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   Jacket 32 — April 2007        link Jacket 32 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

James Sherry reviews
The Grand Piano Project Part 2, San Francisco, 1975–80
by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson.

Paperback, 01 Jan 2007, Mode A, Detroit, ISBN 978-0-9790198-1-4, $12.95. Available via Small Press Distribution at

This review is about 8 printed pages long. You can read James Sherry’s review of Part 1 in this issue of Jacket.

How Events Really Work

paragraph 1

In late 2006, I wrote a short review on The Grand Piano Part 1, written by a group of people who were in San Francisco’s new poetry scene in the late 1970s. After writing the piece and publishing it in Jacket #32, I wondered if my gestural approach to the criticism, while generally respectful, gave sufficient credibility to the effort that The Grand Piano (GP) project represents. In addition, my closeness to the group raised questions in my own mind about objectivity and professionalism in criticism.


The Language poetry movement was, in those days, known for the extent and complexity of its criticism. It seemed at the time people were saying as Allen Ginsberg said that Language poetry was “heavy on criticism”. But the real innovations in Language poetry were in the poetry itself as the poets looked for new meaning in form, grammar and style and focused on how the poetry was written. There was extensive emphasis on collaboration (Legend) and other ways of breaking with the Romantic model of the individual poet, inspired by gods, communicating directly to an idealized mass audience.


If we look at the styles and concepts of Language poetry criticism in the 70s and early 80s, the value and interest in it were often due to its connections to the older modernist approach and the post-war, post-modern movement in cultural criticism rather than how it created new ways to write about poetry. There were, of course, important exceptions to the appropriation of post-modernism by Language poets. The linking of criticism and poetry in the text, for example, was in various forms used to great effect. (Examples of this and other new ideas may be found, along with the modernist / post-modern criticism, in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein and other Language poetry periodicals.)


The Grand Piano (GP) project extends criticism and literary biography into the environment of poetry in a complex way through a combination of stylistics, collaboration, and a periodic publishing schedule. GP breaks the model of the social structure of criticism by engaging the technology of publishing to increase reader’s awareness of their relationship to the biography. The individual poets are writing about themselves and writing about each other in an echo chamber that extends through these 10 pre-defined publications. I’d be interested to know at this juncture, for example, if all 10 parts are already written and this publishing effort is pre-determined or if it will, and I’d hope this is the case, really become responsive to the readership over the duration of its printings. But it’s more likely that the 10 are already written. Pre-writing the periodical, while interesting, undercuts the value of a collaborative autobiography. It treats the group like an individual: exclusive, in that the group is pre-defined while the reader is a voyeur of the group writing, and self-contained, in that it has no access points as a normal periodical publishing venture would.


Extending the GP group, or virtually extending it, would be a useful strategy for social engineering. By writing a few reviews about this group of publications, for example, a dialog among readers and writers is established that isn’t just a way to tell everyone how well they are doing or promoting the ideas of the writers, but actually engages in a collaborative project. It would break the mold of critical writing and link it to the literary biography that is core to the GP Project. For example, as soon as I had written the review of GP1, I began receiving feedback from the writers through the publisher of Jacket, John Tranter. Barrett Watten wanted to correct my error about the number of Steve Benson’s children. Barrett also told Michael Gottlieb, a New York poet, that I had totally missed the point of the book. Another of the GP collaborators sent me an email about the first review, but asked that it not be published.


So at least one of the myths to dispel about criticism is that “professional” critics do not fulfill the writers’ expectations about what should be important. The linking posture in criticism is traditionally between the critic and the reader rather than between the critic and the writer. The critic interprets for the reader; understanding of the writer is a given. This link is the genesis of eons of writers being angry that their intention is not understood by the critic and creating a false separation between critics and poets. Of course, the other side where critics are merely flaks for a series of writers is the reason why professional critics exist. In the grander scheme of things both critic and writer can be interchangeable parts. Examples like Walt Whitman come to mind and are forgiven when the self-criticism is validated by later academics and professionals.


Judgments are made by critics and affiliations are established that can themselves be evaluated. Who knows who often defines the value of the work for a reader rather than objective criteria or comparative evaluations of the writing. Rodrigo Toscano, in another example of extended criticism, mentioned at a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club that he had seen that I had done something in Jacket, but didn’t offer to say what he thought, although his face volubly expressed complex feelings. How do these emotions work in the poetry world?


So I invited more people into this (my) review: Nada Gordon, for example, wrote in her blog ( a series of questions reminiscent of Ron Silliman’s “Sunset Debris” (published in ROOF Magazine in 1977). “Does this book feel a little like a soap opera?... Did Tom really have an experience with a transsexual?...” And then on the phone (she has pre-read and edited her paragraph) she said, “I know it sounds narcissistic, but I keep expecting my name to come up.” I suggested a group lottery. “They are being rhapsodic, which I love, but it’s funny because at the time one wasn’t supposed to rhapsodize. They are reifying that time into a kind of glamour when it was in fact really austere.” The notion that the critic properly positions the reader with respect to the reality behind the initial writing is still a dominant theme that needs to be addressed, with Nada’s caveat that we need to be cautious about accepting the critic’s narrative in lieu of the writer’s or our own.


Another informant decided to back out. There are several new blogs that come across my desk.


Drew Gardner didn’t want to talk on the phone, but writes in his blog ( about “the model of a collective writing project as a reading group – actually very positive and compelling.” To him, in a kind of New Sentence-y way, “the shapes between authors build into a kind of shifting image, like a cut-out or stencil, of a group of writers and a time and place.” Continue to read Drew’s blog, please. When I sent him the above sentences to review he replies, “Quickly, what I’m pointing to in the negative spaces thing is more about group social cybernetics. It isn’t really new sentence-y, because it’s about the spaces between perspectives- not the phrases. And the units in GP are developed. The New Sentence I think of as being sequenced sentence units all from same perspective, with intentionally undeveloped units – related things, but quite different effects.” And then the final email from Drew is that my interaction with the collaborators comes through “more like a note about what’s coming in through the window as you write.” And I agree it would be better had I had this idea from the start of writing the piece and shaped the piece around the collaboration, but it’s a start and we’re learning here.


Of course, that critics are a useful interpretive link between the audience and the writer can take several forms. In this piece, I am trying to link the intention of the collaboration to other more extended collaborations to rephrase the social structure of writer, critic, audience, a process that I think is being partly accomplished in The Grand Piano project. In the prior review I was more simply trying to get people to pay attention to the collaboration with a set of literary gestures that would help the reader to approach the book without defining in advance how they would read the book. I think that the primary risk in criticism is not misinterpreting the writer’s intention, but unnecessarily limiting the ways in which the original book can be read. (Both errors cause problems)


The collective, in the way they are positing it, misses the extended environment of literary activity by creating a set of internal references rather than opening the idea to a larger collaboration. Bob thanks Barry for his design. Carla, Kit, and Steve go to the beach together. While creating cache, it results in exclusionary practices of both sentence construction and subjective relations that are not far removed from the primary argument between the critic and the writer. There are few mentions of people not in the collective and no extended views. (I have to remember there are 8 more books to come.)


One of the recurring external references in GP2 carries cliquishness further. The multiple allusions in GP2 to Ted Berrigan, especially Bob’s quotation of Ted’s “feminine marvelous and tough” link the early San Francisco Language group appropriately though romantically to the NY School. While Perelman carefully avoids “snowglobe” preciousness through self-awareness, he and others in GP2 stumble on it in reference to the NY School personism. The constant narration of events distorts the relations of the people making them look like the NY School characters without characterizing the differences between Language and NY School writing and writers.


It is, on the other hand, very difficult to figure out how to write about oneself and one’s peers in a collective and collaborative mode without some use of personism unless one takes a distinctly Marxist perspective. While Barrett makes a gesture at the politics of the day, we will have to wait to see how the group links politics to biography, a subject I assume they’ll take on in a later edition. Barrett’s notion of a poetry that is “amenable to a logic of opposition” applies both to the conflicts that Language poets had with the other poetries of the time and to the internal dissatisfaction with an inclusive definition of all of us as a group. But the real internal logic of opposition is only being represented now. In the past the fragility of our position as emerging writers, something that we all felt, made us less generous toward others and more protective of the space in which we felt protected. Apparently that limitation still hems in the GP2 contributors, but the book is able to voice the phrase “logic of opposition”.


Moving further into this difficult subject, Steve Benson’s section of GP2 actually reveals a sense of what built the relationship. In the other pieces individuals write in an uninflected way about experience as a memory, but in Steve’s piece, albeit the writing of a professional psychologist, the sensitivity of the material is notable and expresses what I have tried to say was the fragility of the position of Language writing in those early days. I mean fragility in the sense that poetry easily falls apart on the page, in the sense that taking a position in the canon is in the early stages as difficult to achieve as it is fragile, and it is precisely for that reason that the canon is inflexible. In one sentence Steve refers to Bob’s remembrance of a “violence of judgment” that was central to the lack of acceptance of the Language group on the national stage. We know that violence, as is almost always the case, was being reinforced by individuals but welcomed with varying intensity by almost all the writers, contributing to a definite maleness about the group that alienated some beyond participation. “It was always the latent fault”, Steve points out. And still today, you, gentle reader, can see, at the beginning of this review, how it is still in effect, if ineffective against the more mature and less fragile positions we now inhabit. And it is our more mature position that I hope allows for this more open discussion to occur in Steve’s and also in Bob’s pieces.


Insistence on a specific political viewpoint that Tom Mandel says was that he “knew the answer in advance” was not a challenge for our collaborators in the 70s, but there’s been some learning beyond those initial position. Benson says “We didn’t know how to manage that transition.” I interpret this transition as occurring at the point where Language poetry was an emerging tendency, fighting to emerge, from a rough shape to its overly-defined existence by the mid-80s. Now a specific point like this doesn’t have quite as defined a meaning in Benson’s paragraph on p.32 of GP2. Not much in Language writing does or needs to for that matter, but I point to this paragraph as defining the “essential learning” aspect of Language writing as play (rough play), played out in this paragraph as well as any a well-wrought phrase might create a bubble of understanding in which to float. Benson’s writing is like that and I, for the first time, appreciate his tentativeness as ascribing characteristics accurately instead of merely defending a turf with ambiguity.


In the collective work each writer gets a place but does the critic have to reflect the individual writers or the whole or both. I’d like to do both, but don’t have much to say about much of the recherché aspect GP2 exercises. Much of Carla, Ron, Rae, Ted, and Kit’s material in GP2 is like that. Tom mostly drops the names of tech notables. Lyn introduces a linking note in feminism, “the personal is the political” but it doesn’t get carried through. So I only really point to Bob and ultimately Steve as individually changing the game significantly in their individual pieces.


But the question they are asking in this volume about the place, the city in which it all took place, leads more than most topics to the recitation of past facts. It was always adherence to place that got poets in trouble: real estate and politics are a deadly and credible combination. Why this recitation of what went on in the late 70s? The desire to be self-contained, complete, like Language poetry itself, is at the root here; it’s a safer place and Steve points that out. But the focus on ontology belies the open ended process that Steve proposes was the group’s impetus. It’s rather a simple case of individual ambition finding an outlet through the group. Steve again shows that specific point and wants to take that further. San Francisco was the place where such collaboration was most likely to happen. And I suppose my own experience there in the 60s confirms his point that “a cultural matrix, bigger and in some respects other than any happenstance that one essayed as a life.”


Sadly that larger context didn’t prevent what Bob refers to as “unsystematically finding and undermining”, a good impulse for those times, turning, for this group especially, into the “instantaneity of judgment”, and the violence of that. “Violence of stuporous intensity was going on then and is going on now. The poetry wars share a vocabulary to be sure.... But no particular heroism inheres in the vocabulary.” Barrett too points to the culture as “fragmented, ugly, and incoherent”, a criticism that was then leveled at the writers themselves. Language poets were the victims of this irony. But more importantly could anyone have engendered such an immense turnover of the literary scene without such or similar violence. I’m not aware such change occurring in the absence of a vacuum.


I admire such questions being approached in this book, even when they come at them from the wrong side. I quote Bob quoting Ron in What “The point at which you read each word (the only point there is) two minds share a larger whole.” This vital collaboration is the core of the effort so far. Can you the reader avoid applying a conclusion that evaluates this review evaluating this book, but instead see Michael Gottlieb and me in a coffee shop in Millerton, New York in March 2007 talking about how Barrett in Detroit feels about being written about on subjects that he wrote about that took place in 1979 in San Francisco? Or think about an exchange of emails between Tranter, Bernstein and I around the first review of GP1, thinking that this will get the ball rolling, let’s get it out. And were generally opprobrious and uncomprehending rhetorics used that sought to refresh the separation of art and criticism? Of course, and does the memory truly show the facts and feelings as they were in the ground?


And is that verisimilitude really the goal? If you want to know where criticism and literary collaboration could be going in the information age, here, with no internet presence and no echoic sensationalism (just a book), collective action produces more than the individuals could have accomplished. Clearly the group is somewhat arbitrarily composed. Where, for example, is Rodefer? (I know, do you? I found out from one of my collaborators who didn’t want to be named, but I stole his reference.) And it is somewhat as a result of who was/is sleeping with whom. Neither of which intends to say that the Grand Piano reading series isn’t important. It was one reading series in one city in a period of great collective intelligence. But it does serve to highlight the collaborative nature of the artistic process, one of the leading issues of that and this day. This review is intended to highlight the interaction of artistic and critical process, an endo-symbiotic relationship where independent individuals merge and, losing their identities, become a larger, more robust, and interesting species of writer: the collaborator.


For me these ideas are the core of GP. The fully present and interactive tense that is Bob Perelman’s interest in the GP2 look backwards is more convincing than the misalliance of this group of writers with “Love” in GP1. The group was not motivated by love particularly, now many years after the summer of love. The use of the city of the San Francisco location as a special force is divisive and largely unhelpful in GP2 with the one exception I quote above. And concurrently, can I wonder if the really interesting stuff in the past gets lost, the stuff that spins off the collaboration between an individual and the group and only the reified issues get forwarded to the continuing present as academic inheritance? (Note, this paragraph too is not my invention, but another of my collaborators. Does it seem strained?)


Finally, GP2 educates us about the value of intermediate institutions. No longer is the individual, heroic writer fighting alone in the night against the forces of oppressive industrial sameness or communicating one to many over the airwaves or in mass market book chains. By using the Grand Piano and the GP2 dialog as institutions, the collaborators show how these events really work. People work together; they create institutions that further the aims of the individuals, slightly and greatly altered into the future. It is that level of realism (a topic Lyn Hejinian and others have addressed elsewhere) that we seek and that level of realism that we are given. As much as it doesn’t flatter our egos, we are part of groups and extended groups whose identities we recognize and whose influences we feel and promote through our enthusiasms. The power structure includes them daily in the process of keeping society running, but often wants to make them invisible in order to more directly control the messages we get about the power structure.


The set of messages about poetry comes from these collective autobiographies even if they get simplified in memorable lines by individuals. In GP2 we see how the lines get written by the collective autobiography and that is the most gratifying breakthrough the series so far makes.