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AFTER LANGUAGE POETRY: INNOVATION AND ITS THEORETICAL DISCONTENTS
by MARJORIE PERLOFF
Are you sure, she asked, you're talking of ideas?
Dark, emptied of touch would be entire, null and void. Even on an island.
Innovate: from the Latin, in + novare, "to make new, to renew, alter." In our century, from Rimbaud's "Il faut être absolument moderne!" and Ezra Pound's "Make It New!" to Donald Allen's New American Poetry (Grove Press, 1960) and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Sun & Moon, 1994), novelty has been the order of the day. Think of the (now old) New Criticism, the New Formalism, the New Historicism, le nouveau roman and la nouvelle cuisine. As I was writing this essay, a message came over the internet announcing the British poet-critic Robert Sheppard's Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-1997. And in recent years, two important anthologies of women's poetry Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK, edited by Maggie O'Sullivan for Reality Street Editions in London (1996) and Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Jersey City: Talisman Publishers, 1998) have made the case that, in O'Sullivan's words, "much of the most challenging, formally progressive and significant work over recent years, particularly, in the U.S. . . . is being made by women" (p. 9), thus leading directly to the title of this conference: "Innovation and Experiment in Contemporary Poetry by Women."
It was not always thus. The OED reminds us that innovation was once synonymous with sedition and even treason. In 1561, Thomas Norton wrote in Calvin's Institute, "It is the duty of private men to obey, and not to make innovation of states after their own will." Richard Hooker in 1597 refers to a political pamphleteer as "an authour of suspicious innovation." The great Jacobean dramatist John Webster speaks of "the hydra-headed multitude / That only gape for innovation" (1639), and in 1796, Edmund Burke refers to the French Revolution as "a revolt of innovation; and thereby, the very elements of society have been confounded and dissipated."
Indeed, it was not until the late nineteenth century that innovation became perceived as something both good and necessary, the equivalent, in fact, of avant-garde, specifically of the great avant-gardes of the early century from Russian and Italian Futurism to Dada, Surrealism, and beyond. I cannot here trace the vagaries of the term, but it is important to see that, so far as our own poetry is concerned, the call for Making it New was the watchword of the Beats as of Black Mountain, of Concrete Poetry and Fluxus as of the New York School. At times in recent years, one wonders how long the drive to innovate can continue, especially when, as in the case of Sloan's Moving Borders, fifty contemporary American women poets are placed under the "innovative" umbrella. Given these numbers, one wonders, who isn't innovative? And how much longer can poets keep innovating without finding themselves inadvertently Making It Old?
The problem is compounded when we turn to the relationship of innovation to theory. When the various French poststructuralisms of the postwar first became prominent they were known as la nouvelle critique. But as time went on, la nouvelle critique became known as post-structuralism, just as the "new American poetry" was called, in Don Allen's revised version of 1982, The Postmoderns (New York: Grove Press). What, then, is the relation of "new" to "post"? The issue is complicated but it's fair to say that, in the case of theory, "new" was an epithet applied from outside, for the theorists themselves were less concerned to Make It New than to establish certain truths, for example, to study the relation of literary to so-called ordinary language, to determine the respective role of author and reader in the interpretation of a given text, and to establish the ways in which individual texts speak for their culture. For Barthes and Derrida, as earlier for Benjamin and Adorno, Bataille and Blanchot, innovation as such was of little interest. Benjamin, for that matter, had no use for the Dadaists who were his contemporaries, dismissing them as instigators of little more than "a rather vehement distraction," designed "to outrage the public." And Adorno regarded most of what passed for "new" fiction or poetry as little more than Kitsch.
Accordingly and this is an important aspect of the Language movement, which stands squarely behind so much of contemporary "innovative" poetry the "new" rapprochement between poetry and theory that we find in the first issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978), and in such equally important journals as the San Francisco-based This and Hills, and the Canadian Open Letter all these now a quarter-century old -- had less to do with innovation per se than with the conviction, on the part of a group of poets, themselves keenly interested in philosophy and poststructuralist theory, that poetics was an intellectual enterprise, deserving a larger place than it had in the Creative Writing classroom of the seventies.
Consider the symposium edited by Steve McCaffery, published in the Canadian journal Open Letter in 1977 and reprinted by Andrews and Bernstein as Language Supplement Number One in June 1980. The symposium was called "The Politics of the Referent"; it includes McCaffery's "The Death of the Subject: The Implications of Counter-Communication in Recent Language-Centered Writing," Bruce Andrews's "Text and Context," Ray DiPalma's "Crystals," Ron Silliman's "For Open Letter," and Charles Bernstein's "Stray Straws and Straw Men." Although three of the above were to be reprinted in their authors' own books on poetics, these early versions are revealing. For so quickly did their authors soften their stance that the 1980 Supplement begins with the editorial disclaimer: "It seems worth remembering, in looking back on these essays, that the tendencies in writing McCaffery is talking about under such headings as language-centered' are as open to the entrapments of stylistic fixation as any other tendency in recent poetry." And when McCaffery came to revise "The Death of the Subject" for his collection North of Intention (1986), he declared, "I was never happy with the title and both it and much of the content have been revised. The essay, whose original thoughts and materials were gathered through the mid-seventies, concentrates on a partial aspect of Language Writing: a concern primarily with the morphological and sub-lexemic relations present and obtainable in language. A decade later I can safely speak of this concern as an historic phase with attention having shifted . . . to a larger aspect--especially to the critical status of the sentence as the minimal unit of social utterance and hence, the foundation of discourse" (NI 13).
McCaffery's original version begins dramatically with this declaration: "There is a group of writers today united in the feeling that literature has entered a crisis of the sign . . . . and that the foremost task at hand a more linguistic and philosophic then poetic' task is to demystify the referential fallacy of language." "Reference," he adds, "is that kind of blindness a window makes of the pane it is, that motoric thrust of the word which takes you out of language into a tenuous world of the other and so prevents you seeing what it is you see" (SUP 1). Such a thrust the removal of what McCaffery calls later in the essay "the arrow of reference"-- is essential because "language is above all else a system of signs and . . . writing must stress its semiotic nature through modes of investigation and probe, rather than mimetic, instrumental indications."
Here, in a nutshell, is the still largely misunderstood animus of the movement: poetic language is not a window, to be seen through, a transparent glass pointing to something outside it, but a system of signs with its own semiological "interconnectedness." To put it another way, "Language is material and primary and what's experienced is the tension and relationship of letters and lettristic clusters, simultaneously struggling towards, yet refusing to become, significations." McCaffery himself points to the Russian Formalists, to Wittgenstein, Barthes, Lacan, and Derrida as the sources for his theory, and indeed language poetics, in this first stage, owes its greatest debt to French poststructuralism, although Charles Bernstein, for one, was much closer to Wittgenstein, whom he had studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard, than to Derrida, whose analysis of signification he distrusted, even as Silliman and Andrews were drawn to a more politicized Frankfurt School poetics. But McCaffery himself sounds a Derridean note when he declares that "the empirical experience of a grapheme replaces what the signifier in a word will always try to discharge: its signified and referent." Indeed, in poetry the signifier is always "superfluous," overloaded with potential meanings and hence more properly a cipher (SUP 4).
There are two corollaries, one Barthean, one Marxist-Althusserian. "Language-centered writing," McCaffery tells us, "involves a major alteration in textual roles: of the socially defined functions of writer and reader as the productive and consumptive poles respectively of a commodital axis" (SUP 3). And again, "The text becomes the communal space of a labour, initiated by the writer and extended by the second writer (the reader). . . . The old duality of reader-writer collapses into the one compound function, and the two actions are permitted to become a simultaneous experience within the activity of the engager" (SUP 8). "Reading" is thus "an alternative or additional writing of the text." Indeed and here the Marxist motif kicks in-- "Linguistic reference is a displacement of human relationships and as such is fetishistic in the Marxian sense. Reference, like commodity, has no connection with the physical property and material relations of the word as a grapheme" (SUP 3). Direct communication, on this count, is the hallmark of the commodity fetish. Thus, "to remove the arrow of reference," to "short-circuit the semiotic loop" (SUP 9) becomes a political rather than a merely aesthetic act. In his "Text and Context," Bruce Andrews reinforces this notion, dismissing referentiality as the misguided "search for the pot at the end of the rainbow, the commodity or ideology that brings fulfillment" (SUP 20).
As the Utopian manifesto of a twenty-eight year old poet, "The Death of the Subject," inevitably overstated its case. The call for "unreadability" and "non-communication," for example, was largely exemplified by sequences of disconnected word fragments and isolated morphemes, as in the citations from Andrews, Clark Coolidge, and Barbara Baracks, the latter giving us a two-column poem like
gratis ways to fit tins
McCaffery calls on us to "produce one's own reading among the polysemous routes that the text offers" (SUP 4), a challenging invitation, even though, as soon became apparent, less stringent readers than McCaffery himself took him to mean that one reading would be just as good as another. Moreover, the rejection of all "instrumental" language as commodity fetish in favor of a poetic paradigm that, if we are to trust McCaffery's examples, includes only the most extreme form of word play, fragmentation, decomposition of words, and absence of all connectives, as in Andrews's "mob cuspid / welch / eyelet / go lavender / futurible" (SUP 5), could be seen as excessively dismissive of alternate ways of composing poetry.
But despite McCaffery's Ubulike iconoclasm, his basic premises and this is the irony were by no means as extreme or as new as both the proponents and opponents of Language poetics would have had us think. What McCaffery and Andrews (SUP19) call the "referential fallacy" takes us right back to Roman Jakobson's central thesis that in poetry the sign is never equivalent to its referent and the corollary notion that poetry is language that is somehow extraordinary. The case against transparency, against instrumental value and straightforward readability was the cornerstone of Russian Formalist theory as well as of Bhaktin's theory of dialogism and heteroglossia. In The Noise of Culture, William Paulson has shown that the concept of poetry as "noise," as blockage of the normal (transparent) channels of communication, is a notion that was already central, if intuitively so, for Romantic theorists. As for Wittgenstein, who refused to distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary language, finding "ordinary" language quite "strange" enough, the basic tenet that there are no meanings outside of language gave McCaffery and his fellow symposiasts license to denounce what Bernstein called, in "Stray Straws and Straw Men," the "natural look" as itself a construction with particular implications. Poetry, Bernstein argued, is never really "natural" (e.g., "I look straight into my heart & write the exact words that come from within"); rather, "it emphasizes its medium as being, constructed, rule governed, everywhere circumscribed by grammar & syntax, chosen vocabulary: designed, manipulated, picked, programmed, organized, & so an artifice."
Twenty years after its appearance, we can read "The Politics of the Referent" symposium as an important intervention, on the one hand reminding readers that poetry has always been "an artifice," and, on the other, that poetry cannot be too far out of step with the other discourses philosophical, political, cultural of its own time. By the mid-seventies, let's recall, these discourses, as studied on every campus across the U.S., had produced a highly sophisticated and challenging body of texts about the nature and function of écriture or writing, whether "writing the body" (Cixous and Iragaray) , the position of subjects in particular discourses (Kristeva), the relationship of truth to fiction (Todorov, Bahktin), and so on. I remember clearly, in those years, walking into St. Mark's Bookshop in the Bowery and seeing, on the central table, the stacks of Barthes's The Empire of Signs, Derrida's Of Grammatology in the Gayatri Spivak translation, and Foucault's The Order of Things (1970), which was published, not by a university press but by Random House. These books were selling as if they were popular novels. At the same time poetry, insofar as it had become the domain of the Creative Writing workshop, was no longer the contested site it had been in the days of Pound, Eliot. and Williams, or even of the "raw versus cooked" debates of the early sixties. In the seventies, for reasons too complex to go into here, the production of poetry had become a kind of bland cottage industry, designed for those whose intellect was not up to reading Barthes or Foucault or Kristeva. The feeling / intellect split had probably never been wider. For even as students were absorbing Foucault's "The Death of the Author" and Benjamin's "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," official verse culture, as Bernstein called it, was spawning poems like the following, which I take from The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets, edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms(1985):
The sauce thickens. I add more butter,
slowly. Sometimes we drank the best wine
while we cooked for friends,
knowing nothing could go wrong,
the soufflé would rise, the custard set,
the cheese be ripe. we imagined
we were reckless but we were just happy,
and good at our work. the cookbook is firm:
it is safer not go over two ounces
of butter for each egg yolk. I try to describe
to myself how we could have been safer,
what we exceeded. If the sauce "turns"
there are things to be done, steps
to be taken that are not miraculous,
that assume the failed ingredients,
that assume a willing suspension of despair.
Here McCaffery's arrow of reference is flying straight into the saucepan, ready to curdle that hollandaise. The lasting contribution of language poetics, I would posit, is that at a moment when workshop poetry all across the U.S. was wedded to a kind of neo-confessionalist, neo-realist poetic discourse, a discourse committed to drawing pretentious metaphors about failed relationships from hollandaise recipes, language theory reminded us that poetry is a making [poien], a construction using language, rhythm, sound, and visual image, that the subject, far from being simply the poet speaking in his or her natural "voice," was itself a complex construction, and that--most important--there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems, and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse.
None of this, of course, was all that new, but it was new within the particular context of "Naked Poetry," as an important anthology edited by Robert Mezey and Steven Berg was called, or vis-à-vis Allen Ginsberg's insistence on "First thought, best thought" a precept Ginsberg fortunately didn't put into practice, at least not in his best poetry. By the 1990s, in any case, all three of the Language principles that McCaffery put forward had been subtly transformed even as their force remains implicitly operative today. The referential fallacy, to begin with, has given way to a more nuanced emphasis on the how of poetic language rather than the what. The dismissal of instrumental language as the commodity fetish has come under criticism from both Left and Right, as readers have realized that so-called "innovative" writing writing that is fragmented, asyntactic, non-sensical, etc. can be just as fetischized as anything else. And the emphasis on readerly construction, an article of faith in the semiotic theories of Barthes, Foucault, and Eco, and, in the U.S., of Reader Response Theory, has given way to a renewed perception that the alleged authority of the reader is, as Ron Silliman has remarked in a recent essay, merely a transfer of power whereby, in ways Barthes could not have foreseen, "the idealized, absent author of the New Critical canon has [merely] been replaced by an equally idealized, absent reader."
Language poetics, let's remember, had a strong political thrust: it was essentially a Marxist poetics that focused, in important ways, on issues of ideology and class. But it was less attuned to questions of gender and race: indeed, in the case of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, although one senses that every effort was made to include "innovative" women poets--for example, Rae Armantrout, Barbara Baracks Abigail Child, Lynne Dreyer, Johanna Drucker, Barbara Einzig, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Leslie Scalapino, Rosmarie Waldrop, Diane Ward, and Hannah Weiner the more overt theorizing itself was left, with rare exceptions, to the men in the movement. Thus students in the eighties were usually introduced to Language poetry by such "reference books" as Barrett Watten's Total Syntax, Charles Bernstein's Content's Dream, Steve McCaffery's North of Intention, and Ron Silliman's The New Sentence, all published between 1985 and '87. The dominance of these Founding Fathers can be seen in the British reception of Language poetics, a reception coming largely from the Left, which was keenly interested in but also highly critical of the doctrines put forward in "The New Sentence" and "Artifice of Absorption," and "The Death of the Subject," but had little to say about specific poems.
What, then, of the women poets in the original movement? Interestingly, their background was more literary and artistic than that of, say, Andrews and Bernstein, who had studied political science and philosophy respectively. Susan Howe began her career as an artist and was very much influenced by concrete poetry, especially the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Tom Phillips. Johanna Drucker, was trained as a printmaker and visual poet and wrote her PhD thesis at Berkeley on the Russian avant-gardist Iliazd. Rosmarie Waldrop was a student of Modernism and of concrete poetry, and a translator of Edmund Jabès, Maurice Blanchot, and many Austrian and German avant-gardists. Kathleen Fraser had studied with the New York poets, especially Kenneth Koch. And so on.
The increasing recognition of the women poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was made evident in Lee Hickman's superb journal Temblor, which began publication in 1985, and ceased, with issue #10, in 1989 because its editor was dying of AIDS and could no longer sustain the operation. Hickman is to my mind one of the great unsung heroes of the so-called innovative poetry scene. Unaffiliated with a university or even a specific movement, he published Temblor from his home on Cahuenga Blvd. In the much despised San Fernando Valley above Hollywood. Temblor had no editorial board, no mission statement and, until the last few issues, no grant money Hickman simply published the poetry that interested him a good chunk of it "language poetry," but also the related poetries coming out of Olson-Duncan school, the Objectivists, and the "ethno-poeticists" associated with Jerome Rothenberg: for example, Clayton Eshleman, Armand Schwerner, Rochelle Owens, Kenneth Irby, Robert Kelly, Jed Rasula, Gustaf Sobin, and John Taggart. Temblor was a portfolio with a 9 x 12-inch page which allowed for visual design, as for example in Leslie Scalapino's "Delay Series" (#4) and a long (28 page) section from Susan Howe's Eikon Basilike (#9). The journal published Rosmarie Waldrop's A Form of Taking it All in its entirety (#6), Kathleen Fraser's sequence "In Commemoration of the Visit of Foreign Commercial Representatives to Japan, 1947," (#9), nine poems from Hejinian's "The Person" (#4), Fanny Howe's "Heliopathy" (#4), sections of Rachel Blau du Plessis's long sequence Drafts, and work by Barbara Guest, Rae Armantrout, Carla Harriman, Mei Mei Bersenbrugge, Johanna Drucker, Norma Cole, and Martha (Ronk) Lifson. The magazine introduced the work of poets from other countries and cultures: Anthony Barnett, Paul Buck, and Peter Middleton from Britain, Anne-Maria Albiac, Michel Deguy, Edmond Jabès, Jacqueline Risset, from France, Saúl Yurkievich and Tomás Guido Lavalle from Argentina, Minoru Yashioka from Japan, and so on And finally, unlike the various "Language" journals, Temblor focused on poetry rather than theory, although it did include critical prose, especially on or by its own poets.
Here, then, was an opening of the field that nevertheless avoided the merely eclectic. Like any editor Hickman had his idiosyncrasies (a number of poets, no doubt, were published simply because they were Los Angeles friends), yet, with rare exceptions, no effort was made to recruit the mainstream. Hickman never published Derek Walcott or Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich or Rita Dove. Why not? We cannot, alas, ask Hickman himself and there is no mission statement to guide us. But I suspect there were three reasons. First, I imagine the editor felt these other poets got enough of a hearing in the mainstream press and, if he was to edit and produce a journal, he might as well introduce lesser-known poets. Secondly, publication of the established poets would have been too expensive. And thirdly, although there is no Temblor manifesto, the journal's unstated aesthetic remained true to what was the cornerstone of Language aesthetics namely, that poetry is more than the direct voicing of personal feeling and/or didactic statement, that poetry, far from being transparent, demands re-reading rather than reading, that it is News that Stays News.
Consider, in this connection, Lyn Hejinian's "Two Stein Talks" in Temblor #3 (1986). Hejinian makes a strong case for Stein's brand of "realism" as "the discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mediating medium that it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny" (T#3 129). In the course of her talks, Hejinian shows us how one can analyze such poetic language, how, for example, in the first of the Tender Buttons, "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass," the first phrase "A kind in glass and a cousin" "binds carafe with blind phonically." As for "blind" "A carafe is a container, a glass one, which, if filled with a thick liquid, that is a colored one, might be, so to speak, blind, opaque." "A blind glass," she adds, "might also be a blank mirror, or a draped window as my aunt would say, Draw the blinds, it's dinner time'." (T#3 132)
The poet's offhand phrase "as my aunt would say," shows that reading semiotically rather than referentially, "in" rather than "for," need not be as impersonal an activity as it may have looked in its first incarnation. On the contrary, after citing Stein's sentence, "A gap what is a gap when there is not any meaning in a slice with a hole in it," Hejinian decides "to quote myself," in a stanza that begins "going / by the usual criteria for knowledge / I vowed not to laugh / but to scatter things" (T#3 133). Elsewhere in this issue we have Susan Howe's "12 poems from a Work in Progress," that begins with a play on "sitt" / "site"/ "cite," in keeping with McCaffery's account of the cipheral text and ends with an oblique prayer to "Keep and comfort come / unhook my father / his nest is in thick of my / work" (T#3 27). How does one "unhook" a father, and why? We never know for sure any more than we can paraphrase Fanny Howe's observation, in her "Scattered Light," that "Some patios won't allow the shadow of a maid / It's where I want to go with my tray / See heat unbearably white / Each book must fall, a scholar's mind" (T#3 51).
Here pun ("Sea heat unbearably white") and burlesque, as in the last line's play on "Into each life, a little rain must fall," complicate the story of this "shadow of a maid" carrying her tray on the forbidden patio. Throughout Temblor 4 (which contains the complete Conduit by Barrett Watten and Demo by Ron Silliman), the Language program is operative even if--and here we come to Hickman's own predilection-- emotion, if by no means personal confession, is brought back into the equation. Further along in Fanny Howe's "Scattered Light" we read the following ten-line poem:
It was a night to be left alone
To dig out fifteen pounds of pumpkin guts
Stick in a candle and water the curtains
I phoned a friend with What do you want
Money and luck they said
When I asked the angel in the bottle
She fluttered and cried
I want to die!
Sex, too, squeezes out a lot of pleasure
Till nothing is left but the neck (T#4 52)
Failed domesticity probably looms as large here as it did in "Hollandaise," but the relationship between the pumpkin carving of the opening, the allusion to the Cumean Sybil trapped eternally in her bottle, and the image of the sex act hollowing out the body like an empty pumpkin cannot be transformed into any sort of coherent narrative. "Till nothing is left but the neck" is especially graphic. The neck of the bottle? The neck of the woman as external to the emptied out body? The neck as all one has without money or luck? Oddly, my own image if I am to follow McCaffery and become a co-constructor of the poem's meaning is that of a chicken neck the hard ugly piece of flesh (rather like a distorted penis or "stick in a candle" that remains when one has hollowed out the chicken, as opposed to the pumpkin, guts the liver, heart, and other giblets, the fat along the inside chicken wall. Phonemically, in any case, the monosyllabic "neck" in final position connotes an unpleasant cut of some sort.
Howe's "Scattered Light" happens to be followed, a few pages later, by Nathaniel Mackey's "Uninhabited Angel," which begins
Sat up sleepless in the Long Night Long, love
Stood me up. Stayed away though its
Doing so stirred me. Wine on my shirtsleeve,
Wind on my neck. (T#4 36)
Again, love standing the poet up, again that ugly word "neck" in final position. . But here in Mackey's jazz-inspired lyric, rhythm is quite other an allusion to the Dogon myth of the Andoumboulou fusing with the "attempt to sing the blues," as in the drumbeat of:
Tilted sky, turned earth. Bent wheel, burnt
Bound I. Insubordinate
where "we" is the is what's left when the wheel is bent and "I," bound to the wheel becomes part of that "we" or "Insubordinate / us."
Nathaniel Mackey's poem serves as a reminder that even as women poets associated with poststructuralist experimentation were gaining recognition, women of color had rarely been included. And here we come to a major shift in the nineties, when what could loosely be called a Language poetics has come into contact with one of color. A signal example is the poetry of Harryette Mullen, to which I now turn.
Musing & Drudging
In a 1997 interview for Combo #1, Harryette Mullen recalls her own initiation into poetry:
I had come from Texas to Northern California. I was in graduate school at Santa Cruz. I was reading all of this theory as a student in Literature at UC-Santa Cruz. So, at that point when I would . . . be taken to these talks and readings . . . I had a context for it. . . . although of course no one at the university was dealing with the work of the [language] poets. But [they] read the same theory that my professors did in fact they probably read twice as much, and had read the same theory earlier than a lot of my professors had, and they were highly intellectual poets. . . . and they were saying interesting things. . . . for instance the idea of problematizing the subject.
And Mullen jokes about her fellow minority graduate students at Santa Cruz, who used the argument that it was all very well for white male poets to renounce "voice" but that "We need our subjectivity." Either extreme, she decided, seemed unsatisfactory. In her drive to problematize her own subjectivity, she began to incorporate into the language poetics that animated Trimmings, her book of prose poems based on Stein's Tender Buttons, the actual verbal games of her own culture the childhood jump-rope rhymes and "pseudo-courtship, formulaic exchanges" of pre-adolescence, like the male "What's cookin' good lookin'?," with its female response, "Ain't nothin' cookin' but the beans in the pot, and they wouldn't be if the water wasn't hot."
Trimmings is a wonderful example of the new fusion of language poetics and a renewed "Personism," to use Frank O'Hara's phrase. In an interview with Barbara Henning, Mullen remarks that "Tender Buttons appeals to me because it so thoroughly defamiliarizes the domestic, making familiar objects, rooms, food' seem strange and new, as does the simple, everyday language used to describe common things." But Mullen's own version of Tender Buttons also becomes, as she puts it, "a reflection on the feminization and marginalization of poetry: a whole poem composed of a list of women's garments, undergarments, & accessories certainly seems marginal & minor, perhaps even frivolous & trivial" (PPweb 2). Consider the following:
Tender white kid, off-white tan. Snug black leather, second skin. Fits like a love, an utter other uttered. Bag of tricks, slight hand preserved, a dainty. A solid color covers while rubber is protection. Tight is tender, softness cured. Alive and warm, some animal hides. Ghosts wear fingers, delicate wrists.
This glove poem takes its inspiration from Stein but is really quite different. Mullen keeps her eye more firmly on the object than does Stein, whose cushions, umbrellas, and hats quickly give way to other related items, often quite abstract. Mullen's poem immediately raises the issue of color with the punning of "Tender white kid," and "off-white tan." For the poet, the "snug black leather" is in fact "second skin," and so it "fits like a love" even as it is "utter other," with its play on "udder" the female body and the need to speak, to give poetic voice to what has been voiceless. Further: the emphasis on "utter other" leads to classification: rubber gloves, leather gloves, gloves that are too tight, gloves that fit. But also an unease as to the source of leather gloves that is quite unSteinian: "Alive and warm, some animal hides," where the pun on "hides" (as of "softness cured") leads directly to the image of ghosts known by their large white fingers in the dark. Do those ghost fingers belong to the predominantly white glove wearers? Mullen doesn't press the point: gloves are "tender" and "dainty": they make the wrists look "delicate."
The Trimmings poems thus have a complicated derivation. On the one hand, one could read this particular playful prose poem in conjunction with the short paragrammatic pieces cited by McCaffery in his essay for "The Politics of the Referent" poems by Bruce Andrews, bpNichol, and McCaffery himself. On the other, Mullen's piece is more overtly political and engaged in the contemporary discourse about gender and race. Indeed, Mullen internalizes the theoretical paradigm of Language poetics so as to rethink her own tradition.
In a 1993 lecture called "Visionary Literacy: Art, Literature and Indigenous African Writing Systems," for example, Mullen uses the deconstructionist analysis of écriture to call into question the standard explanatory models of African-American vernacular orality
That black literary traditions privilege orality . . . . has become something of a commonplace, in part because it's based upon what seems to be a reasonable and accurate observation . . . Presumably, for the African-American writer there is no alternative to production of this authentic black voice but silence. This speech-based and racially inflected aesthetic that produces a black poetic diction requires that the writer acknowledge and reproduce in the text a significant difference between the spoken and written language of African Americans and that of other Americans.
As Aldon Nielsen, who discusses this lecture in his Black Chant, points out, Mullen's proposed study of African signage, as the background for understanding the relationship of oral to written, "has much to tell us about the falsity of the assumed opposition between singing and signing in both Africa and America" (p. 36). And he cites her statement:
The larger question I am asking is this: How has the Western view of writing as a rational technology historically been received and transformed by African Americans whose primary means of cultural transmission are oral and visual, rather than written, and for whom graphic systems are associated not with instrumental human communication but with techniques of spiritual power and spirit possession . . . In order to construct a cultural and material history of African-America's embrace and transformation of writing technologies one might ask how writing and text functioned in a folk milieu that valued a script for its cryptographic incomprehensibility and uniqueness rather than its legibility or reproducibility.
Here is a theoretical project that has very real poetic implications, involving, as it does, the struggle against the received idea that one is either "black or innovative." "Muse & Drudge, Mullen explains, really was my attempt to show that I can do both at the same time."
Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press,1995) is written, seemingly against the "Language" grain, in irregularly rhyming and heavily syncopated ballad quatrains. Its eighty pages have four quatrains per pages, with no stops or indeed any punctuation except for the capitalization of proper nouns and apostrophes marking the possessive as in "galleys upstart crow's nest." Each page, as Kate Pearcy points out in an excellent essay on the book, seems to be a discrete unit, unbroken during oral performance. Accordingly, the lines of contiguity that is, the network of metonymic associations are offset by an oral paradigm that insures temporal reception of a given four-quatrain unit. Consider the following:
Sapphire's lyre styles
bow lips and legs
whose lives are lonely too
my last nerve's lucid music
sure chewed up the juicy fruit
you must don't like my peaches
there's some left on the tree
you've had my thrills
a reefer a tub of gin
don't mess me I'm evil
I'm in your sin
clipped bird eclipsed moon
soon no memory of you
no drive or desire survives
you flutter invisible still
Of this pseudo-ballad, we might say, in Steve McCaffery's words, "a reading activates certain relational pathways, a flow of parts, and . . . a structural infolding' of the textual elements" (SUP 11). In the first stanza, each of the fourteen words functions paragramatically. "Sapphire's lyre" (the play on Sappho places Mullen's own blues singer in a rich poetic tradition) "styles" (or is "styles" a noun, designating Sapphire's lyric styles?) "plucked eyebrows," where "plucked" can also be a verb as can the "bow" in "bow lips." "Bow lips and legs" is a witty false parallel: it refers to being "bow-legged" but "bow lips" are the Cupid's mouth, a lovely rounded form. Or do the "lips and legs" bow down? Most important: "lyre styles" sounds like "life styles," and, lo and behold, the last line reads, "whose lives are lonely too."
Now consider the role sound plays-- the rhyming of "Sapphire's" / "lyre" / "styles", the consonance of "lyre," "lives," the alliteration of "l"s in seven of the fourteen words, the eye rhyme of "brows"/"bow". We can hear "Sapphire" playing the blues in this poignant and droll love song. What's more, in the second stanza, the "lucid music" comes to incorporate the Southern Black idiolect of "you must don't like my peaches / there's some left on the tree." Individual morphemes create tension: "chewed up the juicy fruit" refers to a common brand of chewing gum, but "chewed up" relates that "juicy fruit" to those rejected peaches. Again, "you've had my thrills" is a brilliant send-up of the expected "I've had my thrills / a reefer a tub of gin / don't mess with me I'm evil." And "I'm in your sin," with its allusion to the Bessie Smith song "A Pig Foot and a Bottle of Gin,", undercuts self-recrimination (e.g., "I'm full of sin'") by putting the blame squarely on lover. Then again, "you've had my thrills" can be read as, "you've had my best moments; I've given it all to you!" Finally, the semantic and phonemic conjunction of "clipped bird" and "eclipsed moon" plays on the standard romantic clichés about love. Is the poet herself the "clipped bird"? Or is she getting rid of the lover? The poem's last line, "you flutter invisible still" makes for a comic rhyme with the "thrills" of line 9; it also echoes the image of the swans who glide through the water "Unwearied still" in Yeats's "Wild Swans at Coole." The substitution of "invisible" could hardly be more deflating": if "you" (the lover) has been reduced to no more than an invisible flutter, it is surely time to move on. And in the penultimate line, "drive" rhymes with the second syllable of "survives," the chiming of "drive" "desire"-- "survives" underscoring the poet's case for survival.
"Despite random, arbitrary, even nonsensical elements." Mullen has remarked of Muse & Drudge, "the poem . . . is saturated with the intentionality of the writer." "I intend," she insists, "the poem to be meaningful: to allow, or suggest, to open up, or insinuate possible meanings, even in those places where the poem drifts between intentional utterance and improvisational wordplay." And she talks of the poem's amalgam of "topical references to subculture and mass culture, its shredded, embedded, and buried allusions, its drift between meaning and sound, as well as its abrupt shifts in tone or emotional affect." Metonymy and pun, already much in evidence in the earlier Trimmings, are the key tropes, but they function in a traditional lyric form that ironizes their mode of operation, and is itself ironized by these figures. In the words of a later stanza:
down there shuffling coal
humble materials hold
vestiges of toil
the original cutting tool (M & D, 11)
where the paragram "coal" "hold" "toil" "tool" contradicts the ballad account of the miner's dreary work routine. Lyric and linguistic play combine to create a vision at once detached and yet oddly "personal."
I come back now to the question of "innovation." To call Muse & Drudge "innovative" is not especially helpful because it would be just as accurate to say that, as the the very title, with its nominal/verbal collocation of inspiration and hard work, suggests, the book is quite traditional in its respect for the lyric contract, the emphasis on sound structure, the personal signature, and the mimetic grounding of experience. What matters more than "innovation," I think, is that Muse & Drudge is a book that speaks very much to its own time, that taps into various writings and speech formations in ways that are compelling. If Mullen's is a "theoretical" poetry, it is one that has nicely internalized the theories in question.
But--and this is where the situation has become problematic such internalization is hard earned. Like any mode, the production of "text without walls," as McCaffery called it, can become a mere tick. And so can the theory that ostensibly animates it. One of the most problematic manifestations of what we might call post-language poetics is that, in the wake of the foundational theory that filled the pages of avant-garde little magazines of the eighties, poets, and this has been especially true of women poets, perhaps because they have felt, quite rightly, excluded from the earlier formulations of poetics (a situation that can be traced back to the homage paid to Charles Olson's "Projective Verse"), a good bit of "soft" theorizing is taking place. Indeed, exploring such venues as the "Women /Writing / Theory" symposium for Raddle Moon (#11 and #13), the most recent issue of Poetics Journal (#10, June 1998), or the "Poetics and Exposition" section of Moving Borders, I am beginning to wish poets would once again take to composing poetry rather than producing so much "theoretical" prose.
In an essay for the "Poetics" section of Moving Borders, for example, I came across the following sentence: "Mimesis can partner metonymy, another obstruction to either/or." What can this mean? Metonymy is the trope that relates one image or phrase to another along the axis of contiguity, as in "hut," "hovel," "poor little house," "shack" (Jakobson's example). The discussion of mimesis or representation is perhaps the cornerstone of literary theory from Plato on down, but, however we construe mimesis, the word refers to the mode of the verbal construct itself and its relation (or non-relation) to an external reality. Metonymy, on the other hand, is a trope and hence exists, if it does exist, within the mimesis, not side by side with it. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, for example, is considered a highly mimetic novel and one of its main verbal devices is metonymy, as when Anna sees her husband at the train station after she has already fallen in love with Vronsky and notes that Karenin's ears stick out underneath his hat in a peculiar (and unpleasant) fashion, the protruding ears becoming a synecdoche (the most common form of metonymy) by which Karenin is known throughout the novel. Not only can't mimesis partner metonymy, there being no equivalence between the two ("another obstruction to either / or"), but metonymy is in fact one of the key features of the mimetic text.
Further down on the same page we read, "Can the rational accommodate the irrational? Can forms exist which truly allow for the accidental, absurd, grotesque, horrific, incommensurate is this what Adorno meant?" The answer is quite simply no, for Adorno never equated "form" with the "rational"; he knew it was quite possible to have complex and subtle forms that are by no means "rational"; moreover he did not conceive of form as the container of the thing contained. Again, in an essay called "In Re Person'," there is a statement that reads, "The value of perspective to nascent capitalism was that it eventually aided in the creation of a new reality, a rationalized objectified space which could then be opened to exploitation." What artist can this author have in mind? Perugino? Raphael? Leonardo? Giorgione? All those wonderful Italian painters who used perspective to create the most amazing sense of palpability of nearness and distance, of mysterious background events that complicate what is seen in the foreground? Was theirs a "rationalized objective space" a space of nascent capitalism?
Such theory buzz, like the current spate of what I call Big Name Collage the large theoretical essay or even poem that is no more than a collage of nuggets by Big Names Agamben and Heidegger, Cixous and Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno without any real analysis of what the philosophers in question are actually arguing, is problematic because this particular form of "innovative" writing may well alienate the very readership it hopes to capture. That readership is, I think, more attuned to specific issues, as when Mullen tries to walk the minefield between the particular idiolects or, as Jeff Derksen has called them, "communolects" of our increasingly multilingual society. For those "communolects" now have everything to do with the one revolution that really has occurred in our own time-- namely, the habitation of cyberspace. I don't have time here to discuss the poetic experiments and many of these really are experiments in that they fail as often as they succeed and are replaced by more adequate models-- on sites like Kenneth Goldsmith's UbuWeb: Visual / Concrete/ Sound Poetry, but clearly, two important things are happening. The first is the visualization of poetic text a visualization which is again a time-honored mode, as in George Herbert's The Temple or Mallarmé's Coup de dés, but reconfigured in important semantic ways in Johanna Drucker's The Word Made Flesh or Susan Howe's Eikon Basilike. The second is a form which I call, for want of a better name, "differential poetry," that is poetry that does not exist in a single fixed state but can vary according to the medium of presentation: printed book, cyberspace, installation, or oral rendition.
In the performative work of Laurie Anderson and Suzan-Lori Parks, Joan Retallack and Caroline Bergvall, for example, the issue is less the referential fallacy, as it was for McCaffery in the mid-seventies, than the semiosis of the verbal/ visual field itself, where words and phrases can be moved around, reconfigured, and assigned to different slots, so that the "poem" has a variety of different forms. In a piece called "RUSH (a long way from H)," for example, Caroline Bergvall has designed a text you can access and activate on the Electronic Poetry Center website or read in book form, but it can also be seen and heard as performed and videotaped, in which case temporality becomes an important determinant of meaning. As a barstool monologue cum brawl, interrupted and qualified by visual diagrams, media argot, and verbal breakdown, Bergvall's puts an ingenious spin on such pub monologues as that of Lil's "friend" in The Waste Land.
Is it "innovative"? Is it in Bergvall's words, "kindajazz or excitingly passée?" Well, there are surely Dada precedents for this performance model and "RUSH (a long way from H)" recalls the work of John Cage and Fluxus. So, to rephrase the question, is Bergvall's an interesting rendition of a lonely, anxious, and hilarious conversation, presumably between two women, in the neighborhood pub? A close look at the work's linguistic deformations and repetitions lays bare the complex layering that defines "this gigantic submarined trancehall" as it takes shape on the cyberpage. And the next step, one we find taken in Kenneth Goldsmith's Java Applet called Fidget, is to have the words themselves put in motion, touch one another, and vary according to what time of day one accesses the site.
Would Adorno, with his distaste for kitsch and his revulsion of the Consciousness Industries (of which the internet is surely a prime instance) be the right guide for reading this text? Or would a better frame be provided by a critic like N. Katherine Hayles, whose new study subtitled "Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics," raises the issues which poets, like the rest of us, are now facing? It is less a question of novelty as such than of coming to terms with specificity and difference. As Gertrude Stein put it so nicely in "An Acquaintance with Description":
What is the difference between three and two in furniture. Three is the third of three and two is the second of two. This makes it as true as a description. And not satisfied. And what is the difference between being on the road and waiting very likely being very likely waiting, a road is connecting and as it is connecting it is intended to be keeping going and waiting everybody can understand puzzling.
1Rosmarie Waldrop, "Association," Split Infinitives (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1998).
2(Exeter, UK: Stride, 1999). I wrote a blurb for this excellent book as I did for Sloan's Moving Borders.
3Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 238.
4L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, was a mimeograph magazine, whose first issue appeared in Spring, 1978. This, edited by Robert Grenier, began publication in 1971, Hills, ed. Bob Perelman in 1973. Frank Davey's Open Letter, published in Toronto, was founded in 1972. These foundational journals as well as such projects as Lyn Hejinian's Tuumba Chapbook series were thus in place by the mid-seventies.
5See Steve McCaffery, "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader," North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986 (New York: Roof Books, 1986), pp.13-29, subsequently cited as NI; Bruce Andrews, "Text and Context," Paradise & Method (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 6-16; Charles Bernstein, "Stray Straws and Straw Men," Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986), pp. 40-49.
6L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Supplement Number One (June 1980), front page, unpaginated. Subsequently cited as SUP, and, for convenience sake, I shall supply page numbers.
7See especially Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 62-94. Many of the essays in this collection are relevant to the topic: for example, "The Dominant," "Problems in the Study of Language and Literature," and "Two Aspects of language nd Two Tupes of Aphasic Disturbances."
8See William R. Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988), Chapter 2, "Science at Work," passim.9
"Stray Straws and Straw Men," Content's Dream, pp. 40-41.
10In his essay "1973," Peter Middleton begins to engage the thorny issue of 70s poetry. He relates the demise of Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar, whose last issue was in 1973 and the founding of American Poetry Review (1972) to post-Vietnam, Watergate politics and the new distrust of public speech and the increasing separation of the white avant-garde from black writing. Middleton takes into account such important poetic developments as Jerome Rothenberg's projects to place cultural difference and the recognition of non-Western poetries on the agenda, David Antin's turn toward improvisation, and Michael Palmer's incorporation of French avant-garde poetics into his work. But he notes that at the moment when Barrett Watten's This was devoting a whole issue to Clark Coolidge (1973), the dominant poetic discourse valorized poets like Robert Lowell, Maxine Kumin, and William Stafford. Middleton's as yet unpublished essay is part of a longer project, Writing to be Heard: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Public Sphere 1950-1990, to be published by Northwestern University Press.
11Sharon Bryan, "Hollandaise," in The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, ed. Dave Smith & David Bottoms (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1985),pp. 107-108. The author, born in 1943, holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and has published a book called Salt Air from Wesleyan. In their Introduction, Smith and Bottoms describe the typical Morrow Younger Poet as one whose "knowledge, while eclectic, seems focused on the psychological and mythical resonances in the local surface, event, or subject. . . .He seems to jog more than to write literary criticism" (p. 19).
12Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms, ed. Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey (New York: and Indinapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1969).
13Allen Ginsberg, "'First Thought, Best Thought," "Loka: A Journal from Naropa Institute" (1975); rpt. in ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue, ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox, 1980), pp.106-17. Again and again Ginsberg speaks of "natural" speech, spontaneity, the breath as guide to measure, and so on.
14See Ron Silliman, "Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry Reading," in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed World, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford, 1998), p. 365. Silliman's is a seminal essay for understanding the limitations of reader-response theory.
15See, on this point, George Hartley's Textual Politics and the language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). This, the first book-length study of language poetry, was largely devoted to the movement's politics, drawing heavily on Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten.
16The most notable exception is Lyn Hejinian, who contributed essays and manifestos to the early issues of L=An=G=U=A=G=E, for example "If Written is Writing," and co-editor, with Barrett Watten, of Poetics Journal. Another very different exception is Susan Howe who combined, not poetry and theory so much as poetry and historical scholarship, negotiating in fascinating ways between the two in My Emily Dickinson.
A key volume that includes a number of women poets writing as theorists is Bob Perelman's Writing / Talks (Carbondale and Edwardssville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985). The book contains "Rae Armantrout's "Poetic Silence," Beverly Dahlen's "A Reading: a Reading," Carla Harryman's "The Middle," Fanny Howe's "Artobiography," and Lyn Hejinian's now well-known "The Rejection of Closure."
17See, for example, Rod Mengham, Textual Practice, 3, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 115-24; D. S. Marriott, "Signs Taken for Signifiers: Language Writing, Fetishism and Disavowal," and Anthony Mellors, "Out of the American Tree: Language Writing and the Politics of Form," both in fragmente 6, (1995): 73-91. Marriott's essay, for example, begins with the sentence, "It will e the argument of this paper that language writing, in its systematic attempt to empty the linguistic sign of its referential function, replaces representation with a fetishistic substitute, that of the signifier" (p. 73), the reference being to essays by McCaffery, Bernstein, Silliman, and Andrews.
18Subsequently cited as T and #for issue number.
19Ashbery's "The Ice Storm" is in #5 (1987), as are extracts from Conversing with Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz.
20Farrah Griffin, Michael Magee, and Kirsten Gallagher, "A Conversation with Harryette Mullen," Combo #1 (Summer 1998), ed. Michael Magee, as reprinted on Harryette Mullen Website, http://wings.buffalo/edu/epc.authors/mullen, pp. 1-2. Subsequently cited as Hmweb.
21Barbara Henning, "In Interview with Harryette Mullen," Poetry Project Newsletter, (1999): 2. As read online on the Poetry Project website, http://www.poetryproject.com/mullen.html. Subsequently cited as Ppweb.
22Harryette Mullen, Trimmings (Providence: Tender Buttons Press, 1994), p. 9.
23Unpublished lecture delivered at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, May 24, 1993. I owe my knowledge of it to Aldon Lynn Nielsen's important study Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 35-37.
24Nielsen, Black Chant, p. 36.
25Kate Pearcy, "A Poetics of Opposition: Race and the Avant-Garde," unpublished essay read at the "Poetry and the Public Sphere Conference on Contemporary Poetry," 24-27 April, 1997.
26Harryette Mullen, Muse & Drudge (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1995), p. 1. Subsequently cited as M&D.
28Ann Lauterbach, "Pragmatic Examples: the Nonce," MB,
29Beverly Dahlen, "Re Person," MB 664.
30As cited by Mullen, Ppbweb 2.
31The site is located at www.ubu.com.
32Gertrude Stein, "An Acquaintance with Description" (1929), in A Stein Reader, ed. Ulla E. Dydo (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 507.
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