This paper is taken from the Vol. 1 No. 4 May 1997 pamphlet in The Impercipient Lecture Series, edited and published by Steve Evans and Jennifer Moxley in Providence, Rhode Island. It is about five printed pages long.
In the poem "The Marginalization of Poetry" Bob Perelman notes that poetry is a marginal act - it is both something no one listens to he notes quoting Jack Spicer and text that has margins. In this poem while he doesn’t exactly embrace the marginal, he does see it as a useful description of the contemporary poetry scene. I like this move as much as I am bothered by it. What is bothersome, as Steve Evans pointed out to me the other day, is that we keep putting poetry on the margins, at the dark end of the street, on stakes (to reference three recent titles).
The rhetoric of "The Margin"
This rhetoric of margin and center is one that comes to us from cultural and ethnic studies in the 1980s. In many ways, this rhetoric makes good sense for discussions of identities, but the question in this context is does this rhetoric make good sense for linguistic practices.
The centrality of Poetic Forms
I guess, when it comes down to it, I want to see the form as central, not marginal. I want to argue that poetic forms are central to our culture and to our considerations of the ethical possibilities of a work. I want this because I am not sure poetry is marginal - I think of Hallmark cards, advertising ditties, the perfume Poème, my students’ poems which just seem to keep arriving week after week, the man who moved me into my apartment in New York who wrote poems and accompanied himself on the drums every evening, or the poems my mother cross-stitches onto samplers to give to her friends. I think also of Perelman’s own book of criticism published by an established press where poetry is central and begins the critical discussion. I know these aren’t the forms of poetry we would necessarily put forward as products that are changing our reading, proposing new egalitarian possibilities, or helping us correct society’s repressions, but they are an indication that there is in our culture a centrality of the contorted form that might be the place where we should begin to chart poetry’s status.
But in another way I like the way the term marginalization has come to mean its opposite in current thinking. By 1988 we have Gayatri Spivak noticing that there is an "irreducibility of the margin in all explanations." Here we see the push and pull, the warp and woof of margin and center dissolve so that margin means its exact opposite. I’m not sure what this tells us about how to read Perelman’s book but it does point to a fin-de-discourse problem.
In language writing this distinction between margin and center gets further muddled in the relationship between reader and work. It has often been noted that language poetry makes room for its reader. As Perelman notes here, "language writing is best understood as a group phenomenon, and that it is one whose primary tendency is to do away with the reader as a separable category." (31). Perelman’s example of his writing experiments with Kit Robinson and Steve Benson in which one person reads from a book and two people type in response provides a good literal metaphor for this process.
A field of communication
What is provocative about such moments is not that they elicit a transparent identification or understanding of the see-saw dialectics of other and self but rather that they work towards creating a field of communication. And I would argue that even more than language writing’s political claims, the importance of language writing is this willingness to mess with the separation between reader and work. Language writing in this context is part of a long tradition of writing that is concerned with egalitarian textualities and is valuable because it encourages readers to enter into a community, to read with writers and works, to share in a production of meaning that refigures community, breaking down its binarisms.
But at the same time, as Perelman is quick to point out, this isn’t something that is necessarily true of all language writing. One thing that the book The Marginalization of Poetry does is to begin to complicate this model and this is important work. As Perelman is well aware, to say all language writing constructs room for the further efforts of readers is the intellectual equivalent of Jameson’s reading of language writing as representing schizophrenia. And a tendency to see all forms of textuality as equal has been one of the mistakes of some poststructuralist and reader response theories, a mistake that has resulted in a depoliticization of works. What the criticism that surrounds language writing needs to do is to begin to complicate the model of the reader as a producer of the work. This is partially necessary because language writing is so diverse. The range of formal techniques used is immense and it is these that have the primary effect on the reader’s relationship with a work. Just as a Henry James novel demands a different sort of attention than a piece by Gertrude Stein, so a Ron Silliman new sentence requires a very different sort of attention than a Susan Howe page. The issue becomes one of evaluating what and how we read and how some works present more egalitarian textualities than others.
Perelman’s canon is the beginning of a useful one. He argues, and I am being deliberately reductive here but this is how the book feels to me, for Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten, he is respectful towards Rae Armantrout, Carla Harryman, and Howe more on the grounds of gender than anything else, and skeptical of Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews.
Charles Bernstein (left) and Bruce Andrews emerge
from the underground,
His canon here is partially, weirdly coastal (in fact one of the things that must seem strange to those outside the language movement is the constant rhetoric within the movement that perpetuates or argues this geographic boundary in the age of jet travel). Perelman’s book is best and most forgiving when it touches on writers that he has had moments of community with, as if literally enacting the communion between reader and writer that is so important to language writing. But there are still moments where I have trouble sorting out who gets the okay and why, when I turn to textual matters. When it comes down to it, I am not sure that I would say that Watten’s work, which Perelman does not discredit but rather gives serious attention to for its "disidentification with . . . physical and political surroundings" (122), differs that much in its effects on the reader from Andrews’ work, which Perelman dismisses for leaving only a "narrow margin for readers" (108). Both aggressively challenge reading’s easy moments.
Another example: Perelman’s reading of Silliman’s work, the best section in this book I think, presents readers capable of handling the way the new sentence breaks up "attempts at the natural reading of universal, authentic statements" (65) and the way it implies "continuity and discontinuity simultaneously" (67) and Perelman finally admits to the new sentence having an "ethic of activist prodding" (76). But in contrast Perelman argues about Bernstein’s attempts at a radically democratic poetry that "the utopian politics of liberated textualities are also cloudy" (90). In his reading of Bernstein’s "A Defence of Poetry" (this is a poem where Bernstein plays with non-standard language by writing a poem that discusses meaning and nonsense in a sort of approximation of English where most words are misspelled), Perelman argues that the poem’s project fails because it gets reinscribed as intellectual.
But why? Is it because the poem makes an argument? Or because of the poem’s content? Or the poem’s form? Or because the poem requires translation? Or because the poem requires thinking to make sense of it? And what is the problem with any of these acts? I feel most suspicious of this argument mainly because I’ve taught this poem to entering freshmen at a large state university, at a small private school with elite pretensions, and at a medium-sized religious institution and I’ve found the poem best understood by those most excluded from making intellectual claims and least understood by those who have a stake in mastering intellectual and argumentative discourse. Just for this reason alone I want a more detailed discussion of what might make the poem a failure. Similarly, Perelman in his reading of Bruce Andrews’ work sees readers as unable to sort out the contradictory claims between statement and intent in his writing. But again, why? What evidence do we have of readers being unable to make such an interpretative move?
In Perelman’s critical world, readers are enabled to respond but they seem at the same time to be Bartleby-esque and preferring not to.
Readers: Resistant, Active & Passive
In The Trouble with Genius, for example, Perelman presents, in the name of populism, some of the most radically resistant readers that we’ve seen in reader response criticism in years. But it seems to me that if we want to locate any legitimacy or worth in the project of language writing, which I want to do - we’ve got to begin with the assumption that readers are capable of a variety of interpretative responses, that just as they are capable of handling the jumps of the new sentence, they can handle the turns of Andrew’s or Bernstein’s work. At the end of the book The Marginalization of Poetry, Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes are having a talk. Barthes, full of ennui as might be expected, complains: "Reading got to be such a chore, Frank" (163). And O’Hara’s answer is to titillate, to resort to the personal, as might be expected, and to talk of how he sucked off every man in Manhattan Storage and Warehouse Co. Here Perelman locates in O’Hara the beginnings of "a physically / and socially located writing" and a "self-critical poetry minus the / short-circuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege" that he calls for at the end of the poem "The Marginalization of Poetry" (10). To have O’Hara explaining the way out of the ennui of reading interests me and this finally might be the most provocative moment in this book. In its deliberate play with ideas of lineage it suggests that language writing is the bastard anti-heroic child of the New York school and French post-structuralism. It also points to how one of the useful ways language writing has refocused our thinking is that it has been willing to see readers as active, that it has not resorted to the condescension that some part of the population is capable only of passively ingesting cultural products. It is in this direction that I would want to evaluate language poetry’s forms: which ones activate the reader (and how they do so) and which ones don’t.
Juliana Spahr’s Response is
available from Sun & Moon Press.
J A C K E T # 2 Contents page | “Marginalization”
This material is copyright © Juliana Spahr and
Jacket magazine 1997