Language Poets Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.