The Coming of Age of Language Poetry

Maggie O’Sullivan, ed. Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK..Afterword by Wendy Mulford. London: Reality Street Studios, 1996. L9.0 paper.
Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. viii + 187 pp. $39.50; $15.95 paper.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

published in Contemporary Literature, 28 (Sept. 1997), pp. 558-68.


The two books under review constitute an odd pair. Bob Perelman, himself a leading language poet and the author of the widely discussed (University of California Press, 1994), here writes what must be the first “inside” critique of the poetry he and his friends practice. The time has come, now that the language movement’s “initial phase . . . is over” (17), Perelman argues, “to unravel recent received ideas of language writing as a uniform practice,” as part of a larger effort “to reconfigure the categories of literary history” (11). But although he gives sensitive and subtle readings of a large number of his fellow practitioners–Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Steve Benson, Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson, Robert Grenier, Susan Howe, Carla Harryman, and Barrett Watten among others– Perelman’s book conveys more equivocation than enthusiasm for the practices under consideration. He wants, by and large, to defend the politically charged, formally radical poetry of the 1980s, but, as it works out, I would guess few of the enemies of language poetry, few, even, of the more or less neutral members of the poetry community, would rush out to buy Bruce Andrews’s I Don’t Have Any Paper so Shut Up or Barrett Watten’s Progress after reading Perelman’s discussion of these volumes.

At the same moment–and here’s the irony–Ken Edwards’s London-based Reality Street Editions has published, under the editorship of the poet Maggie O’Sullivan, an anthology of “linguistically innovative” poems by women (from Canada and the UK as well as the U.S.)– poems that are nothing if not dazzling in their breadth, range, and authority. Even without O’Sullivan’s introduction and Wendy Mulford’s Afterword, the poems included (many by the same authors Perelman discusses) testify to the enormous strength of language poetry and its cognates in the 1990s. Inventiveness, both verbal and visual, intellectual density, and especially wit and energy : these are the features notable in the work of the thirty poets included in Out of Everywhere .

So what’s going on here? Are women language poets coming into their own just when their male counterparts are flagging? Has second-stage language poetry abandoned some of the principles of its New York and San Francisco founding fathers? Or is it just that Perelman is trying a little too hard to be even-handed and hence tempering his instinctive enthusiasms for radical poetries? These are not easy questions to answer.

The most successful pieces in Perelman’s collection of rather disparate and mostly previously published writings, are, to my mind, the two long manifesto-poems that frame the book. The title poem, presented at a panel on the subject of “marginalization of poetry” at the annual American Comparative Literature Association conference in San Diego in 1991, is a delicious Popean parody, a kind of postmodern “Essay on Criticism” written in 125 couplets, at once ordered (six words to the line) and free (they exhibit neither rhyme nor meter). Throughout, the poet plays on the word “marginal,” for example:

. . . to defend this

poem from its own attack , I’ll
say that both the flush left

and irregular right margins constantly loom
as significant events, often interrupting what

I thought I was about to
write and making me write something

else entirely. Even though I’m going
back and rewriting, the problem still

reappears every six words. So this,
and every poem, is a marginal

work in a quite literal sense.
Prose poems are another matter: but

since they identify themselves as poems
through style and publication context, they

become a marginal subset of poetry,
in other words, doubly marginal.. . . . (pp. 4-5)

and so it goes, playing on marginality so subtly that, by poem’s end, we are quite ready to assent to the poet’s wry contention that poems are, after all, quite literally “marginal,” but that, at another level, “a self-critical poetry, minus the / short-circuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege, might / dissolve the antinomies of marginality that / broke Jack Spicer into broken lines” (10).

The same spirit of play animates “An Alphabet of Literary History” (#8). Again Perelman’s couplet manifesto depends upon intricate allusions to earlier poets. The section “C,” for example, begins with a parodic version of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”– “A Critic came to me and asked: What is language writing?”– incorporating Williams’ “By the road to the contagious hospital” as well as Hamlet into the global business world of the nineties:

Or I guess it is the birth of post-industrial code-splicing from a shoal of
territorial barks before any one dog has had enough. This process
gripped down and began to awaken just after the death of Hamlet’s
father in a material downpour. . . . (147)

It is a virtuoso performance, as is the dialogue between Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes (“A False Account of Talking with Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes in Philadelphia”) that concludes the book. The two seemingly unlike writers, it turns out, have a lot more in common than their sexual proclivities and their love of cigarettes; they share an obsession with le mot juste and with precision of language, that transcends whatever their differences of nationality, style, and manner.

What, then, about the book’s larger argument? Perelman’s first chapter, “Language Writing and Literary History,” sets the stage. It begins with the observation–a very important one, I think–that language poetry was primarily an oppositional movement, conceived at a moment in our history when “The poet as engaged, oppositional intellectual, and poetic form and syntax as sites of experiment for political and social purposes” (12) were considered taboo in the creative writing workshop. Poetic language was supposed to be “natural,” and the unique “authentic” voice was considered the hallmark of poetry. In this climate, language poetics, to put it simply, sought to restore the intellectual and the political to poetry, to ally itself more meaningfully to contemporary developments in theory and cultural studies. Different as individual language poets might be, “A neutral description of language writing might attempt to draw a line around a range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary I (in some cases)” (21).

A very accurate description and admirable in its tentativeness. The difficulty, though, is that Perelman never quite explains why political/theoretical/ intellectual poetry should not be “referential” or “syntactic.” And when he turns to specific instances, he shifts gears. Passages by Rae Armantrout, David Melnick, Bruce Andrews, Steve Benson, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman, often no more than ten lines long, are explicated: Perelman’s readings demonstrate nicely that these passages do have meanings, that their authors have specific aims in mind, and that they “work.” But in his zeal to emphasize difference– the “mutated or degraded” words of David Melnick, , versus the “real” but violent language of Bruce Andrews, for example — Perelman seems to forget about the question of poetic necessity he set out to discuss: why, after all, are the verbal and formal choices in question superior to those of more mainstream poets?. When, for example, he says of Armantrout’s “Postcards,” “The verisimilitude of the opening stanza is ‘too convincing’: the man dutifully rubbing his eye makes the poet find her own clear vision a sham” (22), one may conclude that the poem can after all be paraphrased and is thus not so different from the poetic modes it seeks to deconstruct.

Further along in the chapter, Perelman describes the collaborations he made with Kit Robinson and Steve Benson in 1976 in San Francisco. When the three met, one of them evidently read from whatever book was lying around the house (most often, not surprisingly for the late seventies, a book of postructural theory), and the other two typed up what they heard; the “automatic listening” in question producing such lines as Perelman’s “Instead of ant worts I saw brat guts” (32), which became the epigraph for Ron Silliman’s landmark anthology In The American Tree(1986). The account of group improvisation is appealing, but it isn’t clear to me what makes this and related Dadaesque experiments all that unusual or important. And since, some twenty years after the fact, the “brat guts aesthetic,” as Perelman himself calls it (34), seems to have made little impact on the larger poetry culture, the collaborative play here described may well be a peripheral aspect of the language movement.

Indeed, Perelman’s account of the early San Francisco language scene will be of interest primarily to those who were there rather than to the wider readership he hopes to gain for language poetry. The same holds true for the chapter on Robert Grenier. Here Perelman gives an excellent account on the relationship of Grenier’s Sentences to the sequence that gave rise to it, namely Robert Creeley’s Pieces. The context of Grenier’s now fabled battlecry , “I HATE SPEECH!” is laid out and the important relationship of Grenier to the Olson tradition is ably analyzed. Perelman concludes by discussing Grenier’s recent boxes, which contain gnomic and often undecipherable sentences handwritten on separate slips of paper, grafitti-like scrawls that “dramatize in a particularly problematic way the tautotological narrative by which the ‘living hand’ of the contingent author becomes imbued, after the fact, with eternal potency.” (55). If this valiant effort on Grenier’s behalf seems less than convincing, it may well be because these writings, like the Dada experiments of Benson, Robinson, and Perelman himself, have a belated quality: from Russian Futurism to Oulipo and Concrete poetry, linguistic and figurative distortion of the kind described has made its mark. And the work that lasts is one that does not merely fragment, distort, write over or under, cut up, splice, or collage, but that uses these techniques to encode complex meanings.

Perelman knows this as well as anyone, as he demonstrates in his essays on Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. The essays on these two poets are critiques, although very gentle ones, written in the spirit of friendship and collaboration. I applaud this aim, since first-stage language writing, beleagured as it was, assumed that every poetic inscription from within the group must somehow be normative. In “Write the Power,” Perelman compares the Utopian “liberated textuality” (90) of Bernstein’s “Defense of Poetry”–the defacing of language via consistent mispelling and faulty grammar so as to avoid all instrumentality–to Kamau Brathwaite’s dialect poetry in X/Self, which functions as overt attack on the values of the dominant culture. “For both Bernstein and Brathwaite,” Perelman argues, “writing is an engine of social change” (95); if this writing has its problems, it’s because of the inevitable gap between the reader’s position and the writer’s. In Bernstein’s case, no matter how “anti-absorbtive” the poet’s language is, the reader inevitably tries to translate it back into some form of coherent discourse, thus cushioning the poet’s transgessive thrust. In Brathwaite’s, a nonnative speaker would similarly “want to translate, get the message; the strangeness of the word would not be an uncanny revelation, it would be an all-too-familiar experience” (93).

This is a neat argument but also a somewhat reductive one. For one thing, “A Defense of Poetry” strikes me as a relatively minor Bernstein poem, a clever tour de force à la David Melnick. There are many other poems– “That Klupzy Girl,” “Lives of the Toll Takers,” “Dysraphism,” “Dark City”–that, far from playing with spelling and pronunciation, as does “Defense,” mount a very complex critique of contemporary culture and behavior. Indeed, the verse essay “Artifice of Absorption” is itself more complicated than Perelman allows, insisting on a both/and criticism where “absorption” at one level becomes “anti-absorption” at another, and vice-versa: “There is, then, a considerably history / of using antiabsorptive techniques (nontransparent or nonnaturalizing elements) / (artifice) / for absorptive / ends. . . . In my poems, I /frequently use opaque & nonabsorbable / elements, digressions & interruptions, as part of a technological / aresenal to create a more powerful/ (“souped-up”) / absorption than possible with traditional, & blander, absorptive techniques.” [1] This seems to me anything but an “apoetics,” as Perelman calls it (85); Bernstein’s is, on the contrary, a fervent plea for finding new forms of construction that will engage the reader, will, in his own words, rivet and enthrall. And in this sense, the relationship to Brathwaite’s particular form of “nation-language” (95) is more tenuous than real.
A similar tenuousness characterizes the title metaphor of Essay #6, “Building a More Powerful Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews and the World (Trade Center).” Just as the strength and complexity of the structure of the World Trade Center makes it all but impossible to bring down the building, no matter how powerful the explosion, so, Perelman argues, “the scale and complexity of what Andrews is trying to bring down [especially in I Don’t Have Any Paper so Shut Up] presents him with a conundrum whose social geometry is similar to the physical geometry that ultimately contains a bomb blast: whatever he destroys tends to shield contiguous and remote areas” (97). Another way of saying this is that the violence and excess of Andrews’ language, his continuously disjunct syntax and typography, ultimately produce a kind of overkill, his “attacks tend[ing] to reinforce their target at least as much as they explode it” (100). A genuinely political poetry, Perelman posits, must assert at least some possibility for identity: “If language is made up of units broken apart as all things are by capitalism, and if nothing new is created beyond the horizon of the phrase or the sentence, then these new, charged units would still depend on capital for energy to band together in momentary transgression” (108).

Here Perelman is on to something important: it is true that Andrews’ poetry is an especially intransigent version of language poetics, that it “leaves only a narrow margin for readers” (108). Yet again I would want to defend Andrews (whose politics, incidentally, I don’t myself share) by pointing out that the sheer brilliance of the vitriol, the elaboration and variety with which the offending discourses are dismantled, creates a dazzling poetic texture and, for that matter, as individual a “voice” as any contemporary poet can claim. The genre may well be burlesque laced with invective, but burlesque is a venerable form and we don’t need to compare Andrews’s poetry to Maya Angelou’s dreadful Inauguration poem (see Perelman 101-105) to discover its strengths.

The best critical essay in The Marginalization of Poetry is, I think, “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” which first appeared in American Literature. In the mid-eighties, Ron Silliman had announced, in an essay that was to become famous, “I am going to make an argument, that there is such a thing as a new sentence and that it occurs thus far more or less exclusively in the prose of the Bay Area.” But although this rather grandiose announcement was followed by fascinating distinctions between conventional narrative and the “new” situation in which “The paragraph organizes the sentences in fundamentally the same way a stanza does lines of verse. . . . the sentences [do not] ‘make sense’ in the ordinary way,” Silliman was never very clear on what his own term really meant. [2] Perelman’s exposition is much clearer: the “new sentence” involves parataxis; it “gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random” (61) And further, “Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences” (61).

This formulation helps Perelman refute Fredric Jameson’s now notorious account of language poetry (specifically, Perelman’s own poem “China”) as a prime exemplar of postmodern “depthlessness, Lacanian schizophrenia, the erasure of history, and the end of personal identity” (63). Parataxis, as Perelman argues convincingly, need not spell any of these things, and the critic must differentiate between the meaningful relationship of the individual sentences, for example, in “China,” and the sheer piling up of depthless images Jameson and others have taken to be a hallmark of capitalism. Most usefully, Perelman now demonstrates the strength of the “new sentence” in Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, and incidentally gives us one of the best commentaries we have on the latter work. Hejinian’s sentences, Perelman shows, are “committed to breaking up any smooth narrative plane” (78), but such “de-narrativization” is part of the larger “construction” of the poem, its very carefully thought-out semantic structure. Indeed, Hejinian’s writing, whether in verse or prose, illustrates Silliman’s principles more adequately than do any of the examples he himself provides.

The Marginalization of Poetry contains many equally fine passages: see, for example, the comparison in “This Page is My Page” (#7) of Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” in which the poet insists on “grant[ing] himself full political agency” (117), to Barrett Watten’s more oblique evocations of “anti-identification” and “anti-response” (126) as political tools. All told, however, Perelman’s book is better in its detail than in its overall aim of “reconfigur[ing] the categories of literary history.” Perhaps it is simply too soon to perform such configuration, and, in any case, Perelman is too much a part of the movement to discriminate between the individidual volumes and sequences of its charter members, many of whom have by now faded into the background of that literary history whose map Perelman wants to redraw.

As poet-disseminators who make no claim, in this instance, to produce literary history or any kind of systematic criticism, Maggie O’Sullivan and Wendy Mulford avoid some of these problems. Out of Everywhere is closer to Don Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) than to Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree. In her introductory note, O’Sullivan explains that her title comes from a comment by an unidentified audience member at Charles Bernstein’s Politics of Poetic Form conference (1990). [3] In response to Rosmarie Waldrop’s talk, the woman in question observed: “there’s an extra difficulty being a woman poet and writing the kind of poetry you write: you are Out of Everywhere.” To which Waldrop responded, “I take that as a compliment. I’ve more or less claimed this is the position of women” (9).

The “linguistically innovate” poetry by women included in Out of Everywhere is thus, first and foremost, poetry that is “excluded from conventional, explicitly generically committed or thematic anthologies of women’s poetry” (9). A double whammy: this is a women’s poetry excluded from “women’s canons” as well as men’s. Its precursors include Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy, HD and Lorine Niedecker and it admits to having learned a great deal from the language poetry of its male counterparts. Indeed, the features Wendy Mulford lists in her Afterword–the “open[ing[] up” of “closed systems of signification,” the use of chance procedures and of “multi- and non-linear” verse forms, the play on “master-texts,” the disruption of “lexical tactics” and the interest in “cybertextual technologies” of the future– all these aspects of “radical form” have been discussed in earlier (and largely male) language anthologies.

But then technique is always and only technique: the “new sentence,” as many readers have noted, can be used in advertising copy as easily as in poetry. What makes the poetry in Out of Everywhere so startling is less the adoption of this or that technique than the exciting swerve away from the still ubiquitous realist / confessional mode (still especially prevalent in women’s poetry) to the historical, the literary, and the mythological. From Susan Howe’s Eikon Basilike, her verbo-visual rendition of the spurious “King’s Book” of Charles I, and Joan Retallack’s equally exciting visual constructs called Afterrimages(I discuss these elsewhere) [4] to Nicole Brossard’s politically and sexually charged lyrics, Caroline Bergvall’s antic performance pieces, and Maggie O’Sullivan’s own riddling Cockerel poems, with their incorporation of diverse linguistic registers from Old English to football cheer, what emerges in this anthology is high intelligence and daring: the willingness to take real risks.

Many of the poets included–Howe, Retallack, Kathleen Fraser, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Rae Armantrout –have already had essays on their work in the pages of Contemporary Literature; it is the English and Canadian poets like O’Sullivan, Denise Riley, Karen Mac Cormack, and Catriona Strang that now deserve our attention, as well as such younger language poets as Diane Ward, whose paste-ups and sections of “Look at Joseph Cornell” are among the high points of this collection. Indeed, even as Bob Perelman seems progressively disenchanted with what he takes to be language poetry’s excessive deconstruction of individual identity, O’Sullivan’s thirty poets have found new ways, not of avoiding identity but of placing selfhood in a larger cultural and social perspective, finding themselves, paradoxically, in their relation to the “mastertexts” with which they engage. Again, this is not as extreme a stance as we might think: it was W. B. Yeats, after all, who said in 1936 that “The poet writes always of his personal life . . . he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.” [5]

Footnotes


[1]
Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 52-53.

[2]
Ron Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987), pp. 63-93; the citations are taken from pp. 63 and 89.

[3]
The conference was held in New York in 1988; the proceedings, edited by Charles Bernstein, were published by Roof Books in 1990, under the title The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy.

[4]
Afterimages: Revolution of the (InVisible) Word, Sulfur 37 (1995): 236-50.

[5]
W. B. Yeats, “A General Introduction for my Work,” Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 509.