earlier "marked stylistically by a moderated surface urbanity and substantively by an attempt to define ‘social' and ‘political' within a limited, even a personal, horizon" (McGann 255). In the poem "Things" we find Perelman directly attacking these poets as those "who so greyly / evade address, preferring instead / to throng the stadiums and airwaves / and glacial showrooms" with "New Yorker poetry-water / New York Times rational apolitical germ-free water" (Hoover 501, 500). Our cultural acceptance of this poetry that infiltrates mass publications is validated by what McGann calls a "Romantic Ideology," privileging a poetry that "accommodates the critical view that poets want nothing more than election to a hall of fame" which can be "glossed without reference to ideology as such, because the ideological disposition of the canonizing institutions would otherwise stand revealed" (Anthologizing American Poetry). Poets of opposition counter subjectivity, seeing it as disruptive to their attempt to change life in "imperialist America" (McGann 257). Poetry cannot be both subjective and social if it is to bring about real political change. "The test of a ‘politics of poetry,' " Barrett Watten has observed, "is in the entry of poetry into the world in a political way" (McGann 257).

Our Loss of Value

As Marxism critiques capitalism's effects on workers, language poets critique capitalist practices and affect the language of poetry. In his essay "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" language poet Ron Silliman espouses Marx's famous 1859 dictum as the basis for his writing: "The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men (sic) that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness" (New Sentence 7). With regard to poetry and the use of language, the mode of production that determines human life decides the structures and "natural" laws of language with "the primary impact on language and language arts…the rise of capitalism" being "in the area of reference…directly related to the phenomena known as the commodity fetish" (Disappearance 122). According to Silliman, when language becomes subjected to the social dynamics of capitalism, "words not only find themselves attached to commodities, they become commodities and, as such, take on the ‘mystical' and ‘mysterious character' " (New Sentence 8). Capitalism has commodified our words, making language mysterious and detached from us. Since "the words are never our own," they become "our own usages of a determinate coding passed down to us like all other products of civilization" (If By Writing 167). We lose our social context when words fail to bind us into human community. Majorie Perloff discusses this loss from a pedagogical standpoint:

Those of us who have taught courses on poetry are familiar with the student with a very high IQ, say a computer science major, who cannot make anything of a poem like Blake's "London" because he or she cannot conceive of a linguistic or social context in which one might refer to a soldier's "hapless sigh" as "Run[ning] like blood down palace walls." In the discourse of medical textbooks or legal briefs, such statements simply make no sense. (Perloff 234)
Once society has lost the ability to define itself through language, it loses its identity, value, and place in the world.

How does this happen?

Ron Silliman explains the cause for this privation while introducing possible solutions, using Walter Benjamin's theory of aesthetics outlined in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Benjamin posits that the production of art, a reproduction of the world and its objects, becomes mechanical in our machine age, no longer imbued with aesthetic value. Benjamin notes: "In principle a work of art has always been reproducible…Mechanical reproduction of a work, however, represents something new" (Benjamin 218). This mutation is felt first in the product/producer relationship, for with mechanical reproduction we have uniformity. Equivalence becomes a ruling paradigm instead of the uniqueness of art. Science and mathematics serve to conceal theories of equivalence as they postulate "things equal to the same thing are equal to each other" (Sklar 14). Equivalence begets substitution, exchange, and reproduction—this principle extends itself into the economic sphere via the universal equivalent of money.
In Marx's critique objects are not valued on the basis of themselves or the labor that produced them but assigned an intangible monetary value. Marx writes of this in Capital:

When we bring the products of our labour into relation with each other as values, it is not because we see in these articles the material receptacles of homogeneous human labour. Quite the contrary; whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labour, the different kinds of labour expended upon them. We are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it. Value, therefore, does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language. . . . It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers. When I state that coats or boots stand in relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form. (Marx 74, 76)
Marx's idea of objects "stamped" with value, converted into hieroglyphics to be read, informs Silliman's understanding of language. Silliman extends Benjamin's idea of art (and Marx's anticipation of it) into commentary on the production of language, a commodity that becomes stamped, valued, and fetishized. Thus, according to Silliman, the "social basis of reality was transformed…where previously the manufactured objects of the world submitted themselves to the fetishizing and mutational laws of identity and exchange solely through an economic process, they now did so on a new level, that of information" (New Sentence 48).
Art and language lose their value as mechanical reproduction removes artist from object and language user from words. Benjamin describes the sensation of the direct connection between artist and object as aura, taken out of its constituting context, now destroyed by equivalence. Aura establishes the presence of the artist within the work, enacting a relationship of intersubjectivity that recognizes self-presence, the perceiver who establishes self and meaning from the artist's perception, translation, and expression. Aura once created the value within this relationship.
Benjamin theorizes that until our mechanical age aura was protected by its use in ritual or cult functions: "the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition" (Benjamin 223). The revered artwork, unapproachable in its ritualistic state, protects its relationship to artist and meaning. Mechanical reproduction invalidates ritual with aura:
For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics. (Benjamin 224)
Silliman glosses Benjamin's term politics as economics: "Politics, it turns out, means economics, use subordinated to exchange" (New Sentence 49). Economics affects the referential quality of art when art and language are based not on aura but on substitution and exchange. Language poets speculate that language itself perpetuates the exchange system by universalizing, conventionalizing, and constituting the perceiver through mechanized forms or style. The reader becomes passive without an intersubjective relationship with the artist as other. How can the reader recreate meaning without the labor of engagement with the aura? In the case of poetry meaning can no longer be created by the reader.
Language poets base their work on the theory that capitalism is built on a system of exchange that universalizes the individual and stays attached to capitalist ideology. Experience is homogenized with desire, allowing producers to sell more products. Nick Piombino laments conformism caused by homogeneity. "It is abundantly clear to most people in the United States by now that if you conform in your thoughts you will fit in" by learning the codes of capitalist language (Piombino 233). These codes appear as narrative, the unified author, the passive reader, and, ironically, even totalization itself:
The intentionalist cliche of normative literature programs—that each word in a text contributes to the meaning of the whole—is a tautology at best. The equation of such intention with a fixed point, a unitary monad called author, however, has enabled such programs to fulfill their primary social mission of incorporating literature, a dangerously anarchic enterprise that directly engages the reader's subconscious at the level of desire, into the broader ideology of individualism upon which Western culture and particularly Western capitalism are founded. (Task of Collaborator 144)
As individuals using capitalist language and its codes we lose value and power. Forms such as narrative allow a unified subject to project a uniform, conventional reality through time and space so that the "real" that realism expresses in the novel becomes the "index of everyday life and thus of the ground of [capitalist] ideology" (Ross 193). This realism is passed on through art, perpetuating a way of life as capitalistic tenets are reified, made solid in our cultural sense in spite of our historical opposition. We are left without the ability to move forward, caught in a capitalistic continuum:
Reification won't get you out of the parking lot.
Nor will mastery of the definition of sounds
in the throat, the bottomless pit, out of which
these things which we, transparent, self-refuting
hold to be self-evident.

So one, sad triste morte
goes all the way home to zero
with its blinding simile reflecting the furniture
off the original digit standing there
back in the frozen reified narrative of the parking lot
a past you can count on
safest investment
without things to get in the way
of the simple law of outward push. (Hoover 500, 501)

Language poets see capitalism as an artificially constructed reality. They attack the normative power of language, whether in prose or poetry, that aids in its (our) formation. Silliman talks about how "respect for the separateness and integrity of the consumer is lost when a dramatic monologue is constructed by means of normative syntax, classical metrics and a deliberately recessive linebreak"—it is these "devices that render the reading subject passive and unaware of their own presence" (New Sentence 174). He believes normative language practices are used by those who are fundamentally committed "at the level of the reader's experience…to passivity, to the subject which can only observe, incapable of action" (New Sentence 174). This invites the question of whether change is possible. Through linguistic strategies that promoted action, modernists like Pound and Olson were also committed to change what they saw as capitalism's false valuation of the human, yet were unable to reject the use of capitalism's normative language.
This change involves uncoupling language from its conventionalites (McGann 272). The program Bernstein calls "guerilla warfare" places poets on the same level as their adversaries, ad men who use the materials of our culture to form their "official" image of what we are:
Poets would have to be as alert to the presents of their cultures as the designers of TV ads; which means a willingness to engage in guerrilla warfare with the official images of the world that are being shoved down our throats like so many tablespoons of Pepto Bismol, short respite from the gas and the diarrhea that are the surest signs that harsh and uncontainable reality hasn't vanished but has only been removed from public discussion. That means we can't rely only on the tools and forms of the past, even the recent past, but must invent new tools and forms that begin to meet the challenges of the ever-changing present. (A Poetics 3)
As it stands, the language project seems derived from Pound's and Olson's, against their own cultures of bankers and advertisers. The difference claimed by language poets and their followers is that they go one step further, examining how texts make "networks of meaning understood as thoroughly socialized," questioning how language and its users go about making the subject, "the making of Americans—the making of me, myself & I—of you, yourself & us" (Andrews 25). Language poets do not intend to shape "limits" with their poetry but set in motion "conversations, arguments, dialogic contexts, which are open-ended, which take Charles Olson's ‘limits are what we are inside of' and ask, continually, what those limits are" (Smith xi). This demonstrates how art is ideological (and should not be so) and critiques the ideological in representation. In this way the poetry of the movement is political, supposedly without offering any alternative politics, showing how poetry can alter language debased through stylistic innovation. This innovation will reverse the normal order of value, the canon, and many other forms backgrounding and foregrounding the avant-garde. Innovation places all writing styles on equal terms, making dominant language minor:
In order to fully develop the meaning of a formal rupture or extension, we need a synoptic, multilevel, interactive response that accounts, in hopefully unconventional antiauthoritative ways, for the sexual, class, local-historical, biographical, prosodic, and structural dimensions of a poem. This would mean reading all writing, but especially official or dominant forms of writing, as in part "minority" discourse in order to partialize those cultural and stylistic elements that are hegemonic and to put all writing practices on equal terms from a social point of view. (A Poetics 227)
New language styles and conventions make the current standards and authority provisional. Like their forefathers, language poets see their craft offering these new choices—every aspect of writing "reflects its society's politics and aesthetics; indeed, the aesthetic and the political make an inseparable poetics" (A Poetics 227). We may now turn to a study of "language" poetics, focusing on their transformation of tradition.

II. Programs of Opposition: Bernstein's Absorption

Language poetry works to deny subject and totality, providing agency for the reader. Capitalist discourse represses an active reader through unity and rhetorical persuasion. The theories of three language poets demonstrate similar strategies of inclusion of disparate elements to interrupt the continuity of conventional narrative reading. These include both the materials of the poem and its forms. Using both conventional and non-conventional language, language poets show how social construction and authority disengage us from language.
What Charles Bernstein calls absorption is one alternative to conventional narrative. A poem, a "spongy substance, absorbing vocabulary, syntax, & reference" offers, instead of one unifying perspective of an event, many contrary materials and perspectives: "contradictory logics, multiple tonalities, polyrhythms" (A Poetics 22). A poem that absorbs these materials takes the reader immediately into the text. By absorption Bernstein means "engrossing, engulfing completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie, attention intensification, rhapsodic, spellbinding, mesmerizing, hypnotic, total, riveting, enthralling: belief, conviction, silence" (A Poetics 29). An example from his poem "Part Quake" demonstrates the compound aspect of the absorptive poem:
Half-inscribed and half-distended, though
such polarities con't [sic] hold, X informs
Y of Z, A bedevils B, Q
convinces R to protest S, M remains
sidelined. How to work that in,
a world that so impinges that
we, an entity it's impossible to
overcredit, push back with a
might that makes only the heavenly
a force with which to contend. (In the American Tree 273)
We sense that Bernstein, like his predecessors, desires totality in a multifarious world, albeit an alternate one.
Poets like Pound and Olson created metaphors of speed, light, and energy for these scenes that pulled the reader's attention inward toward the poem—Vorticism, Imagism, and Projectivism unified the text with the reader. Pound's explanation of the Vortex demonstrates the relation of emotion and action: "Emotion seizing up some external scene or action carries it intact to the mind; & that vortex purges it of all save the essential or dominant dramatic qualities, & it emerges like the external original" (Pound, Selected Prose 375). But Bernstein believes that poems absorbing through what he terms "casual unity" do not work—they too obviously attempt to absorb through strategies of unity; they strive too hard to be "effective" and seem "phony or boring or uncompelling" (A Poetics 38).
Bernstein suggests adding antiabsorptive elements to the poem, to disturb and shock the reader through metrics and sound. So Bruce Andrews confronts the audience with harsh street slang, scatology, or "second-person accusations provoking questions (‘Isn't nature bored with your devotion?' ‘Hey, Fuckhead') & first-person deprecations (‘Mash me to a pulp')" (A Poetics 35), practices that "invoke & assault the reader with the exploitive, racist, sexist underside of our collective syntactic & metaphoric practices… mak[ing] obtrusive the social & ideological nature & function of language habits in which we are ordinarily so absorbed as to ignore or repress" (A Poetics 35). Anti-absorption is
artifice, boredom, exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction, digression, interruptive, transgressive, undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured, fragmented, fanciful, ornately stylized, rococo, baroque, structural, mannered, fanciful, ironic, iconic, schtick, camp, diffuse, decorative, repellent, inchoate, programmatic, didactic, theatrical, background muzak, amusing: skepticism, doubt, noise, resistance. (A Poetics 29-30)
Antiabsorption not only shocks but at the same time pulls the reader back into the text by a combination of absorption and antiabsorption to increase reading: "This is an approach I find myself peculiarly attracted to, & which reflects my ambivalence (as in wanting multiple things) about absorption & its converses. In my poems, I frequently use opaque & nonabsorbable elements, digressions & interruptions, as part of a technological arsenal to create a more powerful (‘souped-up') absorption than possible with traditional, & blander, absorptive techniques…This is the subject of much of my work" (A Poetics 52).
This tactic creates dual points focusing the reader toward the center to interpret what Bernstein (with Forest-Thomson) calls an "image complex":
"Poetry is like a swoon with this exception: it brings you to your senses."
The oscillation of attentional focus, & its attendant blurring, is a vivid way
of describing the ambivolent [sic] switching, which I am so fond of,
between absorption & antiabsorption, which can now be described as
redirected absorption. The speed of the shifts ultimately becomes a metric
weight, & as the pace picks up, the frenzied serial focusing/unfocusing
enmeshes into a dysraphic [sic] whole—not totality—an alchemical
"overlay and blending" as Piombino notes, forming what he terms a
"combinatorial" or, in Forrest-Thomson's words, an "image-complex." (A Poetics 78)
This new kind of reading connects to Pound's use of speed, image, and ideogram. Bernstein makes it a point, however, to differentiate his style of absorption from that of realism's and lyric poetry's, indirectly suggesting that his poetic forefathers belong in this group.iii He underestimates his poetic and strategic (and therefore rhetorical) debt to Pound. Bernstein sketches out a new poetic program that makes the reader conscious of his own participation in rhetoricity. To do this the poet must provide information to help readers identify their relation to language. The language poets want to be rhetorical, but subtly, denying the subjectivity of art. Pound and Olson also wanted to do this. Bakhtin is cited by Bernstein to justify this denial of the poetic subject:
Bakhtin puts this very eloquently in a 1970 interview in Novy mir (tr. V. McGee): In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one's own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others... A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures. (A Poetics 186-7)
We must comprehend the world into which we are absorbed, not an exterior hyper-reality forced on us. The reader must come to this alone even though Bernstein admits that "something powerfully absorptive is needed to pull us out of the shit, the ideology in which we slip—mind altering as the LSD ad used to put it" (A Poetics 76). Poetry can alter our minds, offer "a vision-in-sound to compete with the world we know so that we can find the worlds we don't" (A Poetics 76). But is poetry merely a vehicle by which we change our perception or is the poetry telling us how to do it?

Watten's New Objectivity

Barrett Watten questions reality by introducing disparate elements into a poem, deconstructing categories without admitting any final meanings. Writing creates recognition for materials and sequences outside syntax and cultural reference. We see this working in his poem, "Plasma":

Light grows form the corners of the state map.
The universe is shaped like a hat. I lose interest and fall off the bed.
Tips of the fingers direct the uncontrollable surface.
The dim-witted inhabitants fuse with the open areas. All rainbows end in the street.

Subtitles falling in show water rolling underneath. (In the American Tree 27)

Asserting new relationships in material previously considered incongruent brings about a "subjectivity effect" when the assertions "have become ourselves" even continuing to "call existence into question" (Brito 23). This produces both distance and proximity to content so we can be close to our world without appropriating objects. We thereby avoid using the same sign-to-signified relationship for them.
Watten asks for a new science, an objectivity that, through poetry, will allow for numerous interpretations. Yet this objectivity has its own scientific method that Watten sees as "fundamental to aesthetics as we know it" (Brito 27). Through it we gain critical knowledge of the object while still maintaining "an attitude of distance" (Brito 27). Watten illustrates this distancing of knowledge in his discussion of the modernist's objectification (of an autonomous artwork) that psychologically became "a form of ‘killing off threats' to the unity of self" (Brito 27). Language poets displace this modernist psychology onto the objective properties of language. A poetry that allows for numerous interpretations opening out into language "would seem to be one solution to the artistic need for an objectified ground against which the grandeur of life would stand out" (Brito 27). Watten keeps the modernist science of objectivity intact to provide a structure in "poetics of ‘language'…a workable ground for modernism that leads to real solutions for the dilemmas it proposes" (Brito 28).
Parenthetical discourse, a device we have considered with Olson, modifies modernist objectivity so that its interpretations and structures are not definitive. He begins his poem "Statistics" with this idea:
There is no language but "reconstructed" imaged parentheses back into person "emphasizing constant" explanation "the current to run both ways." (Hoover 536)
Watten proposes we use parenthetical discourse to add " ‘word viruses' that would invade and inhabit the host bodies of texts"(Brito 26). He admits the device is "thematically motivated" (Brito 27) by separate textual "voices" that interrupt and disrupt the authority of the writer. As Bakhtin has shown, the additional discourse created dialogues with the conventional to illustrate how ideology is conveyed:
I was interested in this effect as it would interrupt the textual surface … and anticipate the resistance of a reader in accepting the authority of the text (on the side of consumption, perhaps, but here due to alternative meanings, interruptions). If ideology is structured in the way dialogue is subordinated in recorded speech (as for Voloshinov) [pseudonym for Bakhtin], here the textual surface flips back and forth between the locus of this effect being on the side either of the writer or the reader. (Brito 26)
By offering "other," hidden perspectives the text defamiliarizes and shifts perception. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky has pointed out that through the juxtaposition of two different interpretations of the same set of facts—one known in the "ordinary" way and one through revelation of its secret—a "semantic shift" occurs, "a frame shift by means of which perception takes place" (Brito 21). Private meanings interact with social meanings more generally, while private language "qualifies the public and creates a new ground on which instrumental meanings can be modified and redefined… it is not simply a matter of opposition" (Brito 21).
Traditional modes of communication do not allow "other" voices to infect the text. Watten sees this mode of communication as ritualistic; without feedback a dominant "addresser" communicates to a passive "addressee." This structure is instilled in the speaker and reader and in language itself. One of the best-known models of this dynamic of communication is Roman Jakobson's:
The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message requires a CONTEXT referred to, graspable by the addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a CODE fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and addressee; and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. (Jakobson 66)
This mode of ritual is based on what Watten calls "everyday life"(in Jakobson's terms, the code and context involve "everyday life"). Watten applies Henri Lefebvre's theory, that it is the ritual of the "everyday" that makes the "initial intention" of the addresser and the "ultimate understanding" of the addressee "no longer opposed" (Conduit of Communication 32). Since the central dynamic of the everyday is expressed in terms of time—"everyday life is made up of recurrences: gestures of labor and leisure, mechanical movements both human and properly mechanic, hours, days, weeks, months, years, linear and cyclical repetition, natural and rational time" (Conduit of Communication 34)—everyday life becomes a "sociological point of feedback" where "relations are constantly reestablished" through these recurrences (Conduit of Communication 34).
The project of taking language out of the rituals of everyday and putting it back into circulation as a " ‘new and improved' fragment" (Conduit of Communication 34), shows how the reader is dominated by the addresser in this ritual: "What remains would be to show how these processes occur in language, not just in strategies for its use, and that they do occur there, constantly" (Conduit of Communication 36). This reverses the mechanism of communication, creating a "sequence of linguistic artifacts at zero degree, where communication would be refigured toward a horizon that would force a recognition of the prevalent systems of metaphorical dread" (Conduit of Communication 37), a "zero point" that echoes Roland Barthes "zero degree" writing, a "transparency interrupting communication and relationships just at the moment when everything seems communicable because everything seems both rational and real" (Conduit of Communication 37). This "zero point" indicates how art simultaneously denies the agency of the subject/addresser by merely expressing a chain of events "whose links can be unsnapped and reassembled to create different orders…in effect, a construction set, its parts laid out to suggest, on the one hand, likely assemblies (narrative or logical sequences), but also separated by means of the formal dynamics of the poem (line length, stanzas, italics, ellipsis) to highlight their functionality as shifting, variable instrumentalities" (Robinson 64). In pursuing Watten's New Objectivity we are left (supposedly) at zero point, with the denial of the artistic subject.

Silliman's New Sentence

Ron Silliman's Marxist theory of language discusses how capitalism changes it from reference (social) to referentiality (alienation from user and use-function). Silliman is interested in the connection between capitalism and artistic genres, discussing how capitalism created and profited by the rise of the novel. He notes that it set "the preconditions…the invention of the optical illusion of realism, the final break-down of gestural poetic forms" (Disappearance 126). He believes the way narrative is used in novels is responsible for these illusions and losses. To change the dynamics of the prose form realism and narrative need to be modified; because of them the human "gesture," freedom of the reader to resist, is repressed. In every novel Silliman sees there is a gesture, a poetic "screaming to get out": "Repression does not, fortunately, abolish the existence of the repressed element which continues as a contradiction, often invisible, in the social fact. As such, it continues to wage the class struggle of consciousness" (Disappearance 126). This is much like Bakhtin's struggle for parole, the repressed voice present in the "unity of individual speech" (Bakhtin 264), heard within the langue, the dominant language of a society. Since the novel is driven by the twin engines of referentiality and narrativity, this "parole" or gesture cannot surface. Poetry must revive the poetic, make conscious the human struggle for value, to reconnect the reader to objects again.
In his manifesto "Intraview" Steve McCaffery declares that poets must "demystify" the commodity fetish of prose, revealing "the human relationships involved within the labour process of language [which] will involve the humanization of the linguistic Sign by means of a centering of language within itself" (189), reestablishing what language poets call "the rights of the signifier" (Perloff 228). Silliman's "new sentence" recognizes the signifier as maker of its own meaning. It is "the first prose technique to identify the signifier (even that of the blank space) as the locus of literary meaning. As such, it reverses the dynamics which have so long been associated with the tyranny of the signified, and is the first method capable of incorporating all the levels of language, both below the horizon of the sentence and above" (New Sentence 93). Silliman's idea of the signifier recalls Frederic Jameson's description of the postmodern cultural text: "The isolated Signifier is no longer an enigmatic state of the world or an incomprehensible yet mesmerizing fragment of language, but rather something closer to a sentence in free-standing isolation" (Jameson 28).
Sentences display use and exchange value. Even "the child's one-word sentence is communicative precisely because (and to the degree that) it represents a whole. Any further subdivision would leave one with an unusable and incomprehensible fragment" (New Sentence 78). In our postmodern world we are left with isolated signifiers, textual shards that resemble sentences since they attempt to convey within their brusque structure some sort of idea. For Silliman, the sentence becomes the smallest unit available to signify meaning and he wishes to erase any earlier uses, including the novel's inclination to create a fully referential tale through meanings that exist beyond the level of the sentence. His goal is to re-freshen the sentence as the postmodern signifier.
Changing how sentences are used in traditional prose modifies the novel through poetry. Pound wrote for much the same reason, to reclaim power for the signifier or meaning-maker. Silliman sees novelistic prose as an indicator of refinement, an index of upper class notions, not a genre of the masses. Prose divides class because its sentence is based on a written syntax that can be deemed "correct," one that does not appear in spoken language. The educated know this syntax; such writing also affects speaking: "‘Educated' speech imitates writing: the more ‘refined' the individual, the more likely their utterances will possess the characteristics of expository prose" (New Sentence 79). The idea that syntax clouds individual expression is one stated by other language poets—for example, Rosmarie Waldrop in her poem Inserting the Mirror:
Visibility was poor. The field limited by grammatical rules, the foghorns of language. (Hoover 316)
Silliman wishes to change the logic of the sentence that blinds us, dividing community.
Silliman modifies prose within the prose poem, dematerializing sentences so "new" ones can be formed. The grammar of the sentence transforms into prosody; sentences form rhythmically rather than syllogistically. Prosody replaces grammar as an agent of coherence illuminating meanings the reader makes between the gaps. Discussing Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, Silliman describes what his own new sentence is designed to accomplish:
The syllogistic move above the sentence level to an exterior reference is possible, but the nature of the book reverses the direction of this movement. Rather than making the shift in an automatic and gestalt sort of way, the reader is forced to deduce it from the partial views and associations posited in each sentence. (New Sentence 84)
The gaps between sentences like line breaks in a traditional poem draw our attention to the sentence as unit of meaning. Silliman, like Watten, makes meaning from a chain of events, a compounding of detail that coheres within prosody:
Detail is cast upon detail, minute particular on minute particular, adding up to an impossibility of commensurable narrative. With every new sentence a new embarkation: not only is the angle changed, and it's become a close-up, but the subject is switched. Yet maybe the sound's the same, carries it through. Or like an interlocking chain: A has a relation to B and B to C, but B and C have nothing in common (series not essence). (McGann 268)
Gesture is also added in this formation of the new sentence. Gesture is action in Silliman's opinion, and this gestural action is lost due to the advance of science and the psychology of consumption: "The obliteration of the gestural through the elaboration of technology occurs across the entire range of cultural phenomena in the capitalist period. It is the principle affective transformation of the new material basis of production" (New Sentence 41).
Olson's claim that "art does not seek to describe but to enact," also sought to reinstate gesture as projective verse animated poetry. Humans labor to make meaning; language sloughs off predetermined constructions and sign/signified relationships. Poetry is a source for agency:
From Gertrude Stein to the present, poets have increasingly emphasized that meaning in poetry falls on the side of the signifier—and that it is not deferred to any hierarchic abstraction such as character, plot or argument. It is only through the signifier that the cultural limits of the self, the subject, become visible. It is there, and there only, that direct perception takes place in a poem. (New Sentence 146)
With Pound and Olson direct perception was to be conveyed from artist to reader; the signifier was still artist. When they consider whether reader or writer constitute the signifier and declare the reader the meaning-maker, language poets deny the artistic subject the role of creator of meaning.

The Denial of Subject

If Inman refers to the era of the pre-capitalistic narrative hero as the "good old days" (221) he does so knowing modernists from Whitman to Olson saw this hero as representative. But language poets deny that the poet (subject) can represent all men. According to Albert Gelpi, this disdain for the subject partly comes as a result of its participation in totalitarianism and from the paradox (read: hypocrisy) involved in what modernists claimed and what they actually did.
On the aesthetic level, then, the Postmodernist position formulated itself as a critique of the paradoxes inherent in Modernism. According to Nick Piombino's "Writing As Reverie," the centripetal Modernist effort to unify pieces into a coherent collage gives way to what is unapologetically "an esthetics of fragmentation and discontinuity." To the disillusioned Postmodernist the vaunted claims of Modernism were spurious and dangerous. The Modernist master merely put the mask of impersonality on the Romantic ego-genius, and any such exaggerated individualism led to an elitist pose of disdain for politics that itself masked the equally elitist sympathy for totalitarianism which helped make Fascism and Nazism and Stanlinism possible. (Gelpi)
Language poets realize the contradictions of an objective poetics practiced by a subjective author and a poetry of social action that reduces "the body of a poet's work to little more than personality"(Stray Straws 41). If there is an apparent author for the poem, there is a subject manipulating language. Jed Rasula warns us "if one concedes a right to manipulate language, a concession has already been made to the manipulation of human beings" (Politics of, Politics In 320).
Language poets dismiss ego-organization of their poetry because it is a social construct, the subject is not (and should not be) individual: "Subjecthood is not an essence preceding social existence. It's not what's left over once the dross has been drained away. It is the dross. It is a convergence of practices, a point of production. A product, not a producer" (Inman 223). The self should not be the primary feature of writing since it exists only within social relationships. The "perceiving I" disappears into "the anonymous, decentered ego echoing the polyglossia of popular culture" (Gelpi). The subject is replaced as the moment of writing as event, action, that can only happen after the "author" dies. As Bruce Andrews writes in "Code Words": "Author dies, writing begins. . . Subject is deconstructed, lost, . . .deconstituted as writing ranges over the surface" (Gelpi). This loss reconstitutes the object world as word becomes signifier, not user. Words replace traditional narrative characters: "Identity devolves into language in the process" (Brito 29).
The purpose for Watten's ironic proposal, to be considered later, is to show that without subject or author a text can have no predetermined message or final conclusion. Roland Barthes also tells us that "once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" (Death of the Author 146). The author's meaning removes agency from the reader. This kind of limitation creates totalities. Inman sees this happening in narrative:
Narrative triumphs precisely through the consolidation of isolate detail, fragmented experience. It solidifies. Things all come together at the end of the episode, denying social atomization by the production of a kind of aesthetic afterlife where things will be made whole again. Its closure indicates not only that of the unitary subject's, but the possibility of closure itself. Case closed. I peeked at the end of the book before I got there. (Inman 223)
Language poets insist that time is always present, echoing Olson's "history is now." "Presentness" has no authority or power structure. Susan Stewart writes: "Its movement is perpetual but not hierarchical; it does not rise to a conclusion, it simply keeps going" (McHale 19). When the reader's expectation is grounded in the presentation of a story through a subject, disrupting chronology defends against the "reduction of poetry to ‘mere' autobiography" (New Sentence 175). Once the reader is present, action begins.
The text must yield a dialogue between reader and writer. Indeterminacy breaks down constraint—as Bernstein tells us, enabling a conversation "not to stare mutely, or to utter minimally directive words & be consumed by the other—but to allow room for response while responding in turn" (A Poetics 187). Language poetry is ordered by production rather than reproduction. The reader no longer reflects and reproduces the intended meaning of the author. Allowing for the reader to be a producer, as Watten admits, is much like the writerly text in Barthes' S/Z, a call for a writing that would "make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (4). But making the reader a producer requires a plan.
Language poets see poetry itself as a "map" for readers to learn how to read, to "interpolate from the space of the page out onto a projected field of ‘thinking'…that the meaning of the text is constituted only in collaboration with the reader's active construction of this hypertext" (New Sentence 183). The ideological is located aesthetically: "My [Watten's] ‘aesthetic program' would be to locate the form of the ‘aesthetic' in the temporal continuum of the ‘ideological' " (Brito 15). The reader learns from the aesthetic that the act of communication is embedded in ideology but also carries completely personal meaning. An inherent paradox develops from the claim of non-ideological reading requiring ideology. This paradox causes even Barrett Watten to ask:
But clearly an exception is implied if ongoing cultural projects, such as this one or my own, are characterized as following a "program." "Program" implies method; methods are totalizing, therefore totalitarian; and if there is an "aesthetic program," I hear it being asked, does it include me? (Brito 15)
The answer to this question is a resounding yes.


i. This paper will hope to reveal both contemporary criticisms' defamation of "language" poetry considered to be inconsequential "word games" and the criticism of expressivist poetry, usually proffered by "language" poets themselves, as being too simplistic and self-centered to be effectively political, even though much of this expressivist poetry deals with public issues such as gender and ethnic equality.

ii. We must first consider T.S. Eliot, who set the twentieth-century standard for the creation of a self-contained, austere, reverent verse that dominated poetry in academic and public circles for the majority of this century, as the father of this type of poetry, outfitting not only a new way of writing but of reading poetry. Eliot's influence was wide, impacting poets such as Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren who narrowed poetry to tracts commenting on the depraved moral state of the world, offering a return to traditionalism and formalism in both writing and social decorum (see the "Fugitive" poet essay, I'll Take My Stand for an introductory statement of this traditionalist movement). Formalism and traditionalism has been carried down a line of academic poets such as Robert Lowell and W.S. Merwin who held important positions in the world of poetry. McGann, in his article "Contemporary Poets, Alternate Routes," specifically sees our current poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, writing in this tradition. Pinsky is one of the poets of "accomodation" to whom McGann later refers as adversaries to "language" poets.

iii. Bernstein comments on realism's "theoretical raison d'etre" (A Poetics 26) due to its ability to absorb the reader into the story by ignoring the reader, using transparent language as its major effect. He uses theory by Ford Madox Ford as an example for making realism a "classic case" of transparency. The reader becomes immersed with the story as the reader is ignored because the events are made to be significant, serious and substantial to the characters within the book whom are portrayed as ultra-realistic. Ford takes Flaubert to be the epitome of a realistic writer. According to Ford, this creation of an autonomous realistic event strengthens the reader's belief in the story. Ford's model for absorbing realism excludes melodrama and Dickensian character-typing because they compromise this belief. For Ford, "to be entertained by scoffing at the characters, or being made aware of their fictitiousness, prevents the 'deeper' absorption of the Flaubertian novel" (A Poetics 68). Bernstein likens this idea to the creation of nineteenth-century lyric poems that involved a self-absorbed address to a beloved, the gods, or the poet her/himself: an address that, "because it is not to the reader but to some presence anterior or interior to the poem, induces readerly absorption by creating an effect of overhearing in contrast to confronting" (A Poetics 32). Bernstein believes that Ford's model and the distinction he makes within it "a fiction" since "texts are written to be read or heard, that is, exhibited," emphasizing how "the 'teller' or 'way it's told' are allowed to come into focus affects the experience of 'what' is being told or 'what' is unfolding" (A Poetics 31). Thus he comments on the inevitable rhetorical aspect of writing and admits "nor is poetry, by nature emphasizing its artifice, immune from this dynamic" (A Poetics 31).

Works Cited

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Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image/Music/Text. Translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

---. S/Z. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Storyteller" in Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Benson, Steve, et al. "Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto." Social Text 19/20 (Fall 1988): 261-75.

Bernstein, Charles. "The Blue Divide." In the American Tree. Edited by Ron Silliman. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

---. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard, 1992.

---. "Stray Straws and Straw Men." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois, 1984.

Brito, Manuel. "An Interview with Barrett Watten." Aerial 8: Barrett Watten. Edited by Rod Smith. Washington D.C.: Edge, 1995.

Gelpi, Albert. "The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry." Southern Review (Summer 1990). 8 Feb. 1997. (http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/gelpi.html).

Hartley, George. "Textual Politics and the Language Poets." 1989. 17 Nov. 1996. (http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/hartley.html).

Hoover, Paul. Postmodern American Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

Inman, P. "One to One." The Politics of Poetic Form. Edited by Charles Bernstein. York: Roof, 1990.

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Marx, Karl. Capital. Translated from the third German edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling and edited by Frederick Engels. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961.

McCaffery, Steve. "Intraview." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois, 1984.

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---. "Language Writing and Literary History." Aerial 8: Barrett Watten. Edited by Rod Smith. Washington D.C.: Edge, 1995.

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---. "The Politics of, the Politics In." Politics and Poetic Value. Edited by Robert von Hallberg. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987.

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---. "If by 'Writing' We Mean Literature." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1984.

---. The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1987.

---. "The Task of the Collaborator: Watten's Leningrad." Aerial 8: Barrett Watten. Edited by Rod Smith. Washington D.C.: Edge, 1995.

---. "Tjanting." In the American Tree. Edited by Ron Silliman. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

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Watten, Barrett. "Complete Thought." In the American Tree. Edited by Ron Silliman. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

---. "The Conduit of Communication in Everyday Life." Aerial 8: Barrett Watten. Edited by Rod Smith. Washington D.C.: Edge, 1995.

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