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William Watkin

“Though we keep company with cats and dogs”:

Onomatopoeia, Glossolalia and Happiness in the work of Lyn Hejinian and Giorgio Agamben

Outwork: Deerbark

paragraph 1

Two years ago I moved from the city to what we call the countryside. Near my house is a wood and once a year during, roundabout the summer solstice, I make a pilgrimage there in late evening. There is nothing sinister about this. I am simply an animal lover and it is when the nights are shortest that one has the greatest chance of seeing badger, deer, foxes, owls and the like. The first time I crossed into the wood in the violet hour I sensed in a pricking of my skin with sweat and a sudden precipitation of my heart beats that I was entering the realm of the unfamiliar. As I moved nervously down the track into the deeper dark, although the sky above me was still a brilliant blue, I heard an inhuman noise, impossible to transcribe. The cry of a beast in formless shadows. It sounded again, and then twice more, what sounded like responses from another locale: ooarr, ooarr, or maybe haargh, haargh. Risibly written here.


Moments later there was a skittering noise like that of a many-legged thing crossing a stone threshold. On the track ahead appeared a roe deer which, upon sensing my presence, lifted its head and gave a full throated cry, hoah, hoah, before dematerialising in one leap back into the world of shade from which it had briefly manifested. I have since read that this is the typical alarm bark of the roe deer, although as a bark it is far from the usual woof-woof, or bow-wow.


What I took from this encounter, and why I am indulging myself here by repeating it, was a sense of the voice of the animal, given to the trees in which the deer’s sense of belonging and presence was replete and, for me, unquestioned. This deer in that wood had given exactly that cry for countless centuries perhaps adding up to millennia. The deer was in its element and the medium of its voice was that of the wind, the leaves, and darkness. In contrast, my presence in the wood was fake. I was self-consciously an interloper and my subsequent transcription of the voice of the deer, for I cannot call it a bark in any good conscience, was not merely a failed translation but an exercise in futility. One cannot write the voice of the animal. The voice can suffer no separation from the beast, which language demands, and remains its voice. Yet, at the same time, one feels the desire to try to capture this very intangible vocal self-sufficiency, this bark of pure being, precisely because it is a rare example of the presence of a being’s truth to itself which our civilisation has been chasing for twenty five hundred years and more. And so we are caught between two impulses, like the deer momentarily halted on the path dividing one territory and the next. The result of this quandary is that strange rhetorical gesture called onomatopoeia.

Sounds Meaningless


At some points in Lyn Hejinian’s long poem of 1978, Writing is an Aid to Memory, our quest for meaning can be momentarily suspended. The poem, in general, is a powerful, avant-garde challenge to the dominant paradigms of semantic production, transmission and reception especially in terms of subjective meaning and its generation through the processes of recorded memory.[1]  In this attack on normative semantic structures in writing it is typical of a number postmodern American poems from poets working in the seventies, developing what we now call Language poetry, a group which must count Hejinian as one of its core members and which also includes poets of international repute such as Charles Bernstein, who I will come to later. However, like most of radical works of modern poetry, with some careful consideration meaningfulness is to be found in areas such as associative patterning, repetitious leitmotifs, graphematic innovations, excerpts of ‘prose’, accumulation of effects that allows for a familiarity to develop, certain well known avant-garde and Language-orientated prosodic techniques and so on. Then, finally we have what we might call the conceptual/semiotic guarantee of the poem: if it is line broken, with a title, stanzas, and a last line, we can begin to subdivide the single work into units of significance that, through established conventions of analysis, can be seen as exemplary, important, revealing and so on. We can also call the entity as a whole the poem, and all that that means.


To achieve all of the above is eminently possible but it requires, frankly, a lot of work for which one probably needs some kind of professional training or deep familiarity with the traditions and conventions of this lesser known, alternative poetic tradition. It this why even I, a professional critic, relish the moments where one can stop looking for a meaning and just enjoy the words, their interplay, and the semiotic thrill of their location in poetic space? Strange as it may sound poetic meaningless-ness, such as one finds these days primarily only in the experimental avant-garde and pop lyrics, rather than appearing as a challenge to rational modes of thought, as many of these poets insist, can actually take one back to a very old-fashioned and rational idea of the poem as a source for simple pleasure. Poetry, for our enlightenment tradition, is valued after all for its meaningless-ness, which sets is apart from its great rival philosophy, so that those marginalised contemporary works of poetry that many dismiss as not being ‘poetic’, lacking rhyme, metre, cohesive argument, even-ness of tone and the like, are in a real sense perhaps the only true poetry left in the late-modern age. Hejinian’s poem is full of just such moments:


doubt shot bit sort done
        horn for know old no
                move to a town trod floor[2]

                                                saw tap and so and so
                                                slog ground
buck mush[3]

bit tight piece trod bar of the dime scratch[4]

dogs bark in the dark
    football never whispers[5]


What to say about such sections of the work? First of all it can be noted that they are not atypical of the poem, nor of Hejinian’s work in general, although nor are they very typical. There are many contemporary poets who “do this sort of thing” more frequently than Hejinian, who is not, only the whole, a lettrist, sound, graphic, concrete or performance poet, but more a poet of ideas, things in the world, and their connections. In addition, while perhaps the more normal response to these forms of poetic language is to dismiss them as meaningless, or just games with sound, this is easily revealed as a foolish response within the avant-garde traditions Hejinian is working in, where such games with language are commonplace and always serious in intent. Then again, what is wrong with meaninglessness, it being just another colour on the modern poet’s palette? Just as not everything in life is ever so meaningful — this dull breakfast, that traffic warden passing my window just now — so a poet of the everyday, which is what Hejinian is, does not have to fill her work with a false significance that in the end exists only in art, and perhaps only in the analysis of art. If language is some kind of a game then the language game called “games with sounds” is the surely game of poetry. Games should be fun, and what is more fun in a poem which powerfully challenges our basic conception and experience of reading than these moments where there is no reading to be done, only listening or looking? If the poem challenges the reader’s preconceptions about poetry, it also challenges the writer’s basic conception and experience of memory, in that Hejinian has learnt that the meaning of memory resides in the process of its being recorded and what is lost in that process and what new material is gained. If reading is challenged, and writing is challenged, and memory is challenged, meaning subjective certainty and personal history is challenged, then I, as reader of this work, am going through some pretty significant changes.


In the midst of such powerful transformations, therefore, it is simply nice, not a common vocabulary choice for criticism, from time to time to stop, listen to what t’s and o’s can do together, “doubt shot bit sort done”; perhaps compare that to what s’s and a’s o’s can do together, “saw tap and so and so”; experience again the strangeness inherent in single syllable words all placed together in a string “bit tight piece trod bar of the dime scratch”; before ending with the mysterious language of animals, and what becomes of it when we re-locate those sounds within the confines of our own strange language of English, “dogs bark in the dark.” While I lack a strong means by which to think rationally/ critically about such textual events, beyond the problematic meaninglessness, I have a strong enlightenment philosophical tradition behind me to support my claim that there is not more authentic ‘poetry’ to be found today than exactly here, making meaningless sounds in a post- or anti-enlightenment world of shadows and mystery.

Barking Barbarians, Onomatopoeia and Glossolalia


Of course, placed within the context of the poem each of these phrases can begin to be called meaningful, if not actually full of real meaning. Dogs recur, for example, as we shall see, but they also function more importantly as other spaces within the poem’s language where things are given a voice, where language is used purely for semiotic, material pleasure, and so ultimately where language as a thing is also given a voice and denied a voice. In philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s short essay “Pascoli and the Thought of the Voice,” he tackles just such moments of minimal significance in the work of Italian nineteenth century poet Giovanni Pascoli, a poet well known for his use of onomatopoeia and glossolalia, techniques of meaninglessness which, I will go on to show, exist in Hejinian’s work in slightly different ways. In tackling just these elements of a poet’s work, Agamben is trying to understand the significance of words whose signification is either entirely transparent — the bark of a dog, the songs of birds, the proper name Pascoli, Agamben, Hejinian — or permanently opaque — meaningless syllables, nonsense, swearing, internal rhyme, words for their own sake and sobbing. In other words moments where critical thinking is either superfluous or helpless. Many thinkers on language have looked at how it can work and how it can fail, but few if any concern themselves with the implications of a language that works too well, or fails so disastrously that one cannot even read such text or understand such speech acts and there are good reasons for this. Agamben, remarkably, has set himself exactly this brief with his stated general aim to consider the idea that there is language at all, and it brings his idea of poetry, that it exists in the tension between semiotic, spatial demands and semantic demands, directly to bear on Hejinian’s own poetry and theories of poetry.


Agamben highlights two differing forms of non-signifying signification. The first encompasses onomatopoeia and proper names, where the presupposed gap between the sign and the thing is attenuated to the point of almost non-existence. The whole point of the name Pascoli is to indicate exactly that it is Pascoli of whom Agamben speaks. If not, then who in which singularity can it be? Similarly, because onomatopoeia is purely mimetic, one does not have to wonder what the referent of the signifier is, because the phonetic materiality of the signifier is the thing itself. A bark is a bark because a bark sounds like that sign when it is pronounced: “bark.” Of course these words are not the problematic words of our language because through the predominant emphasis on signification in modern western ideas about language, any sign which signs well is a good sign and worthy of respect in a world such as ours where so many signs are so difficult and bad. Place bark next to democracy, terrorism, authenticity, and you see what I mean. Bark is a very good word within our contested postmodern age because it opts out of the contest of meanings entirely.


In contrast we have glossolalia, also what Agamben calls xenoglossia. Glossolalia is a term given to the radical language of insignificance as has been analysed by Kristeva and deCerteau and utilised widely in the kind of avant-garde and postmodern poetries amongst which one might habitually place the work of Lyn Hejinian. Agamben notes that with onomatopoeia we are left with the remnant of voice, an animal or thing’s voice, after the animal or thing has departed. Each bark becomes, through its repeatability and instant recognisability, a plaintive testimony to that animal’s abiding absence. Thus the real bark in the world becomes the post-noise repetition of bark in the human construct of language; something highlighted by Hejinian’s simple act of rhyming bark with dark. The first bark is the animal, but once joined semiotically with dark, the second moment of the bark becomes a human construct and the “true” voice of the animal dies away. The same can be said of the proper name and Agamben is, in a way, restating certain key Derridean ideas here. (Although unlike, say, Frank O’Hara, Hejinian does not play games with proper names and presence, Writing is an Aid to Memory is a form of autobiographical poem and so is still involved with the proper name Lyn Hejinian).


Similarly, in glossolalia we are left with the dead language, just as we have in xenoglossia or the language of foreignness, where the material presence of language can continue, although the presence of meaning is no longer around to intervene, and probably never was. In such languages, Agamben notes, the intention to signify is very clear as anyone who has tried to explain anything to someone who does not speak their language can testify to, but the actual meaning of the signification is lost. In some ways the human speaking in xenoglossia becomes an animal as their voice overtakes the words they are using. Wasn’t it the Greeks, after all, who coined the term Barbarians to cover all foreigners whose language sounded, to them, like bar-bar-bar? Which is, by the way, just one letter away from a bark.

Memory: Poetic Dictation of the Self to the Self


Agamben concludes that in both onomatopoeia and glossolalia we encounter a purity of language in the moment of its death. In onomatopoeia, the purity of a signified which coincides so totally with a signifier that such a division is unnecessary and so, because we value meaning over noise, one can say there is no signifier. In glossolalia, the purity of a signifier which needs no signified only the perfection of its phonetic presence, shouting at you urgently, crying out “I need to tell you something but you will never know what it is in its particularity” — what Levinas calls the ethics of saying, and Lacan the announcement of being through the cry. Or to put it simply, it is a double-barrelled riddle: how can a dog bark when there is no dog, how can a word mean when the word itself is meaningless? Pascoli provides the answer to the riddle in his concept of the “dictation” of poetry to the poet through the agency of the letter. Like many poets, Pascoli is taken with the strangeness of the language he uses, its alien otherness, and concludes, incorrectly in some ways, that this strangeness comes from his poetry being sent to him, or dictated to him, from some other source. While I have no problem with this theory which is always fascinating when one hears poet express it, but it must be said that what might be called the ontological challenge of language’s alterity is not an exclusive quality of poetry, allowing the poet to reify poetry as somehow transcendental and the poet as some kind of a seer, but rather a basic quality of language which poetry merely accentuates. This is important to consider because it is also a common myth in modern philosophy that it is poetry that makes language other, allowing them to both marginalise poetry accordingly and confirm their own project of rational language usage.


Agamben differs slightly from his own philosophical traditions, therefore, when he defines Pascoli’s conception of poetic dictation as “the experience of the originary event of speech itself,”[6] encountered primarily at the level of the letter or the material level of the poem, before, after or to one side of meaning:


The letter is therefore the dimension in which glossolalia and onomatopoeia, the poetics of dead language and the poetics of the dead voice, converge in one site, where Pascoli situates the most proper experience of poetic dictation; the site in which he can capture language in the instant it sinks again, dying, into the voice, and at which the voice, emerging from mere sound, passes (that is, dies) into signification. In Pascoli’s poetry, glossolalia and onomatopoeia speak from one and the same place, even if they seem to pass through it in opposite directions.[7]


The appearance of death at this juncture, where I am ostensibly seeking the pleasure of the poetic moment in language, is rather contentious and one which Hejinian would not use in this context I believe. It perhaps tells us no more than Agamben is a late-modernist[8] and therefore still caught up in what Renato Poggioli calls the “agonism” of the avant-garde,[9] and Hejinian is a postmodernist, and warns us that Agamben and Hejinian do not agree over modern poetry event if their ideas on poetry do, as I will show, have much in common. For Hejinian, the moments when pure meaning and pure sound occur and converge in a space is a moment of celebration, humor and contemplation; it is a moment for another poem to be written. Still, Hejinian is a committed avant-gardist and has worked, along with other contemporary poets associated with the radical American journals L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and This during the seventies, on the idea that the strangeness to be found by poetry in the letter of the word can be a political tool used to undermine the dominant discourses of meaning imposed upon us by consumer capitalism. The bark as revolutionary slogan perhaps. Therefore, as death is the most other and so the arche-signifier of otherness in our age, and because Hejinian wants to kill a certain form of poetry so that we might become free, or free-er, perhaps Agamben is correct to talk of moments of minimum significance as moments of a kind of death. What Agamben means by the use of ‘dead’ in this passage is the nexus between the inhuman and the human, where the inhuman, animal voice is lost in the human grammar of a language and the human, grammatical language collapses back into animalistic noise making. This is not death in either case per se, but instead a double collapse into a relative alterity, relative to two forms of utterance that take their opposite as the very site of their own disappearance into alterity.


Writing is an Aid to Memory is not a poem about death but life, the life of things and the life of a poet, yet it contains those elements of onomatopoeia and glossolalia that are, according to Agamben, and many other modern thinkers of otherness such as Derrida Lévinas and Blanchot, deathly. Written at the same time as the much more popular autobiographical prose work My Life, Writing is an Aid to Memory should perhaps be called, in parentheses, My Death, or at the very least, My Death in Language. For if writing is an aid to memory, the help it provides is one of the assisted death of the certainty of being through the potentiality for language’s strangeness to kill us within our certainty. Such issues of being and recollection come to the fore in the brief preface to the work:


I am always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me. Memory cannot, through the future return, and proffer raw conclusions...Abridgement is foolish, like lopping off among miracles; yet times is not enough. Necessity is the limit with forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again...[10]


Memory is foundational for being but suffers, in Hejinian’s eyes, from the very same dangers of death that the poetic word suffers from. Either there is semantic plenitude and thus the words of the poem are not needed, or there is semiotic plenitude, and the meaning of those words is pointless. Memory is the act of barking and one is either a dog, in which case the bark is full of meaning at least to you, or one is a human, in which case the bark is just silly. Let me clarify a little in relation to the comments of the “Preface.” The poem is an autobiographical work but Hejinian realises that to remember is to write and in writing one experiences those events of the past not as if for the first time, but again for the first time. Each time one writes up one’s self through history and memory, one runs the risk of the “slipping by” and the “undelivered message,” points where the meaning of the memory is lost within the matter of its recounting and recollection. Hejinian suggests here that memory is a type of glossolalia in that the semiotic side of its expression takes over entirely. If this is true then abridgement does indeed become foolish because to summarise nonsense does nothing to nonsense but reduce its duration. Not only is a short burst of nonsense just as nonsensical as a long one, but when one is remembering one is in the pleasure of the process of recollection and one does not want to stop this process. Summary, then, is out of the question because it destroys the very pleasure of moving through the full extent of meaning’s emptied out state.


The other side of this is addressed later on in this short, astonishing document:


Argument demonstrates that truth cannot end. Continuous quantities, are endless like the truth, for it is impossible to carry them. It is impossible to carry light and darkness, proximity, chance, movement, restlessness, and thought. From all of these something spills.[11]


There is a plenitude of meaning in the world, Hejinian argues, something her rich poetry demonstrates time and again. Just as there is an excess of noise, of poetic matter, neglectful of significance and living a life of semiotic purity where meaning is just not needed, so too there is an excess of meaning where the semiotic interventions of our words are unwanted. Here she is practically restating Agamben’s own ideas about the relationship between poetry and philosophy within western metaphysics, with poetry being full semiotically but lacking generalized, categorical meaning, and prose being overfull of such meaning, but unable to speak of the quality of singularity that typifies our own being in language and thus unable to say the one thing upon which the meaning of our being is placed. Returning to Hejinian we can see thus, that in the process of writing about memory one is indulging in a kind of pure signified in that, as she suggests, memory exists only in the writing. If this is so, then the referent for each memory is the act of writing the memory, the work refers to itself and the poem remembers itself, impossibly, in the event of its dictation. The idea of the continuous-ness of things is significant here as however many times one writes bark, one can never write all the barks of all the dogs. Which is why we have language, to take shortcuts, to summarise, in other words to allow us to think and to remember. However much the poem might try to carry certain concepts within its material supports, as Kristeva calls the basic semiotic procedures of poetic language,[12] meaning will always exceed the limits of the poem. In this view, then, memory is always onomatopoeic in that its referent is its expression.

Autobiography of the Voice, Autobiography of Language


Hejinian raises a simple question at the beginning of the poem which is also, through Agamben’s comments, the question of poetry and in addition, because the poem is about the writing of memory and autobiography, a philosophical question of being. That question is one of restlessness posed in the preface in the following manner: is memory an issue of girth or again, circumscription or repetition? This is crucial to the conception of the dictation of poetry because the experience of the event of speech is both singular, it is an irreducible event, and endlessly ongoing, as poetry cannot be summarised without becoming philosophy, to experience poetry again one has to make it happen again in its singularity. We are left then with an almost impossible crisis: should the poem of life be wide but restricted like girth, or should it be made up of single acts of repetition that one tells again an again? This question also intervenes on the death of language in the moment of poetic dictation in autobiography. If one goes for girth then one opts for a single, large, but ultimately summarising event of memory, after which the rest of language used is irrelevant. This is by far the most common option in the art of autobiography. Or should one be responsible to the way memory re-writes one’s past and one’s self, so that each recollection is another event, another dictation. In this manner the self dies every time it remembers, and is also reborn. Hejinian’s My Life dramatises this crisis by being made up of the same number of sections composed of the same number of sentences as the age the poet was when she wrote the piece, 37 in the original version, 45 in the revised text.


Lyn Hejinian is a canny enough thinker to realise that while dictation is an issue of speech and language, such as concerns Agamben, it is also an issue of the formation of the self as it is to a self that poetry dictates, and it is the human voice in contrast to the inhumanity of language-noise that forms the basis of poetry and memory. These issues come most clearly into focus in section 22 of the poem, which is a kind of miniature allegory of memory. The section begins, obliquely, with a reflection on the way the subject considers itself when it remembers:


                in a full and extensive solitude
                I do not understand what I could possibly beat
a sending meets a point please
a name of coincidence meets
                        quantity of auto normal safety of respect
                I at only could bend the uncertainty
                            surviving with a strange individuality
                                a few bark color a trick mailman
                                                well different[13]


Again we are back with barking but in addition a number of crucial points about the self as defined by memory are broached here in a micro-drama between the self’s self-consideration in the moment of solitude, and the slippages of the full and self-sufficient self, what a philosopher would call presence, that must result from the interaction with language. Thus Hejinian finds herself in a Romantic moment of autonomous solitude, along with a more everyday assumption of auto-normality. These are the paradoxes of the memorial being that result in a strange individuality, that the self is singular, full and extensive, it fills up the sign “Hejinian” totally without gaps, ideally without remainder either; but that this singularity is under threat by language, in particular the letter which the trick mailmen sends to her. Certainly sending meets a point, we call that point arrival, and if one sends one’s self through the letter of one’s name in an act of autobiography, one would hope that the name meets with the person to bring about their coincidence. One desires, in other words, an ontological onomatopoeia. But the fractured, paratactic form of the poem and the hidden meanings inherent to the work mean language is always sending trick letters, and the conflict between self-sufficient singularity of being and the material singularity of the tools for the expressions and exploration of that being, seem to suggest autobiographical onomatopoeia is impossible.


The section continues with a more specific reference to the process of memory:


compound is done mind
        I do mind
        in retrospect when I was watching it
    focus tries a world stated simplified white year
        I won’t forget you
        I fell back
            loud sign dices stuck
                rip numbers the middle
a piece with middle of deliberate possibility
               one under star
               off a fork
        list of mine nervous
          more more than nine[14]


In this extract the slippage of memory into and out of various forms of death is fairly apparent if one makes one’s way through it systematically. The compound, as opposed to the individual and organic, is an accurate description of this version of Hejinian’s remembrance of herself and her basic poetic compositional technique. Hejinian, like Pascoli, takes dictation, but the voice she hears, which is her own as other, is made up of bits which only later find their own coherence. The compound nature of the mind both is and is not true. The mind is made up of bits but remains always only in the singular, the mind or in this instance the life of the mind. The pun on mind does nothing more than remind us of the glossolalic potentiality of the sign “mind”, how even in day to day speech sound intervenes on sense to undermine it.


This push and pull between mind as total meaning of the being, onomatopoeia, and as mere sound one uses to summarise, and in the end undermine, being, glossolalia, is the double death of being as Agamben highlights it: death of the voice and the death of language. Sometimes the voice is privileged and Hejinian feels confident enough to talk of retrospection, a focus on the world in the singular, the refusal to forget the you, the singularity of being one under a star (perhaps of even being a star), and finally the means by which the self is defined by a list of characteristics. At other times the language is privileged, thus retrospection seems to perform only when the poet looks (through the lens of language) at the past, focus on the world actually simplifies and bleaches that world suggesting that confidence of voice must eradicate the joy and diversity of the thing itself, and the promise not to forget is followed by a falling back into the realm of the loud sign where noise overwhelms sense. This is heightened by the reference to Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés or throw of the dice, only in this instance the “dices” are stuck in noise, dices being the incorrect plural of an already plural word, and the infinite possibility of meaning meant by Mallarmé in his poem is refused. And so the uncertainty of a true voice through the auspices of language continues: for each singular star there is a fork or detour from self, for each list of self there is a nervousness and so on.


The section ends, I believe, with the victory of language over the voice as Hejinian indulges again in pure sound: “more more than nine”. Is the nine really nine, numbers are mentioned more than once in the poem, or is it a suggestion of mine, the mouth wants to say this after the repetitious m’s, and the mind wants to say this because it makes more “sense” and because mine featured in the line above? Glossolalia stops the sign “mine” from coinciding with the referent mine such as one finds more openly in her My Life so that one could argue again that the two works are twinned, My Life being the autobiography of the voice, and Writing is an Aid to Memory  that of language.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs and Language Poetry


The last sentence of the “Preface” states: “Though we keep company with cats and dogs, all thoughtful people are impatient, with a restlessness made inevitable by language.”[15]  While we like to bark we prefer to write as we would rather make mistakes about who we are, what we did, what we remember, because we like to remember more than we like to have ontological, linguistic plenitude, which takes us on to what Hejinian’s poetry is all about: happiness. However, before we get to happiness and also the reasons for contemporary poetry to still exist in the world, we need to think some more about the inevitable restlessness brought about by language, and for this I want to turn to the poetics of the so-called “Language School” of poets, working in America in the seventies and eighties, with which Hejinian was associated. These poets now tend to deny there was any such thing as a Language school, however, there was a grouping of American poets interested in foregrounding the materiality of language through avant-garde experiments in poetic language. The poets worked resolutely within an avant-garde tradition but unlike, say, the New York School some of whom were doing similar things at the same time, they looked less to Europe and more to the American avant-gardists such as William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Charles Olsen and the objectivists.


Bob Perelman, Language poet and unofficial historian of the group, points out that the titles of the two journals that began the Language ‘movement’ convey all one really needs to know about Language poetry:  


Consider the titles of two magazines, which were initially devoted to language writing: This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E...This is deictic — it points something out; there has to be somebody doing the pointing: a person using a word, using it specifically, confidently, this not that. If anything is, this is here and now... L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, on the other hand, presents a different problem, as anyone who has ever had to type it more than once will understand...[16]


Contained within the differences between these two titles is the essence of the central tenet of Language poetry, which is the materiality of the word. Materiality must be taken to have two meanings, which also represent two, sometimes opposing, strands of Language poetry. The first materiality is the materiality of this, of pointing, of being a subject within a context and of language being an aspect both of this subjectivity and this context. This is the word as a material product of the world in which we live, here and now, and accounts for the leftist political orientation of Language poetry. It also retains for language a continual interaction with the real, representing language as something that, Charles Bernstein argues in his influential, and now familiar, “The Artifice of Absorption”, is both absorptive of the real, and impermeable to it:


By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie...:
belief, conviction, silence.

Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
fragmented...: skepticism
doubt, noise, resistance[17]


Language, Bernstein argues, tricks us out of the real by acts of absorption in the same way that capitalism tricks us out of seeing the real material conditions of our existence. Yet language also is the real, or is a thing within the world of the real, and therefore capable of being consumed and of being resisted. This is its impermeable quality that makes it the ideal site for confronting the ideologies of absorption head on.


The title L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, on the other hand, stresses a very different materiality, that is the literal materials from which Language is constructed: letters, vowels, consonants, marks, spaces, patterns, phrases, punctuation, voicings, rhythms, sounds, repetitions, lines, sentences, paragraphs and so on. This is also a materiality of this-ness, of quiddity, and of the real, but instead of stressing the context of the poetic act, it stresses the act of construction within that context. Bernstein calls this element of the material word the mark, a term it would seem he inherits from Derrida:


The “mark” is the visible sign of writing.
But reading, insofar as it consumes &
absorbs the mark, erases it — the words disappear
(the transparency effect) & are replaced by
that which they depict, their “meaning.”...Antiabsorptive
writing recuperates the mark by making it opaque,
that is, by maintaining its visibility...[18]


Can these ideas potent ideas on contemporary poetics be located within the scope of Agamben’s theorisation of the dictation of poetry, and also lead us away from the poem towards the world of things the poem intervenes upon? Clearly, under the surface of Agamben’s short essay, is a complex engagement with the materiality of language, and like the Language poets, he bifurcates language. Instead of this-ness and marks, we have onomatopoeia and glossolalia, but in effect they are the same terms: language as pure referent versus language as pure matter. However, while Agamben seems to be interested in the ontological uses and implications of the act of writing poetry typical of his continental philosophical roots, one finds this tendency in Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, and Badiou to name just four, he does not extend the dictation of poetry into the field of the political. Bernstein would not be satisfied with this line of enquiry, therefore. If poetry dictates to the subject, this means that the subject is held within the thrall of another’s voice and the politics of this must be considered. To be dictated to means, of course, to be disempowered and so held within a profoundly absorptive rhetoric. Poets become poetry’s captive audience. Yet the voice that speaks is that of impermeability and radical critique, killing not only referentiality through the application of glossolalic noise, but also the myth of the self-authenticating voice through the application of onomatopoeic referentiality. A double deconstruction of myths of subjectivity, communication and meaning occurs in Agamben’s work, and the inclusion of onomatopoeia in his work serves as a warning to all language-orientated poets. Impermeable language has its own dangers, its own ideologies of control and absorption, sometimes called melo-centrism or the addiction to the purity of self-evident noise away from the messiness of the problems of significance.

What Poetry is For


The dictation of poetry, while it asks for the renunciation of agency and threatens the subject with the absorptive powers of human and inhuman languages, if used well is still a political tool. To make marks, repetitive marks, which one organises in patterns, and locates, semiotically, in space, is to write poetry. It is a minority sport, yet it has serious ontological and political implications. This alone is why poetry should matter to us as Agamben explains in another of his essays, “Expropriated Matter”:


Why does poetry matter to us? The ways in which answers to this question are offered testify to its absolute importance. For the field of possible respondents is clearly divided between those who affirm the significance of poetry only on condition of altogether confusing it with life and those for whom the significance of poetry is instead exclusively a function of its isolation from life. Both groups thereby betray their apparent intention: the first, because they sacrifice poetry to the life into which they resolve it; the second, because in the last analysis they are convinced of poetry’s impotence with respect to life.[19]


The two groups Agamben refers to here are, essentially, the two avant-garde groupings of the modern period, those who tried to fuse art with everyday life, like the surrealists, and those who tried to make art permanently separate from life such as the aestheticists. However, what one finds in modern American poetic practice, especially amongst the rich American avant-garde tradition, is a refusal to be hemmed in by one or the other of these positions. For example, one could write of Frank O’Hara’s refusal to accept any distance of more than one step between what he is experiencing and what he is writing, demonstrated in the poem “A Step Away from Them”, and John Ashbery’s insistence that poetry is nothing other than an ongoing element of his day to day consciousness in work such as “Fragment” and Flow Chart. Yet it would be equally as valid to describe O’Hara’s refusal to publish, aiming his poetry, through what he calls Personism, at an act of communication between the poet and only one other person, or to point out Ashbery’s infamous solipsism. Are these poets writers of the everyday or aestheticists? The simple answer is both; one can actually be both.


Returning again to Hejinian we find the questions perhaps even harder to answer. Autobiography, after all, is the art of everyday life but poetic autobiography, such as one finds in Writing is an Aid to Memory, made up of fragments suggestive of a life, but which perhaps only cohere into a recognisable narrative of life in the consciousness of the poet herself, seems to be divorced from a common experience we might call the everyday. Is Hejinian too demotic or too elitist? While Agamben is not talking, above, of Pascoli’s dictation, the terms of onomatopoeia and glossolalia still apply to a definition of the role of the poetry. Too much life and the language of poetry is lost, he is arguing, but too much language and the inhuman voice of the world is silenced. He goes on to detail this for us by differentiating the poet from the everydayists and the aestheticists:


Opposed to these two positions is the experience of the poet, who affirms that if poetry and life remain infinitely divergent on the level of the biography and psychology of the individual, they nevertheless become absolutely indistinct at the point of their reciprocal desubjectivization. And — at that point — they are united not immediately but in a medium. This medium is language. The poet is he who, in the word, produces life. Life, which the poet produces in the poem, withdraws from both the lived experience of the psychosomatic individual and the biological unsayability of the species.[20]


So poetry is about finding life and, we hope, this a life of pleasure, a life of simple happiness. However, happiness is not only notoriously difficult to find, but within a poetics of impermeability that aims to reject absorption, it is also something to mistrust. Happiness, for Bernstein and Hejinian, cannot mean satisfaction; indeed Hejinian defines language as restlessness, or dissatisfaction. Nor can the pleasures of art provide happiness because the quasi-Frankfurt School political seriousness of the Language poets and their reliance on formalist alienation techniques disallows the consumption of art for pleasure. This is absorptive art, the kind that does not give you space to think. Agamben argues that life is a double withdrawal, from language and the voice, and that this is what the poem facilitates within a medium. Thus life is about making marks which radically undermine the categories of object and subject. This does not sound like a process conducive to a state of happiness and it is no wonder Agamben also calls this process death.


I want to try to resolve some of these aporias with a reading of a work by Hejinian that treats the boundaries between life and death in as much as it is an elegy, of sorts. The poem “(Elegy, for K. B.)” is the only section in the long poem The Cell (1992), itself another autobiographical work of sorts in diary form, which actually has a title. In some ways it breaks the rules of Language aesthetics as elegy is the arche-absorptive poem, but Hejinian likes to go into enemy territory as much as possible as we saw with her radical reappraisal of autobiography, which is an indirect attack on the dominance of the Romantic ideology in modern poetics being, as it is, a response to Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Yet, in other ways, “(Elegy, for K. B.)” is a typically anti-absorptive piece can be seen when it is quoted in full:


This augmentation of infinity a
but incomplete
we shouldn’t stay in one
        spot to look at it

Early one morning made perceptible
        three trees, no noise to
        hold the air...the list
        is not complete

I want it, where something
        has affinity to it

There is life and then
        occupation of place
A gulf that drawing goes
The skies are wide tines,
        blue and blue always receding
From solids, midday, no overlapping
The middle
That we too might gradually
        arrive at a life, a
Which speaks for itself and
        has no further explanation[21]


Some aspects of this poem approach elegy proper but I would say the poem is less an elegy than an attempt to meet with, or to experience a perception of, elegy as a form or real thing in a real context. It is written for a specialised audience who all know about elegy and its dangers, but it is also written for a general audience who share the common experience of death, the same audience who might read My Life or Writing is an Aid to Memory because they all share the common experience of life. More importantly, the poem uses the occasion of death to approach the conditions of life and of language. If Writing is an Aid to Memory looks at the paradoxes of subjective being, this piece concerns itself with similar paradoxes that things face.


The opening stanza considers the sublimity of death, especially death’s infinite scale. This Hejinian conveys through the impossible maths of augmenting an infinity which, even when augmented, remains incomplete. She could be talking about death here, but she could also be talking about the girth vs. again problem of memory. However, while the recollection of a life invites restlessness, the consideration of a death seems to lead to paralysis. If one stays in one place to look at something, ordinarily, one ought to see it better, but one will also become absorbed by this one aspect of it and if it has an infinite number of aspects, plus one, then perhaps one does not have time to linger. Of course we would expect the poet to loiter and find profound, consoling things to say about the dead person, perhaps K.B. perhaps not, which is another reason we have to move on if we don’t want to become enslaved by the powerful generic conventions of this ancient form.


The poet then turns her attention away from absent subjects to present objects, simple, uncomplicated objects that can be accessed with good, clean honest signs: the number three, good old trees. Here she does not think of some trees like Ashbery would, but three trees, and that three is wonderfully comforting, after trying to augment the infinite number of death. Yet something is wrong. Even when one can detail everyday life so accurately there is something missing, the list is not complete. Hejinian here is touching on the two senses of the Kantian sublime popularised by Lyotard as the aesthetics of the postmodern. Death has what Kant calls magnitude, it is one thing but we cannot give an adequate case of it because it is simply too large. Life has what Kant calls mathematical sublimity, we can count the units which are smaller enough to keep within the conscious mind, only there are so many of them that eventually, again, we cannot give a case of them.


As I have already mentioned, Hejinian is not a modernist and does not suffer because of the sublime, nor does she celebrate it for its own sake, a mistake Lyotard tends toward in his work. She knows she cannot absorb the real into the poetic word, but this does not mean she cannot know the real. For a start she can know the real, in her poetry, through her inability to absorb the “it” and thus consume it cognitively. In her essay “Strangeness”, written at the same time as The Cell, she further expands on these issues:  “Because there is a relationship between the mind and the body, there are inevitable experiences of instability and therefore of loss and discontinuity. Loss of scale accompanied by experiences of precision”.[22]  The dynamic between a loss of scale and the gaining of an experience of precision, similar to the Kantian mathematical sublime in reverse, is in evidence throughout the poem. Incompletion, or the inability to think death, motivates her to keep moving, to keep experiencing what remains to be experienced. With this in mind she turns to the tangible world left over, the simple pastoral world of trees, small numbers, and silence. However, in a gesture repeated throughout The Cell, the precision of things always draws her eye to the incompleteness of any taxonomy. Her desire for affinity to it, to death or to the real world of mourning depending on how you choose to read it, is both denied by the aporetic nature of death as vast and unknowable, and yet is also confirmed by her experience of life. The difference between life and death is, therefore, one of listing. In the list of life there are too many precise things to list for the subject to ever develop affinity, while the list of death has only one item on it, but it is of such magnitude that again an absorptive association to it on the part of the poet would be ridiculous to claim. There is life then, and occupation of place, and there is death and the impossible occupation of its no-place. The subject, she suggests, exists at the midday point. Being is the middle point between the failed taxonomy of life and death.



In terms of impermeability, the poem’s material credentials are fairly solid. Of the four final values in Bernstein’s long list, “skepticism, doubt, noise, resistance,” the poem’s suspension of positions between the sublimity of death and absence of matter and of life and the massive overabundance of matter is openly stated. Doubt exists both on behalf of the poet and reader I would suspect, as the fragmented, non-sequitorial form is a doubtful vehicle for the important human issues of death and life. In fact, from a psychological point of view, Hejinian’s tendency towards fragmentation and nonsense would be seen as typical of what Kristeva calls depressive speech, although here with much more positive connotations than Kristeva would ever allow. As regards resistance, the poem is resistant to reading and interpretation, and itself resists the absorptive temptations of elegy. We are left, therefore, with noise.


Bernstein’s commitment to noise is his theory of the mark from an aural perspective, and Hejinian’s use of internal rhyme, line breaks, and a lexicon often chosen as much for sound and appearance as referential meaning, is in accord with the materiality of the word as I have described it. Yet the poem’s concluding lines seem, in fact, to advocate a withdrawal into silence which would be rather typical of an absorptive elegiac monument, rather than an impermeable one. In addition, a life that “speaks for itself” sounds very much like a life of onomatopoeia where things speak their language free from the grammatical and semantic dictates of human language. In the essay “A Common Sense” Hejinian goes so far to call this problematic state happiness. She is talking here, as we also saw in Agamben, of the poem that defies interpretation, this time Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation that, she argues, resists a critical reading allowing only for the pleasure of the experience of reading. Happiness, she explains, is life’s self-sufficiency or self-satisfaction away from the dictates of western subjectivity and metaphysics typified by the cataloguing of the unremarkable in Stein’s work. It is the meaningfulness of things in existence, beyond the semantic realm of reference and transparency:


It is impossible to “explain” Stanzas in Meditation. This is not because meaning is absent from or irrelevant to the commonplace but, on the contrary, it is precisely because it is inherent to it — identical with it. When it comes to ordinary things, their meaning is the same as what they are. The meaning of an ordinary spoon is the ordinary spoon. Its meaning cannot be separated from it...In this sense, one might say that things’ thinging is their achievement of the ordinary, their achievement of the commonplace...To say that the meaning of a thing is inseparable from it is not quite enough; the meaning of a thing is inseparable from it in its totality...The commonplace is a totality; a place, physical or mental, we (things that exist) hold in common with each other.[23]


Happiness, for Hejinian, comes from everyday life and from radical separation, which seems to be the very opposite of poetry as Agamben defines it. Agamben looks for the event of the poem, the moment of dictation, when the objective and subjective realms are unified through their mutual death or collapse or what he calls their desubjectivisation. Hejinian seems to seek for a unity of things and people due to a commonality of radical differentiation. A things thinging is the same as a person’s personing, suggesting a community of radical singularity from each other as is described in Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community.[24]  However, this separation, which sounds aestheticist, is only experienced in the duration of one’s experience of the ordinary through the reading of the poem. So, in a sense, Hejinian agrees with Agamben only her conclusions are very different. Poetry cannot be located either purely in the world or the word, but neither does it have to live in the tragic arena of their loss either. Instead, poetry could and should be a source of happiness. Again, like Agamben, she agrees that poetry uses the medium of language to undermine epistemological and ontological presuppositions, but for her this medium has the added dimension of being a thing unto itself as well. The language of poetry speaks simultaneously with the voice of an animal and a barbarian, speaks the language of otherness, but not to kill. Rather, within the medium of the poem, one is engineering an encounter between the radical otherness of things in the world, which do no need us, which speak with a voice not intended for our ears, and the language of human beings, which is all about us, and does not need to stage references to the things around us, when really all we are ever doing is constructing and reconstructing a sense of our selves through the ongoing process of consciousness. These two languages are indeed like cats and dogs, hostile to each other and yet somehow permanently intertwined.

Conclusion: The Dictates of Happiness


There is no basis by which I could say in conclusion that Hejinian is more correct than Agamben in her comments on poetry for they come at the matter from the two extremes of their central debate, Hejinian as a singular writer, Agamben as a thinker of generalities. In this way neither can be right without the other, a point they would both concur over I believe. Nor am I attempting to give, through Agamben, the kind of philosophical legitimacy of the Language project, the poetics of Hejinian and, to a lesser degree, Bernstein, that continental philosophers have provided for poets such as Holderlin, Mallarmé, Trakl and Celan. Rather, in a small way I have attempted to bring together perhaps the most vital voices in the world of and on the theme of poetry today to answer the question: why is poetry still important?


In answer to this one can assert through reading Hejinian and Agamben together, admittedly here only through brief extracts of their large bodies of work, that there is no other medium that addresses language’s duality better than poetic language. Through the strange language of poetry which is also, Hejinian argues, the language of the everyday, we find that language is not the application of materiality to referentiality, but in fact the coming together of two radically unknowable zones. Onomatopoeia and glossolalia, such as Agamben finds in Pascoli and I revealed in Hejinian, come together in the impermeable marks of language, which reveal that it is the collapse of certainties that poetry enacts: certainty of sounds and certainty of things. A collapse of certainty back into the singular realm of alterity.


Agamben calls this moment of collapse poetic dictation while Hejinian calls it happiness, but both are speaking of the sudden emergence of a noise in the ear or the mark on the page, how this thing has a material presence and the capability to mean but how, before that, something else happens, another event, and another. This poetry of restlessness pays homage to otherness, to encounters, and to everyday community and as such, lays the groundwork for a postmodern poetry of ethics that that is directed precisely at the task of making us happy. As to whether this poetry will ever make us as happy as cats and dogs is another matter entirely.


[1] The poem is a procedural work on the theme of how memory, central to the construction of identity, is a written text constantly revised with each new recollection and with each new experience. It is made up of 42 sections laid out in jagged stanzas of uneven length. In the same year Hejinian also published her more famous consideration of memory, identity and writing, My Life, and in some ways the two works have to be read in tandem. However, as I, along with many others, have written in detail about My Life elsewhere, and as Writing is an Aid to Memory remains something of an undiscovered classic, I will restrict my comments to this work for the purposes of this article.

[2] Lyn Hejinian, Writing is an Aid to Memory (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1996) section 20.

[3] Ibid., section 26.

[4] Ibid. section 42.

[5] Ibid. section 40.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem, Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999) 63.

[7] Ibid. 70.

[8] Agamben’s late modernist stance is more particularly apparent in his critical consideration of modernist poetics in The Man without Content whose scepticism towards literary experimentation at the end of the 19th century makes it clear it would be almost impossible for him to seriously consider work such as Hejinian’s. Indeed one might even call him late-Romantic at times. In these contentious essays he suggests that the negation of artistic content through experimentation has become the content of art: “the supreme truth of the work of art is now the pure creative-formal principle that fulfils its potentiality in it, independently of any content. This means that what is essential for the spectator in the work of art is precisely what is alien to him and deprived of essence, while what he sees of himself in the work...appears to him no longer as truth that finds its necessary expression in the work, but rather as something of which he is already perfectly aware as a thinking subject, and which therefore he can legitimately believe himself capable of expression.” (Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999) 47. Like a number of European philosophers involved in the field of poetics, most notably Alain Badiou, Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida, Agamben’s ideas about poetry are heavily influenced by a European view of poetry’s role in metaphysical enquiry that one finds in Nietzsche and, more particularly, Heidegger. In the work of many of these thinkers, most particularly Badiou, poetry does the work of philosophy at moments when philosophy is historically not up to doing this work itself. As this period of philosophical impotency is generally equated with Romanticism and Modernism, contemporary poetics is pretty much ignored. This is to be regretted. As things currently stand we have no major continental philosopher engaging in debates with postmodern poetry, however this does leave the field of enquiry wide open for the poets themselves.

[9] See Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge Mass.: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968)

[10]Hejinian, Writing is An Aid to Memory Preface.

[11] Hejinian Preface.

[12] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Lean Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) 28.

[13] Hejinian, Writing is An Aid to Memory Section 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. Preface.

[16] Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 19—20.

[17] Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992) 29.

[18] Ibid. 64.

[19] Agamben, End of the Poem 93.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Lyn Hejinian, The Cell (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992) August 10 1987.

[22] Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) 138.

[23] Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry 364—5.

[24] See especially the essay “The Inoperative Community,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) 1—42.

William Watkin

William Watkin

William Watkin teaches twentieth-century literature and literary theory at Brunel University in West London, UK. He is also co-coordinator of the [»] Archive of the Now, a new archive for contemporary, innovative writing. His first book, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant Garde, (Bucknell 2001) is the first theoretical overview of the four main poets of the New York School: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh 2004) presents a thorough theoretical analysis of contemporary issues of mourning, loss, melancholia and depression. He is currently working on a third book, a theoretical reconsideration of British and American Postmodern Poetry.

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