Saturday, June 14, 2008

Language Poetry

Notes For Echo Lake - 4

Who did he talk to

Did she trust what she saw

Who does the talking

Whose words formed awkward curves

Did the lion finally talk

Did the sleeping lion talk

Did you trust a north window

What made the dog bark

What causes a grey dog to bark

What does the juggler tell us

What does the juggler’s redness tell us

Is she standing in an image

Were they lost in the forest

Were they walking through a forest

Has anything been forgotten

Did you find it in the dark

Is that one of them new atomic-powered wristwatches

Was it called a talking song

Is that an oblong poem

Was poetry the object

Was there once a road here ending at a door

Thus from bridge to bridge we came along

Did the machine seem to talk

Did he read from an empty book

Did the book grow empty in the dark, grey felt hat blowing down the street, arms pumping back and forth, legs slightly bowed

Are there fewer ears than songs

Did he trust a broken window

Did he wake beneath a tree in the recent snow

Whose words formed difficult curves

Have the exaggerations quieted down

The light is lovely in trees which are not large

My logic is all in the melting-pot

My life now is very economical

I can say nothing of my feelings about space

Nothing could be clearer than what you see on this wall

Must we give each one a name

Is it true they all have names

Would it not have been simpler

Would it not have been simpler to begin

Were there ever such buildings

I must remember to mention the trees

I must remember to invent some trees

Who told you these things

Who taught you how to speak

Who taught you not to speak

Whose is the voice that empties

By Michael Palmer
From accessed 4/24/08.

Palmer is frequently associated with Language Poetry, a connection which he responded to in a recent interview in Jubilat by saying: "It goes back to an organic period when I had a closer association with some of those writers than I do now, when we were a generation in San Francisco with lots of poetic and theoretical energy and desperately trying to escape from the assumptions of poetic production that were largely dominant in our culture. My own hesitancy comes when you try to create, let's say, a fixed theoretical matrix and begin to work from an ideology of prohibitions about expressivity and the self—there I depart quite dramatically from a few of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets."

From the poets dot org website accessed 6/14/08.

What is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? I got what seems to be a nice introduction from the Poetry Previews website:

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y was born in 1971 with the release of a new magazine titled This, which culminated in the release seven years later of the magazine titled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The early 1970s was an ideal time for a new movement in poetry. Early challenges to mainstream poetry had already begun, thanks in large part to the Projectivist poets of Charles Olson, a Black Mountain poet.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y was not simply a movement to bring renewed interest to language, but to the structures and codes of language: how ideas are represented and formulated to transmit ideas, thoughts, and meaning. Jerome McGann writes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y in his essay "Contemporary Poetry, Another Route":

Here a conscious attempt has been made to marry the work of the New American Poetry of the fifties with the poststructural work of the late sixties and seventies. As Frost, Yeats, Auden, and Stevens are the "precursors" of the poets of accommodation, Pound, Stein, and Zukofsky stand behind the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. Oppositional politics are a paramount concern, and the work stands in the sharpest relief, stylistically, to the poetry of accommodation.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y also recognized that language is political. In the same way that American farmers hid behind tree trunks and took pop shots at British soldiers who stood in formation in open fields during the revolutionary war, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S fractured the language in an attempt to wage their own rebellious assault against the social and political structure inherent in the Imperial force of the English language.


A difficulty for many readers of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y is its preoccupation with fragments, nonsense, and unmeaning; as well its rejection of the narrative model that has been the basis of nearly all types of literature. The traditional mode of reading for referential meaning does not work, as writers of this type of poetry attempt to unlock meaning by first unlocking our preconceptions (and preoccupations) of meaning.


Whether L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y succeeds to gain a large audience is irrelevent. The movement has brought together a dedicated and insular community that thrives on each other's ideas and perceptions. Many poets who are not L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S have gained a new sense of their "poetic" place and understanding from simply exploring the movement's aesthetic. Ironically perhaps, many writers considered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S resist the label and attempts to define themselves within it. Despite similarities between the work of John Ashbery and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y, Ashberry has said he doesn't align himself with these poets because he believes language should ultimately depend on references to meanings generated outside language.

More on this is available at the Poetry Previews website., Wikipedia, Poets dot org, Electronic Poetry Center, and UBUWEB, among others.

It seems to me that I need something like a Philosophy of Poetry in order to understand this aesthetic. For some poets, poetry is their way of understanding the world, much like science is a scientist's way of understanding the world. Take science away from a scientist and we have a person who seems lost and looking for a way to understand the world and himself/herself in it. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are not interested in taking poetry away from anyone; they want the poet to be aware of the political nature of language itself, and to consider that a word means what we agree on it to mean. As a teacher, I'm all for metacognition. The metacognition that results from the type of awareness recommended by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets seems to me a special type of awareness that is made possible by literary critics generally. It's another means of refining one's aesthetic.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement


Joseph Hutchison said...

Now this is fairly hilarious, I must say—praising Pound and Stein for their "oppositional politics": the former who accommodated himself quite nicely to the craven pig Mussolini, the latter who cheerfully accommodated herself to Vichy's Marshal Petain and who praised "the F├╝hrer's qualities of greatness" (see If Palmer wants to approvingly cite these two fascists as part of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry's pedigree, he is welcome to do so. But the rest of may be forgiven for being amused by his claims for the importance of both the movement and its precursors.

Andrew Christ said...

Thank you Joseph for opening my eyes re: Gertrude Stein. I did not know that she A) was pro-Hitler B) cultivated Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse or that C) her novels, memoirs, lectures and plays were ever regarded as "stylishly avant garde."