Kamau Brathwaite

Conflicting Englishes

Cheap signaling and vernacular poetry

Dohra Ahmad's anthology Rotten English collects non-standard English writing
Dohra Ahmad's anthology Rotten English collects non-standard English writing

Since I’ve been offering commentaries about multilingualism for several months now and haven’t yet devoted any time to addressing poetries that use nonstandard varieties of English, I want to turn my attention to that particular elephant in the room. The question of what type of language poetry should use is, to employ another familiar expression, as old as the hills. Debates over what Wordsworth called “the real language of men” and its place in, or relation to poetry are at once passé and radically contemporary — a source of perennial debate.

This past summer, the publication of Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Cheap Signaling” drew renewed and welcome attention to the question of poetic diction and how it ought to relate to “real” language. Tiffany explores a wide array of contemporary poems that use a “fabricated language of the ‘underneath’” to queer “the diction of poetry,” mixing “a nice tranche of idiomatic talk” with the “glam-tags of theory.”

Emancipation via elimination

Vanessa Place's 'Boycott Project'

Vanessa Place
Vanessa Place

For all their twists and spin, poets like Kamau Brathwaite and Charles Bernstein seem strikingly direct in their politics when compared to Vanessa Place and her poetics of iteration. Where in a work like World on Fire Bernstein clearly attacks the US invasion of Iraq, Place, like some other conceptual writers, seems to reject the idea that we might change the world by transforming our language. Indeed, at times Place takes direct aim at texts that seek a revolutionary change in the social order.

For instance, in her “Boycott Project,” Place reproduces feminist classics such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex with all female-gendered words replaced by their male counterparts. (See Place’s The Father & Childhood.) 

Revolutions per minute

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein reads/plays "stop it"
Charles Bernstein at a Poets Against the War reading, Buffalo, March 5, 2003

In the essay “The Conspiracy of Us” (first published in 1979, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Charles Bernstein anticipated a key driver of the iterative turn in contemporary poetry when he described his anxiety about collective identity and action and argued for the revolutionary power of poetry to disrupt the certainty of our collective positions.

Revolution with a twist

Kamau Brathwaite

Kamau Brathwaite (Photo credit: Beverly Brathwaite)

In this commentary, I will explore what I term the “iterative turn” in contemporary poetry. I take iteration to encompass a range of poetic practices, including repetition, sampling, performance, versioning, plagiarism, copying, translation, and reiterations across multiple media. I will focus here especially on how iterative poetry engages forms of political, economic, linguistic authority and their intertwinement with questions of media. The iterative turn in poetry can be understood not just as a shift in rhetorical form but also as an ethical and political response to the crisis in authority engendered by the rise of new technologies of reproduction and the increasing pace of globalization since the late 1980s. In the posts that follow, I will map out just a few of the many forms that this response takes under four broad headings: revolution, copyright, translation, and the book.

Syndicate content