Michael Golston: Improbable history — Jennifer Ashton's misrepresentations

Jennifer Ashton,  From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). [Michael Golston's review was originally published in the William Carlos Williams Review, Volume 28, Number 1-2, Spring/Fall 2008. Reprinted by permission of the author.]

I once had the good fortune to take a course with U.C. Berkeley’s Julian Boyd on the history of the English language. Occasionally, as a student in the class struggled with the finer points of deontic modality or the differences between “shall” and “will,” Boyd would suddenly glare at whomever was speaking and announce with mock sternness, “You are exactly wrong.” 


 That’s how I feel about Jennifer Ashton’s book. It is subtly argued; it deals with challenging material; and it is exactly wrong. Ashton proposes to rewrite the history of American poetry by arguing that “the postmodern criticism that understands itself as a repudiation of a once mainstream New Criticism should be understood instead [. . .] as its continuation” (179). Charles Bernstein, she claims, “turns out to be a belated incarnation of I. A. Richards” (118); Steve McCaffery and Lyn Hejinian are the ideological heirs of Wimsatt and Beardsley; and “the language movement’s place in the history of twentieth-century poetic theory is not as a repudiation of New Criticism but as its reassertion” (98). Ashton lobs any number of these counterintuitive critical bombshells in a calculated effort to provoke maximum shock and awe among members of the pomo poetry crowd.


As Barrett Watten’s comments [in the epigraph below] show, this idea is hardly new, and was perceived early on as a critical issue (and a scholarly mistake) by the founders of the “language movement” (a phrase that Ashton uses with alarming looseness). The New Criticism and Language poetics are different, acording to Watten, because they are based on different models of language; their only similarity is a superficial interest in literature as an object of study. By cherry-picking her sources, Ashton generalizes this and other surface similarities between New Critical and language poetics to argue for a “history” of postmodernism that is finally untenable.

Barrett Watten: There’s a real confusion in American criticism as to how close the Formalists were to [the New Critics]. The Formalists saw language as relative to itself; the New Critics basically saw language as symbols for objects … The only similarity is that they saw literature as an object for study. But their models of language were vastly different. — “Russian Formalism and the Present,” 1980 (Watten 29–30)

The best parts of Ashton’s study concern modernist poetics. Her chapter on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky is a concise summary of what the “objective” in “objectivism” means; she argues that these three “old literalists,” as she calls them, are committed in their different ways to turning nouns into things. She is also astute at rehearsing the reasons for (Riding) Jackson’s decision in the early 1940s to renounce poetry, showing how for (Riding) Jackson, paradoxically, “for the poem to mean it must not be” (110). Ashton is at her strongest in these chapters; her grasp of the issues informing the “objectivist critique of metaphor,” as she terms it, enables her to clarify important aspects of modernist poetics. 

Ashton is less convincing when it comes to Gertrude Stein. She charts Stein’s “movement from what she [Stein] understands as a phenomenological model of composition to a logical one” (32), arguing that Stein wants to “revitaliz[e] nouns by making them work like names” (89). Stein allegedly thereby produces texts that “have nothing to do with the reader” (93) and thus shuts off the “indeterminacy” identified by critics like Marjorie Perloff as the distinguishing mark of avant-garde poetry. Accordingly, Ashton claims, Stein practices “a logical formalism irrevocably at odds with both the phenomenological commitments of poststructuralist linguistics and the materialist commitments of language poetry” (68). But while this may be true of a rune poem like “Rose is a rose is a rose,” it is not clear how Ashton’s method works when applied to longer, more complicated pieces, since she provides no readings of any of Stein’s poems. How would she treat, say, Perloff’s explications of “Mary Nettie” and “Arthur a Grammar” in Wittgenstein’s Ladder (83-112)? or Watten’s discussion of late Stein texts (The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics [118–26])? How exactly do such works discourage interpretive participation? Ashton’s overall strategy is to inflate narrow passages from writers’ theoretical statements into broad categorical principles, but she rarely goes on to show how her claims work.

 Ashton stumbles when she turns to postmodernism and language poetry. Her thesis is that Stein and (Riding) Jackson have been misappropriated by the language poets due to an ongoing and “pervasive theoretical effort” to displace the “meaning” of a text by the reader’s experience of it, a project that she claims links theorists like Perloff, Bernstein, and Hejinian to the New Critics. According to Ashton, neither Stein nor (Riding) Jackson had time for such a reader-friendly aesthetic and in fact articulated their respective poetics against adventures in interpretation. The language poets and other “postmodernists” misconstrue a studied indifference to the reader as an invitation to participate in the making of the “meaning” of the poem. Ashton argues that this postmodern imperative that the reader “experience” the poem rather than “read” it parallels the New Critical commitment to the poem as an autonomous object (10).  

Perhaps there are rhetorical parallels here, but ultimately New Critical “experience” and “participation” are not the same as language poetry “experience” and “participation.” Generally speaking, the language poets conceive of the poem as a locus for linguistic experiment in a manner that would have been anathema to the New Critics, for whom, in the words of I. A. Richards in Poetries and Sciences—a text that figures importantly in Ashton’s study—poetry begins as “the possibility of emotional experience instigated, if not wholly controlled, through ordered words” (48). For Richards, “the business of the poet […]  is to give order and coherence, and so freedom, to a body of experience” (57). Does this sound like Charles Bernstein, Richard’s supposed “belated incarnation?”—he for whom writing is “a process of pushing whatever way, or making the piece cohere as far as can: stretching my mind—to where I know it makes sense but not quite why—suspecting relations that I understand, that make the sense of the ready-to-hand” (39)? For the New Critic, poetry controls thought by ordering language; for the language poet, poetry provokes thought by disordering language. While both Richards and Bernstein may articulate a poetics of “embodiment,” their respective versions of what this means and where it leads are diametrically opposed, although one would never learn this from reading Ashton’s book.

These differences arise because, as Watten pointed out over twenty years ago, the two schools subscribe to different models of language. The language poets generally conflate language with thinking: in Bernstein’s words, “there are no thoughts except through language” (49). For Richards, this is not the case: "The poet […] uses [certain] words because the interests whose movement is the growth of the poem combine to bring them, just in this form, into his consciousness. […] The experience itself, the tide of impulses sweeping through the mind, is the source and the sanction of the words. They represent this experience itself.[...] (33) According to Richards, consciousness exists prior to words, which are “brought into” the mind by its “interests” and “represent” its experience—hence Watten’s “language as symbols for objects.” But for Bernstein, words are “the means by which the world is constituted” (61), and as such are prior to consciousness: as a “syntactical exploration of consciousness” (48), poetic language doesn’t “represent” experience, but generates it –– even for the author.

This leads to other important differences. Richards tells us in Poetries and Sciences that poetry consists of the “records” of “the rarest individuals” who achieve the “moral ordering of the impulses” in the wake of the decline of the “moral authorities…of the old order” (40): poetry as consolation for the unmoored modernist subject. The poet is “the master of speech, because in the creative moment he is the master of experience itself” (45). The language poet poses neither as the “master of speech” nor as “the master of experience,” because for the “postmodernist,” as Bruce Andrews puts it, “[a]uthor dies, writing begins. The subject loses authority, disappears, is *unmade* into a network of relationships, stretching indefinitely” (54). This is the very decentered subject against which (or whom) Richards articulates his therapeutic poetics.

Ashton makes other misleading generalizations about language poetics. Key to her argument is her claim that for Perloff, Hejinian, and Bernstein, the “literalist” text leads to “the condition that makes every reading both different from and equal to every other in constituting the text” (3). But here is Bernstein in 1980: in the works of Watten and Ron Silliman, he says, “the operant mechanisms of meaning are multiplied and patterns of projection in reading are less restricted. The patterns of projection are not, however, undetermined. The text operates at a level that not only provokes projections by each sentence but by the sequencing of the sentences suggests lines or paths for them to proceed along.” (37) The qualifications that Bernstein makes here are ignored entirely by Ashton; certainly Bernstein does not appear to be arguing for either the inherent equality or the necessary difference of every reader’s reading. Similarly, here is Hejinian from 1983: “Moreover, though the ‘story’ and ‘tone’ of such works may be interpreted differently by different readers, nonetheless the readings differ within definite limits. While word strings are permissive, they do not license a free-for-all” (51). How is this a statement promoting open-ended and “equal” readings? And readers of Perloff’s work will know that her very particular brand of close reading leads to very particular ranges of “indeterminacy.”

 This generalizing mars the book in other ways; for instance, Ashton includes Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, and Jorie Graham under her umbrella rubrics “postmodernist” and “the language movement,” terms that she never bothers to define. Neither Ashbery after The Tennis Court Oath nor Jorie Graham at any time in her career can be accommodated to language practice; the dissimilarities go back to what Watten noted as the difference between New Critical and Russian Formalist models of language. While all four writers might very well be classifiable as “postmodern”—depending on how one defines the term—only Andrews can be called a language poet—and the difference is critical.

Ashton often either elides important information or misrepresents her authors’ points of view. For instance, she argues for the centrality of Derrida to the language poets’ sense of “linguistic indeterminacy” (82-83), but Bernstein explicitly argues against Derridean indeterminacy in “The Objects of Meaning: Reading Cavell Reading Wittgenstein” (1979) (165-183). Bernstein and Silliman are much more qualified in their comments about (Riding) Jackson than Ashton lets on; and  Perloff does not “identify zaum poetry with Concrete Poetry” (5). She writes that Khlebnikov’s “call for the “living conversational word” in its “spiritual” dimension...looks ahead to such diverse poetic developments as the Concrete Poetry of Brazil” (129)—but “to look ahead to” is surely not “to identify with.” 

There is a telling elision in Ashton’s discussion of Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism. She twice quotes the last line of Perloff’s book: “ours may well be the moment when the lessons of early modernism are finally being learned” (200). The first time, Ashton reproduces the line accurately (7), but the second time, she leaves out the crucial adjective “early” (10). Is there no difference in Ashton’s thinking, then, between “early” modernism and “modernism”? Perloff ‘s “literalism,” which has to do with an antisymbolist impulse in early modernist poetry, is not, finally, Michael Fried’s “literalism” of half a century later, with its “obdurate materiality of the object” affording “infinitely expansive” possibilities, “as many and varied as the beholders who might approach it” (6). Perloff would never accede to such a position when it comes to reading poetry; Watten, for a different reason, is even more adamant: “There is no parallel between the art object and the poem, and the discourses that can be based on these two kinds of art are going to be of necessity very different. Poems are temporal; they have no object status” (216).

 After all, what would Wimsatt and Beardsley make of a poem by Bruce Andrews? If Bernstein is Richards’s avatar, why are their respective poetries so different? Ashton misses the nuances that make of “the language movement” the complicated nonmovement that it always has been; she ignores the obvious differences between New Criticism and language poetics; and she fails to take into account the many other philosophical and critical schools that feed into late-century experimental American writing. While impressive in the exactness with which she’s wrong, her generalizations miss the details that make all the difference. By ignoring such details, Ashton constructs an altogether improbable history of American poetry and theory in the twentieth century.

Works Cited 

Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein, eds.  The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Bernstein, Charles.  Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984.  Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000.
Perloff, Marjorie.  21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics.  Malden: Blackwell,  2002.
——. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the    Ordinary.  Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Richards, I. A.  Poetries and Sciences: A Reissue of Science and Poetry (1926, 1935)  with Commentary.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.
Watten, Barrett. The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003.
––. Total Syntax.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.  “Russian Formalism and the Present” was first published   in 1980 in Hills 6-7 (50-73).