Contemporary so-called “innovative” or “experimental” poetry’s fascination and engagement with the theoretical and the critical owes a lot to the Language poets, who, though not the first to approach the composition of poetry as an intellectual enterprise, did offer what Marjorie Perloff characterizes as a “rapprochement between poetry and theory” that could serve as an alternative to the increasingly anti-intellectual creative writing classroom of the 1970s.
Phil introduced the issue this way: This issue of Tyuonyi, Patterns / Contexts / Time: A Symposium on Contemporary Poetry, exists because of collective desire. Ninety-seven poets from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, England, and Australia felt the desire to respond. Their responses were to a series of questions devised by Charles Bernstein and myself. The questions were designed to be inclusive enough to address the issues which engaged us, but vague enough not to restrict the potential responses of the respondents. We wanted to create a forum wherein the real issues that compelled poets could be addressed without a felt adherence to any presuppositions. The volume of response was very gratifying and the range of response far beyond my expectation.
THE QUESTIONS: •What patterns, if any, do you see developing that are presently influencing habits of reading or readership within poetry? •What are the values or limitations of these developing, or undeveloped, patterns? •What context, if any, do you see your work as part of? •What context, if any, do you see for the work of those contemporary poets whom you find most interesting? •What's the most disturbing (or irritating) thing associated with poetry or your work as a poet? •What sources do you find most useful in keeping informed about contemporary poetry? •Do universities play any role for you in terms of your work as a poet? •Do you ever think about what you will be doing in ten years? What? etc etc.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is perhaps the closest thing canonical American literature has to a “sacred language.” In Robert Duncan’s lectures on Dickinson, we could say that he posits her as the ultimate untranslatable poet, even within her own language. In her poems she “bring[s] us to the line where everything is so fraught with meaning that we can’t find the meaning.”
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House for PennSound and Art International Radio. Keith Waldrop was born in Kansas and attended a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina. His pre-med studies were interrupted when he was drafted to be an army engineer.
Tender Buttons is the future. Neither cipher nor code, the grammar of Tender Buttons forces the reader to play Stein. Stein’s obsession with perspective, her collection of objects, food, rooms, produces a scene of constraints (the rules of the game): a discrete spatial field where coordinates shift as the text’s gravity swerves. A game board. No, a bored game.
Although Three Lives and The Making of Americans were radical innovations, neither was as revolutionary as Tender Buttons (begun in 1912 and published in 1914). Tender Buttons is the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of wordness, where word and object merge.
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany,” a program hosted at the Kelly Writers House in April 2014. The conversation was transcribed by Tracie Morris. Listen to the audio program here. — Julia Bloch