Language Poets Essay - Critical Essays

Language Poets


Language Poets

A literary movement primarily rooted in the United States, Language Poetry began in the late 1960s and became defined through L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and several anthologies published in the 1970s. The poets associated with the movement—Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, Hannah Weiner, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Steve Benson, among others—are interested in the social and political dimensions of language, as well as in the ways in which it actually functions. For instance, where traditional poetry would typically use language to convey something else—a sunset, strong emotion, etc.—Language Poetry will often take language itself as the subject of such exploration. As McCaffery explains, however, Language Poetry is more of a disposition than a movement, allowing for a great deal of diversity between individual poets. As the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine explained, the group encompasses “a spectrum of writing that places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter.” Some of the significant influences on Language Poetry include Surrealism, Russian Formalism, and eighteenth-century rhetorical poetry.

The Language Poets generally criticize the idea that a poem should be organized primarily around the “self” (the narrative persona of the poem), and they are against the notion that the poet is at the center of his or her poem. Through minimalist and experimental uses of language, they strive to demonstrate that ideas and events exist independently of the poet and do not necessarily refer to “reality.” Several of the poets have, therefore, used language ways that challenge traditional notions of poetry. For example, they have used pre-lexical constructions—random combinations of letters and symbols, or codes of various sorts—to call attention to the fact that meaning is elusive; they have deconstructed language by physically manipulating it to complicate its meaning; and they have worked with alternative ways to render text on the page by using spacing, hinged constructions, or superimposing one text over another. In calling attention to the text as a text and to reality as a construct, many Language Poets manipulated the illusion of created reality through poetry and have become fascinated with composition influenced by clairvoyance or schizophrenia. Language Poetry also extends to social and political concerns since the poets believe that traditional language is responsible for perpetuating a traditional social order that contributes to the preservation of capitalism. In reaction, many Language Poets offer a leftist or Marxist critique of American society in their poetry and literary criticism and have even developed alternative ways of publishing and distributing their work in order to escape the restrictions of traditional capitalist business practices.

Many literary critics—for example Lee Bartlett, Jerome McGann, and Marjorie Perloff—have praised the inventiveness and reformist impulses of the Language Poets and have saluted the success of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. But the group has also received its share of criticism for the difficulty of its works and for what some critics perceive as elitist tendencies. In recent years, Douglas Messerli, Barrett Watten, and Marjorie Perloff have written about the individual literary styles that have grown out of the Language group and its shared aesthetic. Several critics also have explored various influences on the Language Poets. For example, George Hartley has explored their place in the avant-garde tradition; Watten has traced the group's connection to Surrealism; Lynn Emanuel has pointed out their kinship with Formalism; and Kornelia Freitag and Judith Goldman have focused on women Language Poets, who have adapted their technique and methodology in unique ways to suit their sensibilities.

Representative Works

Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E [editors] (journal) 1979-83
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book [editors] (poetry) 1983

Christopher Beach
Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics [editor] (poetry) 1998

Steve Benson
Blindspots (poetry) 1981

Charles Bernstein
Controlling Interests (poetry) 1980
Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (essays) 1986
My Way: Speeches and Poems (speeches and poetry) 1998

Clark Coolidge
A Geology (poetry) 1981

Robert Grenier and Barrett Watten
This [editors] (journal) 1971

Carla Harryman
Under the Bridge (poetry) 1980

Lyn Hejinian
My Life (poetry) 1980

Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten
Poetics Journal [editors] (journal) 1982-98

Susan Howe
Hinge Picture (poetry) 1974
Chanting at the Crystal Sea (poetry) 1975
Secret History of the Dividing Line (poetry) 1978
Cabbage Gardens (poetry) 1979
Defenestration of Prague (poetry) 1983
My Emily Dickinson (essays) 1985
A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (poetry) 1989
Frame Structures (poetry) 1996

Steve McCaffery
North of Intention (essays) 1986

Douglas Messerli
“Language” Poetries: An Anthology [editor] (poetry and essays) 1987

Michael Palmer
Blake's Newton (poetry) 1972
The Circular Gates (poetry) 1974
Without Music (poetry) 1977
Notes for Echo Lake (poetry) 1981
First Figure (poetry) 1984
At Passages (autobiography) 1995

Bob Perelman
The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (essays) 1996

Leslie Scalapino
Considering How Exaggerated Music Is (poetry) 1982

Ron Silliman
Ketjak (poetry) 1974
Alcheringa [editor] (journal) 1975
Tjanting (poetry) 1981
The Age of Huts (poetry) 1986
In the American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism (poetry and essays) 1986
The New Sentence (essays) 1987

Barrett Watten
Total Syntax (essays) 1984
Frame (1971–1990) (collected poems) 1997

Hannah Weiner
Clairvoyant Journal (poetry) 1978
Nijole's House (poetry) 1981
Code Poems (poetry) 1982
Sixteen (poetry) 1983
Spoke (poetry) 1984
silent teachers remembered sequel (poetry) 1994

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Ron Silliman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Silliman, Ron. “Language, Realism, Poetry.” In In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman, pp. xv-xxiii. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

[In following introduction to his anthology of Language Poetry, written in 1984, Silliman briefly comments on the origin and development of the movement.]

“I Hate Speech.” Thus capitalized, these words in an essay entitled “On Speech,” the second of five short critical pieces by Robert Grenier in the first issue of This, the magazine he cofounded with Barrett Watten in winter, 1971, announced a breach—and a new moment in American writing.

As his essay was careful to make...

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Lee Bartlett (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Bartlett, Lee. “What Is ‘Language Poetry?’” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 4 (summer 1986): 741-52.

[In the following essay, Bartlett discusses some of the chief characteristics of the Language Poetry movement as described by several poets and literary critics.]

W. H. Auden, the sometimes Greta Garbo of twentieth-century poetry, once told Stephen Spender that he liked America better than England because in America one could be alone. Further, in his introduction to The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse Auden remarked that while in England poets are considered members of a “clerkly caste,” in America they are an “aristocracy of one.”...

(The entire section is 5140 words.)

Barrett Watten (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Watten, Barrett. “Method and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.” In In the American Tree, edited by Ron Silliman, pp. 599-612. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

[In the following essay, Watten focuses on Surrealism in postwar American art and how the Language Poets incorporated it into their methodology.]

Method in American art after the war incorporated numbers of Surrealist concepts. Traces of automatism and objective chance fuse in the renegotiated value for “the self.” That recognition and the self are equivalent terms is coded into a wide range of art work. Logically, “the method that is no method,” which so many artists have claimed, is consistent...

(The entire section is 4945 words.)

Jerome McGann (review date 15 October 1987)

SOURCE: McGann, Jerome. “Language Writing.” London Review of Books 9, no. 18 (15 October 1987): 6-8.

[In the following review of two anthologies of Language Poetry, McGann sketches the characteristics of the Language Poets' style and philosophy.]

In 1918, the intensity of Yeats's fascination with the young American phenomenon Ezra Pound had cooled enough for Jack Butler Yeats to supply his son with some smouldering paternal wisdom:

The poets loved of Ezra Pound are tired of Beauty, since they have met it so often … I am tired of Beauty my wife, says the poet, but here is that enchanting mistress Ugliness. With her I will live...

(The entire section is 3821 words.)

Jerome J. McGann (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: McGann, Jerome J. “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes.” Critical Inquiry XIII, no. 3 (1987): 624-47.

[In following essay, McGann addresses the social and political implications of the Language Poets' ideas about style and method.]

Opposition is true friendship.

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

that the vanishing point might be on every word.

—Lyn Hejinian, “Grammar and Landscape”

What is the significance of that loose collective enterprise, sprung up in the aftermath of the...

(The entire section is 10574 words.)

Douglas Messerli (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Messerli, Douglas. Introduction to Language Poetries: An Anthology, edited by Douglas Messerli, pp. 1-11. New York: New Directions Books, 1987.

[In following introduction to his anthology of Language Poetry, Messerli emphasizes that, while Language Poets as a group constitute “a true community of thought,” their work is also highly individual.]

In a decade in which so many poets and critics have expressed dismay over an ever-shrinking audience for contemporary poetry and have decried what they see as a decline in the cultural and political vitality of poetry and poetics, we have also witnessed something else: an almost meteoric rise in the publications and...

(The entire section is 3569 words.)

George Hartley (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hartley, George. “‘endless PROTEANL inkages’: Language Poetry and the Avant-Garde Tradition.” In Textual Politics and the Language Poets, pp. 1-25. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hartley demonstrates the stylistic and ideological connection between Language Poetry and the avant-garde tradition in American poetry.]

I begin this essay with an apparent oxymoron: avant-garde tradition. As art critic Rosalind Krauss explains in her essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” one of the key myths of early twentieth-century avant-garde art is its original status, its supposed separation from the “corrupt”...

(The entire section is 10389 words.)

Lynn Emanuel (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Emanuel, Lynn. “Language Poets, New Formalists, and the Techniquization of Poetry.1” In Poetry after Modernism, edited by Robert McDowell, pp. 199-221. Ashland, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Emanuel explores the similarities and differences between the methods of Language Poets and those of the New Formalists, concluding that the two groups have much in common.]

There has never been a society—until our own—in which all representations are available equally to any observer at any time. That we are rapidly approaching such a condition (or have reached it) is the result of complex social...

(The entire section is 6817 words.)