Barrett Watten

My presentism

Entry 5

Boycott Language

West Bank barrier wall, c. 2009; photo: Reuters

In a post on Jacket2, "Boycott Language" might mean the Poetry Wars of the 80s, when a boycott mentality around Language writing was manifest in certain quarters of the public sphere. My cover image says otherwise; it is evidence of the ongoing human rights horror in Israel and occupied Palestine that should be at the forefront of political discussion now. As a poet and critic attentive to "language," I want to contrbute to the current debate on the boycott of Israeli universities advocated by the BDS movement and the American Studies Association, along with the more narrow but also controversial resolution on the rights of Palestinian scholars to travel to the West Bank by the Modern Language Association.

Entry 4

MLA Dream

Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten at The Vulnerable Rumble, Chicago, 1/11/14
BW and Lyn Hejinian at The Vulnerable Rumble

Let me set the scene. Getting to MLA was difficult, involving two attempts at traversing Michigan, one blocked by light snow over black ice, obscuring the lanes, and the other hindered by a hundred miles of freezing fog. But what could be better than the entry to the conference hotel after that? The first person one sees is an augury — it was Jonathan Eburne, energetic promoter of surrealism and the avant-garde. Next, in the lobby, was David Lloyd, intent on networking for the policy discussion on travel to Palestine (see forthcoming post on the BDS campaign). Whatever it was that drew me here, now is the moment and this is MLA. And there were sessions, disappointing to be sure in many instances but confirming in others; the book display, with major presses like UC, UPNE, and New Directions not attending; the Pavlovian wine and cheese at 5 in the book display, leading to the perennial overflowing hotel bar, overlooking ice breaking on the Chicago River.

Entry 3

More on Orono

Joshua Clover has written a response to my previous post on the Orono decades conference, titled “Baraka/the divide,” that warrants one in return. In it, he describes his own positionality in relation to Amiri Baraka’s intevention at my plenary talk at the Poetry in the Sixties conference, and draws conclusions about the disconnect between academic Marxists and Third-World liberationists that persist to this day. Score a point for my argument on presentism and historicism: there is no pure present to which politics or poetry may lay claim. But first, a nicety of protocol: when I agreed to write this commentary for Jacket2, I did not imagine a debate among contributors as one of its concerns. The open comment line on poetry lists and blogs, infested by the perennial oedipalism of the sub-sub world, is now a thing of the past; it would seem the moment I put my head above the trenches in virtual space, it would be on me in a flash.  

Entry 2


There is a cunning of reason in the deployment of the negative, in that sooner or later it's going to all work out (or not). Having invested my '50s contribution in the spectral image of Bettie Page, I was able to recoup when offered a plenary role at the Poets of the 60s conference (2000) — and I decided to make maximal use of the occasion. Stopping off to visit Maria Damon on the road up to Orono, I remember telling her — as I previewed the documentary Berkeley in the 60s and Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point — that I wanted to restage the '60s, as part of the conference. . . . I thought an immediate return to the politics of the '60s, in actual practice, was more than required (doubly so in the face of persistent demands by neoconservatives that it be eradicated from our history). In my multimedia presentation, I tried to reconstruct a context for the poetry's "turn to language" in the conditions of of public discourse of the period, focusing on Berkeley as a site and Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals as a text, using Ernesto Laclau as theorist.
          From the back row, Amiri Baraka launched an impassioned attack on my claim that the politics of the student movement was any kind of politics at all, and that went as well for the antiwar movement (which Baraka associated with his own debate with Allen Ginsberg). And the rest is history — Baraka and I agreed that we would hold an impromptu debate in a student cafeteria, which we located for an unauthorized event . . . . As it happened, the discussion turned into a high-volume, low-content wrangle, so that the tape recording my son Asa made of it is destined straight for the archival vault — there will be no transcription or circulating of that! In defense of this misfire, I can only say that I am sure Baraka and I had the same goal in mind — to encourage debate and to decrease fear of confronting, particularly, race as a public issue. Was I prepared to do so, at that level? Yes and no. I learned a great deal of what I did not know of the '60s and about race from the encounter.
          — from "Thinking Through Orono," Sagetrieb 20/Paideuma 40 (2013): 99-100

The first mail of the New Year brought the special double issue of Sagetrieb/Paideuma, a well-edited and moving festschrift in honor of Burton Hatlen, whose contributions to poetry are well known to readers. What is less recognized about Hatlen are his populist/Left sympathies, which helped overturn (or at least substantially rethink) the author-centered modernism of the Pound tradition, and that is not nothing for poetics.

Entry 1


Writing in the absolute present (which fades away as I write), I am looking down on a field that was once a stretch of the Berlin Wall, now restored to native grasses. It had been storming last night, but this morning I see someone just waking up who had slept in the middle of the field, under a white blanket. His or her hair also appears to be white. To what degree were trust or terror a factor in selecting that site, from an "open field" of possibility?  — “Reverse Maps,” Grand Piano 4:67

Every presentism is a historicism, and vice versa. I have been writing, over the past several years, on the concept of the historical “date” — neither narrative nor nonnarrative, but the index of a punctual unit of calendar time. This date, for instance, is marked as the first of the New Year, and I am looking forward to the present as it unfolds over the year.