Barrett Watten, 1999

Photo from the Poetry Project

In this 1999 reading, Barrett Watten collages poetry and criticism from 1-10 (1980), Bad History (1998), Poetics Journal 10: “Knowledge” (1998), and criticism eventually collected in The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003).

Barrett Watten
The Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, November 15, 1999
Introduction by Carine Daly

  • Mode Z (1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Non-Events (stanza 1; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • “Does poetry have any knowledge […]” (“What I See in ‘How I Became Hettie Jones,’” Poetics Journal 10: “Knowledge,” 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 2 and 3; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History IV: “Museum of War” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 4 and 5; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • “It is important that the graphically modified noun language […]” (The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, 2003)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 6 and 7; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History X: “The Executor” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 8 and 9; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • “There is a competing possibility […]” (“What I See in ‘How I Became Hettie Jones,’” Poetics Journal 10: “Knowledge,” 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 10 and 11; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History Section E: “Event” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 12 and 13; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • “Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts […]” (The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, 2003)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 14 and 15; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History XIX: “Free Trade” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 18 and 19; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History XXI: “Vulture” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 16 and 17; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)
  • Bad History XXII: “Fantasia” (Bad History, 1998)
  • Non-Events (stanzas 18 through 25; 1-10, 1980; Frame (1971-1990), 1997)

Watten begins with “Mode Z,” the first poem in 1-10, the book strategically chosen to begin the non-chronological Frame (1971-1990). Watten adapts this organizational gesture to the composition of the poetry reading. “Mode Z” consists of New Sentences calling for the clearing of the past and the agency to construct the present: “Could we have those trees cleared out of the way? / And the houses, volcanoes, empires?” “Prove to me now that you have finally undermined / your heroes [….] Start writing autobiography.” Its repetition in 1999 reaffirms its permanent revolution, self-critically exceeding Watten’s own subjectivity, since in the nineteen years since 1-10 a new generation of poets has developed with Watten as a hero to be potentially undermined, evidenced by the adulatory introduction by the younger Carine Daly.

Watten continues with the first stanza of “Non-Events,” also from 1-10, a logical segue by its formal homogeny of New Sentences with “Mode Z,” beginning the pattern of reading two stanzas of “Non-Events” henceforth after every element in the composition of the poetry reading. The modular deployment is enabled by its formal regularity of twenty-five stanzas of five sentences each. Watten deployed this modular reading technique of “Non-Events” as early as February 20, 1979 in a reading at The Grand Piano, San Francisco.

Watten continues with an excerpt from his essay, “What I See in ‘How I Became Hettie Jones,’” included in Poetics Journal 10: “Knowledge,” an essay that takes Hettie Jones’s autobiography as an object for exploring the relationship between poetry and knowledge. Watten’s excerpt is itself a self-excerpt within the essay, the essay’s epigraph, taken from his contribution to Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (1992), co-written with Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman about their trip to “Leningrad meeting Russian avant-garde poets in 1989.” Watten interrogates a mystified speculation about poetry’s relation to knowledge: “Does poetry have any knowledge, and if so, what? In the West at times one feels as if the blank space of the poetic were a cult object to quantify the unknown.” He criticizes particular manifestations of this mystified speculation in the Russian poets he met:

“For one poet, ‘Poetic expression is the rebirth of context’—assuming it had been there all along; in the poetic it is reborn [….] For another, it is ‘as if certain formal characteristics could be translated from our states of mind.’ Some of these would be identical to ‘ancient Russian idioms,’ making all modern Russians contiguous in some inner way. Yet another wants ‘to go through grammar to reach other levels of language’ and imagines that ‘each person has his own language rules [….]’ ‘Above socialism would be a new form of technical reality identical to language,’ another says. ‘I will attempt to describe this process from the point of view of linguistic use.’”

In contrast, Watten argues for a historical understanding of poetry, its temporal distance and material framing enabling self-reflection for the production of knowledge: “But for us” (Davidson, Hejinian, Silliman, Watten) “increasingly the poetic can only be known as its history. First we were displaced by it, and then we reasoned why. After that, we had knowledge.” By excerpting Leningrad, Watten enacts historical self-reflection on his past work within the essay. By reading this excerpt, he adapts this gesture to the composition of the poetry reading, suggesting historical frames for the materials of the reading’s collage toward the possibility of knowledge.

Watten continues with two stanzas of “Non-Events” followed by Bad History IV: “Museum of War.” The durational and stylistic differences between lengthy specific criticism, short linguistically-colorful “Non-Events” stanzas, and lengthy Bad History sections encourage recalibrations of attention in their segues. Bad History’s sections are grounded in sustained thematic reflections on referential particulars such as dates, individuals, and locations, but with regular enactments of its textual materiality: “The evidence says each bomblet contained 600 steel fragments lethal up to 40 feet, violating protocols of the new sentence—as if this kind of analogy were even news! Orders given at random make chaos an analogy for why one cannot continue to write our historical epic. Iraq consumed infant milk formula at a rate of 2,500 tons per month during 1990.”

After two more stanzas of “Non-Events,” Watten reads criticism interrogating “language writing,” again enacting his prescription for historical understanding enabling self-reflection for the production of knowledge:

“It is important that the graphically modified noun language was used to name a journal that published articles about language-centered writing, so-called, rather than examples of it – a controversial claim that depends on a distinction of genre between articles on poetics and examples of poetry [….] What resulted has been a historical conflict between the tendency and its name, between language-centered writing/language poet/language writing and even names such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, indicating a dialectic of poetry and naming that continues to this day.”

The criticism’s dependence on “a distinction of genre between articles on poetics and examples of poetry” is also the composition of the poetry reading’s dependence on genre that contributes to the historical collage technique’s recalibrations of attention in the segues between generic characteristics of criticism, such as theoretical diction and analyses, and poetry, such as textual materiality.

He employs the self-excerpt technique again with its inter-essay implications, as in the excerpting from Leningrad in “What I See in ‘How I Became Hettie Jones,’” by excerpting from his response about “language writing” in an interview with Andrew Ross, in Ross, ed., “Reinventing Community: A Symposium on/with Language Poets,” Minnesota Review 32 (1989), as part of his present argument about “language writing”:

“The form of the belief that held together, violently, such a group of variously motivated individuals is, at the moment of its transformation, rendered objective – and at the same time the belief fails. Clearly individuals might continue to hold some of their collective beliefs . . . but the form of the group itself cannot survive objectification. It turns out that all along none of its members really understood what it was they were saying, even though it was said repetitiously and at length – in all-night discussions of political theory, in slogans at the barricades, and in tracts on revolutionary justice – while given meaning by the provocation of the group’s enemies outside. The centripetal movement of the group had revolved around a hollow center – as long as there was force and resistance to keep it in motion. This is very like the process of collective idea-formation in the arts.”

This excerpting is unremarked on during the reading: its implications arise from its revealing by the additional historical distance of commentating on the reading. Watten’s historicization of “language writing”’s phases encourages different historical frames of understanding for works from 1-10, Bad History, the criticism, and the self-excerpts within the criticism, instead of an undifferentiated and ahistorical conception of “language writing” as a social condition for meaning.

After two more stanzas of “Non-Events,” Bad History X: “The Executor,” and two more stanzas of “Non-Events,” Watten returns to reading excerpts from “What I See in ‘How I Became Hettie Jones,’” explicitly separating his position from American avant-garde and contemporary poetries that have wagered themselves on poetry having no knowledge:

“There is a competing possibility, that poetry contains no knowledge at all—that it is entirely differential. The avant-garde in American poetry seems to have accepted this philosophical and linguistic divestiture, leading to the following dilemma: What knowledge can poetry contain if the ‘poetic’ is a matter of the suspension of reference in the defamiliarization of form? [] A wide range of contemporary poetry now appears to accept an abstract, contextless formalism as the basis of its aesthetic effects [….] The experience of poetry, in its abstract, formal differentiation of context—what kind of knowledge is that? The notion of poetry as “not knowing” and differential is a provisional one, which I would not like to accept as a condition for continued involvement with poetry.”

Watten’s explicitness within the composition of the poetry reading emphasizes the positive characteristic of the historical collage technique as a historical framing of materials toward a seizing of knowledge and depletes the technique’s differential implications, conditioning the understanding of the technique’s use both previously and subsequently in the reading.

After two more stanzas of “Non-Events,” Bad History Section E: “Event,” and two more stanzas of “Non-Events,” Watten reads criticism explicating “Non-Events”’s historical relationship to Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Kit Robinson’s “Brat Guts” project:

“I proposed to Steve Benson, once the group’s project had ended, that we write a collaborative poem that would be made of two poems in intersubjective, if not intertextual, dialogue. We specified a certain number of stanzas and lines, but wrote relatively independently of each other. What resulted were two poems titled ‘Non-Events’ which were published together as an issue of A Hundred Posters, edited by Alan Davies, in November 1978 [….] In dedicating the poem to ‘B W,’ Benson was toying, in his address, with accounting for his relationship to another male poet of the same initials as mine; the addressee, not only the subject, is split. My choice of the title “Non-Events” had to do with a heterosexual relationship; the poem’s textualization of desire was thus deeply ironic, even self-canceling.”

Watten ironically adds as an aside, “And I’m sure you read that subtext in what I’ve read of ‘Non-Events’ so far,” expressing the characteristic of “language writing” of the period to radically autonomize the poem from its subtext and poetics, enabling “each stanza [to] be read as a metonym for processes at work in the other twenty-four stanzas of the poem, generating meanings that would be extended, I hoped, almost indefinitely” as well as the possibility of the gesture of explication in both the essay and the composition of the poetry reading. (For more on “language writing”’s desuturing of poems and poetics, see my commentary Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, 1979.) Watten’s historical explication of “Non-Events” enacts his prescription for historical understanding and conditions the understanding of “Non-Events” previously and subsequently in the reading.

Watten continues with six more alternations between reading a pair of stanzas of “Non-Events” and a section of Bad HistoryBad History contains thirty sections: six sections lettered A through F and twenty-four numbered sections. Each lettered section, except for Section F which concludes the book, heads a sequence of numbered sections: each lettered group is labeled by a different date. Watten reads Bad History sections XIX, XXI, and XXII, all in Group E dated “Monday, December 27, 1993,” and from which Section E: “Event” had been previously read. Confining remaining selections from Bad History to Group E expresses the mutually complimentary historically augmented formal unity of the group and the stylistic range among the sections against the constraint of the group and Bad History’s whole, for instance, XXII: “Fantasia,” which stands out for its sublimation of referential particulars around a sustained concrete theme by the textual materiality of formal variations inhabiting Charles Bernstein’s The Absent Father in Dumbo and Joe Brainard’s I Remember: “The absent father in the Korean War. I remember Dumbo.”

In these alternations between “Non-Events” and Bad History, Watten curiously reads the pairs of “Non-Events” stanzas 18 and 19 and stanzas 16 and 17 out of sequence. I speculate that this was an error, but the fact of stanzas 18 and 19’s repetition in Watten’s reading of “Non-Events”’s remaining stanzas of 18 through 25 that concludes the reading demonstrates the difference of repetition in temporal sequence.

The alternation of “Non-Events” and Bad History is a superb pairing to close the reading considering its obsession with history. Bad History’s back cover reads,the poem looks back on the decades previous and forward toward—a duration of events, which, because the poem is in history, do not cease to occur. The poem, too, becomes the event of its own recording.” Within the poetry reading’s special temporality, sections of Bad History’s “event of its own recording” and the “duration of events” that were its occasion and the “Non-Events” “generating meanings that would be extended, I hoped, almost indefinitely” can be seized by their organization for their possibilities of knowledge. The reading, too, becomes the event of its own recording, and because it and its contents are in history, they do not cease to occur, as expressed by “Non-Events” and reading’s final line: “The manual is rewritten one word at a time.”

Next commentary: Bruce Andrews, Segue/Double Happiness, New York City, April 7, 2001.