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.

Andrews’s text moves more aggressively against the figures of incoherence it raises up. The mode here is fundamentally satirical, with various word plays (e.g. ‘style wars’, ‘glitter don t leak’) carrying much of the burden of exposure. But unlike traditional satire, this text rocks in the arms of the society it is attacking. One of the principal features of its deadpan style is its ability to show that language is always open to every sort of manipulation. The final question, for instance, does not direct us to a definite response, or even to a particular understanding about what the question means. The text situates the question in openness in order to show that it might mean, or be taken to mean, many things. The question highlights how the reader is being pulled into Andrews’s text, how the reader’s responses are taken for granted in the text, are assumed to be there and are being called out. Thus, if we see in the Watten poem how Language Writing tries to implicate the ‘author’ in the poem’s set of revelations, Andrews’s text shows very clearly how the reader is being implicated as well.

In point of style, then, texts like these are clearly ‘Post-Modern’, so that even readers with interests in experimental writing often have difficulty with them. They operate with conventions that are not Modernist conventions. Nonetheless, the social and institutional situation of this new poetry invites comparison with early Modernist avant-garde work.

The symmetry is not perfect, of course, most especially because the Language Movement has largely developed in an American rather than a more broadly ‘Western’ context. But one may note significant parallels. Language Writing emerged as a self-conscious movement in deliberate reaction to the social circumstances which characterised the period of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Furthermore, its emergence took place ‘in the margin’: that is to say, outside the customary academic and intellectual writing centres in the United States. The Language Movement deliberately eschewed those centres and developed its own audiences, avenues of communication, and organs of publication and reception. Finally, the movement executed its imaginative writing practices alongside an extensive corpus of theoretical prose. The latter turned an expository eye on the actual practice of various Language Poetries, and a critical eye on the social and cultural circumstances within which those practices were being developed.

Vilified as ‘unpleasant’, ‘difficult’, ‘élitist’, ‘intellectual’, Language Writing has nonetheless grown from strength to strength since the early Seventies. These two books, in fact, signal an important moment in the development of Language Writing – a moment of emergence before a more general readership. That moment has already touched off a small but important crisis within the movement itself, which is currently debating the future of the cultural and poetic projects which they have been pursuing. The crisis is a classic one for every avant-garde program: how to proceed once the culture at large begins to take some sympathetic interest in the work of the movement.

In Western society, and paradigmatically now in the United States, the crisis reflects the tension between the state, with its commitments to social regulation, and the individual, with his or her imperative to individual fulfilment. This tension appears as a contradiction between the state’s representation of its cherished ideals (freedom, justice and so forth) and actual social conditions. Whether it has a conscious social program or not, an avant-garde is always committed to exposing the illusion that a correspondence exists between state ideology and social reality.

The modern Western state, however, has developed elaborate methods of system regulation by which critique and experiment can be appropriated and orderliness maintained. Recent Post-Modern art exemplifies this pattern very well – for example, in the relative success achieve by films like Liquid Sky or True Stories. The latter is a particularly good example of a work which has submitted (rather than committed) its satire to the emptiness of post-World War Two American society. The film’s culminant song (by the Talking Heads) has the wonderfully ironic refrain: ‘I don’t want freedom, I don’t want justice, I just want someone to love.’ But as director David Byrne laughs at the mindless innocent (and innocence) that sings these words, his filmic narrator continues to drive blandly around Virgil, Texas, accepting what he sees with a correspondent innocence framed in a correspondent irony. The film is a set of Chinese boxes where irony becomes the final filmic defence against either horror or outrage.

The image of America projected in True Stories appears repeatedly in the verse collected in the Silliman and Messerli anthologies. Because poetry is a much less socially dispersed medium, however, neither of these books capitulates so grossly to America’s self-devotion as does David Byrne’s film. In fact, the latter is not an avant-garde work at all, but a new stylistic venture within a medium and an institution which are never called into question by Byrne.

The fundamental marginality of poetry in our culture is understood and accepted by both of these collections of verse. The source of their strength as cultural commentary depends upon their grasp of that marginality and its social significance. In avant-garde work, such an understanding commonly appears as the crisis I noted above, as the problem of how to negotiate terms of communication with the culture at large – or perhaps with other cultures altogether. In Byrne’s film the crisis never develops at all, whereas in these two books it is thrown into sharp relief.

Each is edited by a person well-known and respected within the movement. A poet himself, Messerli is the founder and publisher of Sun and Moon Press. The latter has been one of the chief conduits for the work of the Language Writers for the past six years, and more recently Sun and Moon has begun to achieve real prominence in literary circles generally. Messerli has deliberately sought these larger cultural contacts, as his decision to do an anthology with New Directions shows. New Directions has a distinguished list of Modernist and early 20th-century avant-garde writing. Its earlier successes were so great, however, that it has itself ceased to be regarded as an organ of contemporary experimental work. Today New Directions is a significant, if small establishment publisher with distinct centre-right political associations.

Silliman is one of the most highly respected writers in the circles of the Language Movement. Along with Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian, he has been a central figure in the Language Movement’s San Francisco front for almost twenty years. He is the author as well of some of its most distinguished books of poetry, including Ketjak, Tjanting, the recently published Age of Huts, and the as yet uncompleted, and massive, project known as The Alphabet. Silliman is the author of a large body of trenchant prose work as well, including some of the movement’s most important theoretical essays, and he has recently assumed editorship of the Socialist Review.

None of Silliman’s work appears in Messerli’s anthology. He is absent at his own insistence, not by Messerli’s choice. His absence is an eloquent and entirely characteristic gesture of resistance. It is based upon his understanding of the social function of Language Writing in late 20th-century America. The Language Movement in general represents a vigorous Left critique of American culture and society, and Silliman has been one of the movement’s most powerful and consistent voices in developing that critique. As the work of the movement is now beginning to gain a certain cultural prominence, Silliman continues to argue a position of avant-garde resistance.

In this context these two anthologies are quite instructive. Messerli’s is very much an attempt to win new readers for Language Writing. It is a relatively small book whose selections have been carefully chosen to accommodate first-time readers. None of the theoretical prose discussions of poetics, writing and society are included, and the verse is generally on its best behaviour. ‘Language’ Poetries tries to be an accessible book. In the American Tree is different. A large work, it attempts to give a comprehensive picture of the entire socio-history of the movement as it developed through the Seventies and Eighties. Aside from a good brief historical introduction, no special efforts, in the selection of the material, have been made to accommodate new readers, or to make the poetry appear less ‘unpleasant’ and ‘difficult’. The anthology includes a generous selection of important theoretical and polemical prose, and it groups the writers by their western or eastern orbit. Silliman does this because the movement has throughout had two chief centres of activity – one associated with New York City, the other with San Francisco and the Bay Area.

In all these respects, In the American Tree is an interpretation of the meaning of Language Writing as a set of social and cultural practices with a distinct historical shape. The anthology is itself a piece of Language Writing, an extension of that movement insofar as it has been calling for a radical renovation of society at those fundamental levels of the consciousness industries: communication, writing, textual production. Where Messerli’s anthology tries to open a conversation with established culture, Silliman’s continues to insist that it is the established culture which will have to change. He will not be moved.

What then is Language Writing? At the most theoretical level, it is writing which has taken language to be a system of social facts and social events rather than a system of symbols or signs. This quality of the work has sometimes been mistaken because, in theorising their work, Language writers have often attacked the referential theory of meaning and insisted upon the primacy of the signifier, of the text as material surface. But in reading this work one must understand that the re-imagination of the primacy of the poetic surface is a move against idealist conceptions of language and social action. The signifier is made primary in order to restore one’s sense that language does not point toward meaning but carries it out. Language is a social agency, materially constituted, whose smallest point of reference is the grapheme, and whose largest is that vast network of production in which communicative exchanges are licensed. Insofar as it is also a system of signs, then, the system is first theorised as a framework within which certain kinds of social activities of communication are made possible.

The practice of language called poetry has been a special concern of the Language Movement precisely because poetry has been taken, for the last two hundred years in particular, to be the essential form of meaningful discourse. In this view, poetry is to be ‘interpreted’, its meanings are to be pursued and explicated. Language Writing, however, whether carried out as ‘expository prose’ or ‘imaginative poetry’, moves along a different salient altogether. The writing foregrounds what has been called ‘the word as such’: that is, words and grammars as a set of activities by which society constructs, preserves and reflects upon itself. One of the most distinctive features of Language poetry, for example, is its covetousness of arbitrary forms and procedures. These are sought after in order to highlight the fact that poetry is an agented event rather than an integral or ideal form of words.

This crucial theme appears repeatedly in Language Writing – it’s there, for example, in Watten’s important essay ‘Method and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’, printed by Silliman as the last selection in his book. Watten’s essay concludes with a discussion of the poem by Kit Robinson, ‘In the American Tree’, which gave Silliman the title for his anthology. Drawing a useful comparison between Robinson’s poem and a Surrealist text by Breton, Watten distinguishes the different ways in which ‘transformation’, ‘image’, and textual ‘progression’ operate in the two works. Where ‘absorption’ is ‘the intended effect’ of the Breton text, ‘Distance’ is what Robinson’s poem achieves through its technique of ‘definite arbitrariness’: ‘The transformation in Robinson’s poem is not the coming into being of the image but ... the perception of mind in control of its language.’

In this respect, the ‘reading’ of ‘writing’ is not fulfilled through hermeneusis or an interpretation of meaning, it is fulfilled as a set of co-ordinate practices, socially-located; and ‘criticism’ is a set of practical reflections upon the methods and goals of those practices. These take two typical forms: either as practico-technical discussions of specific texts and writing procedures, or as highly polemical essays on the relation of writing to society.

It is typical of these writers that they explore such issues in a wide range of writing forms. Silliman and Bernstein are unusual only because, in addition to being important poets and active in the institutional promotion of Language Writing, they are also two of the most important theorists of this work. But almost all the Language Writers work easily and extensively in both poetry and prose. The work of writers like Watten and Andrews is exemplary of the range which they typically strive for. A collection of Andrews’s prose will appear shortly (Sun and Moon Press) and it includes an impressive series of essays: in literary criticism, cultural analysis and critique, poetics and philosophy.

The example of Andrews’s prose in Silliman’s anthology is shrewdly chosen: a piece called ‘Misrepresentation’, which ‘reads’ John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath – the latter being itself a signal piece of proto-Language writing. The essay is important because it illustrates the close relation which most of these writers maintain between social/cultural critique and literary analysis. But it is even more important for the kind of ‘reading’ which it sets in motion.

Subtitled ‘A text for The Tennis Court Oath of John Ashbery’, it begins thus:

1. ‘Uh huh.’ ‘Huh.’ ‘Heh? Eh?’ What had you been thinking about? Since, from the very start, this outward-looking topic or conjuncture of words is convulsed, ‘the face studiously bloodied’ by all that combs the text. ‘Hush!’

Andrews appropriates quotations from various parts of Ashbery’s book to assemble an alternative text of sympathy and engagement. The principal focus is on the first two lines of the opening (and title) poem of Ashbery’s famous work. But Andrews’s ‘text’ is not ‘interpreting’ Ashbery, it is deploying a set of responses: questions, observations, criticisms which, according to Andrews, mirror the agented (non-hermeneutic) character of Ashbery’s original text. In the end, Andrews’s own ‘text’ begins to collapse the borders we ordinarily maintain between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’: for it is difficult to decide whether Andrews’s text is a piece of critical prose or a poem in its own right.

That very distinction is constantly being placed under pressure by Language Writing. The prose of Alan Davies, for example, is characteristically written with such immense economy that the texts begin to call attention to themselves, begin to turn in upon their own structural processes in the way, for example, that Wittgenstein’s prose sometimes does. I am not alone in thinking that large tracts of the Tractatus might be easily and, what is perhaps even more important, profitably read as poetry.

Language Writing makes a problem of the distinction between prose and poetry as part of its attack upon the Kantian theory of discourse – a theory which has dominated cultural thought since its initial formulation in the third Critique. There Kant set aside certain areas of ‘non-performative’ discourse under the sign of ‘imagination’. Language Writing, on the contrary, returns to what we might see as a Horatian view. From this perspective, poetry is not to be distinguished from prose because – as the Horatian apostate Auden put it in his famous poem of apostasy – it ‘makes nothing happen’. Insofar as it can be distinguished from prose, poetry stands apart in the clarity with which it carries out its deeds of language. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ is an eminent example of such a deed, a poem which is itself performing – carrying out, declaring, instituting – the messages it has to deliver.

Language Writing contests those messages on a broad front. One of the most significant aspects of this work, in fact, has been the care with which it has built up an extensive (marginal) network of publishing and distribution. The decision was made that there was little future for poetry in the cultural centre, and alternative structures were fashioned. That decision, I think, was prescient in more ways that even the Language Writers could have realised.

Recently, the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review announced that he would publish no reviews of poetry – because people no longer read poetry. His decision has been variously lamented and applauded, but will have little effect upon Language Writing, which thrives in the valleys of its saying. It nonetheless explains why Language Writing has made poetry the centre of its counter-cultural concerns. In late 20th-century America, poetry has dropped out of the culture, a discourse form which those in power (political, cultural) can no longer see any use for. That incapacity, in the cultural centre, to speak the language of poetry is, however, the locus of the freedom which Language Writing has managed to preserve – as a fact and as an ideal – in the badlands of contemporary America.