"Opposition is true friendship." --William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell "that the vanishing point might be on every word." --Lyn Hejinian, "Gertrude Stein: Two Lectures"
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE of that loose collective enterprise, which sprang up in the aftermath of the sixties, known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing? To answer this question I will be taking, initially, a somewhat oblique route. And I shall assume an agreement on several important social and political matters: first, that the United States, following the Second World War, assumed definitive leadership of a capitalist empire; second, that its position of leadership generated a network of internal social contradictions which persist to this day (as imperialist demands collide with American traditions of isolationism and revolutionary nationalism); third, that this postwar period has been characterized at the international level by an extended Cold War shadowed by the threat of a global catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental. Whatever one's political allegiances, these truths, surely, we hold as self-evident.
Postwar American poetry is deployed within that general arena, and to the degree that it is "political" at all, it reflects and responds to that set of overriding circumstances. In my view the period up to the present ought to be seen as having two phases. The first phase stretches from about 1946 (when Lord Weary's Castle appeared) to 1973 (when Lowell capped his career with the publication of History). This period is dominated by a conflict between various lines of traditional poetry, on the one hand, and the countering urgencies of the "New American Poetry" on the other. In the diversity of this last group Donald Allen argued for a unifying "characteristic": "a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse."
Of course, this representation of the conflict between "tradition" and "innovation" obscures nearly as much as it clarifies. The New American poets were, in general, much more inclined to experimentalism than were writers like Wilbur, Hecht, Simpson, or Justice. But Allen's declaration can easily conceal the academic and literary characteristics of the
|FURTHER READING: Jerome McGann is the author of many books, including Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism|
The issue here is not stylistic, however, but ideological and ultimately political. We can see this more clearly if we recall that this unpolitical style of American writing between 1946 and 1973 mistakably liberal-left. This is as true, in general, for the traditionalists as it is for the innovators.
If we compare the period 1946-1973 with the years since, many of the same kinds of literary conflicts seem to persist. Nevertheless, this most recent period is sharply distinguished from the earlier one by one momentous difference: the dramatic shift to the political right which has taken place following the Vietnam War. Like every other part of society, The literary world registered these new social circumstances. Specifically, two new lines of work began to make their presence felt. The first of these might be called personal (not confessional) or localized verse, though Robert von Hallberg has called it the poetry of the suburbs. It is marked stylistically by a moderated surface urbanity and substantively by an attempt to define "social" and "political" within a limited, even a personal, horizon. Furthermore, one observes in this work a renewed interest in narrative forms--a significant stylistic inclination, as we shall see more clearly in a moment. Robert Pinsky is perhaps the most conspicuous practitioner, and promoter, of this poetic mode, but it includes a large and heteronomous group of other, chiefly academic poets. Its spokesmen are Richard Howard, Helen Vendler, and--most recently--von Hallberg. "The poetry I admire [from the last forty years]," von Hallberg says, "is fairly spoken of as one of accommodation rather than opposition." [For more on Pinsky, see terza rima.]
The other line of work is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing. Here a conscious attempt has been made to marry the work of the New American Poetry of the fifties with the poststructural work of the late sixties and seventies. As Frost, Yeats, Auden, and Stevens are the "precursors" of the poets of accommodation, Pound, Stein, and Zukofsky stand behind the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. Oppositional politics are a paramount concern, and the work stands in the sharpest relief, stylistically, to the poetry of accommodation.
In a sense, the period from 1973 to the present appears to repeat the central struggle of 1946-1973 between the "academics" and the "New American Writers." L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing is distinctively experimental, while poets like Robert Pinsky, Louise Gliick, and John Hollander are traditionalists; and whereas the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers are almost all situated--economically and institutionally--outside the academy, their counterparts, critics, and poets alike--occupy important scholastic positions. The difference between pre- and post-1973 American poetry lies in the extremity of the ideological gap which separates the traditionalists from the innovators in the later period. As will be very clear from the discussion that follows, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers typically emphasize their oppositional politics in ways that the New American Poets did not. The latter were more socially disaffected than politically opposed.
The two divergent lines in American poetry since 1973 are usefully contrasted in terms of the shape of John Ashbery's career and their relation to it. Throughout the seventies and even into the eighties, Ashbery has been the single most influential figure in American poetry. But there are certainly two Ashberys to choose from. For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, all of his work should be read out of--by means of--the experimental projects developed from The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to Three Poems (1972). Not that he has ceased to write important work since, but in those early years his innovative stylistic repertoire was fully deployed. Indeed, Ashbery's style--established in the sixties--has come to seem an early example of a postmodem sensibility. As such, it was (properly) taken as a swerve away from the poetries of the fifties and sixties--a presage of things to come.
The problem, however, is the political significance of Ashbery's postmodern stance. The heated controversy which has developed around the idea of the postmodern--is it or is it not a reactionary social phenomenon?--throws the problem of Ashbery's work into sharp relief. His unmistakable style has been read as the poetic equivalent of a deconstructive mode; yet deconstruction in America, though seen in many traditional quarters as a socially subversive movement, has been centered in the Yale school, which has never made any effort to develop or practice an oppositional politics. A similar type of "nonpolitics" is discernible throughout Ashbery's career--even as his work has been used by many younger writers whose oppositional politics are clear. But Ashbery himself has not exploited his own work's "oppositional" features and potentialities; and in the period from 1973 to the present his work has moved instead along lines that parallel the suburban and personal interests of poets like Pinsky, James McMichael, and Turner Cassity (for example, Ashbery's Vermont Notebook (1975), Houseboat Days , and As We Know ).
Ashbery's avoidance of a conscious political position defines the style of his postmodern address. Not without reason has his work been canonized in academic discourse about contemporary poetry. As earlier Lowell became the exegetical focus of high/late New Critical discourse, Ashbery has become the contemporary touchstone for deconstructive analysis. What we confront here, however, is not so much an issue of poetic style or poetic quality as it is a problem in ideology the kinds of cultural ideas that are to be propagated through that crucial ideological apparatus, the academy. In postmodern work we become aware of the many crises of stability and centeredness which an imperial culture like our own--attempting to hold control over so much, and such widely dispersed, human material--inevitably has to deal with. The response to such a situation may be either a contestatory or an accommodational one; it may move to oppose and change such circumstances, or it may take them as given and reflect, or reflect upon, their operations.
"'The test of a 'politics of poetry,'" Barrett Watten has observed, "is in the entry of poetry into the world in a political way." Watten has been a prominent L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writer for some time, so for him "politics" means "opposition" rather than "accommodation." What we must recognize is that both types of writing, whether contestatory or accommodating, are political in character and represent a certain type of political stance toward life in 'imperialist America.' Furthermore, from the vantage of a writer like Watten, the poetries of accommodation of the seventies represent a retreat from the critical responsibilities of art, and perhaps even an active celebration properly hedged or refined--of immediate social and political circumstances.
One cannot write about these matters neutrally. Neutrality here in fact is a choice of the position of accommodation. And while I find much to admire in that kind of poetry, I think that by far the most important work is now being done elsewhere in American writing. Nor does the importance of that work lie solely in its "oppositional" politics. The most innovative work stylistically is now to be traced in the journals, chapbooks, pamphlets, and--increasingly--the books of various poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing. The eventuality is hardly a surprising one, for this work has been actively forging, over the past ten or fifteen years, writing procedures which seek a comprehensive account of the American experience during that period.
Of course, much of this work is weak, some of it is trivial, and a great deal has only a formal or aesthetic significance, despite its political urgencies. My interest here, however, is not in such matters. Rather, what I want to indicate is the kind of intervention L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E work typically seeks to make--how it tries to enter the world in a political way, and what it means to carry out through that entrance.
In the eyes of eternity--if eternity is interested in art--Wordsworth and Blake will each take their appropriate place, and later ages will find in each various resources appropriate to a later moment. But between 1789 and 18l5 the work of Wordsworth and Blake entered the world very
|McGann on the importance of Ashbery:|
|Throughout the seventies and even into the eighties, Ashbery has been the single most influential figure in American poetry. But there are certainly two Ashberys to choose from. For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, all of his work should be read out of--by means of--the experimental projects developed from The Tennis Court Oath (1962) to Three Poems (1972). Not that he has ceased to write important work since, but in those early years his innovative stylistic repertoire was fully deployed. Indeed, Ashbery's style--established in the sixties--has come to seem an early example of a postmodem sensibility. As such, it was (properly) taken as a swerve away from the poetries of the fifties and sixties--a presage of things to come.|
I SHALL BEGIN this inquiry at a tangent, by looking at a passage from a recent essay by Richard Rorty. The essay as such has nothing to do with contemporary American poetry.
There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a large context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contribution to a community. This community may be the actual historical one in which they live, or another actual one, distant in time or place, or a quite imaginary one... The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. This relation is immediate in the sense that it does not derive from a relation between such a reality and their tribe, or their nation, or their imagined band of comrades. I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity and objectivity.'
Rorty, as we know, is committed to "stories" of what he calls "solidarity"--"pragmatistic" stories of the here and now. Or we should rather say that he reads all the stories that interest him out of the framework of his "cultural peers," the group he also calls "postmodern bourgeois intellectuals." This is the locus of his allegiances and conscious "solidarity." Though I shall later have some comments on Rorty's ideas about postmodernity, I must first call attention to the privilege Rorty gives to narrative itself. Rorty assumes--the passage is, in this respect, typical of all his work--that "human being" is fundamentally a social rather than a rational function. He goes on to say that we "give sense to" our human being in only two communicative forms. This thought is striking enough, but even more so is the idea that both of these forms are narrative ones.
As Michel de Certeau and others have pointed out, narrative is a form of continuity; as such, its deployment in discourse is a way of legitimating established forms of social order, as well as the very idea of such established forms. Within discourse structures, critical alternatives to the orders of narrativity characteristically emerge from various types of nonnarrative and antinarrative. Such forms have grown especially prominent in the discourses of postmodernism. As we shall see more particularly in a moment, however, while both nonnarratives and antinarratives move counter to regularized, normative, and "accommodating" orders, they exemplify distinct forms of discourse. Antinarrative is problematic, ironical, and fundamentally a satiric discursive procedure. It engages a dialectic, and its critical function is completed in a structure of antithesis, which may include the double irony of a self-antithesis. Nonnarratives, on the other hand, do not issue calls for change and alterity; they embody in themselves some form of cultural difference. To adapt (and secularize) the terminology of Blake, nonnarrative is the "contrary" (rather than the negation) of narrativity. Its antithesis to narrative is but one dimension of a more comprehensively imagined program based in the codes of an alternative set of solidarities. Byron's Don Juan is one type of antinarrative and Blake's Milton is another type. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, is decidedly nonnarrative.
The special relevance of nonnarrative and antinarrative lies within the horizon of postmodernism, when such forms (and their correspondent terminologies) began to be elaborated. Nevertheless, because nonnarrative and antinarrative were not contemporary inventions, their presence in certain previous literary works can help to define their special currencies. Consider antinarratives, for example, whose structures depend upon, reflect, and thereby maintain the forms of narrative continuity which they bring under critical examination. The digressive structure of Don Juan, for example, is intimately connected to the fate of that poem's narrative--which is, fundamentally, the recollective narrative of Byron's own life told via several displaced and putatively fictive narratives involving the poem's hero Don Juan. Similarly, Blake's Milton is a critical examination of English history between approximately 1640 and 1810. That history is presented as a system which replicates itself in its various subsystems (for example, the events of Milton's life, the events of Blake's). Furthermore, these histories are placed within the context of the more comprehensive narrative of human history as set forth in the redemptive mythos of Jewish-Christian polemics. The critique of history in Milton appears as a secret narrative moving antithetically to the known and apparent narrative: Blake represents this structure as a pair of cogged wheels, with the destructive wheel (of nature) turning in one direction, and the redemptive wheel (of art)--attached to it--turning in the other. That image itself suggests the intimacy of the relation between narrative and antinarrative.
Nonnarrative is different--for example, Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Among all of Blake's works it most closely resembles the Songs of Innocence and of Experience in terms of both its ideas and its form. Both works explore the significance of what Blake calls "contraries." Furthermore, both are collections of diverse materials anthologized structures where the relations between the parts are not determined by narrativities. This odd character of the "Marriage" in particular is underscored in several ways. The work opens with an "Argument," which ought, by poetic convention, to be a brief summary of the work to follow. But the "Argument" is a small narrativized unit whose relation to the rest of the "Marriage" can only be arranged by the reader's ingenuity in drawing different kinds of verbal and tropical analogies of the "Argument" (and parts of it) with other parts and pieces of the work. The "Marriage" contains as well a number of other brief narrativized units, but all are self-contained; their interrelations, once again, have to be consciously constructed because the work as a whole is not organized as a narrative.
This fact about the internal form of the work is emphasized by the heterogeneity of the particular writing-units. Some are narrativized, one is a collection of proverbs, and four others are expository presentations of different kinds of ideas. Furthermore, the subject matter taken up in these different textual units is equally heteronomous. The "Argument" (plate z) is a spare allegorical narrative based in the biblical mythos; the "Song of Liberty" (plates 25-27), also narrativized, is a polyglot piece whose primary location is in contemporary history; and the other narrative units (for example, plates i 2.-13, 15 and the two narratives embedded in plates 7- 3) are equally diverse with respect to type and subject matters. The differentiating inertia of the "Marriage" operates as well within the specific textual units. Plates 12-13, for example, narrate a personal anecdote, but the location of the event--in some kind of spiritual hyperspace--forces a reorientation of certain fundamental categories of thought (spatial, temporal, social).
Finally, one must observe the variable order of the text as a whole. Most copies of the "Marriage" are arranged in the sequence plates 1-27, but copies E and G deploy perfectly acceptable alternative orders, and copy G was in fact foliated by Blake himself. The shifting plates are 4, 14, and 15, which are so moved that two other orderings are created for the work. One should note here that a similar indeterminacy of textual relations is found throughout Blake's work: no copy of the Songs has an order which corresponds to that of any other copy; and variations are the rule in almost all of his engraved works. There is no doubt that these variances in sequencing are deliberate, and there is every reason to think that he was encouraged to this kind of textual experimentation by recent biblical and classical scholarship.
Whatever the order of this wild diversity of material, then, it is clearly not a narratological one. Indeed, narrativity is short-circuited from the moment that the reading process is spatialized as a field of illuminated printing. It is not simply that the "text" is illustrated or illuminated; rather, the verbal discourse evolves as a set of images, decorations, and pictures. To say that one "reads" Blake's works is to invoke a metaphor, as one does when one speaks of "reading" a painting. Of course, if Blake's work is delivered over to us simply in typographical forms we are likely to end up as nonmetaphoric "readers" of the "texts." This commonly happens when Blake is "taught," but it is a type of misreading--an abstracted form--which has nothing to recommend it as an imaginative activity. In short, Blake ought to be "read" in facsimile.
What, then is the order which pervades a work like the "Marriage?" Blake called it the order of Imagination-the order generated through the faculty or process which discovers previously unapprehended relations of things. The most striking aspect of the highly differentiated material in the "Marriage" is that it encourages the reader to draw out unusual substantive and grammatological relationships which convention will normally miss or avoid. Antinarrative calls those conventions into question and develops the premonitory conditions for imaginative activity. Indeed, antinarrative frequently generates imaginative localities and incommensurate particulars which escape the imperialism of narrativity. But nonnarrative alone wifl establish, among the kingdoms and principalities of narrative, the proper world of what Blake called Imagination.
Once again we must ask, however, what is the order of that world? An answer may be glimpsed if we reflect for a moment on one of the most striking variations in the plate sequencing. Plate 15 (the Printing House in Hell episode) comes last in copy E of the "Marriage," immediately after the "Song of Liberty," which is the work's traditional conclusion. This dramatic placement clearly calls attention not merely to the work's own productive processes, but to the satanic view of what all knowledge, imaginative or otherwise, must be: mediated language forms generated through specific social--specific material and Institutional--processes. In all copies of the "Marriage" the subject minently and recurrently of Blake's own productive processes is protreated. This subject calls attention to the inherently material and social character of imaginative work. Placing plate 15 at the end is one way of giving such ideas paramount and conclusive importance.
A poem like the "Marriage," then, urges us to see that the order of nonnarrative is the order of production (as opposed to the orders of reflection and reproduction). This order is emphasized in the "Marriage" through the pervasive thematic of the printing and engraving proans and modes of processes: the meaning of the "Marriage" 's means and modes of production. It is, as one might say, "a poem about poetry," but not about the "idea" of poetry. The "Marriage" is "about" poetry in the sense that poetry is understood as a set of socially engaged material practices. In the "Marriage" poetry "practices itself," poetry is carried out; and this work of poetry as a productive social practice is self-consciously brought before the attention of the "reader." This sort of thing happens in Blake's work all the time--for example, in Jerusalem, part of whose wit involves the understanding that Albion's "emanation" is in literal truth the work Blake produces and calls Jerusalem.
This example of Blake is a useful point of departure for considering a large and important body of contemporary writing in which antinarrative and nonnarrative figure prominently. Blake is useful not merely because his example is familiar, but perhaps even more because his is a problematic case. In the "Marriage" a redemptive myth is essayed which is based in forms of creation rather than forms of atonement. Within the general framework of judeo-Christian culture, a production-based redemptive order is unusual, and extremely difficult to maintain. Blake's work is most emphatically carried out within a judeo-Christian culture, and although the work moves at a strange diagonal to that culture, it never wholly escapes its gravitational field. Atonement, rather than creation, is a form of thought--a mode of action--which recurs throughout the work, most prominently, I suppose, in Milton and Jerusalem. To the extent that Blake is interested in creation rather than redemption, he is hostile to the theory of atonement. In the end Blake arrived at a compromise: he rejected traditional theory of atonement, but he embraced a heterodox theory which held, essentially, that a general redemptive scheme would emerge through the practice of continuous self-atonement.
IN SO FAR AS WORKS like the "Songs" and "Marriage" are nonnarratives which do not involve themselves in forms of atonement, they resemble various kinds of poststructural discourse, in particular the work now commonly known as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing. Since antinarrative and nonnarrative forms abound in this work, it exemplifies a significant strand of postmodernist writing. But unlike certain other forms of postmodernism--prototypically the academic postmodernism associated with the Yale school, on the one hand, and with Richard Rorty on the other--L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing typically deploys a consciously antithetical political content. It situates itself, therefore, to the left of Rorty's "postmodern bourgeois intellectuals."
Though an extraordinarily diverse group, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers are involved with writing projects which fracture the surface regularities of the written text and which interrupt conventional reading processes. Thus Richard Foreman writes a theoretical essay carrying the imperative title "Trying to be Centered ... On the Circumference. If the Word of God issues from that famous circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, these new words come from a circle of human writers whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere. Abigail Child declares, in an aphoristic manifesto, that the poetic object is to set "UNITS OF UNMEANINGNESS INCORPORATED ANEW VS. A COMMUNITY OF SLOGANEERS" (94). The sense is that poetry and writing generally have been colonized by imperial forces, and that the power of this monopoly has to be broken. The object of writing must be to set language free, to return it from the domains of the abstract and the conventional (the communities of SLOGANEERS, whose name today is Legion) to a world of human beings and human uses.
The program of these writers, consequently, has a strong, usually an explicit, social and political orientation. I want to leave that aside for the moment, however, in order to concentrate on its more local and even technical aspects: for example, on Tina Darragh's forms of "procedural writing" which she adapts from the work of Francoise Ponge. Darragh produces arrangements of textual forms--they are literally unreadable, as is much other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry--by selecting, via an orderly but arbitrary plan, sequences of verbal materials that appear on a single page of a dictionary. The point of this kind of operation becomes very clear if we read a few of Bernadette Mayer's practical writing injunctions as set forth in her mini-manual "Experiments":
The final injunction in Mayer's list of writing experiments is appropriately, summarily, placed: "Work your ass off to change the language & don't ever get famous" (83). Her message is clear: the celebrated writing of her time appears in digestible and accepted forms; indeed, at this time (at any time, one wonders?) fame, conventionality, and the regularities of narrativized discourse are functionally related to everything that must be judged unpoetical, inhuman, a failure--even perhaps, a betrayal. To revive poetry, "to change the language," means trying to "write what cannot be written," to produce what cannot be "read" (an "index," a "multiplicity of thin letters")--in short, to "derange the language" from its current (truly "deranged") conventionalities.
Mayer's "Experiments" speak very clearly about a number of the most important characteristics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing. In the first place, writing is conceived as something that must be done rather than as something that is to be interpreted. The vantage is Horatian rather than Plotinian. The "meanings" sought after in this work are neither ideas
|"systematically derange the language" - Bernadette Mayer|
A second crucial feature of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E approach to poetry and writing centers in its preoccupation with nonsense, unmeaning, and fragmentation. These writers practice language experiments which generate and promote such conditions. As readers, their approach is archaeological. Their reviews and critical comments on poetry display little concern with "Interpretation;" rather, they elucidate as it were the behavior, the manners, the way of life that various kinds of writings perform and live. When Alan Davies and Nick Piombino see poetry as a locus of "Indeterminate intervals," they develop a method for encountering and illuminating texts which they call "Field Reading. " One recalls Tina Darragh's work with "procedural writing" whereby the page of a dictionary is suddenly exposed as a field of strange and unrecognized deposits--odd bits and pieces scattered across a surface whose depths and layers and correspondence escape the notice of the dictionary's ordinary users.
This archaeology of knowledge represents a deliberate intervention in and through the processes of writing. Field reading and procedural writing are stochastic immediate events that intervene with writing deposits, equally stochastic, which are already situated. What is crucial to the immediate acts of intervention, however, is that they are conscious of their own relative status. These writers deploy an archaeology which does not stand in an objective and superior relation to the fields they are exploring. There is a "transmutative effect" (49) between writings and readings, feedback loops that persist and expand their operations as the random and the deliberate intersect in the dynamic field of language use: "There's a place that you're going from and a place that you're going to; to get to that place, that tracking, is as worthwhile as the endpoint of going, because while you're going there you find other things and those things are related to the final place; that helps to define what it is when you get there. New combinations and connections are experienced. In finding your locus you redefine it again each time, systematically finding new coordinates."
This passage reminds us that, in the view of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing, the time is always the present. Nevertheless, past and future are permanent concerns of these writers, whose work would be travestied if it were represented as the imperialism of the here and now, or the immediate self. The textual activism that is promoted in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing places the writer inside the writing process. The writer manipulates and deploys his or her texts, but in so doing the writer is also, necessarily, made subject to their inertia as well. "Texts read the reader," Bruce Andrews observes (36), which means, in this program, that they read the writer as well. The activist writer/reader, by operating on and in texts, undergoes the limits and the significance of that activism. As a consequence, meaning" emerges not as an appropriation or institution of truth but as "the enabled incapacity to impose a usage" (3 5). The program is conceived to reveal the power of writing and the production of meaning as human, social, and limited in exact and articulable ways. Indeed, it is designed to demonstrate and practice such a conception.
Thus we can see the general context--political and stylistic alike within which the antinarrative and nonnarrative procedures of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing are deployed. Narrativity is an especially problematic feature of discourse, to these writers, because its structures lay down "stories" which serve to limit and order the field of experience, in particular the field of social and historical experience. Narrativity is, in this view, an inherently conservative feature of discourse, and hence it is undermined at every point. Charles Bernstein's poems, for example, typically begin with an attack upon conventional "beginnings." In traditional texts the "beginning" signals the text's sense of itself as a "unitary document" within which "continuity is possible." Because the fundamental codes of the reading procedure are established at every beginning, Bernstein's poems typically start by throwing up barriers and creating problems. His initiating codes are always antithetical, as we see at the outset of one of his most astonishing poems, "For Love has such a Spirit that if it is Portrayed it Dies":
Mass of van contemplation to intercede crush of plaster. Lots of loom: "smoke out", merely complicated by the first time something and don't. Long last, occurrence of bell, altitude, attitude of. The first, at this moment, aimless, aims. To the point of inordinate asphalt-lecture, entail. These hoops regard me suspiciously.(11)
From this apparently scattered set of texts one scarcely knows how to proceed. We are at the outset of a "poem"--this much we know, from having decoded other attendant bibliographical conventions and hence we assume that "continuity is possible." Bernstein counts on that assumption and then attacks it. To "go on" with this text means that the reader has assented to the justice--the poetic justice of Bernstein's initial move. And if we do in fact go on with his text, we will discover that relationships and forms of order can be had only if they are actively made by the reader. We will also discover that such relationships and forms of order are multiple and that they shift from reader to reader and from reading to reading. Continuities do not lie in wait for us, and the idea that we should expect continuities is specifically rejected.
This is the antinarrative mode of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing and it is Bernstein's most typical form of stylistic address. The nonnarrative mode is perhaps best displayed in the elaborate forms of serialized writing produced by Ron Silliman. This is how Tjanting begins:
In an important essay, "Narrating Narration," on Silliman's work, Bernstein points out that Silliman's nonnarratives consciously work against "the deep slumber of chronology, causality, and false unity (totalization)." (19) He elaborates this idea in a general comment which might well serve as the basis for a particular exegesis of the passage I just quoted: "Detail is cast upon detail, minute particular on minute particular, adding up to an impossibility of commensurable narrative. With every new sentence a new embarkation: not only is the angle changed, and it's become a close-up, but the subject is switched. Yet maybe the sound's the same, carries it through. Or like an interlocking chain: A has a relation to B and B to C, but B and C have nothing in common (series not essence)." (20) Silliman's text commits itself to the "Not this," to a productivity that starts over and over again. But while the work is clearly a processive text, its movement is not governed by a narrativized totality. At the same time, if the work is oriented toward "the future," toward "what comes next," it grounds itself in both the present and the past: what it denominates, in its first two sentences, as the "this" and then "then." The chief effect is a brilliant sense of immediacy which is not, however, fixed or formalized. The text is restless in its presentness restless in a presentness which at all points vibrates with its relations to the past and its commitments to the future. In fact, Silliman's energized presentation gradually shows that the past and the future are themselves open to many possibilities. "I could have gone about this some other way," he writes, and in that very statement we observe a change of direction.Not this. What then? I started over & over. Not this. Last week I wrote "the muscles in my palm so sore from halving the rump roast I could barely grip the pen." What then? This morning my lip is blisterd. Of about to within which. Again & again I began. The gray light of day fills the yellow room in a way wch is somber. Not this. Hot grease has spilld on the stove top. Nor that either. Last week I wrote "the muscle at thumb's root so taut from carving that beef I thought it wld cramp." Not so. Would I begin? This morning my lip is tender, disfigured. I sat in an old chair out behind the anise. I could have gone about this some other way.
In a work like Tjanting language is carrying out--dramatizing certain fundamental realities of social space and social relations. Silliman's text is a vast trope of the human world. Events in the past continually impinge upon the present and possibilities beyond the present: words and phrases recur in slightly altered forms and circumstances, as do syntactical forms, images, and sound patterns. As a consequence, we confront time, or the sequence of eventualities, in a highly pressurized state. The shifting forms of the repetitions open the textual field to greater possibilities. They also locate startling interventions in the text's immediate moments:
The yellow room has a sober hue. Each sentence accounts for its place. Not this.
But perhaps most remarkable of all is the translation of the past that is to say, earlier textualizations--out of this generational process.So, while "earlier" textual forms appear in various "later" transforms, a reciprocal transformative process operates backward, as it were, changing the "earlier" texts within their memorial "later" constitutions. Thus in the next paragraph of Tjanting, when we come upon the statement "Each sentence accounts for all the rest, the "rhyme" of the sentences forces a new perspective on the earlier form "Each sentence accounts for its place." Minimally we observe that the particular "places" of "Each sentence" are functionally integrated with "all the rest." Out of the play of language emerges an idea of history as profoundly dialectical-as dialectical as Silliman's textual presentation. The "past" is no more fixed than the present or the future. All time is open to transformation.
Silliman's poem, in its largest sense, aims to represent through textual enactment a redemption of the localities of human history. Marxist in its orientation, Silliman's politicized writing has passed through the filtering critique of the Frankfurt school, and especially through the work of Benjamin. His Marxism is "Western" in the concrete sense that it is carried out within the arena of advanced capitalism and American political imperialism. His struggle against these exploitive social formations appears as a critique of the modes of language which produce and reproduce the "reality" of a capitalist world and history.
Silliman is especially interested, then, in that paradigmatic bourgeois form of writing, the novel, along with those correspondent breezes "referentiality" and "narrative." He does not attack "reference" in language--all language is social--but that deformed and repressive form of reference called referentiality wherein language is alienated from its use-functions : "What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases In its descriptive and narrative capabilities' ties, preconditions for the invention of 'realism,' the optical illusion of reality in capitalist thought. These developments are tied directly to the nature of reference in language, which under capitalism is transformed (deformed) into referentiality" (125) Silliman calls poetry "the philosophy of praxis in language" because its procedures are performative, "gestural," and nonnarrative. Poetics is, therefore, the critical instance through which narrativized forms are to be understood. In every novel is concealed its true poetic screaming to get out: "Repression does not, fortunately, abolish the existence of the repressed element which continues as a contradiction, often invisible, in the social fact. As such, it continues to wage the class struggle of consciousness" (126). But the novel, dominated as it is by referentiality and narrativity, is always moving within the medium of its own self-occlusion. The function of poetry is to provide an example of language in conscious pursuit of complete self-transparency. At this particular juncture of late capitalism, poetry represents the "social function of the language arts" as a liberating rather than a repressive structure: "to carry out the struggle for consciousness to the level of consciousness" (131).
Because "all meaning is a construct" (168), however, this self-transparency of the word is not an idea or a priori form which the poem tries to accommodate. Self-transparency, like social justice, is a practical matter--a form of accomplishment rather than a form of truth. It has to be carried out. In Silliman's writing, this "constructed" procedure appears most frequently in his resort to various artificial numbering systems to order his work. Two procedural rules govern the form of Ketjak (1977), for example. First, the work moves by a series of paragraphs in which each successive paragraph has twice the number of sentences as the previous one. Second, each new paragraph must contain, somewhere, all the words used in the preceding paragraph. The method is designed to generate a network of accumulating and interconnecting details. New material is continually being generated, but always within the context of the body of materials which has already been developed.
Of Ketjak Bernstein has acutely noted that "the narrative rules are not taken to be of intrinsic interest." Indeed, these are not "narrative rules" at all, but generative ones. Furthermore, they do not occupy the reader's attention as such, they provide the framework within which acts of attention are carried out. Therefore Bernstein observes, in a brilliant turn of critical wit, that "definition is a posteriori" in Silliman's work, "arising from a poetic practice in which the reader is is acknowledged as present counting. What counts are the multiple perspectives processed through the text who takes part in that processing. This is why Bernstein says that a Silliman poem is "not reductive, participatory, multiple."
Yet in Tjanting, written four years after Ketjak, Silliman deployed a numerically based rule for generating his materials which clearly held something more than a procedural interest for him. The work, he has said, grew out of a problem he had been pondering "for at least five years: what would class struggle look like, viewed as a form. Would such a form be useable in writing?" (27) The answer was that it would look like the Fibonacci number series--that is to say, the series in which each term is the sum of the preceding two. "What initially attracted me to the series were three things: (1) it is the mathematical sequence most often found in nature, (2) each succeeding term is larger, and (3) the quantitative difference between terms is immediately perceptible, even when the quantities are of syllables or paragraphs. 1121 Such a sequence came to embody for Silliman an objectively based dialectical process: "The most important aspect of the Fibonacci series turned out not to be those gorgeous internal relationships, but the fact that it begins with two ones. That not only permitted the parallel articulation of two sequences of paragraphs, but also determined that their development would be uneven, punning back to the general theory of class struggle. 1129 But what must be noted is that Tjanting does not tell the/a "story" of "class struggle." It does not reflect the operation of "the general theory of class struggle" in a projected "fiction" (first-person or otherwise). Rather Tjanting is a localized instance of class struggle itself: not merely Silliman's personal act of struggle, but his deployment of an artistic occasion within which such struggle may take place. In the end, as Bernstein observed, it is the reader in the poem who "counts."
As with other writers, Silliman's work engages adversely with all that means to appear authoritative, fixed, and determined. These antithetical project functions within the world of language because language is taken as the representative social form per se--the social form through which society sees and presents itself to itself. Thus, the "languages" within which these writers live and move and have their being are quite specifically the "languages" of the Cold War west after the debacles of the Korean and Vietnam wars. This is important to realize for it helps to explain the extremity of their work. In them poetry appears at a crisis of its traditional modes of expression. So false and self-conflicted seem the ordinary public forms of discourse--in the media, the policy organs of government, and the academic clerisy--that the artistic representation of such discourse must either be subjected to their one-dimensionality or activate a critical engagement.
That L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writers have chosen the alternative is clear not only from their poetic practice, but from their theoretical and exegetical work as well. Though they discuss and comment upon one another's work quite frequently, these discussions almost never take the form of "interpretation." Interpretive remarks are of course embedded throughout the commentary, but they are subordinated to various types of pragmatic and performative modes of discussion. As often as not the "commentary" will take the form of another poem or poetical excursus, or of an explanation of how some particular text "works" (rather than what it "means"), or, as we have already noticed in the work of Tina Darragh and Bernadette Mayer, of a set of directions and procedures, a mini-course in how-to-write.
THE SPECIAL CHARACTER of Silliman's nonnarrative texts is nicely dramatized if we set a work like Tjanting beside an academic text like John Hollander's Reflections on Espionage (1976). This may seem an odd comparison, but it is in fact quite opposite. In the first place, both poems are fully conscious of their placement within the sociohistorical field of Cold War America. Correlatively, both imagine and reflect upon the function of poetry within such social circumstances. Finally, both resort--in an extraordinarily odd conjunction of purposes--to the Fibonacci number sequence as an important procedural device within which their poems' meanings are carried out. "Reflections on Espionage" is a narrativized text made up of a series of code messages sent by the spy Cupcake to various other persons in his espionage network. The poem tells the story of Cupcake's increasing psychic disaffection-partly concealed even from himself with his work as a spy. Eventually Cupcake comes under the surveillance of his own organization's internal security apparatus, and at the end--his reliability as a spy hopelessly compromised--the organization calls for his "termination."
The story involves, of course, an elaborately executed allegory in which "spying" is equated with "being a poet," and vice versa. The text is full of coded references to American poets and writers, mostly Hollander's contemporaries. Its distant progenitor, Browning's "How It Strikes a Contemporary," underscores by contrast the special character of Reflections, for Hollander's story--like his hero--is dominated by nostalgia and a pervasive sense of social anomie. The poem's world is graphed along an axis of "them" and "us" which reflects both the political situation of the Cold War and the typical antagonisms and divisions between "schools" or groups of poets. All this would be merely amusing were it not that Hollander's hero continually reflects upon the social function of poetry; from these reflections he draws the most mordant and disheartening conclusions. In fact, "Reflections" argues, or rather demonstrates, that poetry under the social circumstances "reflected" in this poem has, like spying under the same circumstances, only an alienating effect. This poetry of "reflection" preserves, and ultimately relies, the world-as-alienation, and it does so by failing to imagine that poetry might struggle with, rather than merely reflect (upon), its world.
Cupcake's meditations on his work as spy/poet lead him to a sharp sense of his own isolation. In his loneliness he calls into question the whole enterprise to which he has given himself:
What kind of work is this For which if we were to touch in the darkness It would be without feeling the other there? It might help to know if Steampump's dying Was part of the work or not. I shall not be Told, I know.
Cupcake's question is rhetorical and will not--cannot, in his imagination of the world--be answered. This social alienation mirrors a correspondent crisis of the personality.
Names like ours leave no traces in Nature. Yet what of the names they encode, names One's face comes in time to rhyme with, John or James? The secret coded poem of one's whole life rhymes Entirely with that face, a maddening Canzona, every line of which sings in the Breaths we take and give, ending with the same sound. As with the life, so ridiculously, with The work. But, after all, which of them is the Enciphered version of the other one, and Are we, after all, even supposed to know?
In the end Hollander's "master spy" will watch the system he has served send out a broadcast order for his execution. His final coded transmission is a frightening poem constructed partly on the use of the Fibonacci number series. Its principal message, secreted away in the poem's initial and terminal syllables, is revealed by using the Fibonacci number sequence as an index to those syllables. It is a plea for death, and it is answered in the poem's final line--a series of Xs which, decoded, translate: TERMINATE CUPCAKE.
Silliman's imagination, as we have seen, found in the Fibonacci numbers an image of class struggle and social dialectics. The numbers confirm his search for signs and modes of social dynamism. But when Cupcake uses the Fibonacci series in his final transmission, he interprets his own usage in these terrible terms:
and I have sat watching Key numbers in their serial dance growing Further apart, outdistancing their touching, Outstretched arms.
Hollander's alter-ego "editor" of Cupcake's story supplies a gloss to Cupcake's final transmission. The exegesis remarks on the desperation of the passage but can only replicate the master spy's own sense of helplessness:
This disturbing and disturbed transmission seems to be a kind of cry for help. But to whom?
The interpretation here is congruent with the poem's self-conception. Hollander characterizes Cold War America and its poetry as a world of desperate (rather than rich) ambiguities. It is a poetic world whose own highest value--close interpersonal relations--is contradicted by the social structures and practices it takes for granted. To Hollander, the march of the Fibonacci numbers is the apocalypse of such a world, the prophecy of its desperation and its even more fragmented future.
Hollander's poem imagines what it knows (or thinks it knows) about poetry and society alike. Such an imagination, however, can mount no effective resistance against its own terrible revelations: vacancy in luxurious words, dismemberment in the way we live now. It is all mirror and meditation, a story and a set of reflections on the story. In this respect the contrast with writers like Bernstein and Silliman is striking and unmistakable. In them antinarrative and nonnarrative continually work against and move beyond the enchantments of what has been given and what is taken to be "real." They are the inheritors of Blake's early attempts to dismantle those prisons of imaginary beauties: social and personal life in its cruel apparitions, and art as what reflects upon such things. Hollander's poem is a work of decadence in that it rcfuses to press the charges called for by its own investigation. Pleading "no contest," it is properly found guilty. "Reflections on Espionage" is anything but a trivial poem, however. Its analogues are, for example, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat and Rossetti's House of Life and all those works which deliver us over to luxurious and unlivable things. The highest form of such poetry is reached in the work of artists like Baudelaire, the mayor of the City of Pain, over whose gates is written the legend "Anywhere out of the World."
Poetry can and does offer alternatives to such desperate forms of idealism, however. I do not have in mind work which celebrates or reflects the "solidarity" of "postmodern bourgeois intellectuals," though we certainly have a great deal of that today. Charles Bernstein's "For Love has such a Spirit . . ." is too long to quote in full, or even at length, but it certainly represents such an alternative: a Shelleyan performance, not unlike "Epipsychidion" or the great "Life of Life" lyric, in which love burns through all the vests which seem to hide it from us.
For love I would-deft equator. Nonchalant attribution of all the, & filled with such, meddles with & steals my constancy, sharpening desire for that, in passing, there, be favorite in ordinary, but no sooner thought than gone. My heart seems wax, that like tapers burns at light.31
This is a "deconstructive" poetry, fully postmodern in its style, but in its nervous erosions it moves the "Spirit" of a love that, settled in what is "ordinary" and given, will not settle for anything.
Silliman's nonnarratives are also exemplary alternatives, and a number of other significant writers might be named: Alan Davies, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe. They are all distinctive and distinguished writers. In each of them, however, writing is used to contest and disrupt those forms of order which are always replicated in the "realism" deployed through narrativities. These disruptions take antinarrative as well as nonnarrative form. In the latter, however, the critique of fixed orders ("reality") is carried out simultaneously with the deployment of new orders and "realities": "The mind evolves a blueprint out of what is already there, doesn't recognize where to go next, then explores and enumerates the possibilities ... The odd connection permits a reexperience of what was originally recorded but not really experienced. The mind (language) reshuffles its fragments in order to attain the original hierarchy; reassembling it permits reprocessing from the new perspective." (1132) This might have been a specific commentary on Silliman's Tjanting, for the process sketched here is precisely what we discover in Silliman's poem. But Davies and Plombino are making a general statement about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing. It is well put. And though it does not talk directly of a "politics of poetry," the politics of such writing--the theory and the practice of it alike--are plain for anyone to see.
Author: McGann, Jerome J. Title: Social values and poetic acts : a historical judgment of literary work / Jerome J. McGann. Published: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1988. Description: xii, 279 p. ; 24 cm.