Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theory. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I’m always reading a dozen books at once, sometimes twice that many. Even my “current novel,” literally my bedtime reading as I drift off to dreamland, is divided between Tao Lin’s sad but oddly beautiful Richard Yates and Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, the latter of which I’m reading as an e-book, a PDF version of the Project Gutenberg edition on an old Palm Pilot that’s not much good for anything else these days. In part, this reading style is because I have an aversion to the immersive experience that is possible with literature. Sometimes, especially if I’m “away” on vacation, I’ll plop down in a deck chair on a porch somewhere with a big stack of books of poetry, ten or twelve at a time, reading maybe up to ten pages in a book, then moving it to a growing stack on the far side of the chair until I’ve gone through the entire pile. Then I start over in the other direction. I can keep myself entertained like this for hours. That is pretty close to my idea of the perfect vacation.

I’ve had this style of reading now for some 50 years – it’s not something I’m too likely to change – but I’ve long realized that this is profoundly not what some people want from their literature, and it’s the polar opposite of the experience of “getting lost” in a summer novel, say. Having been raised, as I was, by a grandmother who had long psychotic episodes makes one wary of the notion of “getting lost” in the fantasy life of another.

Monday, August 03, 2009

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Is poetry written to be read? That seemingly no-brainer of a question was roiling my half-sleep in that shadowland the other morning between the first sounding of my alarm clock & the moment, 30 minutes later, when I actually dragged my poor self out of bed. The answer appears obvious & yet it’s not, at least not once you start to tease out the assumptions implicit in such a question. Perhaps even stranger, the answer may be changing even as I write.

Homer, to pick an author, even if it is one that we agree represents a construct at least as much as it does an individual, never “wrote” with the presumption of a book. The meaning of the word text in an oral culture is one of those problematic horizons that French theory loves to gaze upon without end. The much more recent poet of Beowulf was no different in this regard. Chaucer, not quite 700 years ago, seemed to envision the Tales as texts, something that might be read & passed on even after he is gone, but his conception of the book does not include moveable type, let alone mass production. Shakespeare’s utter disregard to the preservation of his plays makes clear just how marginal the concept of a book was to his own textual practice, tho it is arguable that this is less true in the case of The Sonnets.

I would suggest that the first English poets to really write with the book – and all the implications for distribution & consumption that the book entails – always already as part of the package, indeed the primary location for the life of the poem, are the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge.¹ The distance between Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with photo of the author, is less than 60 years. In another 60, you will find Ezra Pound contemplating The Cantos as a keystone to his imagined five-foot bookshelf containing the Great Works. For Pound, the first English-language poet to make use of the typewriter not just as a site for writing, but as a compositional element in the spatial construction of his works, the book is thoroughly a given. It’s unquestionable.

But what is the book with regards to poetry? Anyone who spends any time in used book shops will know that it’s hardly a static thing. The classic hardback form of the 1950s consisted of one longer poem or sequence surrounded by shorter lyrics of a page or two, a format codified in that decade by the Wesleyan series & mimiced by all the trade & university houses. It was the apotheosis of the School of Quietude’s presentation of verse & seldom exceeded 120 pages.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first “paperback original” to have a defining impact on the writing of its time. As revolutionary as that book was, Howl really didn’t stray all that far from the big poem-as-regent ringed by a court-of-lyrics mode. Robert Creeley’s For Love, which pointedly omitted The Big Text in a notably fatter collection, was in this sense a more radical production. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first true revolutionary impulse was to start a bookstore predicated on the primacy of the paperback. His second was to start a series of paperbacks that could be carried around in one’s back pocket. By the 1970s, the paperback was the principle mode for poetry, with the notable exception of that reactionary sliver of poetry presented by the New York trade publishers. For awhile, the SoQ was able to characterize its social dominance over an increasingly diverse writing scene by pretending that it was the poetry important enough to come out in hardback.

Today it is the hardback that is the afterthought, a calculation as to how many copies might be destined for libraries, and when a press like Wesleyan, perhaps the only press of the 1950s stalwarts to have evolved with the times, moves back to hardback originals, its authors groan over the retro & backward-looking implications of that shift. But the one thing that virtually every poet in the last century – with a handful of notable exceptions² – has agreed upon is that poems go in books. Even the concrete poets mid-century made works primarily for the page, a page that could be printed, bound & distributed. One of the more radical projects of the seventies was Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling, a magazine that was produced by inviting contributors to send pages that would be bound, etc. Tom Phillips created one of the more radical projects of the century, A Humament, by transforming a book. Ronald Johnson “wrote” another entirely by redacting lines from a particular edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.³ Louis Zukofsky began his career with “Poem beginning ‘The’,” a parody of T.S. Eliot right down to the footnotes, a textual element that places both LZ & TSE thoroughly within the terrain of the book.

Poets since Wordsworth & Blake have not focused on the role of the book itself simply because, for them, it was a given. The great theoretical move of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, after all, is its declaration for speech. And, indeed, one could track innovation in writing for the next two centuries by its evolving focus on the materiality of the signifier, whether it plays out as a surfeit of run-on mad spoken word, a la Ginsberg’s Howl – let alone “Wichita Vortex Sutra” actually composed via audiotape (a device learned from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody) – or the notational palimpsests of Olson’s Maximus. Language poetry could be read as a logical next step in that chess strategy, but notice already that James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, has gone everybody one better – he already imagines (and manifests) the book as unreadable.

One might think that the arrival of the printed book should have moved texts away from the idea of speech – and in some sense it did so, as spelling & grammar became standardized in the 1760s with nary a comment from anyone. Yet the declaration for speech in Lyrical Ballads also is a recognition that the printed book has become a democratic thing, and that books are no longer the shut-ins of a few institutional libraries controlled by popes & kings. Again, Whitman takes this idea quite a bit further. One can imagine him celebrating what poets in the 1960s used to call “the mimeograph revolution.”

But what now unites both conceptual writing & flarf – not to mention tendencies within the videopoem movement, aspects of vispo such as the use of Java flash & GIF technologies, & even the retro-to-the-metro spoken word dynamics of slam – is that each, to one degree or another, seems predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book. After, that is, the age of mechanical reproduction.

Until recently it has been easy enough for the School of Q to simply act as if those alternative poetries just did not exist. Sound poetry was neo-dada Euro-nostalgic & otherwise Other & slam poets for the most part were notoriously ill-read, unschooled (or, worse, wrong schooled) & didn’t much look like your typical pledges from Greek Week in Cambridge or Amherst.

But as Official Verse Culture – to use Charles Bernstein’s term – has expanded in recent years to include the likes of Charles Bernstein & others like him, some (not all) of its institutions have shifted toward recognizing greater diversity than previously had been acknowledged. The journal Poetry pointedly has had features on vispo & on the conceptual-flarf alliance in the past year. Can a CD of slam champions or portfolios of haiku &/or cowboy poetries be that far behind? And if not, why not?

Each of these poetries has a different relation to the book. If it has been the traditional distillation & repository for the poetries of both the School of Quietude & the historical avant / post-avant traditions, this is not necessarily the case for any of these others. And one could take the hubris of Kenny Goldsmith & the Flarf Collective as indicators suggesting that the post-avant tradition may be opting out forthwith as well.

But even within an aesthetic we see some significant differences. Kenny Goldsmith’s books are icons of conceptuality, but are they written to be read? Not in any sense one might traditionally have associated with literature, although it is conceivable that somebody with an abiding interest in weather or in baseball might find the volumes devoted to those topics of interest, much in the way that a memoir by Jim Brosnan or Jose Canseco might be. In this sense, Goldsmith’s wry polemics on conceptualism give him something he’s not really had before as a poet: readers. As distinct from audience, or buyers.

But with Christian Bök, we find a very different sense of conceptualism. Anyone who has ever heard Bök read aloud cannot fail to recognize that his works are most fully captured & presented in performance. It’s no accident that Eunoia is also available in CD format, an unusual option for a small press, even one as well-appointed as Coach House Books. As the website for the CD states,

Now you can invite that jazzman into the comfort of your own home! Reading Eunoia to yourself was fun, sure, but now you can hear it as it was meant to be read - by the author himself! Listen as he wraps his mouth around page after page of the most convoluted tongue twister you've ever heard! You can even follow along in your copy of Eunoia as he trips the vowels fantastic!

Recorded in the studio by Torpor Vigilante and Coach House author Steve Venright, this CD features Bök reading Eunoia in its entirety - in his uniquely energetic, well enunciated dadaist style.

Bök’s books, however, are themselves fully realized projects & eminently readable & pleasurable in text format. It’s almost the perfect hybrid (to use that slightly toxic term) of a performative project in book form. Which is why it became the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history.

To date, most conceptual writing – at least if I judge it from the brief bibliography of “book-length examples” at the back of Fitterman & Place’s Notes on Conceptualism - tend to bunch around Bök’s end of the spectrum.

Flarf approaches the problem from the opposite end of the telescope, by fundamentally questioning – if not outright attacking – received concepts of The Literary. Here the spectrum seems to run between those works that make use of the Standard Flarf Toolkit (Web-based appropriation, Google-sculpting, the use of traditional [albeit often post-avant] exoskeletal structures as tho they were the purely plastic moulds proposed by New Formalism) to render a work that reads as if it were entirely literary – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would be a case in point – and works that seem predicated on the idea of disrupting the reading so as to push the reader away from the text – K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation might be an example. Some of Kasey Mohammad’s texts strike me as nearly as unreadable as the work of Kenny Goldsmith, albeit for different reasons.

Thus conceptualism, at least near its outer limits, seems to call into question the social functions of the book as fetish – something about which flarf has thus far been mute – while flarf brings into question what goes on within the page as such.

Like the sound poetries of the seventies, animated vispo & videopoetry operate outside of the book by focusing on features – sound & motion – that are excluded by the book & printed page. The implicit problem that these tendencies have thus far failed to solve in any consistent manner has been the formal definition of their own territory, as such, as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them. Much the same is true with the mounted (or sometimes projected) minimalist scrawls of Robert Grenier, which approach the status of mounted language that has become familiar through the works of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer & Ed Ruscha. To fully challenge the literary swamp from which Grenier’s scrawls have emerged, they have to steer clear of being captured by the gravitational pull of The Art Scene, even if there are real financial reasons to wish this were not so.

So the role of the book, and of The Literary, are definitely up for grabs going forward, and not every kind of poetry has anything like the same kind of commitment to these institutions as we have inherited them. Not everyone is bemoaning the death of the bookstore, for example, or of the daily newspaper and traditional journalism. And I sometimes think that the emotional energy I see in various critiques of newer types of poetry has as much to do with despair over the potential historical fate of just such institutions as these, and with the implicit fate of the work of anyone committed to these older forms. Maybe that’s as it should be – one way to register the success of flarf or of conceptual poetics, just as was the case with langpo 30 years ago, is by the volume & pitch of the howls of outrage that accompany any expression of their success or their entry into the polite society of the SoQ page.

But those howls really are irrelevant. To the degree that we get bogged down in such backward-looking battles, we fail to look hard & long & dispassionately at what makes the new new, and what differentiates its various tendencies going forward. Those are the questions that, once we begin to see & understand them, will begin to tell us where poetry is today, as well as just where it’s heading.


¹ Both of whom likewise wrote theoretically, something I suspect is directly related. Blake likewise is quite conscious of the book, but, first, it’s not the sole locus for the poem or at least his poem, & Blake’s conception of book form differs materially from that of his peers.

² Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, some European dadaists (plus the dada nostalgics of Fluxus), & the mostly Canadian sound poets of the seventies.

³ Milton’s own relation to the idea of the book is more complicated than I could attempt to sort through here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I was reading Marjorie Perloff’s interview with Hélène Aji and Antoine Cazé, and in it Perloff discusses – and for the most part dismisses – anthologies. It made me stop and think about how the role of the anthology, as a project, changes not just with the book, but over time as well.

Consider for example the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, published in 1960, and still the most successful volume in the genre nearly 50 years later. It included 44 post-avant poets at a time when no contemporaneous account of the total number of publishing U.S.poets estimated more than 100. In hindsight, I think those estimates were low and that a more reasonable figure in 1960 would have been somewhere between 200 and 500, but certainly not more than that latter tally. Whatever the actual count, the Allen anthology represented a substantial portion of the publishing poets in America, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the entire spectrum. What Allen was doing was gathering together and foregrounding a particular part of the spectrum of what was being done. In doing so, he repositioned the spectrum itself, which could no longer pretend that there were simply competent American poets and the rest.

A half century later, there are well over 10,000 poets publishing in English in the U.S., a sum that is at least 20 times – and conceivably 100 times – the number active when Allen pulled together his book. One of Perloff’s complaints is that “anthologies have gotten narrower rather than broader,” but this is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. The narrowest of the three examples she gives, “experimental women poets,” is today a category so large that an anthology – there is more than one with this focus – represents an attempt to sort through the hundreds, if not thousands, of poets who might legitimately seek to be included. The New American Poetry had four women poets: Helen Adam, Barbara Guest, Madeline Gleason & Denise Levertov. Even when one acknowledges the other women writers who should have been included – e.g., Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Kathleen Fraser, Hettie Jones – the number is tiny. Indeed, the first anthology of post-avant women’s writing, published in 1962 by Totem/Corinth Press & with an introduction from the then-LeRoi Jones, was entitled Four Young Lady Poets, and included Barbara Moraff, Carol Berge, Rochelle Owens & Diane Wakoski. In 1962, this is not a category that appears to have inspired double digits. That title tells you just how far removed from the present day that epoch was.

So it is not that anthology editors have become more narrow in their conception over time, but rather that the field itself has become so large & diverse that new tools, and new levels of specificity, are required to make sense of it. For someone like Perloff, who is anxious to preserve the role of the critic as gatekeeper – as she says elsewhere in the same interview “I like to pick the winners” – the recalibration required just to stay in focus when going over a constantly (and rapidly) expanding field presents an enormous challenge. The whole idea of seeking “to see who ‘the great ones’ are” requires a stability of perspective that may in fact not stay stable when the terrain expands by an order of magnitude, and then does so again.

Plus Perloff is certainly smart enough to see that arguing, instead, for “timeless values” is the same old con invoked by Official Verse Culture when it lamely attempts to pass off the likes of an Andrew Motion as a serious writer. As she herself notes in the interview¹, English-language poetry in the 19th century, especially in the U.K., was the expression of the culture of Christian white males. Power – political and economic – was close at hand. As we enter the 21st century, poetry instead has become the domain of outsiders – subalterns are everywhere. In the U.S., even among the more conservative poets, you will find relatively few committed Republicans with major corporate backgrounds a la Dana Gioia. Many more are gay or lesbian, and more than a few are immigrants a la Charlie Simic. Indeed, one of the most interesting moves by Official Verse Culture in the U.S. has been the adoption of several successful Irish quietists, such as Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland, who both represent the “center” over there that some factions within the School of Quietude seek to preserve, while themselves being literally ec-centric from a strictly Oxbridge perspective. And the posties? We’re as motley a crew as one can find on these shores.

But just tracking the evolution of even one strand of oppositional poetics from its location in the 1950s – four women in an anthology of 44 poets from a field that did not exceed 500 – to large anthologies of “experimental women poets” will demonstrate the transformation. Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, a volume that is already demanding escalated rare book prices just eleven years after publication, has 50 poets, tracking the transition from the New Americans in the 1950s up to the early ‘90s. Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace & Lesley Wheeler, has 259 contributors, the bulk of whom could be called innovative as well. Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics has over 100 poets – the “San Francisco Renaissance” section of The New American Poetry had just 13.

Both Bay Poetics and Letters to the World aren’t focused precisely on post-avant poetics, tho it would be easy to read them that way as that segment of the spectrum has expanded at a faster rate than any other over the past half century. But – and this was the point I set out to make when I sat down to write – the expansion itself is by far the more important process. We are rapidly reaching the point where one’s relationship to the overall map is less important than one’s relation to how the map is changing as it grows.

In the poetry wars of the late 1970s & early ‘80s, the primary objection that some poets had toward language writing was that it changed the map to which they’d sworn allegiance. They were committed to their reading(s) of the New American Poetry and the idea that it no longer was an Eternal Truth as to how poetry existed was considered heresy. Today we are twice the distance from that era than it was from the New Americans. It is all but impossible to even characterize the map of poetry today. If this were the 1950s, a quarter of America’s poets would be producing flarf, another quarter conceptual poetry. What we have is a much bigger pie, and one sliced into many more fairly narrow slices. And it’s up for grabs as to the order in which they fit.

That’s very bad – very nearly fatal – for the process of “picking the winners.” But it’s actually very good for poetry, which is far richer today than it has ever been in its history. What we need, however, is for our critical thinking to catch up.


¹ “There is no question that Modernist and Postmodernist literature is by definition an exile literature. Think of the Romantics and Victorians in England—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning and the novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens—they were all English writers, with English names and they were all Christian. In the 20th C, this changes. Think of the ‘French’ poets Apollinaire and Cendrars, both of them pseudonymous poets who were not French at all. Think of Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenbaum) or the Czech Jewish Kafka writing in German or in the U.S., the various African-American poets. By the later twentieth century in America, exile has become the aesthetic norm from Black Mountain (founded by Joseph Albers) to the absorption of French poststructuralist theory and the Frankfurt School.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

By the time you read these words, this blog may well have crossed the 2,000,000 visits threshold. The Site Meter counter on the left will tell the tale. I continue to be amazed at the number of visits this blog receives each day, on average over 1,700. People click on roughly twice that number of links; the amount of time the average visitor spends on this site has increased by more than 50 percent in the past year. And the numbers continue to rise: it took six years, four months & three weeks to reach two million, but at the current run rate it would take just four years to reach the next two million. The record for the most number of visits in one hour – 197 – was set January 16.

It was Daniel Silliman who first persuaded me that one could blog about serious topics. Laura Willey taught me the little I know about HTML. Lynn Behrendt has stepped in during the past year to make sure that the blogroll is current. If I had a dollar for every typo that Lynn and others have pointed out, I could probably throw one heck of a party for everyone who has ever read these pages.

As it evolves, this blog is less about me and more about poetry, which is, I think, as it should be. My goal in starting the blog was not simply to promote my own ideas about a form I’ve loved & practiced since I was a teenager, but to get poets themselves talking again, without having to go through the grotesque filter of the academy to do so. The presence of more than one thousand blogs in the blogroll to the left is the best test of how well I might be doing.

I have stayed with a simple format, and with Blogspot, the entire time precisely because I want to make the point that any one can do this. It takes no particular genius, and only the most modest computer skills, to create a blog. Some of the features I’ve added over time, such as the links lists that turn up here once or twice per week, could be replicated by anyone. The actual format of the links list owes a debt to the poetry of Ted Berrigan as well as to Robert Creeley’s Pieces. I started by putting together some Google alerts, but at this point the majority of links are suggested by readers.

I’m pleased obviously that some of my ideas – that of the post-avant, the School of Quietude, the idea of a New Western or Zen Cowboy tradition of poetry coming out of the New American poetics – have demonstrated some legs. I agree with my harshest critics that School of Quietude, as a construct, is (as one wag put it) criminally vague, but it was never intended as anything other (or better) than a place holder. The minute someone within that tradition begins to take on the responsibility for describing with much greater accuracy its many sub-tendencies and internal points of contention (which surely exist), the phrase will disappear like fog burning off in a morning sky.

That nobody in the past five years has taken up that challenge suggests just how strongly the poetics of the unmarked case is invested in its own invisibility, in the false notion that it is “just poetry,” with the inevitable implication that any poetics that is preceded by an adjective is in some manner marginal, not to be taken seriously. I don’t agree with the phrase Official Verse Culture (and even less with the concept “mainstream,” which is an outright lie) because I don’t think there is any necessary connection between this verse tradition and institutional power. Power is something that could & should be shared by all the traditions of poetry.

Described and conceptualized correctly, the conservative tradition that I have been characterizing as the School of Quietude has a history that is long & interesting, perhaps more than one might think since its roots are pretty much forgotten. In the U.S., it extends back not to Dickinson & Whitman, but to Jones Very, James Russell Lowell, Sidney Lanier & their peers. One of the great questions for the School of Quietude is why does it let its history languish so? A second one might be why are so many of its greatest practitioners, starting with Hart Crane & Wallace Stevens, perpetually rebelling against its norms? If I were a young poet working in that tradition (and, forty-plus years ago, I was just such a poet), the implications of questions like these would make me think very hard about the long-term wisdom of what I was doing.

So I will keep making this point, obnoxious as it surely is, until somebody shuts me up by actually doing the work needed to describe the true terrain of that side of the literary spectrum. But I agree that once somebody does this, the acronym SoQ will very quickly go into the dustbin of history.

Conversely, I’m also very pleased to see the emergence of actual tendencies of poetry in the U.S. that are clear enough in their aesthetics, their politics, and their sense of themselves to take on names – flarf, conceptual poetics, possibly even American hybrid (a better term than elliptical, tho I’m not convinced that it’s any more descriptive of what’s really going on there than “third way”). More than anything, I think this new militancy represents a generational change in poetry, and all to the good. The poets (if not the poetry) that came after language writing tended very much to avoid such terms and group designations. To a significant degree, I think that that allergy toward self- and group identification ran historically parallel to the ascendancy of the right after the election of Ronald Reagan (& deepened by the so-called fall of Communism). Perhaps we all owe George W. Bush a big vote of thanks for bringing that period to a close. That poets no longer feel so constrained is, I think, a good thing. But I think that there is also lots of room for argument, even among post-avants, as to what’s useful or interesting to do.

For one thing, it’s worth noting that the only literary movement that truly is post-language poetry in the sense of doing things langpo never envisioned would seem to be flarf. Conceptual poetics seems weighted down with neo-Dada / neo-Fluxus nostalgia (& Fluxus already was a movement dripping with nostalgia). Hybrid writing is that aesthetic of not taking sides – it should work out as well for these poets as it did for M.L. Rosenthal’s idea of confessionalism, that pained & silly attempt to suggest that Robert Lowell & Anne Sexton were doing the same thing as Allen Ginsberg & the Beats & therefore really were more interesting than their poetry.

And I don’t think anybody yet has figured out how to handle the evolving revolution in poetry’s relationship to its audience. We have way more than ten thousand publishing poets in the English language, which is maybe ten times what it was when I was in my early 20s & close to 100 times what it was when the New Americans were making their way in the 1950s. In another decade, we will easily have more than 20,000 publishing poets. Does anybody think that the actual reading audience for poetry has grown proportionately? (The only way to answer yes to that is if you think nobody reads poetry – or at least reads it seriously – but poets.) This is a far more profound change than, say, the collapse of trade publishing, the death of bookstores that won’t carry your chapbook, or the fact that we are producing close to a thousand new poets every year when the number of jobs for poets expands by about 50.

All of which is to say that there is a lot to talk about, think about, do if you’re a poet or even vaguely interested in the art. Thanks for coming along for the ride this far. I appreciate your comments, your contributions, and your own blogs more than you’ll ever know.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I have been asked by Joshua Marie Wilkinson to contribute to an anthology on teaching poetry, which, given that I work in a classroom maybe once every decade, obviously seems intended as a bit of a provocation. But it’s a good and serious question. Far from being “the easy way out” for writers around the question of how to make a living, I think it’s a difficult and important task, and that the people who take it on are very poorly paid for the work they do.

There are, I think, two very different dynamics involved in the making of a poet. One is learning that you already know everything you need about writing before you even begin. The other is an extended reading of the literature, to understand what has been done, why, and what its implications might be.

The first sounds easy, but is in fact the harder of the two tasks. Many starting writers never solve this problem at all, which means that they’re destined to fail. The difficulty is what happens in that instant between the moment before you even begin and the moment once you’ve begun, into which is inserted every vague notion you may have about what writing is, how it is done, who does it, every conceivable fantasy you might harbor about “being a poet” or “being a novelist.” Before you begin, the blank page or screen is in front of you, absolutely free of any irrevocable marks, literally virgin territory. Once you begin, however, you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with thousands of ghosts and beliefs about what writing is. It’s like trying to swim with a team of elephants on your back. The opportunities for drowning are immense.

Much of the actual process of “learning to write” is involved in examining these beliefs, one at a time, almost as though you were peeling them away. You would be surprised just how many of the things you do as a poet, unconsciously, are in fact decisions you’ve made predicated on these beliefs.

So one of the things I do in a classroom, always, is to work through a series of exercises intended to make people conscious of the decisions they make. This is something I picked up from three of my teachers, Wright Morris, Jack Gilbert & especially William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time I was his student). Following Everson, I let students know at the start that what they write for my class is not going to feel like their work. It’s going to seem uncomfortable and alien. If it doesn’t, they’re not doing it right. Their discomfort is really an index of how well they’re doing their homework.

I start with the actual physics of writing. How do they do it? On a computer? In a notebook? On a legal tablet? Whatever it might be. I ask them to change this: if they usually work on a computer, try doing it by hand; if they usually work in a notebook, try writing on a PC. Robert Creeley has an interview somewhere in which he recommends this as a mechanism for getting out of writer’s block, and I can see how this exercise might be useful in that circumstance. I recall that once, back when I was a student at San Francisco State, I inadvertently dropped my typewriter and suddenly had a couple of hundred typewriter pieces all over my apartment. Since I had almost no money, it took me to the end of the semester to be able to afford a new machine. So I was forced into switching my basic method of creating first drafts, which I’d been doing on the typewriter since I was in tenth grade. I switched over to legal tablets, a process that also gave me more flexibility as to when and where I might write. Since I was living in Berkeley at the time, getting to school meant a long ride on the F bus (this was before BART), followed by a long ride on the Muni to get out to the Sunset District. For the first time, I began writing on public transportation, inspired in part by the fact that three of my favorite poets, Robert Duncan, Phil Whalen & Paul Blackburn, had all written about doing so themselves. It was a fascinating process and took my work forward very quickly, although I noticed, once I typed up my manuscripts, that virtually all of them fit perfectly on a single typed page, often filling it completely both vertically & horizontally.

Later, when I was at Berkeley and thinking about writing in prose, I made a point of buying one of those smaller black-bound sketchbooks, the size of a trade paperback, and sat on the roof of our apartment building on Highland Place in Berkeley, usually watching the sun set over downtown San Francisco, constantly writing and rewriting what I hoped someday would become “the perfect” paragraph. Tho I worked on this project years before I would begin Ketjak, there is one (incomplete) sentence in that work taken directly from this project.

Depending on the length of the class, we examine a variety of such variables. Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you have to have silence? Do you like to have music? What kinds? Do you need total solitude? If you use paper, what size, color, etc.? Do you write under the influence, whether it be coffee & tea or something stronger? One can switch one or more, or even all, of these variables and it’s worth looking at the impact of each.

Making students conscious of the terms & conditions of their writing is one step toward making them responsible for every single element on the page or screen or in the air. Do you capitalize at the left margin? If so, do you know why you do so? If you don’t know, why are you doing it? A writer needs to own everything she or he does.

The second task, the extended reading, takes far longer. There are people – Bruce Andrews was one, Rae Armantrout another – who are writing in their mature style very early on, but in both cases you will find that they were voracious readers also. This is where I think that Malcolm Gladwell’s gimmicky 10,000 of work to become good at any one thing, whether or not it’s writing, comes into play. You need to understand the range of poetry that you are seeking to become part of – a process that becomes harder each year as the number of contemporary publishing poets grows – and you need to be able to trace the history of this landscape backwards at least 200 years. I would go further than that myself – I’d argue that you need to know enough middle English to reach Chaucer in the original, and really grasp (a deliberately vague term) your own place within this constellation. If you can’t, you haven’t read enough, written enough, thought hard enough.

To do this, your reading needs shape, which is to say that if you can’t articulate where a poet fits into the universe, their work either is not distinct enough or you haven’t read enough to place them. Conversely, you need to be able to challenge claims that want to lead you astray. Anyone – anyone! – who argues that either Dickinson or Whitman leads you to the School of Quietude (tho they won’t call it that) is a fraud. Tho it is worth noting that Dickinson & Whitman will lead you to very different parts of the post-avant spectrum. So read the New American Poets as a project. And the Objectivists. And the Imagists. And the Romantics. Even the New Formalists. If a writer falls outside any cluster, as many over the last two decades have, figure out what makes them so misanthropic. Is it really, as I suspect, a "natural" (but defensive) reaction to the conservative ascendancy that began with Reagan? Are flarf, conceptual poetry & "hybrid" writing the first steps toward a post-Bush era literature?

Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Benjamin’s grave, Portbou, Spain

So what role might theory play today, both for poetry and in the broader world?

There is no such thing as a poem without a theory. Or one might reverse that and say that all poetry embodies theory, but not in the manner of a proof. Rather, theory is – when it is done intelligently – a statement of the assumptions that are being made, the underlying forces that are at play, the interplay between the potential of a poem & its actual existence in the world. When a writer says that he or she “has no” theory or just simply writes whatever they may be “given” to write, it does not mean that there is no theory, but rather that they refuse to look at these things, and that that is a critical, indeed foundational, part of their own theory, i.e. their own practice as poets.

I’m of course interested in that writing that explores the potential of these dynamics to an intense degree, which puts me somewhat on the other end of the spectrum, although I also will invariably write “what I am given” & worry about its implications later. But I try to be awake to these things, both in the moment of writing & later.

Right now it feels to me that poetry is in a particularly interesting – if precarious – position in that the relationships between writer & reader are changing simply because of external (or, if you will, social) forces. A nation of 10,000 poets is very different from one of 500, particularly if the overall population of the former is just double that of the latter. And soon enough we will be able to look back and say how a nation of 10,000 poets were the “good old days,” when there weren’t so many poets about. So those changes are setting a whole series of dynamics into play and I don’t think anybody – surely not me – can tell yet quite what that all means.

But some people seem to me to working very hard diving into the question, whether or not they even think that’s the question they’re addressing, and I have enormous admiration for them. This seems to me the essence of flarf, frankly, the whole idea of asking what is “appropriate” is to suggest that the definitions thereof might be in flux. Do I think they have the answers? Not yet, I don’t. But I don’t see anybody else asking the most important questions any more sharply than this. And so I think it’s something we would all do well to heed.

There are hundreds of poets, indeed hundreds of types of poetry that proceed along as though nothing has changed, is changing, will change. And yet it has, it is doing so, and will even more tomorrow. Some of this work is terrific, but it now enters into a different world, perhaps even than the one the poet had suspected. It’s interesting to watch where and how it goes. But I worry that these poets leave themselves open – perhaps too open – to being buffeted by the winds of history without thinking through the risks and implications. I sometimes worry that this is where I’d put my own poetry today if I really thought about it hard.

In the larger world than just poetry, it seems to me that theory without a social movement is severely reduced in what it can do. The theoretical orientation of western Marxism seems to me never to have been surpassed – capital continues to be the most powerful social force in human history – even as the practical utility of Marxism has shown its limitations. Marx himself was able to see quite perceptibly into the future up to, say, the age of automated manufacturing, but once capital ceased to be based on manufacturing as a primary engine of wealth creation, it was able to move well beyond the reach of unionized labor. It bothers me no end to realize that Marx, who was the first true advocate of globalization, would cringe to see the various forms of protectionist thinking that are taking place today without regard of political orientation. The fight to keep jobs in the U.S. is not wrong, as such, but it is no different than the desire to build a wall to protect us from Mexico, that instance of profound xenophobia.

But what do I mean by globalization in that last paragraph? Simply the evolution of a single world market, both for goods & services, raw materials & finished products, such that company X in nation A cannot flee to nation B the minute the workers get uppity. We are still far from that day in a world in which the majority of the world’s citizens have never heard a dial tone. But we are moving in that direction quite rapidly.

Marx himself appears to have imagined globalization as being immanent in the late 19th century. We know this from the fact that he saw it as a necessary precondition for working to create real change. Stalin’s “socialism in one country” was the next century’s attempt to get around that fundamental principle, and the result was mass starvation. North Korea has replicated that experiment, and that result. To call what became of those nations socialism is to make a mockery of that word. But the deeper question isn’t semantic. It’s the age old What is to be done?

I don’t see anything approaching a movement that could provide the sustaining force to a new generation of theory approximating anything even remotely as rich as that which rose up in Europe in the wake of the two world wars & which flourished for a time in the U.S. after 1968. The environmental movement is the only one that strikes me as even having anything even remotely approaching a global potential, but it is dispersed & fragmented & easily distracted. Tho the reality is that we will have to address the limitation of natural resources question before we have achieved globalization.

In such a time one thing theory can do – one secondary social role it has long fulfilled – is to function as a guilty conscience, a nag, a doubt. Any historic marker that what exists now is neither inevitable nor permanent, that it was different once & will be again. Whether we like those changes or not.

Two things do seem to follow from this. One is a bias on my part toward work that more closely approximates the best of Walter Benjamin. In & around the work of art, I am tempted to call this a sociology of form. Those are two terms that sit very uneasily near one another, and that discomfort is I think a primary dynamic. A lot of what I try to accomplish on this blog amounts to poking one or the other of these terms, trying to push each into some interaction with the other, to see what turns up.

The second is a commitment of theory toward use. What I mean by that is that one has to ask, repeatedly, how does this connect to practice? Both to those social formations who are struggling today for peace, justice, change, the reclamation of the planet itself, and with regards to art to the actual creation of new works. Theory that is content to fixate on the 19th century novel is, by definition, useless. We’re just not there anymore. And haven’t been, by my watch, for over 108 years. Unless it can explain, or deepen our understanding, as to what befell the serious novel, a genre that is all but extinct even as poetry grows & grows & grows.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Donna Haraway

But didn’t theory fail? Didn’t these grand texts that once promised to change to world simply devolve into being one more “thing,” one last (and slightly sour) dish in the buffet of academic fashion?  Isn’t it true that you can’t find Freudian analysis in most psych departments, not even in an updated post-Lacanian mode? Or that Marx is missing in the econ department? I’ve actually heard somebody have to explain who Saussure was to linguistics majors. Aren’t these old texts & so-called old masters all a little, well, tattered?

Here it’s worth noting a couple of things. One is that just one of the texts I listed Friday really qualifies in any real sense as an instance of American academic writing: Fred Jameson’s Marxism and Form. Jameson’s impact on what has come to be called theory in America is, I think, something that in itself would be well worthy of examination, setting a horizon over the field that positions American theory as forever secondary in its concerns. Thus one of the real attractions several decades hence of the muddle that is Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire (PDF) is that it shows a literature professor, Hardt, attempting to take on theory in the largest possible terms. That in itself is refreshing. That he bungles it is another story altogether.

One might go further & claim that the rest of the texts on that list aren’t really academic writing at all, tho that’s a bit of an overstatement. Rather, what each of the others has in common is that its author, whether the Ur-situationist Lefebvre or Charles Olson writing in his most telegraphic critical mode, saw their work, these specific books, as making contributions to practice(s) whose hoped-for fruition existed principally away from the university, whether writing in writing poetry or making a political revolution. They are not contributions to a professional debate.

And what happened to theory in America, more than anything else, has been just that – professionalism, that cancer on thought.

There were, depending on how you count it, two or three distinct stages ( & some might see a fourth) in theory’s role in America. In each case, theory might be said to have been called forward in an attempt to explain some prior disaster – World War I, industrial capitalism, World War 2. What propelled the likes of such disparate souls as Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Olson and Vološinov (whether or not he really was Bakhtin) into mixing genres in new & unusual ways was at least as much as the failure of the world about them as it was the possible insights some new combination – say sociology & linguistic structure in the case of Lévi-Strauss – might yield.

And what made theory in America powerful was not just the presence of a few very bright & creative people in various humanities departments, but the failure of 1968 – the year in which revolution seemed plausible in France & Czechoslovakia & not so far from the horizon in the U.S., Mexico, Germany & elsewhere. Up to that moment, the anti-war movement in the U.S. had been remarkably untheoretical. It’s not that there weren’t left factions that didn’t care passionately about theory, but few activists paid them much heed. The Progressive Labor Party’s attempt to co-opt – largely through volunteer labor – some chapters of Students for a Democratic Society in cities where SDS was marginalized was about as far as it got.

But the collapse of SDS & the failure of post-Kent State organizing on every campus in the country to bring the war to a close left many activists asking themselves why – just what were they (we) doing wrong – and theory promised a path through which to rethink many deeply help assumptions. This was then reinforced, profoundly so, by a generation of activists who returned to college between 1968 & 1980 to go to grad school. It is not an accident that the list I posted yesterday consists of works first published in English from 1965 through 1978. Subtract Olson & it all would fit neatly into the ’68-’78 decade.

1980 was the second major moment in the history of theory in America – the election of Ronald Reagan as president & the ouster of a half-dozen major liberals from the U.S. Senate, the combination of which transformed American government overnight. Michael Rosenthal, the dean of progressive booksellers in San Francisco, has said that you could date the end of sales of Marx, Lenin & Mao – three cash cows that could keep a lefty bookshop in business – to the Wednesday after that election. Virtually everyone on the left saw Reagan as transparently unqualified to become president &, in fact, he was the person who first introduced the idea of destroying government as a primary project of the Republican party. Further, as governor of California he had built his reputation & popularity on opposing student activism, deliberately over-reacting to the student strike at San Francisco State¹ & then promoting the political career of S.I. Hayakawa, the linguistics professor who became the hero of the right for his role as the comprador for the Reaganauts on campus.

If you look at the history of The Socialist Review, you can see these stages in fairly clear terms. In the 1960s, SR did not exist, although founder James Weinstein (who later went on to start the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly covering the Berkeley-Oakland side of  the Bay, & then In These Times) was active in the earlier journal, Studies on the American Left, the Madison-based theory journal that broke up after 1968 precisely around the question of whether or not to become the “official” theoretical journal of the new American revolution. Weinstein’s faction had been opposed to that idea, preferring to offer critical support from outside of this theoretical object, the Revolution, but by the new journal finally got under way in San Francisco in 1972, it was calling itself Socialist Revolution and its key participants were mostly grad students at Berkeley, several of them having returned to school after some years of organizing in the community.

For many years, the journal had a dual mission – offering deep theory dives on aspects of the left and also developing a connection between theory, as such, and the actual practice of community organizers. If you were a political activist committed to the democratic left in the 1970s, SR was your journal, just as either the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee (Michael Harrington’s group of Socialist Party members who exited the SP over its failure to oppose the war in Vietnam) or the New American Movement (a regrouping of sorts of the non-Weather Underground tendencies in & around SDS) was going to be your organization.

By the early 1980s, Socialist Revolution had become Socialist Review and there were now two editorial collectives. Each was autonomous, and neither cared much for the other. The one in the Bay Area still consisted primarily of local activists plus grad students from Berkeley, which made it very open not just to the second real wave of theory, the postmodern boom that moved away from master narratives, even celebrating identarian fragmentation. The collective in Boston began because several early West Coast collective members all got tenure-track jobs there, and by the early 1980s they had replicated themselves among the locals. This group was older and more stable than the one in the west, tenured (or on the way to it) and deeply committed to the academy. Any interest in theory was framed in the class and economics-based terms of an earlier left, but no longer with an eye toward building a movement so much as a department, whether it be in Poli Sci, Economics or Sociology. This collective despised the “flaky” cultural theory articles that were coming out of the west coast collective – Donna Haraway’sCyborg Manifesto” became a touchstone of this dispute – which they saw as abandoning the class-based orientation they gave to the word socialist in favor of identity movements that were, regardless of how progressively (or even outrageously) they expressed themselves, essentially civil rights coalitions for increasingly small fractions of the population.²

By the time I arrived on the West Coast collective in 1986, there were active discussions about changing the journal’s name again, this time just to the initials SR (this never happened) and refocusing it more in the direction of what eventually would become Lingua Franca, a serious critical journal about the academy itself (this also never happened). The journal stopped publishing altogether in the late ‘90s³, before being revived in 2002 under a new name, Radical Society.

SR is just one example, although a good one. In each stage of the post-WW2 left, theory’s underlying primary motive was transformed by events outside of theory. What seemed possible prior to 1968 was far more problematic after – and this was the period when theory blossomed, both on the American left and in humanities graduate programs. But by the early 1980s, what you could hope to get from it was far more constrained. From Socialist Revolution to Radical Society may all be phraseology from the left lexicon, but it echoes the very same rightward drift that governed the U.S. and other western nations during this same period. And as horizons change, what theory itself might accomplish does also. From building a movement to building a department sounds just about right. Or, rather, not.  

One might argue that language poetry was the writing of a generation that was smart about theory, and particularly about that which still sought to transform the world. And it’s interesting to think about how the general time frame of the Grand Piano project – say 1965 to 1985 – overlaps but is not identical to this critical 12-year period, 1968-’80. The smart critic could do a lot with that.


¹ Although in the wake of the Kent & Jackson State massacres, Reagan was circumspect enough to look the other way as every campus in the UC and Cal State systems turned into anti-war organizations in 1970. Reagan understood when to play a winning hand & when to fold.

² In fact, one could easily argue just the opposite, that the identarian push came first with feminism, a movement predicated on a majority.

³ I served as executive editor from 1986 through ’89 and left the collective when my twins were born three years later.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Valentin N. Vološinov

I’m thinking out loud here. For a future part of the Grand Piano project, we’ve been tossing around the idea of putting together some sort of bibliography of works that were influential to us during the general period in which we were collectively active in the San Francisco scene. The time parameters being nothing published in English prior to 1965 or after 1985. That was a period of maximum absorption, if you know what I mean. In 1965, I was still a teenager & just starting to write & publish. I would spend the next six years bouncing around (really the right verb phrase) different schools, go through my first marriage, be quickly accepted into (and then walk away from) what I would now call the School of Quietude¹, begin to truly get a grasp of 20th century poetry & meet some incredible people, starting with Barrett Watten that same year of ’65.

I was something of an omnivorous reader in those days, more so than I am now, alas. But what are / were the works outside of poetry per se that had an impact. I tried to put together a list of just ten books, excluding volumes of poetry, and the following is at least my first draft of such a roster. I left some obvious works off of it, such as books by Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, or the great anthology of works from the 1966 “post-structuralist” conference at Johns Hopkins (Bruce Andrews being the one poet I know who attended) since other people were already bandying their names about. Ditto Fred Jameson’s Prison-House of Language. And there were a number of vitally important works for me that were published prior to 1965, such as Sartre’s What is Literature?, the volumes of Wittgenstein that I found most valuable, the class notes that pass for the collected writings of Saussure. Other works were important, but either not yet in book form (like Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs” which first appeared in Socialist Review in April 1985, a year before I signed on as editor), or not reducible to book form at all (the performance art of Terry Fox, the music of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, the films of Abigail Child). And every time I think of one text, I think of a dozen more (why not, say, Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a book that led me eventually to blogging?).

But at least today, if I had to choose ten with all of those constraints, these are some books I might think to name, and a hint as to why.

Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 1971, NY, Monthly Review Press. Althusser is an embarrassment in the annals of Western Marxism, the old Stalinoid who turned out to be a homicidal maniac. His ideas on how to read Marx’s Capital, the most important essay of which appears in this volume, are all wrong. But his piece on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” the centerpiece of this volume, is the best statement of what ideology is and how it functions in practice I’ve ever read. The current Monthly Review Press edition is updated some from the version I have.

Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, 1978, Cambridge, MIT. Jakobson was teaching at the New School during World War 2 when Claude Lévi-Strauss, having just made it out of South America but unable to get back to France, sat in on these lectures and had an Aha experience that would lead directly to structuralism. Of all Jakobson’s many works that relate to poetry, these talks are the best. The one-time pal of Mayakovsky & later teacher of Rene Wellek shows exactly why a foundation in linguistics is a prerequisite to writing verse. Jakobson is the Kilroy of so many of the important intellectual movements of the last century – from Russian Futurism to post-Chomskyian linguistics (he was George Lakoff’s poetry teacher), even New Criticism. Given Jakobson’s standing in the history of linguistics, it is appalling that this edition has not been reprinted in the past 30 years.

Fred Jameson, Marxism and Form, 1974, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP. This is a secondary work, Jameson synthesizing the writings of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács, Sartre. It’s masterful for what it is, yoking these diverse writers together into a single broader dialogue. This volume gave enormous impetus to the decade of theory precisely by showing how all this writing might be connected. Or read as connected. Of his six subjects, only Ernst Bloch never was important to me.

Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism, 1968, London, Cape Editions. The godfather of the Situationists, this earlier study by Lefebvre was published by Nathaniel Tarn as part of the brilliant series that included works by Barthes (Writing Degree Zero), Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & 23, Olson’s Mayan Leters, Ponge’s Soap, Trakl’s Selected Poems & more. For me, it’s the clearest statement of this central practice of Western Marxism. Unfortunately, this series did not continue after Grossman/Cape was acquired, and this volume appears not to have been republished since.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique, 1974, Boston, Atheneum. This is a memoir and a few chapters are reprinted from an earlier edition, so maybe it doesn’t warrant being on this list. Many of the chapters amount to set pieces, but the attempt at “writing a sunset” is one of the great moments in the history of descriptive writing. Lévi-Strauss’ account of inadvertently “giving” writing to the Nambikwara by explaining to the chief what he was doing with his tablets of legal paper, and the fatal consequences this had is, I think, an important message in and of itself as well as for what it conveys about the nature of writing, as such. Why a good trade paperback of this work isn’t generally available in English is a mystery to me.

Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones), edited and annotated by Lucy R. Lippard, 1973, New York & Washington, Praeger. The full title gives some of the flavor of this great book. It was (still is) the Junior Woodchuck’s handbook (Huey, Dewey & Louie’s antecedent of Wikipedia) for all performance and  conceptual art. I may have gotten more diverse ideas from this volume than from any other. The current UC Press edition cuts the title off just before the second colon.

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1968, Cambridge, MIT. Not being fiction-centered in my thinking or work, I never would have read this book had it not been for the Marxist Study Group at Small Press Traffic pulled together & led by Bruce Boone. The group, which was not large, included Kathleen Fraser, Bob Glück, Steven Benson & Denise Kastan among its members. This is the work that gave me the idea of opacity, which I had never seen described in literature before. It’s still available in paper, but at a price ($32.95) quite a bit higher than the $5.95 I paid for it new thirty years ago.

Charles Olson, Proprioception, 1965, San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation. This is Olson’s best critical work, and in many ways is a restatement of Lefebvre’s concepts applied directly to literature. I would read them together, Lefebvre’s first. This is now available in Olson’s Collected Prose.

Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics, 1975, The Hague, Mouton. Rossi-Landi was an Italian semiotician who attempted, in this work, to contrast these two seemingly dissimilar domains on the basis of the fundamental metaphor of exchange, understood here to be related to how we transmit ideas through language as well through the abstraction of labor into money.

Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1973, Seminar Press, New York & London. Vološinov may very well have been fronting for his friend Mikhail Bakhtin in publishing this work under his own name. This was the first attempt to broach the possibility of discussion between the two fields, although even in the 1920s, it eschews returning directly to Marx, but rather to Saussure. I think Vološinov may go so far as to use the phrase Social Formalism, which has always struck me as being an apt depiction of langpo two (or three) generations hence. The current Harvard edition is the same translation with a better cover & distribution.


¹ I had work accepted into Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest and The Southern Review by the time I was 21. My first big complaint about the SoQ was that basically it’s too easy, a poetic practice for the intellectually lazy.