As they share the belief that it is referential language that, in its predictable and transparent patterns, causes death of the mind and rebroadcasts, on the level of writing, the rules of commodity fetishism, Language poets set out to create an alternative linguistic discourse that aims to undermine the instrumental use of language.
In language writing any president of any body may name a cloud a whale a whale a cloud a whale a whale a cloud a cloud.1
As they share the belief that it is referential language that, in its predictable and transparent patterns, causes death of the mind and rebroadcasts, on the level of writing, the rules of commodity fetishism, Language poets set out to create an alternative linguistic discourse that aims to undermine the instrumental use of language. The “reference-equals-reification” argument enthuses poets to attack the absorbability of writing in favor of what Bernstein, in his verse essay “Artifice of Absorption,” labels “artifice” and defines as “a measure of a poem’s/intractability to being read as the sum of its/devices & subject matters.”2 Since, to Language poets, coherent subject matter and ready-made structures convey familiar, ready-made meanings—that is, conventional syntax and rhetorical devices only reaffirm the logic of capitalism—only new patterns of syntax and grammar are seen as equipped with the power to express any new thought authentically. Non-absorptive writing is thus the product of an effort to create poetic texts that cannot be deciphered and easily looked through. It is accomplished through the poets’ endeavors to cancel and disrupt familiar meanings, to “language” the world for themselves by means of “ironiz[ing],/experiment[ing], writ[ing] wrong…” As Perelman believes, you either swallow the “pre-owned” meanings of the world or “language it for yourself./Make your own recipes: ironize,/Experiment, write wrong…”3
It is the freedom of language to signify anything it chooses to, rather than obey a pre-assigned singular meaning, that Language poets venture to reestablish. The “truth” of language, they believe, should not be deciphered, but, instead, felt, listened to, and enjoyed in its multifaceted nuances and original materiality. As Bernstein suggests in “Palukaville,” “It’s not the supposed referent that has that truth. Words themselves. The particulars of the language and not, note, the ‘depth structures’ that ‘underlie’ ‘all languages’ require the attention of that which is neither incidentally nor accidentally related to the world. It’s sweet enough.”4
The gustatory sensation evoked in the last line—the sweetness of the new experience in language, suggests the need to keep our senses open, so we can taste fully and freely the richness of the word. The Language poets urge us to listen, feel, hear, and touch, and neglect none of the rich “textures of … life”:
Listen. I can feel it. Specifically and intentionally. It does hurt. Gravity weighing it down. It’s not too soft. I like it. Ringing like this. The hum. Words peeling. The one thing. … It tastes good. Clogs. Thick with shape. I carry it with me wherever I go. I like it like this. Smears. You can touch it. I know how to get there. Hold it. Tickles. I’m the one beside you. Needs no other. Textures of the signs of life.5
This excerpt from “Palukaville” is emblematic of the use of “parataxis,” in the sense with which Perelman endows the term, i.e., a technique that “involves placing units together without connectives or subordination.”6 “ ‘I came. I saw. I conquered’ is paratactic,” Perelman affirms.6 Writing paratactically is an act of subverting the power of hypotaxis, which, Perelman explains, “involves grammatical subordination and the latter entails political and moral subordination as well.”7
With no pre-assigned structure and governing meaning, “Palukaville” provides no interpretative clues in our attempts to decipher it. Are the verses above referring to a romantic encounter? Or do they, indeed, evoke our intimate involvement with language? While the presence of the lyric self beside something or someone other (“I’m the one beside you”), the exclusivity of the encounter that “needs no other,” and the denouement of the poem (“I woke up. I met this girl”)8 carry overt sexual connotations, it may be that the lines allude to the eroticism of the closely and always-accompanying us language. Indeed, the lyric persona attests to feeling a profound “erotic pleasure pressing against the pen with my thumb, sore under the nail from a splinter”9 and a passionate desire to “pronounce” the word and the world, as the last line of the poem asserts: “Let me pronounce it for you.”8
In the world of “Palukaville,” the senses appear a much more adequate descriptor of language than its relationship to truth. Language is there to be felt and relished rather than rationally interpreted. Its meaning is in no way more important than its texture, weight, and sound. Savoring its materiality appears to Language writers a much more pertinent approach than the quest after its signification. Hold and tickle the words, instead of dissecting them in search of a signified, is what Bernstein’s “Palukaville” calls for.
Heeding the “particulars of language” is thus a rebellion against the “owned” and pre-established meanings—an emancipatory gesture breaking apart the yoking of words with reference and truth, and setting free the multivoiced enunciation of poetry. One of the voices we discern in the poem seems to describe the poet’s idea (and love) of the new language—the “love of language—the hum—the huhuman—[that] excludes its reduction to a scientifically managed system of reference in which all is expediency and truth is nowhere.”5 Truthfulness emerges in the painstaking attention to language, in attending to the word and to the story it tells: “Truthfulness, love of language: attending its telling.”9 “The world is in them [the words]”9 rather than anywhere outside of language, Bernstein affirms.
3. Implosive referentiality. The new sentence
Apart from such rare formulations of complete thoughts, “Palukaville” is a typical example of a work using the Language poets’ signature device, the new sentence,10 and consisting of phrases and sentences placed next to each other without any obvious connection to a singular meaning. Instead, what emerges in the Language poem is this AND that AND another meaning. “Peaches and apples and pears; biscuits and French sauces,” Bernstein’s poem enumerates, following the list with a paratactic arrangement of sentences: “Acknowledgment. We can get up. A blur is no reason for distress. Already made it. The mists before each of us at any time can put to rest any lingering fantasies of clear view. I can still hear it. I’m sure…”11 In “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” Perelman describes the role that parataxis plays in the meaning formation of the new sentence in the following manner:
…[F]rom a purely formal perspective, the new sentence was not that drastic an innovation. A new sentence is more or less ordinary itself, but gains its effect by being placed next to another sentence to which it has tangential relevance: new sentences are not subordinated to a larger narrative frame nor are they thrown together at random. Parataxis is crucial: the autonomous meaning of a sentence is heightened, questioned, and changed by the degree of separation or connection that the reader perceives with regard to the surrounding sentences.12
It is this reinvented relationship between the sentences or sentence fragments that transfigures language from subservient to subversive. The paratactic constructions contest the reduction of meaning to a trouble-free reflection of referential certainties. They help recast and undermine the advertising jargon and product-oriented narratives through a reshuffling of the reification parlance. In Bernstein’s Log Rhythms, for instance, the new sentence undercuts the rule of Coke and Pluri-Cola, french fries and coffee shops, pineapple margaritas and “simusoy fish-bit fingers,” which accompany every single event in the lyric self’s life—from the reading skills test-preparation course to perusing the books “you’re always foisting on me.”13 In line with Silliman’s understanding of the new sentence, these are sentences “devoid of punctuation, [with] no deliberately calculated line breaks”:14
Where there’s life there’s Coke and where there’s Coke can Dr. Brown’s Pluri-Cola be far behind if you’d just let me take the reading skills test-preparation course instead of making me waste my time with all these books you’re always foisting on me, like so many greasy french fries from a 70’s-theme coffee shop. “Another 20-ounce frozen pineapple margarita with a side of simusoy fish-bit fingers, sir?”15
The tradition of advertising and product-name verses can be traced back to the school of concrete poetry. “Watch out, the text seems to be saying, when you read those headlines, those cigarette ads, or road signs,” Perloff alerts the reader in her discussion of “Lag” by McCaffery, “the ‘message’ may not be what you think it is.”16 Instead, the verses seem “to place the reader, along with the author, in the position that we are now actually in as we drive the freeways, shop on the mall, push our carts through the supermarket, or watch the evening news”17 thus hoping to provoke a critical, and no longer submissive, attitude.
Laboring toward a summary of the distinctive features of the new sentence, Silliman poses the question: “So what is the new sentence?”18 and, a few pages later, lists its distinguishing characteristics:
(1) The paragraph organizes the sentences; (2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument; (3) Sentence length is a unit of measure; (4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity; (5) Syllogistic movements is: (a) limited; (b) controlled; (8) The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.19
Let us consider the following verses:20
the last time/I had/pot/roast/the rain/poured/through the ceiling/& it was fat./my teeth/got stuck/(too chewy)/& I wondered/if the/butcher/wasn’t/getting worse. (61)
I got a headache/& all the paintings have been/switched around/the impressionist one is now on the other wall/& the one with blue floating shapes has been moved to the living room/where a plant now sits. (61)
heat’s off again/or still/& it’s the coldest winter/(it’s always the coldest winter) (63)
I miss you & your
any thoughts I distract myself with. (64)
michael & bruce
& susan and jane
& gale and charlie
& ted (67)
for Terry Swanson
I get up –
another day. (69)
of man, but
get up. (69)
The sentences and stanzas in this excerpt from Bernstein’s Islets/Irritations are not in “free standing isolation”21 as Jameson would have seen them, but, instead, appear related through a common theme and intensity. They are in the ambiguous condition of “not [being] subordinated to a larger narrative frame,” while not being “thrown together at random” either.22 Despite their seeming arbitrariness, the verses reveal a shared theme of sadness, illness, unrequited love, or loss. The negative connotations invested in most of the images, which all convey a feeling of despondency, emerge as one of the “methods for enabling secondary syllogistic movement to create or convey an overall impression of unity, without which the systematic blocking of the integration of sentences one to another through primary syllogistic movement … would be trivial, without tension, a ‘heap of fragments.’ ”22 Nonetheless, any attempt to explicate the work as a whole according to some system of meaning, such as narrative or character, seems fallacious and is ultimately doomed to failure. The author refuses to integrate the multiple semantic levels and never raises them to a higher order of signification.
Taken individually, any of those stanzas would be haphazard and downright incoherent, but put together they form a central movement of meanings that share a common charge and uniform direction. Moreover, this movement never congeals in a stable and predictable signification, but continually morphs in accordance with the links actuated with its neighboring elements. We go from one sentence to the other without coming out for a new breath of air. Bernstein calls such sentences that refuse “the syntactic ideality of the complete sentence,” in favor of a durational flow of meaning, “imploded.” “While in the complete/closed sentence, attention is deflected to an abstracted, or accompanying, ‘meaning’ that is being ‘conveyed,’ ” Bernstein writes, “in the imploded sentence the reader stays plugged in to the wave-like pulse of the writing. In other words, you keep moving throughout the writing without having to come up for ideational air, the ideas are all inside the process.”23 Reference is thus reterritorialized through implosion to circulate among rather than within the signs’ internal relationships. “Through implosion reference has passed into its opposite (the material and inwardness of the signifier) and simulates its own presence in the dead space of a sign field, among its mirror reversals, self-reflections and utterly internalized exchanges.”24
4. Linguistic experimentation. “Ludism”25 as the unlimited play of signification
The reterritorialization of reference and the use of implosive referentiality in the new sentence liberate the infinite possibilities of language, and provide exploratory space for new and radically unconventional experiments. Let us look at Bernstein’s “The Elephant Appears…”26
The sentences in this poem seem fully unrelated, indifferent to each other and bound by no semantic skeleton. What is this poem about? Who are the lyric selves it describes? An elephant, “I,” “You,” “we”? A title would have hinted at some answers, but even this clue has been withheld by the author. Instead, the page presents a list of often incomplete and unconnected sentences, at times further disrupted by additional linguistic noise (as in the line: ABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABAB, for instance). Nonplussed by the streams of unreadable information, the reader is unable to find any common theme that verses such as the following share:
The elephant appears without the slightest indication that he is demanded.
It was simply a series I didn’t care for.
The line concluding Bernstein’s poem by quoting the bewilderment of an anonymous speaker, “So in what sense…?” seems to be voicing precisely this bafflement and inability of the reader to “own” or interpret the poem. The Language poets’ idea of the new sentence, however, suggests that it may be worth inquiring beyond the poem’s seeming incongruity. Just like the new sentence, these lines do not possess a self-contained poetic value, but still may have the power to acquire meaning as a result of the relations that they form with the adjacent sentences and fragments.
The elephant appears without the slightest indication that he is demanded.
An infinite inappropriateness.
It was simply a series I didn’t care for.
A numbered pairing.
Invasion of space. Name of cigarette.
You can tell at any time. I get up for breakfast. You feel it is impossible to continue.
Diffuses. There. Feel it. Terrible tedium. ABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABABAB. Some snoring.
& regardless of their relation or that we were in some ways unnatural. Possible pictures.
“So in what sense…?”
Indeed, a more attentive reading of the poem reveals that our verdict about its verses’ disconnectedness was somehow rash and injudicious. In fact, instead of being non-integrated in nature, the sentences seem to establish some peculiar interrelationships. The unwelcome, inopportune appearance of the elephant without being “demanded” relates to such semantic nuclei as “infinite inappropriateness,” the “invasion of space,” etc. Next to this idea of encroachment, another thread connects such verses as “It was simply a series I didn’t care for,” “Terrible tedium,” “Some snoring,” “cigarettes,” and creates the impression that, despite the will to “continually learn…” and the prospect of “possible pictures,” all is permeated by a constant state of deficiency: “small cupolas,” “a numbered pairing,” inability to advance and bring anything to fruition (“trail off”) and total failure to proceed. “You can tell at any time,” even at the rise of the day when the lyric self “get[s] up for breakfast,” that hope is dead and “[y]ou feel it is impossible to continue.” The following verse makes the sentiment almost palpable: “Diffuses. There. Feel it.” While it appears that the scenario of a love triangle is alluded to (“& regardless of their relation or that we were in some ways unnatural”), the impossibility of love seems to be just a synecdoche for a much more all-pervasive condition of hopelessness and failure. Thus, regardless of our initial impression about the disconnectedness of the poem’s verses, we come to perceive that, in fact, they are profoundly relational in nature. It is just that the provisional connections made at the time of the reading are not ones of logic, nor of the signified, and openly refuse to construct any larger narrative wholes. The reader’s productive engagement with the text generates only local pockets of meaning that never accumulate into a static aggregated mass.
Thus, despite our inability, and, in fact, unwillingness to pin down Bernstein’s poem’s definitive meaning, the latter is far from signifying anything whatsoever. In the course of our encounter with it, we generate numerous conditional meanings whose free play can be described by using Vicki Mistacco’s term “ludism.” As she defines it, “ludism” designates an open and boundless play of signification, “a free and productive interaction of forms, of signifiers and signifieds, without regard for an original or ultimate meaning. In literature, ludism signifies textual play; the text is viewed as a game affording both author and reader the possibility of producing endless meanings and relationships.”27 The open performance staged by Bernstein’s verses thus prevents their congealing in a fixed representational whole and enables the reader to produce manifold plausible readings rather than dismiss the work.
Like Bernstein’s “The Elephant Appears…,” Andrews’s work “WAS”28 is pervaded by a similar sense of impasse and impossibility.
was had felled burst hadn’t
threw didn’t came lived bid
The title itself announces the topic of loss and alludes to a state no longer recuperable. What follows are two columns of words that, at first sight, appear quite accidental. The perceptive reader, however, would be quick to discern that all the words are verbs and, at that, they are all in the past tense. Moreover, they appear to mark noteworthy stages in the life of the lyric persona who “pursued,” “married,” “desired,” “moaned,” in a word, “lived” all the transient moments of joy and travail, and, when all of this “went,” “was,” and “burst,” he was “saved” and “forgiv[en].” The words of the poem are arranged in a way that creates an evocative visual image, thereby forming a peculiar caligram for life and time’s implacable irreversibility. The four sides of the poem frame a menacing void—a gaping hole that threatens to engulf all that is “to be” and place it in the terminal “was” modality.
5. The revolutionary charge of morphemic and phonetic disruption
As Andrews’s “WAS” attests, the sentence quite seldom remains the most basic unit of disruptive activity. The Language verses abound in disjunct words, signifiers, sememes, and, at times, even phonemes. Let us pause and consider the fragmentation of language in Melnick’s work Pcoet. Here is section eight (Figure 5.1):
Figure 5.1 David Melnick, PCOET, # 8. Copyright: David Melnick
The misplaced morphemes, pronouns, prepositions, and word segments of Melnick’s poem seem totally indifferent to each other, positioned in a way eliciting no clean-cut meaningful relationship. It matters little where Melnick has preferred to place the white, non-letter spaces—between illegible phonetic groups or camouflaged root structures that only barely relate to a semantic nucleus.
The fragmentation is even more radical in poems such as the single-line section 37 of Pcoet that appears to be little more than a disjointed phonetic string.
in tr uc kt ua er hh im to we ob ie ra r29
Similar are the snapped chains of unrelated signifiers in Andrews’s work Factura that mark the breaking down of language to the primeval level of phonemes (Figure 5.2 and Figure 5.3):
Figure 5.2 From Bruce Andrews’s Factura. Copyright: Bruce AndrewsFigure
Figure 5.3 From Bruce Andrews’s Factura. Copyright: Bruce Andrews
Phonemes, to Language poets, present those most fundamental units which, while organized in accordance with the stringent rules of language, do not have yet a socially determined meaning. These elementary, primordial entities function as the building blocks of the Language poets’ archaeology of negative spaces. In the words of Perelman himself: “Only the phoneme is a purely differential and contentless sign. Its sole … semiotic content is its dissimilarity from all other phonemes.”30 Not yet charged with any pre-conceived ideas, the phoneme is seen by Perelman as closer to the world of “sense.”31 And if reaching the level of “senses” is important, it is because the power to manipulate them can enable the author to interfere with and change social behavior. Paraphrasing Julia Kristeva’s thesis, set forth in Revolution in Poetic Language, Joel Nickels observes that “our ‘intuitive’ sense of possible social relations is rooted in the primordial regulation of our senses.”32 Thus, the disarticulation of verse to the level of phonemes emerges as a strategy for impacting and altering society through a deft exploitation of the readers’ senses. It is from this perspective that the Language poem’s unintelligibility, ensuing from its radical disjointing, can be regarded as a purposeful attempt to challenge and reshape the present structure of socially imposed meanings. Indeed, the desemanticization of poetry seems a rather unorthodox means for exerting a shift in societal standards. Such a practice, however, appears quite justifiable through the lens of Baudrillard’s provocative insight: “[A]ny direct appeal to ‘the people’ as such is no longer a viable option given not only the avant-garde’s failure to sway the masses but, more radically, the implosion of the social itself as a stable referent…”33
While vastly theorized as avant-garde in nature, this poetry of defragmented textual structures and undefined-by-rules nontextual spaces recalls a peculiar arrière-garde experience, which, analyzing parallel developments in Russian culture, Epstein associates with the “literature of the end.” Such literary works, Epstein proposes, constitute an erratic and disordered “zero-degree writing,”34 a type of literature indistinguishable from language and reduced to the laws of orthography, morphology, and simple grammar.
By rupturing the sentence to unintelligible segments, rotating spatially the non-sequential fragments, and outlining pictorial designs and graphic patterns, Language poets call into question the hegemonic systems of discursive power. Any attempt to follow the rules of standard syntax and grammar constitutes, to Language writers, a concession to the regime of political power. As Bernstein succinctly announces, the “use of standard patterns of syntax and exposition effectively rebroadcasts, often at a subliminal level, the basic constitutive elements of the social structure…”35 Such an impingement on the sacred parameters of writing is inadmissible to Language poets. Language, they believe, is endowed with the power to constitute and transform; it should never be used to subjugate and control.
6. Becoming meaningful: Re-narrativizing Language poetry
While the rejection of normative patterns of morphology, syntax, and grammar no doubt gives birth to new forms of poetic language, it still appears questionable that, by defacing standardized structures, poets can efficiently fight the commodification of language. As Perloff remarks, discussing the fractured enunciation of Language writing, “[T]he work that lasts is one that does not merely fragment, distort, write over or under, cut up, splice, or collage, but that uses these techniques to encode complex meanings.”36 No matter how anti-absorptive a text is, the reader invariably attempts to translate it into some form of commonsense meaning, and when such meaning is fully refused to him/her, the agenda of poetry becomes gravely destabilized. “An open text, however ‘open’ it be, cannot afford whatever interpretation,” Umberto Eco asserts in The Role of the Reader.37 Indeed, the Language poets urge us to resist forming larger narrative wholes beyond the provisional links shaped in the process of reading (i.e., to fight de-narrativization). But does this process deprive the Language verses of meaning? It appears, instead, that each act of de-narrativization opens up multiple possibilities for re-narrativization, that is, the construction of new ideas and meanings. As Silliman asserts,
De-narrativization is a necessary part of construction in these wider paratactic arguments. But this process needs to be seen for the combined reading and writing practice that it is: re-narrativization is also necessary. If we try to separate out the results of these practices, we are left with fictions, metaphorical condensations: the purely autonomous, politically efficacious new sentence on the one hand, and the rubble of snapped signifying chains on the other.38
While it is unquestionably true that the intuitive quest of the reader after “some form of commonsense meaning” may be a deeply frustrating experience (for, as McGann points out, one of the “crucial feature[s] of the LANGUAGE approach to poetry and writings centers in its preoccupation with nonsense, unmeaning, and fragmentation”),39 I believe that meaning is nonetheless an indisputable element of Language poetry’s “nonsemantic” verses. It is just that a shift has occurred in Language writing from the centrality of the unified sentence and form as measures for the meaningfulness of poetical structures, to other, less transparent modes of semantically charged and historically significant literature. “A refusal to exchange language for meaning does not imply that language is meaningless but implies rather that the opposition of language and meaning needs to be reconceived,” Reinfeld proposes.40 Ultimately, the Language poems are interesting not only in terms of how perplexing they are, but also in terms of how much meaning may be constructed in them. The discourse of Language writing is thus meaning-constitutive rather than meaning-referential.41 “The signs of language … are not … mere structures,” Bernstein explains, “they do not sit, deanimated, as symbols in a code, dummies for things of nature they ‘refer to.’ ”42 Instead, they require our active engagement in the production and actualization of meaning. Meaning “is” not to be found ready-made in the poem, meaning “becomes” part of it as a result of the readerly efforts. Therefore, we are to think of poetry as “making a path” rather than “designing a garden”43 and of its meaning as a meaning-of-becoming rather than a meaning-in-being. Let us consider the following brief poem:
by the by44
It would be equally unfitting to contend that this poem doesn’t make sense or to assert that it yields productively to the reader’s attempt to decipher it. Despite appearing random and incoherent, the poem seems to possess certain internal logic. The first and second lines have the same beginning (“she”), the second and third lines—the same ending (“ells”). The last line re-enacts the doubling of word structures via a repetition of the preposition “by” in a symmetrical construction that creates a mirror-like effect and actuates the vibrant semantics of sound (“by the by”). Little more can (and, perhaps, should) be said about the poem’s signification. It is one of those Language “[t]exts [that] are themselves signif ieds, not mere signifiers.”45 As Andrews remarks, describing such Language works, “The text requires no hermeneusis for it is itself one—of itself.”46
Similarly to the poem above, the one preceding it in Bernstein’s Disfrutes seems, at first sight, a pointless piece of writing.
It would be hard and, indeed, unproductive, to attempt to extract any meaning from verses, defined by cognitive dissonance and radical dispersion of meaning. Still, the poem undoubtedly reveals an underlying grammatical logic. Indeed, there are no self-standing semantic units, not even roots that express a central idea. What unites all the parts of the poem and constitutes it as “meaningful” is namely the auxiliary nature of its elements. The poem is made up of prepositions, pronouns, and a single verb (at that, auxiliary) that need to be attached to a semantic nucleus in order to produce conventional meanings. Still, I would argue, the refusal to generate legible meanings and be integrated in a larger, coherent structure is far from an act of desemanticization (though, admittedly, the semantics at play is of a distinctly unorthodox nature). It is the kind of meaning-production of which McCaffery writes in his book, tellingly entitled Prior to Meaning: “Meaning is guaranteed to linguistic form not in a mirror-image correspondence to extralinguisticalities but in the linguistic form per se.”48 As Aleksei Kruchenykh once put it, “one can read a word backward, and then one gets a deeper meaning.”49 The refusal to copy reality does not strip the Language poem of meaning. As Bernstein suggests, “Anti-realism need not imply, as certain French theorists might claim,/a rejection of meaning. All that Artifice requires is that nonmeaningful levels be taken into account…”50
7. The semantics of sound
This reassignment of the locus of meaning is a common gesture in Language writing, which engages in opening up to the reader the often discounted semantics of poetic sound. “[S]and and sane an,” Bernstein chants in Disfrutes. “[L]eans/looms/remains / … fade/fumbling, quivering,” he intones, exploring the infinite possibilities of sound to anchor non-conventional meanings.51 Or, as Melnick’s verse in Pcoet sings (Figure 5.4):52
Figure 5.4 David Melnick’s PCOET, # 77. Copyright: David Melnick
For the Language writers, poetry is categorically contingent on sound, a viewpoint they wholeheartedly embrace despite the prevalent dismissal of sound and of the poem’s nonlexical components as “meaningless” and “nonsemantic” features. As Bernstein reveals in his critique of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s account in On Poetic Artifice, the capacity of “nonsemantic” elements to carry and preserve poetic meaning has often been ungroundedly devalued: “… It/seems to me she [Forrest-Thomson] is wrong to designate the nonlexical,/or more accurately, extralexical/strata of the poem as ‘nonsemantic’; I would say/that such elements as line breaks, acoustic/patterns, syntax, etc., are meaningful rather than,/as she has it, that they contribute to the meaning/of the poem.”53 All in all, “the designation of the visual, acoustic,/& syntactic elements of a poem as ‘meaningless,’ ” Bernstein concludes, which “is a common habit/of much current critical discussion of syntactically/nonstandard poetry—is symptomatic of a desire to/evade responsibility for meaning’s total, &/totalizing, reach.”54
The semantics of sound is particularly visible in Andrews’s Acappella—the name alluding to the music of the “a cappella” singing performed without the use of any instruments. Listen to the sound of the following lines (Figure 5.5):
Figure 5.5 Bruce Andrews, Acappella, #12. Copyright: Bruce Andrews
The poem showcases alliteration based on the repetitive use of the initial “b” sound along with the phonic liquidity of multiple assonances (as in “boy/boy,” “but/business,” “bed/began,” etc.). The latter are often interrupted by the raucous grating of the “br” alliterative groups (as in the case of the musical “e” assonance in “before, bed, bed,” intercepted by the hoarse “br” of “breaking” and “brother” in the neighboring lines) (Figure 5.6).
Figure 5.6 From Bruce Andrews’s Acappella, #12. Copyright: Bruce Andrews
This poem by Andrews, though emphatically centered on sound, still preserves the autonomy of the word rather than focus on the materiality of the phoneme. In this, it is reminiscent of the earlier phase55 in the evolution of sound poetry when, as McCaffery attests, “sound poetry was still a largely word-bound practice … [with] the materiality of the sign emerg[ing] as a central preoccupation.”56 Since the 1950s, however, a critical move to orality has occurred, culminating in Henri Chopin’s creation of the audio-poème.57 Just challenge yourself to pronounce out loud the following poem, and you will be immersed in the pre-linguistic vocality of indiscriminate sound patterns and structureless phonetic groups (Figure 5.7):
Figure 5.7 From Bruce Andrews’s Factura. Copyright: Bruce Andrews
Sound poetry thus demonstrates the ways in which meaning is generated on levels prior to grammatical synthesis. This relocation of meaning subverts the possibility for any easy reference of word to non-linguistic externalities and marks the Language poets’ revolutionary endeavor to undermine the authority of standard grammar and normative discourses. “There is no place words cannot take us if we don’t take them as authorities, with fixed codes hardwired into the language, but as springs to jump with, or as trampolines to hurl ourselves, inward and outward, upward and downward, aslant and agog, round and unrounded,” Bernstein proclaims.58 Writing wrong, diminishing or fully effacing reference via consistent misspelling, word rupture, and faulty syntax and grammar, is thus presented as a strategy that aims at disengaging language from its subjection to the capitalist project. “The fight for language is a political fight,” McCaffery contends and further explains: “The fight for language is also a fight inside language.”59 As evinced in the very title of Silliman’s essay “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,”60 in order for a new world to appear, the word in its conventional sense should disappear. This is what we saw enacted in the poetry of Russian postmodernism—this, we have likewise established, is the creed embraced by its American (Language) counterpart. Commenting on the “textualist/improvisational techniques [used by East European experimentalists] to undermine the party-sanctioned representations of ‘reality,’ ” Marcel Cornis-Pope suggests an underlying parallel with the American Language school: “The capacity of self-reflexive, revisionistic art to both ‘de-doxify’ and change the dominant systems of meaning and value is well understood today both by East European experimentalists … and the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.”61 What the two have in common is the commitment to transform and reimagine society via a radical reinventing of language and its deliverance from the oppressive dictates of reality.
8. The referential potential of silence
A humbling of speech, a deflation of meaning—these are ways of pointing to another, silent reality for which there are no and can be no words. Any value is made small, when we assume the Supreme Value. The latter cannot itself be made manifest; only that can be manifested which this value is not.62 --Mikhail Epstein
Our discussion in the previous section has revealed that the self-referentiality of Language poetry is not an attempt to cut off links with the world and escape in a solipsistic reality. Conversely, as we have seen critics avow, it is in the self-reflexivity of Language art that we can identify the means to “ ‘de-doxify’ and change the dominant systems of meaning and value.”63 Language poetry thus implores to be recognized as much more than a purely linguistic exercise, a project restricted to experimental formalist explorations. Instead, the refusal to speak in a coherent manner and reiterate the dominant discourse of power emerges as a gesture of grand revolutionary potential. The violation of the bounds of standard syntax and grammar gives birth to a peculiar abode of silence—an empty space for the imagining of new, never before formulated ideas. Thus, in an act of effacing reference to existing realities, the Language poets’ refusal to verbalize positive meanings establishes reference to a moment in history when new worlds are being created and the old—boldly uprooted. Unable to define the yearned-for but yet unformed social reality, the poets can only describe what this new world is not, that is, define it negatively.
In an attempt to trace the roots of Language poetry’s negative aesthetics, we once again revert to the traditions of Russian modernism and postmodernism. As we have noted, Language poetry has often been linked to the avant-garde school of Russian Futurism, with Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velemir Khlebnikov as its forefront figures.64 In Part one, we have observed that similar paths of succession connect futurist poetry to Russian conceptualism. In the words of Epstein, “we can … trace paths of succession from … futurism to conceptualism,”65 as both give full precedence to the “world of the signifier itself,”66 “the self-sufficient word” (samovitoe slovo), as Khlebnikov once termed it. A parallel plotting of American Language poetry and Russian conceptualist verses on a single stylistic, poetical graph thus manifests points of peculiar convergence via the commonality of the two with the futurist school.
Futurists’ transrational poetics and Khlebnikov’s zaum technique have often been regarded as analogous to the mechanism operating in the Language verse. Many critics have recognized in postmodern Language poetry the same method of textual estrangement (ostranenie) that Shklovsky, at the outset of the twentieth century, ushered as a signature device of the early Russian avant-garde. Shklovsky preached the need to make art strange, to capture the attention of the reader by removing his/her senses from the hurried, automated mode in which he/she had grown accustomed to perceive reality, and to reveal what is unique and totally surprising in the banal everyday world. At the heart of Shklovsky’s theory, known as the theory of defamiliarization, lies the objective to slow down the reader’s adventure and let him/her savor the uniqueness of the words on page—the desire to help the reader find the words’ distinctly singular and unrepeatable quality. Leading him/her away from the habitual modes of perceiving reality, the practice of estrangement seeks to shock the reader into a recognition of the new, of what has been suppressed and buried by life’s implacable automatisms, and thus initiate him/her on the road to social critique and analysis. While Language poetry often employs the estrangement technique however, in the mind of Kalaidjian, it still remains unclear if the latter engenders any politically significant criticism or merely records the symptoms of late capitalist reality. As the critic observes,
Today it is still an open question whether the Language poets’ postmodern version of Shklovsky’s ostranenie actually serves politically, as the Russian formalists claimed it would, to subvert the bourgeois world outlook—its rituals of social consumption and ideologies of the imperial self, introspective privacy, “voice,” and so on—or if it merely reflects, symptomatically, capital’s own fragmented spectacle of commodity exchange.67
While unquestioningly sharing some common features with the futurist and formalist agendas of the early Russian avant-garde, Language writing, I would argue, adopts some immensely dissimilar poetic techniques as well. Practically the opposite device to that of the early avant-garde estrangement functions in late avant-garde literary trends, to which both Russian conceptualist poetics and the Language theory and verse pertain. Language writing seems to employ the same strategies of automation of perception or “sloughing off” (otslaivanie) that Epstein finds to operate in Russia’s late poetic avant-garde (1970–1980s) and, more specifically, in conceptualist poetry and art. Bernstein’s “Emotions of Normal People” exemplifies the peculiar ways in which the Language verses enact the automation of perception technique:
I’d like to meet Jane Franham.
Jane was my mother-in-law until I married
Jim. [While I was sure of Joan’s
love … Now both hands
are able to work, since the magnifier
is suspended around
the neck on an adjustable length of
cord …] I
suspected that your father had an adrenal
gland tumor … Lillie was very emphatic that she
wanted to be a ballet dancer;… Lipstick
is meant to be the perfect
finishing touch—one that doesn’t
your eyeshadow or clash
with your blushes.
Only when the soup course
is finished is
the service plate
taken out.—Who’s the woman YOU
most admire? Is it
Shirley Temple Black, Raisa Gorbachev…
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or Ella Fitzgerald?68
In works like this, the Language poets do not attempt to disengage familiar words and ordinary views from commonplace realities, to place them in an unconventional environment, and grant them strangeness to acquire visibility; they, rather, choose to let words stream out unadorned and hackneyed as we encounter them in our day-to-day existence. Nothing in these indiscriminately flowing words seems strange and unexpected—they all are well-known, nugatory, trivial; no statements come out as surprising or provocative—instead, they are repetitive, derivative, familiar. The “sloughing off” poetic practice does not attempt to hold the reader’s focus or attention, but, on the contrary, to speed up its removal from word to word, from line to line, from page to page—to automate our readerly perception until we, fleetly thumbing through the pages, forget about the verses in the book and, blissfully oblivious, arrive at the abode of total silence. There, in a domain where no pre-charted rules apply, the reader can discover his distinctive ways to grapple with the problems of society.
Facing the ultimate silence is, in fact, a profoundly religious experience. Getting rid of, or, as the founder of negative (apophatic) theology Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (fifth century A.D.) puts it, “clearing aside,” the layers of conventional meanings, we approach the estate of the Absolute, the sovereign land of the Supreme Value, which no words can ever describe, as it is greater than all possible descriptions and definitions. As Epstein penetratingly construes it, “After all, the Supreme Value (which is also non-Value) keeps silent, and the more words about it we quote, the sooner we will approach its ‘authorial’ word about itself: silence within itself, where we, too, may abide.”69
Interestingly, in Prior to Meaning, McCaffery also alludes to the negative aesthetics of Language poetry and suggests that it may have been rooted in Zen Buddhist ideas such as emptiness, nothingness, and the effacement of one’s mind and ego. He introduces a conversation between Mac Low and Bernstein, in which Mac Low shares the importance of Zen principles for his “silent” poetics. “Zen taught me both to try to minimize the expression of the ego during the act of composition and to let each word, etc., ‘speak for itself,’ ” Mac Low points out.70 Apart from the Buddhist conception of egolessness, Mac Low underscores the Taoist ideal of Wu-Wei (non-action, letting the Way do it) and the Zen Buddhist conception of the No-Mind as the main Taoist ideals that lie at the basis of chance composition. In a subsequent response to a question posed by Bernstein, Mac Low elaborates: “Yet the Zen Buddhist motive for use of chance (&c) means was to be able to generate a series of ‘dharmas’ (phenomena/events, e.g., sounds, words, colored shapes) relatively ‘uncontaminated’ by the composer’s ‘ego’ (taste, constitutional predilections, opinions, current or chronic emotions),”71 that is, to lead the reader to a space of emptiness and silence where, without the presence of any authorially imposed ideas, he/she could uncover a way to negotiate and alter reality.
Abiding in the realm of silence, which forces no interpretations of the social problems, no evident and clear-cut solutions, the reader is free to find his/her individual path in the labyrinth of social issues. It is in this sense that Language poetry provides an alternative arena for political deliberations, a zone of social quests and inquiries. Refusing to address the people with formulated, ready-made ideas, denying them the solace of already established categorizations, the poems empower the reader on the path of political activism. Thus, what might seem a silence, thoroughly devoid of social meanings, appears charged with political energy and a potential to contest the discourse of power.
The late avant-garde device of “sloughing off” finds numerous manifestations in Language poetry. Bernstein’s “Lapidary Entropy” (Islets/Irritations), for instance, demonstrates the process of peeling off, divesting one by one the rich semantic layers of reality, until the reader is confronted with the nothingness of pure silence, utterly unburdened by a pre-existing meaning. Enumerated one after another, in the poem’s seventeen digressing verbal sections, are trivial, boring, and altogether insignificant statements, whose only role is the automation of the reader’s perception and his/her hastened transposition into the realm of nothingness. Sections 6 and 13 of the poem read:
SONNET TELEPHONE CALL
See “did you
the idea of form speak to
is to fit tight ted greenwald
(Frank O’Hara said that) he called at
& a sonnet seems like one ten to nine.”
of those turtlenecks that if it’s also, I
a good color had some
& the shape hugs cereal
then it becomes & my tooth still hurts.72
one. Oh Chris
I miss you & your
any thoughts I distract myself with.73
There is no logocentric subject in this poem. The stanzas are not unified by any lyric persona or singular consciousness. They are, instead, spoken in a multiplicity of voices, thus exhibiting peculiar heteroglossia. It is a case of “monadic ontology,” as McCaffery defines it based on Leibniz’s concept of the monad: “Under the rule of monadic ontology, the subject ‘liquefies’ into a seriality of viewpoints within which subjectivity can only be defined retrospectively as a trace construction after the event.”74
The reader’s initial attempts to decode the poem’s deep meanings thus yields to a fully unexpected discovery—the poem, in its intrinsic fluidity, strives to convey no definitive meaning; it refuses to point to any singular truth. Instead, it attempts to divert our attention, to lead it away from its particular content, to set our minds free and open them up to new, unattained social epiphanies. Language poetry thus constitutes a valiant act of initiation, a plunging board letting us dive into unknown and diverse social realities, an arena to exercise our political will and transform a deficient society.
- 1. Bob Perelman, “An Alphabet of Literary History,” The Marginalization of Poetry, 148.
- 2. “Artifice of Absorption,” A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 9.
- 3. Bob Perelman, “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake,” The Future of Memory, 32.
- 4. Charles Bernstein, “Palukaville,” in Poetic Justice (Baltimore, MD: Pod Books, 1979), 9.
- 5. a. b. Bernstein, “Palukaville,” 9.
- 6. a. b. Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative,” 59.
- 7. Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative,” 59–60.
- 8. a. b. Bernstein, “Palukaville,” 12.
- 9. a. b. c. Bernstein, “Palukaville,” 10.
- 10. Contrary to Fredric Jameson, who sees the disruption of signification and structure as producing “schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” (Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 26), Silliman (who coined the term and conceptualized the new sentence) discovers in this same rubble of poetic language, in the silence of blank spaces between linguistic constituents, the most genuine source of interaction and meaningfulness. In the words of Silliman himself, “The new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between as within sentences. Thus it reveals that the blank space, between words or sentences, is much more than the 27th letter of the alphabet” (Ronald Silliman, The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987), 92, italics added). The logic Silliman expounds is one of in-betweenness and exteriority, and not of inwardness and hidden meanings. “Truth” is no longer in the word itself. In the opinion of Edmond Jabès, quoted in Bernstein’s verse essay “Artifice of Absorption,” truth is “in the burning space between one letter and the next” (Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Yael, Elya, Aely, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 7). Language poetry thus sets the stage for post-hermeneutic literary criticism—a criticism that dismantles the belief in literature as a domain of finite meanings and transcendental signifieds. While hermeneutics rests on the assumption that texts are what they are by virtue of our acts of exegesis and interpretation, post-hermeneutic criticism invalidates the search for meanings within the inner corpus of the text and practices, in Foucault’s terms, a thinking of the outside. Importantly, as Silliman remarks, “It [the new sentence] is the first prose technique to identify the signifier (even that of the blank space) as the locus of literary meaning. As such, it reverses the dynamics which have so long been associated with the tyranny of the signified….” (Silliman, The New Sentence, 93). Paramount for the effect of the new sentence is not its capacity for conveying a definitive message or meaning, but, on the contrary, its ability to undermine any possibility for singular interpretation and articulation. Instead of pining after transcendental signifieds, the Language poet orchestrates an interplay of signifiers that operate in highly unconventional manner. The meaning of a Language poem is thus completely unpredictable and changeful, as it depends on the position of the signifiers, on their paratactic link with the adjacent words and sentences, on the distinctive spatial figures circumscribed by them.
- 11. Bernstein, “Palukaville,” 11.
- 12. Perelman, “Parataxis and Narrative,” 61.
- 13. 35 Charles Bernstein, illustrations by Susan Howe, Log Rhythms (Granary Books, 1998), n. pag.
- 14. Silliman, The New Sentence, 150.
- 15. Bernstein, Log Rhythms, n. pag.
- 16. Marjorie Perloff, “Signs are taken for Wonders: The Billboard Field as Poetic Space,” Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, 108.
- 17. Perloff, “Signs are taken for Wonders,” 109.
- 18. Silliman, The New Sentence, 87.
- 19. Silliman, The New Sentence, 91.
- 20. Charles Bernstein, Islets/Irritations (New York: Jordan Davis, 1983), 61–69.
- 21. See Silliman, The New Sentence, 92.
- 22. a. b. Silliman, The New Sentence, 92.
- 23. Bernstein, A Poetics, 60.
- 24. McCaffery, North of Intention, 26.
- 25. Vicki Mistacco’s term, qtd. in McCaffery’s North of Intention, 149.
- 26. Bernstein, Poetic Justice, 27.
- 27. See McCaffery, North of Intention, 149
- 28. Bruce Andrews, Acappella (Ghost Dance Press, no. 17, 1973), n. pag.
- 29. David Melnick, PCOET (San Francisco: G.A.W.K., 1975), section 37, n. pag.
- 30. Bob Perelman, “Sense,” Writing/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), 73.
- 31. Perelman, “Sense,” 75.
- 32. Joel Nickels, “Post-Avant-Gardism: Bob Perelman and the Dialectic of Futural Memory,” Postmodern Culture: An Electronic Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism, 11 (3) (2001): paragraph 8, http://www.pomoculture.org/2013/11/16/post-avant-gardism-bob-perelman-and-the-dialectic-of-futural-memory-2.
- 33. Quoted in Walter Kalaidjian, “Transpersonal Poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Writing and the Historical Avant-Gardes,” in American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism & Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 198.
- 34. Epstein, After the Future, 93–94.
- 35. Charles Bernstein, “The Dollar Value of Poetry,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. ed. Andrews and Bernstein, 140.
- 36. Marjorie Perloff, “The Coming of Age of Language Poetry,” Contemporary Literature, 38 (3) (Autumn 1997): 563.
- 37. Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), 9.
- 38. See Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry, 78.
- 39. Jerome McGann, “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes,” Critical Inquiry, 13 (Spring 1987), 636.
- 40. Reinfeld, Language Poetry, 34.
- 41. See McGann, “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes.”
- 42. Bernstein, Content’s Dream, 41.
- 43. Bernstein, Content’s Dream, 39.
- 44. Bernstein, Disfrutes, n. pag.
- 45. Andrews, “Text and Context,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Andrews and Bernstein, 34.
- 46. Andrews, “Text and Context,” 34.
- 47. Bernstein, Disfrutes, n. pag., second poem on first page.
- 48. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 87.
- 49. Aleksei Kruchenykh, qtd. in Vladimir Markov’s “Cubo-Futurism,” in Russian Futurism: A History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 128.
- 50. Bernstein, “Artifice of Absorption,” 10.
- 51. Bernstein, “Substance Abuse,” Islets/Irritations, 85.
- 52. Melnick, PCOET, # 77.
- 53. Bernstein, “Artifice of Absorption” 12, italics added.
- 54. Bernstein, “Artifice of Absorption,” 13, italics added.
- 55. This phase occurred prior to the 1940s.
- 56. McCaffery, North of Intention, 177, italics added. He further observes: “… [W]hile the works of the Dadaists and futurists served to free the word from semantic mandates (purified the word of its cultural bondage to meaning), redirecting a sensed energy from themes and ‘message’ to matter and force, their work nevertheless preserved a morphological patterning that still upheld the aural presence of the word” (McCaffery, North of Intention, 177).
- 57. To develop the audio-poème, McCaffery explains, Chopin utilized “microphones of high amplification to capture vocal sounds on the threshold of audition” (McCaffery, North of Intention, 177). Evocative, in light of our discussion in the following chapters, is the fact that it was technology, or in particular the tape recorder, that made possible this historical leap from structured enunciation to prelinguistic vocal emission. “Tape,” McCaffery explains, “provided the revolutionary capability to finally transcend the biological limits of human bodily expression.” As Chopin, the creator of the “the first-ever poetry to be entirely dependent on the tape recorder” proclaims: “Without this machine, sound poetry would not exist” (McCaffery, North of Intention, 177). And this would have been a major setback, as sound poetry executed “a much more radical break with the tradition of Western poetics than anything before” (Prior to Meaning, 177).
- 58. Charles Bernstein, “The Revenge of the Poet-Critic, or the Parts are Greater than the Sum of the Whole,” in My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 17.
- 59. Steve McCaffery, “From the Notebooks,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Andrews and Bernstein, 159.
- 60. See Silliman, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Andrews and Bernstein.
- 61. Marcel Cornis-Pope, “3.2.3 Self-referentiality,” in International Postmodernism: Theory and Literary Practice, ed. Hans Bertens and Douwe W. Fokkema (Utrecht, the Netherlands: University of Utrecht, 1997), 262.
- 62. Epstein, After the Future, 64–65.
- 63. Cornis-Pope, “Self-referentiality,” 262.
- 64. See Kalaidjian’s “Transpersonal Poetics,” 188–99.
- 65. Epstein, After the Future, 19.
- 66. Epstein, After the Future, 19.
- 67. Kalaidjian, “Transpersonal Poetics: Kenneth Fearing’s Textual Recordings,” in American Culture between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 210.
- 68. Bernstein, Dark City, 89–90.
- 69. Epstein, After the Future, 65.
- 70. Jackson Mac Low, in Steve McCaffery’s “Jackson Mac Low,” Prior to Meaning, 188.
- 71. Mac Low, in Steve McCaffery’s “Jackson Mac Low,” 189.
- 72. Bernstein, “Lapidary Entropy,” Islets/Irritations, 68.
- 73. Bernstein, “Lapidary Entropy,” 64.
- 74. Quoted in McCaffery, Prior to Meaning, 35.