Thursday, November 09, 2006

(Re)Language(ing) Poetry(ies) Fei(ai)nt(s)

I remain engaged with so-called Language Poetry, but most often in the way one picks at a scab.

Since Language Poetry is so prevalent nowadays, one of the better-known braids of the twisted rope that is postmodern, post-avant-garde poetry, one must engage with it, even if one is rarely convinced by it. I am occasionally accused of committing Language Poetry, in my more experimental poems: I can't tell if that's general ignorance on the part of the reader, conflating similar-looking things without knowing their antecedents, or if somehow I have been assimilated by the Borg and didn't realize it. Resistance is futile. Your distinctiveness will be added to our collective. Not that I wake screaming in the night worrying about it, or about much of anything else literary; yet one wishes to be oneself, a context of one's own. One wishes to discover one's own voice. If poems of mine seem to appear to be Language Poetry, I can only say that we may have arrived in a similar place, but from very different directions, by different paths, with different intentions.

I generally find the vast majority of Language Poetry to be all surface and no depth. I've read tremendous amounts of it, in various anthologies and individual collections. At its inception, it was a fresh voice that needed to be heard. Much early work still seems impressive, and one or two poets associated with the trend remain interesting to read. But much of it has been self-referential to the point of narcissicism, and guilty many times of excluding the reader(s) entirely. It can be hermetic as well as hermeneutic, deliberately obscure for its own sake, and on occasion more concept than anything else. (More on concept later.)

Language Poetry asserts, implicitly or explicitly, that language is its primary (or only?) field of play, and ignores the rest of experience. This can be tremendous fun. What I question is if it's Deep Play. It can, at its most genuine, be a remarkably vivid way of expressing non-ordinary states of consciousness, and has a knack for expressing stream-of-consciousness. Language Poetry is about language, and as such, it is about itself. It is ultimately recursive. Is language (grammar, syntax) itself a proper subject for poetry?

Yet a lot of Language poems seem like stunts: tricks done by a show dog, with no deep authentic heart in them. Set them side by side with The Sonnets to Orpheus, which remain remarkably avant-garde even now—breakaway sonnets, barely contained or recognizable as sonnets, exploding out of form and content both—and most modern Language poems seem paltry. Yes, there is experiment and adventure in both examples: but is there movement, music, heart? Do they contemplate? Do they move one, at one's core? Is the pleasure all intellectual, or is there something visceral as well: vaguely dangerous, unsettling, sensual? Is it play, or deep play?

I expect to convince no-one of my viewpoint. I expect no vast migrations will be triggered between poetic camps. Nonetheless, I have to ask, because it seems to me (as Philip Larkin put it a half-century ago), Nowadays no one believes in "poetic" subjects. Is language truly the proper subject of poetry, as well as its medium and principal toolset? If language is the proper subject of poetry, what of the rest of life? What else is there to write about?

Perhaps the worst sin of Language Poetry is that it panders mostly to Language Poets. I think it's a sin to dismiss the audience, even as I still believe it a sin to pander to an audience. In this, Language Poetry is no different than the worst of any literary style or genre: the sin of recursive auto-eroticism. You scratch my ass, and I'll scratch yours. This situation is only exaggerated by the move, also in the past half-century, of many poets into teaching positions in the Academy, as tenured professors of creative writing and English programs. The tendency to only talk to one's colleagues, and ignore the rest of the world, is heightened in academic and university settings.

Much of Language Poetry theory that I have encountered discusses the spoken word—poem as speech—which is, after all, essential to poetry. A poem doesn't live only on the page (unless it is meant to be part of a visual art piece, in which case typography and calligraphy provide as much meaning and resonance to the words, as do the meanings of the words themselves), a poem must survive equally spoken loud and read on the page.

I have always had a deep interest in text-sound poetry, by which I mean the sort of thing Richard Kostelanetz and Jerome Rothenberg were promoting in the 1970s; parallel to them, John Cage and others were doing similar things with music. Text-sound poetry is multimedia experience: more than a poem simply being read-aloud, although one can argue that "spoken word" recordings fall under this rubric, more than simply a text treated as a performance-text, but rather creating a musical event from text. This makes text into a score for musical interpretation. Typography and punctuation can become notational rather than formally grammatical: notation, as in score for performance.

I have written and performed text-sound poetry pieces. Are these Language Poems? Not as far as I know. My own intention was, in the course of some tape pieces made in the 1980s, to create musical structures using the human voice as only sonic element. Readings were layered and shaped, edited and processed, treated as musical leitmotifs, cycled and patterned to create musical effects. Most of the texts I used were also taken from my own poems. (Examples of this compositional style can be heard in the pieces Light and in another world. The voices are Stuard Hinds and my own. More material about this can be found on the Music section of my main website.) These pieces, if they are at all successful, are not about language or meaning, but about music and meaning. The meanign emerges not from individual sentences or fragments, but from overall tone, shape, and flow, cinematically rather than grammatically.

I'm all for play, and experimentation, and I'm all for thinking outside the box of tradition. Adventurous writing will almost draw my attention, whether or not it holds it in the long run. However, when one turns around and creates a new box, the new box cannot be claimed to be immune to criticism or rebellion. I am not a counter-revolutionist, a conservative, or a luddite. I am not rebelling against what has become a sort of mainstream by wanting to turn back a metaphoric clock. I am, if anything, dismayed that Language Poetry has become so self-referential, which in my opinion makes it very limited. It cannot speak to the rest of human experience, except via language: where are the silent moments? the equivalents of Cage's seminal 4'33"?

Language Poetry, because it is rooted in language, may come to depend on concept rather than execution, idea rather than tangible object—which can make it a sort of conceptual artform. What are its artistic products? Often, just more ideas. We can discuss conceptual poetics, but what are we discussing, really? When we move from Language Poetry to its even more rarified subset, conceptual poetry, I think things can get even sillier.

Conceptual poetics is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it's a situation where the first person to get into the public eye with the concept (as Marcel Duchamp did with Dada, as did Cage with indeterminacy, as also did Nam June Paik with explicitly conceptual works) gets credited with the idea, even if someone else also had it at the same time—such conceptions are often a product of zeitgeist, and simultaneous discovery occurs.

On the other hand, it's hard not to see a published book of conceptual poetry as a one-trick pony, publishable once but never again. And it's also hard not to see that a conceptual poet could have simply made a one-page proposal (as Paik did for some pieces) without going to the effort (and waste) of producing an actual, published book—I mean, if it's a concept, why not let it remain a concept. (The ecology of paper consumption might become of the equation, as well.) Once you print it, it's an actual book of "poetry," and I resist calling it conceptual poetry at that point, no matter how novel or compelling the concept might be. After all, this is a book that, once you've got the basic idea behind it, what's the point in actually reading it?

Truly conceptual art is never executed. So, if a work of conceptual poetics is actually printed, how can we genuinely call it conceptual? There's the tangible thing: the ding an sich, an idea in itself, actual, present, taking up three-dimensional physical space. After you have it, what do you do with it? Do you actually read it? And if you don't read or peruse a book, what's the purpose of it? I think that's an open question.

I think it's different with an art-book, such as a(n in)famous handmade book with sandpaper covers, that would damage or threaten any other book next to it on the shelf—because in this case the physical fact of the book is still challenging and demanding of encounter. To publish a book of conceptual poetry as an ordinary trade paperback sort of seems to kill the point of its essential difference: just another book on the shelf, sandwiched in between the others, all on the same paper, the same size, etc. In other words, it blends in all too well, and risks being all too forgettable. It loses whatever it was that made it special.

In one way, truly conceptual art cannot be criticized because it never actually gets executed or made. Only the idea of the thing can be discussed, not the thing itself—not the artistic product, as there is none. Then again, in a poetry that is all about ideas, and not embodied in anything more than ideas, maybe it's enough that it exists. One does wonder, though. Once it passes from idea into fact, how do you approach it? The rules change, at that point, and the game changes, too.

This is an opening feint towards a critique of Language Poetry in general. There will be more to come. Perhaps I am merely rebelling against an easy target, the way every generation must rebel against their forebears. Or perhaps, I view some forms of postmodernism in poetry to be sillier than others, and can't resist saying so. For now, let's leave the question open; in the meantime, we can look at certain other strands in the braided rope of postmodernism, and see how much weight and torque they might support.

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