"When I say ’equals’ I don’t mean indifference but distance."
In Bob Perelman’s recent book, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, he stresses the contingent and ad hoc beginnings of the movement in various metropolitan cells:
The poetic movement known as language writing or language poetry began to take shape in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early seventies and a few years later in New York City, with a smaller nexus in Washington, DC. While language writing has, by the mid-nineties become a recognized literary-historical term, there was never any self-consciously organized group known as the language writers or poets - not even a fixed name. (11-12)
These assemblages of young, experimental, left-identified writers, mainly white, straight, middle-class, university- educated and born in the 40s, were motivated by what Perelman calls ’opposition to the prevailing institutions of American Poetry’ (12), and ’the still-dominant scenic monolog of the writing workshop’ (13). They styled themselves as dedicated connoisseurs and inheritors of an academically neglected tradition of experimental modernism and avant-garde self-publishing.
The emergent school of ’language writing’, at its most programmatic and pedagogical, was indeed notable for its sense of purpose, seriousness and demonstrable productivity. But it was the dovetailing of bourgeois skills of networking, self-promotion and multi-tasking with the rhetoric of effective critique and subversion of bourgeois norms, which proved vital to the movement’s recognition beyond the circle of direct participants.
As Perelman comments, the movement’s development and reception
was shaped by what he calls the ’completeness of its
self-management’ (16). The contours of an informal but
professionalized, collaborative project, hospitable to widely
divergent modes of experiment, were traceable through the emergence
of an expanding catalogue of allied little magazine, small press
and reading venues. A network of contributors doubled as both
readers and writers, performers and audience, and came to think of
those positions and practices as ideally or even intrinsically
Although Perelman’s history disavows ‘any self-consciously organized group known as the language writers’, and insists on the diversity of the work collected under its rubric, it is clear that, beyond a certain conventionalized and often reductive critique of the academy, and besides aesthetic, intellectual and political common ground, there were other vital factors. Shared ambition, interest, experience and commitment sufficiently united a disparate personnel in a self-consciously entrepreneurial labour of organization, dissemination, promotion and preservation. What emerged was a recognisable, sometimes collaborative, cross-referenced, archive of work in experimental poetry and poetics which insists on its lack of self-similarity and yet bears the stamp of a particular habitus.
The ostensibly ephemeral and local character of connections and products was always bolstered by ideological, affective and financial investment in the model of grassroots organising and modernist homage. At one extreme, nostalgic technologies such as letterpress were used to produce notoriously impenetrable aesthetic texts, fetish objects of antique postmodernity. However, language writers were also keen to make use of new techniques of production and distribution, and to explore their effects for different textual practices and projects. In one of the first issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in a piece called ’Benjamin Obscura’, Ron Silliman wrote:
Gutenberg’s moveable type erased gesturality from the graphemic dimension of books. That this in turn functions to alienate the producer from his or her product is tangible even to authors who compose on the typewriter: to see one’s text in a new typeface (inevitably asserting different spatio-visual values) is almost as radical a shock as first seeing oneself on film or videotape, or initially hearing one’s voice remarkably other on a tape recorder. (The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book 63)
Charles Bernstein, in his 1984 essay ’Blood on the Cutting Room Floor’, argued that:
The most important modern technological development for writing and reading has been the combination of inexpensive printing and photocopying with increasingly efficient typewriters/word processors. These developments - a kind of second Gutenberg Revolution - have made available to writers the means of producing their work independently, without going through capital-intensive centralized publishers. (354)
On the next page, however, he laments the ’trivialization’, ’domestication’ and standardization of writing, by what he calls ’word processor ideology’ (355) and ’the idealization of "clean copy" - a defleshed, bureaucratic and interchangeable writing’ (357). Whilst he praises the labour-saving economies of word processing, Bernstein fears ’the ascent of efficiency over and against other human values’ (356) and the loss of ’the positive value of "mistakes"’ (356). What he values at the level of reproduction and distribution, and by contrast with the larger evil of ’centralized publishers’, he sees as a negative influence on composition. In his sequestration of the scene of writing, Bernstein is affectively committed to what he calls ’older writing technologies’ (357). He figures handwriting as inherently and increasingly anti-commercial, authentic and idiosyncratic:
The indelibility of ink, with its intimations of an extension of blood through the finger tips and the related gesture of making a mark, places writing in a different dimension than that of the etherealized, all-too-correctable space letters occupy in a cathode ray tube or liquid crystal display. (356)
This may seem a surprising position for the man who was to become, a decade or so later, the Director of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo, self-styled ’gateway to resources in electronic poetry and poetics’. But in many ways the democratised, utopian discourse and practical benefits of the Web, its archival and interactive copia and enargeia, its global facilitation of informal networking and community, discussion and collaboration, represents an in-principle amelioration of the breach between older and newer technologies, theory and practice, academics and poets, writers and readers.
It produces precisely that sense of vividness and immediacy, of surplus and praxis, which Bruce Andrews, like many advocates of the ’non-imperial’, ’deterritorializing’ productivity of experimental poetries, sees as significantly counteracting the alienation of subjects from their nomadic ’home’ in the materiality of language-events (Andrews, ’Text and Context’  13).
Of course, ink is only comparatively and figurally indelible, but
for Bernstein, to write and read poetry is to participate in the
preservation of ’potentially the most powerful technology to
realize the multidimensionality of reading values - to sound the
sonic, measure the lexicon, and refuse a standardization and
regimentation that deafens us to the living past in language and
diverts us from enacting living presents - decentered and plural -
for language’ (358). The collocation of ’poetry’,
’the poetic’ and ’the poet’ becomes the generic and
allegorical name for a critique of linguistic transparency and
instrumental aesthetics, understood antithetically as
One of the courses Bernstein has taught in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, stored in electronic form at the Electronic Poetry Centre, is called ’Prose and its Malcontents: Practice and Theory’. The course readings mix experimental postmodern texts of various kinds and genres while continually raising - and begging - the question of the current or historical distinction, or lack of distinction, between poetry and prose. The assigned reading for the week on ’Poet’s Prose’ includes Silliman’s The New Sentence, the most-cited of all manifestoes of language writing, along with extracts from Ashbery’s Three Poems, and Barbara Guest’s novel, Seeking Air, plus a range of experimental pieces which both do and do not employ lineation.
’Poet’s Prose’ is followed by ’Poetry/Prose: What’s the Difference’, featuring Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as exemplary modernist and postmodernist instances of a genealogy of dynamic ’malcontents’ who work the seam between prose and poetry. In the final week students present their own ’prose experiments’, according to Bernstein’s instructions, developed via a course-specific electronic discussion list running parallel to the class schedule. At this point, the enrolled members of the class are figuratively installed as reader-writers in the narrative sequence and dialectic which the course establishes.
Bernstein’s companion course, ’The Peripheral: Reading Askance in Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics’, complementarily elaborates the pedagogical value of ’digressions, diversions, detours, interruptions, side shows, and other narrative wanderings and errancies, obstructions and loitering’ in the name of a redefinition of ’poetry’ as peripheral to - and hostile to - the reproduction of the mainstream and its routinized generic conventions.
Like Perelman’s thesis in The Marginalization of Poetry, Bernstein’s counter-canonical poetic genealogy relies, for its internal credibility, on a reinscription of normative definitions - especially of ’prose’ as a debased utilitarian technology of writing - in order to locate the valuable periphery or margin, and to associate it with ’poetry’.
In a similar vein, Bruce Andrews’ auto-critical ’citational montage’ (20), ’Constitution/Writing, Politics, Language, The Body’(1981), calls for an ’Anti-System Poetics’ (23) distinguished by ’opacity, a lack of utility, a spillage, a dissemination, an overt "experimentalism"’ (25), while at the same time warning against ’a more homogenizing meaninglessness’ (26) which would too easily float on ’the flood tide of Capital’ (26) and become part of the flow of debased commodities. Andrews writes of poetry as ’an art of constitution. Not only plastic "composition"....Not the all-or-nothing eschatology of exploitation or its absence....There are constant compromises and acquiescences and almost chemical mixtures and coalitions that lead to different forms of hegemony’ (30).
Bernstein calls for textual heteroclites and ’dysraphism...a congenital misseaming of embryonic parts’ (359) in order to reconfigure the textual relations of ’autonomous’ parts and ’unforseeable’ wholes (359), according to a logic of deformation, reconstitution and ’provisional limits’ (361) close to a Deleuzian rhetoric of assemblage. ’The poem enters the world’, Bernstein writes, ’and each of us beside it, facing it’ (362), animated or activated by the mutual engagements and investments of texts, contexts, readers and writers according to ’the fusion of social flesh’ and ’the blood on the cutting room floor’ (362).
These luridly mixed and appropriated metaphors suggest novel conformations of bodies, texts and technologies. Bernstein, like Perelman, seeks an interstitial space for poetry as the designation of a kind of embodied lived-work which would undo the disciplinary distinction between poet and academic, and repair the breach between public and private subject.
This familiar figuration of poetry as the signifier par excellence of the immemorial and the transcendent is underwritten by Bernstein’s distinguished career as poet-academic. For Bernstein, the business of (true) poetry - as defined by the movement - represents an overtly pedagogical, scholarly and utopian practice of politicised aesthetic experiment which challenges what he elsewhere calls ’the blank stare of the commodity’ (’The Dollar Value of Poetry’ 139). It is of and for the school, but its sublime horizon is a potentially unlimited tropological and generative immanence sourced in a humanist allegory of poeisis: ’a chip of uninfected substance’, ’that non-generalizable residue that is specific to each particular experience’ (’Dollar Value’ 139).
The spectacle of ’artistic’ and individual differences glossed over by historical processes of generalization - more or less benign for Bernstein and disturbing to Perelman - far from betraying any incoherence in the characterisation of the language movement as such, discloses its ideological consistency: a consistency founded in what Ron Silliman, a decade later, called ’the specificity of privileged oppression’, especially as it attaches to ’a specific cluster, one subset of the grouping WMH [white male heterosexuals]’ (’What/Person’ 54).
The visibility and penetration of that work and those people habitually included in the definition of language poetry in current anthologies and accounts of experimentalism, in America and internationally, evidences a continuing return on the movement’s early investment in infrastructure. A first wave of anthologies, published under the imprints of already established presses, consolidated and advertised the profile of the movement.
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, a poetics anthology drawn from the journal of the same name and edited by Andrews and Bernstein, was published in 1984 by Southern Illinois University Press. It was closely followed by three further anthologies, Perelman’s Writing/Talks in 1985, also from Southern Illinois, Silliman’s In The American Tree in 1986 from the National Poetry Foundation, and Messerli’s Language Poetries in 1987 under the imprint of New Directions. In them, selections taken mainly from the now-defunct founding journals, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Hills and This, were repackaged as second-generation products for an expanded, largely academic market.
The point at which the means of production and distribution passed out of the hands of the original editors and contributors marked an historic juncture in the commodification of language writing as a school, with a reasonably secure curriculum and membership. It also signalled the beginning of the movement’s wider dissemination qua movement in a variety of prestigious literary and academic venues.
Bernstein guest-edited language samplers for Paris Review in 1982 and boundary 2 in 1986. In the same year Critical Inquiry published a language forum which included multiple reviews and responses to Silliman’s anthology, In The American Tree. Over the same period, a number of the movement’s key male personnel also published single-authored books of poetics, Watten’s Total Syntax, Bernstein’s Content’s Dream, Palmer’s Code of Signals, Silliman’s The New Sentence, consolidating a benevolent masculinist stewardship which had always been proud of its solicitation of women poets. Most of these men were by now middle-aged, mid-career white-collar workers, employed as university teachers and cultural administrators. In many ways their entrepreneurial efforts in the previous decade were paying off in increased cultural capital, even as they became further entrenched in the elegiac productivity of ’privileged oppression’.
As David Lloyd argued in his sceptical 1985 review of The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book in Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian’s Poetics Journal: ’The language of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, far from returning from the domain of the commodity, exchange value, to that of use value or teleological value, based on ends and purposes, prefers rather to multiply exchange, deterritorializing it, one might say, by pushing the alienating implications of exchange to their limits’ (163). In recent publications, a number of key figures such as Perelman, Silliman and Hejinian, refer to language poetry in the past tense: something that may never have happened can still be said to be finished. Perelman’s qualified suggestion is that ’the initial phase of language writing is over’(17) and now functions as a model for another generation of experimentalists.
For these younger writers, the defining anthologies of the language movement may seem analogous to iconic earlier movement-based collections like Zukofsky’s Objectivist Anthology of 1930 or Padgett and Shapiro’s 1970 Anthology of New York Poets. Like accounts of the New York School which speak of first, second and more cautiously third generation tiers, such genealogies imply an ever more distant and belated relation to an originating scene. These rituals of authorisation and separation have manifest pedagogical and historical implications, especially when the subjects of the movement become teachers, employed partly as experts on themselves.
What if the self-designated first and last generation of language writers were to be reclassified as, for instance, third generation objectivists or second generation Black Mountain poets? How do such genealogies impact on the students and readers of the work or the authors so designated? Some of the most compelling and least programmatic responses to these issues come from the women most prominently associated with language writing.
Susan Howe, who works with Bernstein in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, pursues the ironies of address, location and genealogy across genres and disciplines in the service of a forensic poetics. In her work, prosopopoeia (rhetorical impersonation or reanimation) is the master trope of an elliptical, maverick and scholarly intertextuality. She steals her titles from such apparently unrepeatable books of the distant past as The Captivity of Mrs Mary Rowlandson, and Charles I’s Eikon Basilika. In her admired work of poetic commentary and textual criticism, My Emily Dickinson, she procures the reciprocal endorsement she most wants by ventriloquising her long-dead subject. ’American poets’, she writes, are ’solitaries who go in company; it is useless if not impossible to go alone’ (’Robert Creeley’158).
The generational model of literary history might be thought of as intrinsically reliant on subordination, hypotaxis, the family tree; but an historical sequence ordered paratactically - this, this, this, this - produces a chain of discrete instances whose relations can only be construed via a reading of apposition and contingency. The contest between these two models is centrally and contradictorily thematized in the work of those who call themselves - or who have been called - language writers.
One of the most symptomatic rehearsals of this contest concerns the debate - largely internal to the movement - over whether, or in what way, the movement can be referred to. Perelman’s second chapter, ’Language Writing and Literary History’, takes up the problematic of literary-historical naming, noting the increasingly popular usage, ’"so-called language writing"’ . His allegorical discussion of the two journals emblematic of the movement’s bi-coastal reach, This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is all the more poignant given his own contemporaneous editorship of Hills. He comments mildly but pointedly - ’This, begun in 1971, Hills (1973), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E(1978) were initially significant’ (16) - and goes on to situate his own analysis in the already over-determined terms of the two journals.
But it’s not what was in them which concerns him here; he dwells only on their titles: <This> is a deictic - it points something out; there has to be somebody doing the pointing: a person using a word, using specifically, confidently, <this> not <that>. . . . but of course the question arises, what is this? (19-20) Perelman’s gloss is explicitly pedagogical and didactic, a confident pointing out which gestures towards the vulnerability of naming and reference: purely self-referential, ’this’ avoids in advance the charge of being ’so-called’. If the question the title begs is ’what is this?’, the answer implied is tautologically specific - ’this is this’ - and implicitly defensive or prophylactic - ’this is not that’, or that which is ’so-called’.
As a shrewd analyst of deixis, Perelman is uncertain how to locate the tense of his own account. One set of questions of which language poetry is the understood referent - is this that? is that ’so-called’? - opens others. Is he an instance of that; how should the proper name ’Perelman’ be located; is it - is he - now or then, historical or contemporary? Where possible Perelman adopts the future conditional as a way of encoding his desire for bilocation as witness and analyst, subject and object, academic and poet. This uneasy technique finds its complement in spatial discomfort, and the logic of discrete equivalence: Hejinian’s ’When I say "equals" I don’t mean indifference but distance’.
The back cover of The Marginalization of Poetry claims Perelman’s book as literary history ’from the inside’. Inside, however, its author frets over what such a position might entail or what its mixed effects might be. Perelman claims that the special feature of language writing is its simultaneous engagement of the discourses of contemporary aesthetic, social and political theory and the tradition of non or anti-academic experimental modernist and postmodern practice.
Although his text is a product of the academy in every sense, Perelman’s affective loyalty clearly belongs to what he calls ’a more/ communal and critical reading and writing’ , adjacent to and overlapping with the academy, but meaningfully distinct from it. Language poetry, on his account, refuses the separation of writing from the academy, and undoes its causal logic of supersession: first writing, then writing about, primary then secondary.
Ironically enough, that move is common to more or less all schools of contemporary critical and textual practice; and, for all of them, the possibility of such an analysis preserves intact the mutually exclusive categories if only to purchase the possibility of their dissolution or suspension.
Perelman stresses that the movement was non-academic in origin and that academics did not begin to ’take notice’ until the mid-80s. Even so, he argues, academics have seized on the poetics and failed to respond to what he calls ’the writing itself’ (15). Such a criticism reintroduces the already vitiated distinction between poetry and poetics, primary and secondary practices. He even uses the cant word ’jargon’ to distance himself from so-called theory.
In his desire to create a relatively distinct, autonomous and mediating space for the movement with which he identifies, Perelman sidesteps his own institutional status as a Professor of English in one of the most prestigious departments in the country - Pennsylvania. He trys to distance himself and his true colleagues, the members of the movement, from institutionalised theory on the one hand, which he characterises as subordinating writing to reading (ie usurping the place of ’creative writers’), and the banalities of traditional creative writing programs on the other.
He doesn’t mention that he is a graduate of the Iowa MFA program, and instead asserts the historically implicated but discrete status of the movement: ’Rather than being a symptom of postmodernism, language writing fits into the sequence of twentieth-century avant-garde poetic movements, although it is by no means equivalent to any of them’ (15).
In the closing pages of this chapter, Perelman writes: Is there such a thing as "language writing"? or is there simply "language writing: the literary movement"? . . . It is one of history’s ironies that language writing, a movement challenging the social and rhetorical prerogatives of capital, has become a semiproper name that itself bestows a certain amount of cultural capital upon those it covers. (21). Hedged about as this proposition is - a ’semiproper’ name, a ’certain amount of cultural capital - it nevertheless privileges writers over texts and confirms the cachet he himself derives as a writer whose proper name is undoubtedly ’covered by’, indeed central to the definition of, the ’semi proper name’, ’language writing’. What is a ’semi proper’ or marginal name; and how does it stay clear of the ignominy of the ’so-called’ or ersatz?
Perelman was one of the signatories of a group-authored ’Manifesto’ published in Social Text in 1988 which diagnosed ’language writing’ as ’the activity which blurs the distinction between reader and writer, poet and critic’, and which shares a ’deep disinterest in poetics of identity’ (35-6).
Writing with hindsight, Perelman ascribes to the movement a commitment to the reversible figure of the writer-reader instead of a hierarchy of ’advanced writers and benighted readers’: ’A public is addressed not as readers but as writers’ (36). That reversibility or mirroring recognition which is the mark of the elite, specialist, coterie circulation of avant-garde poetics is phrased in order to suggest the desirable possibility of extending readers and markets whilst maintaining integrity. At the same time, a readiness to privilege writing and writers and to bestow that honorific designation on readers as an incentive or reward, surreptitiously locks into place the hierarchical antinomy of (active) writing/ (passive) reading, and in particular the ’struggle’ of first generation versus second-generation writing and reading, writer versus academic.
Still smarting from Bromwich’s decade-old slur, that language poets ’do not appear, as yet, to write good poems’ (37), Perelman prophesies the rising stocks of the language writers vis a vis a devalued currency of expressive versifiers and academic lackeys.
’After all’, he writes, ’history, even literary history, teaches that change occurs. Denham and Waller used to be better than Shakespeare; Longfellow better than Whitman’ (37). All contests for literary approval lead to the most proper name of all, Shakespeare. Perelman continually looks for a position ’somewhere in the middle’ (37) - neither margin nor centre but liminal, littoral, overlapping.
On this model, language poetry offers an alternative to both the ’isolate wiles’ of ’explication, criticism, theory’ and the narcissistic drama of bourgeois self-expression and identity. But in closing Perelman abandons the critique of conservative canonical operations and passive consumption which has structured much of the chapter to stage the priority of formally and, by extension, socially experimental avant-garde practices - of which language poetry is at least one historic instance - over what he takes to be the rival claims of the academy and high theory: what he calls ’the exuberant marginalia of a Barthes or the frosty agonies of a de Man in his stony aporetic literary garden’ (37).
Here, the burden of authorship in its atomized and elite sense is displaced onto the singularities of ’a Barthes’ or ’a de Man’, while ’language writing’ takes its ’semi-proper’, ’so-called’ place in ’a sequence including modernism, the Surrealists, the Objectivists, Black Mountain, the New York School’ (37) - a sequence which ’covers’ the ’exuberance’ or ’agonies’ of any individual writer, a Perelman for instance.
The notable shifting between designations of period, movement, location and practice in this list again indicates Perelman’s desire to forestall or only partially engage the deictic complexities of classification and orientation by invoking both paratactic equivalence and the hypotactic narrative force of historical sequence. In this account, the honorific category of the transhistorical margin and ’marginalization’ bespeaks the collaboration and collection of singular artists, Howe’s loners in company, and writes its own ’literary history’. The margin does not acquire its status simply with reference to an impoverished centre; rather, it represents a rhetorical opening ’somewhere in the middle’, a space of potential rapprochement between theoretical ’marginalia’ and mainstream genres which nevertheless maintains the semi-proper, so-called benefits of authorship and ’privileged oppression’: a fluctuating neither/nor, which is always ’this’, never ’that’.
As Silliman argues: ’A politics of pure hypotaxis can only succeed through the mass subordination of every element. A politics of pure parataxis will never complete a thought. . . . Our goal should not (indeed, cannot) be the stasis of resolution but learning to balance and negotiate never-ending tensions’ (’What/Person’ 67).
Little wonder, then, that Perelman reads what he calls ’the marginalization of poetry’ so recuperatively, and so readily identifies himself and other authors of ’language writing’ with the sovereignty of the first generation and a putatively ’non-academic’ tradition of ’writers who might find literary history less burdensome, more useful’ (37).
Andrews, Bruce. Paradise & Method. Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1996.
Bernstein, Charles. ’Blood on the Cutting Room Floor’. Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986.
- - -. ’The Dollar Value of Poetry’. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984, 138-145.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Cold of Poetry. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994.
Howe, Susan. ’Robert Creeley and the Politics of the Person’. Poetics Journal 9 (1991): 152-158. The Person.
Lloyd, David. ’Limits of a Language of Desire’. Poetics Journal 5 (1985): 159-167.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.
Silliman, Ron. ’Benjamin Obscura’. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984, 63-65.
Silliman, Ron and Leslie Scalapino. ’What/Person: From An Exchange’. Poetics Journal 9 (1991): 51-68. The Person.
J A C K E T # 2 Contents page | “Marginalization”
This material is copyright © Kate Lilley and
Jacket magazine 1997