Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, 1981

Photo by Betsi Brandfass

Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman’s tape for an unrealized transcript captures a wealth of improvisatory high-level thinking about particulars of contemporary American class structure and poetry. The result manifests a sustained thread about social formations in contemporary American poetry with strong relevance for the present. Near the end, a phone call is received from Ray DiPalma clarifying details about the group reading of their collectively authored LEGEND four days later.

Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, and Ron Silliman
Bernstein’s apartment, New York City, March 6, 1981
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray DiPalma, and Ron Silliman
Andrews’ apartment, New York City, March 10, 1981
Reading (from LEGEND, 1980):
“This has a veil …” (Andrews, Silliman, section 9)
“1794    Fall of Robespierre …” (Silliman, DiPalma, section 3)
“The sun is so …” (DiPalma, Andrews, Silliman, section 2)
“FLUKE JoY” (Silliman, Andrews, Bernstein, section 22)
An Incident in the Usual Daydream at the Foot of the Blighted Elm Overlooking a Small Town in Indian Summer (Silliman, Bernstein, DiPalma, section 23)
“And / much clouds spun …” (Bernstein, DiPalma, Andrews, Silliman, McCaffery, section 26)

Silliman begins the conversation with a provisional model of “fundamentally two major branches of poetry in the United States, one of which is that which I have heretofore called oppositional […] writing that sees itself consciously attached to some kind of social movement, whether it’s gay liberation, women’s lib, Denise Levertov’s anti-nuclear poems, that whole tendency.” The other branch is everything else, including “this other phenomena [in] which we are all participants […] so-called New American and so-called academic poetry movements […] the St. Mark’s School […] the little cluster of magazines that someone like John Taggart might publish in […] Robert Bly and the whole Midwestern Minnesota connection.” This broad schema is immediately challenged by Andrews who deflates self-evident oppositional efficacy in Silliman’s definition of oppositional: “some of what you could call movement poetry […] that adheres to a specific social movement is not involved with expressing opposition to the larger culture, the larger social structure which excludes those people [and] oppress[es] them. It’s actually articulating the positive qualities of life within that community which [are] crystalized out of that particular movement, so in that sense it’s not content-wise oppositional, it may be very positive, fluffy, soft, supportive, and pro-movement, pro-community.” Andrews contextualizes “oppositional” movement poetries in the totality of cultural values and states how poetries of “cultural hegemony […] so-called highbrow establishment culture” is similarly “a minority community defined by a set of values, defined by readership, defined by audience characteristics,” both within the United States and globally, as “in relation to other countries […] where immediately you see the minority status of high culture in the central imperial power” (the United States) “being defined specifically in relation to practically everything else going on in the world, which is seen as threatening.” Bernstein substantiates this by adding that it is “the very surgence of these minority poetries, minority movements, that allow[s] the definition of this other group, the hegemonic group,” that argues, for example, that “family values are deteriorating.” Andrews expands this to a profounder argument “that the function that culture serves for classes is to constitute and reconstitute them, to stabilize them, reform them, to give them resources in a particular situation of competition […] a much more fluid, combative situation in which classes are being formed and destroyed or hurt […] by these cultural activities.” For Andrews, this is hopeful for agency because “otherwise you just have this sense that […] we’re these little poets on the margin doing something, and the best we can hope for is that it’s going to relate to some already established group like the lesbian movement and we can speak to them, meanwhile the big boys are out there serving the dominant class as though its already set up […] [that] the cultural apparatus and hegemony is already set up […] pushing down on us and it seems very hopeless, but actually those classes are not formed […] [but] constantly in formation and we’re part of that struggle.”

The conversation shifts from cultural values to how forms and contents of social relations constitute social formations. Silliman distinguishes the “completely different role” of correspondence for writers living outside of San Francisco and New York City, the United States’ primary poetry concentrations, where there are “almost no other writers around for them to talk to” than it does “for me living in an urban area” (San Francisco) “with a lot of other writers around who I literally just run into on the street.” In the social form of face-to-face interactions in San Francisco and New York City, the role of face-to-face social graces in constituting social formations has to be acknowledged, as Silliman says “it depends whether or not the people involved can get beyond the social level, which often doesn’t happen […] [to] sit down and talk very aggressively about one another’s work in a very detailed way [….] [T]here are other people I know […] who seem to be unwilling to have a conversation beyond the level of, well, ‘How are the Giants doing?’” Andrews adds that intense face-to-face discussion “may be seen as threatening to community cohesion […] [which] may be enhanced by only having social kinds of personal conversations that don’t deal with work” and that a product of this politeness is that one might temporarily “be buoyed up by the scene but when your scene scattered based on your age group then you might stop [writing].” In complement to the focus on face-to-face social graces, Bernstein emphasizes an acknowledgement about how social antagonisms, not limited to face-to-face social relations, in “the very social facts about the nature of readings, of people feeling burned by other people […] [of] people hav[ing] long memories” can be as “formative […] as intrinsic aesthetic values.” He emphasizes this to attempt to reject social graces and antagonisms as the foundation for his own social formation with Andrews and Silliman: “The way the three of us met originally is not arbitrary, it does not have to do with personal feuds or bad blood or simply arbitrary happenstance, [it] has to do with the fact we have L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine […] with the qualities of the work and of the political context in which the three of us [work].” He acknowledges the fact that he and Andrews “both live in New York, that Bruce got a job here” but that the social formation is still not primarily circumscribed by the regional scene, by “who lives in what city… and who lives nearby.”

The desacralization of mere community reproduction within a perspective of the totality of contending cultural values augments the agency for self-conscious political activity. Bernstein states that “it’s not sufficient to me just to write poetry, because poetry in and of itself is a genre […] even if it itself embodies or states various kinds of political views. I think it’s also necessary to talk and contextualize the work in other traditions of thinking and writing […] to make […] the connection […] [about] what your views are about the current political scene […] because nobody else is going to be able to do it in a way that we might do it.” Andrews complements Bernstein’s impulse to multi-genre self-agency by reclaiming the dearth of poetry institutions as an opportunity: “one of the interesting things to me is […] the large number of dimensions of the work which are in our hands because no one else is picking up on them. In other words, there’s not a gallery system, there’s not critics, a lot of the publishing is done by ourselves. You create your own audiences, in a sense; you don’t plug into a previously established apparatus if you want the work to even get out there.” Andrews also maintains the usefulness of intransigent multiplicity over legible simplicity for a poetic program: “what’s great about that term [Language poets] and the reason it self-destructs is that no one can define it [….] They probably know that if they were ever asked to define the term they’d be totally helpless.”

The LEGEND book and reading can be understood as expressions of such intransigent multiplicity: strategies for poetic communization. LEGEND consists of twenty-six sections in systematic compositional groups: five single-authored sections by each of the five authors, ten double-authored sections by every combination of the five authors, ten triple-authored sections by every combination of the five authors, and one section by all five authors. The recognizability of each author’s contributions is consistently effaced by the sublimation of subjectivity to each collaborative section’s unifying formal characteristics, which enables complementary group performance strategies. The book’s systematicity is reflected in the logic of the selections for the reading: two double-authored sections, three triple-authored sections, and the quintuple-authored section.

“This has a veil …” (Andrews, Silliman) consists of fifty sets of statements and creative translations. The regularity of the form grounds the variety of the translations’ riffs. Andrews and Silliman take turns with the roles of reading statements and translations and switch roles every ten sets.

“1794    Fall of Robespierre …” (Silliman, DiPalma) consists of ninety-nine unattributed biographical items indexed to dates ranging from 1066 to 1978. Most of the details are socially legible to be reattributed to historical subjects, such as the first item’s legibility for its relationship to the French Revolution. The opaque details, particularly private or vague, suggest the ultimately lossy transfer of the totality of biographical details, even those of highly legible subjects, through inscription to the historical archive. The piece also includes Silliman’s biographical details, which form a surrogate subject under development empowering a subject's agency toward potentially inscribing the immensity of the historical archive. DiPalma, Bernstein, Silliman, and Andrews take turns reading one item each in that repeating order.

“The sun is so …” (DiPalma, Andrews, Silliman) consists of one hundred five line units over four pages. DiPalma, Andrews, and Silliman take turns reading one line each on the first page, two lines each on the second page, three lines each on the third page, and four lines each on the fourth page in that repeating order.

“FLUKE JoY” (Silliman, Andrews, Bernstein) is a heterogeneous formal structure saturated with empty units signified by underscores. Andrews establishes rules for a collective improvisation by all four performers: “we just read it from […] top to bottom […] and you sort of decide ahead of time what phrases you want to read […] so when you get to that point, one or two or three people are going to read that phrase.” The underscores are realized as nonlinguistic buzzing sounds.

“An Incident in the Usual Daydream at the Foot of the Blighted Elm Overlooking a Small Town in Indian Summer” (Silliman, Bernstein, DiPalma) is a prose block of one hundred seventy sentences saturated with interrogatives over three pages. Bernstein, Silliman, and DiPalma read, in that repeating order, three sentences each on the first page, two sentences each on the second page and reverse their order after sentence eighty-six, halfway through the number of sentences, and one sentence each on the third page.

“And / much clouds spun …” (Bernstein, DiPalma, Andrews, Silliman, McCaffery) is a heterogeneous formal structure saturated with quotations by theorists Rudolf Bahro, Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx, and Ferruccio Rossi-Landi. The four performers read it as a collective improvisation like “FLUKE JoY.”

“This has a veil …,” “1794    Fall of Robespierre …,” “The sun is so …,” and “An Incident in the Usual Daydream at the Foot of the Blighted Elm Overlooking a Small Town in Indian Summer”’s performances center language’s communization in the text, by how their homogeneous forms and the constraint of the physical page enable automated performance strategies. “FLUKE JoY”’s collective improvisation centers the language’s communization in the presence of performance, through the libidinal production of live interplay and nonlinguistic sound. “And / much clouds spun …”’s collective improvisation also centers language’s communization in presence through live interplay but simultaneously is conditioned by absence through the performance of language of others including the explicitly quoted theorists and the absent fifth composer, Steve McCaffery. The essential element enabling language’s communization in performance is the effacement of the recognizability of each author’s contributions by the sublimation of subjectivity to unifying form.

The characteristics of “oppositional” poetries and social relations have significantly changed in the present, but remain concerns of primary importance, especially in the context of the recent resurgence of social movements, presently most significantly with the “Occupy” phenomenon which poetry has been and will undoubtedly continue to be written about, and the proliferation and easing of correspondence as constitutive of social formations by the internet while San Francisco and New York City remain the poetry centers of the United States. Andrews, Bernstein, DiPalma, and Silliman provide resources of thinking and poetic practice toward a perspective of the totality of contending cultural values for self-conscious political activity beyond mere community reproduction, even as paradigms of social formation have changed.

Next commentary: Henry Hills, MONEY, 1985.