Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jill Scott – Taped, 1975


Lately I have been asked more than once about this weblog’s “conservative” stance on poetics. The scenario is generally the same. The person asking reminds me that my own work is perceived as quite post-avant – 2197 in particular gets cited as an instance of this – I edited In the American Tree – and yet many of the poets whose work I’ve praised here, from Robert Kelly to Tsering Wangmo Dhompa & Devin Johnston, appear on the surface to be more conventional than my own writing. At the same time, I’m seen as being unduly harsh toward “post-language” poets such as Brian Kim Stefans or Kenny Goldsmith. One person went so far as to suggest that I thought history – or at least literary history – ended with Bob Grenier. What gives?


It is, on the surface at least, a disturbing critique. The most virulent & upsetting attacks on langpo came not from literary conservatives in the 1970s & early ‘80s, but from writers associated with the New American Poetry of the 1950s & ‘60s. I’ve always felt that the most shrill of this critics objected to language poetry not because of the writing itself, but rather because the social phenomena of it changed one’s sense of the map & that therefore the underlying literary terrain to which they’d sworn allegiance would be perceived as no longer existing if I & my friends were allowed to persist. Am I simply revisiting this same problem on the next generation of poets? Doing onto others as was done onto me?


I sure hope not. The question – and the issues it invokes – reminds me not a little of a parallel issue in the arts that was taking place simultaneous with elaboration of what came to be called language poetry during the 1960s & ‘70s. Up until the mid 1960s, abstract expressionism had been the dominant mode of painting in the United States – indeed, the thumbnail history of langpo found in the blurb on my work in the new Addison Street Anthology, by Robert Hass & Jessica Fisher, explicitly associates language poetry’s interest in the materials of writing with AE’s parallel concern with the uses of paint & plane.¹ During the next decade, however, AE was overthrown – or so it was perceived – by movements coming from a variety of different positions: Pop Art brought back figuration as a possibility & would soon exfoliate outward into a wide range of pictorial aesthetic tendencies; conceptual & performance artists dematerialized the entire art process, challenging the very materiality that AE was perceived as putting at the center of its cosmos (&, given the work & statements in particular of Barnett Newman & Mark Rothko, the spiritual or religious implications of all this could not have been more explicit).


Beyond the Haight coffeehouse of the Grand Piano, which hosted the first reading series associated with langpo in the mid-1970s, the other space that came to be associated with it – primarily for hosting Bob Perelman’s famed talk series – was what was then known as 80 Langton Street (now New Langton Arts). 80 Langton was literally the address of a warehouse owned & managed by the Art Dealers Association – a trade association of the SF galleries – where they could hold overstock. The initial reason that the performance space was created in half of this space was simply that many of the new generation of San Francisco-based performance artists – Terry Fox, Tom Marioni, the Survival Research Lab & their compadres – all very hot during the 1970s – wanted to use galleries as sites for their pieces, but this often later meant that gallery owners had to clean flour, blood, piss & what have you up from their wall-to-wall carpets.


While some poets – Steve Benson & Carla Harryman mostly – incorporated performance into their presentation (& in Steve’s case, composition) of writing – & everyone was already quite aware of Jackson Mac Low & Vito Acconci on the East Coast – the principle relationship between the two aesthetic phenomena in San Francisco was primarily cohabitation of this space, made possible because the first director of 80 Langton, Renny Pritikin, was also a poet. At one point a couple of years later, I and painter/performance/media artist Jill Scott co-curated a series called Verbal/Eyes at an art space on Potrero known as The Farm² that attempted to join – or at least bump – the two arts communities together.


I bring up this bit of history, because it has echoes for me of the same discourse as I’ve heard it of late with regards to this site. There were a number of disjunctions between the performance folks of that generation & the language poets, but the major one – Scott was the person who first noted it – was that the practitioners of langpo had a shared vocabulary, whereas each performance artist was pretty much doing his or her own thing.


The other aspect – the one I’m hearing/think of today – is that the same sort of terminology about the visual arts – “post-painting,” for example – was being tossed out that is now being used with regards to “post-language.” Yet, with 25-plus years hindsight, it seems quite apparent in 2005 that San Francisco’s performance work of the 1970s – much of which was terrific, tho far too spottily documented – was anything but “post-painting” any more than such East Coast examples as Lawrence Weiner’s art gallery wall slogans or Carolee Schneeman reading from a scroll extracted from her vagina were.


As everyone from Anselm Kiefer to Richard Tuttle to Susan Bee & Francie Shaw demonstrate, there is no such thing as post-painting any more than Carl Andre or Jeff Koons or Christo could be characterized as post-sculpture. Rather, there exists a wide range of genre – wider than existed earlier in the 20th century – that all be called visual art, but which function more or less independently.


The same is increasingly true of poetry.


Thus vispo is not the same as what I might now call Flashpo, tho both extend genres that can trace their heritage back to the “golden age” of concrete poetry in the days of May Ellen Solt & Emmett Williams. Neither is related particularly to the kind of performance/documentary poetics being articulated these days by Kenny Goldsmith. None of the above has much to do with the various trends that exist within the School of Quietude, that traditionalist poetics that tends to view American literature as a branch of British literature – tho not the Brit Lit that could include the likes of Bunting, Jones, MacDiarmid, Raworth, Oliver, Prynne, Pickard, Clark or Fisher.


I suspect that now we are moving into a space even within the traditions that trace their heritage back to the New American poetries & to the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky tradition before that are themselves evolving into different traditions that go well beyond merely sometimes contentious literary tendencies. They are (we are) gradually transforming into multiple genres of verse.


There are – and will continue to be – all manner of interesting border questions, just as Anselm Kiefer raises them in his own work: is he one of the best abstract painters alive or merely a great representational one? How is it possible to be both?


If you read In the American Tree at all closely, you will note that it is hardly the trashing to the New American tradition that it was once imagined to be. Indeed, as I noted in my introduction to that volume, Grenier – in his major theoretical statements that kicked off the first issue of This – proposed a writing that he himself characterized as projectivist, literally manifesting what had only been implicit in the writing of Charles Olson & the early work of Robert Creeley. There were also a number of poets in that collection whose writing reflected a sympathy towards the New York School. Going beyond just the New American/Pound-et al heritage, you could find historical traces of an interest in surrealism in such diverse poets as P. Inman & Barrett Watten. Watten, Lyn Hejinian & yours truly were all also absorbing as much of the Russian Futurists & Formalists as we could get our hands on. Langpo in this sense was hardly a break with anything. Rather, it was a selective re-envisioning of literary history – and possibility – bringing forward aspects of several tendencies, arriving (hopefully) at a new intersection not as any end point, but rather as an additional jumping-off place for still further, newer modes of art. As William Carlos Williams first proposed in Spring & All: the perfection of new form as additions to nature. To this day, that still sounds to my ear as the best definition of art I have ever come across.



¹ Tho they call AE “abstract impressionism.”


² At the intersection of what is now Cesar Chavez Avenue, it was literally the site of the last working farm in the city limits. Artists were attempting – in vain, as it turned out – to save the space from being developed beyond recognition. We worked with & around goats & chickens & geese in the series – I worked the geese into a reading, rather like a saxophone improv background. Scott, for her part, did a performance on horseback while out the barn door, directly across the street, a little league field revealed a game under the glare of lights underway.