Gilbert Adair, "Line And Point To Voice: Language Poetry & Urban Performance"

(from Arts on the Edge Conference Proceedings, Perth, Western Australia, 1998)


The line is something you can see, and/or hear. The voice, you can hear, and resonate to. The point is at once visible and theoretically abstract, of zero (0) dimensions.

Think of meaning in energy terms: kinetic and potential at the same time.
Think of figures that are not coincident with objects (but what figures are?).
Line and voice go also abstract, the point thick.

Voicing (1)

I'll read a passage from a book by Bruce Andrews, called I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) (1992). It was composed in the mid-80s. A decade before, in the mid-70s, Andrews and Charles Bernstein had co-founded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Magazine. This challenged the influential breath-based poetics of Charles Olson's great clarion call of 1950, "Projective Verse":

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE1

Here, alertness to the body's pulsings as it interacts with the outside, secures performance's authenticity. But the "Language poets" had just come through the Civil Rights and Vietnam War years, and had read their Marcuse. They focused rather on the ideological and technical dimensions already built into physical responses, as well as shaping what speech act theory calls 'performative utterances,' that is, utterances that have effects in the world.2

This is from the first poem of I Don't Have Any Paper, "All of My Friends Are Dead." It surely responds, among other things, to the opening line of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955-6) - "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..."3

All of my friends are dead — too bad for them; which was in
practice little more than banging one inadequate category
against another. Step on the advice of his children.
justifies the derelict headquarters at 2 Dzerzhinsky Square,
Moscow, infinitesimal hot line to God, though formally asso-
ciated in the medieval trivium, Israeli cabinet tastes like Mom.
White gardenia what unspeakably sweet poke loyalty decline.
Set yourself on fire to avoid homework. But this is a marginal
No main head is an island. Wireless dupes of silly
putty pop 'o' pies, pluralist disequilibria. Dark entity shoot the sharp-
shooters, timidity soliciting war on sloth and nonconformity,
intelligent and sensitive people who oppose the welfare state,
nosedive ironically jumping for joy. Pimples are supernumer-
ary; conquistadores would have planted Burpee seeds.4

In the course of this paper I'll repeat this passage twice. Hopefully, on each re-hearing, more dimensions of it will become apparent. The "medieval trivium," for instance, was the grouped studies of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and later meant a crossing of three roads. "Israeli cabinet tastes like Mom" sounds like an interjection from Woody Allen.


Call "space" that which prevents 2 or more Archimedean objects from occupying the same place at the same time. From the beginnings of human speech, therefore, space was inhabited by ghosts whose 'dimensions,' had it been a geometer, it couldn't even have construed as such. For it could be summer, but they're talking about winter. Poetry began as a technical means of remembering, among other things, winter. "Kora in Hell" was William Carlos Williams' term for winter in 1920, drawing on a Greek myth of the seasons.

The Greeks had an origin-myth for geometry, too. Thales calculated the pyramids' height by their shadows, just when his own shadow was as long as he was tall. Two abstract diagonals, from head, to head of shadow. Identical triangles different in scale. Volume is needed for the sun to cast the shadows. But geometrical representations render volume transparent. Not until the 1820s, with the development of non-Euclidean geometries, do the mysteries of volume return. In the words of Michel Serres,

The right angle, the plane, the volume, their intervals and their areas, will be recognized as chaotic, dense, compact - again teeming with folds and dark hiding places.5

The pure representation can no longer exhaust the object by remaining separate from it. Between them isn't space, but zones of mutual contamination, interactive lines of uncertain breadth, as uncertain as space itself now is. And faster-moving.

There is only one thing , Olson says, "[poetry] can do about kinetic, reenact it."6

And we find there's a particular kind of understanding linked to the evanescences of speed. Move too slow, and you start to lose such connections.


Clearly, Andrews' is a writing of extreme discontinuities, not only from phrase to phrase, but even within seeming phrasal units. And it moves with a speed no voice could sustain in real time. But could, aided by text, in the real time of performance.

In a radio interview of 1996, Andrews recounted his method of composition to Charles Bernstein:

... to generate large amounts of material on very small pieces of paper — one, two, three, four, five words at a time, in clusters, short fragments of phrases, or pre-phrases, and then compose the work, sometimes much later... than when I had written the raw materials, into works based on a whole series of other decisions that I'll make later, so it's more like editing film footage. So that the editing process becomes the composing process. Or that's what gets focused on, more than some kind of point-of-inspiration moment that I actually wrote the words on.7

Discontinuous phrases, interactive lines of uncertain breadth. What gaps do they cross, and how? It's a difficult question, because gaps seem produced in the first place through violations of continuity-rules of writing. But there's also a pressure exerted by what exceeds both the immediate writing, and the later composing/editing: a pressure, and a getting-in-there.

Archimedean space keeps hard objects unmixed. But since the electric telegraph, technologies have been usurping word and thought in bringing what's not there together with what is. What's new about this is the immediate transmission over distance, and look at the material lag of the line in even saying that. "Sentences are short," Andrews writes, "words are long." (74)8

Today, electronic communications systems do not map onto the one-time physical centers called cities (in Andrews' case, New York). And the scales of measurement, as Paul Virilio insists, "share no common ground."9 Yet he adds that sensory reality and video reality are received as an instantaneous continuum, although in the one, is depth of field, in the other, the baffling depth of imploded time. (30-1) Screened images are thus, precisely, blindingly obvious. Between the line of exposure/invisibility, lies a strange density, which the standard task of jump-cuts is to erase. Here is the security: anything can be joined. There are no gaps. Neither of the grand models of time, linear or cyclical, will hack this incontinence of techno-space-times. Obviously, this poses peculiar problems for any concept of repetition.

Voicing (2)

I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up consists of 100 x 3-page poems. Excess is its very principle. I'll now 'peculiarly repeat' the passage I read earlier:

Just let it burn itself on the bulb — cross-hatched pudenda
chlorals to cause pneumonia; chirpy cha-cha, helicopters are
fat — buff's over. War = a money tune-up
why so communicate scratch to shit: patsy pubes, wizards of
ooze — I was injured in the act of eliminating civilians. One of
the little fags on me?? — male triplets as floor samples: in a word,
nobody likes to be criticized. President's wife as shut-in
sexual athlete
at least when they're rich they don't talk about jobs
smile which coons patrol tripe = scalded honeycomb animal
pizza, shape blood on consignment: helicopters do not vote
U.S. history is a lie; adult thick the thrills.


Suck my loan — you want everyone to applaud your self-
absorption; D-day for King Kong lookalikes...


Without fictionalizing the lives of the poor, I'm intolerant
but the brain can't hide: police waste
parachute plagiarism
blessing to be a former virgin. Wet me brown; clods eeling
prep nationalists
burn the Left, no other disease
matches it for drill resistance males would perpetually
endanger — hurt by guilt over spam. Jab bog
tilt sir fame debt as mercury speak winter through acetylene
kindness, each handles its bunts.... (168-9)

Mechanical Dances Typology

Exposure to this writing can be like trying to follow a Merce Cunningham dance without a vocabulary for the movements. Here, then, is a gesture towards a notation of some of the kinds of phrases and kinetics, often overlapping, that Andrews uses:

Delayed precision. "Just let it burn itself on the bulb." Presumably a reference, sadistic or indifferent, to a moth. Recognition is delayed because another phrase — a metaphor, "burn itself out" — is ghosted or provoked here.

Immediate supports. Such ghostings — "Suck my loan," or less definitely, "Set yourself on fire to avoid homework," like the puns ("wizards of ooze"), supply an instant, oblique support to the words concerned.

Remote particulars. "Step on the advice of his children." "Step on" is the niggling oddness here. It's as if the words offer to secure the particularity of a tenuously obscure scenario by the anomalies they strike. Is the phrase recalled, and its mystery deepened, by "male triplets as floor samples"? Andrews works to keep the words from collapsing into the disappointment of complete decoding, as happens so often, for instance, with the early experimentalist, Arthur Rimbaud. So often, to make an Andrews phrase (or "pre-phrase") mean something, we have to make uneasy allowances — to fit what it might mean to the words' stubbornly odd conjunction. Alternately, even to mentally change a word - a verb, say, from singular to plural, which promptly snaps back. By which time we're so far out on a limb that it, like a cartoon limb, has vanished. It's a kind of counter-entropy.

Sloganese. Sudden phrases where we recognise the words — "parachute plagiarism" - and may have accepted their combination before realising we don't understand it. And see thus, how easily slogans are coined. (Headline: "PARACHUTE PLAGIARISM NOW NATIONWIDE.")

Syntactical propulsions. Use of punctuation — especially the dash and colon — to suggest an equivalence or a consequence that the actual phrases seem to belie: "helicopters are fat — buff's over." Elsewhere, the recognizability of the succeeding phrase offers to render forgettable the obscurity of the ones preceding. Such propulsive techniques were first developed by Williams in Kora in Hell: Improvisations.10 To call it simply specious is to evade the issue. Andrews is unpacking ways generally used to make language effective, and the cooperative choices, on the auditor's part, that that actually requires — unpacking them to the very brink, but never beyond it, of rhetoric itself. It's a veritable compendium of means of linguistic manipulation currently operative.

Confrontations. "[Y]ou want everyone to applaud your self-absorption." No one is entirely immune — either from the charge, or from the desire to deliver the charge. It puts guilt in context, while forever losing innocence. And the voice hectors for an engaged response.

Aphorisms. "Lose weight through cyanide" (169); "regret is like the processed cheese of the emotions." (23) Smartnesses that the fury pulsing throughout the book always bids to deform. The humor that likewise permeates the book, is politically necessitated, quite visibly, while the particular voice that it issues from is ever uncertain. (The word "I" in these poems is a linguistic device rather than a sign of self-expression.) "All of my friends are dead — too bad for them."

Dictionary multipliers. "[C]ross-hatched pudenda chlorals." Looking up "chloral" brings in DDT as well as a sedative or knockout drug. The meanings of "bunt" — "each handles its bunts" - range from part of a sail through a fishing-net to a baseball term to part of a wheat attacked by fungus. This multiplies not only the given phrase's possible meanings, but also (mightn't the dictionary multiply any word? — and the vocabulary range is immense) the passage's potential trippings into endlessness.

Thematic stabilizers/Adequacies of the inadequate. Through repeated allusions and suggestions, tenuous stabilizings of meaning start to run both forward and back. "[B]lessing to be a former virgin. Wet me brown; clods eeling prep nationalists." Here a sexual initiation, perhaps of young Reaganites ("prep"/"preppie"), carries overtones of fecal mud, rung up later in "Jab bog" and at multiple points throughout the book. The burning moth will get drawn into the associative field of a militaristic mind-set: "I was injured in the act of eliminating civilians," and so on. Each instance seems flattish. This in itself might lead us to invest them with a surplus energy, trying to pull them up. But cumulatively, we might also realize that there is no 'rising in language to the occasion' without betraying the occasion to the purple thrill of the language itself. So, the adequacy of the repeatedly inadequate. Celine was the first master of this, as Julia Kristeva understood, probing his "oral" techniques of writing in Powers of Horror (1982).11

Phrasal mergers/gaps. "[W]hy so communicate scratch to shit." The developing associative potentials force a necessary undecidability: either there is a flow of meaning here — perhaps along the lines of the look of a dried scratch - or this is one of those random conjunctions of partial phrases, "pre-phrases" again, in Andrews' term, from diverse sources. Yes, informational incontinence is forever producing these along the non-Archimedean sensory-video continuum. But it's hairier to see this mimicked in a book of poetry. Andrews makes wildly heteroclite references available for poetry, at once aping and contesting the shit-machine of data.

Thick words. These again interrupt the line's integration to a continuity of meaning: "smile which coons patrol tripe." It's a kind of material engorgement of techno-space-times, the architectural city embraced by electronic infinities, and secreting in its volumes, moment to moment, its own infinities. Speed and stall, traffic and blockage, become the performing voice's own excessive content, and the conditions of its dynamic. And in this insistence of 'short sentences and long words,' we grasp again how tenuous are the productions of meaning, in relation to the words used. Line, and the line's points, its words. The dimension of the blindingly obvious that electronic images have inserted between the line of writing, becomes at once visibly blinding, and charged with an immense surplus of potential meanings.

Overloadings. "Jab bog/ tilt sir fame debt as mercury speak winter through acetylene kindness..." Suddenly: a cluster of substantives, without the conjunctions, prepositions, subject-verb structures that give your regular sentence its element of the unimploded. Too much is too strange here in too short a time. Regularly, indeed - but not in synch - we nod in and out of attention, only to realize that every combination had its treasures, now perhaps lost forever, but others keep rushing in. The listener inserts a certain physiologically demanded resistance, even as the voice/text plays its own game of stranding, hustling, changing voices, rebuffing, varying phrase-times, interspersing challenging exhortations to which we have to respond in real conditions of motion.

So, delayed precisions, immediate supports, remote particulars, losses of limbs, syntactical propulsions, aphorisms, thick words, and many other types of phrasing, made kinetic by rhythms of combining and recombining. Repetitions of the typology lend a structural stability almost drowned in the gnarled, insistent oddness of phrase after phrase. Again and again: figures not coincident with objects; potentiality as a live dimension, and the very condition, of meaning.12 This is the real-abstract: meanings in the situational architectures in techno-space-times.


I've offered, as a performance, an unpacking of Andrews' phrasings, reliant on time spent elsewhere poring over the text itself, underivable from listening to it read aloud. It's one more incommensurability, brought into the non-Archimedean field of here and now: across how many gaps, to this point?

Line, point, voice. Where are we, here or there? As Walter Benjamin knew, a city is where people and things get lost.13 But say there inheres in Andrews' lines, with their diminished powers of continuous integration, and in his points, his words, a new uncertainty about what location even is. For in the present symmetry-breaking fields, as Paul Virilio again notes,

[t]he dimensional dissection of classical geometry - where the point cut the line, and the line cut the plane, which then cut through the solids - has lost a critical part of its practical utility. ... What becomes noteworthy, then, is the recuperated importance of the point... as if the 0 dimension suddenly retrieved its numerical significance... (32-3)

These were Kandinsky's terms in Point and Line to Plane (1926), groping for a vocabulary for the notation of abstract art. But already in the ambit — or prescient — of a cultural groping (wartime aerial photographs, for instance) toward bits, pixels, and their endless, momentary, fractal integrations. But now, without absolute source or overview, repetition ghosts less a time-line, than an insistence, or persistence, dispersed across fields of incommensurables. Ideology itself, in its rhetorical instances, is less content than persistence, or its content is, overwhelmingly, its saturating persistence. This is the quasi-baffled recognition Ginsberg came to, in his attack on the Vietnam War in "Wichita Vortex Sutra"(1966).14 Two decades later, Andrews, then, must attack his targets without possible culmination - misogyny, militaristic competitiveness, the Christian and moral cowardice that craves innocence at all costs, complaceny with the absence of all gaps, and many, many more.

This poetics is a micro-politics of experience, because it also attaches itself to the human bodies that remain interruptive transmission- and emission-points (points of transformation). Bodies crossing distances that still take mortal time to negotiate. And who know that a writing which opens up to an excess of endlessnesses, offers passage to talk with another kind of death. We glimpse the lining of informational entropy, the great threatened succumbing of the late 20th century. And we glimpse one condition on which this glimpse, both exhilarating and terrifying, is taken: that the poet can sustain his rapid-turnover micro-inventiveness.

Voicing (3)

There is no perverse self-indulgence here, rather an interventionary range of precise difficulties, of general pertinence. Now the poem can be the experience of itself, both initial and repeated, in real time.

Only the ego can pick up a pencil covers a tight fist, yes,
ouvriesme; garter belt checks blood flow. Use foot dye for
handjob, lasagna bandage, scrub down with concentration
camp soap — tax nuts genuflect before artificial limb. Girl suits
boy falters — unite velvet invention of verve
adeste fiduciary. I got serious after aren't you hungry —
dietary supplement with french tickler & lubricated tip valen-
tine uniform makes me feel senile; crime glop — cheek
respires. Bombard the headquarters! That is not my Burma!
Cars pile up like hog retainers
nothing neutral doing the latest Latin dances molly-coddled by
barnstorming truss. Our boobies are different.


How many dugouts do you want to exaggerate? —
attribute structural consciousness to orthodontist's rental
property? Deliberate Choctaw, just sits at her sofa to create
the future of literature, patchwork fur quilt made solely of
endangered species. Suck my cock like I'm totally sure?
Venetian blinds will not complain; slush fund's gentle caress fit
for fat felaheen book bait: socks hide the scars
antiseptic spam. The other thing is
gold rushes finish ugly, knockwurst cliche; noun is old hat,
midget hurt his fill. Prisons in pretty places — remote control
brain works by affirmative action — supremacists diddle with
the fuse: suck your Buxtehude. I'm always at a funeral
do I like it if I eat it?: amino rebirth. I want to go play in the
Mafia. (199-200)


 1.       Charles Olson, "Projective Verse" (1950), in ed Robert Creeley, Selected Writings, New York: New Directions, 1966, 19.

 2.       See, for example, Michael Davidson, "Skewed by Design": From Act to Speech Act in Language-Writing," fragmente 2, 1990, 44-9.

 3.       See Allen Ginsberg, (1984), London: Penguin, 1995, 126-34.

 4.       Bruce Andrews, I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)
, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992, 9.

 5.       Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, tr JosuŽ V. Harari, David F. Bell et al, Baltimore & London, The Johns Hop kins University Press, 1982, 96.

 6.       Olson, "Human Universe" (1965), in Selected Writings, 61.

 7.       "Bruce Andrews on LINEbreak," Martin Spinelli, Producer, Charles Bernstein, Host and Co-Producer, Anti-copyright 1996 Granolithic Productions. andrews

 8.       There is probably a reverse homage here to Gertrude Stein, who used to insist that "Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are." See ed. Patricia Meyerowitz, Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45 (1967), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, 133. Although Stein also knew more than anyone about 'long words.'

 9.       Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension (1984), tr. Daniel Moshenberg, New York: Semiotext(e), 1991, 30.

10.       See William Carlos Williams, Imaginations, New York: New Directions, 1970, 6-82. Also the commentary in Stephen Fredman, Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, 2nd edn., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 32-3.

11.       See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980), tr. Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982, 188-97.

12.       I am grateful to my colleague, Dr. John Phillips, for conversations that set up this understanding.

13.       See Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (1933-39), London: Verso, 1992, 43: "The original social content of the detective story was the obliteration of the individual's traces in the big-city crowd."

14.       See Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1985, 394-411.