MLN 118.5 (2003) 1193-1212


Prolegomena to any Present and Future Language Poetry

Henry Sussman
University at Buffalo

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound . . .
Yeats, "A Prayer for my Daughter"
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups consupiscent curds.
Stevens, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"
It Must Be Abstract . . .
It Must Change . . .
It Must Give Pleasure . . .

Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"

1. Language is the Stuff of the World

Of course nothing could be more paradoxical than a poetry of language, or language poetry. Poetry is, after all, made of the stuff. Starting off from its name, language poetry is a redundancy, the sort of thing we take off for on our students' compositions. And nothing could be riskier than discussing a radical and variegated poetic movement in terms of the contributions furnished by a single one of its practitioners, Charles Bernstein. Anything that his poetry and theorizing can say about other splendid poets, including Susan Howe, [End Page 1193] Ron Silliman, and Bruce Andrews may be limited, but not in an insignificant or uninteresting way.

Language poetry, both the term and the enterprise, may acquire additional nuances when placed in context of some of the most significant literary and theoretical developments of the past four decades. Like few other moments in the history of culture—although there are important parallels—the twentieth century, above all its linguistics, literature, graphic art, and music arises in a vertiginous apprehension of the linguistic constitution of what we think of as "Being" or "reality." Over and over again, the linguistics of Saussure, the fiction of Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, and the painting of Picasso and Klee remind us that the world, such as we perceive, "experience," or conceptualize it, is comprised of language, signs, and a rhetoric of tropes by which signs are interconnected, rather than by any entity, essence, structure, or discipline that "precedes" language in sequence or essentiality. The Freud of Studies on Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious essentially knows this, as do, in different ways, Robert Musil, Virginia Woolf, Gustav Mahler, and Charles Ives. The forerunners (or perhaps better "furreigners") of language poetry are as much in prose as in poetry, are as conceptual as they are "aesthetic."

A significant portion of the important conceptual work done in the twentieth century, whether it coincides with or succeeds these esthetic examples, revises the prevailing wisdom of the scientific and social scientific disciplines in accordance with this basic apprehension of the linguistic nature and dynamics of reality and its human understanding. Heidegger, for example, demonstrates that if there must be anything so fundamental and general as Being, it can only perform the complexity and density of well-written poetic language. Foucault would treat history not as the grand succession of events and concepts but rather as the fluctuating epistemological horizon in which certain types of statement become possible.

Language predicates and structures the world, such as we are in a position to apprehend, comprehend, or know it. Stein and Joyce are as intensely aware of this as are Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida. This apprehension is crucial. It is the stuff good poems are made of, yet it places the practice of poetry in a slightly uncomfortable position. For if poems are "made" of this apprehension, if they are objects in which the language-nature of Being and reality have already been installed, pre-programmed in an implicit or immanent way, how then are [End Page 1194] poems to register this distinctive twntieth-century "agenbite of inwit" without in some sense relinquishing their poetic nature, without becoming something other than poems, as traditionally understood. This is a predicament in which any poetry of language, any poetry responding to this sort of linguistic apprehension, would place itself. If the linguistic constitution and motive of poetry shuttle from immanence and silence to explicitness, can poetry still be poetry? Or will a mode of poetic discourse have emerged that is somehow poetry and not poetry at the same time, sharing the same bizarre fusion of organic and inorganic, dead and living elements of Kafka's Odradek? 1 Such an uncomfortable but at the same time funny and mold-shattering poetry might well be something new under the sun.

But this wider theoretical meditation is perhaps best reserved for later. When language poetry becomes aware of itself, in the early 1970's, it celebrates with exuberance the language-constitution of the world. Poetry is no longer a rarified form of language, itself the abused handservant of some overarching and prior truth or spirit. The world, such as it exists, is already language, and poetry is the index, the very culmination of this linguistic dynamics. The world is already a poem, oftentimes a brutal and sad one, if we are only prepared to read and see the lineaments of its composition. This is not the spiritually allegorical world-poem that Foucault assigns to the Renaissance. 2 The world is a text already there, under the service of poets, not priests. The world is composed less of discrete works or acts than of poetic substance of the sort initially synthesized by Mallarmé, and introduced into the American vein by Stein, Pound, Williams, and the objectivists. The poetic stuff of modernity and its implicit successor, whatever it may be called, resides in the heart of the economies of manufacture and waste. Wallace Stevens' dump is a privileged site of its composition. By the time such poets as Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, and Bernstein discover that they have certain complex poetry games in common, the linguistic material they work has long derived from the repository of exhausted cultural remains, whose form is the traditional rhetoric of poetry supplemented by the explosiveness of modern poetic space. The raw material of poetry is signs with considerable circulation to their credit. If there is a certain shopworn quality to material deriving from the repository of exhausted cultural remains, we regard this material with a certain distance as well, we "leverage" it with the humor that becomes a distinctive mark of this type of poetry. [End Page 1195]

The poetry of language is hence free to celebrate the poetic composition of a world knowable only as language. It is in this context that Charles Bernstein writes, in an essay entitled "Thought's Measure."

Language is the material of both thinking and writing. . . . Just as language is something that is not separable from the world, but rather is the means by which the world is constituted, so thinking cannot be said to 'accompany' the experiencing of the world in that it informs that experiencing. It is through language that we experience the world, indeed through language that meaning comes into the world and into being. As persons we are born into language and world; they exist before us and after us. Our learning language is learning the terms by which a world gets seen. In talking about language and thinking, I want to establish the material, the stuff of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form. And I want to propose 'thinking' as a concept that can help to materially ground that discussion. 3

At the same time that Bernstein's addressing language as the substance of writing and the world is clear, we do not wish, through any theoretical fervor, to exclude the cognitive and sociological dimensions of his critical scenario. Indeed, it is only through misreading that critical theory, with its own grounding in the apprehension that language structures the world, appears indifferent to these dimensions. Bernstein's interest in the relation between language and thought opens poetic thinking to the enterprise of logical analysis, which, I would argue, resides at the spare or anorexic extreme of the distinctive literary styles devised by twentieth-century discourse. Less important than the formal characteristics of any of these styles is the fact that twentieth-century literary and conceptual discourse has been uncomfortable with residing in the middle ground of moderate prose; it has, rather, gravitated, where possible, to the extremes illustrated, on the one hand, by the precision, spareness, and depression of certain of Kafka's sketches and the prose designed for Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and at the opposite end by the florid, endlessly self-qualifying, and fussy stylistic medium common, in different ways, to Proust's Recherche, Finnegans Wake, and the philosophical discourses, respectively, of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. 4 The play between the anorexic and florid extremes of language is marvelous material for fiction as well as poetry, and language poetry, in its appeal to Wittgenstein, no more excludes the poetics of expansion explored by Heidegger and Derrida than should contemporary literary criticism. The sociological dimension to the [End Page 1196] linguistic apprehension evident in Bernstein's "Thought's Measure" is also hardly inimical to the concerns of contemporary theory. Language not only composes reality, such as we know it; it is the encompassing medium of communication between human beings. This poetry, in referring back to the material of which it is made and the manner of the world's composition, only augments the theoretical resources of its readership.

The poetry of language issues its birth announcement of itself in the exuberance of its apprehension of the linguistic composition of reality, thought, and culture. It is in this sense that the 1980 LEGEND collaboration by Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray di Palma, and Ron Silliman 5 incorporates line drawings and cartoons, concrete and geometrical arrangements of syllables and words as well as recognizable compositions of free verse. As part of a multiform manifesto of the priority of language in poetry and culture, LEGEND includes compositions of hash-marks. Language, the collection illustrates, can be entirely devoid of substance, whether regarded as content or extension, and still compose itself in interesting ways. A sequence of cartoons develops in a way not entirely alien to a sequence of stanzas or narrative episodes. Every form of writing, demonstrates LEGEND, graphics as well as words, the poetry of logical propositions and the poetry of free verse, constitutes the Derridean trace, the rupture in Being and knowing that is the site from which writing declares and performs its primordiality, its inevitability.

Within the context of the linguistic composition of the world, the varieties of poetic utterance and discursive form are merely different fruits of the season, to be enjoyed in their time and their difference. Collations of Wittgensteinian propositions are no more authentic than columns and diagonal slashes of inarticulate syllables. Both experiments, and language poetry is a highly experimental mode of writing, have their place. Through all the fashions of literature and intellectual history, poetry has functioned as the preserve of language's exploration of its own parameters and qualities. The poetry of language thus celebrates the variety of modes and forms in which the fundamental linguistic apprehension of the world takes place.

2. Let it Be Concrete

Arising in an intellectual milieu at least to some extent disabused of its logocentric and onto-theological delusions, language poetry includes among its demonstrations the concrete handling of words, [End Page 1197] responding to their empirical qualities as things more than to their ideational significations. The treatment of words as things, the transformation of words into things corresponds to the diversion that takes place when we focus on the soprano's zipper, and are deaf to her song. In the case of LEGEND, among other examples, we hone into such data as the shape and sound of words, syllables, or letter-clusters either in place of, at the expense of, or in supplemental relation to the "idea" that they might "convey."

This field of poetry insists that the materiality of language be accommodated within its register. Language comprises the building blocks of any communicative or cultural production. It in turn incorporates its own materiality. To speak to the materiality of language at once addresses its non-ideational, non-metaphysical dimensions, and emphasizes its place within an economy of production and reception, within economy per se. The concrete handling of words and word fragments thus resides at the extreme of language's generative capabilities. It also participates, however, in a slowdown or defamiliarization of referential and logical functions that otherwise become too easy.

The syllabic experiments that abound in the LEGEND collaboration thus correspond to an exploration of the dual referential surplus and shortfall produced when words are treated in accordance with their thingly facet. The collectively authored "Fantasy on a Hymn Tune" (and collective authorship in poetry already constitutes an important questioning of the sublimity of poetic genius or inspiration) begins with a syllabic matrix or graph, whose initial x-axis reads "apl/epl/ipl/oopl/upl/opl," and whose y-axis reads down, "apl/abl/afl/asl/adl/azl." The matrix goes on to explore, between its axes, the other syllabic variants on these fragments. This constellation amounts to a systematic treatment, a systamatization, of unfulfilled semes, which, although capable of sustaining some meaning, stop short of lexic definition. The poem thus begins in the shadowy world between total nonsense, or a semantic void, and conventional meaning. The following section of the poem, also a matrix, alternates lines consisting of these unmeaning syllables with lines composed of slighly fuller "extensions": "apl/epl/ipel/oopl/upl/opl" becomes "apple eppul ipel oopul opal." We find two recognizable words in the latter line, "apple," and the semiprecious "opal." The poem begins to inhabit that marginal space in which the narrator of Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" isolates on a map of an imaginary world two or three recognizable places from our own. In gravitating toward concreteness, [End Page 1198] language poetry has thematized and dramatized the limits of meaning, at lexic, semantic, and syntactic levels.

In the concreteness of its demonstration, LEGEND gravitates toward the Wittgensteinian extreme of its utterance. In terms of the experiment pursued by the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the text of this volume would reproduce a logically-constituted world, the world as it would appear were it hypothetically composed according to the propositions of logic. The elements of this world would be logical propositions, and they would be related by mathematics and logical operations. Such an experiment is of course doomed to failure, but it makes for striking poetry as well as interesting reading. In addition to asking us to "say no more than we can know," something harder for academics than for practicing poets, such an enterprise treats propositions (in poetry we would say lines) as the tangible components of a world. Wittgenstein's philosophical project is willing to treat the elements of discourse, whether regarded as logical propositions or lines, as building blocks, construction elements, and regards the relations between these elements as the possibilities of a logical or discursive world.

In at least one of its demonstrations, then, this poetry pushes sentences toward the concreteness and rigor of propositions, and then explores the possibilities opened up by their juxtaposition and interrelation. This experiment works both to the effect of parodying logical rhetoric and procedure and of installing a certain rigor within a situation that might not readily appear to be the case. Wittgenstein is a marvelous context for these particular experiments because he both explored the claims and possibilities of language in general and because he distilled such a distinctive minimalist style in constructing a picture of the world as a constellation of logical propositions. The appeal of this poetic state of affairs to Wittgenstein and critical theorists is not anomalous. The vexed schism between "logical analysis" and "Continental Philosophy" is one of the decisive optical illusions of the academic world: both explored the lineaments of language, one in its hyperbolic, the other in its stripped down articulation. It is in this context that we can appreciate the poetic propositions in such LEGEND texts as Bernstein's "My Life as a Monad," Ron Silliman's "It is a five-pointed star . . ." and Ray DiPalma's "Perfect impressions give you lessons. . . ." From the first of these we read, "39. Let's buy a box of bandaids," and "89. On Monday I sail for Tunis." [End Page 1199]

3. Let it Be Poetry

At the heart of his epoch-making "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in which he accounts for the disjunctiveness of modern experience at the same time that he composes a structurally self-deconstructing text, Walter Benjamin cites a captivating question by Baudelaire: "Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and resistant enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness." How curious and touching it is that prose poetry, with its hovering at a discursive watershed, could figure among the factors by which Benjamin would account for the "decline" of modern experience, its structuration by the shocks which, in the Freudian scenario, announce their impact in the penetration of defensive shields, in the invasion of protected fields of energy. 6

The division of labor between the poetic and the prosaic is an implicitly rich field, made all the more interesting by such equations as the one drawn by Hegel between prose and history. Language poetry does not neglect to include this "demilitarized zone" in its multifaceted exploration of the resources and performances available to poetry. The poets of language are no more reverential toward a prescriptive division of labor here than they are toward the bulk of the metaphysical and aesthetic baggage that poetry-making drags with it. Bernstein's recent "Artifice of Absorption" is in fact a theoretical essay, predominantly set in verse, on the poetics of transparency and opacity as it conditions the options currently available to poetry and other discourses. This text furnishes a masterful demonstration to critics of how verse, with the variable length of its lines and its freedom in the spatial arrangement of words, offers certain features particularly suited to the logical turns and delicate qualifications of theoretical discourse. On its side, "Artifice of Absorption" performs many functions that we come to expect from criticism: it pursues ongoing thematic issues, such as absorption and opacity, in relation to a wide variety of literary and scholarly sources, including Artaud, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, and Jerome McGann; it comes replete with footnotes. And yet, I would argue, for all its receptivity to prose and its questioning of any privileged position assigned to poetry, the poetry of language contributes above all to the body and amplification of poetics. [End Page 1200]

While Bernstein's work appeals to the prosaic as a defamiliarization away from poetic convention, its insistence on discontinuity as a compositional principle is too strong for it simply to merge into the linear thrusts of conventional prose. Bernstein's writing is hardly insensitive to the sustained linguistic defamiliarization performed by Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Bernstein as well disfigures his words, opens up his syntax, reduces his signifiers to their sub-verbal elements. Yet with all its distortion on the microscopic level, Finnegans Wake is invested in a certain narrative continuity, in the completion of certain structural elements, however "soft" or self-effacing its structure may be. For all its theoretical sophistication and technical receptivity and improvisation, language poetry stops at the marvel of what Baudelaire would call "prosaic poetry" before acceding to the linear momentum of prose itself.

The discourse that Bernstein sets as prose, then, is at all times poetic. In Controlling Interests, 7 he elects to explore "The Blue Divide" through the medium of prose. The resulting piece is a dense latticework of superimposed frames, dimensions, and perspectives.

An almost entire, eerie, silence floats above
and between the fixtures that separate me from the
doorstep. . . . A table and window frame sit just
ahead, to the side of the walls and corners, slat wood
flooring, shelves, the tar-backed driveway and terraced
approach roads. A person waits in a boat about an hour
away, floating in total occasional manner. Stripped of
its wood, unparalleled in respect to its riveting and
displaced glare, incised by its dimensions, I feel the
slight pang of an earlier sensation which rapidly
switches in succession to images harder to identify at
first, postcard sized shapes, rolling vertices.
(CI, 55)

While this passage is indeed set in prose, it contains enough material about perspective to explain that its prosaic interest emerges from an exploration of the perspective of prose. The exploration is all. There is a pronounced inconsequentiality about this prose. Where it leads, what it accomplishes, is far less important than the mood it establishes, the jarring juxtapositions (between the window frame and the boat) it effects, and the discontinuities that it incorporates. This language is much plainer than the discourse of Finnegans Wake: if poetry is simply the play of language, we would have to think of [End Page 1201] Joyce's novel as more poetic. Yet Joyce, in order to break and parody the implicit habits of reading, relies heavily on narrative flow, on the promises of conclusiveness made by all types of discourse. Prose occasionally crystallizes within the experimental and theoretical space of language poetry, but only as one additional mode of arrangement. The promises it keeps last only as long as the experiments in which it figures, and even within its scope, continuity is a promise existing largely to be broken.

4. Let it Be Explicit; Let it Be Theoretical

Absorptive & antiabsorptive
works both require artifice, but the former may hide
this while the latter may flaunt
it. & absorption may dissolve
into theater as these distinctions chimerically
shift & slide.
Bernstein, "Artifice of Absorption" 8

According to this passage, what Bernstein terms anti-absorptive works "flaunt" their artifice, defined earlier as the "measure of a poem's / intractibility to being read as the sum of its / devices & subject matters" (AA, 9). "Absorption may dissolve / into theater," he warns us (AA, 30), and a "flaunting" of poetic qualities is manifestly theatrical. The artifice of poetry is the supplement, the unknown quantity beyond the themes and devices, and one of the crucial endeavors of language poetry will be to dramatize this artifice, in the theatrical space furnished by the blank page. It is in keeping with this dramatic impulse that Bernstein and the poets he writes about will synthesize some of its most distinctive styles: a serpentine poetry of dispersion, wandering about the page, demonstrating the silence and emptiness surrounding its far-flung signifiers; a rigid and erect lyric composed of ultra-short lines, initially explored by Williams, emphasizing the mass of individual words and the arbitrariness of line-breaks; and conventional lyrics, whose seemingly ordinary lines camouflage unmarked deletions or bubbles of introjection. 9

"Language poetry" synthesizes such stylistic models, and there are others, not only for the sake of variety, but because each one is particularly suited to dramatize—current psychoanalytical discourse would say "act out"—specific features and activities of poetic composition: the spacing of words on the page, their division into lines and stanzas, the distinction between capital and miniscule letters, the [End Page 1202] latter tested fully in Bernstein's "Like DeCLAraTionS in a HymIE CEMetArY." It is at least partially instructive to think of each distinct discursive mode crystallized by language poetry as the poetic equivalent of an elaborate Wittgensteinian language game.

As one of its enterprises, then, the poetry of language would aim at a making explicit of the linguistic acts and assumptions responsible for poetry, in part because at other moments in the history of poetry, the very same acts and assumptions have remained implicit, submerged, understated, immanent—sustaining an ideology of poetic magic, genius, wizardry, and inspiration. Poetry is for Kant the highest of the arts, the native habitat for original genius. As Derrida, de Man, Foucault, and others have pointed out, the presumptions of immanence and secrecy that might surround poetic creation have been marshaled innumerable times in support of ideological, political, and conceptual totalization and repression. And if we appreciate the fact that an analogous explicitness, or making explicit, of the ideological, logical, theological, and metaphysical attitudes underlying vast stretches of Western or dominant thought has comprised one of the ongoing efforts of contemporary critical theory, it seems perfectly reasonable to assert that language poetry, in its flaunting or dramatic dimension, is inherently theoretical, that language poetry and critical theory are engaged, if not married, in a joint endeavor of making explicit.

While such an enterprise as deconstruction has also sought to dramatize or figure, in a "positive" way, the departure of language from systematic thought, the incommensurability and evanescence of language's non-systematic traces, this figuring has always been founded on a disclosure and release of the points of conceptual fixity or closure in texts, artifacts, and systems. Such a conceptual release or uncoupling absolutely depends on the making explicit of assumptions, biases, orientations—the strong arms by which institutions, whether of state or learning, twist the particulars into conformity with the ideological thrust. Deconstruction thus goes hand in hand with a making explicit, an expose, an investigative reportage concerning ideology's dirty secrets, its smoke-filled back-rooms, where its findings and imperatives collaborate with its concepts.

"Language poetry" and critical theory thus share a certain commitment to the explicit, to rendering overt and subject to question conceptual and operational underpinnings which in the context of dominant culture are hidden, occulted, sublimated, and a prioritized. Deconstruction is an inherently public posture or set of strategies, in [End Page 1203] a similar sense to the way in which language poetry demands explicitness regarding its production and procedures. At the risk of relinquishing time-honored conventions and techniques, language poetry participates in a poetics of explicitness. Much of what Bernstein says about absorption concerns the relationship between the implicit and the explicit. This insistence on explicitness gives both deconstruction and language poetry a certain political and ethical dimension. The enterprise of theorizing may be in large measure regarded as an articulation or making explicit of what makes states, systems, and other institutions go. Let's be clear, then, that language poetry's theoretical dimension is not at odds with its political interest or commitment; they are part and parcel of each other. Language poetry doesn't privilege certain "socially oriented" forms of theory over other more "cerebral" or "Continental" varieties. Its theoretical nature is tantamount to its making explicit or its poetic "acting out."

The present point in my own exposition is the moment when one would properly expect a lengthy and weighty digression on the theoretical and philosophical backgrounds of language poetry. Yet for reasons cited above, now is precisely the moment for us to delve into specific texts in a specific way, to read them as closely as possible. The theory of language poetry dwells not somehow apart from the poems themselves. It is inscribed, invaginated within the poems.

The poetics of explicitness, for example, does much to account for the remarkably rich assortment of texts and experiments that Bernstein sets out for us in Controlling Interests. "The Next Available Place" is a veritable laboratory of associative chainings and thematic displacements. A fragmentary and much-submerged narrative situation suggests problematic travel arrangements to Africa. Difficult as it may be to secure places on this journey, the language of the poem cannot control, cannot resist, digressions and indirections of many, if not every, possible order. The poem's progress is only too vulnerable to onomatopoeic riffs: "Ether," "Esther," "Erstwhile"; "Orthopsychiatry, opthalometrics, / gastrojejunerology, cryptopsychopathology, oncogenetics"; "Japanese shoe repair. / Iraqi, Iroquois"; and, "Mrs. Happenstance had a happy / hysterectomy" (the latter recalling Joyce's "do ptake some ptarmigan" in Ulysses). 10 Even in this sampling, the modes of expansion are markedly different: the combination of Iraqis and Iroquois, although happy, is almost purely assonant; the list of fantastic medical branches begins in the assonance of "o-words," and culminates in increasingly outrageous sciences ("cryptopsychopathology"). There may indeed be a stroke of happiness in happenstance, [End Page 1204] but in all likelihood the fictive character is not all that happy about her hysterectomy: this chain of signifiers is crowned by irony.

"The Next Available Place" is the only destination possible in playful language. Yet the poem not only circumscribes several varieties of indirection; it declares and dramatizes these tendencies as well. One line exhorts us to "Pattern a once remembered hope that one time. Seepage." "Seepage," like "pattern" is at once a thing and an activity. The poem dramatizes a certain seepage taking place in signification and meaning, the excess and superfluity in words that allows them to take unexpected turns. The speech act performed by the line is demand, exhortation. The line tells us to pattern forgotten hope—and to read: see the pages. The French homonym of seepage is cèpages, the involuted plants of viniculture. In the same gesture, then, the poem thematizes, exemplifies, and critically problematizes the displacement taking place within its own language.

It is hardly out of place, then, within the contours of "The Next Available Place," to come upon a language about twisting and involution:

Curvacious slurs: misanthropy, cliquishness,
territoriality, misunderstanding. What is described
by the patient as 'dizziness'
has often not even the remotest relation to
vertigo. Labyrinthine irritation: sensation of
rocking, sensation of staggering, swimming sensation,
sensation of weakness, sensation of backward swaying,
wavy sensation.
(CI, 31)

Apart from describing, on a discursive level if you will, a set of spatial and stylistic options available to poetry, this passage pursues an important interrogation into the status of psychological and psychoanalytical categories within a linguistically aware poetic medium. While psychoanalytical situations and terms are as interesting and available as any other subject matter, it is clear that within the domain of this poetics, such issues as vertigo, weakness or depression, and regression ("backward swaying") must work themselves out poetically, on the page: "Seepage." "Curvacious slurs" and "Labyrinthine irritation" make for a fine interlude in "The Next Available Space," but these terms also account for one of the major poetic styles or substances that language poetry has synthesized as a medium for its dramatization of the qualities of poetic language and space, what I [End Page 1205] have termed above the poetry of dispersion or dissemination. In the context of "Curvacious slurs" and "Labyrinthine irritations," it can be no accident that the next poem in Controlling Interests, "The Hand Gets Scald But The Heart Grows Colder," begins with precisely such a lyric, whose fragmentary proto-lines, in order to accentuate their unrelatedness to each other, or at least the tenuousness of the connections between them, are strewn over the page, in "Curvacious slurs."

The State of Maryland has been called a microcosm of America, because within its relatively compact borders thrive most of the environments spread out over the nation at large: mountains, big cities, suburbs, flat farmlands. Within Controlling Interests, such poems as "The Hand Gets Scald" and "Standing Target" encompass many of the styles that language poetry has devised for its demonstrations: in addition to the labyrinthine poem of dispersion, we find compact columns of ultra-short lines, often themselves sub-verbal; nuggets of irregular lines which are, through the density of their typesetting, at the edge of prose poetry; and, last, but surely not least, "conventionally" appearing passages of lyric that literally dissolve through their truncations and unannounced bubblings. This anthologization of different styles is not in itself new: in modern poetry it goes back at least as far as such Yeatsian medleys as "Upon a Dying Lady." Yet what is striking about these experiments is the extensiveness, and again, explicitness with which each stylistic medium explores its unique linguistic capabilities at the same time that it "processes," poetically more than psychoanalytically, the "material" at hand. Thus, a poem much concerned with mood-swings, "The Hand Gets Scalder but the Heart Grows Colder," is free to break off into a column of capitalized colors, "Red / Pink / Orange / Pimento," and so on, which them-selves "illuminate" different moods, or serve as a synesthetic accompaniment, in terms of color, to such moods. The poem arises, of course, in the confusion nurtured by the English language that the modal (and caloric) opposition between scalding and coldness can be undercut by a certain homonymic similarity. The heart can lose its sympathy regardless of what is taking place physiologically or sexually. Whether we interpret the hand's getting "scalder" in terms of thermodynamic loss or gain, the "heart" can operate on its own wavelength. The poem goes on to play along the rift between activity and affect, to sustain poetically a certain disinterest. Remember that the book is entitled Controlling Interests, that Walter Benjamin once appropriated a sterling image for the actor's sensibility from Kafka's [End Page 1206] description of hammering as "real hammering and at the same time nothing." 11

By the same token, "Standing Target" is as autobiographical a text as one can imagine belonging to the body of something called "language poetry." The poem incorporates a biography of someone named Ralf D. Caulo, "Deputy Director of the / HBJ School Department," and reports, presumably from summer camp or early school, regarding the progress of someone named "Charlie" in such areas as swimming and arts and crafts. On its internalized bulletin-board, "Standing Target" displays corporate biographies and snatches of Proustian recollection (and self-citation) to illustrate the solidity and focus, the sense of meaning, continuity, and prevailing that such discourses provide. At the same time, the poem begins precisely nowhere, "Deserted all sudden a all / Or gloves of notion, seriously / Foil sightings, polite society" (CI, 39)—and it does not end before it has dissolved this biographical and existential coherence in an unusually disparate lyric of dispersion, beginning, "fatigue / of . . . of / open for / to, sees doubles" (CI, 45). The poem duly notes the inevitable fatigue accompanying such intense awareness of self-constitution only in language. It has already accounted for the sadness of lines, "crisscrossing / out the hopes of an undifferentiated / experience, the cold sweeps / past" (CI, 41), and it has characterized the end results of an experience whose sudden separations and voids, like going to summer camp, are as empty as the vacuums of the poetic page: "The end result was a gradual / neurosis superimposed upon a pre-existing / borderline character structure" (CI, 43).

Within the radically variegated poetic space of "Standing Target," the self, social life, and psychological experience, such as they exist, are functions of poetic potentials and activities. Any coherence that seems to emerge from the losses and separations that structure our experience is subject to the unpredictable chaining and dispersion that prevail within the poetic page. Each of the styles of poetry highlights different aspects of linguistic ambiguity, flow, syntax, and semantic slippage.

Even at the risk of fatigue, which it inventively avoids, Bernstein's more recent work sustains this multifaceted exploration and dramatization of distinct poetic modes in what Derrida would call their local difference. Indeed, as the work proceeds, each different style or poetic utterance seems to gain in resolve, increasing the incommensurability of the "whole." The prose poems are only more unrepentant [End Page 1207] in their prosaicness, and the ultra-short lines have become, if anything, only more abrupt and leaden. I think of Bernstein's 1987 collection, The Sophist, 12 and I close my own initiation into his work and the wider enterprise of those associated with him with the blurred and not unjaundiced eye of "Amblyopia."

Opening with a lyric of lines as stark, final, and blunt as anything that language poetry could imagine, this poem goes on to cast its ambling eye on the current state of cultural illiteracy. Sludge, stunted growth, and the repression of criticism are among the most powerful images by which this extended text articulates the current moment of cultural blindness. "He was a moral dwarf in a body as / solid as ice," "Amblyopia" begins, speaking of a hypothetical cultural subject in an age of "fear and / evasion" (S, 112). We live in a time when "The world grows simpler" (S, 121), the poem complains, "Many people have trouble with everyday / activities, such as speaking, thinking, responding, dreaming, eating, sleeping. A crutch / shares the weight of burden" (S, 126). The state that Bernstein describes is one of enforced cultural mutism, substance devoid of the articulation inseparable from informed deliberation. Amid this darkness, "It is not the eye / but it's the gleam of which we dream" (S, 118).

There is neither matter nor form, only
smell, taste, bite—eyes
hide by their disclosure. There
is only substance—structure—twin
fears of an unduplicating repetition . . .

Keep a curb on your brain. The heart
beats thrice where the soul has lost
its foot. . . .
Out of pure sludge . . . and to sludge
shall you—remain.

(S, 124)

It should come as little surprise that Bernstein, as he elaborates the socio-cultural conditions for this intellectual dimming and regression, ranges widely in the institutions and rhetorics that he incorporates into the poem. The poem's ongoing cultural and disciplinary perspectives are psycho-sexual, economic, biological, and commercial. The "Ministry of Psychological Science" issues a pronouncement in prose: "Exposure to big businessmen, right-to-life Christians, military officers, career managers, and New York Times cultural editors causes otherwise healthy young people to become perverts. [End Page 1208] . . . Orgasms can only be achieved by this kind of pervert by enacting or fantasizing racist, sexist, ageist, or authoritarian acts" (S, 114-15). In this passage, the biases of the culture industry are as oppressive as the cultural wasteland. Bernstein's critique extends every much to the current truisms put forth by the publicly sanctioned intellectual world as it does to the sludge or blindness issuing from continued cultural non-articulation. Hence,

And now . . .
Yes . . .
. . . the Whipmaster Valorizer has arrived,
revolutionizing the psychopoetics industry.
In just seconds, you can turn your sordid dreams
and ambitions into cherished res intellectiones.
The Valorizer uses a unique Twofold action.
Negative associations are effaced from habitual
cognitions by a sanitized derealization process.
Simultaneously, positive associations are affixed
to these cognitions by means of thousands of tiny
Idealization Crystals, a unique adhesion agent.
(S, 128-29)

The sludge of the inarticulate thus invades the institutions of literacy, courtesy of Textron. What we have here so far in "Amblyopia" corresponds in many ways to our model for a present and future language poetry: it is vibrantly open to a wide range of rhetorics and technical models; its poetic forms dramatize the subject-matter and discourse at hand. It incorporates no less than three types of discourse: prose, "conventional lyric," and a starkly abbreviated line. With all this argumentation and social contextualization, "Amblyopia" is nowhere more radical than where it appears most conventional. Indeed, this field of poetry's most devastating theorizing, its most explosive undermining of conceptual and formal expectations, may well take place in its most conventional-seeming lyrics. The most profound revolution effected by language poetry consists in the venerable lyrical contracts that it refuses to honor; it is in the refusal to honor that the most devastating, although nearly invisible, critique and theory of poetry takes place. The most radical section of "Amblyopia" is hence severed from its polemic, although a complex one, on the state of cultural articulation. It is simply another lyric, [End Page 1209] potentially like any other. In closing this fragmentary reading of the poem, I cite it:

Everything external to turn
out of the last out of accumulated, dig
slowly, piles trying about, which were
flaw, fugitive, indeed lights, but when
mind of stumbles that on accurate
has to do which become early, say
at, might just as it is, clash, that
by mainly intentions, subjected
as if, were—officious tone—nickel &
dimed or being given to do
something that that on our—you
should, that is, to handle—even
come up with what amounts to, for
keeping or setting of respect of lack
literally trying to prolong, complain
apparent, is to rather condescended
correlative as to blind, off, by
(S, 122)

This is precisely the poetry that cannot be read in the arena of cultural amblyopia or stunting. It is pervaded by invisible breaks and insertions that force it to violate the contract of making sense, even in the permissive lyrical way. Like the late Joycean prose that arises in Molly Bloom's monologue in the ultimate, "Penelope" episode of Ulysses, this discourse absents itself of the breaks and markers in flow that might clarify its intent. When coherent phrases begin to form, they are truncated by introjections that emerge from nowhere. "Turn / out of the last" begins, only begins to make sense at the top of this extract, when "out of accumulated" enters, pulling the rug out from under its sense-making. This is a poetry of invisible seams and invisibly introduced bubbles. And yet it is very much poetry, indeed, it opens up the matrices of meaning and sequential flow. It is radical in the sense that it exists both within and beyond the framework of "Amblyopia," some of whose terms we have explored. Some of Bernstein's poems, notably "So really not visit a . . . ," in Controlling Interests, consist entirely of this resistant but volatile discourse. This particular poetic stuff, with its repudiation and intensification of poetic contracts, 13 may well hover at the radical extreme of language poetry's multifaceted, explicit, performative, and theoretical experiment. [End Page 1210]

5. The Trial of the Explicit

We come full circle as we close, asking ourselves if there is not some bill we pay as poetry moves toward the extreme of its own explicitness, or if perhaps, the poetry of language offers us a theoretical tool which now helps us discern the glimmerings of explicitness within the ostensibly traditional and naive. The question is parallel to the one we ask when we ask if the overt experiments in line and color in modern painting do not ultimately speak to the representational issues taken up by, say, Memling or Rembrandt.

Once poetry has problematized itself theoretically, once it has performatively indicated and questioned its moves, can it ever be exactly the same as before? Perhaps not. Previously, poetic discourse had if nothing else irony to place in relief and at a certain distance its affirmations. It may be, though, that in a systematically experimental universe of letters, one joined, in different ways, by Joyce, Kafka, and Wittgenstein as well as more contemporary experimentalists, irony loses some of its pervasiveness and becomes one possibility amid a battery of distortions available to poetic and fictive discourse.

Must we experience this internal theorizing of poetry through the making explicit of its moves and attitudes as a loss? Here both contemporary critical theory and the poetry itself have much to say. Rather than a loss or deprivation, this experiment constitutes an opening, vastly extensive if a bit frightening. We are indeed fortunate that the experiment has been taken up in such a playful and inventive way.


1. Franz Kafka, "The Cares of as Family Man," in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 427-29.

2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage, 1994), 17-42.

3. Charles Bernstein, "Thought's Measure," in Content's Dream (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1986), p. 63, henceforth abbreviated "CD."

4. I discuss the parallelism between discursive styles and philosophical projects in twentieth-century discourse at length in "Kafka and Modern Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Deconstruction, and the Cuisine of the Imaginary," in Afterimages of Modernity: Structure and Indifference in Twentieth-Century Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 58-94.

5. Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray di Palma, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman, LEGEND (New York: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Segue, 1980). [End Page 1211]

6. These motifs combine to brilliant effect in Benjamin's epochal essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), IV, 318-21, 324, 327-32.

7. Charles Bernstein, Controlling Interests (New York: Roof Books, 1986), henceforth abbreviated "CI."

8. Charles Bernstein, "Artifice of Absorption," in A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 30. Citations of this extended poetic essay refer to the Harvard University Press version, and are abbreviated "AA."

9. I introduce this term in the sense that psychoanalysts, mostly of the object-relations school, deploy it: as an expression emerging from the raw and undigested extreme of language, deriving from the inception of life, what Lacan calls the "pre-Oedipal," which persists in our later parlance and disproportionately colors our attitudes toward ourselves and the other. For seminal passages on introjections in this sense, see Otto Kernberg, "Structural Derivatives of Object Relations," in Essential Papers on Object Relations, ed. Peter Buckley (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 359-65; Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1989), 210-20, 278-83.

10. James Joyce, Ulysses, The Corrected Text, ed. Hans Walter Gabler (New York: Random House, 1986), 144.

11. Walter Benjamin, "Franz Kafka," in Selected Writings, op. cit., II, 814.

12. Charles Bernstein, The Sophist (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987), henceforth abbreviated "S."

13. I have elsewhere argued that the histories of art, criticism, and intellectual work in general can be well-understood as a series of contracts going in and out of effect according to their value in addressing pressing epistemological questions and in satisfying temporary considerations of design. See my The Aesthetic Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 137-205.