Language Writing

Jerome McGann

  • In the American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism by Ron Silliman
    National Poetry Foundation, 628 pp, $34.50, June 1986, ISBN 0 915032 33 3
  • ‘Language’ Poetries: An Anthology by Douglas Messerli
    New Directions, 184 pp, $19.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 8112 1006 5

In 1918, the intensity of Yeats’s fascination with the young American phenomenon Ezra Pound had cooled enough for Jack Butler Yeats to supply his son with some smouldering paternal wisdom:

The poets loved of Ezra Pound are tired of Beauty, since they have met it so often ... I am tired of Beauty my wife, says the poet, but here is that enchanting mistress Ugliness. With her I will live and what a riot we shall have. Not a day shall pass without a fresh horror. Prometheus leaves his rock to cohabit with the Furies.

Jack Yeats’s judgments are better-worded than most attacks on the innovative experiments of early Modernist poetry, but they make the same charges that would be repeated, with diminishing persuasiveness, for the next twenty years.

In the American Tree and ‘Language’ Poetries are the first book-length anthologies of the work of a poetic movement which has been developing (primarily) in the United States for almost twenty years. The movement is commonly called ‘Language Poetry’, and its situation – its innovative goals and practices, its productive methods, distribution systems and theoretical self-representations – all these things distinctly recall the situation of the early Modernist poetries which Jack Butler Yeats denounced. Indeed, what he had to say of those poets loved of Ezra Pound has been said, and continues to be said, of the poets and poetries loved of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman – two of the most important and influential of these new American writers.

The anthologies edited by Silliman and Douglas Messerli contain a great deal of unpleasant and difficult poetry – for example, this passage from David Melnick’s Pcoet which Silliman prints:

seta
colecc
puilse, i
canoe
it spear heieo
as Rea, cinct pp
pools we sly drosp
Geianto
    (o sordea, o weedsea!)

The Canadian writer Steve McCaffrey once wrote of Pcoet that its text ‘seems less like writing than incisions into the very surface of signification’. Pcoet is not a deliverer of meaning but a carefully-constructed linguistic field where meaning is rendered possible. Much of it comprises pre-lexemic material, and the work is structured in a network of linguistic tensions between that material and familiar, or possibly familiar, forms. We may take ‘seta’, for example, as pre-lexemic English or as common Italian, and the rest of the text sets up similar problems that call for the reader’s decision. The text might be read as a kind of ruin in which we glimpse pieces of an ancient world, hints of its most loved places and its gods and goddesses, as well as the linguistic/poetical forms which once brought them into view.

Language Writing ranges from various types of pre-lexical texts – for example, unreadable arrangements of letters, radically underdetermined – to difficult constructions of high-order language units. Here are two examples of the latter. The first comes from Bruce Andrews’s Confidence Trick and appears in Silliman’s anthology:

  style wars – One pair of tickets, I have got to have the freezer, I d like to sleep to get over you, I am out of two minds – Nor is pacifism a substitute for socialism – Can t follow anthem, puffed up Jack – Garish sentimental sensationalism – rigid conventionality, are these the contrasting vices distort female sexuality? – Rather than disband when polio is at last conquered, the March of Dimes bureaucracy looks for other diseases to fight – Lap acquires a certain difficulty; glitter don t leak; not playing with a full deck, happiness and contempt, doesn t have his oars all the way in the water – Yeah, spandex – parachute, living in your toybox – Somebodies, 85% gender parity is how I get my S.S.I. – I want you to build up my muscle, mono yoyo, positive life – Chief Product spoke having vinyl out vinyl debit, it s economics you know – Can I sleep in the arms of society tonight?

The second, which appears in Messerli’s anthology, is from ‘Mode Z’ by Barrett Watten:

Could we have those trees cleared out of the way?
And the houses, volcanoes, empires? The natural
panorama is false, the shadows it casts are so many
useless platitudes. Everything is suspect. Even
clouds of the same sky are the same. Close the door
is voluntary death. There is one color, not any.

Prove to me now that you have finally undermined
your heroes. In fits of distraction the walls cover
themselves with portraits. Types are not men. Admit
that your studies are over. Limit yourself to your
memoirs. Identity is only natural. Now become
the person in your life. Start writing autobiography.

These two texts are far less innocent, linguistically, than the Melnick passage I quote above. Consequently, the social issues at stake in such writing come more clearly to the fore. Like the Modernist styles denounced by Yeats’s father, this kind of (distinctively) Post-Modern writing addresses itself to – pre-supposes – a dissociated culture. Conventions of order are perceived (to be) in disorder. But the imagination of disorder is far more extreme in Andrews’s and Watten’s writing than it is, for example, in either Eliot’s or Pound’s (even circa 1918). For example, the commands in Watten’s text are a stylistic sign of ‘identity’, a figura of ‘the person in your life’: nonetheless, the writing which is here identified with that ‘person’ has been absorbed into the indictments being executed in the poem. The injunctions issued through the text thus end up acquiring a kind of mad coherence, as if they had not fully comprehended the meaning of what they were expressing. Judgments are made, but they have become truthful (or images of truthfulness) only to the extent that they are taken to be illustrative data, additional facts to be weighed: apparitions of meanings and truths.

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