The San Francisco Chronicle
28 September 1986

From the Language Poets


Edited by Ron Silliman
National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine at Orono
628 pages

Whatever poetry may prove to be at last, the very word (from the Greek poiein , "to make") determines a made thing, a construct, a literal system of words. We are, of course, far more likely to think of a poem as a pleasing sentiment, a lyric impulse, an expression of feeling that can engage the reader or listener in some intensive manner. But, whatever our disposition, it is well to remember that there is a diversity of "poetries" in our world.

As Ron Silliman, the articulate and resourceful editor of "In the American Tree," puts it in his introduction to this significant anthology: "The more pertinent questions are what is the community being addressed in the writing, how does the writing participate in the constitution of this audience, and is it effective in doing so."

The Language Poets - a qualification with which all seem uneasy and which Jackson Mac Low, an elder poet of this company, discusses in this book with provocative clarity - have been a vivid presence on both coasts for some years. Particularly in San Francisco, they have served to engage active political dispositions as to what is the requisite "nature of poetry" and who or what significantly informs it.

They are certainly "experimental" if the mental of that word is to be taken seriously, and their mindedness is an especially attractive feature of their various work. That is, they enjoy thinking, they like the thingness of language, they presume - I feel correctly - that "the government of the words" is a most critical factor in our lives "since it is," in William Carlos Williams' phrase, "of all governments the archetype."

Because of these preoccupations, they have at times been confused with the academic Structuralists and, without question, they share much information with this more institutionalized company. The people found here, while predominantly white, middle-class, etc., are not primarily teachers; and, when they are, they are not of the authorized kind, as the "Contributors" information concerning Robert Grenier's background makes most clear. That is, although he would seem to have appropriate credentials, he cannot find a job.

I find it fascinating that they are such a self-determined "voice" from an otherwise all too silent majority these days - one which, seemingly, makes few moves of its own initiation. The parallel for the company here may well be the wunderkind of computer technology, or anyone who has made a determined response to the extraordinarily rapid shifts in the epistemological base - our fund of and access to what we once called "knowledge" but would now think of more often as "information."

Therefore, a great deal of the writing has active rapport with the resources that the system of language itself provides and plays upon patterns of syntax and reference with remarkable effect. Yet, in his introduction, Silliman emphasizes that such effects are not the final concern here but rather "what, in the last part of the twentieth century, it means to be human."

Put as useful parallel, language poet Charles Bernstein's point in "Writing and Method," his essay included here, makes much sense: "For both poetry and philosophy, the order of the elements of a discourse is value constituting and indeed experience engendering, and therefore always at issue, never assumable." The whole essay is well worth reading for its unique clarity and the compact summary of usual models of reading/writing relationship that it includes.

Certainly one will have favorites and I have a lot of them here, as it happens: Robert Grenier and Charles Bernstein, and also Barrett Watten, David Bromige, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Stephen Rodefer, Bernadette Mayer, Bob Perelman, and others. Michael Palmer's "Echo" must be, surely, one of the great poems of the period, just as Clark Coolidge's work is now a contemporary classic.

But that all sounds too much like chitchat at some gallery opening, however heartfelt. Trying to say why I value this work so much, I thought of Bob Dylan's "There must be some way out of this . . .," this terrifying impasse of imagined worlds and all the language that has created them. The brilliance of the writers collected here is not simply literary. Their response to the world, however demanding, is intently communal. They are asking - often with great wit and heart - that we recognize that language itself is real and we must learn to live in its complex places.