“Pilots & meteorologists disagree about the sky.”*
from TJANTING, by Ron Silliman
“Seriously, these sorts
of far away
their columnar pretense.”
from GRADATION, by Charles Bernstein
“In its first dumb form
language was gesture
technique of travelling over sea ice silent
before great landscapes and glittering processions
vastness of a great white looney north
of our forebeing.”
from SECRET HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE, by Susan Howe
One of the architects of the Language movement, Ron Silliman, has said of this type of poetry, it’s a “community of concern for language as the centre of whatever activity poems might be”. Silliman would also confirm that this notion may be expounded in any style or method providing the product is not merely a “voice poem”, that is, the writer conveying to reader a “natural” message in narrative sequence. Charles Bernstein once said, “there is no natural writing style”. If there is a “natural” writing style then it is fact based on assumed knowledge and methods or patterns of delivery, leading to, in the words of William Hartley, author of the influential volume Textual Politics and the Language Poets, ” a socially contrived basis of…writing”. Language poetry is about going beyond the boundaries “traditional/conventional” language usage places on notions of meaning. This re-working of material through aesthetic discourse is done in a political light, or at least with a political awareness, though in a way which refutes the idea that language should only refer to that which occurs outside itself.
The Language poets do not exist as an anathema. They are grounded and influenced by many earlier poets and movements, such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein (of “the rose is a rose is a rose” fame), Charles Olson (and The Black Mountain/Projectionist school in general), John Ashbery, Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, the Dadaists (especially Tristan Tzara), The Russian Futurists, and Surrealism. In the case of the Russian Futurists they identified with a movement that was born out of revolution in the same way as they themselves were a resistance to the Vietnam War and Watergate. Similarly, the Dadaists, with their hatred of the corrupt and war-decadent European State system sought a “truth”. As Tristan Tzara had said in his “Introduction To Dada”:
It seemed to us that the world was losing itself in idle babbling, that literature and art had become institutions located on the margin of life, that instead of serving man they had become the instruments of an outmoded society.
As will be obvious to the reader by now, Language poets do not separate the political from language. And in a sense all language IS political.
Language poets are an extremely diverse though networked group of practitioners. There are a plethora of small magazines and presses devoted exclusively to their work, and also a communal (if somewhat defensive at times – a kind of “us” and “them” attitude towards more traditional and conservative schools of verse) spirit that allows extremely diverse poets to feel they share a common ground. Some of the American journals which have been significant over the years, since the first issue of This in 1971, a year seen as the starting point of the movement, are L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, SULFUR, TEMBLOR, QU, MIAM, ROOF, TOTTEL’S, SINK, and TRAMEN. Major anthologies include: In The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (selections from the journal of the same name), eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein; The American Tree,, ed. Ron Silliman 1986; Language Poetries, ed. Douglas Messerli, 1987; and From The Other Side Of The Century, ed. Douglas Messerli, 1994. There are numerous poets and critics , and in many cases poets are also critics. Some of the most influential poets are: Bruce Andrews, Steve Benson, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Ray DiPalma, Carla Harryman, Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Diane Ward, and Lyn Hejinian.
The Language poet, regardless of differences of aesthetics and theory, looks to the value of the individual word. As the Russian Futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchonykh wrote in their 1913 manifesto “the word as such”: [in their poetry] “the word developed as itself alone”. Through the combination of individual words, phrases, sentences, etc., each word is attached to another by a series of associations. The pre-Babelic notion of one universal language comes into play here. In much the same way as Marx’s “commodity fetishism” may be seen as an answer to the corruption of speech by capitalism, itself a necessary step to liberation, the confusion of Babel may be seen as a learning curve. The loss of mono-articulation does not deny its universal roots/associations. As in the State of Nature people used language to work together as a tool for survival, as opposed to the capitalist use of language for profit and subjugation, so the language poet tries to recapture this original “purity” of words. In a sense the avant-garde, in general, might be perceived as being a series of rearrangements of anachronistic sensibilities.
These practitioners, would, of course, reject the notion of the “romantic” poet who defines self through comparisons to the “natural” world, looks for a specific (predictable) series of references to subvert the reader, and as a consequence making the poet’s ego central to perceptions of the outer world, regardless of persona (which is often something of a facade in any case). Steve McCaffery says : “Reference in language is a strategy of promise and postponement; it’s the thing that language never is, never can be, but to which language is always moving.” Words, like labour and production, can so often become victims of “commodity fetishism”, assuming “a fantastic form different from their reality” (Capital 1, Marx) – as we are “told” what we “know” we become increasingly complacent and victimized by language. Julia Kristeva, in Revolution in Poetic Language, examines the liberating nature of the semiotic (“includes drives, their dispositions, and their divisions of the body by the ecological and social system surrounding the body, such as objects and pre-Oedipal relations with parents” – Hartley), and the contrasting oppresive “symbolic” (“logical and orderly framing of language” – Hartley). She says, in “The Signifying Process”:
The regulation of the semiotic in the symbolic through the thetic break, which is inherent in the operation of language, is also found on the various levels of society’s signifying edifice. In all known archaic societies, this founding break of the symbolic order is represented by murder – the killing of a man, a slave, a prisoner, an animal. Freud reveals this founding break and generalizes from it when he emphasizes that society is founded on a complicity in a common crime.
In the same way, the “romantic” poet exploits our complicities to reference his/her self and divert our attentions from the commonweal. In the course of this we become complacent and dulled to the mode of production that removes surplus labor from its producers, in Marxist parlance.
It is worth noting that despite their general obsession with theory and critical practice, the Language poets tend to be anti-Academic (i.e The Academy), and in fact grew out of an antipathy towards the Academic verse of the 50s and 60s, as well as the incorporation of poets such as Creeley, Duncan, and Olson into the literary canon of the era. Language poetry, above all else, should challenge the reader. Stimulation comes of disorientation. The Russian Formalists were fond of the word “ostranenie” which may be roughly translated into “genuine strangeness”. There are boundaries, but only insofar as they are constructs of a post-Babel Capitalist world (the dismantling of the “common” language providing a complex market and consequently the ideological starting point for Capitalism). They are there to be passed through, or over, or under, or negotiated in some way.
Language Poetry in Australia, at least in terms of publishing, is in its infancy, despite certain poets (such as Kris Hemensley and a circle of poets “centred” around Melbourne’s Collected Works Bookshop), having worked in a similar vein to their American models for many years.ت In 1991 Meanjin ran a special Language Poetry issue which included both American and Australian practitioners of the art. This issue prompted much dialogue amongst writers and theorists around the country. One of the major questions addressed was whether or not there could in fact be a school of poetry in Australia recognized as Language Poetry. It could be argued that “Language Poetry” is purely an American phenomenon (be it one heavily influenced by modern European – particularly French – theory and language experimentation) and that Australians have, like other nations and cultures, hybrided its theories to suit their own social, political, and linguistic peculiarities. According to Sigi Curnow in her article “Language Poetry And The Academy”:
The term “Language” in this enterprise ends up exhibiting the kinds of textual dislocations with which writing itself is preoccupied; unstable, localized, “Language” becomes a sort of shifting signifier, embracing a diverse range of practices and concerns.
To conclude, I’ll quote Ron Silliman quoting (a favourite Language past-time!) Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
The social revolution … cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.