THM: Earlier this decade, there was a special issue of Contemporary Literature on ‘The Two Poetries: The Postwar Lyric in Britain and America’, which, rather than pointing to any correspondence between the two, highlighted the divide between the British and American poetries. Aside from the migration of confessional poetry in the 1960s, the British have not been much interested in American poetry, and vice versa. How far do you think this still holds true today?
BP: Well I’ll have to confess that I almost would exemplify the divide you’re talking about in that my knowledge of contemporary British poetry is imperfect, to put it mildly. But I do think there’s a real connection between the innovative scenes in America and the innovative scenes here. There seems to be a real circulation and interchange, between the Cambridge and London innovative scenes and the language writing scene. People do read each other’s work, so poets like Tom Raworth, Jeremy Prynne, Allen Fisher and Denise Riley are known to many poets in the States. On the other hand, there seems to be a profound gulf between what British readers read and what American readers read: I’m teaching British students this year here, and I find out that there are students who literally — I couldn’t believe this — but who hadn’t heard of Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost... you know, that was a very educational moment for me. The residue of the time in the sixties when Ginsberg and Olson, Creeley and Dorn came over here and were fairly widely read still echoes in England, and there’s definitely some interest — at least in innovative circles — in language writing again. But, yeah, there is a real ocean between the two countries that I hadn’t quite realised was this wide until I came over here.
THM: Well it’s definitely not a pond! Do you think that there is anything in particular that the two poetries can or should learn from each other?
BP: I don’t have any profound or certain observations to make in response to such a broad question. I’m very partial to many poets that made and make up my reading and writing mind, and I of course want other people to read them, but other people, I’m sure, feel their own ways as well. So I don’t have any ex cathedra pronouncements on this question.
THM: You’ve described language writing memorably as ‘a range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary I (in some cases).’ Do you still see that as a satisfactory definition, and is it not perhaps somewhat tentative?
BP: It’s a question of tone and context. I was writing against a particularly reductive received idea of language writing as a non-referential, sour embodiment of bogey-theory that says that meaning and syntax are no-nos; I’m exaggerating that point of view, but feelings like that have been expressed. So I want to say that there is a wide range of writing that is very difficult to pin down formally. The parentheses in that sentence are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and that’s really the tone I was aiming for there: a straightforward description with a little bit of irony added. Language writing is something that I very much don’t want to reify, and I try in my writing practice, which is the one I’m primarily concerned with, to push out from any kind of constricting definitions; so I don’t have any stake at all in a definitive definition. I want to call attention to phenomena which have generated a lot of really interesting writing and opportunities for more writing; but to close it down and get everything in the box neatly, I don’t care about, which is why I constructed so many, so to speak, escape hatches in that little sentence.
THM: In The Marginalization of Poetry, you wrote that ‘a self-critical poetry... might dissolve the antimonies of marginality’, and, in effect, undo the generic boundaries between poetry and criticism. How did you become interested in the use of criticism in the writing of poetry?
BP: Well, criticism is the site of a lot of power over circulation in writing, and it certainly determines what a lot of people read, not in any kind of evil, demonic way... it’s simply powerful. It’s essential for creating future readers. Most people don’t just read poetry; they are pointed towards certain poets and they learn to read in certain ways, so criticism is a very important area in writing. The generation prior to mine in America was one that really eschewed criticism as a kind of anti-poetic act; I’m interested in not giving up that dimension of the mind for poetry, and I also want criticism that is attuned to its own language and its own production of sentences, to me the most interesting type of criticism. I really dislike boiler-plate from whatever factory it’s produced. I think, ultimately, to try to blend the two is probably a quixotic idea that my book itself does not exemplify, and it cannot be lived up to. On the other hand, I think continually aiming the one activity toward the other or at least acknowledging in both activities that they both exist and that they both are writing practices is a healthy thing to do.
THM: So though The Marginalization of Poetry seems to be as much a creative work as a critical one — two of your chapters having been written as poems, for instance — you believe that the synthesis of creative and critical modes can’t be accomplished perfectly?
BP: No, I can’t imagine that it could, and ‘perfectly’ is not going to happen, anyway, outside of private micro-moments of opinion. It’s not that I find Horace’s Ars Poetica the most perfect poem that exists, for instance. That’s not the asymptote I want to aim for at all. I guess I would repeat my earlier answer that the two activities are crucial to each other, and I don’t like to see the reified split of creative genius inarticulate except when acting as artist stage-managed more or less by the critic — I don’t like those great separations between an art that functions as a wilderness and then is managed by the park bureaucrat the critic. I don’t like it when the things are too far apart. As to how close they could be brought together, that’s another question and I don’t anticipate them dissolving into a primal or final unity.
THM: You’ve quoted Charles Altieri in your account of the history of language writing: ‘The reader’s sense of his or her interpretative freedom to produce meanings [was] dangerously close to... the idea of the free, pleasure seeking consumer that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing’s doctrines so pompously revile.’ It’s a strong indictment, but your reply was only ‘Are there political implications to the writing techniques of the movement?’ Quoting Barthes a little later, on ‘mak[ing] the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text’ is felicitous, but would you give Altieri a stronger reply now? When you have reading and writing ‘jammed together’, what limits on interpretative freedom do you envisage?
BP: It’s a real question and you’re right to point out that I don’t give him much of a direct answer in the book, but it does need to be answered. In the chapter on Ron Silliman and the new sentence, I think I show how Silliman sometimes fears that his own extremely paratactic writing is not very far away from the parataxis that you get in the normative American marketplace. But as for the particular remark of Altieri’s, I dislike the animus behind his remark, the ‘so pompously revile’. I would certainly take issue with that. A number of us critiqued the fantasy of unanchored choice in poetry, and in the marketplace. Altieri did that as well. I think he now would also take issue with his own remark. There’s an underlying ascription of bad faith to language writers, that they are somehow cultural commissars, in a sentence like that. It bothers me because it’s a phobic response that would, if it gained currency, shut language writing out of circulation. You wouldn’t want to read stuff like that, if that’s what it is. But I think the vulnerability that Altieri is pointing at is a real issue: it’s hard, after a certain point, for a highly paratactic literature to perform the function of critique. As I say in the discussion of Jameson and Silliman and the new sentence, symptom versus critique becomes a very hard boundary to adjudicate. I do think that Silliman’s work is a good critique of commodity capitalism, but that position is hard to buy; there is the possibility that his own sentences are in and of themselves aesthetic commodities in that he has to constantly produce them, and display them.
THM: Conventional conceptions of poetry today tend to agree that the device has to be subordinated to the poem, but you seem to be writing from the other way around. What do you hope to achieve by working from device up?
BP: By not paying attention to techniques of writing, one, I feel, tends to — and this kind of generalisation makes me nervous, but, anyway, I’ll say it — one tends to produce a very narrow range of emotion, vocabulary, situation, content. It gets very boring, ultimately. I think by concentrating on all sorts of technical facets of writing that really are there — and there’re many to be concentrated on — one can find new social areas, new content, new perceptions: it’s a revivifying operation. Ultimately, I want my poetry to be vividly perceptible and affective, and however I manage to do that, I’ll do that. What you call device seems like the Shklovsky’s old modernist sense of ostranenie, but it’s not like ‘make it strange’ for strangeness’ sake, it’s ‘make it strange’ to wake up and to really register the presence without the residues of habit. It reminds me of Ashbery who said something very kind about my work in Virtual Reality, that most poets define poetry by writing it and I write it by defining it. I thought that was very nice.
THM: So the discriminating use of device, in a way, drives the poetry on?
BP: Well, no, it doesn’t necessarily. It’s just a good place to start, to open your eyes, that’s all. Certainly, there are examples of language writing that have programmatic decisions made prior to writing; for example, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, where the first edition — when she was thirty-seven — had thirty-seven chapters of thirty-seven sentences each. But when you ask if the device drives the poem, I immediately say no, because I’m just wary — not that you’re doing this — of other uses of phrasing like that, which want to say, ah yes, this poetry has a rhetorical emphasis, it comes out of a bureaucratic, theoretical regime, and it’s in lock step to some theoretical commandment. That’s not the case at all. It goes back to Williams’s sense of the poet thinking with the poem, and writing as the site of active thinking that we all still subscribe to. But looking at the programmes of language and cultural templates is crucial to thinking. It doesn’t all have to filter immediately back to the familiar part of a reader’s or writer’s mind.
THM: There has been a strong emphasis on a political aspect to language writing. Would you say the movement is a Marxist one then, define it as you will?
BP: I don’t know, Marxist anything these days smacks of an old religious term. It reminds me of an old religious controversy between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Lately, I’ve been noticing that, post-Berlin wall, people now write ‘Marxian’ rather than ‘Marxist’, to be more philosophical and less militant. But some people in the language scenes had read a lot of Marx and Althusser, and there was an early hook-up, especially by people like Silliman, Andrews, McCaffery, between commodity fetishism and referential fetishism. Many books were published with some elements of that thinking prominent; I’m now finding that hook-up less and less convincing, as my work will make clear. Narrative and structures of social identification are really quite crucial political sites, and to throw out narrative as simply fetishistic and all consumers of narrative as somehow blinded automated consumers is not going to get you very far. So, increasingly, work done by people who came out of that language writing formation is going to be as concerned with social practices and gender issues — I’m just thinking of Carla Harryman’s and Lyn Hejinian’s recent work for instance — and the large master-narratives of Marxist progress, the quasi-religious teleologies, are becoming more and more mythic as the years unfold.
THM: Carrying on the Marxist thread, you’ve written that ‘Parataxis of a more thorough and disorienting kind than anything the old handbooks could cite is the dominant if seemingly random mode of our time.’ But along with the linear narrative of our lives, don’t we try to impose a depth to it by an organisation of our conceptual lives? If I decide one thing over another, I am simultaneously choosing and refusing, constructing, as it were, a syntax closer to hypotaxis. Nor is it less hypotactic, if I decide that I had to choose as I have done because of a preceding event. Surely the imaginary ways in which people represent to themselves their real relationship to the world reach for order?
BP: You’re quite right. And to repeat: a purely paratactic poetry paints itself into a very narrow corner. In the chapter on parataxis, I say that the longer Silliman’s work insists on a paratactic embodiment — the more he writes one new sentence after another — the more autobiographical his work gets, and the more a particular person with particular habits and choices and cognitive maps appears. So I think the politics of collage are a very complex business, and there’s no snap of the figures that can provide either writerly virtue or readerly freedom, by simple continuous application of one device.
THM: The writers associated with language writing have tended to assert, as have you, that there has never been any self-consciously organised group. On the one hand, some of you have come together to issue the statement on ‘Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry’, and you have yourself collaborated with, among others, Kit Robinson and Steve Benson; on the other hand, you’ve admitted that language writing may have become a catch-all for writers who are aligned against the establishment. Is the insistence on the absence of a group ironic, or even — dare I say it — disingenuous?
BP: No, one point I would make without any of my characteristic tentativeness and qualification is that the group formation — the writing projects that were conscious of parallel writing projects, the collaborations, the changing between reader and writer and the inhabiting of all the different positions — was really important to develop a variety of writing practices; which is very different from a group style. It’s my opinion that you could take a selection of language writing, and it would be more various than an anthology of ‘individualist’ work.
THM: What has most struck me about language writing is that its theoretical base has appeared to be surprisingly moderate. You’ve placed language writing between ‘poetry as it is currently instituted’ and ‘theory’, and ‘new sentence’ between ‘a larger narrative frame’ and being ‘thrown together at random’, elsewhere describing it as simultaneously continuous and discontinuous, and you’ve also referred approvingly to construction that both points at and excludes itself from its constitutive category. Is the middle ground the new extreme?
BP: The moderation comes from a lot of places... and it’s not all that moderate; I mean, a different book than mine would emphasise Steve McCaffery and Alan Davies, P. Inman, Tina Darragh and others who I didn’t mention in the book. My not mentioning them was not so much a choice; it was more the fact that I took on the questions that I felt to be most immediate, and that was what I could do at the time. So there’s quite a bit of writing that’s really far from moderate — and in a way I’m shying away from that word — its synonyms are unintense, etc. But do you mean socially moderate and middle-class, university-educated?
THM: I mean ‘moderate’ in the sense that your criticism tends to try to put itself in a middle ground between established practices.
BP: Oh I see, well that’s in a way my own particular shtick. I want a criticism that is lively and legible, and I’m very much against an avant-gardist, manifesto-like condescension. I’ve had enough of that in reading various people. But other language writing critics could be more polemical; I’m not a particularly polemical writer. Maybe it’s just me and not so much the rest of language writing.
THM: For all your tones of disapproval towards ‘large networks of legitimation — publishing, awards, reviews, extensive university connections’, you’ve said in an interview at the University of Pennsylvania that universities and foundations are essential for the arts. How do you realign these apparently oppositional attitudes?
BP: I don’t disapprove of networks at all. Now as for ‘networks of legitimation — publishing, awards, reviews’... well, ‘awards’ is a problematic thing of course. To me, successful writing is writing that really circulates, that people want to read, and they show it to other people because it’s really interesting; you provide pleasure and instruction and enlightenment, a jolt: ‘Hey, check this out!’ To me that’s very successful writing. Awards in the arts are such a kettle of problematic cultural ingredients, because there’s triage — the arts world is a world of scarcity and competition, there’s not enough attention to go around, there’s not enough legitimation to go around, there’s competition at every moment, and all of that is (a) a fact of life and (b) sort of unsavoury. Awards say ‘this is the great work, this is the natural work, this is the enduring work’, but — especially when you don’t agree with this aesthetic judgement — you could just see it’s a self-perpetuating... hoax is too strong a word perhaps... but it’s a bit of a scam, shall we say? It’s like the Monty Python scripts, I don’t know if you’ve seen those scripts, but they have on one book a little flash across the front that says ‘Winner of the Python Award’ for their own publications. Which is a very good joke.
There’s a mystification in poetry circles, that poetry is on the one hand widespread — quite a lot of people read it — but at the same time it’s not all that prestigious an art; there’s not enough money in it really, not like the visual arts where there are real investments. So publishing, criticism, teaching: all those things are crucial for writing. I mean, I’m in the academy, I went and got a Ph.D. I want to create future readers, and I think that’s really important. It’s obviously important. The university is not the only place to do that, of course, but it is one place. Poets do not just come into the world let alone from Zeus’s head full-blown, and they don’t have a readership attached to them that also exists magically. So creating those readers is something that needs to be done. Meanwhile, yes, I’ve got a gripe against the somewhat stultifying mainstream. What I see when I walk into a bookstore is that a lot of the really good stuff is missing... Now, of course I could be accused of the sourest of sour grapes, you know, you say you can’t find my work in Blackwell’s... So I think networks are important, and I want to change existing networks.
THM: It becomes a survivalistic thing then, you take what you can get?
BP: I suppose... I want to say I have higher aims than that, but in poetry, in fact, survival is what you want.
THM: ‘Poetry has been moved / to aisle 12, between the get-well / cards and the pantyhose.’ Will poetry as a whole be marginalised in the near future?
BP: That’s a funny-serious line from Virtual Reality. There’s a whole lot of Shelley in that particular poem, and the whole issue of the transcendental nature of poetry is one that I just keep coming back to over and over again. On the one hand, I’m very much against the vatic pose, I just find that really boring and cumbersome. Druidic, cape-wielding gestures, I just don’t like. Scholarly cape-wielding as well. So in that line, I’m placing that vatic conception of poetry in the get-well cards and the pantyhose. I’m saying why shouldn’t poetry be involved in sexuality and real life, why can’t poetry have a therapeutic value? On the other hand, I’m teasing the marketers of the mystic aura of the poet. As for poetry being marginalised in the future, I write as though it won’t be, I write to really be read, and not by the happy few, but by the happy... you know, middle range group if not by the many. And hopefully they’ll be happy as they read. I wrote that line both to recognise the actual conditions of where poetry is written, amongst the existing population, and to put another idea in circulation, so there’s a kind of future tense involved in that line as well. The humour comes from an overlay of those two times, but it’s not an impossible, ironic overlay; I do imagine getting to a future in which poetry is a realler social fact than it is now.
Toh Hsien Min is the founding editor of QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore), and the author of Iambus (1994) and The Enclosure of Love (2001). He read English Literature at Oxford University, where he was President of the Oxford University Poetry Society.
Thanks to the Oxford University Poetry Society and to Quarterly Literature Review Singapore, where this interview was published previously.