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Mark Wallace

New Solutions to New Problems Might be New Problems

The Individual as Social Process:
Writer and Self in the Work of Nick Piombino

This piece is 7000 words or about sixteen printed pages long.

Endnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

Of all the poets associated with language writing, Nick Piombino focuses most directly on the problem of the individual, both as writer and as source of experience. While the theoretical focus of most language writers can be said to be socialist and materialist, Piombino’s use of psychoanalytic theory and his experience as a practicing psychoanalyst marks him as different in focus while at the same time his work is closely related to language writing.

In their early essays, many language writers critiqued the idea of the writer as a self-contained individual voice who exists as an autonomous, transcendent self outside social interaction: ‘Subjecthood is not an essence preceding social existence... It is a convergence of practices, a point of production,’ P. Inman writes in ‘One to One,’ making a case for the self as a creation of social ideologies (Inman 223). In criticism about language writers the commentary usually stops there, frequently associating all of language poetry with the promotion of Barthes’ ‘death of the author.’ And in some early language poetics the problem did stop there, instead concentrating on how language helps create the notion of individual selves — selves that now should be eliminated from writing. ‘Author dies, writing begins,’ Bruce Andrews insists in ‘Code Words,’ as if the problem is solved, ‘Subject is deconstructed, lost... deconstituted as writing ranges over the surface’ (Andrews 54). [Note 1]

But the problem does not stop there, of course. What is the role of the individual writer, the experience of the individual person, if one starts from the idea that the self is a creation of language and social ideology? How does such a self act? What is the relation between the self, language, and social materiality? Is there no materiality except for the materiality of language? Is experience only experience of language? Or is experience that which happens through, in and around language? Where is the individual and what happens to the individual?

In taking on these questions, Nick Piombino develops a new notion of the individual, one that theorizes the role that social ideology plays in creating the idea of individuals while at the same time allowing for the differences that mark persons and writers as unique. Placing his work in the context of work by other language writers on these topics highlights his particular uniqueness and value.

Is No One Going To Show Up?

Perhaps the fullest critical elaboration put forward among the language poets of communication as a troubled social dynamic occurs in Barrett Watten’s collection Conduit and his follow-up article ‘The Conduit of Communication in Everyday Life.’ In ‘The XYZ of Reading,’ the essay that opens Conduit, Watten criticizes a commonly accepted notion of communication as taking place between two or more autonomous selves in charge of their social circumstances. This notion was famously elaborated by Roman Jackobson:

The ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE. To be operative the message requires a CONTEXT referred to, graspable by that addressee, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a CODE fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and the addressee; and, finally, a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. (Jakobson 66)

For Watten, the shortcoming of this notion of communication is its assumption that the participants remain in charge of the circumstances of communication. He argues that in a context framed by coercive social power, communication is always alienating, and he then puts forward a notion that the medium of communication (i.e. language) has become ‘the resistance between writer and reader, hearer and speaker’ (Watten 9).

In other words, in a context in which language resists the ability of the speaker to say what she means in a way that will be transparently understood by a listener, speakers and listeners (or writers and readers) become functions of a system often beyond their power to affect:

Any ‘statement’ is blanked, negated, made into the form of an encompassing void — from the perspective of the reader, it indicates only the limits of the writer’s form, as incoherent and various as that might be. It is not by any means what he is ‘saying.’ Nothing can be compelled from the medium of the speaker except the outline of his form. (Conduit 9-10)

The speaker, then, far from indulging in personal expression that’s understood by a listener, expresses mainly the form of utterance that coercive social circumstances make possible.

It’s typical, at this point, to see Watten as denying ‘the agency of the subject/ addresser,’ with the usual implication of the ‘denial of the artistic subject,’ as John Woznicki for instance has argued (Woznicki 9-10). And indeed any number of Watten’s statements in this essay and elsewhere support such a position. For instance, his point that ‘DeKooning’s “I keep painting until I paint myself out of the picture...” indicates both the conditions of the work and its social fact’ can certainly be taken as an attempt to eliminate the expressive subject (Conduit 11).

But while Watten rejects traditional notions of the expressive subject, he never goes so far as to say that a writer can have no impact on the social condition in which he operates. Rather, the idea that the ‘new resistance of the medium... demands from the speaker an intuitive mastery of blanks and negations’ suggests not that the speaker can’t speak, but that the speaker needs a new approach that might constitute effective communication in this context (Conduit 10). Watten sees Conduit as enacting such an approach, one in which he attempts a formal strategy that takes ‘language out of the everyday and puts it back into circulation as a ‘“new and improved” fragment’ (‘The Conduit of Communication,’ 34). Such a position hardly represents some simplified ‘death of the author’; the traditional expressive subject may be dead, but the individual writer as a creator of projects remains.

But Watten’s theory of new possibilities for the subject remains undeveloped at this point. A need to ‘master’ the ‘blanks and negations’ in new social conditions hardly seems sufficient as a developed notion of the individual in an alienated and coercive environment. Even Watten’s recent turn, in The Bride of the Assembly Line, from what he calls ‘the material text’ to more direct concern with ‘cultural poetics,’ does not further develop his ideas about the role that specific subjects play in culture, although he points in this direction when he suggests, in discussing Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, that a ‘poetics that foregrounds the status of the subject is crucial as a synthesis of form and identity’  (Bride 3,12).

You Deny Me And Bring Me Back

One sees in the work of some language writers the development of a concept of the self as emerging from experience and language, rather than standing outside them or imposing upon them. While for these writers, people can no longer be seen as exterior to social conditions, concepts of the self re-emerge in a new social materialist frame.

In the poetry of Ron Silliman, for instance, people become a nexus of social and material realities, including the reality of language, as in this passage from What:

Cars pass. I sit
on an old porch swing,
held by chains
which are thoroughly rusted.
Seeing Pollock’s No. 1, 1950
with more pin and blue-green
than I’d expected, I
nearly weep for joy.
A train passes. Flower beds
edge the lawn. (66)

Far from rejecting the use of the ‘I,’ this passage enmeshes the narrator in a number of specific material contexts — in a neighborhood of small decaying homes, in relation to art and its history and much else.What frequently devotes itself to the experiences of a central ‘I,’ but always places that ‘I’ within specific and multiple social contexts.

Lyn Hejinian also develops an idea of the self within the context of specific social and material circumstances. Yet while Silliman tends more to focus on the self as a series of immediate, material and social moments, whether past or present, in My Life Hejinian highlights the multiplicity of experience developed through such moments but also through memory and contemplation. She overtly resists conceiving of events as having significance only within a definite timeline:

What follows a strict chronology has no memory. For me, they must exist, the contents of that absent reality, the objects and occasions which I now reconsidered. The smells of the house were thus a peculiar mix of heavy interior air and the air from outdoors lingering over the rose bushes, the camellias, the hydrangeas, the rhododendron and azalea bushes. (13)

For Hejinian, the experience of the self includes not only immediate moments but also reflections on those moments. Thus an individual’s history takes on a multi-dimensionality in which past and present, reflection and action become thickly intermixed.

Neither Hejinian or Silliman, then, deny the important particularities of people, and clearly do not share any more than Watten some generalized belief in the death of the author. Still, as with Watten, the concept of the self never gets theorized directly in the poetics of either Hejinian or Silliman, even though it’s crucial to their work. [Note 2] The issue remains (in differing degrees) one that’s mentioned in passing, handled indirectly or by implication, or is embedded in the poetry. Within the work of language writers, one has to turn to Nick Piombino for a more overt theorizing of the relation between individuals and social processes.

Do I Have To Agree With Him To Like Him?

In ‘Writing, Identity, and the Self,’ from his essay collection The Boundary of Blur, Piombino points out the value of the critique that Charles Bernstein has offered to misleading notions of the self, while at the same time Piombino critiques Bernstein for not fully developing a new understanding of what Piombino calls ‘the self-construct’ (Boundary 43). Piombino responds in particular to Bernstein’s notion of the self in ‘Three or Four Things I Know About Him’ as an obsessed, fantasizing narcissism which cannot recognize itself as a construct. Piombino says of this idea that:

While I agree that disposing of this form of nullifying narcissism is laudable, and that it is supported by a concept of self which is hypocritical, by defining the whole concept of self reflexively, and thereby narrowing it philosophically, Bernstein has apparently underestimated the complexity of the self-construct. The mirroring function of the self is indeed limited and limiting. But an important theme, a complication not completely worked through in Bernstein’s work, may be illustrated by a distinction that can be made between self and identity. (Boundary 43-44)

Piombino doesn’t use the term ‘identity’ to discard the concept of the self. Instead, he points out the need to develop Bernstein’s notion of the self to include an idea of people as responsive to all sorts of social and material interactions, and able to change as a result of such interactions:

I am not suggesting that the struggle to develop identity replaces self as an ‘organizing principle’ for writing. I am proposing that the concept of the self must be understood as a dynamic, not a static, one. I am defining a contrast between the two: identity represents all that is potential to the self in phenomenological awareness, in part, realizable, in part not, in part being realized, in part, not. Self represents that which is finite and observable in awareness. The self is the sheddable bark of the tree, facing outward to the world and relating with it, exposed directly to it, and also protecting the identity, the xylem of the tree, vulnerable and within. More vulnerable, more changing, the identity defies the imprint the world and the self make upon it. (45)

For Piombino, people essentially become a variety of interactions (including resistance as well as acceptance) both with the world and with the changing features of themselves in relation to the world. No longer self-contained, the individual becomes a process of interrelations. While he acknowledges that at moments Bernstein ‘is actually describing the self’s tenuous approach towards identity,’ Piombino also highlights a theoretical difference in his own approach from the idea that the self is purely a (inevitably deluded) result of social ideology, an idea that much criticism claims all language poets share (Boundary 45) [Note 3].

In suggesting that people might better be seen as dynamic processes of interaction, Piombino also links psychoanalytic and social materialist notions of the individual in a way that engages both discourses. We can’t understand people without regard to social situation; we equally can’t understand them without recognizing individual development and change. In focusing on this particular problem in terms of how it manifests itself in the context of language writing, Piombino acknowledges his close relation to other language writers while highlighting some key differences in his own work.

I’m Thinking About Changing My Perspective

Any number of Piombino poems enact the process of the individual; different pieces focus on different aspects of this process. ‘Automatic Manifesto #1,’ from Theoretical Objects, looks at the way individual writers have to perform the public role of writer in specific cultural contexts. Piombino notes that, ‘The irony of the situation of contemporary poetry consists of its self-conscious, yet unconscious, imitations of the aesthetic of permanence. But things are changing too fast for notions of permanence’ (9). Part of the implication is that, first, a writer must maintain a relatively consistent perspective or tone; otherwise, she might be accused of contradicting herself or having an uncertain ‘voice,’ two of the primary ways in which writing is often dismissed. Second, in order to be successful, the writer of literature is often considered someone whose words must also be valued years from now, perhaps even ‘permanently’; the very idea of literature presupposes value less in the present than in the future. [Note 4]

Thus the writer must enact a public self through writing that both remains (to some degree) consistent with itself and supposedly speaks to historical moments outside its own. Yet the irony is that if things are ‘changing too fast,’ then the writer who remains overly consistent in fact fails to understand his historical circumstances adequately. Similarly, without a certain inconsistency and impermanence, necessary components of the present historical situation, how can a writer speak to the future as more than a deluded result of her own social circumstances?

Of course, the idea that ‘things are changing too fast’ remains overly vague until lodged in specific contexts. ‘Automatic Manifesto #1' puts this problem in the context of a contemporary writer wrestling with how to produce himself as recognizably a writer. Much of the piece contains a list of things that the writer ‘must’ and ‘must not’ do in order to be recognized as a writer in a specific context:

Must mystify, satisfy, entertain, beguile, charm, remember, enlighten, soothe, relax, inspire, challenge, attract, impress, confuse, enrapture, mobilize. I must rebel, I must gather, I must disseminate, I must canonize, be canonized. I must never be literal, romanticize, hate too much or love to much, or reveal my undesirable or questionable values. (10)

The writer, that is, must project outward into the world in a recognizably authorial fashion, one in which the potentially embarrassing elements of personality get repressed in the name of achieving proper authorial presence. That repression may occur, as it does for T.S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ through ‘a continual surrender’ of the artist ‘as he is at the moment to something more valuable,’ a transcendence of the limitations of the self in order to merge with high canonical values (Eliot 52–53). Or it can happen as it does for Watten in Conduit when he writes that ‘The detachment necessary for a valid work can be anticipated only on the level of form’ — a form in this case sufficient for the nature of contemporary social relations (Conduit 11). In either case, if the writer appears in the writing as a person with foibles, those foibles are literally the mark of the writer’s failure. In their writing, writers must not be too obviously persons.

In order to be successful as a writer, then, an individual must perform the role of the writer properly according to certain imperatives. ‘Automatic Manifesto #1' lists a large number of such imperatives. Crucial to this poem is the suggestion that the condition of the avant garde writer is different mainly from that of the mainstream writer in that the imperatives for production are different. The avant garde writer, for instance, ‘must be aware of the group process and not overly dwell on simplistic psychological issues,’ ‘must create ironies, within ironies, within ironies,’ ‘must create new forms... new words... must allude to many levels, many literatures’ (Theoretical 11, 12).

Many avant garde writers may agree with those imperatives because such imperatives critique the limitations that make so much poetry of the traditional expressive subject unbearable. Nonetheless, writers in avant garde contexts, in order to be successful, are no freer from behavioral imperatives than writers of genre paperbacks — the imperatives may be more insightful but every bit as imposing, if not more so. And while there are always expectations in any situation and one can hardly do away with all of them, it does not follow from that fact that current sets of social imperatives should be retained.

While it certainly concerns the relation between writer and social context, ‘Automatic Manifesto #1' also stages a self-debate; the writer in it chastises himself, argues with himself, reverses, repeats and changes. Thus the piece shows how this writer literally becomes a process that goes through many manifestations. Far from being repressed, the writer, in process, becomes essential to the production of the text. Each statement of ‘I must’ in the piece calls attention to its opposite. By ironically highlighting the limitations of performative imperatives, Piombino suggests how we might move beyond the notion of the writer as someone who successfully meets such imperatives. ‘Automatic Manifesto #1' creates a tension between what it asserts and what the assertions avoid and hide, and the narrator struggles with these assertions and their implied opposites.

Who Are You? Who Am I?

The role of the individual in Piombino’s poems is not found only in internal self-debates shaped by social contexts. A poem like ‘Call Collect’ from his first collection, Poems, highlights the way people are shaped by interactions between each other, while at the same time these interactions are themselves shaped by the context in which they take place.

The particular context of ‘Call Collect’ is, unsurprisingly, the collect call on the telephone. Yet for Piombino the telephone is not simply a convenient device for conversation. Rather, the phone itself helps shape the nature of the conversation; the phone is the form, the conduit, through which conversation takes place. First, the phone allows conversation at a distance that would otherwise prohibit communication. On the other hand, the specific limitations of the phone — including the way it eliminates visual gestures from conversation — fundamentally changes the nature of the interaction, whether we read the poem as lines spoken back and forth by two speakers or as spoken by one to an absent person on the other end:

I know
You did?
What about
I had to
You know what I
Of course
I always have (37)

Here, a certain intimacy is created by the many silences in the conversation; the silences contain statements that the people don’t need to speak because they understand the context. Yet the passage also shows how the structures of English shape this conversation. We as readers don’t share in the intimacy because we don’t know the specifics being discussed. But the phrasing makes those specifics irrelevant because it creates a series of hesitations and implications that seem to be understood by the speakers but may not be understood. Further, the phone helps shape the conversation by magnifying silences; because the visual gestures of face to face conversation have been eliminated, the people involved can both more easily believe that they understand the other’s implications while at the same time the chance of potential misunderstanding has increased. The phone allows the comfort of pretending to understand, even as it magnifies the ability to misunderstand.

Despite its surface simplicity, then, ‘Call Collect’ enacts a complex theory of human communication. Form (the social construction of the phone, of language, and of social ideologies that suggest what constitutes a successful human relationship, that is, that we must ‘understand’ each other) creates the conditions in which it is possible for speakers to think of themselves as interacting. Within these limitations, though, the speakers do have choices; their conversation is not merely the result of the phone, language and social ideology, but of active interventions that they make into those conditions.

But their choices are not so powerful that they can eliminate the formal constraints of those conditions. The speakers can say what they mean only within those constraints. They can’t eliminate the phone and bring themselves into closer physical contact that might increase their chances either for reassurance or to know more clearly where they misunderstand — and it’s important to mention that a ‘face to face’ conversation would itself be a formal condition with certain kinds of constraints. Under many circumstances, for instance, it may be easier to say certain things over the formal distance of the telephone.

The speakers in ‘Call Collect’ are ultimately unable to achieve the intimacy they apparently desire. The closing sequence ‘But/ That’s not/ Ok/ Ok’ indicates that intimacy has broken down but that the break down is covered up through conventional reassurances that don’t really reassure (40). But Piombino isn’t concerned mainly with the inability of two people to communicate. Ultimately, the poem primarily reveals their inability to understand the conditions in which they are trying to communicate. Communication fails because the parties are unable to theorize (however overtly or by implication) the interaction between form and speaker in this situation. How could anyone possibly get along, Piombino implies, if the parties involved don’t understand the social context in which they’re trying to get along?

Teacher Hit Me With A Ruler

However essential his concern with the individual, then, Piombino never suggests that people can do away with social context. Just as in ‘Call Collect,’ in many Piombino poems the power of individuals is overwhelmed by social power; their power is certainly overwhelmed when they insufficiently theorize their place in social contexts. While it doesn’t avoid the possibility that people can intervene into social circumstances, Piombino’s seven-part sequence poem ‘The Gentle Instructor’ from Light Street focuses instead on the way social constraints often dominate individuals.

‘The Gentle Instructor’ consists mainly of a series of comparisons between school (in particular the social dynamics of instructors and students) and machines. Like Pound’s ‘In A Station of the Metro,’ Piombino uses juxtaposition rather than simile and metaphor; schools are never said to be machines or directly like machines. But the comparison is relentless nonetheless, asking the reader to consider the way schools are like machines. ‘The Gentle Instructor’ is accompanied by a series of illustrations reminiscent of early twentieth-century futurism by Piombino’s wife Tony Simon; the illustrations of machines and other kinds of industrial images emphasize the poem’s tendency to describe machinery as dominant and people as subordinate.

In fact, many sections of ‘The Gentle Instructor’ purposefully confuse whether the subject is school or machinery. The poem sequence opens with:

Positive penetration is the absolute watermark
noting, at the head of the order, all sizes,
infinitely stating ‘Return! Return!’

comma, from that position, you point eastward,
certainly evading, in sections,

uniform permits. (25)

At this point in the sequence, the specific context isn’t clear. There is an unspecified ‘order’ which intends ‘penetration’ so it can keep what it penetrates as part of the order. Indeed the goal is to have those who are penetrated state their desire for ‘Return’ just as the penetration itself makes such a statement; the grammatical slippage of the passage makes the issue of who or what states ‘Return’ purposefully ambivalent, although grammatically it remains most likely that it is the ‘sizes’ subject to penetration who infinitely make the statement. Yet the potential for resistance is implied as well. The only active subject in the poem, marked by the pronoun ‘you,’ involves itself in ‘evading’ such ‘uniform permits,’ although the evasion is incomplete and takes place only ‘in sections.’

The poem’s second section talks about school more explicitly, although only gradually. In the first stanza of the section, it’s still not quite clear whose point of view is expressed:

Slight irritation over minor adjustments
simply because there are only three exceptions.
The rules are straightforward. (27)

Yet the second stanza applies the above point of view to a ‘he’ who says ‘Choose three reference points./ Measure the inner source/ and stride there with a partly bowed head.’ At this point, ‘the back students are speechless’ and the context seems clearly one of the classroom (27).

The social conditions of this classroom are also clear; the teacher explains the rules and defends their authority. When the students don’t follow or understand, the instructor becomes irritated. Furthermore, the instructor expects a condition of deference (‘a partly bowed head’) from students as they make the proper choices (which are obviously not choices, since any deviation leads only to error) and measurements.

The third poem points out that ‘It is not necessary to remind the instructor/ of his context’; that is, the instructor understands and represents the authority of the school, must explain it and speak for it (29). His authority is not personal; it comes from his ability to uphold the proper rules of the context.

Later sections of ‘The Gentle Instructor’ increasingly contrast mechanistic images (‘At the first reaction/ shut off the top switch’) with comments about the students and a ‘negative assistant’ who, subservient to the instructor, nonetheless reflects and enforces the instructor’s authority over students and, by implication, probably desires that greater authority for himself (31, 33). The school in ‘The Gentle Instructor’ becomes throughout the poem a place where the bodies and minds of students are coerced into mechanistic systems of proper rules. There is almost no place for effective resistance to the maintenance and continuation of this order.

It seems important to point out that ‘The Gentle Instructor,’ especially given the consciously anachronistic illustrations that accompany it, does not seem intended to be a realistic description of some particular university or school of the present moment. It is not a poem about the overlapping, competing, and often opposed concerns of administrators, teachers, office and service workers, students, parents and others. While administrators (and some teachers) are most likely to have and use the kind of authority developed in the poem, the poem focuses on a kind of mechanistic learning defined by true/ false equations that remains more applicable to some kinds of education (science, engineering, business, for instance, as well as any number of schools for lower class students), although it’s certainly true that the humanities also contains such elements. ‘The Gentle Instructor’ is not an attempt to provide a theoretical elaboration of the complex dynamics of authority in contemporary schools or universities.

Instead, ‘The Gentle Instructor’ concentrates on the relation in social systems between mechanics, authority, and the coercion of bodies and minds. While it echoes the historical conditions of such systems in the early twentieth century, it asks us to consider the ways that mechanization and authority overwhelm people in any number of contemporary contexts. In ‘The Gentle Instructor’ people disappear almost entirely. Individuality is at best defined negatively as the ability to evade, only occasionally and temporarily, mechanistic systems of authority, in the same way that a student evades such authority by staring out the window instead of listening, an evasion that usually results only in punishment within the bounds of the system.

Who Have You Been Talking About?

One of the problems of academic criticism about poetry is that individual poets receive academic attention mainly to the extent that they reflect currently dominant academic paradigms. While they may be well known to other poets, poets that question, avoid, or too much depart from those paradigms tend not to be written about, since writing about their work would usually be of no help to the institutional critic maneuvering within the bureaucratic niches of the contemporary academy. Critical paradigms are by no means purely academic creations, of course; they exist in and around, with and against, various institutional practices. In a culture of argument, they dominate poetic practice by the demand that poetry explain itself, or be explained, in terms which the culture of argument cares to understand — even when one goal of the poem might be exactly to question or rearrange those terms.

Whatever its uneasy relation to the contemporary academy, and despite the differences and sometimes outright eccentric weirdness in its practice, language writing has tended to become codified in academic discourse around several repeated ideas, none of them wholly untrue but none as thoroughly true as the criticism might lead one to believe. These ideas include language poetry as highlighting the signifier over the signified, as anti-representational and anti-narrative, as politically radical, and as focusing on materiality and concrete social relations rather than on issues of personal emotion, individual voice, and the role of the subject. In some sense, language poetry according to these paradigms is a classical rather than a romantic literature (John Woznicki refers to ‘Watten’s New Objectivity’) , although in this case classical ideas about objectivity and balance have been displaced by a practice built around social materialism (8). Most academic work looking at language writing looks at the writers (or pieces of work by an individual writer) that support and develop these paradigmatic positions.

What happens then in the case of a writer like Nick Piombino, who’s associated with language writing but whose history as a writer exists outside, around, as well as within the publication networks of language writing? What happens to his concern with the individual, the writing, thinking and feeling subject, a concern that doesn’t reject the various paradigms above but shifts their focus towards questions not usually thought of as part of language writing?

The answer is that it has taken contemporary writers of poetry and poetics a long time to explore the implications of Piombino’s difference from the language poets to whom he is intimately connected. And when it comes to the academic context, the problem grows more acute. On the rare occasions when Piombino is written about, it’s for the most part only to make him seem like other language poets, who are made to seem, for the most part, like each other, or to be of secondary significance to the extent that they don’t seem like each other.

By his own admission, Piombino’s long and complex development as a poet has certainly contributed to the delay in critical response to his work (Piombino, personal letter 01/ 31/ 01). As far back as the early 1970s, people who became associated with language writing first picked up and responded to Piombino’s work as if it was part of the ‘New York School’ of writing, perhaps because of Piombino’s involvement in workshops run by Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer, both of whom helped Piombino promote his work through publication and reading opportunities (Piombino letter). At least partly because of his involvement in social work, anti-war activism and, later, psychotherapy, Piombino did not publish much for a long time. Although he first published a poem in 1965, his first book didn’t appear until 1988, a full 23 years later (Piombino letter). Because his history extends beyond the context of language writing, and because his work does not prolifically appear when that context first develops, he has never been one of the most high profile of the language writers, or one who is easy to place within its development.

There have been a few excellent short pieces on Piombino in small poetry and poetics magazines, some of which have been careful to distinguish him from other language writers while recognizing his commitment to that context. In a 1994 review of three books in Central Park #23, Stephen-Paul Martin lodges Piombino’s essay collection, The Boundary of Blur, specifically in the context of other language poets and the way in which, for them, ‘social relevance is based not on explicit political critique, but on the state of awareness their writing demands, a condition of mental alertness and concentration,’ a point which however applicable to Piombino could have been made about most other language poets as well (Martin 168). However, Juliana Spahr’s 1998 review of Piombino’s Light Street in Witz emphasizes Piombino’s differences from other language poets because, she says, ‘What interests me about Piombino’s work is his emphasis on how language can heal, rather than on how our world is fractured. I read his work as a primer that says here we are post-Saussure, post-Vietnam, now how do we keep from going crazy’ (Spahr 19-20). Spahr finds it ‘hard for me not to read’ Piombino’s work as a psychoanalyst into his poetry, ‘even though I spent all last week on the autobiographical fallacy with my poetry students’ (20).

To this point, academic response to Piombino’s work has been limited. Although Martin juxtaposes The Boundary of Blur with Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice, for instance, Perloff herself, certainly the most well-known academic critic of language writing and one who has brought it a great deal of its academic attention, has never written about Piombino’s work, and this fact, whatever its cause, may contribute to Piombino’s continued low profile in academic writing. George Hartley, in Textual Politics and the Language Poets, does deal with Piombino’s poetry to a certain extent. But Hartley’s work, probably because it comes so early in the history of academic response to language writing (1989), is more concerned with establishing the differences of Piombino’s poetry from the poetry of Andre Breton and other Surrealist uses of the image than he is with noting any differences between Piombino and other language writers. Hartley wants to describe what makes Piombino a language poet, not what marks him as distinct among language poets.

One recent web article has been willing to consider the differences of Piombino’s writing within the context of language poetry. The late Ramez Qureshi’s ‘Musical Objects’ sees Piombino’s Theoretical Objects as specifically departing from the supposedly main paradigms of language poetry. Qureshi describes the book as involving ‘Theory of the body, itself subject of much recent academizing,’ which ‘meets lyricism in practice’ (Qureshi 1). Qureshi thus highlights a particular element of Piombino’s work, lyricism, which is often repressed in criticism about language poetry. According to Qureshi, Piombino ‘consistently articulates a vision of just how intertwined poetry and music can be.’ Qureshi points out how the book is ‘organized by... musical theme’ (1). Qureshi also notes that ‘a concern with psychoanalysis further distinguishes Piombino’ as different than other language poets (3).

Unfortunately, Qureshi opposes his highly useful distinctions about Piombino’s musicality to a generalized language poetry which ‘Many in the poetry world have felt... cold, over-theoretical, abstract,’ and once again, the differences of individual writers have been collapsed into generalized paradigms. Although Qureshi never suggests that he shares that generalized paradigm, he never specifically refutes it either, except to the extent that he argues for why Piombino, known as a language poet, doesn’t fit the paradigm.

What’s particularly ironic is that, in the case of language poetry, the differences between writers associated with that poetry often disappear exactly around the issue of the self, the writer as individual, to be frequently replaced by the common belief that in language poetry, the individual is not considered relevant and all language writers are doing the same thing, or at least some variation of something they all agree about. Assumed to be promoting the ‘death of the author,’ the writing of these various poets tends to be ignored when it does not meet this prior assumption.

Granted, some of the language poets bear partial responsibility for this problem, at least to the extent that any denial by a writer that individuality plays a significant role in composition might aid others in denying the particular differences of that writer. If I deny my own role, it’s not surprising that others might come to the conclusion that I never had one. Still, it’s primarily a misreading that most writers associated with language poetry made such a denial; the idea that they did so en masse remains a common critical misreading.

I Didn’t Expect So Many People Would Be Here

The role of the individual differs from poem to poem in Piombino’s work; however, the individual remains a problem that’s never avoidable. Piombino complicates any notion of people as purely a result of social conditions, although social conditions are inevitably part of who people are, and of greater or lesser determining power depending on the context and on the ability of people to understand and respond to that context.

While his poems don’t specifically focus on such issues as race, class and only occasionally on problems of gender, nonetheless his elaboration of the individual as a social process has any number of implications for those interested in such questions and in the politics of institutional and social resistance. Furthermore, Piombino’s work in the context of language poetry points to many issues that begin to be highlighted by a generation of formally innovative poets writing after language poetry, and who have been using some poetic possibilities often rejected in early language poetry theory.

For instance, while there’s no reason to see any direct influence between the two writers, the implications of Piombino’s understanding of the role of the individual can be seen in a work of a younger poet like Lisa Jarnot in Sea Lyrics, in which the constant use of ‘I’ highlights the relation between the self and exterior reality:

I am not quite yet the harmony of the spheres, I have been hunting prey and building bridges for several years now on and off, I am the foam of obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am, I am the open bridge, I am the falling away from a baseball game across the earth on the edge of the islands and jail. (Jarnot)

Jarnot’s insistence on ‘I’ makes blatantly clear the concept of the self as a social process; the ‘I’ doesn’t exist outside its various scenes. Oddly enough perhaps, her embedding of ‘I’ in a series of images and moments becomes remarkably similar to Ron Silliman’s use of ‘I’ in What, although Jarnot emphasizes ‘I” while Silliman downplays it.

Through the lens of Piombino’s insistence both on the complexity of social relations and the complexity of individuals, then, poetic practices that in theory remain relatively oppositional can be discovered to have much more in common than would otherwise be thought. But such a link can be found only by going against the grain of dominant critical paradigms in which language poets would be against individuality and lyricism, while a writer like Jarnot would favor them. One of the main values of Piombino’s work, therefore, becomes its resistance to easy critical paradigms, however created. In refusing overgeneralized paradigms, Piombino rediscovers poetic and individual connection in places that the paradigms ignore and hide. It’s both ironic and freeing that such hidden connection should be found in the concept of the individual and in the way in which the multiple layers of the self resist, at least partly, theoretical and institutional attempts to deny poets their differences.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce, The Language Book. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

———, ‘Making Social Sense: Poetics & the Political Imaginary.’The World In Time and Space. Edited by Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue. Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman, 2002: 1–17.

Eliot, T.S., The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1920.

Hejinian, Lyn,My Life. Los Angeles, CA: Sun and Moon, 1987.

———, The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

Inman, P., ‘One to One.’ The Politics of Poetic Form. Edited by Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990: 221–225.

Jacobson, Roman, Language in Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1987.

Jarnot, Lisa, Sea Lyrics. New York: Situations, 1996.

Martin, Stephen-Paul, Untitled Reviews. New York: Central Park #23, 1994.

Paz, Octavio, The Other Voice: Essays on Modern American Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Piombino, Nick, The Boundary of Blur. New York: Roof, 1993.

———, Light Street. Gran Canaria: Zasterle, 1996.

———, Poems. Los Angeles, CA: Sun and Moon, 1988.

———, Theoretical Objects. Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer, 1999.

———, Personal letter to the author. Jan. 31, 2001.

Qureshi, Raymond, ‘Musical Objects.’ ~exxdgdc/ lynx/ lynx152.html

Silliman, Ron, What. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1988.

Spahr, Juliana, ‘What’s Worth Remembering.’ Witz (Summer 1998): 19–21.

Watten, Barrett, Conduit. San Francisco, CA: Gaz, 1988.

———, ‘The Conduit of Communication in Everyday Life.’ Aerial 8: Barrett Watten. Ed. Rod Smith. Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1995: 32–38.

Woznicki, John, ‘Poetry of Play, Poetry of Purpose: The Continuity of American Language Poetry.’ woznicki.htm


[1]. In his recent article ‘Making Social Sense: Poetics and the Political Imaginary,’ Andrews suggests a different idea of the individual in poetry, calling for writing that ‘needs a politics of personal transformability—to nudge us toward a reception which is socially creative, looser than anything deductive’ (11).

[2]. Even Hejinian’s fascinating essay ‘Who is Speaking?,’ which from its title might appear a discussion of the concept of the author, turns out to be a discussion of the politics of community interaction (30-39).

[3]. As an example of this kind of generalization, John Woznicki writes that ‘Language poets dismiss ego organization of their poetry because it is a social construct, the subject is not (and should not be) individual,’ as if all language poets agree and the problem could be resolved that simply (12).

[4]. Octavio Paz, for instance, to some extent looks at literature this way in his essay ‘The Few and the Many’ when he distinguishes between literature and the notion of the best seller: ‘What distinguishes a literary work from a book that is merely entertaining or informative is the fact that the latter is literally meant to be consumed by its readers, whereas the former has the ability to come back to life. Poetry seeks not immortality but resurrection’ (95).

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