INTRODUCTION:

YOUNG AMERICAN POETS

Marjorie Perloff

Yang (Antwerp, Belgium), 182 (Summer 1998): 183-85.


In the 1980s, “language poetry” was such a dominant force in U.S. avant-garde circles that we are only now beginning to realize that something we might designate as “post-language” poetry has come into its own. Peter Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis, for example, studied at Buffalo and Brown with Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Rosmarie Waldrop, yet Gizzi’s “Caption” and Willis’s “Catalogue Raisonné” are meditative lyrics that rediscover the supposedly despised “humanist subject.” Willis begins with ekphrasis, teasing out the implications of the painting she’s looking at, but by the time we reach the lines “a victim’s head contains a letter / the color of water,” we know that Willis’s is a dream landscape, as doggedly literal (“one book and one boat”) as it is finally enticingly impenetrable. Willis’s lyric nicely juxtaposes the verbal and the visual, culminating in the recognition of “a change of tone where the fabric is torn.”

Peter Gizzi’s “Caption” takes its epigraph from one of Ezra Pound’s great favorites–François Villon–a gesture that, so to speak, aligns Gizzi with Modernist lyric. At the same time, Gizzi’s meditation on the proximity of death, whether real or imagined, is presented in a series of disjunctive images. The narrative is occluded but the reader participates in the difficulty of the threshold experience, the coming into being of a new relationship, marked though it is by a “severed line.” “Caption” ends with the recognition of difference: “Grief unlike truth, truth unlike snow / Body unlike its outline.” Gizzi’s “Tous Les Matins du Monde,” similarly brings together the indeterminacy of Ashberyian narrative (“Something must be moving at incredible speed”) with distinct Keatsian echoes, as in “a distracted mind unable to doze in fitful sleep,” and an absence of “explanation” that makes Gizzi’s striving for self-understanding so moving.

Gizzi and Willis write an open, highly variable free verse; by contrast, Star Black, a New York photographer who came to poetry in the last decade, writes sonnets although their lines rarely rhyme. She likes the look of her three Shakespearean quatrains and in “Hoopla,” she also makes the most of the expected couplet, with its punchline, “You never know about men.” But, in the spirit of the nineties (and, like Gizzi, Black has learned much from John Ashbery) Black produces pastiche sonnets. “Employment” is a comic send-up of the Petrarchan love sonnet : here the speaker calculates how appropriate it would be “to love and live with an assistant professor”–the golden mean, so to speak, between the famous (the “top-flight” professor) and the lowly fellow-student. “Hoopla” plays similar games with Shakespeare’s Tempest, pondering what Ferdinand might have accomplished if he hadn’t been such a wimp and done all of Prospero’s bidding.

Cole Swensen is another post-language poet (this time from the San Francisco area) for whom the personal is not so much the political (as it was for such precursors Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten) but an interior landscape one can people with one’s fantasies. Swensen has been writing a series of “Opera Notes”: reimaginings of her favorite operas that splice bits of narrative with song echoes and visual notations of stage decor. As in the case of John Cage’s Europeras, Swensen’s opera fragments are wonderfully absurd, what with Orpheus (not Eurydice) “remain[ing] as salt,” elusive love scenes between Salome and John the Baptist, and “gorgeous” arias punctuated by irrelevant commentary. And although her “subject” is musical, her poetic impetus is visual, the placement of words and lines in space so as to create a charged page design.

If Swensen takes her inspiration from a traditional form like opera, Kenneth Goldsmith, a visual artist again with Cagean leanings, uses specific generative devices, often chosen by means of chance operations. Soliloquy is a project in which Goldsmith tape recorded every word he spoke for a week from the moment he woke up Monday morning to the moment he went to sleep Sunday night. For the transcription, he edited every other voice out but his own and his own was completed unedited. The result is a devastating tour de force: in the extract here we have Kenny telling someone about his adventures with his super-exensive suit and the tailor who almost ruins it for him. In the course of the little narrative, we get the perfect flavor of what actual conversation sounds and looks like, with all its “It’s like it’s like midnight,” it’s way of evading tough issues, its racy, up-to-date, colloquial quality. Not a simulation of speech but speech itself: it is not only fun to read but one admires Goldsmith’s discipline in refusing to evade what he actually said, and its modes of saying. No prettying things up here.

Craig Dworkin, the youngest poet in the group, is in his late twenties, and his prose poem, “The Ossature of Memory,” from which the extract here is taken, is the most austere and paragrammatic piece in the group. Every word is, so to speak, x-rayed, mined for the possibilities of punning and allusion. Dworkin has studied Dada and Situationist poetics carefully. Primarily a visual poet, here he uses words as visual counters. The opening “At rain, leaves: she can go travelling” may refer to leaves in the rain or someone leaving in the rain, even as “At rain,” can be respaced to read “A train.” “Travelling,” moreover,” contains all the letters of “At rain, leaves,” its sign of difference being the single letter “g.” From here on in, Dworkin proceeds to give us remarkably acute linguistic play, ranging from echoes of childrens’ games (“One potato”), to mock aphorisms (“The difference between prose and promise is the insertion of the ego”), citations from Marx in the original German, and mock recipes (About two months or until browned on top. it is done when a toothipick inserted in the center comes out clean.” The first sentence “At rain, leaves” reappears near the end in the “normal” “A train leaves Chicago travelling 60 mph.” And to remind us that we live in a world of email, FAX, and answering machines, the poem moves to the refrain “End of messages.”

What can we expect of American poetry as we come to the end of the century? Judging from the poems here, we can anticipate (1) a return to narrative–but a highly fractured variant; (2) much less resistance to the lyric “I” as operative principle, (3) enormous care for the materiality of words; the look of language as well as to the asyntactic, disjunctive modes we have learned to expect from language poetry, and (4) a return to literary allusion, scorned in the seventies and eighties as too well-bred, together with a new interest in Beauty, the aesthetic, the pleasure of the text. It is an exciting moment for lyric poetry.

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