Poetry of Play, Poetry of Purpose: The Continuity of American Language Poetry
John R. Woznicki
I. Poetry IS the pursuit of politics
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.
Because the languages are enclosed and heatedThough 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:
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).
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)
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.
Suppose within the girdle of the next quatrainThe language poets' power comes from changing language's representation and reproduction of reality.
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)
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
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?
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).
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)
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
without things to get in the way
of the simple law of outward push. (Hoover 500, 501)
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
Half-inscribed and half-distended, thoughWe sense that Bernstein, like his predecessors, desires totality in a multifarious world, albeit an alternate one.
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)
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).
"Poetry is like a swoon with this exception: it brings you to your senses."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:
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)
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.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.
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)
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).
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).
Silliman's New Sentence
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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).
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