Mac Low as a Shadow Beatnik
For years I heard about Stanzas for Iris Lezak and read excerpts from it in Representative Works: 1938–1985 and Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, though never held a copy until recently.  When I did, I made a surprising discovery: the great extent to which Jackson Mac Low’s work at this juncture joins with the Beat zeitgeist.
Mac Low’s “systematic-chance” poems, known for their inventiveness, expose a wide range of human values, interests, struggles, observations, desires, and joys — even if they are mechanistically derived. Catching my attention in Stanzas for Iris Lezak was something humorous, not on the surface and not so much funny as revelatory about how the author connected with broader literary movements. A nominal connection, association, or appreciation for the Beats is not disguised by Mac Low. Poems titled, “A 2-Part Poem for Ginsberg & Burroughs from Burroughs’ Letter to Ginsberg” and “Asymmetry from Ginsberg’s KADDISH—22 Sept. 1960,” are among those that appear in the book. 
Beyond containing many poems referencing narcotics (i.e., “The Mind and Marihuana”), Stanzas for Iris Lezak’s camaraderie with the subcultural framework of the Beats also appears in its portrayal of hedonistic sexuality. A poem strongly representing this take on the material is Section I of “6 Gitanjali for Iris”:
Gain is rainy life
The Here end
Gain rainy end again the end see the
Feet. Utter. Cry know
The outside when Now,
(18 seconds of silence)
Life outside void end
Feet. Utter. Cry know
Gain is rainy life. 
The amusing and weird part, providing connective tissue to the Beats (beyond perhaps echoing Michael McClure), is not in the lines of the poem, which appear as sweet and expansive cut-up and/or slotted texts. Discovered in the “seed” text used to generate them — which “An Afterword on the Methods Used in Composing & Performing Stanzas for Iris Lezak” reports are taken from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” — are, however, these “exultant sentences”: “My girl’s the greatest fuck in town. I love to fuck my girl.”  Mac Low reads through Tagore’s book, selecting words conforming to the pattern designated by the seed phrases (e.g. first letters of the lines “My you / Gain is rainy life” spell “My Girl”). What Mac Low does with his corporeal impulse, expressed in a code a reader might or might not see, differs from the blatant sexuality found in Beat works. However, Mac Low significantly chooses to divulge this textual fact at the outset of his Afterword — so he clearly wants to let readers know it’s there! [Photo at left by Rachel Homer, used with her permission.]
Stanzas for Iris Lezak also connects with the Beats by overt emphasis — by reference and process — on Eastern religion; it is peppered with Zen à la Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, as in “Haiku (3 Oct. 1960)”:
Ripples in a pool
passions thoughts sensations lives
in serenity. 
Many poems reference Eastern iconography and inclination; one titled “Rinzai on the Self, or ‘The One who is, at this moment, right in front of us, illuminatingly, in full awareness, listening to this talk on the Dharma,” being a particularly prime example. Mac Low’s methods involve use of “auxiliary means” such as dice, playing cards, numbers, and the I Ching.  These algorithmic inventions serve to decentralize a subjective self from the poem — although because it is a poem, made with decisive content from human input, self-importance remains at the fringes. Mac Low revealingly writes, “the most ‘personal’ aspect of the Stanzas […] is the variety of source text.”  Because these are poems, published in a book, we cannot consider Mac Low’s efforts as a rejection of materialism (although its methods of materialization do not follow common convention), but rather as processed re-materialism that finds ways for one set of words to say more than one thing, confirming that multidimensionality exists within a single set of resources. In the early sixties, Mac Low’s identity was normally associated with Fluxus rather than with his bawdy beatnik contemporaries becoming well-known at the time; however, both influences are there. Mac Low references Keats in the title of Thing of Beauty; we know Mac Low and the Beats drew from the Romantics, connecting themselves to all of it, filtering multitudes unafraid to disclose liberated glory!
I title this paper “Mac Low as a Shadow Beatnik” to commemorate the observation, and have applied Mac Low’s expansion method to the book using the “seed” “Mac Low as beatnik.” Linear reading of the whole brought waves of themes — touching and reading every page and word, holding transcribing staccato blasts of constrained concept. Any reader sees how Jackson blends native with foreign, but who else becomes aware of how many pages can pass without having a word beginning with “w”? Like Emmett Williams’ IBM poems or Hugh Kenner’s Travesty, participating like this is instructive regarding language, authorial range, how limited speech is not always limited, and how cycles and patterns build force. Here are results of reading through the poetry until page sixty — seven lines made by a chance melding on the bridge between Modern and Postmodern, instructive to a culture around it:
Maharishi always concerning little of written are same beyond each added teachings no in known
Man’s actual conditioned literally on way a sangsaric but existence and true not is karmic
Mental are conceivable like of wills and such believes essentially and to nationally
Matter adopted carefulness less orient which as set before east age this no is kind-hearted Moderate affectionate catch letter only widow attractive single business ex-Navy
adventure the N.Y.C. interesting kind
Mercenary American character love one who a sense background employed attractive
travelled nice if know
Marrying away calm lady over who actor seemed being else’s at nothing in kindness
My asshole clitoris little one while Augustin since begin Eugénie’s a those kid.
 Jackson Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak (Millerton: Something Else Press, 1972); Jackson Mac Low, Representative Works: 1938–1985 (New York: Roof Books, 1986); Jackson Mac Low, Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, ed. Anne Tardos (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
 Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: the Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 30; Allen Ginsberg, “Foreword,” in Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project 1966–1991, ed. Anne Waldman (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1991), xxv. Mac Low’s intimate association and involvement with the poetry scene in New York in the 1960s is reported in Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome — which includes excerpts from an unpublished essay by Mac Low titled, “The New York Coffeehouse Poetry Reading Scene in New York, 1960-1967” — as well as in Ginsberg’s “Foreword” to Out of this World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project 1966-1991.
 Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak, 203.
 Ibid., 400. A description of processes used in Stanzas for Iris Lezak is also offered in Mac Low’s posthumous collection Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, 49–51.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid., 401.
 Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak, 405.
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, LeRoi Jones’s first book, was composed between 1957 and 1961.  Arranged chronologically, the book feels distinct from the work Jones/Baraka is known for. That work, tho suggested here in isolated snatches, is yet to be written. In this sense the book truly is a “preface.”
And why to a suicide note? That part makes sense only in retrospect: Jones is poised to begin a decades long struggle to kill the white part of his consciousness. A belief common to Black Nationalists of the era was that many who are phenotypically black are ideologically white, therefore divided against themselves. This concept is explored in Jones’s “Poem for HalfWhite College Students” (1969), where he writes “check yourself / learn who it is / speaking [...] who it is you are and is that image black or white.” What begins in Preface as an embrace of open form, an opportunity to dig deep in his own mind and language, will develop, over the coming volumes, into revolutionary praxis. But as yet that struggle is kept at a distance.
Preface’s style is equal parts field poetics, Beat, and NY School.  Jones hasn’t arrived at a style quite yet, but instead presents an amalgam of influences. Though the authors in those movements had shifting perspectives, they often had well-defined approaches, habits, motifs. By contrast, the style of Preface feels uncertain — sometimes abstract lyric, sometimes visceral and incoherent, parodic in one poem, sincere in another. There’s anger, but its object remains unclear. The issue of race lurks, yet feels mostly repressed.
The second poem, “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” is most indicative of what Jones is repressing. In it, radically fragmented voices act out contradictory attitudes towards race and bohemia. The poem seems to critique both bohemians and the black bourgeoisie, but these critiques are equally directed at Jones himself. He lampoons a black man in a café for talking about politics then turning to gawk at a blond woman; Jones is married to a white woman when he writes this poem, and writes in disgust at Black Nationalists who claim this invalidates his right to address racialized oppression. Likewise, the poem labels his sister’s boyfriend a “faggot music teacher / who digs Tschaikovsky”; but Jones, who in this book references Strindberg, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, can’t question the character of a man “who digs Tschaikovsky” without implicating himself.
The poem is less about Jones making a critique, and more about the discourse landscape he finds himself trapped in as a black poet and intellectual. He wants a life in art, not in politics, but politics follows him everywhere. He ends a 1961 letter to Dorn — the letter that accompanies the newly-published Preface, but also recounts his recent arrest in Harlem — with “What is this all about? Who knows? It’s just that I’ve got to do something. I donno. I’m picked. What I wanted (& want) was soft music and good stuffy purity (of intent, of purpose) elegance, even (of the mind). And now I’m fighting in the streets and the cops think I’m dangerous. […] I have people, old men, on Harlem streets come up and shake my hand, or old ladies kiss me, and nod, ‘You are a good man… you will help us.’” 
Even at the end of Preface, which closes with eight poems written after his visit to post-revolutionary Cuba, Jones expresses no desire to move towards a political poetry. These last pieces are not much different from the rest of the book, leaning if anything more towards the lyrical and harmonious. Whereas in earlier poems anger felt submerged, was handled with parody and sarcasm, the anger in these last eight is owned, but oddly integrated into a calm lyric. These poems were written around the same time as “Cuba Libre,” his essay about the trip, and they seem to embrace its final section, where he holds to the primarily cultural rebellion of the Beats — poetry as soul nourishment, not praxis. One poem from this section, “From an Almanac” sees “our time,” as “a cruel one. our soul’s warmth left out.” In “Betancourt,” the one poem written in Cuba, he accepts poetry as something apart from the cruel world, and in a near-echo of Wordsworth writes:
(I mean I think
I know now
turning away . .
us . . .
Looking at the sea. And some
white fast boat.
So the poet of “Betancourt” accepts, regretfully, the poem as a “turning away.” He has had a realization about the difference between poetry and action, a realization we know will change over the coming years. But for now, he will continue his commitment to poetry as such. He will not be a revolutionary. 
In the closing poem of the book, “Notes for a Speech,” the word “speech” suggests a connection to activism, but feels tentative about identifying with the current configurations of the cause. It begins “African blues / does not know me” and ends “my, so called / people. Africa / is a foreign place. You are / as any other sad man here / american.”
 As a way of honoring the original event and its request for 750 words or less, all my serious post-event additions are in these footnotes. The complexity of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note may be too much for so few words, and though I want to preserve what I presented, I feel concerned that my original text may be oversimplifying its topic, so in a move that would not normally stand in an ordinary academic paper, important parts of the argument are submerged in the footnotes.
 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984). Open form poetries offered a critical “place of first permission” for writers looking for strategies flexible enough to sustain language unfit for a more repressed, formal, 1950s poetics — what Baraka would later frame as the “lyricaljingles” of The New Yorker. Baraka, by his account in the Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), first discovered poetic comrades in the scenes that would later be represented (however inadequately) in The New American Poetry. After a period of deep alienation where what he knew of contemporary poetry was mostly what appeared in The New Yorker, his discovery of poets like O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Olson gave him his first sense of possibility. In one of the most cited passages of Autobiography, he talks about a turning point in his early relationship to poetry. While stationed in San Juan in the Air Force, sitting on a bench in a park where black people weren’t allowed unless dressed in US military uniform, he was reading the poetry in the current New Yorker. Those “jingling rhymes” and “verse […] of lawns and trees and dew and birds,” he recounts, made him cry, sob “like it was the end of the world” because just as he was getting excited about poetry, this verse made him realize he was “so out.” He explains, “I was crying because I realized I could never write like that writer […] that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry” (118). Later sections of Autobiography indicate that the poetic context leading up to The New American Poetry offered the first set of strategies Jones felt connection with (225). Whatever personal and very real shortcomings progenitors of NAP had, the writing strategies, the work, was attractive to Jones, who regularly aligned himself with those projects in the pages of his magazine, Floating Bear, edited with Diane DiPrima. A question arose at the Kelly Writers House Q&A about whether any of the presenters were nostalgic for 1960. My answer would have to be no. The socio-political context of 1960 would not allow Jones to continue seeking what he sought — a life committed to aesthetic exploration in language. Jones wanted a life more like Duncan’s at that moment, but the struggle heating up in Harlem forced his engagement with politics. Reading both Autobiography and his correspondence with Edward Dorn, one cannot avoid the fact that Jones’ turn toward revolutionary politics was long and extraordinarily painful.
 Claudia Moreno-Pisano, “Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters” (PhD diss., City University of New York-Graduate Center, 2010). I am grateful to my colleague at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College, Claudia Moreno-Pisano, whose recently completed dissertation is an (as yet unpublished) edition of the Jones-Dorn correspondence. Reading this correspondence has deepened my sense of Preface, and of Jones/Baraka’s early writing and political transformation.
 In “Cuba Libre,” he notes that approaching the Cuba trip, he was determined “not to be ‘taken.’” He tells the story here of meeting Rubi Betancourt, a Mexican delegate from the Latin-American Youth Congress, who he says harangued him for hours about the evils of the U.S. government and what an outrage it was that he didn’t write political poetry. He says he found himself growing more and more defensive, and excused his lack of activism on the grounds of being a poet: “Look, why jump on me? I understand what you're saying. I'm in complete agreement with you. I'm a poet . . . what can I do? I write, that's all, I'm not even interested in politics.” Betancourt attacked this position, as did a group of Latin-American poets a few days later, asking him: “You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul?” He notes in Autobiography his position on this trip as the “oddball, weary traveler/tourist from the U.S. of A.” and the surprise of finding himself defending his decision to define himself primarily as an artist. He returned from Cuba changed on this count, and though still frustrated and ambivalent about the emerging Black Nationalist movement, recounts that “arguments with my old poet comrades increased and intensified” (245–7). In this light, it is also interesting to note that in the letter to Dorn accompanying the delivery of Preface, fifteen months after the Cuba trip, Jones writes for the first time in their correspondence about politics. He had only recently begun to get involved in protests in Harlem, and writes about the current state of the Black Nationalist leadership: “I am, literally, the only person around who can set them straight. I mean straight… not only as to what their struggle is about, but what form it ought to take! I meet these shabby headed “black nationalists” or quasi-intellectual opportunities, who have never read a fucking book that was worth anything in their damned lives […] and shudder that any kind of movement, or feeling shd come down to the “people” thru their fingers” (Moreno-Pisano 81). Thinking of the last eight poems of Preface being written over the period beginning with the Cuba trip and ending shortly before this letter, one can see what a conflicted process was his coming to politics, and how resistant, frustrated, and ambivalent he was about it, how almost forced into it he felt. These poems are not yet at the level of praxis, but stand as evidence of working out a relationship between conflicted parts of a self. Where Olson, for example, is constructing a self in poetry — this will be who I have been — Jones/Baraka starts out already at an irretrievable distance from a coherent self. This book is the best evidence of that struggle unresolved.
Gertrude Stein's subjects, objects, and the illegible
In the summer of 1912, while vacationing in Spain, Gertrude Stein began to write short prose poems on discrete objects and little events (shopping, eating, talking) that comprised ordinary daily living. Generating poems from such mundane experience was not on its own anything too radical, but Stein paired such ordinary objects and experiences with an extraordinary new grammar.
Stein had earlier experimented in The Making of Americans with conveying normal life with non-normative poetics, but in this new writing the banal objects appeared to atomize or discombobulate while the grammar was split apart at the seams. Stein collected this work and published it as Tender Buttons in 1914, and from its first appearance up to today, no one has settled how this book should be read. What kind of book is it that people still read it after one hundred years and yet still question the meaning of the book and how to read it?
Tender Buttons is enigmatic on its own, but to add to its legend, few readers know that the manuscript was untitled until the final few weeks before publication, that Stein almost did not have the book reach publication at all, and that she would not publish another book until eight years later. A brief history of the publication of Tender Buttons can provide insight into Stein’s focus on composition, and offer some new directions for reading it.
Stein was first contacted by Claire Marie Editions to publish a recent work of hers on 18 February 1914. The letter opened with an offer: “I should very much like to publish in volume form the plays of yours that Mrs. [Mabel] Dodge has told me about. Will you let me do it?” Stein might have indeed published her plays before Tender Buttons, thus becoming first publicly known as an avant-garde playwright rather than as a poet, but friends persuaded her that the plays should be performed before being printed. Claire Marie’s letter came on business letterhead and appeared to Stein to be an up-and-coming press of some import. “My public is also the most civilized in this country,” the publisher boasted.
This was a bluff, and the publisher had no public notoriety; in fact, it was a vanity press run by Donald Evans, a New York–based literary hopeful and socialite. The press was named after the little-known actress Claire Marie Burke, who had no relation to the publishing venture. Evans had published only a few friends and his own melodramatic and not very modern poetry up to that point. Stein was under the impression during the whole publication process that she was corresponding with a woman. Recalling the letters in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes, “We took it for granted that there was a Claire Marie but evidently there was not.”
Evans had befriended Carl Van Vechten in New York City, who suggested to Evans that he publish something by Stein, perhaps her first plays. Upon Evans’s first inquiry, Stein instead sent a work in three sections, very similar in tri-part structure to her only other published book, Three Lives (in the Autobiography, Stein credits Evans for the idea to publish “three manuscripts to make a small book” [Writings, 814]). The three works Stein sent were published by Evans, beginning with “Objects,” then “Food” and “Rooms” — and the order has never changed since, even though there is enough archival evidence that “Objects” was almost certainly the last section written and never intended by Stein to be the first in order. In the bound volumes that Toklas later typed up to record Stein’s work in the event that it was lost, she begins with “Rooms.” In Stein’s cahier manuscript notebook, “Food” carries the subtitle “Studies in Description” and is the only section for which Stein compiled a table of contents (included in the published edition), suggesting an earlier intention to list the titles of the prose poems up front. All evidence points to Evans as the one who put “Objects” first, and Stein did not complain or demand any different ordering of the sections in any future reprint. For a writer who stressed exactitude and faithful reproduction of her work, this rather significant editorial contribution made an impact that Stein might not have foreseen, as it turned “Objects” into the center of attention and effectively made the other sections into secondary works.
Stein received a letter dated 18 March 1914, notifying her of the intent to publish her book along with a book contract containing financial details. This was to be the first book Stein would publish that she did not pay for herself, and it was also the first time Stein had an opportunity to participate in any detail in book design. By Stein’s choice, the book had little in the way of design at all. In the March letter, Evans writes, “There will be no illustrations or tail or head piece or introduction or dedication, as you ask” (YCAL). Tender Buttons is very visual, the poems full of colors and synesthesia, so it is curious that Stein wanted no adornment and no preface — something she often courted in her other publications. The lack of directive in visual design from Stein could have been a strategic way to dissociate herself from cubism, the main artistic movement her readers were already placing her into. Stein wanted Mabel Dodge to correct the proofs, but Evans insisted in response that he was in a rush to bring the book out by June for summer readers and stated, “you may feel assured that not a single error will creep into the volume.” This is also curious, because the book contract lists the book title as “Objects-Foods-Rooms” and, beside the issue of the order of the sections being changed, Stein never wrote “Foods” in the plural. If there was an error in the title, how could Stein trust the integrity of the rest of the text?
In the same letter, Evans asks Stein, “You have not provided a general title for the book. What do you wish to do in that regard?” Without this prodding, Stein would likely have kept to the titles of the three sections, as she had often gravitated toward factual rather than metaphorical titles in previous work (for example, Three Lives; Many Many Women). Stein responds in her letter of 15 April 1914: “Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book. On the title page after the general the three sub titles, Food, Rooms, Objects” (YCAL). Here “Objects” is last and “Food” is first, but again Evans ignores this request. Also, one wonders if Stein’s impression that Claire Marie was a woman played any role in her choice of a title that foregrounds female intimacy. The book came out in May, approximately three months after Evans’s first letter of inquiry. This was quite a quick turnaround, so different than The Making of Americans, which took nearly fifteen years from completion to appear as a book. Evans wrote a short note to Stein on 13 June 1914, saying with glee, “The papers here are simply rabid about the book. It is all very amusing — their stupidity and bewilderment.” Evans relished ruffling the feathers of the staid American literary reviewers but truly published the book as an act of love for Van Vechten, to whom he had begun sending copious love letters by early 1914. Evans fell hard for Van Vechten, offering him gushing love poetry, drinking heavily, pleading to Van Vechten for a book of his to publish, and hardly mentioning the Stein book.
If “Objects” was not written first and not intended to be the first chapter of Tender Buttons, this puts into question the way this book often is taught. It is common pedagogy to state that the first object, the carafe, in which the sentence “The difference is spreading” appears, is meant as the flagship statement for the book when it was never meant to be so. If “Food” is first, the first sentence reads: “In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling” (Writings, 327). If “Rooms” is first, the opening sentence is: “Act so that there is no use in a center” (Writings, 344). Both sentences are about space, movement, and surrounding environs, rather than fixing central focal points. Furthermore, each of these three sentences implicitly argues that no sentence is primary or more titular than any other.
A second common theme in teaching Tender Buttons is to note how the objects and meals and rooms show us the intimate interior of the domestic life of Stein and Toklas. This is certainly a relevant reading, as Toklas’s presence suffuses the work, which is laden with sexual innuendo and the aroma of her cooking (although most of the food was prepared by hired cooks). Yet while the title of the book suggests such intimacy informed the work all along, when we consider that the title was chosen at the last minute it is just as fair to say that Stein envisioned these poems as concentrated “studies in description” with the mindset of a researcher, as much an impersonal figure as a subject of desire. While the private lesbian home and semipublic salon that Stein had begun to build with Toklas are certainly part of the text, the figure of the lesbian pair coexists with the researcher of the curious and uncanny “life of things,” as per Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.”
The Claire Marie 1914 edition, viewable at Open Library.
It turns out that much of the life of objects turns on the commodified, impersonal, indeed nonhuman aspects of things. Objects are repeatedly singled out as precious commodities like nickel, silver, and copper along with the stone malachite — which makes the word “tender” a pun on money but also a verb involving the act of “giving,” “obligation,” and “borrowing” (Stein’s words), evidence of how economy always weaves through intimacy in a depersonalizing way. Many of the goods listed have colonial implications, such as Japanese tea sets, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, and sugar. Objects like feathers, cotton, silk, coal, and all of the food imply global and local marketplaces. The domestic then appears as one node in a larger system of networks, exchanges, and contacts: “all this is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success” (Writings, 316).
For the reader, urged by Stein not to choose a center of purpose to the book, to pick one interpretive framework and foreground it above anything else as the most meaningful, reliable, or insightful would be to arrest the ambulatory movement of the work. Instead of isolating one reading from another, we should be able to lay out multiple readings, spread them before us, following Stein’s declaration that “The difference is spreading” (Writings, 313). I propose then that we make use of the object of the table, both metaphorically and literally as a thing upon which we put meaning.
Tables appear in all three sections of the book. On a table, we can place many readings to see how they look on their own or in juxtaposition. In “Objects,” Stein writes, “A table means necessary places and a revision” (324). “Food” opens with a table of contents, and ends with the last section titled “A centre in a table” (344). A case could be made that all of the foods and objects in these poems find themselves sitting on a table, among other possible locations. Tables play key roles in Stein’s daily living, including providing a material foundation for her writing — she is frequently photographed seated next to one, implying the photograph was taken as she wrote at the table. Activity in Stein’s Paris apartment/salon often coalesced around a large rectangular wooden table for dinner parties, and later the same table would turn into a desk for Stein’s nightly composition. According to Stein, she set objects on the table to prompt her writing: “I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen.” Such relationships happen on the table according to different ways for which the table is used: a meal, to arrange a still life, a stand for a sculpture, a place for conversation, a place for procrastination (“table it for later”), or a place to reveal something to a public, as in laying cards down on a table. Tables anchor rooms and define spaces by surface and volume. They also define access to spaces, as in getting a seat at the table. Much of early cubism took place on a painted table. Finally, Stein later wrote a play, Objects Lie on a Table (1922), which revisits some themes from Tender Buttons, declaring, “The objects on the table have been equal to the occasion.”
To put meaning on the table means one does not need to reject previous meanings and readings in order to assert another — there is enough room for conflicting or just different interpretations with multiple causes. There is enough room on the table for readings based on representation, be it symbolic or cryptographic, and for writing that goes beyond representational aspects of language. Recent readers have certainly been right to emphasize the female and lesbian world encoded in the poems, and I do not mean to displace these readings, rather only to juxtapose them with others. Certainly many of the food and objects Stein describes have attached phallic, vaginal, or anal symbolism, from “A mounted umbrella” to the petticoat stained with “a rosy charm” (Writings, 322). As Kathryn Kent points out, the title of the book sonically conveys the message “tend her buttons,” and many of the poems playfully allude to sensual domestic pleasures, from eating to sex, in effect recreating Stein and Toklas’s intimate lesbian life on the page. Kent adds that as the poems move back and forth from markets to interiors, public to private, everyday items to fetish objects, abstract to concrete, they “wrestle with the dominant conceptions of what counts as sex and the sexual.” Kent’s readings rely on a form of referential realism — the poems depict Stein’s personal life, even if coded through symbolism and word play.
But we also clear the table too quickly if we assume that representation plays a strictly realist or symbolic role in these poems. Marianne DeKoven is right to declare that referentiality is thoroughly undone: “It seems to me pointless to suppose, for example, that the virtue of Tender Buttons is its clarification of our notions of roast beef or asparagus or purses or cushions, or even to suppose that the virtue of Stein’s portraits lies in any information they give us about Picasso or Matisse or Mabel Dodge.” DeKoven argues that Tender Buttons is composed of presymbolic signifiers, celebrating linguistic play, pleasure, and meditation. Yet if play and pleasure are the experiences of the texts, if not what they are about, referentiality still reasserts itself as we interpret what play could signify (in DeKoven’s reading, it is a rejection of patriarchy).
Stein’s writing will always make and unmake itself available to meaning, something she admitted in the transatlantic interview she did with Robert Haas. “I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible,” she confesses. “Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.” The referent inevitably guides, misguides, disappears, and reappears — the carafe is never fully present or absent. Every sentence is both doing and undoing, attaching and detaching. Each sentence sensitizes, but sense quickly recedes as the next sentence comes in. Sensation at times lines up with and at times diverges from cognition. As Jayne Walker describes, “One complex of images asserts the fundamental princple of difference — breaking, shattering, division, pieces, remainders. Another invokes a ‘wholeness’ that is based on the mingling of heterogenous elements: collections, mixtures, reunions, stews.” Words scatter at the same time as they gather, and the poem is what emerges in the attempt to convey the movements of these differences. Meaning is just out of reach, and right there on the table. Sometimes the “content” of the referent is just the table of contents.
Another reading that puts meaning on the table is the recognition that there is an irreducible and structural illegibility in Stein’s writing that is immanent to her work. Stein provides her own disclaimer to this effect: “Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession” (Writings, 330). Writing that is “claiming nothing” claims no meaning and no readability, although this claim itself is readable. Craig Dworkin points to how nonsignifying language can still be interpreted in his Reading the Illegible, where he states, “every text threatens to sacrifice itself in an ecstatic loss of meaning, at the same time that its meaninglessness can always be accounted for (even if only as the meaning of ‘meaninglessness’).” Dworkin points to a “strategic illegibility” in modern poetics that forces the reader to read against the norm. This partially characterizes Stein’s writing, but structural illegibility differs slightly in that it implies a minimal level of indifference to reference (“claiming nothing”). It is not that Stein intends outright nonsense; rather, she writes in a state prior to a determinate distinction between sense and nonsense: “there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense” (Writings, 314). In practice, this means Stein writes in a way that is sincere and concentrated on an object or a moment or a person, but is nonjudgmental and nonpossessive about what words appear while in this state of concentration.
This factor of structural illegibility has several implications. While immersed in composition, Stein typically writes without knowing where she will go and when she will finish, and sometimes it is the page length of a notebook that seems to determine when a piece is finished (though she often does some revision). Contrary to The Making of Americans, in Tender Buttons Stein writes without a predetermined theory of total comprehension or absolute knowledge. A minimal amount of illegibility remains unyielding in a writing that recognizes an inherent indeterminacy of cognition and experience. We will never know all of what can happen or how all writing can be written, we can only continue to compose. We can only wade through the continuous present, orienting ourselves by the material or symbolic aspects of words as they appear in a state of writerly concentration. In this manner of word-driven, concentrated indeterminacy, Stein’s writing performs immersion and emergence rather than thematizing these. Tender Buttons features words like “a,” “and,” “of,” or “there is,” words that have meaning only due to their attachments, but that when read on their own do not suffice for coherence. “A question of sudden rises and more time than awfulness is so easy and shady. There is precisely that noise” (Writings, 335).
Opening pages of Gertrude Stein's manuscript for Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale
Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
To read Stein, we must put illegibility (“that noise”) on the table along with interpretation. Illegibility is partially structural in that Stein does not allow meaning to settle on one interpretive system, instead continually moving between sound and sense, normative and nonnormative grammar, familiarity and alienation, immersion and exclusion. Things are domestic, humanized, but also at turns recalcitrant, alienated, or lost rather than consumed. Sense is made and unmade; indeed, both predication and nonpredication are forms of truth. It might be more correct to say that Stein writes in a way that is prior to making these binary distinctions. Here is where Stein is perhaps in closest attunement with William James’s philosophy of experience or the “radical empiricism” that aims to provide an account of the world prior to arbitrary and conventional distinctions between subject and object. Normative grammar relies on subject and object distinctions, and to the degree that Stein generates a writing that is prior to this binary, she also reaches for a form of experience prior to normative legibility.
The structural factor of illegibility is also due to the fact that Stein’s writing may not really be for us. The illegible faithfully leaves a minimal margin of otherness intact. It also conveys a refusal to reduce all things to thematization. We may not be the recipient in part because we are not being wholly invited into Stein’s domestic lesbian world, or because we do not know all her inside references, many of them sexual and guarded as private by Stein. In combination with a personal, subjective secrecy, Stein develops the strange expressivity of objects in writing. Illegibility at the level of the signifier thus occurs because Stein gestures to the writing of a nonhuman language, if such a thing is possible. Stein experiments with writing that does not just represent but hypothetically speaks the language of objects or events that are prior to subject/object distinctions. The relation of objects to other objects cannot be reproduced in a human-based subject-verb-object grammar. Thus, if objects themselves could talk, perhaps indeed their speech would sound like the subjectless segments of Tender Buttons.
In a later analysis of her own poems, Stein wrote that “I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing,” hinting that she was writing as if having a conversation with an object, listening to objects speak. Of course, inanimate objects have no thoughts and no mouths, but this still does not mean that objects have no bearing on matters of concern in the world. Objects have narratives of their own, narratives not dependent on our observations and our language. Objects themselves do not have their own intentions, but this does not mean they are entirely reducible to the realm of human intentions. Bruno Latour has discussed repeatedly how objects need not be recognized as full-fledged subjects but still perform as agents, doing things in the world.
Furthermore, the stories of objects are not necessarily reducible to the normative rules of our language — hence the need for a new language and new form of communication, giving modernist form a particular mandate. That this communication will be at least partially anthropomorphic does not defeat its relevance for representing nonhuman language. The existence of things is defined by activities and conditions such as use, disuse, juxtaposition, being out of reach, contact, breakdown, repetition, etc. These relations, which do not necessarily line up with normative grammatical sentences that require a clear subject-verb-object distinction, are everywhere in Stein’s book. Words can replicate these relations and not appear to make sense, from the viewpoint of standard grammar. But from the viewpoint of things, these relations, written as words, are descriptive fantasies of the world objects exist in. Stein uses so much repetition in part because this is a primary mode of existence of technical objects, especially modern machines. Indeed, there is something inhuman about repetition to begin with — computers will ponder forever the difference between a zero and a one.
The 1990 Sun & Moon Classics edition.
Talking with things in Tender Buttons is also possible because many of Stein’s objects are animate or pass through animate states, as in all the food, many of which once had mouths of their own and will end up in others’ mouths. In “Milk,” Stein writes, “Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging” (Writings, 336). In this clever short poem, every verb can convert into a noun and vice versa, as meaning points in multiple causal directions or “guesses” that are “hanging.” It is possible to read the beginning of this poem as describing someone or something climbing up into an utter. Utter points to the cow (or another lactating animal), as well as mouthing words in speech, an utterance that could still very well be the cow’s. In Stein’s lexicon, cows are also metaphors for female sexual acts, and encode a sensuous moment of domestic lesbian life.
Yet even inanimate things speaking need not be far-fetched — modernist objects as various as newspapers, telephones, gramophones, and dolls emit language shaped partially by their material qualities as things. Here is how Stein describes the world of “A paper,” perhaps understood at first as a newspaper or a notebook: “A courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool” (Writings, 321). The paper does not speak from the first-person subject position, but the paper participates as an active and “courteous” agent while being read, with the words “show” and “occasion” acting as both noun and verb. In this poem, paper ends with “stool,” suggesting the act of reading taking place on a kind of chair or a toilet. If a toilet, perhaps this is the first poem ever written as an ode to toilet paper. Stein often emphasizes politeness and courteous behavior, a politesse applicable to persons and things, even in seemingly vulgar situations. Politeness is her default mode of attention to persons and things in a writing that does not decide beforehand who or what can or cannot speak.
The refusal of reference in Stein is also a refusal to make language centered on human usage. Why do this? Modernists experimented with narrative forms that did not necessarily center on the self or the human species. Daily experience is composed of a variety of animate and inanimate interactions, many of them not directed to humans or not yet legible to the recipient. Writing that really reflects daily experience must somehow capture the simultaneous knowledge, limits of knowledge, and other forms of knowing that are not directed at us. If we talk of the perspective of the carafe according to the carafe itself, what would we say about food, which includes an animate component? Stein’s short poem “Roast potatoes” offers only three words — “Roast potatoes for” (Writings, 339) — to ask the reader an open question about what sort of potential purposes make up the composition of food that also make for the composition of writing. Several of Stein’s food poems register the uncanny world of food as a curious mixing of lives and interests. “Celery tastes tastes where in curled lashes and little bits and mostly in remains. A green acre is so selfish and so pure and so enlivened” (Writings, 340).
This essay has placed on the table several ways of reading Stein’s legendary Tender Buttons. Stein’s preferred keyword to describe her work is “composition.” A composition is something material, such as a page of sentences on a given topic or a musical score, but also a term that describes relationships, positions related to other positions. Still life art, or indeed any set of objects on a table, comprise a composition. Composition applies to things intentionally constructed or unintentionally combined, things artificial as well as natural, a landscape painting or the nutritive ingredients in a soil. Stein composed her work out of whatever ingredients she came upon, from commonly used words, everyday objects, personal sensations, and local affairs, to major historical figures and events. These all constituted a continuous surround around her. This surround did not feature Stein as the “center” or the code through which everything passes. Instead, she wrote in an aesthetics of surrounds, observing them and living in them. This sense of composition is a near synonym to environment as the context and condition of the life one is living, the “continuous present,” as Stein declared.
1. Claire Marie to Gertrude Stein, 18 February 1914, in The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein, ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Knopf, 1953), 95. The original letters are held at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (cited hereafter as YCAL). Stein’s response is not in the Yale archives.
3. Dodge herself harbored deep suspicions of Evans, labeling him a “decadent.” Dodge thought him untrustworthy and recommended not publishing with him in a cable she sent to Stein on 15 March 1914. Stein still had not figured out that Claire Marie was Evans at this point. Dodge sent an expanded letter to Stein on 29 March, disclosing Evans as the person behind the press.
4. Another curiosity to note is that there is a slip of paper in the Stein archives at Yale that lists several corrections for the book, none of which was ever made or added to subsequent editions. These corrections seem minor, such as changing “Excellent” to “Excel lent” (as it is written in the cahier and in Toklas’s typescript), and do not mention the order of the sections.
5. Here is just one example, a letter sent to Van Vechten on 14 February 1914, just a few days before Evans’s first letter to Stein: “Dear Beloved: I am now happy. I know you are near by. The cup of happiness runs over. I shall write you many sonnets. Donald” (YCAL).
13. Elizabeth Fifer, Catherine Stimpson, and Lisa Ruddick each connect Stein’s only partial legibility to her strategic use of secrecy regarding her sexuality. See Fifer, “Guardians and Witnesses: Narrative Technique in Gertrude Stein’s Useful Knowledge”; Stimpson, “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein”; and Ruddick, “A Rosy Charm: Gertrude Stein and the Repressed Feminine,” all in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, ed. Michael J. Hoffman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
14. Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932–1946 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 303. In this same discussion, Stein insists heavily on the role of looking in her writing as integrated with talking and listening. “I lived my life with emotion and with things happening but I was creating in my writing simply by looking. I was as I say at that time reducing as far as it was possible for me to reduce them, talking and listening” (303). She concludes that such insights transferred to here plays and other work, such that “I had also come to have happening at the same looking and listening and talking without any bother about resemblances and remembering” (304).
Erica Baum's 'Dog Ear'
In 2008 I had the pleasure of working with photographer Erica Baum on an exhibition project through KWH Art, the gallery I then directed at the Kelly Writers House. In keeping with the tenor of the space and its co-function as a reading venue, I was curatorially inclined toward work with affinities to language and concrete poetry. Baum had just completed a new series — probably my favorite to date — entitled Roll Playing, comprising high-contrast, perfectly square photographic crops of player piano rolls. On the left of each image runs a graphic salvo of dashes, flecks, and various other notations, translated from voids coded for the instrument’s pneumatic mechanism (as a sort of continuous punchcard) to positive black marks in the photograph. On the right, a stuttering excerpt of often folksy, sentimental song lyrics is rendered in a sterile, stenciled font flowing up the page in tempo with the musical data opposite. In close collaboration with the artist, I curated a selection from this series into the exhibition Word Each to Cling I, which was supplemented by a small publication and opening programming.
By then Baum had already been repurposing text-based archival materials such as card catalogues and indexes for some time. Her most recent project, Dog Ear, follows in this vein, imaging pages from unidentified paperback books. Each photograph is formally consistent: a diagonal fold from upper right to lower left corner peels back the page to reveal both the text on its reverse side and that of the page underneath. This simple maneuver, conventionally functioning to mark a reader’s place, is under Baum’s lens a complex syncopation; a new text sutured from discontinuous lines torques prose toward prosody at a crude right angle.
Geometrically speaking, the new lay of the language — confounding comings and goings as it seeps from two directions into an eliding cleft — is a familiar but intriguing ravel. In beginning to grapple with the disjointed poems Baum has in effect created (and she has openly identified her text work with poetry in the past), I found a constructive byway in transcription. Hazarding to reclaim some left-right, top-bottom continuity, rewriting her lines pulls them into another particular formal disposition: right triangles, tapering from the first and longest composite line down to the murmur of the final fragment, nearly completely obscured by the fold.
Serrated edges and typographic detritus (dismembered serifs and ascenders) are part and parcel of Baum’s images, but taking corrective liberties in their reading is by and large inevitable. Subjective inferences and skips (burrows and overpasses, if you will) make Baum’s fragmentations dynamic, opening an imaginary space where the conditions of viewing are always vacillating with those of reading.
threw his elegant solution into round sort of clearing. Surrounded
red tape held things up. People gigantic well. Sunlight shoots
with their successors didn’t illuminating the ground at
front, concentration can sit down in the sunlight
heavy snowfalls. Pow a chocolate bar from
Rail lines were bell over again how
of uncertainty each second of
At his [ ]sness I felt
His rec[ ] the sun’s
Restoring the shards is especially seductive toward the end of this piece, as quivering details of a landscape skirt some relic of personal intimacy, ebbing and faulted. At his [tenuou]sness I felt [ ]? His rec[alling] the sun’s / path? The fringe’s imprecision pushes speculative readings under Baum’s artifice, inviting a new interpolated narrative in lieu of fidelity to the source. Nevertheless the elision remains active in tantalizing us to de-flatten it, to pull the single plane of the image back into codex form, to know and claim the vestigial lines that continue under the surface.
Here the impeded voice itself consents to the pleat:
I’m enclosing me here, or remain
you can also do now this,
I’m turned with you if I
answering no tiniest
Yes so it is
The first me careens into (or rather, out of) the crease, tangibly demonstrating its synthetic context, then adjusts its bearings to an alternative here, on the face of the page we see. But the visibility (read: legibility) of this location is entirely contingent on Baum’s composition; here would be recto, that is, concealed, if not for her distortion. A downward directive (do now this) literally overrides what else we can also r[ead] beneath, and again the text follows itself in turning with you as your eyes scan the line. Yes, so it is. The last me recurs as literally the final intact morpheme, reminding us that here deixis is a sweeping condition; truncated lines withhold antecedents and reconfigure the associative fields of their respective pages. I, me, you, now, this, and it operate in riddled circuits dependent on Baum’s formal intervention (which, however compelling, is notably minimal, and largely based on a refined practice of appropriation).
Indeed, one of the series’ most successful gambits is its subtle perversion of the movements coded in seeing and apprehending language; Baum’s pieces double-register as both continuous texts and collage fragments in a way that demands conscious reconsideration of our activities of viewing them. Because each of the two triangular excerpts so emphatically signify the context of a printed book, a first reading may struggle to maintain their respective autonomies, and yet the diagonal break inevitably forces false steps. At the end of each line fragment we must either jump the gap and turn the corner or, in a conservative bilateral reading, repeatedly abandon each line at its severed stump to rejoin at the left margin (or vice-versa). Either trajectory ends at the lower left corner, having agilely subverted our reading backward even as we scanned left to right.
second-floor terrace of well-being and or-
get rid of all that It had been years
into that dreadful felt good. Buying
temporary and sed. Replenish-
modern the beginning —
to the corpse, I had worn away
the lips. In a stirred — and
a bright arousing
Your sister is not to wear stockings
gravely, and the the earth was
stairs, and I up starry-
uninterest not even
Most often paucities assert themselves at both fold and enjambments, but at times joints flex gracefully: second-floor terrace / of well-being and or- / get rid of all that / It had been years / into that dreadful / felt good. Baum’s most fluent choreography occurs in lines with multivalent midsections, engendering a streamlined turn of phrase: consider, for instance, get rid of all that [i]t had or It had been years — the hinge it had can operate either in an adjective clause modifying all or as part of the subject-predicate It had been. Though the graft is visibly exposed by the spare a and capitalized I, the line morphs through its reading; the text is at once rent and teeming at the tears. (Dreadful feels good on the terrace of well-being.) Occasionally the effect produces an even more sustained lyric drift: to the corpse, I / had worn away, / the lips. In a / stirred — and / a bright / arousing / struggled / hopeless- / had / move, or, Your sister is not to wear stockings / gravely, and the the earth was / stairs, and I up starry-. In the latter, only the stuttered article in the second line and the syntactic glitch of I up starry admit the game.
fishes of the fifth blind fingers in
ballets which alles, asking to be
The water-sil of the flesh —
in moveme braces. We
undines us by
From a given angle, Baum’s compositions outfit each amputated line with an aleatory prosthesis, a new limb hanging limp from the socket. The water-sil of the flesh — / in moveme[nt] braces. Poised awry in a chevronic stagger, each line of the text undulates and jerks in a lissome, still stilted, pas de deux.
that she loves you so more than I like peo-
me? Or that you love diced. Bourgeois, if
her unhappy? Or, one either. I’ve
is? Tell me, have diverting, but
you once had not talking
you have Certain
than you put it
Dialogic subtexts pervade the series, but in this example especially, with its apprehensive twitches and dislocated pronouns. Tenterhooks strain the text internally and along its periphery, from the initial if/or disquietude through to the modal brink: Tell me, have / diverting, but betrays an abridged parley (directive and detour, plea and shirk) or, in the seamless transcript, a schizoid self-defeat — even an exhortation for understanding is derailed by agitation and doubt. In two voices you once had / not talking might be nostalgia met with withdrawal, or univocally, a protest against the communication impasse (you were once silent; now speak!). Then you have / Certain seems another strain to know the other now (or here), verging on but (literally) barred from that Certainty that you must possess. Is it you there, on the other side? Are you fixed or repeatedly oscillating with me? What is intertext and what is internal — where is our relation based? With this Baum’s text continually contends both concretely and semantically. At last, love tips into the past by way of the fold, if protested by the hyphen’s forward jut — love / diced.
as spectators moments, a pro-
artifices in the could not help
shuffled, glances of
which of the
Alto which shuffled artifices in as spectators, was of the glances of could-not-help moments, a pro. À propos of Baum’s writerly attention to spatio-semantic structuring, her shrewd framings of various species of printed artifact position her work always in the interstice of photography and poetry. This ambivalence, unlike many of the intergenre claims endemic to her peers, is substantiated by Baum’s work as neither presumptuous nor sloppy; her linguistic finesse is consistently exercised and enhanced by her function as an image collector.
Whether cross-sectioning fanning paperbacks (The Naked Eye, 2009) or extracting stage directions from playscripts (Directions, 2003), Baum collates verbal information with a photographer’s sensitivity to spatial composition. She composes not the words themselves but their field, and through careful excerpting elicits new and generative matrices from the archives. Dog Ear emerges spryly from this lineage, elegantly and methodically resuscitating caches of printed language, over and again, back into the fold.
New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left
One of the great lost poetry conversations of the 1970s occurred when Bruce Boone led the formation of a marxism study group at Small Press Traffic, the literary arts center in San Francisco. Boone modeled the group in part after his previous experience at the summer institute for the Marxist Literary Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, which he memorialized in his novel Century of Clouds. At SPT, the group was comprised not of theorists from the academy, but of emerging local writers who aligned themselves with different avant-garde groups and grassroots political movements. The chief participants were Boone, Steve Abbott, and Robert Glück, who were identified with the New Narrative movement; Steve Benson and Ron Silliman, who were identified with the San Francisco wing of Language poetry; Kathleen Fraser, who soon after cofounded HOW(ever), a magazine for innovative feminist writing; and Denise Kastan, who was then the director of Small Press Traffic.
Their coming together occurred at a catalytic moment when writers of their generation turned to exacting theoretical critique as a means to carry forward the activism of the New Left. But while the participants shared many assumptions about the value of this theory, they differed on how best to apply it to their writing. Weekly disagreements followed, and the group called it quits after a few short months. One trace of the group is signaled on the last page of Boone’s My Walk with Bob, when Glück telephones to cancel their meeting because “no one was going to show up.” In the scene, Boone hears the news and then gazes down at the floor of his apartment. The scattering of books by Herbert Marcuse, Chairman Mao, and Bob Perelman, as well as a copy of Blueboy lying open to a nice-looking centerfold, offer a closing allegory for his present political crisis. The balance of political theory, innovative writing, and sexual identity was as fleeting, and still somehow necessary, as the study group itself had been.
No lasting project ever came from the collective efforts of the group. The participants never coauthored a collaborative text, never co-coordinated a reading or lecture series, never coedited a literary magazine, and never cofounded a small press operation. The group is today rarely mentioned, though Silliman briefly recalls that they had “some TERRIFIC arguments. In every sense of that word.” Glück, in an essay about his early writing companions, briefly alludes to the group’s troubles, adding to it a pithy insignia: “The personal demolished the political, and after a few months we disbanded. From that era I recall Ron’s epithet (which Bruce and I thought delicious) The Small Press Traffic School of Dissimulation.”
Without the anchor of a print record, the conversation that took place between the group participants remains unheard. Now thirty years later, the writers are studied, if they are studied at all, in self-encapsulated schools or movements. The writers are understood by social and aesthetic contiguity within such groupings, but, at the cross community level, they are cleaved from one another and from the ground conditions in which each developed a distinctive practice. When critics today champion such schools or movements in isolation — either by idealizing the notion of collective authorship within a group or by defending the embattled writers from powerful outside interests — then histories of the Bay Area fall too easily into misleading and divisive scenarios, such as the Poetry Wars or “the violence of expulsion,” as Perelman remarks in The Grand Piano.
But the print record is not a total loss, and in what follows I want to revisit a small body of poems, narratives, and essays that, when approached with the slant view of history, demonstrate visible signs of mutual interest and productive exchange among the separate coalitions of the marxism study group. The participants were, it turns out, persistently invested in one other, even if they did not always operate on the same assumptions or goals. Their unlikely alliance is important now because it occurred at a formative moment when they had yet to produce the significant works on which their reputations later came to rest.
The traces of the study group not only provide a detailed glimpse of Bay Area poetry, a glimpse that cuts across the political, social, and aesthetic categories that organize recent histories of the era, but also enrich our understanding of debates that were conducted openly in public forums though documented almost exclusively in small press publications with limited runs. The traces reveal surprising affinities in the writers’ techniques and compositional methods, and also in their use of content — the stuff of life that invariably plays second fiddle to formalist readings of the avant-garde — such as dedications, riffs, casual asides, put-downs, and gossip. Some group traces highlight their polemics, such as Silliman (in an early essay) ridiculing the notion of audience laid out by Robert Glück (also in an early essay). Other traces show warmth and affection, like when Fraser and Glück address each other directly in poems or when they read together at USF's Little Theater. When Fraser writes her poem “Re: Echo” in response to Benson’s “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979), we cannot help but conclude that histories of this period will be lacking until they begin to triangulate the role of such relationships.
This essay concludes by examining one participant who cannot be pigeonholed in any single one of the different coalitions. Although Steve Benson is today mainly associated with Language poetry — he is after all one of ten coauthors of the “collective autobiography” The Grand Piano — several of his most important works from this era stand in closer proximity to the queer practices and politics of Boone, Glück, and Abbott. Benson’s writing deserves special attention here because it combines a profound and dedicated investigation of language with elements of personal and abject content that closely typify the “emotional moving forward” that Abbott associates with New Narrative. I want to suggest, for these reasons, that Benson can best be understood as carving out interstitial space between the precepts of each group.
The Bay Area has long been home to study groups comprised of poets meeting to discuss, debate, and perform intellectual inquiry outside the halls of academia. Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan attended Kenneth Rexroth’s weekly group of “philosophical anarchists” in the 1940s. Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen bonded at the Berkeley Buddhist Church’s Friday study group in the 1950s. Paul Mariah was a member of a writing workshop called the “Society for Individual Rights” which served as the original impetus for his magazine Man-Root in the late 1960s. And an older Duncan convened the “Homer Group” for the weekly study of Greek translation in the 1980s.
So there was nothing out of the ordinary when a brief notice in the October 1978 issue of the newsletter Poetry Flash announced that a study group dedicated to “Marxism and Theory of Writing” would convene its first meeting at Small Press Traffic on Thursday the 19th of the month at 8 p.m. SPT was an ambitious nonprofit organization that was rapidly expanding its community programming during these years. Founded originally in rented space inside a commercial bookstore in 1974, the organization relocated to its own retail operation in 1976 and soon boasted an inventory of more than three thousand titles. “Every available inch is crammed with books,” noted one awestruck observer. By 1978 a series of regular readings and community programs had helped to transform SPT into a hub of activity for a vibrant cross section of emerging writers. Much of the work that later became identified with New Narrative was nurtured in the weekly workshops that Glück began leading there in the spring of 1978. Prose writers met with Glück on Mondays, and poets met with him on Thursdays, but there was much intermingling and back and forth because friendship tended to take precedence over rigid genre distinctions. The regular readings at SPT (for the “Living Room Series”) featured writers ranging from Boone in January of that year to Perelman and Robert Grenier on the night before the study group held its first meeting — with Sukey Durham and Frances Jaffer on the schedule only a week later. Considering that Jaffer cofounded (HOW)ever with Fraser and Beverley Dahlen in 1983, one readily gets a sense here of the intersecting and overlapping relationships that proliferated in the local poetry scene.
October 1978 was a period when the coordinators of the Grand Piano series, which is today historically identified with Language poetry, similarly reached out to poets across an array of Bay Area enclaves. The coordinators hosted Duncan on October 3, Dahlen and Tom Mandel on the 10th, Glück and Boone on the 17th (two nights before the study group first convened), and Lyn Hejinian and Grenier on the 24th. If ever two separate reading series could be likened to the student exchange programs at schools and universities, then it might look something like the crisscrossing schedules that year for SPT and Grand Piano. These few months were a surprisingly amiable time for the community, at least on the surface, and observers seemed to take notice. Tim Jacobs, for example, who tended to fill his Poetry Flash column with snarky gossip, delivered an unusually good report on the Glück and Boone event at Grand Piano: “an intelligent presentation of insights on Boone’s part and a totally fascinating selection of work by Glück — a good reading.”
Such praise mattered deeply because the nascent Language poets, already committed to assailing the ideology of the isolated author, were now attempting to do the same for the isolated community — or at least the isolated enclave of their usual small press audience. A case in point: Silliman, about a month before the first meeting of the study group, conceived of a plan to expand the limits of their audience by delivering a public reading of his long poem Ketjak while standing at the corner of Powell and Market. Benson, writing in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, captured the social aspiration of the scene when he described it as “a most democratic and definitive garden party of the urban streets, with the prolifery of the situation.” Here was the wish for a new polis, one called into being not by divisive platform rhetoric, but by the nonaggressive vulnerability of a public recitation. Surely some thought Silliman was simply craving attention, but according to David Highsmith’s evocative report, he was greeted by “perhaps the most varied, abundant and liquid ‘poetry audience’ recently to be approached as such. […] Each of hundreds of unsuspecting passerby during the non-stop oratory had the opportunity to experience the reading according to his or her uninformed guess as to the nature of the reader’s pulpiteering, profiteering, or political exhortation — not that Ron was trying to pull anyone’s leg; he just read his work and let people draw their own conclusions. The performance should perhaps be remembered as an historic demonstration of the capability of spoken language as an architectural element to define a social environment and delineate space within a context of communication.”
Benson likewise sought to expand the environment for his work, except in his case it meant accepting invitations to events with writers who had long and vocal commitments to gay liberation. Only one week after the SPT study group convened, he joined Glück, Abbott, Paul Mariah, and Ed Mycue for a group reading at Intersection (a long-running poetry venue in San Francisco). Mariah was the most established of the readers. During the 1970s he edited the influential journal Man-Root (or Manroot), which played an instrumental role not only in publishing a generation of new gay writers, but also in introducing Jack Spicer to a younger readership when his work was out of print. Glück was becoming known as a regular contributor to Gay Sunshine. His poems frequently appeared in its pages (including several spotlighted on the back cover), and his early book Andy received a glowing review there in 1974. Abbott’s book Wrecked Hearts was fresh off the press, and through his reviews and social commentary he was quickly making a name for himself among local writers and activists. As one of the only gay poets identified with Language poetry, Benson thus aligned himself with writers who rarely, if ever, made an appearance in the pages of Language-oriented magazines like This or Hills — or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which first arrived from New York in February 1978.
Such was the immediate context for the establishment of the marxism study group at SPT. It convened during a moment of rare opportunity for building partnerships and coalitions, but it ultimately stood on a fragile foundation that could not support the weight of political and literary differences. The practical problem, as I’ve noted, is that the study group did not leave much of a paper trail. How can we begin to map the discussions that took place? One clue for a starting point is that the printed announcement for the group came with a reading list for Marx, Jameson, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Eagleton, Marcuse, Sartre, Barthes, and Althusser. Major translations of several of these theorists first appeared in the 1970s, even making it possible to pinpoint which texts were read, such as Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which first appeared in English in 1971. The interest that the participants had in these theorists suggests a surprising degree of consensus about the intellectual legacy of the New Left, the Students for a Democratic Society, and May 1968. This convergence of rallying points and grassroots possibility occurred when many of the study group participants were activists in college. Their coming together a decade later shows that their youthful ideals never fully disappeared. Rather, they found themselves shifting to a conceptual framework in which their own writing practice would soon show itself to be fluent. This was the moment that some have called the turn to theory. One way to reimagine the conversations of the group is thus to conduct a survey of each participant’s individual response to the tradition of Western Marxism: its views of literature, language, history, power, and more. This turns out to be relatively easy because the writing output for almost all of them flourished in the discourse of theory at some point during the late 1970s.
Silliman (at left, in a photograph by Alan Bernheimer, reading at the corner of Powell and Market Streets in San Francisco) is the one participant whose reputation for dialectical analysis has never quite left him behind, and this reputation is no doubt deserved because he spent much of the late 1970s formulating a sophisticated poetics that would disrupt the communicative properties of language (a regime, as he saw it) just as a revolutionary force disrupts the productive structures of capitalism. Silliman’s most celebrated technique was the New Sentence, which has since had a major impact on contemporary poetic discourse. It is often said that the New Sentence hearkens back to a Modernist radicalism (e.g. fragmentation, parataxis, syntactical disruption) that is antithetical to the Communist demand for literary realism. The avant-garde, after all, is hardly the literature of the masses. Silliman, however, pulls off a dialectical sleight of hand by claiming to possess a deeper fidelity to materialist critique than do any of his detractors who equate experimentation with elitism. In The Chinese Notebook, a long poem composed around the time of the study group, he recalls when a “member of the Old Left” dismissed the whole idea of a poetry that does not “communicate.” Silliman answered that he wants to “experience language directly” not as a “means to an end,” which would be a kind of bourgeois utilitarian thinking, but rather as a refusal of use value in the form of an “unalienated language.” In Tjanting, a constraint-based prose poem composed in the wake of the study group, Silliman displays a growing distance from canonical figures of Marxism, and it is tempting to speculate that this distance may reflect his disillusionment with the debates that took place at SPT. He writes, “Economic difficulties have forced the Engels family to sell the textile factory that provided funds for the writing of Karl Marx’s Capital to a real estate firm, wch plans to demolish it early next year.” Here he signals that he is not simply making an academic argument when it comes to his political and literary intervention. When he writes the satiric line “Marxist Literary Group cash bar (Potrero Room, Hyatt) at the MLA” (197), he is arguably taking a shot at Boone, who was a member of the same Marxist Literary Group, even if he did not become a career academic. Despite this baulking, Silliman’s attachment to the labor-based platform of the Old Left is never entirely abandoned, and it occasionally resurfaces in a game of one-upmanship with critical models based on gender, race, or imperialism. One line in particular expresses the continued privileging of class-oriented arguments above all else: “Zimbabwe: class struggle in the guise of race war” (111).
For Fraser, the politics of gender would mean not writing in the same poetic forms handed down by a patriarchal tradition and taught in schools, but nor would it mean a politics that took anticapitalism as its privileged starting point. Fraser and the founders of HOW(ever) sought to critique the gendered division of labor through an extension of second-wave feminism, starting with the mantra that “the personal is the political” and developing its continued implications (such as body politics and revision of intellectual history and the literary canon). Fraser was dissatisfied though with the expressivist tendencies in much feminist poetry. In the first issue of HOW(ever) her coeditor — the poet Frances Jaffer — questioned the assumption that “now is the time for women to write understandable poetry about their own lives, and with feeling, with the […] undeveloped self in prominent display.” The key word here is “understandable,” for privilege and power are deemed irreducible to the question of knowledge. According to Jaffer, “the myths of a culture are embodied in its language, its lexicon, its very syntactical structure. To focus attention on language and to discover what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience. Certainly one should be read side-by-side with the other.”
This fusion of profeminist content with unconventional form was, however, an anomaly that had to be vigorously defended from critics on either side. Dodie Bellamy, a New Narrative writer who studied with Fraser, recognized early on that trying to have it both ways would lead to added scrutiny: “Due to similar structural characteristics such as disruption and nonsequential phrasing, Fraser’s writing is often associated with various male avant-garde writers who, ironically, have promoted an aesthetic that devalues the emotional vulnerability to which she has always been committed.” Here the dots connect back to the study group, for Silliman was one of those very same male avant-garde writers implied by such a comparison. Fraser did not buy into the idea that formal experimentation was the exclusive domain of male writers nor that it was somehow antifeminist, and the SPT conversations surely entailed a discussion of this conundrum. In the years that followed Fraser pursued and successfully realized the possibility of expressing (to quote Bellamy) “subjective experiences through the rearrangement of syntax and meaning.”
Boone and Glück found common ground with the feminist avant-garde by promoting a libidinal critique of power relations through experiments with narrative structure. They spearheaded a movement called New Narrative that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, embraces the oppositional politics of novels and short stories, as well as less fiction-oriented experiments in translation, cultural criticism, drama and even poetry. A key example is Boone’s Century of Clouds, the novelistic memoir about the summer meetings of the Marxism and Theory Group in St. Cloud, Minnesota, during the summer of 1977, the same year that gay activist Robert Hillsborough was murdered in San Francisco and that Anita Bryant (the orange juice spokeswoman) launched her antigay crusade “Save Our Children” in Dade County, Florida. Boone’s novel features many celebrated theorists: Stanley is Stanley Aronowitz, Terry is Terry Eagleton, and, most important for Boone, Fred is Fredric Jameson (“He’s so large, like the world”). But Boone had his own ideas about how best to achieve social justice, as he shows in one scene in which all the Marxists get together for a game of volleyball — the “politically correct choice because […] it hasn’t been ‘commercialized’ and ‘it’s never a spectator sport’” (64). At least this is the “ideology,” explains Boone. In reality, he says, “volleyball brought out hidden conflicts that had never been resolved, and often were not even discussed. Volleyball turned out to extend certain power realities based on sex.” Boone goes on to describe the celebrities of literary theory who espouse social justice but who become mean-spirited bullies on the volleyball court. Exposing these “power realities based on sex” represents one intervention among many that Boone and New Narrative writers sought to make on the political Left. (Other interventions, particularly by Boone and Glück, include the study of popular culture, the politics of pornography, the recovery of gay poetics before Stonewall and Gay Liberation, and many more.)
While the study group participants had a great deal in common, their differences were at the heart of the arguments that led to the dissolution of the group. Fraser, for example, was close enough to local Language poets that Lyn Hejinian published her Magritte Series (1977) as a Tuumba chapbook (in the same series that featured Benson’s The Busses and Silliman’s Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps). But Fraser, as she recalls later, had “ambivalent feelings” about the work, for she was “by turns, intrigued, bored, seriously engaged, wary.” “I knew Language Writing had arrived,” she says, when her students at San Francisco State University began turning in assignments that featured poetry made up of “collaged fragments or sentences or paragraphs juxtaposed in amusing unexpected ways […] a more distanced, heady relationship to the writing, cutting back on the more obvious preoccupations with Self” (65). Fraser points out that her friend Glück likewise found that his students reflected the influence, an influence that she concedes was “timely, necessary, and attractive.” Fraser worries though that the students did not understand the original political context for the techniques, a context that she knew firsthand from the marxism study group.
Fraser makes a point of emphasizing that Benson was one of the earliest Language writers to “put her on alert.” She means this in a good way: he did not strike her as entirely conforming to any close-knit or self-segregated group. Benson is, in fact, a key figure in the landscape of Fraser’s Each Next: Narratives, her 1980 publication from the Figures Press. Fraser addresses a series of journal entries and imaginary letters in response to Benson’s early transcribed improvisations “Narcissus” (1979) and “Echo” (1979). The myth of Narcissus is traditionally about self-reflection, so it is an allegory for identity or sameness. This is not the case for Fraser, however, who contends that Benson’s revision of the myth relies on the establishment of difference, or what she calls “deflection.” Gertrude Stein’s notion of repetition with difference hovers in the background here, but so too does H.D.’s idea that mythology can be appropriated and reimagined in the present. Fraser personifies Narcissus as Benson himself, the poet who “gazes with longing, trying to find himself” in the pool of language. She poses her voice as feminized Echo:
Is language, in fact, the pool? Looking into your words as if they represented a surface of water (Narcissus gazes with longing, trying to find himself), do I then find me, a word I know? Yes. No. Some deflection, in-flexing of where we might overlap. Sitting on your lap, a word comes back to me, as an echo. So I divest myself of the disembodied me … Echo is She, who watches Narcissus look for himself and returns to himself, slightly altered, by her very attentiveness.
Where am I?
Fraser’s feminist intervention here is twofold. First she raises the question about language in a way that appears to align Echo and Narcissus with the gendered critique that, according to Fraser, operates in some Language poetry. She puts it most clearly when she writes, “Echo is She.” But Fraser also holds fast to the idea that narrative aspects of myth can create connections between individuals (“where we might overlap”). The work is neither strictly about language; nor does it reject language as a site of inquiry. Rather, it slides back and forth between these positions (“Yes. No.”).
Notice that Fraser’s response to Benson’s original commentary on his own text effectively constitutes a third level of deflection. This incremental back-and-forth, like the sound wave of an echo, can apparently keep going. Fraser’s letter dated September 10 opens by declaring, “While you were gone, I divided into two even more distinct territories” (Each Next 54). Again in the voice of Echo, Fraser writes of her “belief in mutablity.” She adds, “It was, of course, a question of language,” but then she moves back into a narrative mode:
In what appeared to be home, I was also alone. I missed our talks, which always pull me somewhere new, but in your friendly red wagon with its creaky wheels. So I began to write about my grandfather, who was out-of-order, displaced from his known function and terrain. These stories were written within a solid and digested tradition of linked sentences. Achieving their life gave me a kind of satisfaction I’d not known. (54)
Is “home” in fact language, as in Heidegger’s idea that language is the “house of being”? Rather than move into conceptual or philosophical territory, Fraser refers to a sentimental story about her grandfather that appears earlier in the book. Not only is it autobiographical and narrative, as she says, but it also relies on “linked sentences” that fly in the face of the paratactic and “torqued” structures that Silliman promoted under the banner of the New Sentence. Fraser finds power in the ability of a story to reflect on its own construction. And on this point Benson may have held greater appeal for Fraser because he did not reject narrative entirely, as we’ll see below.
The ties between Fraser and New Narrative are even more extensive. Fraser wrote an appreciative review of Boone’s My Walk with Bob and Glück’s Family Poems in the pages of Poetry Flash. She praises their use of intimacy (“like a piece of journal writing or a letter to a trusted friend”) to discuss theoretical precepts that would be more likely expected in a formal essay. Fraser also contends that Boone and Glück extend feminist questions to the analysis of masculinity. In the days before feminism evolved into the academic field of gender studies, Fraser praises New Narrative for investigating the idea that gender is a determining factor in literary structure. Her support of New Narrative has a playful side as well. In Each Next, Fraser writes a prose piece about Glück’s dog Lily, who appears in his own books Elements of a Coffee Service and Jack the Modernist. (That is three cameos for one dog. A hat trick!) Fraser’s poem “Fried. lily” establishes an affectionate double entendre, first to the dog’s name, and second to Benson, who inspired the title of her poem when he made a typo on the word “friendly” in a personal letter. Fraser’s other poem “Lily, Lois, & Flaubert: the site of loss” appears in the first issue of Soup, as does Benson’s poem “To Myself”). Consider, too, that Glück writes a poem for Fraser in his book Reader and provides blurbs for a few of her books. These connections demonstrate mutual support that lasted well beyond the short-lived study group.
Not everyone was on congenial terms. New Narrative writers came together around the view that the avant-garde had gone stagnant in the 1970s. Boone objected that writers, and here he implied Language poets, were turning inward to an “increasing refinement of technique and available forms, without yet being able to profit greatly from the vigor, energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers, among others.” Or take Abbott’s review of the work of another Language poet, Barrett Watten’s 1–10, in Poetry Flash. Having read the book “six times or more,” he says, he finds the “work is incredibly dense and continues to fascinate […], more in irritation than in pleasure.”
Abbott finds two intractable faults. First, he dislikes the diction that is so “heavy with scientific bureaucratic and abstract terminology”: words like oscillate, semantic, microstructure, parabola, electrostatic, and so on. Modern poets have appropriated scientific jargon at least since Eliot characterized poetic feelings as a “catalyst” or since Zukofsky, more closely aligned with Watten, used the second law of thermodynamics to trace a line between Shakespeare and the present. But Abbott will have none of it. He laments, “Those who get a charge out of such terminology (or who don’t like to be ‘charged’ by poetry, if that’s the point), may be pleased. I’m not, at least not beyond the tantalizing shock of seeing such a highly specialized vocabulary leaping to life (??) in a realm where I would least expect it.”
Second, Abbott faults the over-riding paranoia of the poem’s landscape. It’s not that Abbott expects poetry to embrace joyous optimism, but the opposite extreme leaves him at a loss: “I cannot read far without feeling a terrible solipsistic claustrophobia.” These are harsh words indeed. Abbott qualifies his remarks by conceding that “on its own terms, the terms of form, the work excels in inventiveness.” Boone elsewhere makes a virtually identical point about Silliman’s poetry, so we can’t simply say that the theoretical precepts of Language poetry were lost upon their New Narrative detractors. Abbott understands the precepts; he just doesn’t agree with them. Worse, he links the erasure of subjectivity in the work to a desire to “flee the guilt and complicity of being-in-society.” So the no-self of formally disruptive poetry is in fact an abdication of responsibility. Abbott writes: “The virtue of Barrett Watten’s writing is that he so relentlessly focuses on language as a map, or to be more precise, an overlapping of maps. The problem of it, for me, is that it does so little else.”
While Watten was not actually in the study group, these objections to his writing were inevitably the fallout of conflicting positions that never resolved themselves after the study group disbanded. Shortly after members went their separate ways, Boone wrote in Poetry Flash “that language poetry is unquestionably the hegemony movement of the day and that, on the other hand, it lacks a developed social sense. Poetic practice in the future might well involve getting these aspects together.” Boone’s alternative was to deploy narrative in a way that would “create the need for an audience.” This is reminiscent of Althusser’s notion that ideology operates by interpolating or hailing a subject, except in the case of New Narrative, the ideology would not be state power, but the transformational queer politics that the writers welcomed in their roles as social activists. Remember, too, that Althusser was on the study group reading list, so it is not far fetched to see an influence on Boone’s thinking here. Boone also invokes almost messianic terms, which may have stemmed from the Walter Benjamin on the list. “In a poetry such as this,” writes Boone, “we can see both possibilities for present literary concern as well as signals for a future. A future that is certainly on the other side of our present writing, but one that may nonetheless reflect back to us some idea of what poetry and society might be in a place still to come.”
Recall, by way of contrast, that the most vociferous practitioners of Language poetry alleged that narrative was a politically regressive form of writing. Silliman, at approximately the same time that the study group was meeting, asserted that his own goal was to “search out the preconditions of a liberated language within the existing social fact.” Such poetry would be not the product of the marketplace, not the reification of social forces, but a “philosophy of practice in language.” At its most rudimentary this poetry was intended to explore the materialism of language by disrupting signification, syntax, and grammatical structure, thus resurrecting a space for agency outside the contractual powers of normative communication. Although New Narrative writers were invested in a queer future that can hardly be called normative, their reliance on narrative techniques identified with realism resulted in an impasse with language-centered poetics. That the study group foundered on this impasse is not difficult to imagine.
Six Degrees of Steve Benson
But wait a minute, we might say: aren’t such group categories just overgeneralized caricatures that don’t really apply to the individual writers, at least not without simplification or distortion? When Boone accused Language poetry of being the “hegemony movement” of the day, Silliman replied in Poetry Flash by denying that any “such identity exists.” Silliman writes, “At best that group noun refers to a wide body of overlapping concerns and family resemblances. There exists no substantial agreement.” Silliman is right to point to exceptions that complicate the shorthand of group designations. But what best gives his statement credibility is Benson, and — here’s the really ironic part — what makes Benson the exception is his proximity to New Narrative.
This might seem a curious assertion because Benson is in many ways a key figure of Bay Area Language poetry. He was a one-time coordinator of the Grand Piano reading series. He was integral to Poets Theater, where he wrote and performed in plays with Carla Harryman and many others. He gave an early presentation for the talk series held in Bob Perelman’s apartment that was published in the first volume of those talks. (He gave other presentations as well.) Benson’s work appeared in This, Hills, Tottels, Miam, and Poetics Journal, and he was a frequent contributor to the East Coast organs for Language poetry including L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Roof, Dog City, and A Hundred Posters. He also read at the Ear Inn in 1979. His early publishers included The Figures, Tuumba, Whale Cloth, and Potes and Poets — and again, all of these outlets are closely aligned with Language poetry. The scholarly neglect of Benson’s work, however, means that few have ever appreciated the degree to which his work overlaps with other collectives in the Bay Area.
Recall again that aside from David Melnik, Benson was the only openly gay poet associated with Language poetry in the Bay Area scene. Benson’s sexual identity would not necessarily make him in a more likely participant in New Narrative, but the fact is that his early track record for writing and publishing does not conform to any exclusive group or movement. Not only did he read with New Narrative writers (as noted above), but his work also appeared in the first issue of Abbott’s magazine Soup, which was virtually ground zero for New Narrative writing. Or consider the reception of his work. When Boone criticizes Language poets (especially Silliman, Watten, and Perelman) in a long essay in the second issue of Soup, he makes a notable exception for Benson’s “Views of Communist China.” (To summarize briefly: Benson re-creates his bedroom in the talk space of Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s apartment and leads the audience through a tour of individual object and memories. The performance arguably seeks to invert the norms of coming out, for Benson invites the audience into his private space rather than taking himself out into the public world.) On the one hand, Boone suggests that Benson’s talk, despite its title, is too dissociated from any real-world politics in China. On the other hand, a queer dimension of the work intrigues Boone because Benson displays “truly intimate feelings with what appears […] as a sometimes alarming openness.” Boone finds Benson’s openness uncharacteristic of other talks in the volume, so he becomes irritated when a second poet interrupts and “takes advantage of [Benson’s] vulnerability” (9). For his part, Boone much prefers the end of the piece when Bob Perelman joins Benson to perform the role of a young girl in a scripted interview. Boone remarks, “Well, I like the gay aspects of this scene. But it makes an odd ending” (9).
At other times Benson’s association with Language poets caused difficulties for his relationship with other writers, including Abbott, who was coeditor of Poetry Flash in the years following the study group at Small Press Traffic. When Benson reviewed Harryman’s Percentage for Poetry Flash, Abbott publicly criticized him for “amorphous weaving about a site and not wanting to clarify your stand.” Another staff member at the magazine accused Benson of “spinning into his own word game instead of explaining the book.” Benson defended himself in a series of letters with Abbott that accompanied the publication of the review, writing: “I prefer to find my gyroscope within myself rather than in deference to terms and opinions and traditions handed down to me.”
Yet this inner gyroscope often tilted in the direction of New Narrative. Early works like Steel Idea (Miam Magazine, 1978) and As Is (Figures, 1978), published around the time of the study group, are best described as hybrid constructs that stretch the divide between paratactic and non-narrative sentences (a defining feature of Language poetry) and journal-like entries that describe sexual escapades in a way characteristic of New Narrative. Consider this narrative passage in Benson’s first major collection As Is:
I had asked Paul to let me roll a joint before he left. My plan was to smoke it and go see a double bill at a gay porno theater. I figured I’d take my contacts out at Larry’s before going to the beach. I had only gotten my contacts the day before, my first pair, and I wasn’t sure how I’d like seeing a movie with them. However, I thought I’d prefer to have everything new. The movie idea was new to me too.
It’s cheaper if you go before noon. I was surprised that there were some boys on the screen I really liked. Not all muscle men or tough guys. I became lost in certain sequences.
When I came into the theater I was amazed at how dark it was. Maybe I couldn’t see anybody, couldn’t see the rows of seats because the image on the screen was all black and red. After watching for a couple minutes I realized I still had my sunglasses on. I was rarely aware that I was stoned.
After about an hour I realized that I was coming a little bit in my pants. I had a nylon swimsuit on under my pants and I didn’t want lots of stains when I showed up at the beach. I became aware of my penis and started to stroke it a little bit. I opened up my pants in the dark and let the head of my penis out of the swimsuit.
The contacts sort of made the images on the screen swirl around. For a long time they had vague circular edges but after a while I began to focus more completely, and the blacks and whites contrasted more remarkably and the image was terrifically present.
When we read this passage in light of the study group’s conflicting views toward erotic content, Benson’s liminal position with respect to libidinal politics becomes clear. In an early essay, “Caricature,” Glück argues that gay porn is politically subversive because class stratification does not define what makes an appropriate or inappropriate sexual partner. Silliman adopts a diametrically opposite view in Tjanting: “Porn is the presentation of an unequal power relation between partners in the act of sex for purposes of commerce” (197, emphasis added). In Ketjak Silliman suggests that sexual content usefully refocuses the reader’s attention, but he neglects to acknowledge any other use for oppositional politics: “Insert opaque erotic data, stimulate focus.” In “Sunset Debris,” he goes even further: “Isn’t it that certain forms of language, for example of erotic content, focus perception away from the words and the syntagmemic chain, a world suppressed in reference to another?” Silliman might be paraphrased as saying that more sex means less language. Benson’s poem, though, is closer to Glück’s notion, for he finds himself attracted to men across a range of class positions. When he loses his contact lens on the floor of the theater (a scenario that is both abject and rarified), he finds the blurred image of orgies on the screen even more enticing — as if to suggest that queer relations can leap across social differences better than any other form of critique.
Benson may have appealed to those not affiliated with Language poetry because he gave off a strong sense of independence, never writing according to a particular playbook or groupthink. In any event, he is best thought of as a poet who stands between groups, meandering back and forth and troubling the very binaries that govern much of my discussion above. Benson ultimately presents a limit case for the applicability of those group alignments. I’ll close with a passage from his 1981 poem The Bussess, in which Benson can be heard thinking through this in-between space, or what he here calls the “interstitial and intermittent”:
To change the subject I
want to become more actively historical.
This is typical of my age? I have been accused by
those of my not really friends who would in effect
consider themselves active that I’m not, that is, that I
compromise myself by doubting my convictions or most
powerful bonding, shall we call them, impulses — that I
don’t follow through on what they would like to see
center for the whole, generate unity — instead, …
but knowing requires a self-assurance that’s untrue to me.
I accept the validity of bonding, the necessity of community
value for meaning, but see my life and context as solitary,
interstitial and intermittent, and don’t yet understand
what activity I can undertake without compromising
that knowledge of my value — which I take to be positive! 
An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the National Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry of the 1970s” conference, University of Maine, Orono, in June 2008, as part of a panel entitled “New Narrative — New Sentence — New Left,” together with Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw. For research assistance with small press publications cited here, I wish to thank Michael Basinski, curator, James Maynard, assistant curator, and staff members at the Poetry Collection, the University at Buffalo. I also wish to thank Stephanie Young for her provocations in response to a penultimate draft of the essay.
4. Perelman writes, “But the more interesting moments of judgment are not built around the violence of expulsion. There’s the writing I love, admire, envy.” Bob Perelman, The Grand Piano 2:87. See De Villo Sloan, “‘Crude Mechanical Access’ or ‘Crude Personism’: A Chronicle of One San Francisco Bay Area Poetry War,” Sagetrieb 4, nos. 2–3 (Fall–Winter 1985): 241–54.
5. Note that I mainly use the lower case “marxism” throughout this essay in order to suggest the flexibility that the participants hoped to locate in the tradition of Marxist critique. I take the term “coalition” from Eleana Kim, “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement,” Readme 4 (Spring–Summer 2001). Although I am mainly focusing on participants in the Marxist study group, Kim points to a large number of coalitions in the Bay Area and notes how often these groups came into conflict:
The poetry scenes of San Francisco in the mid-to late 1970s were varied, with “coalitions” forming at different venues — “Third World” writers such as those associated with Ishmael Reed’s journal Yardbird, and women’s collectives — asserting their positions through networks of presses, readings and publications. New Americans of the New York School, the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance were still important figures, as indexed by their frequent appearances at benefits and special events. The First and Second Annual San Francisco Poetry Festivals in 1976 and 1977 featured, among others, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Miriam Patchen, Ishmael Reed, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Thom Gunn, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Andrei Codrescu, and Robert Bly. Next to readings by gay, women, and Third World poets, and the highly visible and well-established Beats and New Americans, the names of Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, and Kit Robinson began to appear with increasing frequency in the calendar of readings in San Francisco’s monthly poetry newsletter, Poetry Flash.
6. In The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), Bob Perelman exemplifies this position when he writes, “language writing is best understood as a group phenomenon, and that it is one whose primary tendency is to do away with the reader as a separable category” (31). At the heart of the group phenomenon, he notes, were collaborations and “parallel projects” undertaken in the 70s and 80s (33). According to Perelman, such cooperation is a mark of progress because it explodes the ideology of the heroic genius who scribbles away in isolation. A communal or collaborative model is further said to facilitate a reading practice that is less hierarchical (or consumer-oriented) and more participatory (or activist).
9. See Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998), 10; Gary Snyder, “Foreword, Highest and Driest: For Philip Zenshin’s Poetic/Dharma, Gary Snyder,” in The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), xxvii; and Paul Mariah and Richard Tagett, prefatory acknowledgments in Man-Root 1 (1969): ii.
12. The observer continues, “A new bookstore has opened in San Francisco. Small Press Traffic is the name and every available inch is crammed with books. The poetry selection is excellent.” Poetry Flash 47 (January 1977): 2.
13. I discuss Durkheim’s role in the Left/Write conference in “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry,” American Literature 81, no. 4 (December 2009): 805–832. Other notable readers for SPT in 1978 include Leslie Scalapino, Gloria Anzaldúa, Beverly Dahlen, Jerry Ratch, and Steve Benson.
14. A case in point: on Tuesday, June 27, SPT held a benefit reading at Intersection (another popular site for poetry series) that featured a lineup of Mary Oppen, Leslie Scalapino, Boone, Tom Mandel, and Michael Palmer. Tuesday, however, was the regular night for Grand Piano readings, so the original event for that night had to be moved to Thursday in order to avoid a conflict. The Grand Piano event was no less than the much-celebrated performance of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-24 with voices by Steve Benson, Barrett Watten, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman, and with piano by Bob Perelman. Normally such snafus could be avoided because the many different series laid claim to different nights of the week, but not when a third party like Intersection was involved.
18. Advertisement for Small Press Traffic (with readings, workshop, and study group schedules), Poetry Flash 67 (October 1978): 2. For the Althusserian Marxism of Language Poetry, see Andrew Ross, “The New Sentence and the Commodity Form,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (New York: Routledge, 1988), 361–380, and Geoffrey Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
28. Benson’s two poems appear in his book Blindspots (Iowa City: Whale Cloth, 1981). He describes the poems as “a transcript” that he “slightly edited” (5) from a taped, improvised performance in Baltimore in 1979. Benson explains:
It opens with a reading of the poem “Echo” and a spontaneous monologue, and it goes on through increasingly improvisationally-derived readings of things I had written and consecutive reworkings of that monologue listened to through earphones or speakers from tape, moving between the brick wall and the audience (this time in tiers) among my tape recorders, the things I’d written, and the ladders. (5)
In improvisation, the goal is often to distance the self or the controlling ego and foreground the materiality of language. But an estranged self does not dominate in Blindspots. Benson turns again to his inner gyroscope when he performs an interpretive activity during the composition itself. The work literally folds back in on itself. The multiple voices of the transcription are organized on the page much like Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, a work that was published not long before Blindspots. Note that Weiner is also cited several times in Benson’s text.
31. Rob Halpern writes, “Soup is significant because it was able — among other things — to stimulate and contain community differences, while registering the social and aesthetic antagonisms that traversed the avant-garde literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area circa 1980. Soup does the invaluable work of making the dynamic conversations and fault lines between divergent literary tendencies and their related constituencies audible, without indulging in hostile positioning, or ad hominem bickering.” See Rob Halpern, “Restoring ‘China,’” Jacket 39 (2010). Benson’s “To Myself,” also published in Blue Book (New York: The Figures/Roof: 1988), 32, reads:
What happens when you don’t have enough time to be alone?
What is the hidden assumption of that question?
What if I don’t come out to enough other people?
What if I don’t tell them how I feel?
I get angry.
What is the answer
hidden in that unanswered question, that