back toJacket2
J A C K E T  # 6
this material is copyright © Nathaniel Tarn and Jacket magazine 1998 / The URL address of this page is / please read the copyright notice and see the links at the foot of the page / back to Jacket # 6 contents page     back to Jacket's homepage
you can order this book directly on the Internet - please wait for the whole file to load
this piece is about fifteen printed pages long


Nathaniel Tarn - Regarding
          the Issue of
"New Forms"
"I must confess in a belief that poetry represents . . . the ground and constitution of a perpetual opposition which is ill served by the depths of social isolationism into which we have allowed our vocation to sink."


This 1989 essay was published in the volume Views from the Weaving Mountain - Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology, by American Poetry, College of Arts and Sciences, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1991.   [ . . . Nathaniel Tarn]


DESPITE THE ABSENCE of members of the Language Poetry community, in the strict sense, at this gathering, I want to remain in their neighborhood because I am convinced that works like Charles Bernstein's Content's Dream and Ron Silliman's The New Sentence - to quote but two titles - are the most energetic, brilliant, and challenging critical works to come out of our craft since, let us say, Olson's Projective Verse or, back of that, the essays of Ezra Pound.
      These are very demanding books, however, so demanding that I sometimes wonder how those who are not trained in present-day academic "theory" (structuralism, neo-structuralism, deconstructionism, etc., across the board of linguistics, general aesthetics, the social sciences, and especially political science) are going to have the patience to engage them.

Weaving Mountain cover       Perhaps this comes close to saying that the natural destiny or, at least, destination, of the "Language" community is the academy, something many of them might claim to detest - although, of course, they do cannily recognize that such battles have to be waged at the sociological centers of intellectual power which, for better or for worse, does today mean the academy. Silliman has addressed the MLA; Bernstein has recently taught at Princeton and is about to teach at Buffalo. I suspect that a great many practitioners of our craft would prefer to stay very clear of these matters. I don't think we should, but I hope it is possible to deal with the subjects involved a little more simply, to de-jargonize them in a word, without gutting them altogether.
      Let me then come back to the most sacred of all our sacred cows at this time - L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. With the ever-increasing acceleration of questioning in every sphere of knowledge, that which is signified by language (I will simplify here and call this the conceptual aspect referring to a thing designated by a linguistic unit or, more shortly, content) takes a less and less privileged place in the discussions of artists and human and social scientists to the benefit of that which, in language, primarily effects the signifying, i.e., the signifier (which in turn I will, with great simplification, call the acoustic or written element comprising a linguistic unit referring to a thing or, more shortly, form).
      We know from the history of linguistics and semantics from Saussure on down how incredibly fertile to academic debate this signifier/signified opposition has been. We know that, in certain fertile periods of early modernism when it has been possible for artists and academics to converse meaningfully with each other, the exploration and exploitation of the signifier (you may want to call it the foregrounding of the signifier) has been the major impetus in artists' attempts to break away from traditional closed forms or, if you prefer, to cause those closed forms to explode into open ones.
      Due to the time it takes for ideas to cross cultural boundaries - not to mention national ones - we have had a number of these explosions. They go by the name of Futurism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, Imagism, etc., all the way down to Projective Verse, Open Poetry, Language Poetry and the like. It is useful to artists, fighting for their own place in the sun, and behaving in this matter very much like sectarians in religion, to pretend to uniqueness in their respective "isms" or to having that extra little bit of distinction which makes them better than the neighboring ism.
      There is nothing more fascinating than to see the various European movements crossing national borders one after another, meeting fraternal or rival receptions on their way. Only the other day, I was reading the Russian Khlebnikov's "Futurian" manifestos, with their angry jabs at Italian "Futurists," some years after reading the various French, British, and other receptions of the Italians and their successors. And God only knows how often, on the mercifully rare occasions when I've "taught writing," I have had to point out to some student or other that s/he was doing, without knowing it, the 2500th dilution of surrealism as imported into these States by the Xs, Ys, and Zs it would not be too hard to name! How one longs sometimes to be able to spend a few minutes in the mind of a critic born a couple of hundred years from now when so much of this will have been compared to death and gradually factored out to a few essential twentieth-century contributions! I have no doubt that the same will apply to much of the stuff we do today: for instance to that massive great garaboo: the question of Modernism versus Postmodernism versus Modernism and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

To get back again to language. We know from modern linguistics that the signifier element in most situations is arbitrary and that it is the relation between signifier elements that endows a statement with signification. We then, it seems to me, have a continuum of possibilities in the manipulation of signifiers. At one end, we take a set of arbitrary signifiers and impose the most arbitrary relations on them such that it will not be possible for a listener or reader to ascribe any signification to this heard or read message chain whatsoever in terms of the speaker's language - or any other that might legitimately be described as a language by an ideal gathering of speakers from all human languages.
      At the other end, let's put a chain of signifiers in a set of relations such that the hearer or reader receives a perfectly straightforward utterance in her/his, or any other understood, language, something of the order of "Charlie came to lunch today" or "I want to buy Allen Ginsberg's latest book" - further specifying, if necessary, that we mean our friend Charlie X and not Charlie Y or Z, or that we mean A.G. the poet, the famous poet, in case there are any lunatics wandering about being poets and writing under the name Allen Ginsberg.
      Another thing we learn from linguistics and communication theory is that you have to surprise the receiver of a communication if you wish to get and keep her/his attention. This, in the end, as Diaghilev knew when he said to Cocteau "Jeune Homme, Etonnez-moi!" is the rock on which art, all art, is ultimately built, the irreducible element on which the whole church functions and without which it totally fails to function. In about 95 cases out of a hundred, an art object is only to achieve success if it says something the receiver has not seen or heard or thought before.
      It is fairly obvious to anyone that an artistic utterance destined to last is not going to locate itself at either end of the continuum I've just defined. The first pole has had its go in such efforts as those of the Dadaists, the Zaum Futurians in Russia, the Lettrism of Isidore Isou in the French fifties, a number of Concrete Poets, the Beast Language of McClure, and much else: it keeps on reappearing, full of hope, as one of the extreme possible gestures that can be made in language.
      Of course, there are ways of finding this kind of utterance important. One is to imply that these utterances are reaching some kind of infra or supra or para level - above, below, or beyond the norm of human utterance and that, although it is not possible to understand them logically in the normal ways we have of understanding things, nevertheless there exists some level of understanding on which we can use and deal with it. A lot of effort was put out in early Modernism, for instance, to prove that such language went back to an Ur-language of humanity, a kind of pre-Babel state of primordial purity. Or that its value lay in some occult, secret power akin to that of mantras in religious systems. In such ways, these utterances fall within the categories of primitivism or hermeticism, usually one of these two.
      A somewhat less hackneyed claim, and one more in tune with what goes on today, is to urge that it is very difficult for any signifier whatsoever to reach zero level of communication - so that the various orders which we impose on our set of signifiers tease, tempt and dance with, meanings - however transitory, however ephemeral, and give us something of what we could wish to have from an utterance if not everything.
      It seems clear, however, that very few people have carried the point to extremes. McClure, for example, has no more done his total output in Beast Language than, to shift things considerably, Hugh MacDiarmid has written all his poetry in a Scots reinvented by him and certainly not as available worldwide, or even nationwide, as straight English English.
      The truth is that when you look, say, at Khlebnikov's early poems of this type you are not so much pleased with them as poems - what happens rather is that you acknowledge them as experiments which had to be made at that time for many theoretical reasons. It is good that they are there, but that is about the sum of it: the experiment has been made rather than not made; what I call the "fanscape of possibilities" effect has been demonstrated: language can be totally wild: now let's get back to the business of understanding that which can be understood.
      The other point to remember is that many things new are worth doing when they are truly new. When they are some 75 years old or so, their value may be less. This bears saying when we are in the middle of an extraordinary period of denial-of-the-new, fed by theories such as Benjamin's on the "Age of Mechanical Reproduction" or those which claim we cannot have the new because we are perpetually playing with the already said, heard, or seen and must subsist in an eternal play of mirrors or simulacra. A period in which all art seems to be in a state of imitation of the past, a state of Neo something-or-other (Neo Romanticism, Neo Expressionism; Neo Surrealism, etc. etc. etc.); Neo-Neo-Neo vying for the least original, or most banal, of positions in the game of eternal return and repetition. But this is something we'll look at a bit further on.
      In our current state of culture, it is easier to persuade oneself that art cannot have anything to do with the other pole of signification, the one which produces the banalities of our everyday utterances and conversations. Here, if anywhere, is the place to vary the chain of signifiers in such a way that surprising utterances can result. Almost all our forms of infrarealism, surrealism and pararealism emerge from the effort to vary the menu at this end.

Our possibilities, right now, seem to be: 1) You can decide that the task of the signifier chain in traditional closed poetry is, by creating a sonnet or an ode, approximate, in its sphere, to the production of an everyday, i.e., probably "banal," utterance in daily speech and you can open up the form of the poem by refusing the elements of, say, rhyme or agreed-on prosody. The whole avant-garde poetic lineage from Mallarmé on down has done this. You can even, let it be stressed, do this in the cause of bringing back into poetry the kind of "banality" associated with everyday speech either because of an Eliot's notion of the role of prose in poetry; or because of a Williams's interest in the native speech; or again because of an Olson's interest in the breath units of spoken utterance. In this case you are likely to be de-"banalizing" by giving some kind of new context to "banality." The important thing is that you are breaking the "banality," the un-surprisingness to which a particular class of utterances has been traditionally subject.
      It is even possible - many forms of so-called realism arise out of this - to create an art of the realistic if the elements of apparent realism have been absent from an utterance-form for too long: but, this does not make realism into any the less a stylized form of utterance. The considerable work on the "transparency" effect of "realism" of a Roland Barthes in our time has been largely devoted to this issue.
      2) Alternatively, an extraordinarily broad range of possibilities opens up in the realm of what I have called teasing, tempting, and dancing. Almost everything of what goes on among those who wish to baffle referentiality without totally doing away with it falls into this category. The ways in which it can be done - almost in terms of a user's manual, have been exhaustively catalogued in the Language Poetry critical books I've mentioned. (And nowhere do the Language poets get closer to New Criticism as Silliman at one point ruefully admits.)
      I have been more than hinting at the fact that I believe the possibilities of what we can do to be limited in this direction and, indeed, through the inertial force of repetition, to be becoming more and more limited all the time. There are many reasons why we find it painful, if not downright impossible, to admit this.
      One is the sheer joy of discovering (and rediscovering over and over) the fact that there appears to be something, language, which is our very own toy, which we are, as poets, uniquely qualified to play with. The more the foregrounding of the signifier has manifested itself, the more language appears to have acquired an independent (some might say Frankensteinian) existence and the more it has seemed NOT to be our job to put signification into language but to let language find and make its own significations. The more, also, it has seemed that we have a completely independent charter for our existence and that - in a time when poetry seems to be less and less wanted in our society at large - is surely one of the greatest possible consolations.
      The other main reason is a much more subtle one. In closed poetry, the thrust seemed to be to jump from closed structure to closed structure without - such seemed the force of tradition - a great deal of room for process. It appeared to the creators of Modernism, or the various Modernisms, however, that open poetry left room for unending process, uninterruptible process (Eluard's poésie ininterrompue) and that, in short, there were no limits to the possibilities of the NEW. I have tried to show in various articles that this is an illusion, a necessary illusion, and, as such, probably present in all poetry at all times - but that, in the end, the fall is always back to structure.


See, for instance, "The Heraldic Vision: Some Cognitive Models for Comparative Aesthetics" in Views from the Weaving Mountain - Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology.

You may be hearing in this argument the idea that, whatever our illusions, the restricted nature of formal preoccupations, with which I associate activities foregrounding the signifier, is very great, tragically great. I say this despite the presence of marvelous bodies of work, Barthes's is an example, which argue that the whole nature of modern literature foregrounds the signifier in this way. I cannot go into this now but, for me, a major sign of the failure of all this is the astonishing speed at which it has become the dominant mode of academic discourse. There are a limited number of topics around which our critical arguments revolve over and over again, as if they were stuck in some monstrous groove. One of them is the question of new forms - as if we were never to realize that, in essence, these forms were extraordinarily limited (unless, as often happens, we take extraordinarily naive and limited views of "form"), and that, however limited they were also, variations in content, in the signifieds, were LESS limited than variations in form. This is what I want to go on to.
      It may be, and this is where the Language poets are so significant, that the crux of the matter is a political one. I am sure you are familiar with the argument that what has to be guarded against at all costs is the petrification of language into bodies of received, and thereby oppressive, understandings which perpetuate a status quo inimical to the best interests of any progressive society. Again and again, the message of these poets is that language must never be allowed to rest and that common or garden referentiality must be avoided above all in that it is the residence of oppressive understandings. This is demonstrated (not, of course, for the first time) with much show of logic and a great deal of force.
      The results, however, seem to me to be arguable on three main counts.
      First, I have yet to be convinced that the difficult Language-texts resulting from such philosophy are actually working on the average reader or man-in-the-street as opposed to the already "converted" fellow-poet. Or even reaching him. And, if they do not, what on earth has this to do with any viable radicalism, that is, with something other than "armchair" (and usually academic) radicalism?
      Second, what is being done 90 per cent of the time is a repetition of what various strata of the avant-garde have been doing since Mallarmé: it is hard to avoid the sense that Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard was so brilliant and so hard-won on Mallarmé's part that it already pre-empted for all time the space daily re-occupied by these reruns.
      The third count is that these repetitions are being enacted at a time when whatever public poetry may have is less and less enchanted with what the avant-garde produces and is turning away from poetry by the droves. All of this, of course, in the context of a massive turn away from reading altogether in favor of the media. More seriously still: all of this is going on at precisely the time when whatever elements remain young, enthusiastic, and altruistic in society discover that one of the very few remaining paths to pure and true fame - because almost totally unrewarded in conventional terms - is poetry. In other words, a society underproducing readers is, at the very same moment, overproducing poets, with the massively incestuous and socially short-circuited results I've tried to describe for the last ten years or so.


See "Open Letter Regarding a Proposal for an Order of Silence," in Views from the Weaving Mountain - Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology.

Where does this lead us? Back into the arms of the sausage-machine writing schools producing poets by the drove who, writing in the exact tracks of their teachers, produce the academic poem, the photocopy of their teacher's poem which is the photocopy of their teacher's? Going back to a moment in which, at the beginning of the co-optation of the creative arts by the academy, people began the chain who had pretended to the firm belief that none of the avant-garde had EVER meaningfully achieved anything of value? No, absolutely not. I think one place where it might lead us is toward another try at defining the parameters of a usage of the concept content more sophisticated than what we have been given thus far.
      I happened to grow up and come into poetry at a point in time where the doctrine out of Olson and Creeley was that "form is never more than an extension of content" with its corollaries - a statement, a creed if you will, that always puzzled me, being impressed with the notion that there were so few forms available for what seemed always to be a far vaster variety of possible contents. And, more and more lately, I have been asking myself what exactly is the content that we have at hand.
      We believe we know the content of the "academic" poem I mentioned a moment ago. It is the believed-to-be highly sensitized trace left in an individual ego, highly sensitive to sensitized traces, by a special, manifestly valuable, even unique event, transferred onto paper in sensitive language which, together with all the other sensitivities, will signal to its readers that this is poetry. You know: what people in their minimalistic language refer to as a really, REALLY important statement in really, REALLY important language. Among ourselves, the non-academic poets, we are by now persuaded that the traces, the egos, and the events put down in these scribblings which their authors have the nerve to baptize by the holy name of poem are in fact monotonously repetitive and, furthermore, ever more closely associated with the yuppery of the yuppiest class of yuppies that ever yuppified this yuppificated nation.
      In order to combat this yuppification - and what are we dealing with here after all but the most sedate and unproductive consumer class yet produced by our received and therefore oppressive understandings? - the various strata of the evolving avant-garde seem to have resorted to one major remedy. This is to claim that the last dregs of the ego, the unqualified, unique, superb contribution, the sublime holy gift of Romanticism to the arts, have to be evacuated from the art object. A variety of "objectivisms" results. The latest, in this line of argument, is the Language community of poets.
      What has been overlooked here, I believe, falls under a number of headings: 1) In the face of an ever more complex world and an almost unbearable mass of information amounting to totalized INFOGLUT, the self or ego as the one possible discriminating factor each of us owns (including the binding together of discriminated factors into possible reasons for living) is being extracted more and more from the art object. I do distinguish between a discriminating self and a non-discriminating (non-)self but we'll get to this later.
      2) Alternatively, and this is worse, it is being pretended that this discriminating factor is being extracted - pretended in that, in truth, the factor CANNOT be extracted. For the ego is an ever-retreating but never-absent function through which a signifier can be wedded to a signified (or vice versa), through which signals coming from things and events can be transmitted into utterance and, unless we retreat back to those random chains of signifiers which get so close to incoherence at the poles of the continuum I've described - it is the ONLY possible such function.
      How do we tell that this is a pretended evacuation of something that cannot in the nature of things be evacuated? By watching, for instance, the criticisms enunciated in our Language Poetry texts against the primacy, among their predecessors, of voice. Voice, it may be argued, is to present poetry what style once was in the past: the way in which you diagnose whether there is a presence worth hearing or knowing about behind words heard or read. You know, however, that presence is a commodity very much under suspicion by these same theorists so that they would like to get rid of that also.
      In terms of sectarian studies, of course, the reason for what is happening is plain: insofar as a new sect has to differentiate/distance itself from the previous sect in order to appear worth hearing, it has to challenge the previous sector's monopoly of attention. Voice, you'll remember, was, with Williams's stress on native speech and with Olson's stress on breath, or with Ethnopoetics at large, to give another instance, the signature of the poet worth her/his salt. Consonant with the return of academic theory to WRITING, seasoned with highly sophisticated deconstructionist assassinations of the very notion of authorial presence, the new community has a lot of trouble with the claims of "voice."
      It is also, with the same philosophies in play, anti-hierarchical, so that we have a far reaching de-hierarchization of all possible propositions: a passion for what I call the "fanscape of possibilities." The basic notion here is that what one has under one's nose is valuable and to-be-talked-about not because of any interest that it may or may not intrinsically possess but simply, basically, primordially because it is there. This sells well with the Neo-Neo scene and with the commodity culture to which Neo-Neo is attuned (never mind what you need . . . look at the zillions of products you can buy in order more and more to depend!). It is also very easy, with this stance, to move to the view that what is there includes, prioritarily, the sets of procedures and methods with which non-authors "generate" poems in the absence of anything that might remotely resemble the long-popular and respected commodity "inspiration," let alone the more general affliction named "desire."
      The political implications are curious. On the one hand you seem to be destroying the hierarchies of late capitalist technocracies by constantly calling into question and subverting their values and the language in which such values are expressed. On the other hand, however, you might be creating conditions in which the absence of hierarchy leaves a power vacuum which can only too easily and rapidly be re-occupied by the rich and the hawkish. In the absence of a social class which can receive and act on the highly complex messages of our avant-gardes (and how we all fool ourselves on this one!), do their politics carry? Is there, to use Charles Altieri's term, consequence?


See the exchanges between Jerome McGann and Charles Altieri, as well as the strong differences of opinion about "accommodation" between McGann and Von Hallberg, in Von Hallberg, ed., Politics and Poetic Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Yes, one welcomes the hopes and the positive thinking in Language Poetry theory and it is a good sign that, as Silliman points out, they so preoccupy us. No, one does not necessarily therefore have to buy the more far-fetched of their claims.
      The answer then to those who hold that Language Poetry is, within its own enactment, a form of the basic class struggle (the whys are clearer to us than the hows in such arguments) seems to be that the most fully conscious and public-minded of poets enact critical political awareness in the poem without having to go through all the acrobatics performed by the reigning avant-garde. More importantly, they enact it without giving up many of the traditional prerogatives of poetry so easily jettisoned by such an avant-garde. This I take to be, to refer to one instance, the formulation of the "analytic lyric" or "lyric contention" upheld by the magazine ACTS. It is present, often implicitly (notwithstanding the Language Poets' great beef against the New Americans that their poetics are not made explicit), in much other contemporary work held by its authors to be just as political and as formally radical as that of the L.Ps. There remain political problems in both approaches which appear to throw them back-to-back as requiring a synthesis. But this takes us too far for the time we have here.
      It may be that there is a problem with both those who see an art-object as a locus of class struggle and those who see it as revealing intimate options which refine the receiver's perceptions so that they are better fitted to partake in social struggle. The problem area may lie in 1) the professional hazard of taking too exalted or optimistic a view of the art-object's political potential and 2) taking too limited a view of society at a time when reality seems to be overtaking theory and technological development is forcing one world on us far faster than we had dreamed possible, with huge changes imminent in the categories with which we usually define the social. But I must leave this for another occasion.

See my answer to the enquiry "Is there, currently, an American Poetry?" American Poetry (IV, 2, Winter 1987).

A partial answer of my own to much of this lies in examining more closely the concept of poetic self or ego and trying to make some distinctions there between levels of self/ego which are not normally made. The details are available in a short text "Vox: ex-Nihilo?" (published in O.A.R.S., 6/7, 19) and in a longer piece "Exile Out of Silence into Cunning." (published in Views from the Weaving Mountain, 1991). I do no more than offer this as one possible model for discussion. It is limited and unoriginal as most such models are - but it may have the virtue of risking a stance of my own rather than limiting myself to negative criticism.
      One problem with studies of the poetic self, it seems to me, is that we concentrate on two main poles: the poet's voice (or writing: the distinction is not vital here) on the one hand, and, on the other, the silence out of which it arises and to which it falls back. I have supposed a third element behind or under the silence which enables us to set up a dialogue between a discriminating self and a non-discriminating (non-)self, the former in the surface-vocal, the latter in the depth-choral - this dialogue taking place in the intermediate zone of silence. The main thing I would like you to notice on this occasion is that it is possible, with such a model or similar ones, to recuperate a great part of the voice's function in poetry. This is a function which much of the current avant-garde has tried to get rid of and render valueless, whereas it seems to me the only biological medium the poet possesses with the possibility of effecting a necessary conjunction of nature and culture both.
      A few observations for now, no more. The movement to follow, back and forth, concerns reciprocity. 1: self-other reciprocity in the Vocal. 2: self-self reciprocity in the Silence. 3: no reciprocity - i.e. non-self (where there is no "self" there is no "other") in the Choral.
      I take the VOCAL and the CHORAL as two "mythical" or "illusory" poles of a continuum giving depth to the roles of "self"/"non-self " in poetic production, the only "real" level being that of SILENCE out of which and into which such production comes and periodically falls back. The VOCAL is the apparent here-and-now of the individual poem and its aesthetic. The CHORAL is the apparent "elsewhere" (Baudelaire's "n'importe où pourvu que ce soit hors de ce monde") of the living dead (those who leave the world behind having built part of the tradition.) The world of TEXT (and intertextuality) is the possibility of all poetry/all the possibilities of poetry, at all times, in all places. SILENCE is the space of the "real," true present, or "now," in which the interplay of Vocal and Choral is decided and acted upon at any moment of one poet in her/his lifetime and its aesthetic (OPUS). That action is the pivot (IDYLL) of the whole system and nowhere else does any action take place.
      The "prophetic" powers of poets arise out of the unending dialogue between POEM and TEXT mediated through consciousness of OPUS. This is the source of the constant looking forward (LYRIC) and looking back (ELEGY) embodied in the myth of Orpheus, the constitutive myth of LYRIC POETRY in its widest sense.


See "Archeology, Elegy, Architecture: a Poet's Program for Lyric," (published in Views from the Weaving Mountain, 1991).

Such a model also attempts an explanation as to why and how the poet can suffer pushing into an "originality" which, in many ways, has already proved itself to be "unoriginal" and as to what the individual and collective components in the making of poetry might be. The model also tries to account for the "structural" and "processual" aspects of poetry both and for how it comes about that a poet can both feel that her/his poem thrusts forward without end (as if uninterruptible) and know that it is doomed to an end in any event whatsoever.

See, for instance, "The Heraldic Vision: Some Cognitive Models for Comparative Aesthetics" in Views from the Weaving Mountain, 1991.

The whole model is based on a sociological construct, arising out of studies in Initiation, Gnosticism, Buddhism etc. The model sees understanding (the only ground of true poetry) as evolving out of recognition that the self-other reciprocity, characteristic of all social life and inextricably involved in hierarchical power-relations, must give way to an ideal non-reciprocity of (non-)selves generating NO others (ever forward-looking in the mode of "hope"). The point at which the arrogation of power(s) to the imperial, hegemonic self collapses into the abdication from all power locates in the area of self-self reciprocity (SILENCE), the arena of all decisive action and all true contributions to a living tradition.
      There is a great deal more to be said about this - for the time being let it be taken merely as the germ of a possible response to what I see as certain extremely stultifying (and perhaps ultimately dispensable) concepts in a brilliant body of theoretical writing.

(Ombligo de Tesuque, 30 June 89 - 4 August 89)

TO OUR ASTONISHMENT , in the last six months or so, politics here have been moving fast, so fast it is hard to accommodate our understanding to that movement. Culture, needless to say, cannot keep up. We leave New York with the wreckage of the great ship Pantheon about our feet and the vision of a self-destruction of American culture: all one can fantasize now is the absolute ruin of corporate publishing; that everything should be brought back again to a beginning. Expanding Small Press clouds move in our heads, vying to drown out our educational statistics which are as tragic as they have ever been, perhaps a great deal more so.
      Across the Channel, the British weeklies and Sundays continue to behave as if only three poets existed, the very same three Alvarez set up as American models for his countrymen thirty years ago: Lowell, Berryman, Plath. In theatre, the brutalism which seemed so energetic thirty years ago now appears repetitive and stale. Thatcherite education dies on the vine; the British brain drain continues massive. There is a triteness about the life of the polity, a sense of sleaze and corruption similar to our own.
Berlin Wall      Here in Berlin, the issues are closer to the ground and dramatized no doubt even more than they are east of here. The Wall comes down bit by bit and a fascinating future archaeology unrolls. Huge sections have been carted away to presidential libraries in the U.S. or the History Museum of Berlin City. Smaller pieces have been chiselled for sale to souvenir-hunters. The first layer is nearly gone in many places; kids apply graffiti paint to the second layer and chisel that for sale. There are also the pieces with a white surface: they are choice, coming from the Eastern side.
      The militaria of the GDR and Russia are also on sale. Are these real Russian Army caps, or were they made in East Berlin in the first place, or have some cunning buggers in West Berlin started a factory? The uniforms, insigniæ, badges, passports, etc., etc. of the GDR are real, of course, they are too recent to be anything else. In East Berlin, people try to buy their buildings or apartments before Western speculation comes in. The compact little East German Trabant cars go down in value dramatically almost day by day, while groups of people stand gawping in the streets wherever a Western Mercedes or BMW might be parked. One thinks of weightier matters. Never mind the armies, the polices, the bureaucracies: how is all the material culture in those divided museums, galleries, libraries, going to come together again and what is going to be "disappeared" in the process?
      A minuscule example: already, GDR philately has changed gear - a number of Socialist commemorative stamps are replaced by stamps of bees and flowers.
      This Wall, chiselled to a shadow as it is to be, and the ground underneath it. A ground, marginalized by its proximity to the Wall, now to become the center of a new, re-united city. Values shoot up astronomically. Daimler Benz and the great Department Superstore Ka-De-We have, it is said, already bought Potsdamer Platz. Now West Berlin, at least, has had, in the last forty years, a respectable tradition of inviting world-class architects each year to design new buildings in the city. Question: will the new center area be planned? Or will it all ruin into McDonaldry because everything is going too fast?
      The thought occurs in these surroundings that everything that has been said to date about Postmodernism is academic and sterile: This is Postmodernism. Why? Because the radical politics which had allowed certain societies to dream of a future better fitted to the dignity of man than capitalism had provided were a vital part of at least one branch of modernism and because now no hope is seen on that side and these radical politics appear to be irredeemably dead. In one sense, the fate of Berlin and Germany signify - at least to the Germans - a great enrichment: the paralysing disunity of the last forty years gives way to an impetus which, coming at the same moment as the unification of Europe, may leave us Americans feeling old, worn out, and done for as the energetic country of the twentieth century. On the other hand, there will be those everywhere who do not find this disappearance an unqualified triumph and who wonder how the disadvantaged among all people and among all things are going to be represented from now on.
      I must confess in a belief that poetry represents, more than ever under such circumstances, the ground and constitution of a perpetual opposition which is ill served by the depths of social isolationism into which we have allowed our vocation to sink. I have been thinking lately that there is perhaps a more coherent model for this isolationism than I have come up with to date. Noting the profound lack of interest, or even more, the distaste, on the part of most of my fellow poets when the matter is raised, I wonder whether we have not come to the view that there is absolutely no need for discussions as to a readership or public since our incest is entirely satisfactory to us, being a self-sufficient nation of producer-consumers among ourselves, an independent country into whose bourns no extrinsic traveller need ever come, or out of which he need ever return.
      A nation, a world - what in Spanish might be called a mundillo - numerous enough to allow us to forget about externals completely.
      This would certainly explain why we can generate avant-garde after avant-garde with a guaranteed built-in public and completely avoid - even among those who claim to foreground them - the problems of accommodation and commodity. This too - leaving aside a number of surface enmities - would explain why we need mechanisms such as the writing schools to produce more cannon fodder for our little internecine wars and how we keep up the population levels necessary to the continued health of the mundillo. And insofar as the educational policies of our State continue to make sure that a truly viable education is the prerogative of an elite, the anchoring of the mundillo to the elite academies guarantees the symposium-like quality of all ongoing discussion: pro or con, apparently radical or apparently conservative, we are all part of one machine.
      The question of Germany raises the question of nationalism at work now in a hundred contexts across Europe as if we were all back to 1939, 1918, 1870, or before. The cultural energies behind nationalism appear to be so renewed that one can hardly wish the nations ill: only, perhaps (and, of course, in vain regarding some) that they keep, or be kept, so small that they can never again physically be harmful. Mundillos, yes, as far as mightandright are concerned. As far as the spirit is concerned, one must say no. It is in the international movements that Modernism found its strength; one doubts - in a de facto situation of one-world media - that any difference is possible for Postmodernism. While poetry is nation/culture-bound by virtue of language, that is enough: there is no need of further binding in isolationism. The survival of the species "poet" is at stake and only the refusal of boundaries can save it.
      Walls will have fallen too soon for poetry unless such questions are addressed and a great Highway rises on the ruins of them.


Weaving Mountain cover
This essay was originally given as a paper at a session on "New Forms," Naropa Institute, Boulder, July 16-23, 1989. My original suggestion had been for a conference of Language Poets and "New Americans," but this was not possible at the time. It was published in the volume of essays Views from the Weaving Mountain, published by American Poetry (see note below), University of New Mexico Press, 1991

Views from the Weaving Mountain - Selected Essays in Poetics & Anthropology
      363 pages, USD$19.95, ISBN 0962917230.
University of New Mexico Press, 1720 Lomas Blvd., N.E.,
      Albuquerque, NM 87131-1591, USA
Order Dept. Phone (505) 277-4810, FAX: 1-800-622-8667 or (505) 277-3350

A note on "American Poetry" and Lee Bartlett - Lee Bartlett is a poet, critic, bibliographer and professor of English at the University of New Mexico. Between 1983-1990 he ran an important magazine American Poetry whose book series included Nathaniel Tarn's Views. During that period, Bartlett indefatigably authored many publications including a life of William Everson (New Directions); a book on Western American poetry The Sun is but a Morning Star, also editing an excellent set of interviews Talking Poetry (University of New Mexico Press). He is now working on a History of Popular Culture during the San Francisco renaissance.
Illustration: detail from the cover of the book. Cover photo of the author by Marion-Valentine, Paris
You can order Nathaniel Tarn's books directly from the Internet. Choose the bookstore closest to you, and select the live link . . . 
In the USA - Amazon at
In Sydney, Australia - Gleebooks at
In Melbourne, Australia - Readings at
In Paris, France - The Village Voice Bookshop at
In Britain - The Internet Bookshop at

J A C K E T  # 6  Back to Jacket # 6  Contents page  
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog |
 Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice
- Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose  | about Jacket |