Showing posts with label Barrett Watten. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barrett Watten. Show all posts

Monday, December 26, 2011

Barrett Watten reading

Intro by Carine Daly

Some context via Jacket2

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Photo by Tom Orange

Barrett Watten, reading
in The (New) Reading Series in Oakland
March 15, 2009

Saturday, October 04, 2008

When I first met Barrett Watten, in 1965, he was a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland, while I was just out of Albany High, hanging out among the teen flâneurs on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. It’s hard to imagine now, but the fellow who first introduced us, Davy Smith-Margen, has been dead for 42 years, killed when his VW rolled the following spring. The Watten I first knew seemed quiet & introspective. I don’t think either of us knew that the other wrote at first. I discovered this about him (and perhaps him about me) several years later when I was in Bob Grenier’s office at UC Berkeley circa 1970 & inexplicably Watten showed up at the door. He’d already graduated from UC & headed off to Iowa City to work on an MFA & was back in town for a visit.

In 1970, the number of people who understood – or thought we understood – the implications of Grenier’s unique combination of impulses from the work of Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky & Robert Creeley was small enough to have had dinner at a restaurant without having to push tables together. But what really cemented the relationship was a discussion Watten & I had – it took a couple of hours – when he dropped by the north Oakland cottage I shared with Barbara Baracks & tried to persuade me to take the work of Clark Coolidge seriously. I got it that Coolidge had already moved beyond the poem-as-speech metaphor so beloved of creative writing workshops in the 1960s, but what I didn’t get at that point was what the alternative principles of selection might be. I might even have thought, well, hanging with the New York School let’s you get away with that – look at John Giorno. Barrett’s strategy was to get me to see the role of humor in Clark’s work. These were in Coolidge’s early books, I think Ing and Space were the ones I had on hand, before the more programmatic writing of The Maintains and Polaroid, which may have been more radical formally, made it easier to see into Coolidge’s process & thinking. The humor was, Watten insisted, directly related to an interest in the work of Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen, two poets I would not have then thought to put alongside Clark. Thus in the matter of an afternoon, he’d taken me from a place where I had only seen surface effects & permitted me infinitely greater access into what I’d thought of as “abstract” & even “forbidding” work. It was, among other things, a close-reading tour-de-force.

My sense of that afternoon was not unlike my first exposure to Bob Grenier’s reportorial microwriting, a good portion of which would go into Sentences. What I felt was vertigo: I realized that the world I thought I knew of poetry – which was pretty much outlined by the Allen anthology, modified only by the arrival of a younger group of poets – Robert Kelly, Clayton Eshleman, Diane Wakoski, David Antin – associated with Caterpillar, alongside a few outliers such as Ronald Johnson or John Taggart, that world was about to change, and this change would be as dramatic in its own way as had been the arrival, say, of the New Americans announced by Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Ginsberg’s Howl & John Ashbery’s “Europe.” At least it would be (and was) for me.

I didn’t see a lot of Watten over the next year or so – he’d finished at Iowa City, but had moved up to the Mendocino area while I finally began my “alternative service” as a conscientious objector & moved into San Francisco. When he did move down to the City, maybe a year after I did, into a large apartment building on the edge of the Mission, we began getting together once a week or so & would invariably discuss / argue poetics. What I enjoyed then – and enjoy now – is the intensity & thoroughness of Barry’s mind, his ability to look at things completely fresh ways. Watten at a poem is not unlike, say, Cecil Taylor at a piano – there’s no inherent reason why the keys should get all of the attention, you could open the box & literally play anything inside, or look at the frame from every conceivable angle.

By this time Watten had not only started This magazine with Bob Grenier, but had taken on the full reins of the venture. It was already evident that the vague sense I had of this looming change in poetry was in fact happening & that Watten & Grenier & a bunch of other folks we were coming to know were all going to be part of this in some form or other.

So in 1974, I roomed with Barrett on Missouri Street on Potrero Hill & it’s no accident that it was there that I wrote Ketjak. What with Watten, Grenier & someone like Kathy Acker, whom we’d both gotten to know, all around then, it was clear that giving it your all, writing exactly what you thought needed to be written, regardless of whether it looked comfortably familiar or not, was the only way to go. Anything less really was just too boring, too timid. Why even bother?

It was Watten’s This Press that would publish Ketjak in 1978, an event that functionally changed my life as a poet. Once it was out, I found myself in a position to publish pretty much everything I wrote. That a small press with only the relatively primitive distribution systems available to such publishers in the 1970s could have this impact was itself instructive. Watten also published Coolidge’s The Maintains and Quartz Hearts, to this day my favorite book of Clark’s. This Press published Kit Robinson’s Dolch Stanzas, Ted Greenwald’s You Bet!, Larry Eigner’s Country / Harbor / Quiet / Act / Around, Grenier’s Series: Poems 1967 – 1971, Bruce Andrews’ Sonnets (memento mori), Carla Harryman’s Under the Bridge, Bob Perelman’s Primer, and two of Watten’s own early books, Decay and 1 – 10. I’m pretty sure that’s not a complete list – it’s what jumps out at me from my own shelves.  

Except for the books, which start in 1975, all of this occurs really before the time-frame we’ve set for ourselves in The Grand Piano project. Not to mention the nearly 30 years of work that Watten has done since the days of the GP reading series. Which include two of the best critical books I’ve ever read, multiple volumes of poetry (also among my favorite in the world), and spearheading the process by which The Grand Piano itself is being written. To say that working with ten language poets is like herding cats fails to convey just how strong headed and busy these cats are. But as I learned as his roommate, Watten is the James Brown of American poetry, the hardest working man in the room. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who puts the same amount of energy into thinking – and doing – whatever the poem requires. And I have, for 43 years, learned an enormous amount just by paying attention.  

I’ve written about (or otherwise included) Watten here before: These are some of the more noteworthy:

On The Constructivist Moment

On Plasma / Paralleles / “X” (from my selection of “essential works” that most influenced me for Peter Davis’ Poet’s Bookshelf)

On Watten’s own contribution to Davis’ second volume (in two parts: here and here)

Watten’s poem ”Tibet” which I ran in response to the violence with which the Chinese put down demonstrations there earlier this year.

I can’t be in Detroit for the big reading today at the College for Creative Studies. But I want to acknowledge Watten’s role in this adventure, which is proving to be a fabulous experience. Consider this a tip of my not-quite pork pie hat.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When, in editing the first volume of Poet’s Bookshelf, Peter Davis got some 81 poets to respond to his request for a list of

5-10 books that have been most “essential” to you, as a poet

and asked his respondents further to “Please write some comments about your list,” he got an awesomely, if predictably, wide range of reactions. At one extreme were minimalist responses, such as J.D. McClatchy’s list of three:

Virgil, The Aeneid
The American Heritage Dictionary
William Shakespeare

followed by a five-paragraph essay that begins “The Aeneid is undoubtedly the greatest poem ever written….” Only two other contributors mention Virgil on their lists at all. Clark Coolidge tries the opposite approach to minimalism, citing 16 books, twelve of whose authors were in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and the other four (William Carlos Williams, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo) of whom would have been included in the Allen had they only been a little older or a little younger. Coolidge is marvelously specific as to which publication proved “essential,” noting that the version of Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight he has in mind is the selection of “the first 49 sections as printed in Big Table magazine, no. 1, 1959.” Coolidge is the only contributor to the first volume of DavisPoet’s Bookshelf to list Ray Bremser, let alone Drive Suite.

I was given a copy of Ray’s typescript by Buell Neidlinger, Cecil Taylor’s bass player in the fifties, in 1961.

But Coolidge’s entire discussion beyond the specificity of his list is extremely brief:

The publication dates are, unless otherwise indicated, also the years of first possession.

I do not intend this list as any sort of “canon.” This is the contemporary American poetry that most excited me as I began to seriously attempt the art.

As essays go, this is twice the length of Elizabeth Spires’ contribution:

These are authors and books that I greatly admire, and that I have been influenced by, but that seem to me “overlooked.”

Her list contains seven poets, including Josephine Jacobsen, A. R. Ammons, John Berryman, Elizabeth Coatsworth, May Swenson, William Meredith and Gwen Harwood. Considering that I have never even heard of two of her choices, I wish she’d expanded somewhat on what it is about them that makes them, for her, special.

Some contributions are eye opening. Thom Gunn lists no School of Quietude poets whatsoever, choosing instead:

William Shakespeare
John Donne
Charles Baudelaire
William Carlos Williams
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts and Other Poems

Another poet who for all purposes chooses no School of Quietude poets is Franz Wright, at least unless you count Hart Crane or Theodore Roethke among such – both special cases who suggest the limits of that designation. Seven contributors list James Wright as a primary influence; son Franz is not among them.

Here is Fanny Howe’s contribution, in its entirety:

Years ago Edward Dahlberg gave me a list of ten book that I was allowed to read, all the rest being trash. Some of the trash included Melville, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke and Joyce. These writers have populated my bookshelves for decades. Dahlberg would have been repelled by anthologies that I own: Jerome Rothenberg’s America: A Prophecy, The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Brown, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, Moving Borders, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan, and Early Celtic Poetry. He despised almost all fiction, and my large collection of contemporary fiction, which includes many friends and world poets, he would have called “an utter waste of time.” I will not provide his approved list here. But I will say that Dahlberg’s own autobiography, Because I Was Flesh, stays with me as an object and a model of enlightened prose literature. What would he make of that?

At the other extreme, Clayton Eshleman lists “Nine Fire Sources,” just four of which are books of poems. The others include “Tea for Two” by Bud Powell, Origin magazine, the paintings of Chaϊm Soutine, Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. Eshleman then writes twelve pages of commentary on these nine sources, making his contribution something akin to The Education of Clayton Eshleman. Tho his choices won’t be surprising to any of his readers, his discussion is the most detailed in the volume & thereby the most illuminating.

Barrett Watten’s draft of a response for a future edition of Poet’s Bookshelf on his website at Wayne State is in the same general vein as Eshleman. One value for me here is that it is not all just poetry – Watten, like Eshleman, includes music, art and theoretical writing. And Watten goes into greater depth, offering twelve categories and suggesting multiple possibilities for each, with some brief comments on each group. Beyond this, I have my own personal stake in Watten’s influences – Barrett is clearly one of the individuals who has had the greatest influence on my own life and work. Along with Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier, he has had more impact on how I think about poetry & literature generally than just about anyone else.

With the exception of a category Watten labels “Great Books” (four pre-20th century authors, plus the German novelists Alfred Döblin & W. G. Sebald) which Watten posits last, literally on the far side of theory, film and the visual arts, his literary selections are grouped together in six clusters at the start of his piece:

Language Writing
Hybrid Texts
New York School

The modernists are predictable precisely because disputes over that generation, at least with regards to English language literature, appear to have been settled once Stein – who was almost entirely ignored in the 1950s & ‘60s – was returned to a central role: Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Pound, Williams, McKay, with the text selected from this group being Spring & All. That book was one of two by Williams on my own list of 12 in the first volume of this series¹ so this makes complete sense to me. My own list for this category would see Faulkner in place of Woolf or McKay, and possibly Hart Crane as well. But my real sense is that the deeper question here is the exclusivity of Watten’s focus on English-language modernism. I would almost certainly include Vladimir Maykofsky & Velimir Khlebnikov. I know there are people who would argue for Stevens or even Eliot, but I’d have to put Woolf & McKay back in, as well as a host of other writers (Brecht, Riding, Hughes, Hikmet, Cavafy, Borges, Kafka), before I’d get to Stevens. The list is a whole lot longer before I would reach Eliot.

The structure of Watten’s next five categories is worth thinking about, because it begins with one grouping, the postmoderns, who basically represent the Objectivists plus every kind of New American Poetry (NAP) other than the New York School, and ends with the NY School after proceeding through three groupings more of contemporary writers: Proto-Language, Language Writing & Hybrid Texts. The idea of breaking the New American Poetry into a binary strikes me as emotionally “right” in that I think most poets of my own generation tended to focus on just one of the NAP’s different possibilities – New York School, Projectivist (a.k.a Black Mountain), Beat, the Spicer Circle or New Western/Zen Cowboy² – grouping whatever was outside of one’s focus more or less as a friendly-but-less-interesting Other. My own focus differs from Watten – if I had to reduce it to two groups, it would be Projectivist & Other, with a lot of the Spicer Circle foregrounded in the latter. The incorporation of the Objectivists into this model makes a lot of sense, even if they were writing somewhat cohesively two decades before the NAP, since their books didn’t start becoming widely available until the 1960s, actually after most of the other NAP formations.

Watten’s own Other, his “postmoderns,” turns out to be the three horsemen of the Projectivist movement – Olson, Duncan & Creeley – plus sort of one each of the other non-NY schools: Zukofsky (Objectivism), Ginsberg (Beat) & Joanne Kyger (both Spicer & the Zen Cowboy clusters). The book he highlights as key here is Creeley’s Pieces, also one of the twelves volumes I had on my list in the first volume. Watten gets the New York School right also in including Koch for When the Sun Tries to Go On and recognizing “Second Avenue” as Frank O’Hara’s crowning achievement. I don’t share his enthusiasm for Ashbery’s Double Dream of Spring, at least not when compared against Three Poems or Rivers and Mountains or even The Vermont Notebook or Flow Chart. And while there is a rightness in including Mayer & Brainard in this grouping, I couldn’t personally imagine a New York School cluster without David Shapiro or Joe Ceravolo. Among the works Watten lists, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets makes sense as the volume highlighted. But I’d personally have picked Three Poems instead.

Ashbery shows up again in one of the three groupings that tend to be more contemporary, one of two authors to turn up in two clusters, the other being Clark Coolidge (who also is included under “new music/jazz” for his collection Sound as Thought). Both Coolidge & Ashbery turn up in the Proto Language. The whole concept of proto language – the idea, as I understand it, of writing that “arrived at” language poetry without necessarily meaning to get there, which includes The Tennis Court Oath, Coolidge’s The Maintains, Larry Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, Robert Grenier’s Sentences and Rae Armantrout’s first book, Extremities – is interesting to contemplate. It certainly is the case that there are a number of people – Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, Jackson Mac Low, Ted Greenwald, as well as the ones Watten lists – who either have been uncomfortable with any association with langpo, so-called, or whom others have felt were “roped in” just to lend the phenomenon some legitimacy. But just as, in the 1950s, Denise Levertov had virtually nothing in common with the “Beat” writers so many of the New American Poets initially were typed as, any literary movement, if it has any force, any serious social as well as aesthetic meaning, tends to incorporate any number of such “border cases.” Is John Clellon Holmes a Beat novelist? F. T. Prince a “New York School” poet? What about John Koethe? What about Tom Clark, who spent his years as poetry editor of the Paris Review first in England, then in the Bay Area? Why isn’t Aram Saroyan a langpo, at least for his minimalist works? Once you get going, questions like this become rather endless, and indeed one of their downsides is that they can enable the construction of pseudogroups like M. L. Rosethal’s confessional poets, a tendency that was alleged to include both Anne Sexton & Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell & Gregory Corso. As a concept, confessionalism was sillier even than the idea of a San Francisco Renaissance, but at least the latter seems to have been originally conceived in jest.

So I like the concept of Proto Language, simply because it acknowledges the complexity of categories per se, tho I don’t draw the Venn diagrams of poetry in the same way as Barrett – I don’t see anything “proto” about Armantrout, Grenier or Weiner, tho I could probably be persuaded about it with regards to Coolidge, and the likes of a Palmer or Mayer strike me as a no-brainer for this category. I’m persuaded, for example, that a purely formal definition of language writing, or for that matter any literary tendency, is both ahistorical as well as apolitical. That is why, for example, Rae Armantrout strikes me as a canonic example of language writing, whereas Peter Ganick & Sheila Murphy seem entirely outside the phenomenon. It’s not a question of the value of the writing any of the three, only one of historical & social context – and not being a New Critic, I do think those enter in.

But a second question might be if one were to break contemporary poetry into just three possible tendencies to list as “most formative,” are these the ones you would pick? I realize, of course, that Watten wasn’t asked to account for the whole of poetry, only what was personally important to/for him. There’s no need for him to identify his “most influential School of Quietude” poets. If I were to try to replicate this phenomenon for myself, I would obviously include langpo, a second category for writers whom I think of as simpatico, but ultimately doing something else – Bev Dahlen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Leslie Scalapino, C.D. Wright, Craig Watson, Elizabeth Willis, Rod Smith, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, Forrest Gander, Joseph Massey & Graham Foust would all be on that list. But I would also have to have a third list just for writing the longpoem, again with Bev Dahlen & Rachel Blau DuPlessis, but also Frank Stanford, Ronald Johnson, Ted Enslin, Robert Kelly (especially for Axon Dendron Tree), bpNichol, Basil Bunting, even Hart Crane & Donald Finkel. Not to mention Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson & Duncan.

But I would also have to add another category for more or less contemporary foreign writing in translation. For me, that is a list that would begin with Francis Ponge (maybe even St.-John Perse & Victor Segalen), would include Ivan Zhdanov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Alexei Parschikov & Nina Iskrenko. This would need to be paired with English-language poetry from outside the U.S., starting with Steve McCaffery & Tom Raworth, but extending out for many, many names beyond that.

And while I like Watten’s concept here of the hybrid text – I can see how that makes sense for Barry and his own writing – I think my own experience would be to divide that idean into one category for poet’s fiction, starting with Kerouac’s Visions of Cody and This Railroad Earth, lots of Fielding Dawson, as well as Acker, Sorrentino, Leslie Dick, Nicole Brossard, while putting the likes of Harryman & Benson back into langpo proper.

A lot of this has to do with mental maps &, as always, that is a concept that turns me back to the questionnaire Jack Spicer used for entrance into his Magic Workshop at the San Francisco Public Library fifty years ago, where he asked respondents to pick one of two templates for a map of literary influences – one vaguely genealogical, the other looking like clusters of galaxies in the night sky. Pick one and fill it in with names. My own doesn’t look like anything Spicer might have recognized, but it’s also interesting to see how different the map is from somebody of my own generation & cohort like Watten. Both Watten & Spicer, it is worth noting, made my own list of 12 books.


¹ The other being The Desert Music, the volume that literally was my introduction to the pleasures of contemporary poetry.

² This isn’t the breakdown according to Donald Allen, but what really existed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Peter Davis must be in the process of gathering together a second volume of his anthology, Poet’s Bookshelf, collecting the lists of a new set of writers as to the ten or so books that most were or are “most ‘essential’ to you, as a poet,” since Barrett Watten, not one of the 81 contributors in the first volume, has been asked to prepare a similar list. Barry has responded with great gusto & offers a list not just of ten books, but rather a 15 or 16 works in twelve different categories that proved “most formative” for him. Even the categories chosen deserve a look-see:

Language Writing
Hybrid Texts
New York School
New Music/Jazz
Literary Theory
Cultural Theory
Great Books

For each of these categories, Watten offers a half dozen or so key works, highlighting one or two in boldface that are the ones he would ultimately list – “had these works not existed, all would be otherwise,” he writes.¹

I certainly understand the impulse to expand beyond just a blank list of individual volumes of poetry. My own selection in volume one contained 12 items², just six of which were individual volumes of verse in any usual sense. One was a volume, Spring & All, that contains both poetry & critical writing – it is in fact Watten’s selection under Modernists. Another was the Allen anthology. A third was a “box” of poems, rather than a book, Robert Grenier’s Sentences. (Watten lists it as one of his alternates under “Proto Language.”) One was a novel – Kathy Acker’s The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (Watten lists a different Acker novel as an alternate under his “Hybrid Texts” category). One was a book of theory by a poet – Charles Olson’s Proprioception – and one a book of political theory – Henri Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialism from the old Cape/Grossman series that included such classics as Olson’s Mayan Letters and Louis Zukofsky’s “A” 22 and 23 (one of my six “regular books” of poetry).

Watten carries this contextualizing impulse much further than I did. Where I listed one volume by Olson that could be called theory (Proprioception), another by Lefebvre, two of Watten’s twelve categories are theoretical, containing a total of 14 books, none of them by poets unless you count Roman Jakobson’s flirtation with the craft during his days as a student in Russia. I have to admit that Jakobson’s Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning as well as Victor Shklovsky’s Third Factory would be on any expanded list of literary theory texts I chose as well, tho I’m surprised, I guess, not to see Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, anything by Olson or Creeley’s A Quick Graph. In fact, my personal list might well include Watten’s own The Constructivist Moment, Bob Perelman’s anthology of talks that appeared as a double issue of Hills, Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry or Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, an instance of biography of critique that is one of the great books in its own right.

What Watten calls Cultural Theory I would be more inclined to characterize as social or even political theory. And while I like all of the books Watten lists, I don’t think any of them would be on my own personal roster – this is probably the one area where we have the least overlap (as in “none” tho I don’t actually believe that our thinking is that far apart). For one thing, I couldn’t imagine the category, at least as category, not only without Lefebvre, but without Marx, for whom I would have picked several items from among The Eighteenth Brumaire, The German Ideology, The Communist Manifesto, the first volume of Capital and possibly even the Grundrisse. I certainly would have had Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, the book that made him a cult figure in the U.S., and Sartre’s What is Literature? (necessary for Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero) , perhaps even Search for a Method or Critique of Dialectical Reason. Would I have included Louis Althusser or Antonio Gramsci? I certainly would have entertained the idea. But I also would have stretched out in some other areas not covered by Watten’s list here – such as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations, or Claude Levi-Strauss’ magisterial memoir, Tristes Tropiques.

Another category that is interesting to think about is New Music/Jazz, for which Watten lists both recordings (Anthiel, Webern, Braxton, Cage, James Brown, Steve Reich, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy) and books (by Clark Coolidge & Ted Pearson). Here we have some interesting overlap – I would almost certainly include Braxton’s For Alto and Steve Reich’s Drumming – Barry & I heard the West Coast premier of the work at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum together in 1974 (and it was formative enough for me that I began writing Ketjak within a fortnight). But I might include Reich’s earlier tape works as well, along with some work by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet (including the “unrecordable” performance piece The Hive), some different Lacy (Sidelines with Michael Smith on piano), and just maybe some folk and blues music, The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and The Band, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde by Dylan, the recordings of Robert Johnson, Drum Hat Buddha by Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer and the jug band blues of Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel & Hammie Nixon. There were also some live jam sessions at Pangaea on Bernal Heights in San Francisco involving members of ROVA, John Grundfest, Greg Goodman, Henry Kaiser & others that proved formative, for me at least (ensconced as I was on the bleacher seating there, writing rapidly into a notebook) tho nobody thought to have a tape running. Another obvious piece for me would be an item of ersatz world music, the Balinese oral piece called Ketjak, which was cobbled together by Colin McPhee for the sake of tourists from pre-existing Balinese sources.

Like music, film is a category where I would expect any writer to select on deeply personal grounds whatever works might be thought of as “most formative” in the creation of an aesthetic. I’m fascinated at the idea that Barry picks Wojcieck Has’s Saragossa Manuscript just because it also is one of my favorite films of all time as well, and I didn’t realize that we shared that opinion. It’s not the “most important” or “best” film ever made, but it had a powerful impact on me when it made the rounds – with some regularity – at the Cedar Alley Cinema in San Francisco. If I don’t make the same argument on behalf of the film as Watten, it’s only because I didn’t learn those particular lessons (that “all art is a construction”) there. From the perspective of my own personal history, that was Antonioni’s gift. Of the other films and/or filmmakers on his list, the ones I just might include in a similar list would be Godard’s Breathless and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The Godard films that actually had the greatest impact on me – Pierrot le fou, and Weekend – may have more to do with when I saw them than which films they were. Other films I would have to include in such a list would be Les Enfants du paradis, Juliet of the Spirits, Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew, Vertigo, The Conversation, Chushingura and almost any film by Ousmane Sembene or Abigail Child, especially Pacific Far East Line. It’s worth noting that all of the women filmmakers who write and publish theory in English are named Abigail Child – her importance in the history of cinema cannot be overstated.

I’ll look more closely at Barry’s more purely literary choices next.


¹ Full disclosure: Ketjak and Tjanting are the works so chosen in boldface for language writing.

² Full disclosure (part 2): my selection included a volume of Watten’s: Plasma / Paralleles / “X”.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

This completes my selection of “essential works” for Peter Davis’ anthology.


Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula

In 1973, Kathy Acker was writing and self-publishing this novel one chapter per month, handing out individually bound chapters each month at readings around San Francisco. Indeed, these short pamphlets listed their author only as The Black Tarantula, a persona Acker used during much of that period. The only woman in San Francisco that year to have a crewcut, Acker came across as the essence of punk generation extremism, although once you got to know her – a woman whose book crowded apartment included parrots named Art & Revolution & hamsters or guinea pigs named Cage & Mac Low, you realized that the persona was exactly that – a protective shell than enabled Acker extraordinary freedom as both individual & artist. When you read the chapters, already stamped with their distinctive genre formula of plagiarism + pornography = autobiography & realized that this was not a con but an attempt to re-invent fiction from the ground up, the bravery of it as a writing project just made your jaw drop.


I use the word plagiarism, which Acker did as well, especially after she was sued by a hack novelist, but in reality what Acker did was to appropriate texts in ways that foregrounded their social presumptions. In this sense, she carried the use of found materials beyond the primarily combinatory functions found, say, in early works by Jackson Mac Low to a mode that has more in common, say, with the films of Godard or the murals of Diego Rivera. To this material, a second layer of discourse derived from the most exploitive modes of porn was superimposed, a method that allowed Acker to approach & address the abusive conditions of her own childhood. Thus, in fact, she could write a work that was, at one level, precisely about the construction of the master tropes of fiction, such as character, while in the same moment presenting autobiography almost in its purest form.


While Acker’s genre was always fiction, her use of the devices of writing as a primary mode of intellectual investigation made her an integral part of the poetry community, especially in San Francisco. From her and Grenier, in particular, I learned that one must be willing to go exactly where your vision leads you, even if that place seems not to exist or otherwise be impossible.



Barrett Watten, Plasma / Paralleles / “X”

I’ve been influenced by every book Barrett Watten ever wrote, including Radio Day in Soma City, but the one that has had the greatest impact on my own writing, the one I’m still apt to find myself reading in a dream, is this Tuumba Press chapbook from 1979. In it, Watten uses a combination of syntax, surrealism & philosophical investigation (both with & without the caps) to arrive at a New Sentence entirely different from anything any other of my peers had ever written. The opening passage of “Plasma” is as powerful anything I have ever read:


A paradox is eaten by the space around it.


I’ll repeat what I said.


To make a city into a season is to wear sunglasses inside a volcano.


He never forgets his dreams.


The effect of the lack of effect.


The hand tells the eye what to see.


I repress other useless attachments.   Chances of survival are one out of ten.


I see a tortoise drag a severed head to the radiator.


They lost their sense of proportion.   Nothing is the right size.


He walks in the door and sits down.


It gives me shivers just to type that up. Watten here has arrived at a space in which the referential content of the language can be seen clearly for the machinery that it is. Rather than draining syntax of its power the way, say, Clark Coolidge’s long poems from this same period do, Watten underscores the grammatical imposition of drama. All three of the pieces in this collection work, to one degree or another, from the same principles, demonstrating that the most investigative & intellectually demanding writing can employ all the devices of fiction without ever surrendering to them. If for me the lesson of Grenier’s Sentences was how to hear the phrase & how to recognize the beginning, middle & end of even a single vowel as separate moments in the poem, Plasma / Paralleles / “X” taught me how to read within the sentence as a dynamic architecture. That’s a lesson I use every day of my life.

Friday, June 20, 2003

My big summer reading book has arrived. It might also be my fall one as well, truth be told. It’s a volume I’ve been waiting for literally for eighteen years & now that it’s here, my very first impression is that it’s a thing of beauty, a 430 page cornucopia of tightly packed, brilliant prose from the best critical mind of my generation. Its title is The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics & its author, Barrett Watten.


I’ve been waiting for it since the publication of Total Syntax, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1985. Total Syntax was – & still is – one of my favorite critical texts ever. It’s one of those books of which I own multiple copies, one of them fully marked up. Watten’s take-no-prisoners close readings of Coolidge, Olson, Eigner, Russian Formalism, Robert Smithson & many of Watten’s own peers gives, even at nearly two decades’ remove, the best feel for the actual experience of language poetry on a day-to-day basis of any book I know. A major reason for this is that Watten was central to virtually every important discussion &/or initiative that took place associated with the western version of langpo from the first issue of This magazine onward. Any history of the phenomenon that doesn’t put a substantial focus on Watten’s work as poet, critic & organizer, really can’t be said to be even marginally adequate.


That’s the test I always use when I see an account of this writing between, say, 1970 & the mid-80s. Watten’s poetry, as well as his prose, doesn’t lend itself to a casual reading, for some of the same reasons that Olson or J.H. Prynne have likewise resisted litcrit tourism. Accordingly, there are more than a few histories out there, some of them well intended, that don’t address his role fully or even directly, & which then proceed to get most everything else wrong also.


Watten’s project in The Constructivist Moment strikes me as broader & more ambitious. Within the introduction, Watten positions Total Syntax this way:


My early criticism, in Total Syntax (1985) and an article titled “Social Formalism” (1987), may be seen as attempts, before the dawn of the material text (which had everything to do with the emergence of the Language School and its textual politics), to find models for an avant-garde textuality within a larger syntax of cultural meaning.


The new volume “addresses the gap between constructivist aesthetics and a larger cultural poetics.” By constructivist, Watten means literally “the imperative in radical literature and art to foreground their formal construction,” but he’s not interested primarily – at least this is my take, having read some of these pieces previously in journals – in mere exoskeletal exhibitionism. What he seems to be most interested in – it may be the link to the cultural poetics part of the subtitle’s equation – is their negativity, the gap they initiate or articulate or define by their process:


The constructivist moment is an elusive transition in the unfolding work of culture in which social negativity – the experience of rupture, an act of refusal – invokes a fantasmatic future – a horizon of possibility, an imagination of participation. Constructivism condenses this shift of horizon from negativity to progress in aesthetic form; otherwise put, constructivism stabilize crisis as it puts art into production toward imaginary ends.


As I read that, the constructivist work necessarily plays a specific role within the dialectic between art & the social world from which it inevitably derives & in which it then participates as a disruptive intervention.


But I shouldn’t pretend to know more than I do. Watten’s table of contents will give a far better sense of the path of his argument than I can here:


  • From Material Text to Cultural Poetics
  • New Meaning and Poetic Vocabulary: From Coleridge to Jackson Mac Low
    • Poetic Vocabulary
    • Coleridge’s Desynonymy
    • Zukofsky’s Dictionary
    • Mac Low’s Lexicons
    • New Meanings
  • The Secret History of the Equal Signs: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E between Discourse and Text
    • Avant-Garde Paradox
    • Postrevolutionary Poetics
    • Legend’s Text
    • Multiauthors (M)
    • Multiauthors (F)
    • Multiauthors and the Listserv
  • The Bride of the Assembly Line: Radical Poetics in Construction
    • The Descent
    • Cultural Poetics
    • Stein’s Ford
    • Assembling This
    • The Bride
  • The Constructivist Moment: From El Lissitzky to Detroit Techno
    • The Great Divide
    • Lissitzky’s Examples
    • Constructivist Poetics
    • Detroit Techno
    • Moments
  • Nonnarrative and the Construction of History: An Era of Stagnation, the Fall of Saigon
    • Nonnarrative Poetics
    • The Construction of History
    • An Era of Stagnation
    • The Fall of Saigon
    • Nonnarrative Ending
  • Negative Examples: Theories of Negativity in the Avant-Garde
    • Negativity
    • Dark Matter
    • The Nothing That Is
    • Limit Situations
    • Negativities
  • Post-Soviet Subjectivity in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Ilya Kabakov
    • After the Fall
    • Dragomoshchenko’s Metapoetics
    • Kabakova’s Kommunalka
    • Post-Soviet/Postmodern
  • Zone: The Poetics of Space in Posturban Detroit
    • The Postmodern Turn
    • The Object of Spatial Fantasy
    • The Modern as Spatial Fantasy
    • Boundaries as Subject
    • Social Space and Negativity
    • Gaps between Terrains
    • Art and Negativity
    • Negativity and Social Space
    • For a Critical Regionalism
    • Site and Nonsite
    • DouglasLe Détroit
    • Posturban Detroit



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.”