Commentaries - December 2011
What is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry ?
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which I edited with Bruce Andrews, published its first issue in 1978 and its last in 1982. In our preface to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984), we provided a summary of our editorial project:
Throughout, we have emphasized a spectrum of writing that places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter. All of these remain at issue. Focussing on this range of poetic exploration, and on related aesthetic and political concerns, we have tried to open things up beyond correspondence and conversation: to break down some unnecessary self-encapsulation of writers (person from person, & scene from scene), and to develop more fully the latticework of those involved in aesthetically related activity.
At core, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was an editorial action: a frame for selecting and combining a range of disparate poetic practices and critical thinking. We didn’t capture an already-existing, fully formed aesthetic as much as participate in its creation. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (and its many different names – Language Poetry, Language Poetries, Language Writing, Language-Centered Writing) mark different frames of a field of poetic activity that has no unified stylistic consistency. Indeed, one fraction of this poetic constellation was a resistance to naming, characterization, and standardized modes of representation. So the description is part of the problem and it remains an open question whether this constellation of activity was a movement or school, aesthetic tendency or convenient label, and whether the names for the phenomena were insulting labels or a standard for group solidarity.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was a site of conversation about a set of marked issues, a place to air differences but not necessarily to settle them. That conversation was radically distinct from the values of the official verse culture of the time, and now, not only in terms of what poetry is, what it does, and how it works, but also in terms of the commitment to group and community formation through conversation.
In what ways does this work continue?
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and the poetry and poetics surrounding it was formed in controversy and remains controversial because its unity was not a set of agreed upon aesthetic principles, but rather an aversion to the conservative dogmas of much of the dominant poetry of the time. Yet, despite its unruliness, the ensemble of activities that falls under this rubric does share a family resemblance. Both the poetry and poetics posed a stark alternative to the prized poetry of the era.
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E made a turn from some aspects of modernist avant-garde formations, staying clear of univocal manifestoes, though not from polemic intervention. This is not to say that social or aesthetic insularity, or the promotion of particular styles, was not present, but that it was neither governing nor defining. Indeed, a pervasive wariness about, combined with a peculiar devotion to, some of the more doctrinaire aspects of the modernist avant-garde formations was one of the constituent interests in the formation of the work in and around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
The context provided by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E remains viable, even as many new poets and new approaches to poetry have emerged: the importance of poetics and of an ideological self-understanding of poetry’s forms and social organization, a questioning of the given and a preference for the chosen, a transvaluation of “the original” toward the found and refashioned, a rejection of the values foisted on poetry by the prize systems and the values of a literary mainstream (a mediocracy) that cares nothing about poetry. What persists is a desire to find the ways and means for expression, affect, thought, ethics, and politics that are not already prescribed by how your supposed to do things: a desire to make feeling, meaning, and rhythm ever more palpable in poems.
Full issue online here.
Print and digital download here.
John Cage once made the following remark when asked why he wished to make English less understandable:
I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears — and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.” So what we're doing when we make language un-understandable is we're demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living.... It’s a transition from language to music certainly. It's bewildering at first, but it’s extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that's what I'm up to. Empty Words begins by omitting sentences, has only phrases, words, syllables and letters. The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters. And the last part has nothing but letters and sounds.
Here is a recording of Cage making this remark (in a radio interview given prior to a performance of Empty Words).
with Tom Raworth's commentary
A couple of future robots look puzzled in the foreground; the left-hand one's eyes are two Hadron Colliders. A young Bin Laden crouches beside one of the Whiteshirts looming over some Occupiers also being threatened by Ghaddafi's golden pistol. Daddy Warbucks surveys the scene while Amy Whitehouse looks over her shoulder as two London Rioters carry their loot towards the drain pipe Ghadaffi was discovered in. On the wall above is the Goldman Sachs reminder and the grey object is the recent photograph of the first millisecond of an atomic explosion. Above is the drone recently brought down by the Iranians. The sky also instructs us to BUY as buzzards fly and two vultures perch on the ruins. The Guernica bulb has been replaced by one of the new "energy efficient" ones which leave you in the dark for three minutes before they glow. Below that is the boat deposited on the house in Japan after the earthquake. DSK peers, disturbed at his usual activities, from the window. From the other window Stephen Hawking floats out. The church clock of course is permanently at ten to three. Beneath them the Magi (No Jobs, No Cash, No Hope) are attacked by a London policeman. A ragged child follows the stink of Cameron and Osborne's election bus, inherited from Planters Peanuts (label changed to reflect their current status), on which is the new Tory slogan. The wall graffiti is obvious. Bottom right, the infant Jesus is casually peppered by Lt.Pike of Davis. I think I put the World Rugby Cup in there somewhere, and replaced the cop's badge with a pig's head. Probably some other stuff I've forgotten.
The “Age of Spiritual Machines” guy, Ray Kurzweil, came to Philadelphia three years after that book had come out and gave a talk to the otherwise dull two-day conference sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Kurzweil is never dull, though. Even a routine account of his presence at that 2003 confab published in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggests the sort of things — e.g. machines that wrote poems — this always-ahead-of-his-time fellow had in mind. “Our biological thinking is fixed. But our nonbiological thinking will grow exponentially.”