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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Radically Universal?

Posted by Sean McCann on 04/17/06 at 10:17 PM

Here’s an interesting article by for fans of Language (once L = A = N = G = U =A = G = E) poetry--Oren Izenberg in Critical Inquiry on “Language Poetry and Collective Life.” Caveat: I’m not a fan myself, nor am I especially educated about the material.  I don’t really have any informed opinions, more like a complacent lack of interest.  But when I stumbled over this essay by chance, I thought that what it had to say sounded ingenious, more or less right, and clarifying.  I’m curious to know whether people who know and love the stuff feel the same.

Unfortunately, Critical Inquiry doesn’t offer full text, but the essay’s available on-line if you’ve got access to JSTOR.  I’d try to summarize the argument, but I must admit that, perhaps due to a current severe caffeine deficiency, I don’t really follow a number of the steps taken.  So, instead I’ll just cut and paste in some of Izenberg’s most sweeping claims and see if anyone interested salutes them. 

I can, though, first make two general remarks.

(1) Izenberg thinks that key to understanding the agenda of Language poetry is an understanding of Chomsky’s distinction between acceptable and grammatical sentences.  (Another admission.  I don’t know anything about Chomsky and wouldn’t recognize a proper use or abuse of him if it walked up and yanked my schnoz.) Despite the fact that Language poets apparently don’t think much of Chomsky, Izenberg believes their poetry is effectively dedicated to playing up the difference between the two ways of thinking about sentences.  The practice of generating innumerable sentences, a large proportion of which challenge the canons of acceptability, seems designed to manifest the gulf between the conventional, culturally determined standards of language use, on the one hand, and the universal, ahistorical, deep structures of grammar on the other.

(2) Izenberg believes that a related, or perhaps analogous, attitude is evident in the Language poets’ avant-gardist dedication to poetry as a medium of community—or, as he says they suggest, of poetry as culture in the anthropological sense.  Izenberg notes (I think) that this dedication runs counter to their disavowal of any of the ways that communities are ordinarily bound, with the result that the avowed community of Language poetry can have no definition or substance except as an alternative to any actually existing form of community.  So, analogously to their implicit attitude toward language, the implicit normative ideal is of a universal and all inclusive category of categories.  (There is, of course, a counter-intuitive charge to that claim since the Language people, like most poststructuralist aligned thinkers, prefer to view themselves as partisans of the local and particular.)

Finally, I should note that, while it might sound that way, Izenberg does not cast his essay as a complaint against Language poetry, but as an effort to clarify a poetic theory that he believes its own practitioners have misdescribed.  In fact, he goes out of his way to say that he’s not arguing for his view of poetry over anyone else’s and does not mean to claim that anyone might not find Language poems beautiful or stimulating.  How seriously to take those disavowals, I couldn’t say.

All that said, here’s some extended passages where the sense and flavor of Izenberg’s view might come clear.

A responsible description of Language poetry, however respectful of experimentation and formal inventiveness, can ignore only at the price of its credibility what I take to be an objective feature of the work: the overall thinness or insubstantiality of the poems Language poets have made. One might call this quality their anaesthetic.

. . .

[I]magine for a moment that [Ron Silliman’s] Tjanting goes on for more than one hundred pages in the same deliberately hobbled mode (because it does). And now imagine that there are thousands upon thousands of poems bearing more than a passing resemblance to it, not in diction or sensibility, but in paratactic structure, low affect, quizzical tone, and theoretical orientation (because there are). Consider them together as a whole, as “Language poetry” one vast, overwhelming corpus whose internal logic (like that of Tjanting itself) is the open-ended algorithm of addition. Soon the rising tally of similarities places impossible demands on our attention and will to articulate and catalogue the manifest differences between one poem and another until the effort to immerse oneself in Language poetry produces the sensation that language as Language poetry imagines and manifests it has neither affect nor tone. Imagine language, in effect, without a speaker. I will suggest that under these conditions, indifference and inattention to the specifics of what is being said is not only a plausible response, it is the strong response that such writing demands. It is precisely in our indifference to actually existing Language poems, in our perception that these poems do not mean to become available for judgments of taste do not mean to be understood, or revisited, or even well-perceived that we register an interesting sense in which Language poetry might be said to be social, as well as the significant sense in which Language poetry is experimental. 

[Experimental, that is, not merely in the sense that they seek to do something new, but in the sense that they try to adduce evidence for theoretical accounts of causal structures—i.e. that they effectively demonstrate the plausibility of a Chomskyian understanding of syntax.]
Language poets are experimental, that is, because they treat their poems not as semantic tokens or aesthetic objects but as examples . . . .  Language poems are social in that what they take poems to be examples of is the unique capacity to produce language altogether and thus to announce as nothing else at the moment seems to be able to do with the same persuasiveness the existence of something fundamentally human on which the very possibility of social life can be predicated. Language poetry considered under this description is simply not a literary practice, for it does not produce objects that belong to any category of language use. Nor is it, properly speaking, an aesthetic practice, for it is not oriented toward aesthesis, or perception. It is, rather, an ontological and ethical practice. Language poets produce poetry that is precisely equivalent to language, where language is considered as a kind of creatural knowledge or potential; therefore Language poets tend to treat the objects of their art poems as epiphenomenal evidence of a constitutively human capacity for free and creative agency that is the real object of their interest.

Sounds plausible to me, and a not bad way of characterizing the fashion in which the Language avant-garde continues in the tradition of the historical avant-gardes.  Takers?


Comments

Totally wrong; doesn’t even deploy the basic bibliography on the subject.  It is consdescending the think that the language poets didn’t understand what they were doing, and that he can come along and explain it to them!  It is based on the premise that language poetry is an an-aesthetic discourse; but if he had read Perloff and other critics who have written about it, he would see that this is not the case.  Could it really be true that “Language poets produce poetry that is precisely equivalent to language”? Reading one page of Silliman would show that his poetry is oriented, precisely, toward “aesthesis, or perception.” So too for Coolidge, Howe, Armantrout, and others I could name. 

I can see how this article might appeal to someone who

(1) is not a fan of language poetry

(2) doesn’t know Chomsky either

It creates a caricature of both, then puts them together.  Ingeniously, but wrongly. Scandalously so. 

Would not an examination of the actual intellectual sources of this poetry be more interesting than a simplifying model that explains it all based on Chomsky?

It’s only plausible if you haven’t read enough of the work to know it’s highly implausible.  At the very least, it’s extremely counterintuitive to anyone who actually admires any language writing at all.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/18/06 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Jonathan, I can see that that might all be true--and I’m completely ready to admit that I can’t speak with any confidence here.  But this seems like maybe a bit of an overreaction.  Izenberg cites and quotes from several works of Perloff and refers to many critical works on and by the Language poets.  As far as I can tell, a fair bit of the extensive basic bibliography is directly deployed in footnote one. 

And, of course, it may well be condescending to say that artists are not necessarily always the best explainers of their work, but it’s the kind of condescension that’s a regular feature of critical writing and difficult to avoid.  To be fair, Izenberg’s argument isn’t quite that the Language poets don’t understand what they’re doing, but that they have inconsistent explanations that can be reconciled by looking at their work and their accounts of it from a different vantage. Izenberg seems to me familiar with the intellectual sources regularly cited in discussion of Language poetry, but to believe that they’re not actually adequate to explaining what’s going on.  Why is that different from claiming, say, that T.S. Eliot’s attacks on romanticism were inconsistent and obscured his own indebtedness to romanticism?

I’m willing to believe the an-aesthetics bit is wrong, but need the claim seem so scandalous as it appears?  Would it be wrong to say that, like previous avant-gardes, the Language poets distrust a conventional aestheticism that they believe confines and devalues poetry and that they seek to rescue poetry from that confinement by upending the experience of beauty?  I confess to not knowing much about Language poetry and to not being drawn to it, but Izenberg’s account of “Tjantling” seems plausible to me.  So, I’ve read one page of Silliman, and don’t see immediately how it shows Izenberg to be obviously wrong.  Can you say more about why it is?

By on 04/18/06 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Someone send out a Bat-signal for Ray and Luther.  They seem to know what they’re doing wrt langpo.

Actually, there’s a good chance that Silliman’s commented on this piece on his blog already.  Let’s see: no hit on “Izenberg”, but I remember that he lost archives at one point. I Emailled him.

By on 04/18/06 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I do over-react to things.  He does have an omnibus footnote at the beginning, but one omnibus footnote does not a critical dialogue make.  What I find scandalous is a lack of interest in engaging with the critical ideas of others, and with the poets themselves. I take it to be axiomatic that Silliman is engaged in an aesthetic tradition that includes the New American poetry and that values visual perception and linguistic acuity, eye and ear. That’s his whole idee fixe.  Surely the burden of proof is on someone arguing elsewise.  It might be anti-aesthetic in the sense that other movements have been perceived as anti-aesthetic, but an-aesthetic, deadening of perception?  Since Perloff already treats LP from within this New American Poetics tradition, it would be hard to engage with her without accepting the premise that this poetry is aesthetically engaged (not just language in some pure Chomskian state), since that underlies all of her analyses.  Therefore, he cannot really write an article of “Critical Inquiry,” in dialogue with the perspectives of other critics.  He doesn’t even say:  “While it may appear that these poets are into sound, sight, aesthetic perception, and most previous criticism takes this as a given, I argue the contrary...” He takes his own counterintuitive premise as a starting point. 

If it were true (What Oren I. says) it would be brilliant. 

I don’t say anyone has to take the authors’ word as gospel.  Authors can be wrong about their own work.  By condescencion I was referring to failure to consider these particular authors as worthy interlocutors in the critical debate.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/18/06 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Confession of ignorance: I don’t have time to read the article.  I’m trying to finish the last chapter of my dissertation (hooray). 

That said, I’d only want to recommend suspicion toward all accounts of “language poetry” that see it as a unified (anti-)aesthetic movement and seek to analyze it as a movement through the lens of a single poet.

Ron Silliman’s work is nothing like Bob Perelman’s, which is nothing like Bruce Andrews, which is nothing like Charles Bernstein’s, which is nothing like Lyn Hejinian’s.  Then there’s the related-but-not-related folks: Fanny and Susan Howe; Clark Coolidge; p inman; Leslie Scalapino; Nathaniel Mackey; Harryette Mullen; and so on.  Even looking at *In the American Tree*, Silliman’s anthology of experimental poetry, it’s difficult to say that Silliman’s work somehow defines or embodies what’s going on across the board.  Even starting from the New Sentence, Hejinian’s *My Life* is like nothing Silliman has done, and the two poets use parataxis for very different purposes (as do other paratactical writers, from Whitman to Hemingway).

Some of these folks are highly “aesthetic” (Nate Mackey), while others are brutally anti-aesthetic (Bruce Andrews).  Some are religious or spiritual (Scalapino and Fanny Howe), while others are marxian materialists (Perelman).  Some are neo-Beat, others neo-NY-School, others neo-dada, others neo-surreal.  The only unifying principle is a dedication to various buried or failed or repressed strains of *past* experimental or socially unacceptable poetry (but not all of these writers would accept, say, Silliman’s history of poetry as the avants against “the School of Quietude” or other like binaries). 

That said, I see no reason why an artist’s take on his/her work needs to be accepted.  At the same time, critics must be sure to match statements of poetics with poetry of that same moment.  Language Poets, like trees and hair, grow and develop over time.  Furthermore, Language Poets, unlike most mainstream poets today, constantly argue with each other about poetics and change their minds. 

Hope this thoroughly unhelpful post is helpful.

By on 04/18/06 at 03:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther’s point is a good one.  Izenberg uses a collaboration between several poets as one of his central examples ("Leningrad").  That allows him to stack the deck, in a sense, by pointing to a collective project in which some of these individual differences are elided.  LP looks “all the same” from a distance, and endlessly varied from close up.  If all these poets were clones of Barren Watten, he might have had a limited point.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/18/06 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m at home and my JSTOR access is at work, so I havn’t read the article either.  But I’m curious about the paragraph beginning “Imagine for a moment that Tjanting goes on ...”

Couldn’t we do the same thing for almost any genre?  Imagine that Trollope’s Phineus Finn goes on for more than seven hundred pages in the same deliberately Victorian-narrative mode (because it does). And now imagine that there are thousands upon thousands of novels bearing more than a passing resemblance to it from the same period, not in diction or sensibility, but in narrative-paratactic structure, one-thing-after-another, make em laugh, make em cry, make em wait.  Consider them together as a whole, as “Victorian tripledeckers” one vast, overwhelming corpus whose internal logic (like that of Phineus Finn itself) is the open-ended algorithm of narrative addition.

And this gets us ... where, exactly?

Luther’s point seems to me spot on: mutatis mutandi, it’s the enormous differences between Trollope and Dickens-Eliot-Thackeray-insertnamehere that strikes us, not this spurious universalism.

By Adam Roberts on 04/18/06 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

PS: So, Luther, did you see the Valve-shaped Bat Signal then?  Or was your contribution serendipitous happenstance?

By Adam Roberts on 04/18/06 at 05:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re Luther’s comment: True, the poets mentioned do not have a great deal in common in terms of their respective poetic techniques, but I think you could make the argument that they do share a great deal in the way of shared metaphysical views (especially in their attitudes towards the nature of language, writing, and subjects) and general methodological procedures.

By on 04/18/06 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Adam, I don’t think there’d be anything terribly objectionable about looking for commonalities among Victorian realists and considering whether those commonalities indicated a common artistic agenda or, as Rocco suggests, shared metaphysical views or what have you.  No reason that should be exhaustive, but no reason it should be ruled out of court, either.

But the example isn’t quite on point. Wouldn’t a closer analogy involve saying something like: “can you really compare Breton and Aragon? after all the surrealists were all different?” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Language poets recognize commonalities among themselves and sometimes speak of themselves as a community or a movement.  So there’s good reason to consider what common motivations they might have and whether their own explanations seem sufficient.  I’m not claiming that izenberg does this adequately--I don’t know--but his ambition seems to me to be something like Renato Poggioli’s, or Cesar Grana’s, or Peter Burger’s.  I.e. people who argued for overarching accounts of the historical avant-gardes that combined an analysis of stated and underlying principles with a consideration of sociological motivations.  None of those people developed views that were entirely consistent with the stated aims of the artists they discussed.  But there was a lot illuminating about them nevertheless. 

In fact, what seems a little strange about the emphasis on the way individual distinctions ward off general accounts is that Silliman claims of that Leningrad project that there are strong commonalities among the poets (proven by a grammar analysis software!) despite what appear to be enormous differences among them.  That’s just a one-off example, but it seems perfectly reasonable for Izenberg to look at that kind of thing and say, “huh?  This argument seems implausible on its face?  What’s the motive, then, for asserting its unlikely claim?”

But then there’s the other side of the coin. Aren’t all the poets listed by Luther agreed in their contempt for “official verse culture”?  Is there any less variety in that antagonist than among the Language poets?  Why is it permissible to lump in one case and not in the other?

I’m sorry, Jonathan, I hadn’t realized that this was all old news to you and you’d been over the ground years ago. I literally just stumbled over the essay and only now followed up on Rich’s remark to see what Silliman had to say on his blog, in the course of which I discovered that you’d already discussed Izenberg in detail. Apologies for roping you back into the discussion again.

Here by the way is Silliman’s comment: 

[Izenberg’s essay] is an almost perfect example of why people who read poetry as, and for, evidence in philosophical debates tend to be clumsy, if not outright incompetent, readers. The article is full of incommensurate leaps – taking individual sentences out of context from within a poetic text & turning them into over-arching claims that language poetry supposedly is making for itself. (Invariably making every langpo responsible for anything any other associated poet may have put into print.) To which Izenberg adds as evidence quotations from some (but hardly all, and hardly a representative sweep of) other langpos, as well as from others who have always been critical of language poetry (such as Leslie Scalapino & Jennifer Moxley), treated here as examples of the problem itself. Not to mention poets who may have felt one way at one time and another at a different time, such as Michael Palmer & Susan Howe. Part of that may just be the problem of trying to shoehorn a complex reality into a streamlined expository narrative, but mostly it’s just intellectual dishonesty. Izenberg very carefully avoids poets like Bob Perelman & Rae Armantrout who would simply contradict most of his major claims. Izenberg’s core complaint – tho he never quite articulates it clearly – seems to be that language poets have more generally aligned themselves with linguistics as defined by cognitive linguistics, whereas he still prefers the older (tho now largely superceded) generative school associated with Chomsky & the magical thinking of his “innateness” thesis.

To me this seems a crudely defensive response, and it’s the kind of thing that has made me even warier of Language poets than I’d otherwise be, and inclined to take non-believers like Izenberg seriously.  I’m not sure why Silliman thinks it’s fair to accuse Izenberg of intellectual dishonesty, where he sees the incompetent reading, why he sees magical thinking in Izenberg’s argument or a complaint against cognitive linguistics, and why he thinks it’s damning to point out that Izenberg has philosophical interests.  In some other context that might seem a fair complaint, but Language poetry doesn’t seem exactly wary of philosophical argument itself.  This looks like saying, see things as we do, or you’re a knave and a clod.  Perhaps this isn’t completely fair, but that’s precisely the kind of attitude that makes me think an outsider’s view is more likely to be illuminating.

By on 04/18/06 at 10:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"in the course of which I discovered that you’d already discussed Izenberg in detail”

Why do blog text box searches so often fail?  You wouldn’t think that there was a likely failure mode in searching for a single word like “Izenberg” ... but I somehow missed it.

By on 04/18/06 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Long-winded as that comment was, I meant to add one other point.  Jonathan, I see what you mean about the difference between an- and anti-aesthetics.  That makes sense to me.  And one of the features of Izenberg’s essay that genuinely raised questions in my mind was the claim that Language poems do not solicit judgments of taste.  In one obvious sense, that’s clearly wrong, and Izenberg himself says as much.  People love Language poems, prefer some to others, etc.  Even Izenberg finds Palmer’s lyric beautiful.

So what does he mean?  I’m not really sure, but the reason the idea struck a chord with me is that the defenses of Language poetry I’ve read seem to me often philosophical and not critical.  As it happens, too, I’ve had, purely coincidentally, a fair opportunity to see some consequential judgments of taste made by some of these poets about their peers.  I haven’t really been able to understand why they preferred one poem or poet to another.  I’m completely willing to grant that that might a reflection of my limited knowled and unrefined judgment.  But I’m also open to the possibility that the criticism of Language poetry hasn’t developed a rich account of good and bad versions of its own practice because it believed itself to have bigger, more philosophical and political fish to fry.

By on 04/18/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I found it via google, Rich.

By on 04/18/06 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I agree that Silliman’s response here (and some of his other poetics writings) can be doctrinaire and defensive.  At the same time, I think we should put Silliman’s defensiveness in the context of the almost entire elision of contemporary experimental verses from nearly every poetry institution with the exception of the academy. 

And while certain poets associated with the LANGUAGE journal have made claims about community, these claims always include non-langpo experimental poets.  (More and more, these claims about “community” are really about the institutions of experimental poetry, from small journals and small presses to reading spaces and archives.) Silliman’s blog at its best reminds us of the real-life connections among non-mainstream poets stretching back nearly a century (and he often does a fine job of showing the collusion among mainstream poets over this same century).  We also must acknowledge that this community is full of dissent.  Hejinian and Scalapino and Perelman have had major debates.  Younger, post-lang poets have leveled passionate critiques of langpo, even as they remain an active part of the experimental poetry community.  Silliman himself has criticized Perelman and Bernstein, among others, for pursuing academic careers. 

I wouldn’t say that this community is tied together by “contempt” for mainstream poetry.  I have been in reading groups with various Language and experimental poets.  What separated these groups from my undergraduate creative writing classes was their far richer and broader sense of the world of poetry.  Bernstein might hilariously satirize the “New Yorker” poem, but this doesn’t mean he agrees with all of Silliman’s take on the School of Quietude.  (We also must remember that langpo poetics statements, especially early on, were highly rhetorical statements.  They could level homogenizing critiques of mainstream verse while insisting on their diversity in part because these poets were actively kept out of the major poetry institutions in a rather homogenous way by these mainstream poetry figures.  But most experimental writers I’ve met have far more inclusive tastes in poetry than nearly any mainstream poet running a creative writing program.) If you want to think about “contempt,” I highly recommend looking at various volumes of *The Best American Poetry*.  When edited by experimental folks, like Creeley or Hejinian, the volumes include a wide spectrum of poetics, from Billy Collins to Fanny Howe.  But when a mainstream poet edits the volume, you’d be hard pressed to find more than one or two experimental poems included in the anthology, if any.

Sean, I’d also suggest Bernstein’s *A/Poetics* for an aesthetic *and* philosophical *and* political defense of experimental writing.  His poem-essay on the poetics of absorption links the politics of Brecht with the aesthetics of the Russian formalists.  I myself would defend experimental writing on largely aesthetic ground, as a poetry that at its best is surprising and jarring and unpredictable.  Bernstein’s critique of today’s lyric poem—the “I’m looking at this everyday thing and it makes me think this important thought” school of poetry—is spot on.  I don’t think langpo will change the world, but I do think Bernstein is far more interesting than the poets winning Pulitzers and publishing in *Poetry* or *The New Yorker* or on most big presses.

By on 04/19/06 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean:

I can’t access the full article from where I am now, but what I see of the Izenberg article thus far isn’t very promising, and judging just on the fragments you’ve excerpted from it, it doesn’t seem fair to conclude that Silliman’s response is “crudely defensive.” While it’s defensible in a general sense to try to excavate some commonalities of tendency, inclination and project from groups of poets despite the disparities between their individual bodies of work, doing so successfully and usefully takes careful reading and intimate familiarity with the work involved. If you’re going to attempt this with a group of people you’re going to call the “Language poets,” such a reading should surely be able to say something meaningfully unified and interesting about the work of the poets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, but for the life of me I can’t see how notions like “language poets produce poetry that is precisely equivalent to language, where language is considered as a kind of creatural knowledge or potential” even begin to approach such a standard. 

Silliman is impatient with all this, but IMO it’s with good reason. If in fact Izenberg is attempting a characterization of “language poetry” that simply avoids or is bluntly incompatible with the work of several major actual langpos (which seems at least plausible to me from what I can tell here), he wouldn’t be the first. There’s no denying that the langpos tend to come from a theoretically dense viewpoint, but they don’t often seem to me to be half as sloppy and tendentious as many of the critics who purport to talk about “their” work, and I suspect Silliman regards this kind of sloppiness as a cardinal sin (particularly since he himself tends to be a meticulous close reader of a very broad range of poetic practice).

About Chomsky: as I understand it, the “innateness” hypothesis doesn’t command much respect in the broader discipline of linguistics today, much less outside it. Casting about for a reasonably representative example of objections to it, I find Yehouda Harpaz’ rant here about Language and the Problem of Knowledge. I suspect Silliman’s objections would tend to be along similar lines (if not along as broad a front as Harpaz engages).

By on 04/19/06 at 06:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Langpo.  Langpo.  That does sound off-ish to me.  Maybe because anything that ends in ‘po’ makes me think of the Goons’ Ying-Tong Song.  So it’s definitely infra dig to refer to the L equals A equal etc now is it?

By Adam Roberts on 04/19/06 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I didn’t mean to argue that there was no justification for anyone’s avant-gardist stance or for the word “contempt” to seem particularly critical.  I hve no investment in the argument between camps debate and am glad that some people want to get beyond it.  (Still, a quick review of Silliman’s blog and other sources suggests that the rhetoric of warfare remains quite prevalent. And a very secure berth in academia for your school seems nothing to complain about.  How long does one get to be doctrinaire and defensive?)

My point in any case was only to suggest that there is a group identity among the poets at issue (even if there are also debates and disagreements), that they will invoke it when so inclined, and that they will not object to inclusive accounts of themselves that seem sufficiently appreciative.  That makes it seem unfair to respond to a view they dislike by saying, well, we’re all different.

In fact, I thought one of Izenberg’s most illuminating arguments is the point about the arguable incoherence of the Language idea of community--which seems possibly like not just a matter of contingent differences in taste, personality, philosophy, etc., but a theoretical commitment.  Perhaps this is wrong, but it’s an interesting thought, and might suggest some interesting ways the Language school both resembles and differs from historical avant-gardes.

Well, I differ with you, Dr. Slack. Calling someone clumsy, incompetent, and dishonest seems rather large bore to me.  Surely, it’s possible to disagree without such name calling.  (Maybe I’m completely wrong here, though. Is Silliman in the habit of, say, calling admiring group treatments of Language poetry clumsy, incompetent, and dishonest?  That would be the test, wouldn’t it?) Izenberg seems quite familiar with the poetry and the theory to me. To be fair, you’d have to read the essay to see whether you thought his claims were justified by his argument and examples.  I may be missing the stakes, but I don’t know that he has a deep investment in an argument against cognitive linguistics and suspect that his major claims could work even without Chomsky.  But, admittedly, I don’t know enough to know whether that would make sense.

By on 04/19/06 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean: That makes it seem unfair to respond to a view they dislike by saying, well, we’re all different.

The passage you’ve quoted here contends that “an objective feature of the work” is “the overall thinness or insubstantiality of the poems Language poets have made,” which Izenberg holds to constitute a “vast, overwhelming corpus whose internal logic . . . is the open-ended algorithm of addition.” This is on the strength of supposed similarities “in paratactic structure, low affect, quizzical tone, and theoretical orientation,” which as a means of describing the “objective” characteristics of the collected corpus moves from the simply incredible ("parataxis" might describe Silliman or Hejinian’s practice, but Perelman? Bernstein?!) to the conveniently vague ("low affect” and “quizzical tone"), with only “theoretical orientation” looking salvageable.

Those just don’t look to me like the remarks of someone who has actually read enough to the poetry in question to be trying to issue “objective” characterizations of it. As you say, maybe I’d find some justification for all this in the broader essay.  (I might just seek it out; I have to admit my curiosity is piqued.) But if the rest of the paper is in similar vein, for Silliman to call it “clumsy” and “incompetent” wouldn’t seem especially harsh to me. Again, if and only if Izenberg’s paper is in fact another entry in the “algorithm of addition” of drearily similar papers that try to make theoretical virtues of their indifference and inattention to the actual work they purport to be talking about.

By on 04/19/06 at 09:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, but my Bruce Wayne persona has been locked in the office. And really—someone who isn’t interested by and has read little from decades of varied work by dozens of disparate writers finds some sweeping generalizations based mostly on critical essays and says “Sounds plausible”? I’m not convinced that’s an emergency.

At any rate I would have added little to Jonathan’s, Adam’s, and Luther’s posts. Since some here are looking at Silliman’s blog, I should mention that, as with most poets, his poetry’s smarter than his polemic.

By Ray Davis on 04/19/06 at 09:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Very good debate here.  There are indeed commonalities among these poets.  It seems unlikely, though, that an appreciative account of these commonalities would be philosophically reductive in the way that Siliman objects to.  It would be based on family resemblances rather than the claim that there is a single overarching theoretical concept (Chomsky) explaining everything. 

Those of us within the experimental writing community believe we have a more inclusive sense of poetry.  Yet from outside it often seems the opposite:  that we are more narrow and doctrinaire.  Of course, the original Language poetry group was narrow and doctrinaire to some extent, and has received much criticism for this.  Recent criticism has tended to break apart the group and establish distinctions.  See Perloff “Howe’s Buffalo, Silliman’s Albany” for an example (also published in CI).  It is in this respect that I see Izenberg as a step backwards.

By on 04/19/06 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dr. Slack understands it wrong. The exact argument ineptly discussed in your link is, because of Pinker, the most widely understood in linguistics. Fodor, arguably the most famous American philosopher alive, is rationalist in--if not the same--at least a very close manner.

“Cognitive linguistics” is a term that should be applied to a specifically anti-Chomskyan group that includes Lakoff, Johnson, Fauconnier, and Turner.

By Jonathan on 04/19/06 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I obviously can’t speak to the ineptitude or otherwise of Izenberg’s use of the innateness argument, but Jonathan is right to note that it’s overshooting the mark to say that innateness is not widely respected. In certain circles, particularly those influence by ev psych a la The Language Instinct, it obviously remains persuasive. OTOH, calling it “the most widely understood in linguistics” seems similarly to overshoot the mark. It’s not as though Pinker’s position is uncontroversial within linguistics.

By on 04/19/06 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I described as “inept” is what you linked to, not Izenberg.

Chomsky and Fodor are both sharply critical of the evolutionary psychologists. “Most widely understood” refers to the broader public. It’s not Pinker’s position, remember. It’s his role as a popularizer (and, in The Language Instinct, a remarkably effective one) that I mentioned.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 04/19/06 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I described as “inept” is what you linked to, not Izenberg.

Okay, fair enough. Maybe later you’ll have a second to clarify what you find “inept” about it.

Chomsky and Fodor are both sharply critical of the evolutionary psychologists. It’s not Pinker’s position, remember. It’s his role as a popularizer (and, in The Language Instinct, a remarkably effective one) that I mentioned.

So to make sure I’m understanding you: you’re saying the position Harpaz is purporting to criticize bears more similarity to the arguments for innateness popularized by Pinker than those advanced by Chomsky himself.

By on 04/19/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No. Harpaz has no coherent criticism. The burden of proof is on you to explain why you think it makes a proverbial lick of sense, all things considered here. Pinker’s distinguished from Chomsky and Fodor by his advocacy of a strong adaptationism about language.

If you want to discuss something that’s legitimately controversial about Chomksy’s philosophy of science, you should investigate his deployment of the Quine-Duhem thesis (in the academic literature, natch).

By Jonathan Goodwin on 04/19/06 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I agree that there is some group identity holding these poets together, but it extends well beyond the group that called itself “language poets” or that published in *L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E*.  And this identity is very thin and loose: a sense of being excluded, a sense of continuing the neglected work of the past, a sense of expanding the poetic uses of language rather than consolidating a few traditional poetic approaches.  Beyond that, though, we can’t forget such essential differences as, say, the one between spiritual and materialist experimental poets.  For exampple, folks like Nate Mackey, Fanny Howe, Philip Whalen and others see language as potentially transcendental; Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman would absolutely disagree.  That’s a huge split that would need to be addressed in any linguistic reading of experimental poetry.

Also, the notion of community in experimental poetics cannot be separated from the real institutional networks that form *actual* real world communities of experimental writers.  As I wrote before, Silliman’s blog is an amazing resource for learning about these networks that enable experimental poetry to survive and thrive.  And many of these real world communities embody the social visions articulated by the writings themselves.  It might not all be totally “coherent,” but that’s in part because it’s entirely decentralized (especially compared to the two or three major presses that put out mainstream poetry these days).

By on 04/19/06 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I find most impressive about Silliman’s polemic is how resource-focussed it is.  He really zeroes in on who controls the presses, and things like that.  I like his polemic a good deal more than what I’ve seen of Perelman’s, for instance, which seems more focussed on cutting down non-experimental poetry.

(I’m unable to say much about Silliman’s poetry itself because I have what seems to be a rare disability; I’m only able to read about 4 pages of poetry a day before some critical element of attention fails and I’m just forcing myself to read words.  That means that I’m simply never going to get to most poetry; right now I’m slowly, slowly starting to read through Ashbury.)

By on 04/19/06 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Armentrout’s selected poems is a very good and pretty accessible book of LANGUAGE poetry. Read it and the below quote will seem silly.

>Consider them together as a whole, as “Language poetry” one vast, overwhelming corpus whose internal logic (like that of Tjanting itself) is the open-ended algorithm of addition. Soon the rising tally of similarities places impossible demands on our attention and will to articulate and catalogue the manifest differences between one poem and another until the effort to immerse oneself in Language poetry produces the sensation that language as Language poetry imagines and manifests it has neither affect nor tone.

By on 04/20/06 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fair enough, Ray, Luther, Joe O, and Dr. S.  But just to clarify.  I have read Armantrout and many other of the poets mentioned in this discussion.  I see their differences and that some are more “accessible” than others (though that doesn’t seem to me exactly the central issue), but haven’t understood them or known how to appreciate them.  This admittedly may be entirely my failing.  But the critical discussions I’ve encountered haven’t seemed clarifying or helpful--which is one reason I found Izenberg’s account intriguing.  Dr. S.: I see your point about that characterization.  I took Izenberg to be talking about what is, for some of the poets, an avowed feature, not a bug--that their poems should not be considered autonomous artifacts.  But I recognize that the description offered here is more prejudicial than need be.  To try to clarify, it seems evident to me that Izenberg respects but does not love Language poetry.  (I feel the same.) And that he was looking for a critical argument that would be consistent with that view.  Since most of the critical arguments about the school have demanded either hatred or love of it, and have suggested that a failure to assent to the preferred position indicates a crucial human failing of some kind, his account seemed to me provocative.  and still does.

Joanthan: “It seems unlikely, though, that an appreciative account of these commonalities would be philosophically reductive in the way that Siliman objects to.” This seems to me not so in general and in this case, very much not so.

By on 04/20/06 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I meant by that:  It’s hard to imagine that the argument that “language poetry is all the same” would ever lead to a positive valuation.  Appreciation means appreciation of the differences, the particularities. The commonalities among the poets, in an appreciative account, would emphasize “family resemblances” rather than philosphical reduction to a single point.  Izenberg wants to argue that one poet is indistinguishable from another.  He’s a lumper, I’m a splitter, in this case.  Lumping provides a convenient way of ultimately dismissing the whole enterprise.  After all, one doesn’t have to bother with all these poets--they’re all doing the same thing! 

I don’t treat language poetry differently from anything else.  There are poets I love, like, dislike, and hate in this movement, and I’m sure many readers are the same.  I have individuated responses to them.  The “lumping” response doesn’t really do anything for me, however provocative, because it isn’t true to my experience.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/20/06 at 10:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was pleased to find out that people are interested in my 2003 essay “Language Poetry and Collective Life.” I think that Sean McCann presents a fair description of some of my arguments; many of the questions people are asking here about others (Luther Blissett’s question about the relation between poetic particularity and conceptual abstraction, for example) are taken up explicitly in the essay, and I’d be happy if the askers were moved to read and see what they make of my answers.

Still, I can try to offer a few preliminary clarifications.  “Language Poetry and Collective Life” tries to take seriously something that language poets (and many of their successors) have often said that they wanted—a sense of themselves as engaged in a communal ethical or even political practice by means of poetry. After considering of some of the poets own attempts to justify these claims—justifications that I argue are not coherent as arguments, though they may be compelling as desires— I offer another account.  I argue that the account of the person implicit in generative linguistics— rather than in the poststructural or cognitive linguistics that the poets I discuss have tended to espouse—provides something very close to what they have felt themselves to be looking for: an account of language as a capacity for freedom more radical than the determinations of grammatical and conceptual (and by extension, political) systems can reach.  This account of the poetry as interested in highlighting the distinction between grammar and utterance also “saves the appearances” of many poems, is compatible with the intensity of ththe poets’ valuation of linguistic innovation over convention, and provides some ground for otherwise incomprehensible claims. 

What I am offering, then, is a speculative description, or what I call a “functional” motive—an account that would make sense of a complex ensemble of practices, discourses, institutions and affects.  Through its productivity (a drive toward poetic multiplicity and copia); through its hermeneutics (insisting on something like a total commitment to responsiveness to each poem—indeed each moment of each poem— with as little dependence on acquired habits or conventions as can conceivably be summoned), through an institutional and quasi-institutional insistence on both heterogeneity and solidarity—language poetry, I suggest, succeeds in reorienting our attention away from the particular beauties of individual poetic practices until we alight on capacities that make poetic practice possible.

(This is, by the way, how I’d address your question, Adam, about the possible parallels with Victorian fiction.  The Victorian tripledecker is a genre, rather than a movement.  If Victorian novelists were producing their multidinous and lengthy novels and at the same time insisting upon a theory of reading that took each word or letter to demand the intense participatory collaboration of the reader in order to be properly attended to, and Victorian novelists were in the habit of insisting that they were in some unstatable way connected to each other (but, they were quick to caution you, certainly not in their literary practices, nor in any way that should be confused with a shared ideology); and that the rhetoric of that rhetoric of community carried with it the not so faint whiff of utopian hope…then I would say that what describing Victorian literature that way “gets you” is… an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation).

It isn’t surprising that Ron Silliman feels that the essay “never quite articulates” my “preference” for generative linguistics over cognitive linguistics—because I don’t have one.  “Language Poetry and Collective Life” makes no claims about the eventual outcome of the debate between cognitive and generative accounts of language, which is, in any event, an empirical question rather than a matter of preference.  A poet’s preferences in linguistics are unlikely to tell us much about linguistics; they may, however, tell us something interesting about his or her poetics.  And insofar as we are interested in that, I argue that it is precisely a preference for an idea of innateness (the imagined ground of a community that would exact no cost of conformity) that is expressed in Silliman’s own poetics.

Silliman also objects to the fact that in making my argument, I only quote “sentences” from poems rather than whole poems, and that I only cite the work of “some,” rather than “all” language poets.  This is of course true, though it doesn’t distinguish my essay from any other that I can think of—certainly not from his own criticism.  I take it that what Silliman is really objecting to here is what he calls the “representative sweep” of the sentences and poets I do quote. This is a more serious issue; and while some other kind of reader might note that I take up the question of representativeness explicitly in the essay (see particularly p 153-55), it might be useful to run through some of those arguments here.

Although Silliman doesn’t know what the core claims of the argument are (let’s chalk that up to misunderstanding rather than “intellectual bad faith”), he is nonetheless quite right to say that the work of Rae Armantrout or Bob Perelman could be seen to “contradict” them.  And the same could be said of Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, Michael Palmer’s Sun, or even Barrett Watten’s Under Erasure. Indeed, I argue, the qualities that distinguish the work of any particular poet or poem must contradict the abstraction of a generative account of language.  For though every poetic utterance instances the human capacity for language, no one poem could be “representative” of that capacity.  Poems go about their separate businesses; or, as I put a related point in the essay, “A poetic culture will always look like it is made up of poems, and poems will always seem to solicit our responses and experiences.”

Sometimes the poem’s business is beauty, or some other business equally solicitous of the particularizing attentions of eye, ear and mind.  As I note on page 4, even “[d]ifficulty can always be reconstituted as a subject matter of potential interest—and of pleasure—if that difficulty is to your taste.”

Thus the claim that I don’t acknowledge that some readers do derive aesthetic pleasure from these poems is a particularly odd one; as Sean points out, I explicitly affirm that they (and I) do:

“So let me be as clear as possible.  I am not interested in arguing for my sense of the poetry over anyone else’s; I do not argue that no one is or can be interested in Language poetry or that no one can or does find it beautiful, or amusing, or exciting, or any of the many attitudes that one could strike in relation to the phenomenon of a Language poem.  But what I am trying to demonstrate in a variety of ways…is not the phenomenology of the Language poetry project at all, but rather an index to its linguistic ontology” (155). 

I’ll try to be clearer still.  The term “an-aesthetic” is not a “deadening of the senses” (Though I see that the term could be misleading.) It is, rather, language poetry’s attempt to work with, through, or around the senses in order to reveal its interest in something inaccessible to sense.  Boredom is only one mode in which such workings-though take place.  There are, I argue, many others—see, for example, my reading of Hejinian and Silliman’s syntax in Leningrad, or of the semantic and imagistic manipulations in Michael Palmer’s terrific poem “Sun.”

The contradiction between poetic principle and poetic practice, as between the ground of personhood and the living person, is one of the central dramas of the poetic enterprise.  Far from viewing this as a problem or cause for “complaint,” I suggest that the clarity with which that drama is enacted in language poetry is one of that poetry’s most compelling features.  And the way that language poetry, at a particular moment in its history, arrives at (what I take to be) a universalizing account of personhood as an imagined answer to political institutions that would brutalize whole classes of persons by denying them their personhood is one of its most moving.

Language poetry, considered under the description I give of it, hazards to turn us away from some of the pleasures of poetry in the interest of getting at something more fundamental and, perhaps, finer (on the Keatsian “anti-poetic” notion that “an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.”).  There are, I acknowledge, limits to the degree to which this will or should be taken as an account of any poet’s practice, and the more attached poets and their readers are to aesthetic particularity, the less claim they have on an ethical project of this kind:  “Only insofar as it was really appealing to no one could it succeed in exemplifying everyone” (158).

Certainly Silliman and others make quite clear in their reactions what I anticipate in the essay itself:  that this is not an account that language poets and their critical champions would give of their own practice. And having gone on this long, I’d like to say a few more words about that:

I note now that is at least the second time that Jonathan Mayhew has claimed that my article doesn’t “deploy the relevant bibliography.” I know that we’re just blogging here, but the deliberate repetition of a claim that is false on its face isn’t just being “carried away”— it seems to me to call for a bit more by way of retraction before he begins his next retrenchment.

About that retrenchment:  I was initially quite puzzled by Mayhew’s revised claim (once it had been pointed out to him that the citations he missed were present as early as the first footnote) that the essay’s real “scandal” was its failure to engage in “critical dialogue.” I had been working under the assumption that critical dialogue entails taking up other people’s accounts of the thing you are talking about, and situating your own account in relation to them. Given the fact that the essay does this at some length, I didn’t quite get the scandal.  It was only when I read this that it became clear: “Since Perloff already treats LP from within this New American Poetics tradition, it would be hard to engage with her without accepting the premise that this poetry is aesthetically engaged…since that underlies all of her analyses.”

This is, it seems to me, a non-standard account of “critical dialogue.” Mayhew proposes that you cannot discuss someone’s premises without first accepting those premises (without taking them to be, as he says, “axiomatic”).  This would certainly make arguments go faster.  For example, in order to enter into “critical dialogue” with me, Mayhew would first have to accept my claims about language poetry as axiomatic.  I look forward to our dialogue, whenever it may take place.

If this account of critical dialogue were widely held, it could explain why so much sympathetic critical writing about language poetry has been content to repeat a few axioms (“the materiality of language” for example; more recently, I suggest, “there is at present no claim more characteristic of the uncommunity of Language writing than the claim that Language writing cannot be characterized” (149).) It might also explain another recurrent feature of language poetry polemic—its tendency to respond as though an argument’s difference from what one would prefer to say is itself sufficient evidence of scandal and bad intent.  But I don’t believe this account of critical dialogue is very widely held.

By on 04/21/06 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Oren.  That certainly clarifies the argument, and raises the stakes.  I look forward to the response from your critics.

By on 04/22/06 at 08:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

well . . . er . . . ahem.  That was unimpressive. 

It’s now been about 72 hours and none of Izenberg’s detractors have mustered up even the most grudging response to his post.  Disappointing, to say the least.

My apologies, Oren.  As I say, I don’t know enough to have a strong opinion about your essay, and I can imagine that I might develop some questions about it.  (Is it really necessary, for example, to have a Chomskyian as opposed, say, to a poststructuralist theory of language to get the results you specify?  Why couldn’t a derridean general economy also give something like “an account of language as a capacity for freedom more radical than the determinations of grammatical and conceptual (and by extension, political) systems can reach”?  And does the demand for total responsiveness and an idea of aesthetic judgment that transcends the sensory really mark off Language poetry very radically from other forms of late romanticism, or is it more of an extention of them?) I don’t know enough to make those questions interesting.  But I found your paper fascinating and well worth the attention of our readers.  Too bad those who do have strong opinions weren’t up to actually engaging your essay.

By on 04/24/06 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“(Is it really necessary, for example, to have a Chomskyian as opposed, say, to a poststructuralist theory of language to get the results you specify?"

I’d say it would be, if you were concerned about the accuracy of your account of language.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 04/24/06 at 09:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

True, Jonathan.  But, if I understand correctly, the question isn’t the accuracy of the account, but whether it’s necessary for the theory and practice of Language poetics.

By on 04/24/06 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t been getting the messages informing me of new comments to this post. 

I didn’t mean to say he had to accept Perloff’s premises, but to argue why she was wrong.  It seems like a very direct contradition:  aesthetic vs. an-aesthetic approaches.  One emphasizing hightening of the senses, another their deadening.  It would be like a whole tradition of criticism emphasizing melodic aspect in bebop, and someone coming alone saying that bebop suppresses melody.  The burden of proof would be on the person dissenting from the consensus view.  Maybe I misread his view of the an-aesthetic.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/25/06 at 10:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Sean. I just hadn’t checked the thread in a while, so no slight intended to anyone here.

Unfortunately, until I’ve read the paper (which I’m still a week or so away from making time for), I remain a provisional detractor only and can’t provide much in the way of specific commentary on messr Izenberg’s post or his views. I’m hoping it contains some interesting justification for contending that the claims of the Language poets as regards the ethical or political motivators of their work are “incomprehensible”—I’m assuming some of this must stem from issues with, say, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry,” but I have no way of knowing what those issues are or what other statements come into it, or even to what extent there’s a contention being made that the Langpos have issued any unitary vision of collective ethical and political practice beyond a fairly vague set of common theoretical interests (in things like objection to the standard notion of lyric voice and its deployment, for example).

In another “from what I see here” moment, though:

1. I have a distinct impression that messr Izenberg may be making much more dramatic claims on behalf of the Langpos than they tend to make for themselves. When I see claims that their poems demand “intense participatory collaboration of the reader in order to be properly attended to,” I really have to wonder if we’re not in somewhat hyperbolic territory at least. (In one of the discussions in Writing / Talks, there’s a great exchange between Watten and Bernstein in which—responding to an absurdity from Bernstein about “structuralism from Saussure to Derrida”—Watten says of Saussure’s structuralism that way more tends to be claimed on its behalf, and attributed to Saussure, than was actually going on in the work; he says something to the effect of “I wish someone would put it on a billboard.” I often feel the same way about Langpo and voice/ authorship / “personhood”—it’s far from uncommon to see sweeping claims being attributed to writers whose practice and criticism was / is partly concerned with response to / rectification of a very specific kind of flabbiness in the deployment of lyric identity in the poetry of the moment.)

2. I can be fairly said to be predisposed to extreme wariness of claims to delineate “an index” to any particular literature’s “linguistic ontology,” in Langpo’s case most of all. If one is going to contend that Langpo is best explained as a coherent political / ethical project via cognitive linguistics, I think this will only be interesting if one can:

a) demonstrate that there’s some particularly compelling reason to need a coherent account of Langpo as a political / ethical project;

b) demonstrate that the features one is claiming as an “index” of the “linguistic ontology” of Langpo are in fact useful as descriptors of the poetic practice of at least the core of poets commonly identified as the Language poets;

c) demonstrate that cognitive linguistics is compelling as a means of identifying “linguistic ontology” generally and necessary to this kind of ontology specifically.

I appreciate messr Izenberg’s posting to the thread and will read the paper with his cautionary notes and clarifications in mind, and I will try not to be unduly prejudiced by my suspicion thus far that he’s significantly fudging steps a) and b) en route to an at-best-questionable c).

In any case, I’ll try to get to it in time to make some more useful comments here.

Jonathan Goodwin: I never did answer you about Harpaz’ review, sorry. His issues with Chomsky’s empirical support (or lack thereof) of various claims for innateness are what I found useful as a sampling of common objections to Chomsky. (For my own part I find a certain wacky metaphysics in the related notion of “deep structures.") Having said that, the article is on a reread pretty fucking godawful—you’re right that I shouldn’t have tried to point to it as usefully representative. Overhastiness on my part.

Sean: You note:

I see their differences and that some are more “accessible” than others . . . but haven’t understood them or known how to appreciate them.

I’m not sure why you think it would be a “failing” not to particularly appreciate them. Yes, I’m a fan of the Langpos, but I don’t expect everyone to “know how to appreciate them” any more than I’d expect everyone to share my love of certain forms of hip-hop or indie rock. I don’t know how to appreciate My Bloody Valentine, but this doesn’t mean I’m moved to theorize why I can’t make it through one of their songs. 

I’m not sure what you mean by saying you “haven’t understood them,” either. The Language poets each have a particular theoretical discourse about their writing, but if you’re looking for a unitary project, a lens through which to read this aspect of them, I’d contend—“Aesthetic Tendency” notwithstanding—that there simply isn’t one. (Maybe messr Izenberg will change my mind, but as of right now this is one of the biggest reasons I find the avowed project of his paper deeply suspect.) If you’re not talking about their theory but simply about the poetry itself, I don’t see why you would suppose that there is some coded meaning to “get” (if in fact this is what you mean by “understanding"). That would be a valid assumption to make about Ezra Pound or HD or TS Eliot, but where the Langpos seem to confound “sense” (they don’t always, but sometimes they do), your best first step is not to assume that they’re trying to “make sense” at some deep, esoteric level. What’s usually going on is surface affect, the materiality as it were of language itself. (It will come as no surprise that many of them are fans of Gertrude Stein.)

Finally, I’m not sure—if you have problems understanding or appreciating a genre of work—why you’d turn for these things to a paper by someone whose basic theoretical premise and aesthetic approach is that the work bores him. (Izenberg may be tapping into a somewhat trendy vein of the theorization of ennui here; I’d try to stay current with that sort of thing, but I get… well, you know...) Particularly if you’re looking for a window into why the people who appreciate the work do so, it seems to me you could do better than a paper—however clever—that basically appears to be trying to answer the question “why this work is curiously interesting at some theoretical level, even though I mostly find it daunting and dull.”

By on 04/25/06 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know anything about language poetry. But I do know something about Chomsky and the brain and Harpaz.

Harpaz hung out on Ian Pitchford’s Evolutionary Psychology list for awhile and posted quite alot, mostly to the effect that, given the statistical nature of neural action, much standard thinking about the brain is wide of the mark. I think he’s right about that. But he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s not the only one who thinks that and his attempts to publish his arguments have been, shall we say, less than graceful.

As for Chomsky and innateness, I think Chomsky’s arguments on that point—which go back at least to the mid-60s (in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax)—are well-taken, though I disagree with Chomsky’s general approach to language. And those arguments have been among the most influential in cognitive science. What’s at issue is just what it is that is thus innate. The 2002 Science article that Chomsky coauthored with Tecumseh Fitch and Mark Hauser suggests it may not be much beyond recursion, which isn’t much and yet, in another way, it’s everything in the world. But that’s a discussion we need not get into here.

Getting back to Harpaz, there are a lot of folks like him in this world—smart people with an interest in some highly-specialized domain of inquiry, but without pedigreed competence in that domain. And they insist that their views should hold sway over those of the pedigreed pros. Afterall, isn’t that what many devotees of Intelligent Design are up to, not to mention a whole passle of New Age Thinkers, and others.

An interesting phenomenon.

By Bill Benzon on 04/25/06 at 05:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon:

Yes, on a re-read Harpaz looked to be a bit crankish on the issue. Not to say that the interested amateur is always the functional equivalent of an ID’er, but my first skim of the article had missed his somewhat misplaced outrage about Chomsky and “blind luck,” for example.

By on 04/25/06 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m also a member of the Provisional Wing of the Detractors, until I get to read the whole article, probably next week sometime.  Apologies to Prof Izenberg if he was annoyed by my doubtless premature ha’pennorth.

It might be worth saying, though, that absence of comment in a comment-thread like this may not, and often probably does not, mean that likely commentators are sitting smirking at the screen with their arms crossed thinkinhg ‘let the guy stew in his juices, ha! ha! ha!’ It’s more likely to be (as was certainly the case with me) that Real Life has interjected itself and made blog commentating impossible for a day or two.

By Adam Roberts on 04/25/06 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Probably true, Adam.  But people who criticize a writer harshly, especially without reading them, have some obligation to respond to their clarifications, even if just to say, I’ll get back to you later. 

Dr. Slack, I don’t recall Izenberg saying that Language poetry bores him.  Quite the contrary.  He’s obviously quite interested by it, and, despite the quick dismissals he met, clearly familiar with much of the poetry and criticism.  But I think he does make the argument that at least some Language poetry is theoretically and seemingly in practice determined to avoid certain kinds of response associated (fairly or not) with allegedly rival forms of poetry--i.e., judgments of taste about specific artifacts or expressions. 

(Is this, btw, a wrong characterization?  I ask from genuine curiousity.  Are there distinct Language poems that are widely held up as memorable works?  Is there the great Langauge lyric [or epic or narrative], the way there are classic romantic or modernist poems, say?  Are there lines or stanzas or what have you, that people return to for their eloquence, or beauty, or ingenuity?  If not, surely Izenberg might reasonably be said to have a topic worth considering.)

(Btw, this reminds me, looking again at his description of Tjantling, I again am surprised at the dismissive response.  Are the features he mentions--paratactic structure [I assume referring to the structure of the poem as opposed to that of its sentences], low affect, quizzical tone, apparent absence of speaker--really that rare among Language poets or controversial?)

I think your points 1 and 2 are quite interesting, Dr. S., and remain agnostic on 2 b and c in particular.  But as marks against Izenberg, they strike me (perhaps unfairly, due to my ignorance) as counterintuitive.  Hyperbole seems common to the Language writers (not least, say, in the description of “official verse culture")--one reason I personally find someone like Bernstein quite tedious.  I’m sympathetic to a lot of his views actually and recognize that he’ brilliant, but the critical writing I’ve seen strikes me as a series of unlikely bromides.  Having read such things, and having read the inflated political claims made on behalf of Language poetry, I’m not offended by a critic who takes them seriously.

Finally, yes, by not understanding, I meant not appreciating or knowing why I should appreciate and not having encountered an explanation of why I should care about a particular poem or body of poetry.  It wouldn’t be right to say I turned to Izenberg for advice (I don’t think I said that) only that, what he had to say about the avant-garde ambitions of Language poetry struck me as plausible in that context. 

In fact, I don’t think Izenberg says anywhere that he finds Language poetry daunting and dull.  Nothing I’ve encountered seems either accessible or daunting--surely misleading terms precisely because, as you say, there’s deliberately nothing to get.  But, I have to admit, I find most of what I’ve seen dull.  Personally, I’m not interested by the materiality of language per se, which seems to me, taken in isolation not that interesting and old news.  (Someone like Williams I find lovable precisely because there is so much content that runs counter to the theory of materiality.  Not surprisingly, on the other hand, I think the Language appropriation of Stein is highly doubtful--about which more in a later post.) Yes, de gustibus, but isn’t it one of the paradoxical basic tasks of criticism to explain to others why they really should share your tastes?

By on 04/25/06 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a test of the follow-up comment notification system. This is only a test.

By Valve Administrator on 04/26/06 at 10:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is another test of the follow-up comment notification system. I am responding to my own comment from a different account to see if things are working. Please pardon the interruption.

By Chris Clark on 04/26/06 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Last test, I promise.

By Valve Administrator on 04/26/06 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, I’ve gotten two email comments from Valve Administrator, but none from Chris Clark.

Most curious.

By Bill Benzon on 04/26/06 at 11:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, Bill, for letting me know that. It appears that non-member (not logged in) commenters are being left out of the loop here. They are not receiving notifications themselves, and the rest of us are not receiving notifications of things that they post.

I’ll continue to investigate and try to correct the problem.

By Valve Administrator on 04/26/06 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Technology dictates brevity. My computer just seized and ate a long response to Sean, so I’ll just try to reproduce the basic points:

“Dr. Slack, I don’t recall Izenberg saying that Language poetry bores him.”

Let’s just say I’ll be waiting to see the wider context of phrases like “impossible demands on our attention,” and how someone can be an effective close-reader of a work about which they proclaim that “indifference and inattention” is the proper response. I’m not convinced but I’ll hope to be surprised, and I have to say his post here does seem to hold out some promise in this regard.

“Is this, btw, a wrong characterization?”

As presented in abbreviated form here, I’d say yes. I find it absurd, in particular, to contend that Langpo aspires to avoid being revisited or well-regarded. I couldn’t fathom owning a copy of Tjanting or My Life or Oxota or Bad History (etc.) and not re-reading it.

What Langpo does tend to avoid is sentimentality, which may be what Izenberg is getting at in talking about “low affect.” We’ll see.

“Btw, this reminds me, looking again at his description of Tjantling, I again am surprised at the dismissive response”

Well, sorry about the dismissiveness. However, describing Tjanting =! describing Langpo, so I do hope (and think I have some reason to hope) that Izenberg is saying something more interesting than this. (As I said earlier, I simply don’t think parataxis is all that important as a feature of the writing of a significant number of the Language poets, and I find the terms “low affect” and “quizzical tone” are too vague to comment on.)

“Hyperbole seems common to the Language writers (not least, say, in the description of “official verse culture")"

Bernstein was talking about a fairly specific context and set of realities in talking about “official verse culture,” but (like others) is often tendentiously read as making stentorian pronouncements about the coming Revolution. I don’t hold him or other Langpos directly responsible for much of the nonsense that’s talked on their behalf or attributed to them by either acolytes or detractors. (Which isn’t to say that I hold a brief for Bernstein’s critical writing in particular—it can be hit-or-miss.)

“Yes, de gustibus, but isn’t it one of the paradoxical basic tasks of criticism to explain to others why they really should share your tastes?”

To a certain point. But there’s a huge body of fairly persuasive and intensive literature on the aesthetics of Language poetry already out there. If it all makes no impression on you (or you’re not motivated to seek it out), then I suspect the aesthetic is as inaccessible to you as the limerick is to me. So it goes. I’ll think you’re missing out, obviously, and I’ll feel badly for you, but there’s much more to poetry (experimental and otherwise) than Langpo in any case.

By on 04/26/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m gonna continue my part of this two person conversation, Dr. S., just for the opportunity to engage in what might be untenable and pointless speculation.  Here goes.

I find it absurd, in particular, to contend that Langpo aspires to avoid being revisited or well-regarded. I couldn’t fathom owning a copy of Tjanting or My Life or Oxota or Bad History (etc.) and not re-reading it.

I believe it, Dr. S.  And I think Izenberg has specifically emphasized that he doesn’t contend otherwise (though whether his claims are ultimately convincing seems a fair question).  But that isn’t exactly the question I asked.  (Again, though, I’ll admit that the distinction I’m trying to make may not seem immediately or ultimately tenable.) The question for me is not whether Language poems are highly regarded or re-read, but whether there are specific works of Language poetry that are highly regarded at the expense of others and, maybe more significantly, whether there’s a custom in the Language community of saying: “this! this is the one!” and, of course, why.  Fans of My Bloody Valentine presumably have favorite albums, and albums they think are not so hot, and albums they hate.  And if they’re anything like other pop music fans, at the drop of a hat they’ll explain at great length the reason for their preferences.  Having seen some discussion of Language poetry where that didn’t happen (and where discussion focused instead on larger philosophical and political questions), I’m curious about whether it does happen as a matter of course. 

Yes, it’s true, that it might seem unfair of me to ask this question, since before this point I haven’t really wondered about the answer and haven’t actually tried to gather any information that would help me answer it.  But my goal isn’t to indict Language (or related) poetry in any way.  It’s not for me, but I don’t have anything against it--and I regret that (it seems to me in good part because of the rhetorical framework Language poets have set up) one seems forced to choose sides in what gets inevitably cast as a larger culture war.  I just want to see whether Izenberg’s characterization might seem fair. 

This is related to the question about parataxis, affect, and tone, I think.  Yes, those seem vague characterizations, and perhaps they’re imprecise or inaccurate, but I felt I knew what Izenberg was talking about.  Here’s a way I might consider the question, but I hasten to add that I’m not sure it will stand, and I have no idea whether Izenberg would find it amenable.

One kind of I think relatively commonplace aesthetic experience might be called design appreciation.  To my mind it’s epitomized by the no-wrong-notes sensation--the experience that everything is just where it must be, nothing could be left out or added, the work would be lesser if any feature were different.  This brings for many intense satisfaction, especially when combined with the sense of novelty or surprise.

But, of course, it’s not the only kind of aesthetic pleasure, and lots of times it’s deliberately downgraded--usually, I think, in favor of expressive power.  Pathos or authenticity, in other words. 

Language poetry seems to me to resemble other avant-garde movements (like dada or fluxus) in not being interested in either of these things.  I took it that that’s what Izenberg meant by parataxis (design appreciation not being centrally valued for itself) and tone/affect (expressive power and authenticity being explicitly downgraded).  (Yes, I see that Language poetry is anti-sentimental, but isn’t it also anti-pathetic in general?)

I think it’s relatively uncontroversial to say about earlier avant-gardes that the motivation for rejecting design appreciation and expressive sensitivity was something like a radical pursuit of an apotheosis and universalization of aesthetic experience.  The whole let-bombardment-ring-on-the-museum-walls thing.  Let the aesthetic be coextensive with the entirety of life and in the process transformative of subjectivity and society.  Our aims will only be fully realized when life is transformed and our art will only find its complete realization in a different world by different people, etc..

My interest in Izenberg was that I took him to be saying that Language poetry had a similar kind of vanguardist aim, but that rooting its ambitions particularly in language use (rather than, say, aesthetic experience), its implication was necessarily to find something profound and universal in the capacity to make and recognize sentences.  As earlier avant-gardes found in the aesthetic a force alternative to all existing institutions and theoretically inclusive of all humanity, the Language poets find in language itself a kind of ultimate power that exceeds any society or artifact or instantiation--and which can therefore never be specifically represented, but only invoked.  Or, to put it another way, it can be something that readers are reminded of, demanded to encounter. 

I don’t know if this would be consistent with Izenberg’s view, or whether it will seem generally fair.  To my mind, though, if that were a fair characterization, Langauge poetry seem not just avant-gardist, but (as I see earlier avant-gardes) a kind of spiritual practice.  I have nothing against that, and think it’s worthy of respect even if I don’t find it entertaining myself.

By on 04/27/06 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is Chris, your Valve administrator, butting in to see if we’ve finally solved the e-mail notification issue. Let me know, either by e-mail at administrator AT thevalve.org, or in response to this comment, whether or not you received notification of it.

By Chris Clark on 04/27/06 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Really quick (I’ll simply take your arguments on their own, without concern to their relationship to Izenberg’s paper):

The question for me is not whether Language poems are highly regarded or re-read, but whether there are specific works of Language poetry that are highly regarded at the expense of others and, maybe more significantly, whether there’s a custom in the Language community of saying: “this! this is the one!” and, of course, why.

Well, I know a few fans of Language poetry but I don’t know if I can talk about a “Language community,” because in most centres I know of there isn’t one. Langpo is just one strand of experimental writing, and doesn’t really have any sort of dedicated subculture of its own. (It’s usually taken as a signifier for “experimental writing” among those who generally dislike most writing they perceive as avant-garde.)

Enthusiasts of experimental writing more generally can, however, be said to have sort of a loose subculture. I can confidently report that appreciators of Langpo within these subcultures are not such exotic beings that they don’t prefer one work to another for specific reasons.

If you’re asking whether there’s a broad consensus about which particular work of Langpo was written with lightning, the answer would be no, in part because

a) There is little real consensus about what Langpo really consists of and who should be considered part of it. (There are people who would, for example, restrict discussion of Language poetry to a specific moment—the period of the ‘zine itself—and who would find my talking about it as a “tradition” wrongheaded.)

b) Langpo is a fairly recent phenomenon that has found itself at the heart of a contentious, and mostly stupid (not to put too fine a point on it) “culture wars” dynamic as you note. Much of that dynamic does center around the critical pronouncements of the Language poets rather than the work itself: in the case of acolytes, many are eager to prove their own critical chops (with sometimes unfortunate results); in the case of detractors, many are more interested in attacking the critical cred of the poets than they are in the work itself. None of that, however, says much about the ways in which the work itself is received or aspires to be received.

I have my own personal contenders for the best works of what I consider to be Language poetry, but they would vary widely from what others would choose and we could (and have) argued about it some length. This isn’t true just of Langpo; among people who read poetry generally, the days of a canon of acknowledged masters are pretty much gone (in part because poetry enthusiasts can more easily access a much wider range of work than has ever previously been the case).

[Whether the “culture war” dynamic is due to the rhetorical frame the Language poets set up is very dubious. Most of it derives from the same general impulses that dictate opposition to avant-garde work generally, which is to say the perceived snootiness / obscurantism / abandonment-of-hallowed-tradition that the work of its nature is seen to imply. If the Language poets had eschewed all critical writing, the specific dynamics of the angst over their work might have varied slightly, but I’ve little doubt they would have been subjected to exactly the same kind of pro-and-con boneheadedness that surrounds any other form of avant-gardism, in poetry as elsewhere.]

Language poetry seems to me to resemble other avant-garde movements (like dada or fluxus) in not being interested in either of these things.  I took it that that’s what Izenberg meant by parataxis (design appreciation not being centrally valued for itself) and tone/affect (expressive power and authenticity being explicitly downgraded).

I’m confused by your usage of parataxis here. I’m taking the term to signify the juxtaposition of phrases or clauses without the use of conjunction; that’s why I take it to be valid as a description of Silliman’s work. This has nothing to do with “design appreciation not being centrally valued for itself;” the concept of the “New Sentence” that underlies Silliman’s use of parataxis is quite specifically about the central valuation of design appreciation—the non-arbitrariness of the work’s elements is precisely what makes the parataxis work in his view. I don’t see any of the other Language poets abandoning design appreciation either in word or deed; not even Bruce Andrews (at least with him I could understand if the work gave that impression, yet for all its sometimes affected pseudo-randomness his writing is some of the most exhaustively and minutely crafted and determined). So yes, on the first point I would find this characterization to be 180 degrees from what is actually going on in the work.

On the second point, the Language poets can generally be said to be concerned with playing with and defamiliarizing notions of pathos and authenticity (this is one of the major things that does tend to make them identifiable as a group, though it must be said it’s hardly unique to them in the broader firmament of experimental writing). Whether they can be said to have abandoned such notions is more dubious; I would say no, but I can at least see what such an argument might look like.

The general caution that applies here, though, is that contempotary avant-garde writing acknowledges and takes some inspiration from things like Dada, but this certainly doesn’t mean its aesthetic objectives are interchangeable with them. Projecting earlier avant-gardist theory and aesthetics onto later practices usually leads to anachronisms that don’t tell you much about what’s currently going on.

By on 04/27/06 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and apologies if that last post seems a little slapdash. I’m going to be more or less out of the blogosphere for the next couple of days and wanted to provide some kind of response.

By on 04/27/06 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have my personal favorites too, but I would not want to speak for anyone but myself. 

Clark Coolidge and Susan Howe are at the top of my list. 

I love many parts of the work of Silliman, Hejinian, Palmer, Fanny Howe, Armantrout, Bromige, Robert Grenier, Leslie Scalapino.  But not everything equally. 

I like Bernstein’s essays more than his poetry itself.  I like essays by Alan Davies, Steve McCaffery. 

I’m not crazy about Barrett Watten or Bruce Andews.  I actively dislke a fair portion of what they’ve done. 

Some of the others I haven’t read enough of to form a strong opinion.  I’ve seen things I like by Carla H.. Language poets will tell you privately they don’t like one particular poet.  Or maybe they just won’t mention him as frequently.  These are all writers in “In The American Tree,” Silliman’s anthology, except maybe Scalapino isn’t in there; I’d have to check that. 

I think the ones I like might be more emotive (the Howes, Coolidge, Hejinian, Silliman).  I’m not sure that’s why I like them.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 04/27/06 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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