A review of Frances Chung’s ‘Crazy Melon’
Photographs furnish evidence. — Susan Sontag
In Frances Chung’s posthumous collection of works, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple, the first book begins with a series of untitled poems. Several reviews following the publication of the collection describe these early poems as, at best, “compact and oddly moving,” or as whimsical poems that nevertheless lack “great virtuosity.” Yet these poems — which evoke the visceral immediacy of the snapshot photograph in subtly complex ways — provoke observations that capture much more than just “things” recorded by the “darting, naming eye.” The virtuosity of the snapshot lies within the contradiction of capturing quotidian, seemingly arbitrary encounters, which unravel structurally rich sociocultural meanings. Chung’s snapshot poems — dense, direct, brief — give way to questions of decoding what exactly is being described, of what Donna Haraway refers to as the "epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.”
* * *
In one of the opening untitled poems in Crazy Melon, the narrator describes Chinatown as captured through the camera lens of a tourist. We the readers are uncomfortably situated as tourist/viewer:
welcome to Chinatown ladies and gentlemen
the place where you tourists come to look
at the slanted eyes yellow skin scaling fish
roast duck in the windows like a public hanging …
oh look the cute Chinese children with they schoolbags
hurry grab your camera to take a picture
next to a pagoda telephone booth
to show your grandchildren what you know …
Chinatown has long been imagined and represented in mainstream American culture as a place of deviance and difference. An ethnic enclave of crime and vice. A tourist destination defined by Buddhas, dragons and dumplings. When Walsh in Roman Polanski’s film noir classic Chinatown says, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” he invokes Chinatown as a space of inexplicable bad luck. And as once described by San Francisco health officials at the turn of the century, Chinatown’s residents were “unscrupulous, lying and treacherous.” What Chung recalls, reconstructs in this poem, are the racial (and racist) discourses related to Chinatown vis-à-vis visual descriptors: “slanted eyes”; “yellow skin”; “scaling fish”; “roast duck”; and “pagoda telephone.” Each descriptor transforms into a synecdoche of Chinatown, becoming what Roland Barthes might describe as a symbolic objects in photographs. Their connotative meanings arise from the intersection of ideologies — in this case, a racialized ideology shaped by and shaping a systematic body of legislation, ideas and ideals pegging Chinatown as a place of exotic difference – and representation. What then is being captured in Chung’s opening invectives in Crazy Melon; what is captured in the snapshot frame?
In another introductory snapshot poem, the narrator gives a “scenic” description of a Saturday night in Chinatown:
The visitors do not hear
you when you say excuse me. They are
so busy taking in the wonders of Chinatown … They are
busily looking for Buddhas and gifts to take home …
There is a deficiency of Chinese couples …
The irony reeks.
In this poem, “you” has shifted from tourist-consumer to the insider. You become enfolded into the scene as a pedestrian-participant whose worldview coincides with a “‘cross on the diagonal,’ … the laws governing the flow of traffic, across streets, and across ghettoes and ethnic communities.” In this sense, the navigational routes and rules are different for you than for the tourist-consumer, as absence underlies the snapshot of neon lights: the streets noisily jammed with tourists eerily parallel the “deficiency of Chinese couples.” Here the narrator evokes questions related to this absence, which can largely be explained by the exclusionary legislative acts (1882, 1917, 1924, 1934) that banned Asian immigration during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Absence—and persistent loneliness—becomes palpable as much as “Buddha,” “pagoda,” or “dumplings.” In another snapshot poem, the narrator again raises absence hand-in-hand with loneliness as a causal effect shaped by exclusionary immigration laws, as older Chinese men are “seen in different parts of town / scanning windows. . .waiting for a bus / tonight. Womanless.”
If Crazy Melon explores visibility and subject making through descriptive snapshot poems that deftly reframes visibility, Chung’s second and later collection, Chinese Apple, collapses the viewpoint of tourist/reader to that of speaker/insider. Throughout this second collection, the denotative defines the literacy of the image: that is, dumplings are no more than dumplings; Buddhas are Buddhas. Walter Lew alludes to this change vis-à-vis changes in poetic form and narrative strategy: “‘Chinese Apple,’ unlike ‘Crazy Melon,’ contains no prose poems or vignettes, and it could be suggested that this is one perhaps negative consequence of the manuscript being prepared for a conventional poetry competition.” If it has been argued that Chinese Apple displays a greater lyrical finesse than Crazy Melon, the tensions so deftly built within the snapshot poems in the first collection are somehow too easily alleviated into pleasant lyrical depictions in Chinese Apple. There is the danger, then, that ethnocentric descriptors in the second collection reproduce the same ethnographic desires that construct the tourist’s desire to “know” Chinatown through the snapshot image.
For example, like the initial untitled poem/invective that “invites” tourists into Chinatown, Chinese Apple’s “In Search of Chinese Madness,” also acts as an “invitation” to readers. What we get as reader/viewer is more or less a bucolic description of a world defined by “rosewood cabinets sandalwood fans / salty balls sea horses / the ladies on the tea tins / carry baskets of snow pears / meet their lovers by the gate / hear the music of the abacus beads.” In the poem, Chinatown is “open tonight” for “curry tart / shrimp dumplings.” The destabilizing of cultural rhetoric and stereotypes that the early snapshot poems achieves are, disappointingly, romanticized vis-a-vis a lyrical finesse. As in the elegiac elegance of ekphrasis poetry, lines like “the old women in homespun tam o’shanters / move through Tai Chi Chuan / elegant and timeless” freeze actions into essentialized motions; there is nothing to be known or questioned outside of the picture frame.
By reading the two collections side by side, I was left to ruminate on their notable distinctions in poetic strategies, why the latter collection was more “well received” by poetry residencies, and the Romantics’ ideal that poetry was a literary form that could also define itself as a “criticism of life.” Although Chinese Apple might possess a lyrical expertise that has been said to be absent in Crazy Melon, I prefer the rich, abrupt ruptures of the snapshot “photographs” of Crazy Melon. As frames, these snapshot poems powerfully confront the complex contradiction and tensions centered on identity- making in a dynamic space such as Manhattan’s Chinatown. These initial poems are also moments of useful criticism, aimed at the social discourses that have simultaneously constructed Chinatown as “ghetto,” “ancient tenements” and “Chinese wonderland.” As visual descriptors, the snapshot instances in Crazy Melon are not so much voyeuristic as they are indictments.
A review of ‘The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography’
Maude Fife Room, UC–Berkeley, November 18, 2011. As eight of the ten “pianists” — Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Kit Robinson, and Barrett Watten — worked their way through a performance and Q&A session of The Grand Piano, a few things quickly became discernible. First, the sparkling erudition and offhand wit of the authors, all motivated by a sense of doing something interesting with the “autobiography” genre; second, the slightly tense collegiality on display among these extremely familiar friends. Any “rambunctious if fraught ethos of fellowship” that Pearson remembers as a feature of Language poetry in San Francisco during the late 1970s had clearly not subsided with the passing of time (GP5, 57).
Pearson and Harryman, with their usual eye and ear for formal detail, had prepared a five-section, fifty-minute score especially for the occasion. Featuring solo, dialogic, and ensemble passages, it attempted to balance the tension between individual and collective practice embedded within the project. Among its more interesting aspects was its incorporation of polyvocal simultaneity, a nod to the radically democratic collective improvisations instigated by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others, and the more recent “structured improvisations” favored by Bay Area ensembles such as the Rova Saxophone Quartet. Two of the pianists, Ron Silliman and Bob Perelman, were unable to participate — Silliman due to prior commitments, Perelman having withdrawn from the project after a reading at Poets House, New York, in April 2011. The “eleventh” pianist, Alan Bernheimer (who wrote a single essay, on Warren Sonbert’s cinema, for GP8, and often provided necessary data from his personal journals) sat quietly and attentively in the front row.
For those eight involved in the Berkeley performance, the whole Grand Piano project — totaling 101 printed essays (ten each, plus Bernheimer’s contribution), four historically valuable “chronologies” of relevant events and publications, an estimated 20,000 emails (in which, as Benson notes in GPX, “[we] prompted, corrected, advised, and debated on the basis of our drafts, as well as exchanged news, references, worries, inquiries, and woes”), and five public performances — had clearly been exhausting (149). And yes, occasionally fractious. Yet for readers even moderately familiar with Language poetry, such disagreements were nothing new. As Pearson notes in GP1, these had always been friendships that were “forged in a smithy of collectively recognized desires, often contending and contentious desires, by no means uniformly shared or realized” (68). A tension between individual and group identity, between centripetal consensus and centrifugal dissensus, has been a feature of Language writing almost from the outset, most notably in ambivalence towards what their “group,” “tendency,” “movement,” or even “school” should be called. Initially, as noted by Robinson in GP8, the term “language writers” (or later “language poets”) was used to identify an otherwise undefined group of young writer/scholars that shared “serious affinities” (Silliman’s phrase) in their artistic aims. As a cohort, they are white, left-leaning, university-educated, of varying class backgrounds, and born mostly after 1945; more pertinently, they shared an opposition to the militarism, social inequalities, and institutionalized hypocrisies of the Vietnam era and its aftermath, and a deep concern about the ideological character of ordinary and literary language.
Language writing began to take shape in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the influence of New American Poetics began to wane. Those who were previously considered vanguard poets, including Robert Creeley, Kenneth Rexroth, Ted Berrigan, and Robert Duncan, were still writing poetry but were no longer spearheading the avant-garde as they had done for much of the 1950s and ’60s. In San Francisco Duncan reigned supreme as patriarch (or “grand poo-bah,” as Silliman calls him in GP9) of what was a diverse poetry scene (80). For the Language writers, his was an intimidating presence; in GP3 Harryman tells a story of encountering the stern-faced, cape-wearing poet in a Noe Valley street on October 3, 1978, his fluttering black cape casting a metaphorical shadow over their emergent literary project. Duncan, for all his brilliance, was rather territorial and tended to encourage only the obsequious, as Mandel’s essay in GP4 invites us to consider. For Language writing to make headway, it would have to contravene Duncan’s mostly antithetical mythopoesis. Less imperious, but equally untenable, were the university-based Writing Programs. With their almost narcissistic focus on the poetry of the “lyric I” and platitudinous insistence on “finding your voice,” they had become a creative cul-de-sac for experimentally-minded poets. Armantrout, in GP6, remembers attending several workshops at San Francisco State University taught by Stan Rice and Mark Linenthal. “I heard a lot of student poems celebrating menstruation and chiding boyfriends,” she writes. “I have always had a contrarian streak and this consensus seemed, well, limiting” (128).
Suffusing this poetic contrariety was a commitment to movements that challenged mainstream politics. In GP8, Robinson lists the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, feminist separatism, gay liberation, and rural communalism as having variously “informed” his youth (105). He does so having already commented in GP3 on his experiences as an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1960s and later immersion in the poetry-loving “community of friends” that took shape “quite suddenly” in San Francisco during the mid-seventies (115). In a fascinating essay entitled “October Song” (borrowing the title of a composition by The Incredible String Band that speaks of rebels who like to “break laws”), Robinson provides a series of fleeting reminiscences of rule-breaking (metonymic preludes to his later linguistic “rule-breaking”) as a young adult: his being caught at 3:00 a.m. with a girl in his room while a freshman; his suspension for occupying the office of the head of dining halls alongside fellow campus Leftists while a sophomore; and his participation in protests in support of Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins, and nine New Haven area Black Panthers arrested for the murder of suspected FBI informant Alex Rackley while in his junior year. An argument is then briefly made that the “formalism” of Language writing, far from abstract, emerged exactly out of this engagement with what he calls “history as experience” (115).
Watten and Harryman, too, consider these links between sociopolitical and literary rebellion. Watten, in GP1, points out that he was among those in the crowd of supporters that witnessed Black Panther Party members “raising their fists next to the art deco monument” (15) that was the Alameda County Courthouse. (He refrains from mentioning — though he was provoked to do so in a 2006 web post after some miscued comments by Juliana Spahr — that he was a participant in a number of political acts connected with the politics of Black and Third World liberation as a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, and had been teargassed at these protests.) Harryman, in the same volume, identifies relations between Language writers’ political activism with their need to come up with radically new styles of writing. “People go to war and die for love in books and lore,” she begins, her bouncing internal rhyme striking a grimly ironic note with her following revelation that her own cousin was one of those “picked off by the draft and sent overseas to kill” (28–29). After analyzing Robert Creeley’s “The Door” — a poem she says is “hardwired” in her after hearing an audio recording of it replayed several times a week while working at the American Poetry Archive, 1978–81 — she concludes that the “threadbare language of war” propagated by the state during the Vietnam years left little alternative but to propose “something less familial in its ideology, forms, and structures” (GP1, 37).
Today, the Arab Spring and Occupy protests, coming after years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, have given renewed impetus to activist writing. As Watten observed in a 2012 essay, Theodor Adorno’s work, not coincidentally, has been “enthusiastically revived” among cultural elites, the need to unmask “false positives in the public sphere” having become as urgent as ever. For the pianists — as noted by Harryman at the GP performance in San Francisco, two days after the Berkeley performance — historical parallels with their own formative period are welcome. Back in 1995, in a lecture entitled “Barbarism,” delivered in Perth, Western Australia, Hejinian, reflecting on the origins of the avant-garde movement to which she is integral, observed that the coming together of the Language poets had occurred within a climate of almost unprecedented political urgency in the United States. Outrage at what was perceived to be the “fraud endemic to the political culture of the times” motivated an intense and systematically collaborative energy. In the absence of weapons, poetry became a site — a figurative battlefield, even — for political and philosophical contestation; as a medium, it offered what was seen as the best available venue for investigating “overt and covert, buried and transcendent, material and metaphysical logics which are language and which so powerfully influence human thought and experience.”
Being oppositional, however, naturally ran the risk of provoking the opposition, and Language writing has certainly attracted its fair share of criticism over the years. As The Grand Piano reveals, those responsible for its emergence, with their measured adherence to Frankfurt School negativity, are only too aware that much of the energy behind their poetic “movement” or “moment” has always come from its being not something else: what we might call, borrowing Silliman’s opening to Tjanting (2002), its strategy of “Not this.” Furthermore, as Eleana Kim noted in her provocative 1994 study, the Language project, lest it lose impetus, “could only maintain difference through the negation of actual competitors or regulators controlling the field.” An obvious response would be to state that this strategy has nevertheless proved extraordinarily generative since the early 1970s. A stunning amount of good writing by these writers has been — and continues to be — produced, exploring, in different ways, what Hannah Arendt calls “the mighty power of the negative without which no movement and no development would ever come to pass.”
Moreover, negativity does not suggest homogeneity; far from it. Despite their enthusiasm for collective practice — with text-based collaborative improvisations at the San Francisco Poets Theater in the early 1980s (by Benson, Bernheimer, Harryman, Mandel, Perelman, and Robinson, along with Eileen Corder and Nick Robinson) and multi-authored works such as Leningrad (1992) and The Wide Road (2010) intended to “break down the boundaries of the autonomous author” — Language poets have mostly shied away from collective self-designation. While this insistence upon individual difference within a loosely formed collective whole has been present in critical discourse by Language poets from early in their movement, it appeared most starkly in a 1989 interview given by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, some eleven years after establishing their seminal journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Adopting what Watten observes to be an anti-foundationalist or even antinomian position, the two former coeditors argue that “no single origin or destination of dominant ideology marks this diverse body of radical, or radial eccentricities” and claim that its “very heterogeneity, its swirl of concerns … give it some insurance against a reductionist reception.” Reconsidering these comments in 1999, Watten noted wryly, “At the very least, a politics of naming and being named has been central to the specific history of the movement.”
Why, then, would the pianists embark upon a “collective autobiography,” when attempts to categorize their movement have a history of being frowned upon or avoided altogether? Here it is worth considering more closely the subtitle, “An Experiment in Collective Autobiography.” Experiment, according to the OED, is a word of Latin origin, combining experīmentum (of action) with experīrī (to try). In English it began appearing in scientific texts during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to suggest a test, trial, method, or tentative procedure applied for any uncertain or unforseen outcome. (Indeed Silliman, in GP5, professes to having been uncomfortable with his coauthors’ eagerness to use the word in their subtitle, having argued that their literary work cannot be characterized as experimental “in the true (and scientific) sense of that word.”) Collective, meanwhile, is also of Latin origin and denotes an aggregate of individuals or things gathered into one or taken as a whole [my emphasis], while autobiography is of Greek origin and means “an account of a person’s life given by him or herself.” While collective includes the possibility of diverse expression, “autobiography” limits this, streamlining it into singular expression. However, as Mandel pointed out during the Q&A session at Berkeley, collective can also function as a noun, and in ways that influence our appreciation of the word: we think of collective notes in diplomacy, collective bargaining in industrial relations, collective unconscious in C. G. Jung’s psychological theory, collective farms as Stalinist policy, collective improvisation in jazz, and collective nouns in grammar. The Grand Piano, announced as “collective autobiography,” rushes headlong into this fraught field of reference, its authors (almost Cecil Taylor-like at a Steinway) grappling with these connotative associations at every turn.
And yet, despite the risks for those concerned about the title’s potentially homogenizing impulse, The Grand Piano proves worthy of the considerable effort that went into its composition. Fascinating new details about the work of these writers (the origins of the “New Sentence,” for instance) are either provided for the first time or, where necessary, corrected, while significant impetus is given to the group’s long-stated attempts to “rethink the formalism of early Language writing as relational and social.” The series (in ten volumes) also provides appreciably intimate access to these minds as they struggle with the challenges of remaining productive in the face of an often implacably hostile literary establishment. Hejinian, we learn, has long been alarmed, if not appalled, by the degree of venom directed towards her colleagues, given that their motivations were, from the outset, “utopian” and sought no such personal hostility. “We were undertaking it for love,” she says in her first essay for The Grand Piano, responding to some early Language-baiting, such as appeared in Poetry Flash 74 in May 1979 (57). At that point it was Alan Soldofsky — a poet whom Watten knew from Iowa, and someone lionized by the Workshop very early in his adult life — who portrayed the original project, in a foreshadowing of later critiques, as what Hejinian calls “dictatorial, intransigent, cold, contentious and cliquish” (56).
Hejinian wrote these words in 2005–06, but she wasn’t just thinking of Soldofsky. Since the late 1970s there has been a long line of establishment invective directed at Language writing that has managed, with hammer-like iteration, to shatter the somewhat naively idyllic conditions within which its early innovators (the “first-generation Language poets,” as opposed to the “second generation” that followed) established the main precepts of their movement. Among the most egregious was a San Francisco Chronicle article, dated January 13, 1985, by Tom Clark, a poet loosely affiliated with the New York School. In a review of Total Syntax (1984) titled “Keeping up with the Avant-Garde,” Clark ridiculed Watten’s grammatical innovations as a “gimmick” and said of its author’s understanding of linguistics (the consequence of two years’ coursework at UC–Berkeley, the first year unenrolled, studying the classics of structuralist, generative, and emergent cognitive linguistics, and hundreds of hours of conversations with George Lakoff): “This is the kind of mumbo-jumbo you’d hear from a guy who stumbled into a linguistics lecture one day, and walked out an expert the next.”
Watten holds off from commenting on Clark until GP9. But his comment — when it arrives, suitably “belatedly,” to use a word riffed upon in The Grand Piano — has clearly been thought through. In a footnote that forms one of the more interesting moments in the essay, he acknowledges Lakoff’s attempts, in Poetry Flash, to leap to his defense via a review of Perelman’s Writing/Talks, before noting that censorship back then under the guise of Language-bashing had acquired a “McCarthyite dynamic” (GP9, 171). As an indication of how heated the debate in fact became over the coming months in the hotly contested aftermath of this “unnameable paradigm shift of the moment” (GP4, 79), Bay Area poetry journals and even the mainstream (if right-leaning) Partisan Review and The New Criterion began filling up with impassioned arguments either for or against the merits of Language writing as it began to gain wider public recognition.
The act of collaboratively composing the project as a form of “collective self-inquiry” becomes cathartic within this context, and might be read as such (GPX, 205). Yet the still lingering scars on display in The Grand Piano from this period serve as a reminder, if one is necessary, of just how vehemently the future of poetry was fought over in those early years of the Reagan administration. Other pianists ponder whether Watten’s experience has been symptomatic of a much deeper cultural malaise. Hejinian, for instance, proposes that the negative responses of the kind he has routinely endured manifested “a particular strain of American xenophobia that regards intellectual work as alien, unfeeling, hostile, and ultimately un-American” (GP9, 19–20). For Watten, we learn in the same volume, his “unregenerate Leftism” in the aftermath of the Poetry Flash debate had real-life consequences: his reception as a poet, after the initial promise of Total Syntax, was “heading nowhere” (172). Moreover his writing, which has an Anthony Braxton-like intensity and verve, still manages to polarize readers. The Grand Piano remains subject to online feedback aimed vaguely (or not so vaguely) in his direction, while his poetry, such as Progress and Plasma/Paralleles/“X,” has been under-analyzed and under-anthologized. Even in his present position as a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Watten finds himself on the margins. For the past eighteen years, during which he has proven himself, in Silliman’s words, “the James Brown of poetry — the hardest working man in the room,” Watten claims to have experienced a “condition close to social death” (GPX, 212) for holding principles at odds with the cultural climate in his department and the entrenched poetics of Detroit’s literary scene. In the fourth section of a densely intertextual essay entitled “Mode X” (alluding to his own “Mode Z,” a collage of quotations based on André Breton’s writings) he recounts the slightly tense atmosphere upon arrival in Detroit in 1994:
I was certainly taken to be an outsider in terms of what counted as the poetry scene at the time: a long-term standoff between poets committed to aesthetic form and the visual arts, generally identified with the New York School (“elitists”) and poets representing identity politics and slam performance poetry (“populists”). Neither would budge their positions an inch, and they continue to define each other negatively to this day … It was as if an alien spaceship had landed in Detroit, a mysterious robot had stepped out, and the citizens were helpless to respond; “Klaatu barada nikto” is all they could say. All sides dug in and any effort at interpretability failed. It may be this paragraph will be the last straw, and more generally that writing and publishing The Grand Piano in Detroit will only finalize the process. (213–14)
Language poets, seemingly guarding against the threat of “social death” to which Watten refers, have always been adept at networking, marketing, and self-promotion, as Kate Lilley observes. And certainly Watten — founder of the Grand Piano reading series in 1976, publisher of This (alongside Robert Grenier for the first three issues, before taking over himself), designer and publisher of The Grand Piano, prolific poet, renowned educator, and author of numerous essays and blog entries — has been an exemplar in this regard. Yet when any of these poets’ oppositional position has lacked support or become professionally untenable, their fallback position has always been their community of practice. Although, as Pearson notes in GP1, this community of practice (to their ongoing frustration) remains “wilfully misrecognized in some quarters,” it continues as a reliable source of intellectual stimulation (68). At Wayne State University, Watten’s attempts at establishing any longed-for community (bridging the methodological divide among academics) have been thwarted by deep-rooted ideological differences. In GPX, he laments that while trying to reinvent community he might have lost “any chance” of one in the city in which he now lives (214).
The act of writing this paragraph, then, becomes one of renewed identification not only with Watten’s far-flung pianist friends, “whose opposition to the dominant order combined the personal and political,” but with a better informed, and hopefully more simpatico, readership (GP5, 45). Composing The Grand Piano thus serves at least three purposes for Watten: first, to record what occurred “before it dissolves, ‘like tears in rain’” (referencing Roy Batty’s sadness about the beauty of unshared experiences in Blade Runner, as well as spoofing his own well-known anti-lyricism); second, to provide what Benson calls an “alternative record” (GPX, 144) of the West Coast Language School before it is overwhelmed with competing, less historically specific accounts that distort its legacy; third, to construct a bulwark against resurgent attempts to render marginal/irrelevant/silent the group’s attempts to radically deconstruct and reinvent poetic syntax.
But there might be a fourth reason as well: providing much-needed clarity about what binds them together other than that suggested by Bernstein and Andrews’s rather vague “swirl of concerns.” The phrase community of practice, according to those who coined the concept, cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, refers to a process of social education involving people who share a concern, passion, or competence in a particular activity (a “shared domain”). Application of that specialist activity, moreover, is developed through regular interaction and the sharing of ideas and information, either in person or through an online forum such as the listserv. In the late 1970s, the pianists were gathering in many places and for many purposes: at the Talks at Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s loft, at the Grand Piano readings, and the after-parties at the Persian Aub Zam Zam Room a few doors away, and (from 1979) at the San Francisco Poets Theater. They were liaising over publication of their work in Perelman’s Hills (issues 4–9), Mandel’s MIAM, Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Watten’s This and This Press, and Silliman’s Tottel’s. At that time, personal contact was intense and regular. But did this interaction amount to a coterie — that is, a small and often quite exclusive group of people with shared interests and tastes? Harryman, having been invited to comment on “coterie” in relation to The Grand Piano at the Modernist Studies Association conference in October 2007, resisted the term; she maintained that, while potentially “useful” in other instances, its pejorative associations (particularly its suggestion of exclusivity) fatally undermine its critical value here (115).
In GP6, Harryman, seeking to avoid this unwanted association with elitism, instead proposes community to describe their longstanding group relations. Yet community might also be considered too vague and open-ended to accurately describe what took place (and, indeed, continues to take place) among these writers. After all, not everything that might be called a “community” — a neighborhood, for instance, where membership is based on shared habitat rather than shared expertise in a particular field — can be called a “community of practice.” Nor does club accurately account for their process of collective learning. A club, according to the OED, first appeared in seventeenth-century English literature to variously signify a meeting or assembly at a tavern (for example) for social intercourse, or, appropriately enough for poets, to jointly defray expenses; an association of persons of like sympathies, of common vocation, meeting periodically; a private association with a political object; a knot of men associated together; and, lastly, a secret society. For the pianists, three of whom are women, any such associations with secret, private, homosocial interaction became even less appealing than the unpalatable links with distinction-based exclusivity implied by coterie.
Yet Pearson, in GP5, does consider ways in which the Language nexus might have been seen to have “elements” of closed-shop “clubbiness” (62). With meritorious frankness, he admits to the “notable underrepresentation of innovative writers of color” at the Grand Piano readings, which he attributes to “insufficient contact with edgier writers in the Black Arts, Chicano/a, and Asian-American scenes” as well as “divergent assumptions about community that were in play.” What these “divergent assumptions” might have been is not elaborated upon: Pearson doesn’t want to speak on behalf of others, and studiously avoids using the phrase “identity politics” per se. But Pearson does remind us of the project’s democratic ethos, that the readings and talks “were open to all, and ability to pay was not an issue” (58). Instead, proficiency in what Cecil Taylor calls “the participation in and the doing of the thing” — that is, a shared interest in interrogating, if not rejecting, “the continued efficacy of speech-based writing, the paradigm of linguistic transparency, and expressive, much less utilitarian, notions of art” — is deemed a key membership discriminator (59). In addition, Pearson claims that cultivation of more intimate friendships of the kind required for admission into their “community of practice,” however desirable, was more time and energy intensive than that permitted by circumstance. A community of practice — rather than merely a community of interest (in movies, or romantic novels, for instance) — requires development of a shared repertoire of resources in a way that takes sustained interaction. Occasional meetings at bars and cafes were simply not sufficient for this level of deep engagement to occur. While “such opportunities did arrive later,” Pearson points out that “one could hardly enter retroactively the history others had already shared” (GP5, 63).
Nevertheless, for the most part The Grand Piano expands outward rather than closing ranks. A number of writers beyond what Wenger would term the “core” group of the community (that is, the ten pianists plus Bernheimer stipulated by the series’ formal matrix) enter discussion, and the project benefits from this centrifugal gesture. Erica Hunt, for instance, is mentioned very warmly in GP6, with Harryman relaying a recent conversation in which the New York-based African American experimentalist professed to having been a voracious reader of innovative writing coming out of San Francisco during her time there between 1975 and 1984. Michael Davidson, one of the four coauthors of Leningrad, is another that appears quite frequently, as someone within what Wenger might call the “active” (if not “core”) group of Language writing, as does David Bromige, to whom the series’ penultimate volume is dedicated. Bromige’s work, indeed, inspires one of the finest essays of the series, Perelman’s “Picture Imperfect” (GP9), which considers his poem “My Poetry” (The Figures Press, 1980) and the cover art to the volume of the same name, designed by Francie Shaw.
There are also numerous others from beyond the “core” Language circle mentioned, if only fleetingly or anecdotally: among them Hannah Arendt (who became like a “second mother” to Mandel during his time at the University of Chicago and who, we learn in GPX, was capable of a terrific one-liner); Michael McClure (who once invited Silliman to a Sunday morning gagaku session at his Haight Street house, gave guests kazoos, kotos, and various other unfamiliar instruments to play on, and supplied his Navajo rug on the floor as a score); David Highsmith (who agreed to sell Pearson’s The Grit at his bookstore, Third Floor Books, and by inviting him to read at the bookstore helped to kick-start Pearson’s career); Jill Scott (who co-curated a series of six literary events with Silliman in August–September 1979 and whose conceptual art showed him “new ways to look at, and think about, performance generally”); Ted Berrigan (whose presence and masterful irony as a radio broadcaster, having been invited by Hejinian and Robinson to speak on their KPFA program “In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets” in 1978, made them both feel like “amateurs” in comparison); Beverly Dahlen (“a cherished interlocutor and a model of intellectual probity” for Pearson after his arriving in San Francisco in the late 1960s); Warren Sonbert (whose cinema, as Bernheimer observes, deeply influenced Harryman’s first two books, Percentage and Under the Bridge); and Leslie Scalapino (whom Perelman recalls having “argued against a fixed, corrected literary history” at a recent New York conference, “conveying the sense that she had felt pinched by critiques of her work as overly orientated around the self or sex”). Their dimensional presences enrich the series and do much to guard against complaints that the ten volumes offer little more than self-absorbed reflections by their authors.
Of course all autobiographies, by their very definition, can to some extent be accused of “self-absorption,” but what is important is that the pianists are trying, and I think succeeding, in showing in as many ways as possible how they were and are social (rather than atomized) beings. Quite early in the series Perelman notes that “poetic knowledge is nothing if not a group phenomenon” before adding (quite presciently given the tensions that emerge in later volumes) that this observation “doesn’t make it any the less problematic” (GP3, 77). One of the major reasons that many of the pianists committed to the project was a conviction that other avant-gardes, such as the New York School, objectivism, or surrealism, had had their histories distorted by critics under-describing relations between friends; as Watten writes, “either they are generalized as a politics of tendency, with its exclusions on principle (surrealism), or reduced to merely personal rivalry (such as undoubtedly took place between first or second generation New York School poets).” The Grand Piano can be read as preemptive rebuttal to this potential misrepresentation by privileging collaborative learning as a key aspect of what it means to be part of a community of practice. Within this context, the origins of their community as a formal coalescence of “shared affinities” rather than a loosely convergent “swirl of concerns” becomes a topic of interest, and here Mandel emerges as crucial to the history of Language poetry through his work in the late 1970s as director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University.
Mandel, we learn in GP4, hadn’t expected to get the job: the panel that appointed him, which included Stan Rice, had “liked my letters of recommendation — one was from Saul Bellow,” but hadn’t thought much of his experimentalist poetry. They evidently hadn’t listened closely enough either to what he was proposing during his tenure: a scheduling of equal numbers of men and women to read in his first year; greater utilization of the Center’s archive of videotaped poetry readings; and a more radical program of readers, including invites to Louis Zukofsky and Samuel Beckett, poets from the then-active Chicano scene in the Mission, and “some of my friends from the emerging Language scene” (53). Barely eighteen months later, Mandel was fired from the job (Duncan had played a role in his removal) after the fallout from arguably the defining moment in the history of the Bay Area poetry wars: the Watten/Duncan “debacle” that took place on December 8, 1978. In The Grand Piano, Watten, interested in Mandel’s perspective as director of the event and anxious about “not wanting to play some sort of victim card,” hands over responsibility for describing what took place to Mandel — someone who, even as a young man, was renowned for his learning (he brought Walter Benjamin’s work into the Language circle) and ironic outlook towards academic intellectualism. While this strategy might surprise on first reading, it makes sense given Watten has already provided a thorough account of this evening in a 2004 website post. For scholars of American poetics, Mandel’s memoir in GP4 is useful and long awaited; Mark Scroggins, for instance, has expressed his frustration at not having access to it when writing his “Afterword” section to The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (2007).
From his now more mature lens, Mandel cringes at his naivety in asking for Watten to follow Duncan on the same bill that night, even for such a seemingly benign event as a memorial for a poet that both communities ostensibly revered. For readers of Mandel’s superb essay in GP4, it is hard not to feel sympathy for what he went through. Duncan’s author-centered, expressivist reading of Zukofsky had proved diametrically opposed to Watten’s text-centered, constructivist one, and Mandel confesses that he has long lamented his inability to recognize the volatility of the occasion. Most regrettable was his own failure to step in and “take hold of the proceedings” when Duncan, the first presenter, tried to retake the podium during Watten’s lecture, apoplectic with rage at the young innovator’s attempt to “materialize Zukofsky, both textually and politically.” The “different person I am now,” Mandel suggested to his fellow pianists in an April 12, 2003 email (published word-for-word in GP4), “would know how to take the reins” (59–61).
At this moment, The Grand Piano, with its unique style of shifting, polyvocal authorship, comes into its own — although it takes a while for some of the more instructive points of dissensus among the pianists to be made. Perelman, after reading Mandel’s self-admonishment, admits his own shame in GP5 at what occurred that night: namely, Duncan’s summoning of his considerable powers, after Watten had left the podium, to almost maniacally humiliate the younger man with an improvised analysis of Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. Mandel remembers Duncan as having been “frightening” that evening, striding back and forth, imposing his own “Christian and spiritualist” bearing on a Jewish materialist poet (GP4, 60). For Perelman, not having said anything (“Why not, “Hey! Let Barry finish!” or some other basic intervention”) was painful to recall. Describing Duncan’s behavior as “a serious spasm of malevolent violence,” though shying away from scrutinizing exactly what words Duncan said to the audience that night, he too uses The Grand Piano to confess the sins of his youth:
It was very quick, I can tell myself, shockingly odd behavior, it wasn’t my turf, suddenly instead of our readings or the Talks, it was a Poetry Center event, at the San Francisco Art Institute … Nonetheless my silence is not a happy memory. (GP5, 96)
Scroggins, in his Zukofsky biography, reports that Duncan’s off-the-cuff “spasm” included the following statement: “I in no way believe … that there is such a thing as ‘just language,’ any more than there is ‘just footprints.’ I mean, it is human life that prints itself everywhere in it and that’s what we read when we’re really reading.” If this comment is accurately transcribed — and Scroggins relies upon David Levi-Strauss’s June 1984 Poetry Flash article “On Duncan and Zukofsky on Film, Traces Now and Then” as his source — The Grand Piano might presumably have been an apt venue for a return comment. Watten, on the other hand, described Duncan’s response, in his 2004 website post, as “a performance that, due to already overloaded synapses, started to fritz and spark without focus,” and within this context, Perelman’s unwillingness to critically discuss Duncan’s words can be taken as a signal of his own deeply held allegiance to his colleague. Yet, as is typical of The Grand Piano, where the contributors pursue an anti-monolithic strategy, Perelman’s later comments about Watten reveal a more keenly nuanced position than critics might expect.
Perelman claims to find Watten’s later summation, in “Tests of Zukofsky,” of what was at stake that evening — Duncan’s Emersonian sense of the poet as the only ground of poetry versus his own sense of writing as an ongoing materialist practice in history — “quite accurate.” In addition, he claims to support Watten’s rather controversial take on the “sexual undercurrents of the situation, which included, among other things, Duncan’s refusal to allow Zukofsky access to the overtly bisexual Catullus” (96). Elsewhere, however, Perelman disagrees with aspects of Watten’s reading of Catullus, particularly his view of the text as a critique of the “author function.” (Perelman, who retreats from Watten’s enthusiasm for Catullus, instead interprets the text as an “extravaganza of the ‘author function,’” with Zukofsky proving to Pound “that he, not Cummings, is the real Catullus of the age.”) Most importantly, Perelman comes to take umbrage with some of the language that Watten employs in The Grand Piano, which he believes, especially given the Language nexus has long been criticized as a “closed shop,” does them all a disservice:
I saw on a recent flyer the phrase “the Language School” and I disagree with it. Barry and I had a small unproductive exchange about it: for him, it’s a normative critical term; for me, more impressionistically, I dislike the tone (I hate it, I suppose). We precisely weren’t in school in the Bay Area then, nor were we in a school. Any labeled School participates, to varying degrees, in the translatio studii paradigm: there’s always a featured moving edge of learning and illumination. (GP5, 97–98)
Perelman has long expressed anxiety about attempts to brand name the Language project. In The Marginalization of Poetry (1996) he proffers a history that disavows “any self-consciously organized group known as the language writers,” and insists that the Language nexus formed amorphously, ad hoc and with little sense of overarching singularity of approach. The act of naming their collective autobiography after the legendary coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street that housed their readings and performances in the late 1970s would presumably have helped alleviate Perelman’s concerns about versions of their history — in their own hands — veering towards a “reductive” reading of a kind that so worried Bernstein and Andrews. After all, while The Grand Piano, as a phrase, signifies a singular — a bourgeois musical instrument invented in Europe around 1700 — it also carries, in the instrument’s usages as an accompanying and ensemble instrument, a suggestion of (figurative) multiplicity, a plurality of voices within a plurality of contexts. As Pearson reminds us in GP1, the first of his carefully crafted “Etudes”:
Consider the elaboration of hardwood, metal, ivory, and felt into a coherent community of parts: the rim and braces and pinblock and soundboard; the keys and pedals and hammer and strings; and of course the hardware and glue. Consider the vast (but thankfully not infinite) number of possible tones and overtones and “prepared sounds” it produces, and the resultant combination of rhythm and melodies, harmonies and dissonances, which latter are but harmonies in search of fresher ears. Consider, too, the fingers of the hand, of the many hands, that have played, or might play, or will have played its keys. And perhaps strangely, as some might think, but essential to this etude, consider the defining if unremarked gaps between the keys — the negative spaces that disarticulate the abstraction of the keyboard and so make possible the concrete articulation of each and every key. (64–65)
The Grand Piano, as a title, thus suggests a far more “big-tent” approach than an alternative, less open-ended name for their project might have achieved. Further affirming the appropriateness of the title is the fact that The Grand Piano as a venue was hardly an exclusive bastion of youthful, radically formalist innovation along the lines valorized in these ten books. As Pearson points out in GP5, between August 1976 and November 1979, over 320 writers, from a range of generations, performed there. And, although those readings were organized exclusively by Language writers, “fully 80 per cent” were not specifically associated with Language poetry (58). Moreover a number of readings — as the chronology in the back pages of GP1 indicate — were in fact done by poets normally considered to be on the opposite side in the Bay Area poetry wars: among them Duncan McNaughton on May 9, 1978, Robert Duncan on October 3, 1978, and Pat Nolan on April 28, 1979.
For Perelman, however, Watten’s word school suggests a narrowness of approach far removed from Pearson’s “motley chorus of desires” (GP1, 65) or Hejinian’s “collectively instigated production of differences” (GP9, 19) that he remembers as having flourished during this period. Of course, signing up for a collective autobiography ensures that the statements of others can be tacitly assumed to stand for one’s own view, unless otherwise countered: a peculiarity of the mode that prompts Watten to wonder whether it is even possible to use the pronoun “we” when writing of a common project (GP5, 37). In employing the name Language School, Watten, defending his position, claims to have been “interested in the way it maps a specific affiliation or group — such as this writing takes as its premise — onto a placeless place that has nowhere but ‘language’ as its site” (GP5, 36). As if addressing Perelman, or those similarly apprehensive about the branding/commodification of Language writing, he maintains that “self-identified communities do occur — like it or not — between the affective dynamics of social interest and the abstract space of public events” (37). Yet for Perelman, school claims too much and, in the haste to claim lasting literary value — poetry schools are presumably much harder to ignore than more loosely organized groups — might even have a whiff of the ego-driven historical revisionism that Norman Finkelstein saw as a risk of the whole “collective autobiography” project.
Perelman titles his essay “Odi et amo” (“I hate and love,” from Catullus), and his bristling response to Watten expresses dystopian departure from Hejinian’s claim, in GP1, that Language writing was undertaken “for love” (57). At Berkeley, Watten, as if eager to peel back any veil of secrecy that might have been emerging in relation to supposed internal disagreements, was only too happy to acknowledge that “within the pages” of The Grand Piano “real tensions” can be found. And certainly any rifts that have emerged during the composition of The Grand Piano, particularly between these two important figures of contemporary American poetics that Watten recalls as having been “competitive” since their first meeting at the University of Iowa in 1971 — will be pored over by future scholars (GP1, 16). In an attempt to encourage this kind of labor (and add kindling to the Grand Piano debate), Watten has since commented on the matter in a conference paper presented at Louisville on February 23, 2012. In a piece drawing upon material given as a series of lectures in Europe as The Grand Piano neared completion — and submitted to the listserv for approval by his Grand Piano coauthors — Watten reflects on a “substantial change in the group’s self-understanding, something like a crisis of community and even belief in the project, which has yet to be resolved” that has taken place following publication of the series’ final volume in October 2010.
Watten’s paper is an extraordinary (and, from the perspective of group relations, quite unnerving) document, in which the author explains the reasons for the intensely debated “faultlines” that have recently emerged among the pianists and threatened to lead to a partial dismantling of their community of practice. He begins by observing that the “Language School” spat is not the only instance of dissensus in GP5: Harryman, who was not a participant in the fraternal Brat Guts sessions in 1976 (even though she was living in the same apartment as Benson at the time) distances herself from Silliman’s valorization of the group, thereby opening up a terse gender politics that continues subtly throughout the rest of the series. After explaining his own use of the phrase “destructive envy” in GP5 (as a “hallmark of literary negativity”), Watten then considers Perelman’s dissensus from his own positions on Catullus and the phrase “Language School.” He notes that Perelman “is exactly right to want for disagreement and difference something more than any copacetic voicing of objections that would encourage the illusion of democracy,” before adding that these kinds of uneasy disagreements might “be the straw to break the camel’s back of imagined community.”
What we can reliably conclude in relation to these comments is how different the creative and critical methodologies of Perelman and Watten in fact are. “Language School,” as a phrase, had been in use in print by Watten as far back as 1999: he justified it then (within the context of other avant-garde labels such as “New York School”) as a means of accounting for their “collectively held set of beliefs” and conferring “historical recognition on the forms that were developed and used by writers in that group.” This is Watten-as-literary historian on behalf of the Language group, seeking to identify points of connection for the purpose of safeguarding their literary achievements. Perelman, though, appears to worry that such taxonomical language, however well intentioned, sidelines (or even worse, reifies) presence and immediacy, as well as contingency of community. While it is difficult to see, in this particular instance, how a terminological dispute could suffice in itself to provoke Perelman’s exit from the project, his intense if delayed critique of the term does suggest that he, to a far greater extent than Watten, is a writer who prefers to speak his contradictions than to theorize them. On “sensitive” matters such as these, and I invoke Benson’s words from GP9 to make this point, “It is tempting to say too little, to write too much, to change the subject” (126). Watten, in his conference paper, insists that the fifth volume — despite, or more likely because of, its disagreements — could be presented to an “extraterrestrial” as the most representative example of the “concerns and methods” on display in The Grand Piano. While its high-stakes argumentative cut-and-thrust is riveting for readers, and leaves one wondering exactly what was privately communicated in emails and on the listserv, any “victory,” given its cost might have been friendship, surely seems to some extent to have been pyrrhic. For those anxious to see the Grand Piano “experiment” succeed in strengthening these creative friendships — and providing another reminder of the utopian or quasi-utopian origins of the movement to which Hejinian refers in GP1 — the current scenario is far from ideal.
When pressed about any prickliness among the pianists in the Q&A session at Berkeley, Watten suggested that the “real story” behind the making of The Grand Piano is yet to emerge; “you’ll just have to dig awhile.” Watten’s laughter after delivering this comment at least betrayed a satisfaction that he and his colleagues had succeeded in one major task when composing The Grand Piano: perplexing those who prefer to straitjacket them into comfortable categories. As Barry Schwabsky has noted, the ten volumes can hardly be called an attempt to “control the discourse” around Language poetry when the ten poets “don’t even control one another’s discourse, let alone anyone else’s.” Yet, beyond any disagreements, however useful in terms of fending off reactionary critiques that fail to acknowledge difference within the Language nexus, it should not be forgotten that The Grand Piano offers contributions to a range of subjects, well beyond the potentially quite narrow scope suggested by the time (1975–80) and place (San Francisco) in the title.
Structurally, The Grand Piano could be accused of losing thematic focus as it progresses. Yet such a critique upholds close adherence to theme-based narrative as an aesthetic virtue — a “reasonable” but nevertheless conventional reading that the authors characteristically come to eschew. Benson is candid about this potential “failing” in GPX, acknowledging that the plan of giving each volume a theme (“Love” in part 1, “The City” in part 2, and so on) fell away in the later volumes as efforts to adhere to topics “generated as much difference, indifference, and deferment as direction and identification, and no evidence of mutual focus” (GPX, 142). Close attention to the trajectory of the project instead suggests that the carefully designed GP matrix (printed for readers in each volume) emerged as far more contributive, a priori, to its final outcome than any sequence of themes, whether express or implied. A more sympathetic reading would argue that authorial adherence to the matrix, while problematic in terms of achieving an overarching linear narrative, at least enabled multiple sites of coherence to be generated in non-Euclidian space in a manner recognizably analogous to sites of motivic coherence (and non-coherence) in structured improvisations.
Moreover, a great number of essays stand out regardless — and demand to be read. Benson proves a fine and engagingly human contributor, and, rather like Robinson — although it seems unfair to describe them as such, because their work, in different ways, stands resplendent on its own — a foil for Watten’s more theoretical excursions. In GP1, for example, after reading about the latter’s epistemological “obsession” throughout his late twenties and thirties, Benson professes that he still has “to look up ‘epistemology’ in the dictionary when anyone brings it up.” Modestly, Benson then adds that, in his creative work from the period (such as As Is and The Busses), he might have “meddled much within its by-ways, including the predicament of ‘self’” (27). Benson writes elegantly and with generative uncertainty about such diverse subjects as the emergence of “polymorphously perverse” individuality in 1970s San Francisco (GP2); the personal and artistic ramifications of the breakdown of his relationship with Harryman in 1976 (GP3); his role in the Talks and Brat Guts sessions (GP5); negotiating his emergent bisexuality as a “waspish male from the suburban middle class” (GP6); his dependence upon zen Buddhism as a “philosophy and activity” (GP8); and his rigorous application of a “principle of doubt” in his written and improvised works (GP9). At Berkeley it was he, too, who expressed a discomfort with any notion that the eleven officially designated pianists somehow constitute the Language group, as a complete entity, insisting that those alongside him, plus Bernheimer, Silliman, and Perelman, are only “standing for” a potentially much broader literary community.
Harryman brings her own restlessly innovative energy to The Grand Piano, as one would expect from the composer of such genre-bending works as Adorno’s Noise and Open Box: Improvisations. There is a fire in her work (she calls Robert Creeley “a great, misogynistic, prose writer” in GP9) but also, as Armantrout observes in GP6, an intellectual daring and playfulness that are thoroughly engaging. In GP5 for instance, having told the reader that her essay has been “pre-organized” and limited to sixteen pages, she breaks off at mid-word or mid-sentence at the end of each section, one of which includes an anecdote explaining the motivations behind The Grand Piano. (Harryman, we learn, had attended the Page Mother’s Conference at UC–San Diego in February 1999, and was so alarmed by Marjorie Perloff’s concluding remarks that it was in the interest of women poets “to leave theorizing about our work to professional literary critics” she approached Hejinian and Jen Hofer about the possibility of composing their own history of Language writing. The concept was put to the other pianists and, after drawing up a division of labor, the project was born.) It is Harryman, too, who provides one of the more surpassingly ironic moments in the series. She recalls a reading given by Robert Hass — former US poet laureate, National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize cowinner — on October 11, 1979, while she was working at the San Francisco Poetry Center. Harryman, whose first volume Percentage had been published by Hejinian’s Tuumba Press earlier that year, was recording the event.
As a lyric poet, he proffered to the audience a hypothetical version of Language poetry, one closer to truth, beauty, memory, the senses, and nature. I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret the readings implicated in the last two lines of the poem:
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
United against the despised other, the full-house audience, as if at a political rally, roared its approval. It was one of many days that “Meditations at Lagunitas” and Language poetry combined to make history, because “all poetry is Language poetry” (GP4, 29–30).
Hass’s disdainful conservatism, even today, is provocative, but such is the intensity of feeling that Language writing aroused among those affiliated with the Workshop scene. This gulf between the “lyric” tradition and Language writing brings us tentatively to Armantrout, who has often been described — as she coolly reminds us in GP8 — as “the most lyrical of the Language poets” (35). In GP3 we learn about her early difficulties that resulted from this reputation as a “marginal” Language writer: she confesses that she “spent most of the 70s wondering whether I was in or out of the new nexus,” given that she had no work published in any of the issues between This 5 and This 10 or in close friend Silliman’s special issue of Alcheringa (51). Later, in GP8, Armantrout confronts this perception head on, recognizing from the outset that she has “a ‘stake’ in the lyric, whether I like it or not” (35). After baldly outlining what in fact the “lyric” poem might be, she insists — somewhat surprisingly, given the word’s perceived stigmatization within the Language nexus — on being interested in the lyric “in its guise as the short, especially the very short, poem,” and particularly its capacity to conduct a “dialogue with the unspoken” (36). Yet her wiry, quizzical verse, composed with Spicer-like thoroughness, is far removed from Hass’s “Meditations at Lagunitas,” with its lyric insistence on the primacy of the senses.
Armantrout’s essays in The Grand Piano are almost uniformly brief, especially compared to the longer, less gnomically written offerings by Watten, Robinson, Hejinian, and, despite her best efforts at structural constraint, Harryman. Yet they are also effective, no doubt assisted by her understated style and almost allergic aversion to any hint of grandiosity. Her account of leaving San Francisco with her husband Chuck in 1978 due to economic difficulties (“one of the hardest things I’ve done”) in GP2; her sudden and disturbing announcement, in GP4, that she writes from an “odd moment” having been diagnosed with adrenocortical cancer (from which she has now recovered); her discussion of her productive friendship (since 1969, as fellow undergraduates at Berkeley) with Silliman in GP5; and her delicate consideration of feminism and women’s writing in GP6, are all memorable.
Armantrout finalizes her Grand Piano contributions in GPX by raising a matter that became of growing interest to her over the course of the project: “the peculiarities of memory,” in particular whether “rehearsed ‘facts’ about the past eventually replace experiential recall” (151). It is a theme that Robinson seems engaged by as well, the concept of the text as replacement for what he calls “those scenes [that] are lost forever” (GP5, 99). Robinson, whose so far inadequately-studied poetry, in Tyrone Williams’s apt description, attempts to “relentlessly poke at the membrane between sense and senselessness, form and chaos,” emerges as one of the more interesting and formally inventive of the contributors in The Grand Piano. He ruminates at length on the subject of memory and, particularly, the linguistically elusive nature of experience, although in pursuing this line of inquiry he is certainly not on his own. In GP3, Hejinian, discussing her 1977 work Writing Is an Aid to Memory and its radical exploration of the intersection between writing and reminiscence, does something similar, proffering a sense of composition as actively phenomenological:
I wanted to test [writing] as a medium for thinking, that is, for putting things together, in acts of productive invention and heuristic synthesis. Much as I enjoy the “list poems” of, say, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, or Jack Collom, Writing Is an Aid to Memory bears no relation to one … Experience suggested that writing is indeed an aid to memory, but not solely, or even most significantly, because it can serve as a replacement for memory (which is what a list does). The writing I was proposing was not being marshaled as a cure for forgetfulness … My motives in composing Writing Is an Aid to Memory were contrary to those of reminiscence; the work is neither anecdotal nor diaristic. I was aiming for something encyclopedic; I was interested in epistemology: in consciousness, in knowledge, in the ways that knowledge is organized and structured. (56–57)
Hejinian, in the same essay, acknowledges her indebtedness to Viktor Shklovsky in achieving this text’s consciously “sentimental” style, where “exposition or narrative breaks off at the moments of maximal affect, where what’s meant is not said” (GP3, 65). Robinson, whose work is occasionally (and wrongly) grouped with the New York School, approaches writing from a different angle to Hejinian and most of the other pianists; he admits, in GP7, that theory is not “a primary driver” in his work, and that he has tended to view theoretical analyses as “after the fact,” rather than preceding, prompting or provoking composition (13). Yet Robinson makes it clear that he shares his colleagues’ fascination with Shklovsky’s poetic ideas; indeed his opening sentence to GP1, as if to immediately silence any debate about where his theoretical affiliations might lie, alludes to the St. Petersburg-born scholar’s suggestion that “to write about love one must write about everything not about love” (51).
While Robinson (instinctively favoring “contingency” rather than “control”) might not intellectualize the writing process with the rigor of some of his colleagues, his essays warrant close attention for their querying of the norms of genre and transformation of thematic concerns into inventive formal strategies. He employs a range of narrative techniques for disrupting the concept of linear, collective remembrance: for example in GP2, playing upon Joe Brainard’s 1970 memoir, he employs the phrase “I remember” thirty-five times at the beginnings of paragraphs as percussive, anaphoric precursors to various apparently random snippets of personal reminiscence (“I remember Barry taught me to cook Chinese. Ron was writing Ketjak in the other room,” for example). Not unlike Hejinian’s “markedly porous” textual landscape in Writing Is an Aid to Memory, what is at least as important as the said within this style of vignette-orientated autobiography is the not-said: the gaps between each brief recollection, in Robinson’s deft handling, reverberating with the vast unstated (GP3, 65). “In writing from memory,” Robinson writes in GP5, “I suffer the persistent sense of hitting wrong notes” (113). Yet these so-called “wrong” notes, as with Miles Davis’s music (to which Robinson listened avidly in the late 1960s/early ’70s), are not so much “mistaken” or epistemologically divergent utterances as hints — fraught, tentative though they may be — of a vaster truth, a “deep space of potential reference” (108).
Mandel, whose contribution for GP6 actually concludes with an imaginary conversation with Davis (loosely based on the subject of advancing creativity “against external pressures”) in the hallway at the Sutherland Lounge in Chicago in 1959, proves himself a cosmopolitan and often witty essayist. The son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna, Mandel, whose poetry Scroggins has lauded for its “unerring eye for the movement of the everyday, a stern sense of juxtaposition, and a wonderful knack of shifting diction,” provides a number of essays that are rich in content and broad in range. Most of his best work occurs in the first half of the series: in GP2, for instance, he describes his exultant arrival in San Francisco as a thirty-one-year-old in 1973, having already lived in Chicago, New York and Paris. With a failed marriage behind him and little money saved after brief careers as a college professor, editor, and research writer for UNESCO, he remembers driving across the Bay Bridge for the first time, its Admiral neon sign (now long gone) “an invitation to something timeless, or rather something already historic, pictorial, memorial — like autobiography itself” (41). After documenting a close brush with the Zodiac Killer, who worked at a store not far from his residence at the freeway exit at the corner of Fell and Laguna, Mandel quite seamlessly segues to a discussion of his influences, including the Beats (“a phenomenon of my childhood”), the poetry of John Berryman and Robert Lowell (“skilled and remote”), and Arendt (whose “wrenching reinterpretations of Greek language and thought gave me scope to understand how I might reinterpret myself politically in language”). A polymath in a contemporary sense — Mandel has been a serial technology entrepreneur, consultant, and thought-leader for more than twenty years — he clearly has much to offer. Besides creating and maintaining the Grand Piano website, his literary contributions to the series (including his amusing observations of the various heights of his colleagues in GP3) make one eager to read more, including his 2007 poetry volume To the Cognoscenti.
Hejinian, Perelman, Silliman, and Watten, although already enjoying distinguished reputations as essayists, provide a number of key contributions to The Grand Piano. Hejinian, whose writing, in Armantrout’s tight summation, blends “the philosophical and the personal as if there had never been a barrier constructed between them,” continues in the probing manner we are familiar with from The Language of Inquiry (GP6, 130). As with Harryman, there is an irrepressible idealism in her work that makes it eminently readable, as is evident in her analysis of the former’s For She (GP8), a twenty-five-sentence prose poem first heard at The Grand Piano in December 1979 and which Hejinian has taught to students ever since. Describing For She as writing that “boils with affect,” Hejinian marvels at the way its sentences exist not as a sequence of non-sequiturs but, more meaningfully, as “a sequence of present appearances, each with several attachments” (26). She also finds, in Harryman’s formulation of the title’s female presence, a character that is generatively “independent of the preposition; [she is] unlinked from it, ungoverned by it” (19).
Hejinian’s essays gain momentum as the series unfolds — indeed quite spectacularly so. Writing with an inspired purposefulness that seems to lament the series’ conclusion, in GP9 she offers an insight into her composition of the expanded version of My Life, one of the best-known and most approachable texts of Language writing. She notes that the work, in thirty-seven sections comprising thirty-seven sentences each in its original form, and forty-five sections of forty-five sentences each in its 1986 update, emerged from her interest in “the social (and socializing) force of language and the structuring force of forgetting” (16). Yet Hejinian, as if recoiling from a lurking sense that she might be limiting her own work’s hermeneutic open-endedness, shifts focus in the same essay, making interesting points about the 1950 Loyalty Oath controversy at Berkeley and the impact Jack Spicer’s resignation as a graduate student TA might have had on his composition of After Lorca (1957). This kind of thematic “layering” is typical of Hejinian’s essays, and demonstrates her capacity to make astute (and poetically revelatory) connections between aesthetic, historic and political moments, often from beyond her immediate creative field of reference. In the following volume, she then gives her account of an unresolved series of events in which she has played a leadership role: student protests against the “mismanagement, cronyism, and corruption” of the current University of California administration. We read admiringly as she chronicles her attempts — alongside fellow activist poet Jean Day, but in a distinct minority of faculty at Berkeley — to assist students against the forces of what she calls (paraphrasing Ernest Mandel) “late capitalism.” While Hejinian is not convinced that the ongoing protests will succeed, her energies at least prompt some brilliant reappraisals of the function of activist art.
Perelman and Silliman, too, prove very capable, and sometimes outstanding, essayists once again. Perelman is given the task of composing the first essay for the series, and it is he (in a deft sidestepping of pusillanimous critics) who asks to “consider a basic issue facing writers: love” (9). His absence, then, from the Berkeley reading speaks volumes. Perelman, interestingly, appears to write more in code than his fellow pianists; his essays, laden with clever allusion, ironic superimposition and occasional professorial in-joke, work more in the realm of implication than explicitness. In GP4, after anxiously noting the “utopic tinge” of The Grand Piano project (its “assumption that there is some call to be autobiographical, that our collective trajectories remain of interest”) and weaving in suggestive commentary on Thomas More’s Utopia, he recounts a slightly inebriated conversation he’d had with Bruce Andrews at a panel after-party at the Bowery Poetry Club in May 2007 (117). Andrews — a key figure in East Coast Language writing — had apparently expressed dissatisfaction with narrow, clear-cut historical designations of the Language project in a manner that Perelman, “tragic-comically,” in light of the GP5 debate, comes to share. (In a December 26, 2011 email he confirmed that Watten’s use of the term school had, indeed, played a role in his Berkeley absence; it was simply not a word that he was “willing to undersign.”)
Grand Piano authors at reading in Detroit, 2008.
Silliman’s contributions, too, are valuable, if not always rising to the shimmering brilliance of his best work — think of “Disappearance of the Author, Appearance of the World,” “The New Sentence,” and his 2009 review of Armantrout’s Pulitzer-winning Versed on Silliman’s Blog. In my view, his most astute analysis has historically been prompted by innovative work by fellow poets — Silliman is a master of close reading — and the “autobiographical” aspect of the project required a somewhat uncomfortable departure from his preferred authorial approach. Nevertheless his recollection, in GP6, of publicly performing Ketjak in September 1978 at the corner of Powell and Market in San Francisco, with blood spitting onto the page as a result of an increasingly damaged voice box, is one of the most satisfying essays in that volume (and certainly a riposte — as was intended — to critical arguments that understate the role of the “bodily” in Language writing). In GP4 he offers an insight into the atmosphere at the “Talks” inaugurated by Perelman, arguing that these sophisticated, quasi-improvised literary events did more to “generate” and “differentiate” than any other Language-related event (126). In GP5, too, he provides a helpful six-point definition of what he understands to be “Language writing” — ranging, increasingly loosely, from A: “A specific literary tendency and history, bounded chronologically by the production of the first issue of This in 1971 and the first issue of Poetics Journal in 1982,” to F: “any writing not in standard normative syntax” (29–32). There is also, in his final essay, an explanation of the origins of Silliman’s Blog, which now has received an incredible (for a poetry website at least) three million-plus visitors. Silliman explains how, with input from his nephew Daniel, he has utilized his knowledge of computers to construct a far larger-scale form of what Watten calls “oppositional polity” (GP5) than anything previously imaginable during the 1970s (41).
Yet if Silliman’s decision to focus on literal autobiography for the project disappoints readers looking for more critical insights from him, Watten’s essays do the opposite. On occasions, Watten writes with a defensiveness that comes from years of being at the sharp end of critical attack — most prominently in GP1, where he expresses frustration with an appropriative “they” who “want to steal my words” and “act like I never existed, and take everything I said or did as their own” (16–17). For the most part, though, he combines unfettered curiosity (“What would it mean to go beyond the inexpressibility of language?” he asks in GP6) with valuable personal recollection and self-deprecating humor (his bathetic admission in GP3, for instance, that he once had a job typing address labels for pornographic films, and designed the menu for a gay hotdog stand called “Hot and Hunky”) in a way that is tonally varied and richly analytical. Almost all of Watten’s essays work well, but his detailed account of his relationship with Zukofsky’s work in GP1 (and discreet declaration of love for Harryman, whom he code-names “C”); his discussion of Clark Coolidge and the origins of the “constructivist moment” in GP6; his comments on “oceanic feelings” and a West Coast poetic sensibility that condenses “ineffable boundlessness” in GP8; and his final essay, where he writes about formative relationships with Robert Grenier and Larry Eigner, his other two “genealogical predecessors — by half a step” in overturning lyric subjectivity, are writing of the highest order.
Since the publication of GPX, Suzanne Stein has initiated online discussion on the subject of whether it is better to read the series volume by volume (thereby adhering to the “collective” ethos of the project) or author by author. For a nuanced appreciation of The Grand Piano — in terms of the series’ overall narrative arc as well what Hejinian would call the “Chronic Ideas” of the individual contributors — both would seem to be required. While I would unhesitatingly recommend readers to buy all ten volumes and work their way through from the start, certain volumes stand out above others. Watten, as previously noted, has sung the praises of part 5, but the volumes which succeed it, in particular parts 7, 8, and X, are arguably the strongest in the series, both in terms of the range of topics covered and the depth and insight of analysis. And for this writer at least, one volume does most to ensure the project’s likely endurance: the extraordinary part 7.
Carefully chosen epigraphs, from André Breton (GP1), Roman Jakobson (GP2), Gertrude Stein (GP3), Langston Hughes (GP4), Donna Haraway (GP5), George Oppen (GP6), Richard Serra (GP8), Clark Coolidge and Christa Wolf (GP9), and Jackson Mac Low (GPX), appear at the start of all of the GP volumes. Yet, alone among this assembly of innovative poets and scholars, part 7 has as its epigraph some pedagogical language (chosen by Mandel) from beyond the field of letters: an oft-cited quotation from the Vienna-born (and later Los Angeles-based) composer Arnold Schoenberg. In 1940, during a composition class at UCLA (where he taught from 1936 to 1944), Schoenberg, initiator of atonal and serial music, is reported to have told his students, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.” For a composer renowned for his productive antagonism to such old-fashioned systems of organization as a major scale (and C major, the most consonant of all scales, at that), such a statement would seem, for modernist-minded poets, an abrupt and rather dispiriting about-face during a phase of late conservatism. But the pianists appear to read it differently, as a statement of rich artistic possibility, irrespective of formal constraint, and his words prompt some outstanding writing from these writers on music-language relations.
In GP7 we learn that music, far from merely an auxiliary interest, has played a pivotal role in many of the lives of the pianists, and deeply informed their poetics. Mandel, for example, heard Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie perform at the Blue Note in Chicago as a teenager, and in GP7 recounts a harrowing story of attending a 1993 performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, one of the Czech composer’s final works, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC with his wife, the poet Beth Joselow, and filmmaker Sonbert, who later died of AIDS. Hejinian, similarly eclectic, had a mother who was a classical music-loving amateur violinist and has a second husband (Larry Ochs) who, since 1974, has been one of America’s foremost exponents of free jazz and structured improvisation. Perelman studied classical piano in his youth, and played the piano score (Handel’s Pièces pour le Clavecin) in the historic performance of Zukofsky’s “A”-24 at the Grand Piano on November 16, 1978. Pearson, since the late 1950s, has been an avid listener to high-modernist “classical” music (Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varèse, Charles Ives, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick among them) and jazz (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Roscoe Mitchell, Jimmy Giuffre, and Steve Lacy); to this day he locates his own poetics “at the crossroads where the austerities of plainsong meet the complexities of ‘new music’ and ‘out’ jazz” (GP8, 90). Robinson sang and played guitar with friends at university, listened to Davis, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, and other jazz luminaries in his early adulthood, and today plays Cuban tres guitar in a salsa band called Bahia Son. Silliman, although designated “tone deaf” in a second grade audiology exam at Marin Elementary, has long been an avid listener to jazz, new music, and “world” music, and drew upon Balinese ritual music and American minimalism when writing Ketjak and Tjanting (GP7, 65). Watten, in the 1970s, regularly attended concerts by Cecil Taylor, Leroy Jenkins, Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, and other experimentalists at Todd Barkan’s Keystone Korner in San Francisco, and in recent years has written about Anthony Braxton, John Cage, and Detroit noise band Wolf Eyes. Harryman (although she neglects to mention it in GP7) took her interest in improvised jazz further than most, spending a good deal of the 1980s organizing Rova Arts, and in 2010–12 worked closely with Jon Raskin and his quartet on music-text collaborations.
When Watten therefore asks in GP7, appropriating Walter Pater’s famous dictum, “Does anyone write in the condition of music, or does one write instead of one’s knowledge of music, mediated by what one has heard and can recall?,” a number of pianists respond enthusiastically and assuredly to his clarion call. Robinson, writing probably his finest essay of the series — perhaps because music is so deeply implicated in his poetic sensibility — discusses ways in which his celebrated poetry volume The Dolch Stanzas (1974) had been informed by Monk’s rhythmically and harmonically disjunctive music, particularly his listening to a double-LP reissue of the complete Monk Prestige recordings (1952–54) during the work’s composition. Robinson claims to have heard “a kindred spirit, born out of my father’s generation, who combined solemnity and humor in a way that spoke to me quietly from a long way off” in Monk, and found a musical corollary for his own attempts to “push logic out of shape” in his writing. He also identifies the syncopated rhythms in Monk’s melodies, particularly his fondness for upbeats, as having prompted his decision to compose The Dolch Stanzas in closure-resistant Mayakovsky/Williams-style “rolling” tercets (16).
Hejinian, too, provides an important essay in GP7, writing about “the array of incipient and emerging musical innovations — divergent, distinct, and yet vividly constellated into what remains a continuing presence” that she has encountered in and around the Bay Area since moving there from Boston in 1968 (51). Hejinian begins by quoting one of her more familiar lines from My Life, “The obvious analogy is with music,” before asking, with her usual curiosity, what exactly “is analogous to music”? (50) Enlisting the assistance of Rova saxophonists Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin to assist her with names, dates, histories, and “connect[ing] some of the dots,” Hejinian then provides a much-needed account of the early improvised music scene in the Bay Area and its dialogue with Language writing (51). Among many interesting details, we learn that she and Ochs had, in fact — despite years of avoiding music-text collaborations on the basis that the two art forms, when superimposed, compete with rather than complement one another — actually performed together before: at the Blue Dolphin in 1976, as part of an ensemble known as the Northern Fictions Consort. (“Larry and I remember the performances as awful, and Larry is trying to persuade me to destroy the cassette that is the only recording of the group.”) We also learn that whenever Rova — the name itself having been suggested by Hejinian — performed in the Bay Area, a “row of writers” often sat attentively in the audience, while Raskin has long been influenced in his musical compositions by the “disrupted syntax, and the various strategies used to change temporal frames (e.g., by changing verb tense or by dispersing and resituating narrative lines)” that he has heard at readings given by Language-affiliated poets (72–73).
Not surprisingly, given her robust commitment to Watten’s (and fellow pianists’) linguistic materialism, Hejinian reveals herself in GP7 to be in the formalist or absolutist camp of music-language relations, as advocated by William Carlos Williams in Spring and All (1923) and contemporary scholars such as Peter Kivy. She insists that while music’s “collaboratively composed, multiauthored works (like those of Rova) invited literary analogues,” they are only analogues — similar in some respects, but crucially dissimilar; there is no “condition of music” being achieved in works such as My Life or, presumably, The Dolch Stanzas (74). Her essay trails off at this juncture, however, the baton then passed to Pearson to provide the theoretical underpinning to support his friend’s formalist leanings.
Pearson is arguably the most formally trained in music of the pianists, having studied liturgical and instrumental music (with Harvey Samuels, Modesto Brisano, Lee Konitz, and others) in the early 1960s prior to committing full-time to poetry. Somewhat unusually for a musician, he also proves himself to be especially effective at writing about the art form: a task Monk, Davis, singer Elvis Costello, and humorist Martin Mull have variously been attributed to comparing to “dancing about architecture.” In a two-part essay (continued in GP8) entitled “Some Intermittent Music,” an allusion to his majestic four-movement serial work An Intermittent Music, Pearson draws upon recent research by Aniruddh D. Patel on language, music, syntax, and the brain to make the case that music, far from being a universal language, as is conventionally presumed in some venues, “is not a language at all” (130). Following Hejinian, whose essay he announces at the outset that he had read beforehand, Pearson scrutinizes Zukofsky’s conception of poetics (in “A”–12) as “an integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.” Arguing that Zukofsky’s figurative use of calculus, with its insistence on the non-identity of music and language, “still has legs,” Pearson goes on to provide more clarity about what exactly might be “analogous to music.” Apropos poetry, he writes, in a moment of startling insight, “my provisional response would be: syntax, not lexis; temporality, not telos; affect, not effect; structure, not form” (129).
The Grand Piano, in fact, contains many such insights. It is an immensely satisfying body of work which, if not uniformly consistent in quality throughout its breadth, nevertheless manages to convince the reader that the project has been not only worthwhile, but entirely necessary for our understanding of this dynamic moment in American letters. Rather than put off readers with inflated statements about their own accomplishments, the pianists succeed, on the whole, in doing otherwise. They remain faithful to or at least reconstitute their original spirit of self-effacing subversiveness while providing valuable, and uniquely personal, insights into their poetics. So where to now for The Grand Piano? Will the project succeed in “opening new horizons of meaning, leading to new understandings of use,” as Watten rather grandly envisages it doing towards the end of his final essay for the series? My response to the first claim would be, most certainly, yes; to the second, only time will tell. In the meantime, though, readers and scholars — even those historically disposed against Language writing — could do much worse than read The Grand Piano from cover to cover, and judge it purely and solely on its merits. They will find surprise in abundance.
2. Lyn Hejinian, in GP7, explains that structured improvisations in contemporary music (such as those performed by her husband, Larry Ochs) typically involve improvising around “predetermined though mutable structures” (71). They are to be distinguished from classical-style “through composition” (in which every note is designated) and “free improvisation” (in which only the barest of constraints or parameters are preestablished). Harryman, in GP6, clarifies the formal relationship between her compositions (both written and, on occasions, in live performance) and experimental music. She declares that she “shares with Steve [Benson] an interest in another, less free form of improvisation, which in music is often referred to as structured improvisation,” and defines it as a “formal strategy that lends itself to constructing connections between something that’s already given and the play of the unknown … [It] frames the immediacy of decision-making within a limit such that both limit and spontaneity are made apparent in a third space” (107–108).
For further discussion of the (utopian or quasi-utopian) democratic impulse in collective improvisations in the 1960s and ’70s, see Iain Anderson, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Ornette Coleman, “Harmolodic — Highest Instinct: Something to Think About” in Free Spirits: The Insurgent Imagination, eds. Paul Buhle, Jayne Cortez et al. (San Francisco: City Lights, 1982); Christopher Funkhouser, “Being Matter United: An Interview with Cecil Taylor” in Hambone 12 (Fall, 1995), 17–39; Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (New York: Da Capo, 1994); George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Eric Nisensen, Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest (New York: Da Capo, 1995); Larry Ochs, “Devices and Strategies for Structured Improvisation” in Arcana: Musicians on Music, Vol 1, ed. John Zorn (New York: Granary, 2005), 325–35; Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998); and Scott Saul, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
3. Ron Silliman’s phrase appears in GP1 (49). The term “language poet,” in published form at least, was first used in May 1979 by Poetry Flash editor Steve Abbott. Here, in the first (no. 74) of a series of “special topic” issues focused on this emergent literary movement, which by that stage had become one of the prominent literary coalitions in San Francisco, Abbott attempts to go beyond personal friendships and sketch out “certain distinctions” which define them as a group. Abbott writes: “The term was coined because L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is a prominent New York magazine of the group. I find the term appropriate because the group has focused attention away from ‘making it’ (i.e.: the poet as hero and dramatic performer) to ‘what has been made’ (i.e.: how does the language and technique of the poem or text itself work).” Abbott’s acknowledgment of the “earnestness and intensity of the group’s scrutiny of language and poetry” is more positive than often remembered, but was then followed by a scathing opinion piece by Poetry Flash contributing editor Alan Soldofsky. For more on this, see Eleana Kim, “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Making of a Movement” (1994).
The phrase language centered, however, preceded “Language poet” by some six years. Ron Silliman can lay claim to first using it, in a headnote to “The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets.” Although written in 1973, Silliman published this article two years later in the ethnopoetics magazine Alcheringa 1, no. 2 (1975), an issue that in GP3 he proclaims to be possibly “the first proto-anthology of what would come to be known as language poetry” (120). Showing what he recognizes as his own early “anxiety about the concept of groupness & naming” (GP3), Silliman here says of his choice of authors:
9 poets out of the present, average age 28, whose work might be said to “cluster” about such magazines as THIS, BIG DEAL, TOTTEL’S, the recent DOONES supplements, the Andrews-edited issue of TOOTHPICK, etc. Called variously “language centered,” “minimal,” “non-referential formalism,” “diminished referentiality,” “structuralist.” Not a GROUP but a TENDENCY in the work of many. (120)
For more on this and the shift towards adopting the phrase “Language School,” see Barrett Watten, chapter 2 of The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 45–102.
4. In a piece discussed at length later in this review, Tom Mandel says of this more vindictive aspect of Duncan: “They say Robert had driven Robin Blaser out of town a decade earlier, and Denise Levertov too. His feud with Jack Spicer is well documented. I wonder what one wins in these poetry wars? Daily life with acolytes? If that’s utopia, give me la dérive” (61). For more on the relationship between Duncan and Levertov, see Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi, eds., The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004); and The Poetry of Politics: The Politics of Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), which also includes some discussion of Blaser. For a consideration of Jack Spicer’s relationship with Duncan, see Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998). In GP9 Hejinian comments briefly on the “intense coterie of young, mostly homosexual poet students,” including Duncan, Blaser, and Jack Spicer, that formed around the medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz at UC–Berkeley, 1949–50. She notes how these young poets, building on Kantorowicz’s scholarship on the divine right of kings, imagined themselves as “kings of poetry” and “espoused vaguely mystical notions of the divine rights of poets and the divine transmission of their words” (31–32). While Hejinian doesn’t address Duncan’s relationships with poetry colleagues, her essay does provide insight into the reasons for Language poetry’s rejection of mythopoesis.
5. In a November 27, 2006, post on her blog Swoonrocket, Spahr, commenting on the essays in GP1, managed to upset a number of the pianists (to the point of their requesting she remove the post) by observing that within this volume “black people show up around sexuality only.” This wasn’t the only accusation Spahr leveled at the project: she also noted, with startling condensation, its apparent “insularity” and how “many class issues show up” in the volume’s ten pieces yet “are not coded as such.” According to Watten, who was prompted into online response by these comments, Spahr’s former accusation was the most “troubling” because her “fragment of a sentence is a depth charge, and quite an awful one. In such a sketchy, provisional, and largely open response, how could it happen that a charge of a racial exclusionary logic of this order be made?” Eager to foster Grand Piano-related debate, Watten insisted that Spahr’s analysis was “entirely welcome” for its questioning of the evident politics of exclusion/inclusion within the series; and indeed Pearson’s essay in GP5 (as noted in this review) treats quite openly the subject of the non-inclusion of “innovative writers of color” that she raises. (“1-Year Plan: Post 31,” December 3, 2006).
In a subsequent Swoonrocket post (dated December 2, 2006), Spahr offers “an apology of sorts” towards the authors, recognizing that she “said something that could be read as an accusation of racism” (which she claims it wasn’t; rather it was an unclear and poorly developed “attempt at textual observation”). Yet Spahr refused to withdraw her “stupid” comment, however “easier” it would have been to do so given she has felt a “little besieged” (deservedly, in my view, given her argument’s clumsy execution, especially for such a fraught topic) by all ten authors since making her observations. She maintains that it is her scholarly prerogative to raise objections to any “disturbing” representations of race in any text, and in an even more defiant post four days later, insists upon her ongoing interest “in where race gets marked and what races get marked in literature.” For more on this, see Spahr’s blog.
6. See Watten, “On the Advantages of Negativity: Avant-Garde Poetry, New Music, and the Cultural Turn,” in Poetry after Cultural Studies, ed. Heidi R. Bean and Mike Chasar (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 199–232. Watten, reflecting upon what he calls “the stultifying seizure of public discourse by false positivity in the recent past (at the time of writing this essay, the later Bush era),” seeks to negotiate an expanded, more pluralist concept of avant-garde negativity for contemporary artists than the “formalist, nonidentical, ‘high’ cultural, autonomous” model privileged by Theodor Adorno (202). He analyzes three instances of recent art/cultural debate that “undoes the positivity of genres and/or defines a new space between them” (221): Bruce Andrews’s standing up to Bill O’Reilly on The O’Reilly Factor (November 2, 2006), John Cage’s 1974 masterpiece of chance composition Etudes australes, and the sonic materiality of the Michigan-based band Wolf Eyes.
7. The pianists’ performance on November 20, 2011 at Timken Hall, California College of the Arts was recorded by Andrew Kenower, but has not yet been uploaded to his website, A Voice Box. Robin Tremblay-Hall however uploaded a loose (but nevertheless useful) transcription of the event three days later to the website X Poetics. Here, she observes that Robinson, continuing a point made in GP3, where he writes of the “low cost of living” and “available marginal employment” (119) that made being a writer in San Francisco during the 1970s very possible, discussed the “very different” economic conditions that prevailed back then, noting that it was somewhat easier to live with less than it is now. Harryman “challenged” Robinson’s premise, saying that even in the 1970s “some people were indeed worried about money and health care, and so on.”
11. Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991), a collective memoir by Michael Davidson, Hejinian, Watten, and Silliman of their encounters with post-glasnost Soviet intellectuals during an August 1989 trip; The Wide Road (New York: Belladonna, 2011), an erotic picaresque novella written by Harryman and Hejinian between 1991 and 2010. For texts of San Francisco Poets Theater from the late 1970s and early 1980s, see Harryman, Animal Instincts: Prose Plays Essays (Berkeley, CA: This Press, 1989) and Memory Play (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1994); Killian and David Brazil, eds., The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, 1945–1985 (Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2010); and Bob Perelman, ed., “Plays from San Francisco Poets Theater,” in Hills 9: 5–93.
14. See this video of the performance at Wheeler Hall, UC–Berkeley, November 18, 2011. Tom Mandel’s comment can be heard in 1’20”30”’–1’20”59”’.
15. Watten, “After Literary Community: The Grand Piano and the Politics of Friendship” in Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry, ed. Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, forthcoming).
16. As quoted in Kim, “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement.”
17. Ron Silliman, Silliman’s Blog (October 4, 2008). Reflecting on his friendship with Watten, which now spans more than forty-seven years, Silliman says: “To this day, I’ve never met anyone who puts the same amount of energy into thinking — and doing — whatever the poem requires.”
18. Kate Lilley, “This L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” (1997), Jacket 2 (January 1998).
19. See Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 1998) and Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002); and Jean Lave, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993). The “domain” is defined as the shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. Pearson, in GP5, supplies the Wikipedia definition for community of practice: namely, the “process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations.” He finds this description “particularly apt” in relation to Language poetry, and infers from it “the crucial, if overdetermined, role that influence plays in such communities” (56).
20. Watten, in “The Secret History of the Equal Sign: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E between Discourse and Text,” describes the poetics listserv as “a historical beneficiary of the Language School’s radical questioning of authorship and community.” Poetics Today 20, no. 4 (1999): 623. It should be noted that Wenger’s thought is linked historically to the origins of The Grand Piano. In 1996 Mandel founded Caucus, a software company that introduced social software to the web based specifically on Wenger’s ideas on and around communities of practice. Mandel explains: “It was as a way to test our software that I suggested to this group of friends that we use it to write a work collaboratively. In the end, the company burned through its venture capital and died.” Email to author, June 14, 2012.
21. Much could be written about the “politics of the name” in Language writing and the question of identity politics. A number of the GP writers have a specific relation to identity politics that they willingly explore (contra Spahr’s attack mentioned above). Watten, for example, narrates his early encounter with Kathleen Cleaver in GP2, recounting a Q&A session (when she was “in her mid twenties but taken to be politically authoritative”) with a group of students in the lounge of the Berkeley Student Center (17). Mandel’s account of the murder of Fred Hampton in GP2 is particularly germane: although thinly developed in terms of context, Mandel writes powerfully about how, while teaching at the University of Illinois in 1969, he was “recruited to leave campus and drive to the site of a political massacre.” As a “witness” to the scene, he recalls seeing “a mattress soaked in blood twisted off its frame” and walls that were “marked with hundreds of bullet holes.” For Mandel, this encounter with the murderous brutality of “tyrant Daley’s city” prompted his decision to leave Chicago: “my strength was too small, my will too weak, for the struggle” (47–48). Silliman, whose contribution for GP1 Spahr criticized for its “disturbing” treatment of his father’s relationship with an African American woman (43), also writes effectively about identity. In GP8 he comments on his work with the prison movement, noting that the African American prisoners at Folsom “responded most directly & most enthusiastically” to his readings, laughing in the right places and even shouting encouragement; in discussions after the reading more than one used the phrase “word jazz” to describe what he was doing (“the first time I’d ever thought of it as that”). The group that “responded least well” to Silliman’s poetry were the white prisoners, “mostly displaced cowboys from California’s central valley, far less urban than the black prisoners” (65–66).
22. A transcription (by Michael Nardone) of Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson’s August 11, 1978, interview of Ted Berrigan, broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM as part of “In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets,” was published at Jacket2 on June 10, 2012. See “Any possible way of making words.”
24. According to Mandel, Duncan “without question” cost him the job by withdrawing his support, thereby “making it easy for the conventional creative writing department hacks to usher me out.” Yet Mandel saw Duncan many times in the decade that followed (especially before his debilitating kidney disease), and nothing in their personal relationship changed; they had always been acquaintances, rather than “friends.” Indeed, after accepting the Poetry Center job, Mandel had approached Duncan about the matter and prospectively discussed his plans with him. Mandel told Duncan that he intended to follow his own program and “change the institution itself, as much as I would be able, in directions I thought were necessary and would help it survive (in what then seemed to be a dystopian devolution at SF State).” Duncan, in response, “encouraged me strongly to do just that. No attempt to dissuade me, rather the opposite — even though later he did not restrain himself in opposition to what I wanted to do if he disagreed with it.” Email to author, June 14, 2012.
26. See Watten, “Post 3: Tests of Zukofsky” (September 25, 2004).
27. See Mark Scroggins, Culture Industry (December 8, 2008).
29. Watten, “Post 3: Tests of Zukofsky”
30. Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1996), 12. Charles Bernstein once expressed a similar resistance to the use of the term “school” in relation to Language writing. In 1988, when asked “What does the term ‘school’ imply when used for a group of writers,” he replied: “That the person using it hasn’t read much of what he or she is talking about. Or: schools are made to be broken.” Poetry Project Newsletter 128 (April–May 1988).
31. See Scroggins’s website Culture Industry (April 11, 2007). Finkelstein, as if “winding up” his interlocutor Scroggins for an attack on Language poetry, writes of risks inherent in a project where “previously marginalized poets attempt to write their own literary histories, not least of which is a self-regard bordering on narcissism.”
32. See the video of the performance at Wheeler Hall, UC–Berkeley. Watten’s comment arrives at 1’39”39”’.
34. Watten had a quite different encounter with the Brat Guts project than that experienced by Harryman. He remembers being “distant” from the project, yet “curious to know what was going on.” He visited a session, “but did not participate”; even so, he remembers feeling “included.” See “The Secret History of the Equal Sign: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E between Discourse and Text,” in Poetics Today 20, no. 4 (1999): 617. For more discussion of the Brat Guts aesthetic, see Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1996), 32–33.
38. At the conclusion of his paper, Watten writes: “I will go on record as believing that our project will continue, in a form as yet unimagined by any of us. At the same time, given the faultlines between collectivity and community that have opened up among us, I have to wonder if Bob and I are still friends.” In “After Literary Community: The Grand Piano and the Politics of Friendship.”
39. See the video of the performance at Wheeler Hall, UC–Berkeley. Watten’s comment arrives at 1’40”28”’.
40. Barry Schwabsky, “Vanishing Points: Language Poetry Remembered.” The Nation (January 12, 2011).
41. See the video of the performance at Wheeler Hall, UC–Berkeley. Benson says of an alternative Bay Area “Language” community than that formally delineated in The Grand Piano: “Such a community would be quite amorphous, quite changing over time, and quite impossible to define the limits of; whether it includes fifty people or a thousand people would be anyone’s guess” (1’27”50”’–1’28”09”’).
42. Tyrone Williams, “Poems of Will and Constraint” (April 4, 2011).
43. Scroggins, Culture Industry (March 2, 2010).
44. In a February 22, 2005, discussion with Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia, Hejinian described the finest critical or literary theoretical writing as working around what she calls “synthetic moments, when a connection is made between one thing and another.” These moments give “incredibly powerful insight or luminosity” and “cast lights on all kinds of other things.” To exemplify what she means, Hejinian points to work by Slavoj Žižek and Barrett Watten, calling the latter “a brilliant thinker, and a brilliant critical writer” and lauding his 2003 tome The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics as “a compendium of synthetic moments” in which “the most unlikely things” are linked together. This kind of critical writing is “resilient and revelatory,” Hejinian suggests, precisely because of its linkages: “the way the linkages are made, the kinds of things that are linked together.” For more of this discussion, see “I am suddenly aware that phrases happen” in Jacket2.
45. See Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism, trans. Joris des Bres (London: NLB, 1975). As Hejinian explains in GPX, Mandel’s “late capitalism” refers to the third (and supposedly final) stage in a teleological progression towards global capitalism. It is “unevenly developed, but ubiquitous; even those who would fight it are also parties to it” (58).
46. Perelman, email to author, January 10, 2012. Full statement reads: “Re my frustration in GP5, yes, you’re reading what I wrote: I find the notion of the Language School, not to mention the tone of the expression, something I don’t want to undersign.” For Watten, though, this explanation is not altogether believable given Perelman’s published comments elsewhere. While the use of the word “school,” as noted in this article, was important in GP5 — and foregrounded as a reason for Perelman’s exit from the project — the latter’s anxieties about the avant-garde are better recorded in “My Avant-Garde Card,” in New Literary History 41, no. 4 (Autumn 2010), 875–94. Here Perelman acknowledges in the penultimate paragraph that he shares “a great many specific connections over the decades” with his fellow pianist, and that their “individual archives of inspiring examples of art would have a great deal of overlap” (892). Yet, after scrutinizing the adjectival (as opposed to proper noun and common noun) usage of “avant-garde,” which he considers a “baggy descriptor,” Perelman insists upon denying “any primacy of the avant-garde as an ongoing term” in a manner employed by Watten in The Constructivist Moment (885).
Perelman explains the thinking behind his poem “Confession,” the first piece in his 1998 book The Future of Memory (New York: Roof, 1998). In its lines “I / seem to have lost my avant-garde / card in the laundry” he reveals an increasing sense of disaffiliation with Language writing, with which he has been “closely associated” since the 1970s (875). The title, “Confession,” playfully satirizes persona-based confessional poetry in a manner reminiscent of early Language poetry, but the content, as Perelman recognizes, gives little encouragement to “devotees” of the avant-garde; indeed it seems “quite clearly to delegitimate the avant-garde, or at least to emphatically dissociate its author from it” (887). Perelman goes so far as to wonder whether losing his avant-garde card in the laundry means he has to “wear Eliot’s striped trousers,” or even whether this poem signals his resignation from “large avant-garde (innovative, modernist, etc.) coalitions as those represented in [the second volume of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s 1998 anthology] Poems for the Millennium” (email to author). Watten, however, finds Perelman’s argument “particularly conservative and even obtuse and self-serving,” and a justification for focusing on his colleague in his conference paper on friendship. He proposes other reasons for Perelman’s discomfort with the adjective avant-garde and the phrase “Language School,” including competitiveness within The Grand Piano and pressure from East Coast Language writers. Email to author, May 30, 2012.
47. “Disappearance of the Author, Appearance of the World” and “The New Sentence” are collected in The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987). Silliman’s January 27, 2009 review of Armantrout’s Versed can be found at Silliman’s Blog.
48. It is possible to go even farther and see some of the origins of Silliman’s Blog in The Grand Piano. Specifically, the GP project began on Mandel’s conference site Caucus, but this folded and became quiescent (as noted above). During this period, Silliman adapted the formal model of poetics post that the pianists were developing in their conversations on the listserv and went solo with it. In 2005, Watten proposed moving the project forward to publication. At that point, Silliman’s Blog had grown hugely in audience.
49. Stein’s comment first appeared on Facebook, but was later uploaded to Watten’s Wayne State University homepage. Stein’s statement read: “I read Grand Piano 1–7, chronologically, writer by writer, instead of volume by volume, lying in bed, on a Sunday.”
50. Hejinian’s talk “Chronic Ideas,” given September 29, 1977, at Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw’s loft on 1220 Folsom, was her very first. In GP5 she explains that it was about “the recurrence and concentricity of certain insights; in essence, it gave an account of the failure of my journals, since the talk was written in the aftermath of my reading back through some of them only to discover that insights I thought I’d just come to weren’t new to me at all — I’d had them before and forgotten them, as if they were elements of a restive dream” (136).
52. For Watten’s discussion of Cage, see “On the Advantages of Negativity: Avant-Garde Poetry, New Music, and the Cultural Turn.” For his comments on Braxton, see “Transposing the Limits of Open Form: Language Writing and Anthony Braxton,” originally composed for a one-day conference at New York University (Current Free Practices in Music and Poetry) in 2006 but later uploaded to Watten’s website (“1-Year Plan: Post 26,” March 27, 2006). Here Watten provides a more expansive comment on his musical influences between 1976 and 1980 than that proffered in GP7, singling out Braxton’s Saxophone Improvisations Series F, Creative Orchestra Music, Five Pieces, and In the Tradition, Cage’s Sonnets and Interludes for Prepared Piano and Etudes australes, Taylor’s Conquistador and Unit Structures, Steve Reich’s Come Up to Show Dem, Violin Phase, and Drumming, Coleman’s Free Jazz and Dancing in Your Head, Henry Cowell’s piano works, Harry Partch’s instrumental ensembles, Leroy Jenkins’s version of Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen, and Paul Zukofsky’s renditions of Paganini as music “which provided — directly or through some kind of formal osmosis — ways of thinking about writing, form, and culture enacted in my collection of experimental verse 1–10 in 1980.”
53. The most obvious consequence of Carla Harryman and Jon Raskin’s three-year poetry and music collaboration is the seven-track recording Open Box (Tzadik: released March 26, 2012).
54. For a more thorough discussion of reasons why Ochs and Hejinian have for the most part avoided poetry and music collaborations, see Larry Ochs, “Interview by Luke Harley” (May 27, 2008).
55. Pearson quotes William Carlos Williams’s words from Spring and All in GP7: “The object would be it seems to make poetry a pure art, like music … as with certain of the modern Russians I have seen … I do not believe that writing is music. I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to attain the conditions of music” (138). Peter Kivy’s formalist position on music-language relations is established in the following texts: Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Introduction to a Philosophy of Music (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), Music, Language and Cognition and Other Essays in the Aesthetics of Music (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2007), and Antithetical Arts: On the Ancient Quarrel between Literature and Music (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2009). Beyond The Grand Piano, Pearson has commented on music-language relations extensively in three recent interviews: “Ted Pearson in Conversation with Luke Harley: Part 1” (June 8–September 16, 2010) in Jacket2, “Ted Pearson in Conversation with Luke Harley: Part 2” (November 25, 2010–September 6, 2011) in Jacket2, and Luke Harley, “An Interview with Ted Pearson,” in Hambone 19 (Fall 2009): 94–109.
A review of Charles Alexander’s ‘Pushing Water’
In his “Olson Memorial Lecture,” Robert Duncan questioned what it meant “to cultivate a locality — to have a precinct.” I have recently looked into a precinct called Pushing Water, Charles Alexander’s serial poem recently published by Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press.
Alexander knows how to make a precinct. Indeed, Alexander reposes Duncan’s question: “if I place this word on this page will a here develop.” Pushing Water spends a large part of its fifty-two sections answering this question, giving out typographical pointers, replacing salt and pepper shakers, and walking us through the grave procedure of attaching a breathing tube.
Pushing Water gives way to the “rage of the / open page,” as Alexander follows his ear much like Alice following the White Rabbit. This leads to what Alexander phrases “the transition from ear to oar,” the trajectory of a poem beginning in its sound and from the annunciation of that sound finding its stroke in the world of things. In this poem, sound qualifies as Thing, just as the author admonishes us in section 14:
the whole of the work is
the sound of the work
is the structure of the
work is the measure
of the work
With regards to the physical qualities of Pushing Water, it is hard to resist thinking of Alexander’s affinity for baseball:
Just writing a sentence whose syntax allows one word to enter while
another waits the manager’s decision, sacrifice or swing away the
string theorizes a plie
Shift back then to an earlier misreading of pliable as palpable. Bending/turning of the sentence allows one to “find a place in this place of phrases” because they are as marked and distinctive as they are physical. The knee bends. The sentence bends. The poem bends. The book bends. The eye bends. The light bends.
Ultimately, the orientation of bodies in space links this work up with Olson’s investigation of proprioception, but Alexander makes his own way by turning that investigation toward the poem more, so that the body of the poem (I speaks) becomes the subject more and more the further we climb into its system of references and intertextual suggestions. Take this:
physical fact is a line of verse curving to the right spiraling
into the air incising itself into a sheet of paper
Pushing Water constructs a soundmap compassed partly from the recycled lines of other poets to extend this physical engagement to become physically engaging. One particular line of Creeley’s (“when I speak and I speaks”) surfaces throughout the entirety of the poem, becoming a mantra of the poem’s belief in the sounds of its own precinct.
While there can be no question of Alexander’s allegiance to Duncan and Creeley, there are a multitude of influences beyond Black Mountain. Stein and her Geographies linger throughout the poem (“because my dog is not / so little she now knows / a rose a sweet tea”), as does Dickinson in “certain slants.” Lorine Neidecker appears, following Duncan’s note to Alexander in Pushing Water 15, the kind of dissolve between figures that feels as filmic as it is poetic. The space of this particular poem takes on an extraordinary significance, especially as it relates to a kind of switching off between two poetries embodied on one page.
The openness of Alexander’s field is perhaps nowhere as evident as when Alexander explains how these influences gird his work: “one / wants to address an epic, conscious of all the antecedents.” We see this consciousness play out in the bob and weave between Alexander and his lineage as the poem expands its push. At the bottom of section 40, after ruminating over a string of misread words, the page concludes, “fool, space is never blank,” which I misread by slipping first into the voice of Mr. T followed swiftly by the wise croaking of Yoda in the marsh, the very same voice that tells us, “dispersed is not lost.”
Throughout the entirety of the poem, the identity of the maker disperses itself between the roles of poet, printer, husband, son, and reader. Self-descriptions in the poem waver between the various roles, with Alexander referring to himself as a “stumbling” poet as well as “a person near to knowing paper as air.” Pushing Water reveals a poet who is finding and making and making something of his findings (“seek air once unknown / old bodies, Render!”). Identity is often at the center of these findings (“I am the inkman / you are the inkman”).
The materiality associated with printing experience (“and letters can be placed / into the paper / or emerge therefrom”) becomes a way of looking through all subjects. Alexander’s poem contains as many typographical advisories as it does various statements of the poet’s own poetics. It is a delight to experience the world outside of the book as seen by a printer, as when Alexander describes birdsong as “the splendor / of italic speech on the boughs.” If that is bookishness, we should all be book-ISH (emphasis by Rob Brydon). Not surprisingly, reader, printer, and poet often join forces to produce memorable self-assessments:
remaining ever in the company of small
words like of and around and
tulip yellow green lilac dance
around what I cannot live with
and what identifies passes and
carries me away
The convergence of roles and influences in Pushing Water illustrate what Duncan meant in describing the relation between parts as bound “by the resonances in the time of the whole in the reader’s mind, each part as it is conceived as a member of every other part, having, as in a mobile, an interchange of roles, by the creation of forms within forms as we remember.”
The predominant form within form is Alexander’s rewriting of Fulke Greville’s sonnet cycle Caelica. This closing meditation extends over a fifth of the book’s length. Three word lines often substitute for entire stanzas from the original in what amounts to a “thick condensery” of adoration where “constant devotion lives like vanes.” Alexander rewrites the poem towards his wife, painter Cynthia Miller. By the end of this love poem, Alexander has clearly demonstrated that “one finds a word / or makes one / the difference is of faith.”
A review of Jill Magi's 'Slot'
In Slot, Jill Magi asks that we travel with her to those sites where we have instantiated our historical consciousness and regularized its narratives. Part lyric, part excavation, Magi’s work mirrors, in a way, the processes she critiques in offering us this: a new form of articulation, political, collective, lyric. It seems that post-9/11 America has become a place where nuance and deliberation have been systematically effaced in public discourse; instead, knowledge, fact, volume, and the language of officialdom stand between us and our lived experience of history. Dedicated to the city of New York, a reader can certainly understand this work as one assembled in response to post-9/11 discourse, but it is not exclusively so. Instead, Magi makes possible (again? for the first time?) those elements of language, thought, and history that have been banished from our (public) consciousness by the demands of national identity, its retaliatory bravado and compulsion for redemption, however illusory. She states:
Wrenched from the tendency to ignore, I want memory wrenched from the
tendency to protest,
from the ruin of argument, saying,
“Come crowd yourself with me in rooms of the ruin.” (122)
Slot takes us to many “rooms of the ruin,” and Magi’s lyric impulse intertwines with languages designed to inform and to prepare, to frame, and to explain. What the lyric impulse offers this collection is a subtle mishearing, a slip of the language, really. These branchings of official discourse, from an examination of the Rosewood massacre to the disturbingly sensationalized Colonial Williamsburg Escaped Slave Program serve to question our memorializing and to implicate it in our language of the present. In Magi’s work, specters of the past haunt these memorials — both living within their narratives and yet somehow always existing outside of them.
An earlier work, Threads, suggested that the search for authentication inevitably leads to the fraying of narrative (historical, personal, or social), and that the “facts” of history are little more than threads of tissues of knowledge, tiny nodes existing in relation to each other — pieces, photos, letters, scraps. Magi’s process of assemblage, then — in Threads a more personal archaeology, in Slot, a broader cultural (and bibliographical) excavation, perhaps — offers us a new way to approach history and to approach the problematic of the lyric speaker without eschewing the potential of consolation. Her work is, in fact, a form of active remembrance, an opening up of implicit finitude of the process of memorialization. While one can take a walking tour of slave quarters or enter through the gate of a concentration camp, these simulations of authentication mistakenly suggest to the visitor — always nameless, always idealized — that the museum, and its extensions into everyday language, is the repository of true experience rather than its approximation.
The danger Magi sees in the rage to historicize and memorialize rests, in part, in its damaging obedience to the language and logic of capital. The “visitor” of Magi’s long book-length hybrid poem is implicated in this sensationalization to which she objects. “The visitor” is the promissory note and justification of this brand of cultural encounter, a passive accomplice to the rendering palatable of historical tragedy. “Please, no more memorials” one voice says; a phrase echoed in other sections of the book, and it is clear that this mindless consumption of historical narrative (and avoidance of its relation to present conditions) is at the heart of the plea.
Slot incorporates its own bibliography into the body of the text, thus turning the book inside out, and troubling our encounter with it. This form of transparency challenges both the reception of the lyric and its Romantic inheritance and the institutions of collection. While Magi unlinks the airtight logic of the architectural construction of museum space and its inherent social relations, so does she reconfigure knowledge with respect to the poem. Here, the long poem appropriates and incorporates the language of the official tour, in part, by challenging its authority though direct address. Where the tour itself is a kind of singular narrative processed and generated for a group of people, it also advertises its expertise — informational, and, in a way, unquestionable.
Dear Floor Plan:
These three photographs that depict the torture and hanging of Frank Embree
were laced together with a twisted purple thread, so as to unfold like a map.
And those of us who came to look at the fascinating distortions of steel have now
been silenced by that tiny figure —
The museum will be an exemplar of accessibility; it will speak different
it will provide access to our stories through a diverse palette of multimedia
Far more affecting are the unaltered fences and blown-up gas chambers.
Tip: You may camp nearby from April to October. (43)
If, as Foucault notes, the examination is the most obvious expression of the functioning of power, one may read the consistent interruptions of “the survey,” and its related questions accordingly. Not only has historical experience been packaged, or slotted, but also the survey, the questionnaire, the guest book, and the viewing instructions have preconditioned our subjective response and, of course, our exit through the gift shop and the relationship this implies. Magi counters:
More than a structure, what do you feel? More than a sentence. (45)
Magi’s Slot works against these architectures of power and reification — both in the sense of the museum space and the space of the book itself. Where the museum consolidates and narrativizes, Slot offers a polyphony of voices and registers, marginalia, and a subtle mishearing. Bits of song inhabit this unlinked territory, as does personal (private) speech. Black and white documentary photos offer counterpoint to these more synthetic narratives, suggesting, in part, that Slot itself is an artifact that organizes through multiplicity; an altogether different sort of museological encounter.
Slot, likewise, considers the “designed” aspect of experience — architectural, situational, or artistic — and offers a sustained meditation on political exigencies inscribed in public space. Indeed, one can trace the threads of her bibliographic procedure and enter public discourse about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, or the representational value of the Twin Towers and the inevitable forgetfulness that is preserved in any attempt to memorialize. Indeed, one may watch an unidentified Berliner jumping from stone to stone at the Holocaust Memorial or consider new configurations of trauma with respect to large-scale processes of suffering and mourning.
Slot, then, is an assemblage of site-specific language, and Magi culls this information stream for bits and pieces of escaped / reshaped knowledge, offering us a sensibility that is comprised of both.
“Various cultures conceive of aberrant behavior as hostile and anti-social and
thus miss what is common and everyday about violence.”
Everyday Violence (93)
Here, the effect is one of slowing down; the distilled “Everyday Violence” is repositioned within her text from the citation presumably included in the book After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City, included in her continuing bibliography. The commentary here, as occurs many times throughout the book, offers a subjective response to mitigate structures of information. Insofar as “Everyday Violence” operates categorically, it mirrors the structural logic so prevalent in the museological encounters she includes in her work. Indeed, a reader might imagine this possible title as one of the forms of address listed above: Dear Everyday Violence. That Slot begins to feel like a self-portrait is a surprise, a result of this long poem in conversation with itself, and a testament to the versatility of the work. Just as we are not meant to draw distinctions between “textual elements,” so are we discouraged from separating out the “lyric speaker”; instead, we must view both subject and her environment as one.
In Slot, both subject and environment are conditioned by history and by its growing repositories of official meaning. Despite this seemingly inescapable progression, Magi’s work is redemptive, in its way. It isn’t the redemption of bravado or vengeance, nor is it the redemption of purification or ascension; instead, Magi’s work testifies to the complexities of the here and now, the multivalent utterance of the present. And despite our growing reliance on a louder and/or more streamlined utterance — soundbyte culture and its talking heads or the too pat facticity of a repackaged history — Magi stitches reality out of tissues and silences, slippages and repositionings, thereby restoring the world to its irreparably damaged yet multifarious grammar.
A review of Geoffrey O'Brien's 'Metropole'
“The struggle’s right, the method obsolete,” writes Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his new long poem Metropole. I can’t help but think of this statement as an initial answer to a question important to so many contemporary poets (and one that Metropole engages formally and thematically throughout): now that Language writing as a new and subversive poetic form has been incorporated to a larger degree into the academic world of important prizes and “essential texts,” and the social and economic power structures it sought to disrupt have grown ever more powerful, what does a satisfactory response to both the “new sentence” (as a poetic form) and late capitalism (as a power structure that poetry might want to trouble) look like? Metropole is, perhaps, O’Brien’s fully elaborated answer; it’s one brilliantly conceived and deserving of generous thought.
In his influential 1987 essay “The New Sentence” Ron Silliman proposes to restore the materiality (or status as a culturally produced construct) of prose writing through a new structure that frustrates and thereby renders conscious its reader’s ability to integrate sentences into higher orders of meaning. Silliman cites and approves of Ferrucio Rossi-Landi’s notion that this kind of integration in prose is generally accomplished through syllogistic leaps.
His proposition relies upon, of course, compositions using the “new sentence”: paragraphs of non sequitur sentences organized, like some poetry, according to quantitative rather than logical principles that remind their consumer of her reading as they constantly solicit and reject syllogistic integration. Instead of a paragraph’s length being a product of its ability to, say, describe a scene or thought, each paragraph will, for example, just contain five sentences. In this kind of writing a measure of meaning(s), often a multiplicity of potential meaning(s), can be achieved between adjacent sentences, but they are purged just as quickly by a third sentence that fails to complete the syllogism. As a reader’s will to integration repeatedly advances, fumbles, and retreats within a paragraph form (that she expects will provide a clear, syllogistic progression) she is left with a distinct experience of the integrative process itself, which, Silliman contends, restores the paragraph’s materiality. I want to quickly stress here that Silliman is thinking about integration at the above sentence level: words, clauses, and grammatical structures that form sentences are not as much under contemplation.
Perhaps it is at the sub-sentence level, then, that it makes sense to begin thinking about O’Brien’s Metropole as a departure from this kind of Language writing text. A quick orientation to the poem: it is a thirty-nine-page prose poem, and there are three paragraphs per page each containing between four and six sentences; superficially, it might resemble a “new sentence” composition. To read it, however, is to realize that Metropole has internalized the disjunctive drama of Silliman’s frustrated syllogisms within the sentence unit and that this drama has evolved from mere obstruction into a type of participatory suspension. The following is a line from the beginning of the poem: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back they’re on now.” This is a fairly simple example of what we can refer to as the “hinge” structure at work in many of the poem’s sentences. I’m going to repeat the line, this time capitalizing the hinge: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t COME BACK they’re on now.” The sentence pivots from the scene of a power outage on a subway train to the command to return once the power has come back on through the shared phrase “come back.”
I think it’s interesting to imagine this hinge structure as the formal enactment of a syllogism. If the first clause (“The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back”) is the first proposition and the second clause (“come back they’re on now”) is the second proposition, then the entire sentence becomes the conclusion and the hinge word or phrase becomes the combinatory principle. This is not to say, of course, that the original propositions integrate perfectly into a conclusion with one intended meaning. Rather, the completed syllogism performs the unit of time encompassing the power outage and the imperative to return. It cannot fully combine the contradictory states of the power off and the power on; instead it accumulates and displays them both.
The scene becomes more complex as we consider its articulation. “The lights go off in all the subway cars” sounds like straightforward narration. It moves into “they won’t come back,” which is a projection of the narration’s future state, occurring most likely in either speech or internal thought. “Come back they’re on now,” as I mentioned before, sounds like spoken imperative, inaugurating a mutual point of reference between speaker and implied recipients (fellow train riders as well as, possibly, the reader). As we progress between the contradictory states of the lights off and on, we also move between perspectival possibilities of the scene’s expression. Further, the moment of returning power coincides with the imperative to come back; the transformation is from darkness and isolation to illumination and sociability accomplished by the grammatical progression of “come back” from the object of the verb “will not” to the imperative, from the negation of activity to activity.
What I want to illustrate here is that rather than simply suppressing integration in the manner of “new sentences,” the sentence as syllogism in Metropole is able to suspend the time unit between lights off and on as it cycles through possible articulations of that time. It accumulates a fluid sequence of meanings that seem to crystallize briefly even as they churn in transit. It is participatory, then, in that readerly action, residence, and perhaps even accomplishment remain possible. Integration is still deeply felt as artificial, but the sentence’s form, modeling the progress from alienated darkness to public light, affords the reader an opportunity to sustain the syllogism. She is left, certainly, with a complex unit from which meanings might unpredictably protrude, but she is left with those accumulated meanings as well as their tentatively integrated sum. Through poetic form, then, an imagined (and partially integrated) world is achieved.
I’d like, in a bit, to continue thinking about this quote as it compromises and enriches what is probably the other most salient formal feature of Metropole: its streaming iambism (that is, every sentence in the poem is nearly perfectly iambic). First, though, some preliminary thoughts about other meanings of the poem’s prosody. This sentence announces many of them: “Chased around the room at night, the cars of conversation seeking refuge on TV, ideas become impossible to know as anything but raw materials added to a pulse.” O’Brien’s recuperation of iambics in the contemporary and prosaic world of the Western Metropole occupies both the music of tradition and the tradition of colonialism and oppression (“raw materials added to a pulse”). It inhabits both the prosody of Romantic lyricism and the incessant, mnemonic drone of capitalist production and standardization that “chases” conversation into television shows and subsumes ideas within commercial possibilities. The point is, again, that the poem doesn’t make a choice; instead, it models and acknowledges readerly potentialities.
So let’s look again at the scene in the subway car. When the hinge (“come back”) modulates from the object of a statement (“They won’t come back”) to spoken imperative (“come back they’re on now”), the accentual stress alters from iamb to spondee, compromising metrical continuity and providing the reader with the option of either preserving the machinelike drone (that both resulted in the scene’s darkness and also is, remember, the rhythm of iambic song) or asserting speech by the next clause’s human interlocutor. In a very helpful discussion between Keston Sutherland and O’Brien in The Claudius App, Sutherland elaborates his own relationship with a similar kind of action:
The decoupling of enjambment from the verse line in “Metropole” makes for a special indeterminacy, as I experience it. I must decide where the break should fall — a test of pleasure and scruple — so that enjambment can be preserved, but also to keep audible the unique forms of terminal stress that are only ever heard in the first and last words in a verse line … One of the most complex tests of metrical discipline — the one that most often forces enjambment into sentences, promoting them from metrical units in prose to verses — is the occurrence of syllables that I would naturally stress if I were speaking, but that the streaming iambism dictates must not be stressed.
I find this idea particularly interesting because it not only details the attention required to maintain the poem’s prosody (an attention that will likely keep the reader focused on the text’s materiality), but also identifies a site in which readerly choice is essential. When spoken stresses are different from stresses intended by the iambism, the task becomes whether and when to privilege meter over semantic coherence. Sutherland goes on to relate his experience of reconciling such an instance by breaking the sentence into two sets of iambic trimeter, resolving a metrical ambiguity but creating the potential for increased semantic ambiguity. If one chooses to order the scene according to meter, then meaning is distorted (acknowledging, perhaps, the pervertive capacity of colonial violence and capitalist commodification). Vice versa and the rhythm falters, the song ceases.
The poem, though, will offer other chances to make this choice and rereading allows the bestowment of alternate privilege: first I read it prioritizing meter, then I read it prioritizing sense made from a pronunciation based in speech. Importantly, one choice isn’t, in the end, any better than the other and the presence of both options amounts to a kind of pedagogical equality with the poem: it can teach me, I can teach it. Again, the relationship between reader and text thus described is very different from both the “fully referential” prose that Silliman challenges and the “new sentence” compositions that he proposes. Referential prose instructs the reader. “New sentences” frustrate the reader and teach her to mind materiality. Grammatically in these instances, the text is the teaching subject and the reader is the object being taught.
By contrast, the pedagogical equality of Metropole that I’m imagining above manages to also manifest itself grammatically in the poem’s “hinge” syntax. I’m again going to capitalize the “hinge” word: “Let the messed-up sheets record a CHILDISHNESS retains its virtues.” Childishness, the object of the first clause, morphs into the subject of the second. Anthropomorphized sheets demean the narrator as “childish” in a world in which things (in this case sheets) objectify the condition of a human speaker. At the moment of the “hinge,” at the moment (if we resume the analogy of this structure to a syllogism) of the combinatory principle, subjectivity is celebrated and wrested back from the commodification that would make us all into objects. That is, as Metropole sustains and accumulates the world’s variety, a utopian chance at individuality occurs at our point of participation and indefinite integration. The text finally offers a glimmer of liberation.
How, then, does Metropole envision the state of contemporary poetics? The world is now perhaps too chaotic for disjunction and non sequitur to seem revolutionary. Instead, prose that neither fully integrates nor fully obstructs is proposed as a way in which readerly effort, participation and instruction might do more than simply enforce textual materiality. They might also create a site in which poetic form can offer a creative and subjective refuge from capitalist uniformity. The text that wants to transcend art and enter the realm of the historical (the “new sentence” desire to reformulate prose on a national (global) scale, moving from an aesthetic object to a historical one) now appears an impossibility if not also a naïve sacrifice of the more intimate freedoms participatory art can afford us. Additionally, the dialogue of historical forms proposed by avant “new sentence” restoration of external verse traditions to experimental prose is more fully elaborated by a form (iambic prose) explicitly defined by this irresolvable dialogue than one (“new sentences”) sporadically informed by it. Where “new sentence” composition employs formal duality toward seductively disjunctive ends, Metropole intentionally renders a conversation about the historical deployment of traditional forms. Again, the emphasis for O’Brien is on communication and analysis; the world seems mutable and beguiling enough on its own.
As a closing I’d like to quickly consider the very short lyric “To Be Read in Either Direction” that precedes Metropole. As the title indicates, “To Be Read In Either Direction” can be read coherently beginning with the first line and reading down or beginning with the last line and reading up; the action is similar to the hinge syntax in Metropole that moves fluidly between clauses. If we continue the analogy of the syllogism to “To Be Read In Either Direction” then the first proposition would be reading the poem forward and the second proposition would be reading the poem backward. The conclusion and the combinatory principle become one and the same site: the poem in its entirety. That is, to engage the poem is to reside in the moment of combination, in a moment of duality that, by its very nature, is impossible to objectify.