Thursday, June 16, 2005

Megan Swihart asked a couple of questions that I’ve heard more than once before:

What possibilities are opened and what problems/limitations are created by the academic location of language poets in the academy? Do you feel that language poetry still remains on the margins of American poetry?

Of the 40 poets included in In the American Tree, eleven either have – or have retired from – regular jobs teaching literature &/or writing in the academy. A few others work in or around the academy in different situations. Bruce Andrews teaches, but not literature. Eleven out of 40 is hardly a vast percentage – what is the ratio for contributors to Ploughshares? – yet it clearly is a much higher number than, say, in 1978, the year L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was first published, when I believe only David Bromige & Michael Davidson were teaching literature.

Further, and more important, langpo has been incorporated into academic discourse well beyond the actual employment of a couple of handfuls of individuals. There are many schools that now include writers who might not have been in the Tree, but certainly are not far removed from its concerns as writers. Even more teach different langpos from time to time as a part of the curriculum. And then there are the programs, like the Electronic Poetry Center, PENNsound, Ubuweb, Modern American Poetry & others that make the work of many poets available, and which include language poetry as a regular part of the landscape. Finally, there are university presses from California to Wesleyan to Alabama that are now publishing langpos from time to time.

At one level, this sounds not unlike the experience of the New American Poets twenty years earlier. 20 of the 44 poets included in the Allen anthology went on to have sustained teaching careers, and three – Snyder, Ashbery & Schuyler – have thus far received Pulitzers, not to mention a host of other awards (not, strictly speaking, a function of the academy, but rather an infrastructural adjunct to the trade press world) that have not yet been accorded any of the langpos. Thus language poets have had far less involvement with the academy & other institutions of what Charles Bernstein likes to call Official Verse Culture – not exactly identical to the School of Quietude, tho the overlaps are worth noting – than did the prior generation. Yet this limited engagement has been a point of continuing curiosity & comment with regards to language writing, hardly at all with regards to the New American Poets.

Why is that?

Part of the answer, I think, has been the efficacy of that engagement. There are two dimensions to this, one theoretical, the other institutional. Langpos are perceived to have integrated easily into the academy – at least the nine who actually did once anybody began using the phrase language writing – in part because their ease with theoretical discourse resonated with a theory-driven period in humanities programs in general. This, however, discounts much if not all of the theoretical and critical writing of the previous generation, as if Olson’s critical theory, or Duncan’s, the voluminous reviews and short statements penned by Robert Creeley & Gilbert Sorrentino, the political writing of Amiri Baraka, the various editorial-critical projects of Ed Dorn, the art criticism penned by John Ashbery (and a host of second & third-gen NY Schoolers), the ecological writing of Gary Snyder, the lectures given by Jack Spicer, Lew Welch’s book on Gertrude Stein weren’t, somehow, already there. Or at least were not to be taken seriously outside of certain constrained contexts.

It may well be that with the exception of a couple of famous examples – Harold Bloom’s advocacy for a certain side of John Ashbery, in particular – New American Poets found the impact of their critical work muted by the larger institutional base enjoyed by the School of Quietude in the 1950s & ‘60s, which was just then emerging from the institutional monopoly enjoyed by New Criticism in the 1940s. Yet what was Black Mountain College during the Olson years but an attempt to enact theory in full-blown institutional practice? It was the New American Poets, and some others like Tom Pickard & Andrew Crozier immediately influenced by them, who resurrected the Objectivists – Duncan, Creeley, Levertov & Jonathan Williams raised Zukofsky up from virtual obscurity. It was Allen Ginsberg & Anne Waldman at Naropa who, taking the hint from Black Mountain, showed that an alternative writing & poetics program was indeed possible, Duncan in turn leading the same sort of effort at New College in San Francisco. And it was Olson, Creeley & Allen De Loach who made Buffalo a home for the post-avant long before Charles Bernstein arrived.

If the language poets who moved into the academy in the 1980s & ‘90s flourished there, a major part of the reason was because of the work New American Poets had done a generation earlier to make this possible. Of particular importance – and something seldom noted – were contributions made by that “in-between” generation of poets too young to have been included in the Allen anthology & already mature artists by the time langpo rolled around, people like Robert Kelly at Bard & Kathleen Fraser at San Francisco State, David Antin & Jerry Rothenberg at UC San Diego, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Toby Olson at Temple, Keith Waldrop at Brown, Kenneth Irby at Kansas, Hank Lazer at Alabama, Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo at several different institutions – and the truth is that this list omits more examples than it includes.

So some of the “success” of a few language writers in the academy is really more a matter of them receiving credit for a process that is both larger – and longer in coming – than their own contributions, as such. It’s more as if people just noticed the presence of the post-avant once contributors to In the American Tree showed up. Yet of the 400 writing programs that are a part of the AWP, just how many could one really call post-avant, let alone language oriented, in their flavor? Twenty out of 400? Forty?

Finally, langpo – and the post-avant in general – has been successful because it is centered not in the academy at all, but in the major metro areas of the United States. If 11 out of 40 contributors to the Tree teach writing, or have done so for extended periods, then 72.5 percent have not. They’ve worked as health inspectors, therapists, newspaper editors, typesetters, librarians, marketers, lingerie designers, in non-profit organizations and in the computer industry. That’s where the center of American poetry always has been – as indeed the students in those other 360 or so writing programs will soon discover the moment they don’t get teaching jobs.

So it is in that sense that I would argue that, no, language poetry – a literary tendency I see as an historical moment, say 1970 into the very early 1980s, more than a lifelong description of the writing of those of us tarred with that brush – is not at all marginal to American poetry. It is one part of a much larger, expanded center that I see as quite continuous back to the end of the Second World War & beyond, continuing now, some 20 years after the idea of “language poetry” as something cohesively militant last really made sense , as this much broader post-avant scene that one sees today. The breadth of this is such that one might have, say, Geof Huth at one extreme& Henry Gould & John Latta at another (all librarians, I do believe) – but it’s far larger than any one literary tendency can possibly direct, govern or probably even influence.

So if, by “the academy,” what we mean are those people who teach writing and/or literature for a living, really the question I would pose to Megan Swihart is just the reverse: Should the academy feel that it remains on the margins of American poetry? Less, I think, than was the case some 50 years ago, when Olson, Creeley & to some extent Duncan first pioneered the idea of post-avants teaching for money, tho it still has a long way to go.