Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Consider the first ten sections of Complete Thought by Barrett Watten, first published in 1982, available now in Frame (1971-1990) (Sun & Moon, 1997):

The world is complete.
Books demand limits.

Things fall down to create drama.
The materials are proof.

Daylight accumulates in photos.
Bright hands substitute for sun.

Crumbling supports undermine houses.
Connoisseurs locate stress.

Work breaks down to devices.
All features present.

Necessary commonplaces form a word.
The elements of art are fixed.

A mountain cannot be a picture.
Rapture stands in for style.

Worn-out words are invented.
We read daylight in books.

Construction turns back in on itself.
Dogs have to be whipped.

Eyes open wide to see spots.
Explanations are given on command.

The poem continues this spare, riveting process for a total of 50 sections.

Like all the best works that I’ve quoted in the blog that are already 20 or more years old – Grenier’s Sentences, Faville’s “Aubade,” Stanley’s “Pompeii” – “Complete Thought” is as stunning today as it was when it was first published. For me, reading Watten is a good amount like listening to early Bob Dylan: an experience so powerful that I have to ration it judiciously. Otherwise I’m apt to find myself sounding like a poor imitation days, if not weeks, later. “Complete Thought” is a poem very close to the center of my own experience of what it means to be a poet. I can’t imagine reading it as anything less than a life-changing event.

Thinking specifically of Rodney Koeneke’s questions Sunday concerning language poetry, the unconscious & the spiritual, “Complete Thought” strikes me as a text aimed almost directly at the unconscious. At one level, Watten is the first poet since Spicer to really get the power of overdetermination & render it not merely palpable, but unmistakable in a text.

Part of this is accomplished through a classic deployment of new sentences – the image schemas enveloping each first sentence is sufficiently remote from any schema surrounding the second sentence in its pair that the structurally implicit “causal” relation between them is felt for what it déjà toujours is: the reader’s superimposition, a form of violence acted on the text by the reading process itself.

By themselves, the sentences of “Complete Thought” are unexceptional – so much so that they stand out with a sheen one associates with neomodern design, a functionalism so bare it almost hurts, casting every individual element into a high-contrast relief. An important part of Watten’s genius here lies in the recognition that the form of the direct sentence, by itself, carries its own psychic & socio-political baggage. The aggressiveness of the piece, indeed its emotional tone, is governed precisely by our experience of syntax as force – in every sense of that word.

Koeneke links language poetry to mysticism through apophasis, a term with both rhetorical & theological meanings. From the Greek for “to speak” (phasis) “away” (apo), the term is a primary device of critical negation – the standard rhetorical example is a single sentence that asserts negativity while claiming not to speak of it, as in “I won’t discuss George W’s incompetence.” The little I know of negative theology* suggests that apophasis proposes the idea that God is “absence,” “difference” or “otherness.” Framed as apophatic discourse, it becomes evident that the privileged moment in the new sentence lies between the period of one sentence and the capital letter that initiates the next – the same terrain rendered so vividly in “Complete Thought.”

Koeneke’s paragraph on the apophatic is worth repeating:

The apophatic tradition in mysticism, however - approaching the divine by what it's not - shares a lot of (perhaps superficial) parallels with Language writing. The subject, or ego, comes into question as an external construct; language is inadequate to apprehend reality; ideas are an arm of the secular, external social institutions that seek to limit freedom. I could imagine an apophatic spiritual poetry that looked very much like Language writing, one that didn't raid the poetics for nifty effects, but took a similar orientation towards writing out of a shared sense of what's at stake with words. I wonder if Spicer was one of them.

It would be possible to pick apart each of these sentences, phrase by phrase: the idea that “language is inadequate to apprehend reality” is a considerable leap, given the diversity of writing that gets typed as langpo**. But it seems evident that what Koeneke most usefully is after is the link here between Spicer’s use of overdetermination in his writing and that gap between sentences at the heart of langpo.

Does this make Barrett Watten a spiritual writer? Only if he wants to be. Rather, I think the question more important to pose here is what really occurs in that gap between sentences that a generation of writers would begin to explore this all-but-invisible terrain in such significant numbers. To frame a response in terms of psychology, spirituality or even linguistics is to freeze the discussion into the constraints of an already existing discipline. Yet it is exactly the inability of any inherited intellectual or social tradition to – and I’m choosing my words deliberately here – “nail down” this space that has given it just such potency for our time.

So in this sense I would agree with one aspect of Koeneke’s initial argument – that there are a lot of relatively younger writers today who adopt some of the surface features of langpo in order to rehabilitate it back into an already canned psychology of the person, say the way Carol Maso’s Ava tames Beckett when what we really need is a writing that explodes & explores that which is most wild there. Watten, in contrast, is not a poet of compromise. Which is precisely a mark of his greatness.

* Cf. Silence and the Word, edited by Oliver Davies & Denys Turner, or Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying.

** Koeneke’s reductive tendency to collapse language writing to a single (if transpersonal) agency – as in “can Language writing address X” type statements – I’ve simply ignored here in order to chase more valuable avenues of response. My usual reply to Can-language-poetry-address type questions is “only if it has an envelope and some stamps.”