Craig Dworkin, Bruce Andrews (Encyclopedia entry)

A central figure in what would — with whatever utility — come to be known as Language Poetry, Bruce Andrews has maintained a consistently uncompromising position at the most radical extreme of the literary avant-garde. The author of over 30 books of poetry and a collection of innovative critical essays, the significance of his writing has developed in direct proportion to its restiveness.

Andrews spent the summer of 1968 in Paris, and his earliest poetry — significantly — dates from the moment immediately following the Situationist-inspired revolution of May '68. Following his stay in France, Andrews continued his graduate study of political science: writing a dissertation on explanations of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and becoming a professor of political science at Fordham University, where he has taught since the mid-1970s. From this perspective outside of both English departments and the creative writing programs which were proliferating in the 1970s, Andrews has developed a particularly sophisticated politics of poetic practice.

In terms similar to those of his colleague Jed Rasula ("The Politics of, the Politics in," 1987), Andrews differentiates between the thematic and formal politics of writing, calling for a poetry not about politics but actually as politics. One would locate that political practice of writing not in a poem's ability to mobilize its audience, or in its thematic content, but rather in what is signified by its form, enacted by its structures, and implicit in its philosophy of language — as well as a range of sites relating to the poem as a material object: how it was produced, distributed, and exchanged. Moreover, the politics of a poem (in contradistinction to the politics in the poem) would hinge on how the language positions its reader vis-a-vis both the writer and language itself. Accordingly, Andrews's exceedingly demanding writing has often been seen as a prime example of the kind of poetry which requires a high degree of reader participation, thus transforming the author's authoritarian monologue into a more egalitarian and productive dialogue.

The particular difficulty of Andrews's poetry is also the source of its distinction; even within the tradition of the avant-garde there are few texts as radically anti-semantic. Andrews' poems, that is, do not simply mask or distance their referential 'meaning,' but they actually oppose the very grounds of reference itself. The work is not merely difficult to explicate, but the very notion of explication is put in question by the work. "There is nothing to decipher," as he writes in the early essay "Text and Context" (1977), "There is nothing to explain." Emphasizing the opaque materiality and artifice of language — the insubordination of words — his poetry challenges and frustrates the conception of language as either transparent or instrumental. The politics of such difficulty are manifest; Andrews's poems aggressively refuse assimilation to any conventionally available mode of reading, and they thus obviate the status quo by demanding new ways of thinking about and engaging language. To alter consciousness by disrupting language has long been the dream of a politicized avant-garde, but Andrews's poetics provide an especially sophisticated version of the revolution of the word: positing linguistic structures as analogous to social formations and recognizing the social ground against which even the most abstract play of the signifier occurs.

The most abstract of Andrews's own poetry was written in the early and mid 1970s; his most distinctive work from this period isolates small constellations of grammatically and thematically disjunctive words, discrete syllables and phonemes. Often creating unprecedented combinations of letters, these poems are clearly analogues to the revolutionary 'zaum' [transrational] language of the Russian Futurists, as well as to contemporary experimental writing by Carl Andre, Clark Coolidge, Vito Acconci, and (somewhat later) Peter Inman. Andrews's early poetry focuses attention on the edges of linguistic particles and the way in which non-referential aspects of language can organize thematically disparate and grammatically disjunctive vocabularies. More generally, these poems explore the fits and faults of stress and pressure at which different discourses intersect. In "Swaps Ego" (1978), for instance, specialized vocabularies are recontextualized by the collision between the scientific language of what seems to be some sort of linguistics text with what appears to be names drawn from a sporting paper such as The Daily Racing Form. In the resultant mesh of language, themes only latent in the source texts emerge in a text animated by the tension between atomized words and the pull of an emergent syntax: "Distinctly Luck Coal Stern," "Limited Capital Cupola Plosive," "Noise Hypotenuse." The language of these poems is motivated along multiple, but unprivileged axes; at a local level, the collision of irreconcilable linguistic elements frustrates both the referential pull of the sign and the inevitable, if tenuous, invitations of even the most paratactic syntax to establish conceptual associations. Language, in these poems, idles, the gears grating.

Near the end of the seventies, as evinced in works like "Confidence Trick" and "I Guess Work the Time Up" (1980-81), the units of composition in Andrews's poems began to include larger, more syntactically coherent phrases and to incorporate the confrontational and controversial samples of social discourse which would characterize I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) (1987). While the highly ironized and ventriloquizing transcriptions of public speech in these works may initially appear more accessible than the earlier non-lexical work, the writing is still significantly anasemantic. Although the content of these phrases is frequently provocative and offensive — "suck the testicles," "sink the boat people" — the emphasis is less on the particular content of the phrases than on the social work undertaken by such language. The disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts of the phrases underscores the sorts of social and psychological constructions that language enables, enacts, structures.

Coincident with this marked stylistic shift, Andrews's compositional process changed as well. Habitually jotting down individual words, or small constellations of words on small pieces of paper, Andrews amasses a large amount of material which is then — often at a much later date — organized into larger structures. With that montage (the physical, material dimension of which should not be overlooked), the emphasis in writing thus shifts from expressive production to editing.

Indeed editing, in a broader sense, has been an important part of Andrews' contribution to contemporary writing. The term "language centered" writing was coined by Andrews in the early 1970s, and between 1978 and 1981, he co-edited the eponymous journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Charles Bernstein. The journal provided a key critical forum for the community of poets whose work was being published simultaneously in magazines such as Hills (ed. Bob Perelman), Roof (ed. James Sherry), Tottel's (ed. Ron Silliman), and This (ed. Robert Grenier and Barrett Watten). Featuring critical, theoretical, and review essays — frequently in the form of collaged texts and various modes of 'composition as explanation' — L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E sought to emphasize the type of work that has made Andrews's own poetry so distinctive: "a spectrum of writing that places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter" ("Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis," 1988).


Aerial 9 (ed. Rod Smith). Washington D. C.: Edge Books, 1999.

Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Trans. Charles Levin. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht On Theatre: the Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York and Toronto: Roof Books with Nightwood Editions, 1986.

Perelman, Bob. "Building a More Powerful Vocabulary: Bruce Andrews and the World (Trade Center)," in Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 50: 4 (1994): 117-31.

Silliman, Ron. Review of Wobbling, in Sagetrieb 1:1 (1982): 155-8.

Watten, Barrett. "Social Formalism: Zukofsky, Andrews, & Habitus in Contemporary Poetry," in North Dakota Quarterly 55: 4 (Fall 1987): 365-82.

———————. Total Syntax. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

(A version of the article will appear in Fitzray Dearborn's Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2001; Eric Haralson, editor).