Consider the first ten
sections of Complete Thought by Barrett Watten, first published in 1982, available now in Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon,
Things fall down to create drama.
Daylight accumulates in photos.
Bright hands substitute for sun.
Crumbling supports undermine houses.
Connoisseurs locate stress.
Work breaks down to devices.
Necessary commonplaces form a word.
The elements of art are fixed.
A mountain cannot be a picture.
Rapture stands in for style.
Worn-out words are invented.
We read daylight in books.
Construction turns back in on itself.
Eyes open wide to see spots.
Explanations are given on command.
The poem continues this
spare, riveting process for a total of 50 sections.
Like all the best works that
I’ve quoted in the blog that are already 20 or more years old – Grenier’s Sentences, Faville’s “Aubade,” Stanley’s
“Pompeii” – “Complete Thought” is as stunning today as it was when it was first
published. For me, reading Watten is a good amount like listening to early Bob Dylan:
an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously. Otherwise I’m
apt to find myself sounding like a poor imitation days, if not weeks, later.
“Complete Thought” is a poem very close to the center of my own experience of
what it means to be a poet. I can’t imagine reading it as anything less than a
Thinking specifically of Rodney
Koeneke’s questions Sunday concerning language poetry, the unconscious
& the spiritual, “Complete Thought” strikes me as a text aimed almost
directly at the unconscious. At one level, Watten is the first poet since
Spicer to really get the power of
overdetermination & render it not merely palpable, but unmistakable in a
Part of this is accomplished
through a classic deployment of new sentences – the image schemas enveloping
each first sentence is sufficiently remote from any schema surrounding the
second sentence in its pair that the structurally implicit “causal” relation
between them is felt for what it déjà
toujours is: the reader’s superimposition, a form of violence acted on the
text by the reading process itself.
By themselves, the sentences
of “Complete Thought” are unexceptional – so much so that they stand out with a
sheen one associates with neomodern design, a functionalism so bare it almost
hurts, casting every individual element into a high-contrast relief. An
important part of Watten’s genius here lies in the recognition that the form of
the direct sentence, by itself, carries its own psychic & socio-political
baggage. The aggressiveness of the piece, indeed its emotional tone, is
governed precisely by our experience of syntax as force – in every sense of that
Koeneke links language
poetry to mysticism through apophasis, a term with both rhetorical &
theological meanings. From the Greek for “to speak” (phasis) “away” (apo), the term is a primary device of
critical negation – the standard rhetorical example is a single sentence that
asserts negativity while claiming not to speak of it, as in “I won’t discuss
George W’s incompetence.” The little I know of negative theology* suggests that
apophasis proposes the idea that God is “absence,” “difference” or “otherness.”
Framed as apophatic discourse, it becomes evident that the privileged moment in
the new sentence lies between the period of one sentence and the capital letter
that initiates the next – the same terrain rendered so vividly in “Complete Thought.”
Koeneke’s paragraph on the
apophatic is worth repeating:
The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however -
approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial)
parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an
external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an
arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I
could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language
writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar
orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with
words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.
It would be possible to pick
apart each of these sentences, phrase by phrase: the idea that “language is
inadequate to apprehend reality” is a considerable leap, given the diversity of
writing that gets typed as langpo**. But it seems evident that what Koeneke
most usefully is after is the link here between Spicer’s use of
overdetermination in his writing and that gap between sentences at the heart of
Does this make Barrett Watten a spiritual writer? Only if he
wants to be. Rather, I think the question more important to pose here is
really occurs in that gap between sentences that a generation of
writers would begin to explore this all-but-invisible terrain in such
significant numbers. To frame a response in terms of psychology, spirituality
or even linguistics is to freeze the discussion into the constraints of an
already existing discipline. Yet it is exactly the inability of any inherited
intellectual or social tradition to – and I’m choosing my words deliberately
here – “nail down” this space that has given it just such potency for our time.
So in this sense I would
agree with one aspect of Koeneke’s initial argument – that there are a lot of
relatively younger writers today who adopt some of the surface features of
langpo in order to rehabilitate it back into an already canned psychology of
the person, say the way Carol Maso’s Ava tames Beckett when what we really need is a
writing that explodes & explores that which is most wild there. Watten, in
contrast, is not a poet of compromise. Which is precisely a mark of his
Koeneke’s reductive tendency to collapse language writing to a single (if
transpersonal) agency – as in “can Language writing address X” type statements
– I’ve simply ignored here in order to chase more valuable avenues of response.
My usual reply to Can-language-poetry-address type questions is “only if it has
an envelope and some stamps.”
Labels: Barrett Watten, Rodney Koeneke