Saturday, November 02, 2002

“What about all this writing?”
 WCW, 1923


When I wrote on Wednesday that

when one refers to Carl Rakosi as an Objectivist, or of Spicer as writer from the San Francisco (nee Berkeley) Renaissance, one needs to ask further: which Objectivism, which renaissance? The Objectivism of 1931 was a far cry from that of 1945, let alone 1965 or even as recently as 1985. If Objectivism (or modernism, or language poetry, the New York School or what have you) is perceived as a continuous & relatively fixed set of values, then it has become a map unanchored from the territory to which it ostensibly refers.

Which is why it is not possible to write language poetry in 2002.

Kent Johnson replied with this question:


Isn't the crucial difference of Langpo – historically specific as its "original moment" was (late 70's-80's?*) – that it set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision (in those early years of Discovery, so to speak) as a guide by which future poets might set their course? The other formations you mention never created such a determined and forward-looking atlas of theory. So the analogy you so decisively draw at the end there makes one ask: Is it any wonder Language poetry is "felt" by younger poets today in ways that you, for example, never "felt" those loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings pre-Langpo?


Which in turn presumes that langpo is thus “felt” in such ways, which I’m not at all certain is the case, given just how intensely everyone I hung out with in the 1960s used to puzzle over every single statement we could find by Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Duncan, Kerouac, Dorn, Jones, Sorrentino, Kelly, Eshleman & others. (David Bromige & I once got into an argument with Denise Levertov, during one of her classes at Berkeley circa 1970 where we’d been invited to read to her students, over her interpretation of the length of a pause at the end of a line being one-half that of a pause for a comma – we were both convinced that the theory called for a heavier pause at a line break than for any internal punctuation other than a period. The idea that our elders might not actually have a consensus on this seemed all but intolerable.**)


The other half of Kent’s question suggests that there was/is a qualitative difference between language poetry and “loose and much less theory-specific poetic groupings.” The difference, as I read this question, would be “that it did set down a kind of critical map its topographers did envision . . . as a guide by which future poets might set their course.” If, by that, Johnson intends some sort of a prescriptive model – “do this, don’t do that” – then I think the presumption fails. I see zero consensus on the part of those writers normally associated with the langpo label as to “what is to be done” long term vis-a-vis poetry or society (the latter being the more complex part of that equation). Nor, for that matter, can I think of a major langpo critical piece that is more prescriptive in its manner & tone than, say, Olson’s “Projective Verse” or Zukofsky’s “An Objective” (“The need for standards in poetry is no less than in science”) let alone the over-the-top teaching tone offered by Stein or Pound. Part of what makes Robert Grenier’s “On Speech” & his other essays in This 1 stand out so within the history of langpo lies precisely in that old Biblical tone: “’PROJECTIVE VERSE’ IS PIECES ON,” referring to Creeley’s book that had proven scandalous precisely for the ways it had deployed language outside of the speech paradigm.


Rather, what I see – & I will happily concede that my perspective here is both “privileged” & partisan – is that several (not all) of the writers associated with the term language poetry saw a role for critical discourse itself that differed from the one that confronted prior literary formations.*** Gone, for example, was any defensive need for stylistic markers segregating it as discourse from, say, the institutionally territorial activities of the so-called New Critics, a problem that bedeviled many of the New Americans.+ The New Critics were (are) irrelevant as literary theory, even if they had an important social role at a specific historical juncture in American letters – roughly 1935-55.


Two other phenomena beyond the narrow boundaries of U.S. poetry were also in play in 1970 that were markedly different than the situation that had confronted the New Americans. First, the initial wave of critical theory from Europe was creating an enormous amount of intellectual frisson in the U.S. Everything from Western Marxism to structuralism (&, to a far lesser extent, post-structuralism) to Lacanian analysis went into the mix. This new wave of theory also had the unique historical advantage in the earliest 1970s of having not yet been reduced into normative academic behavior by the good folks at Duke or elsewhere.


Second, feminism, the gay rights movement & some aspects of the black power movement demonstrated the potential power of individuals & groups actively discussing the relevant issues of the lives of their participants. This contrasted dramatically with the situation around the Pound/Williams tradition generally & the New Americans specifically. Forms of academic malpractice, such as M.L. Rosenthal’s construct of “confessional poetry” attempted to invent a level of interest & complexity for the work of certain writers – Sexton, Lowell et al – by yoking them to the visibly exhilarating work being done by the likes of Allen Ginsberg.++  Similarly, Pound scholars of that period evaded the “Mussolini problem” by simply not investigating it. Far from helping Pound, the conversion of fascism into an invisible 500-pound elephant distorted all discussions of his work, a circumstance from which his poetry has not yet fully recovered.


What seemed most clear, in the early 1970s, was that there were an enormous number of possible discussions to have about poetry – this Blog suggests that the number has not dwindled – and that there were obvious benefits to be had if it were poets themselves who had these discussions, rather than leaving them to even the most well-intended of critics.


If this constitutes a “kind of critical map,” as Kent puts it, there would seem to be four possible vectors, one turned toward the past, tracing all the possible routes of how we got wherever we are, a second trying to figure out where it is we have arrived, a third turned toward the future – “where to go & how to get there” – and a fourth focused on traveling as a process. A great deal of the critical writing associated with langpo appears to me as related to the first vector: think of Watten’s great essay Crane & Eigner in Total Syntax. A good deal of energy has also gone into the second vector, although less than has been devoted to the first. Little if any energy has gone into the third. But virtually all critical writing by poets, not just of the langpo brand, can be read as a demonstration of method, “how to improve.” If there is a value to other communities of all this critical fulmination, it is to be found in this last dimension: in the idea that poets conversing about their common interests & enthusiasms, their problems & aversions, will ultimately add up & push thinking to further insights.





* A periodization of language poetry would be an interesting project, given that I’ve always thought of it as a moment, not a movement. The shorthand version I tend to keep in my head is this:


§         A period of “anticipatory” phenomena (e.g., 0-9, the journal edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci; Aram Saroyan’s minimalist period; John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath; Clark Coolidge’s first short abstractions; Joglars, the journal edited by Coolidge with Michael Palmer; Robert Grenier’s Dusk Road Games) all in the late 1960s

§         The formative period around This 1970-73, carried out variously in Berkeley, Iowa City & Franconia, NH (Tottels would fit in here as would the Coolidge issue of Margins), lot of intense conversations among many key players

§         A middle period with increasing numbers of people gathering first in SF-Berkeley, then in NY, phenomena like the Grand Piano poetry series, the emergence of talks, journals such as Hills, Streets & Roads, A Hundred Posters, Roof, Kit Robinson & Erica Hunt’s KPFA radio program In the American Tree, the poets-&-performance artists series at The Farm in SF, the first collective presentation in Alcheringa, the emergence of publishers including The Figures & Tuumba, roughly 1974-78 – this was the period of the greatest activity & intensity

§         A late period of much broader public response, the keys being the start-up of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Tom Mandel’s tenure directing the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, the period of language-bashing gets under way in full force in Poetry Flash, the San Francisco Chronicle, Partisan Review, roughly 1978-1981

§         A moment beyond which langpo was so fully integrated into the broader scene of writing and culture that it becomes functionally meaningless to talk about it as a separate & distinct phenomena – I date this in my own head with the publication of the first issue of Poetics Journal in January 1982. PJ was directed outward to the general culture in a way that none of the earlier publications had been.


** Carl Rakosi’s comment on the Penn webcast that he & Basil Bunting “didn’t get along” would have seemed shocking to me in my twenties. Within a year or so of that argument with Levertov, Duncan would go through a period in which he counted out loud to three after every line break in Passages!


*** Perhaps one-third of the contributors to the anthology In the American Tree have produced substantial amounts of critical &/or theoretical writing. But two-thirds have not. I would argue that it is a mistake to privilege those poets who produce critical writing over those who do not.


+ Scar tissue that was duly marked whenever an older poet argued that langpo was but New Criticism with a human face.


++ Eliot Weinberger falls for this line when he claims that “Lowell considered himself a Poundian; he loved WCW; everyone remembers his famous ‘raw and the cooked’ as referring to him and Ginsberg, but in fact, RL thought he was one of the ‘raw,’ compared to Wilbur etc.”