Language Poets Criticism: Selected Major Figures In Language Poetry - Essay

Michael Palmer and Keith Tuma (interview date spring 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, Michael, and Keith Tuma. “An Interview with Michael Palmer.” Contemporary Literature XXX, no. 1 (spring 1989): 1-12.

[In the following interview, which took place in 1986, Palmer discusses some theoretical influences on his poetry.]

Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943 and educated at Harvard, where he received an M.A. in comparative literature. His books of poems include Blake's Newton (1972), The Circular Gates (1974), and Without Music (1977) from Black Sparrow Press, and Notes for Echo Lake (1981) and First Figure (1984) from North Point Press. He lives in San Francisco, where he is on the faculty...

(The entire section is 4693 words.)

George Hartley (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hartley, George. “Realism and Reification: The Poetics and Politics of Three Language Poets.” In Textual Politics and the Language Poets, pp. 53-75. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hartley explores connections between the politics and poetics of three Language Poets—Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, and Bruce Andrews.]

In the “Politics of Poetry” double issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine (9/10 [October 1979] Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein published a forum on the views of various so-called Language poets on the politics of their writing. The common editorial procedure for that magazine was to publish...

(The entire section is 10787 words.)

Kornelia Freitag (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Freitag, Kornelia. “Writing Language Poetry as a Woman: Susan Howe's Feminist Project in A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike.Amerikastudien/American Studies 40, no. 1 (1995): 45-57.

[In the following essay, Freitag argues that Howe's work should be viewed in the context of both feminist writing and post-structural philosophical thought.]

Yes, gender difference does affect our use of language, and we constantly confront issues of difference, distance, and absence, when we write. That doesn't mean I can relegate women to what we “should” or “must” be doing. Orders suggest hierarchy and category. Categories...

(The entire section is 5924 words.)

Barrett Watten (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watten, Barrett. “Total Syntax: The Work in the World.” In Artifice & Indeterminacy: An Anthology of New Poetics, edited by Christopher Beach, pp. 49-69. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Watten discusses the interplay between the speaker's identity and the outside world in the poetry of Ron Silliman and Steve Benson.]

The querying of the status of the “other” is a central motive in the work of Ron Silliman and Steve Benson. “A bus ride is better than most art”—a total syntax is not limited to art but extends into larger structures. The paradigm of art or the position of the writer establishes not...

(The entire section is 3160 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (essay date spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman's ‘Albany,’ Susan Howe's ‘Buffalo’.” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (spring 1999): 405-34.

[In the following essay, Perloff explores the styles and themes of several of the Language Poets, focusing on their development of “difference”—or an individual lyrical identity—in their works.]

The “personal” is already a plural condition. Perhaps one feels that it is located somewhere within, somewhere inside the body—in the stomach? the chest? the genitals? the throat? the head? One can look for it and already one is not oneself, one is several, incomplete,...

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Judith Goldman (essay date summer 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldman, Judith. “Hannah-hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (summer 2001): 121-33.

[In the following excerpt, Goldman comments on how Weiner's Code Poems and Clairvoyant Journal reflect her personal ethics and composition style.]

In August of 1972, Hannah Weiner, an accomplished and highly politicized performance artist and poet, began to receive a remarkable form of “dictation.”1 Printed words of all sizes bombarded Weiner; she saw these words in the air, on every available surface, on people, on the page before she wrote them, and on her forehead from within. Weiner called her “psychic” ability to see words “clairvoyance.” She developed a mode of poetic writing, “clair-style,” that incorporated words and phrases clairvoyantly seen, eventually composing through these seen elements exclusively. In such groundbreaking works as Clairvoyant Journal (1978), LITTLE BOOKS/INDIANS (1980), Sixteen (1983), Spoke (1984), and silent teachers remembered sequel (1994), Weiner did not so much experiment with existing literary models to document the experience of clairvoyance as she created a number of startlingly raw and enormously complex poetic forms, becoming a heroic figure at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in Manhattan and in the bicoastal school of Language writing.

Weiner let no representation of herself circulate that did not take her status as a clairvoyant into account, as, for instance, her introduction to Nijole's House (1981) demonstrates: “All Words Believe it Seen I ams a clairvoyant” (3).2 To read Weiner's poetry is thus to confront her claim to clairvoyance, which makes the critical reception of her work an incredibly complicated matter: her emphatic experiential claims and the terms on which she makes them at once legitimate her poetry a priori as testimony and overtly perform as a persuasive strategy within what are extremely self-consciously literary works. Either set of terms requires that we read clairvoyance other than as a symptom of schizophrenia, an illness with which Weiner had been diagnosed.3

I want to suggest, however, that in naming the phenomena by which words were given to her to be seen “clairvoyance,” Weiner alerts us to the peculiar status of her texts without allowing us to medicalize and dismiss them. For her poetry, arriving from elsewhere in ordinary language, can only become deviant if we decide to make it so from the outset. Indeed, Weiner creates not only an enabling, but a strikingly innovative and important position from which to write: she engages the occultations entailed by linguistic abstraction and signals that she is enabled to do so through a banalized version of the occult. However nonvolitional, clairvoyance is a technique for estranging the normalcy that mystifies us. And Weiner's tactic of reverse discourse, one that appears to trade the blindness of a delegitimized epistemological position for the insight of an idealized and rarefied psychic state, also opens onto paradoxes of reading and writing that her radical, language-centered poetics confronts.

As testimony, clairvoyance does not avow the transparency of its medium, but rather makes the coercion of mediation evident. Openly declaring her solicitation of belief through a trope only figuratively removed beyond belief, Weiner exposes belief itself as the strange but mundane sine qua non of reading. Her strategy illuminates writing's demands on us as it gainsays a credibility it has already hooked in the very act of soliciting credibility. Straining against the transcendental quality of language even as she points to it as a foregone conclusion, Weiner not only disrupts the normative transparency of what is to be read but also erodes the normative rationality of the figure who reads.

For Weiner emphasized that she was not the frictionless vehicle for messages from another scene, but rather the recipient of language that formally and thematically implicated its resistance to meaning. This seen language also revealed that the very recognition of language as such subjects us to a meaning that can neither be averred nor denied. An exteriorized, nonintentional form of writing, the seen words not only provided a unique means of encountering language as an indeterminate, opaque materiality that we ourselves enliven with belief, but also as a form of mediation that announced itself as being curiously existentially indefinite, both there and not there. Thus, even as she anchored these phenomena in her cognitive experience, clairvoyance was for Weiner not a traffic with the spirit, but a near miss with the letter. Reflexively signifying on clairvoyance as “quaint phrase” or sedimented term, Weiner turned this familiar figure of heightened vision against itself.

In fact, the reversals of Weiner's discursive practice take place on a number of levels, constantly spoiling assumptions about and built into language, yet conscious that our escape from these assumptions is comprised and compromised by language itself. In taking the unusual dictation of clairvoyance, Weiner inverts the apostrophe of lyric poetry and externalizes poetic agency, locating it in mediation. Seeing words clairvoyantly illustrates the mediating tension in language that plays out in syntactical structures, disciplinary mechanisms that echo institutional relationships. Further, rather than performing as a privileged, gendered proximity to authentic knowledge or as a vitiation of a gendered position of knowledge, as it has done traditionally, clairvoyance instead functions as a reflexive figure about figures of knowledge. Weiner dissects a grammar of epistemology that presupposes and incorporates differences as differentials in power.

Vigilant in denaturalizing her technology of representation, Weiner turns clairvoyance to political use, rendering structural and thus necessarily social inequities historically specific. As the singular witness to clairvoyant phenomena, she is poignantly aware that her testimony can only appear in a recognizable and overdetermined form.4 For Weiner, this hyper-attentiveness to overdetermination resonates most strongly with the political predicament of Native Americans, whose difficulties in achieving adequate political representation demonstrate the limitations of politics and the need for an ethical relation to difference.5 Weiner was an ardent proponent of the American Indian Movement, but she found, in a sense parallel to her own situation, that to be a witness for is also to be a witness against: simply to use an officially recognized language is already to be implicated in the structures of power, to exploit alterity as it is rendered recognizable. Weiner puts the paralogical or oblique insight she gains from clairvoyance to work in her nonclairvoyant writings as well, commenting on the deep and seemingly unavoidable violence in any representational framework.

In refusing clairvoyance a logic of presence or direct reference, Weiner forces this trope to diverge from its long history of essentializing feminization and racial exoticism.6 Moreover, in her later works, she reflexively metaphorizes clairvoyance as a mode of accessing a subjunctive history, a foreclosed potentiality, of the exploited.7 Weiner was eventually to call clairvoyance “silent teaching,” a name that signals a figurative reversal of the textual field, impossibly divesting her writing of any appropriation of force. Her work thus looks over its shoulder towards a historical materiality of the signifier, an ethical relation to alterity that would be this alternately meaningful silence.


From the moment she took up writing, as Weiner related to Bernstein in a 1995 interview, it was never a matter of self-expression, but a means of displacing the self. She began to write poetry in 1963, and upon receiving a scholarship to the New School for Social Research, she took writing classes with Kenneth Koch and Bill Berkson, although, as Weiner notes, she “could not write New York School poetry”.8 Weiner recalls, in fact, that she felt compelled to work with found texts (a discovery she made through her association with “talk-poet” David Antin).9 Weiner's Code Poems, a compilation of poems and performance pieces written in the mid-1960s, is one such result of having encountered a sufficiently alienated form of language with which to compose. The texts in Code Poems are based on a synthetic, nineteenth-century set of given messages comprising the International Code of Signals for the Use of All Nations, “a visual signal system for ships at sea” (3). Code Poems should be considered a landmark collection in the American avant-garde for a number of reasons. As Jackson Mac Low writes, “Weiner's Code Poems are notably original. Outside of a small group of aleatoric poems I made c. 1963 … I know of no other code-book poems written in the 1960s. I also know that Weiner, when composing hers, knew nothing of mine: I have transcribed none of them from my notebooks” (97).10 The significance of her poetic experiment lies not only in the novelty of employing this medium, but in the way she tests the limits of the material to comment on language. John Perreault observes that Weiner was “asking certain questions before it was fashionable to ask them. Is language a code? Is poetry a code? Can you use one code to describe another code? Can personal expression be avoided?” (8). Code Poems makes the compelling case that the official messages encrypted in the code harbor secrets hidden only from themselves as self-identical: within them lie communiques of an alternate totality, heterogeneous and coherent.

Devised to facilitate communication between parties possibly unknown to each other aboard separate ships in the middle of the ocean, the code delivers the given messages in the International Code of Signals volume by reducing the message content to letter-strings. These strings of one, two, three, and four letters represent sentence-length messages (“QNA All precautions have been taken”), which are often punctuated by blanks (“ZMD Your zeal has been particularly noted by———”), interrogative tags (“QHR Why?”), common nouns (“IOG cheese”), modifying phrases (“KOV too dear”), and even prepositions (“QGT on”). Individual units of code maintain a one-to-one correspondence with a message content. When the code was first in use in the mid-nineteenth century, the letter-strings were conveyed through a set of hoisted alphabet flags, with each flag standing in for a letter of the alphabet. Later, an answering pennant, as well as hoisting protocols for use with the original letter-flags, were added to signal the kind of information contained in a phrase (i.e., to signal a general state of distress, to designate giving a geographical location, etc.).

Eventually, the messages represented by letter-strings, as well as content protocols, were conveyed by a number of visual and sound media, as Weiner notes in her introduction to the book: “Visual signaling is any method of above water communication, the transmission of which is capable of being seen (alphabet flags, semaphore flags, Morse [code through] flashing light). Sound signaling is any method of sending Morse signals by means of siren, whistle, foghorn, bell or any other sound apparatus” (3). Although each medium was contrived to convey independently the sum total of encoded messages, Weiner made use of both visual and sonic media in performance. At the Central Park Poetry Events of 1968, code poems were “performed with the aid of the U.S. Coast guard, using alphabet flag hoists, semaphore signalmen, flashing light signals, megaphones, [and] flares” (3).11 Every single element of the poems, including their titles, is composed of messages taken verbatim from the code volume. In book format, the code units appear alongside the messages; some pieces are also accompanied by their semaphore and letter flag visual equivalents.

Weiner elsewhere intimates that her code poems challenge lyric conventions because they borrow the two-voice statement and response form “natural” to the code (“Mostly” 59). (She at times stretches this by introducing more than two voices.) Her poetic experiment also illustrates and contests the structuralist premises on which the code is based. Weiner plays with the code as a purely synthetic system in which all signs are equally unmotivated and whose transcendental meaning is naturalized by convention and reinforced by social contract, condensed and literalized as the set of possible messages in the code book. Weiner emphasizes the dialectical engagement between the abstract “taxonomic” or lexical function of the code and the arena of its articulation. Untethering the naturalized relations between signifiers and signifieds, she alters the message content by performing the code outside of the seafaring context, using antiquated editions of it, and employing media in excess of what is necessary for conveying the given content. Weiner uses the code's systemic purity to alienate the media of communication rather than to reinforce their transparency or clarity; this spectacular distancing, a privileging of the signifier, produces an alternative social value and crystallizes an oppositional community.

As the code poems demonstrate, connotative effects, whereby, to use Barthes's terms, the code refers to another code, may establish the main meaning of any utterance. In “RJ Romeo and Juliet,” Weiner builds a conversation not only more elaborate than those likely imagined by the 1855 “committee set up by the British board of trade,” but also given to flirtation: “JG Romeo: I wish to have personal communication with you / IJ Juliet: Unless your communication is very important, I must be excused / JM Mike: Stranger is suspicious / Romeo: Fine day / EBL Juliet: I beg to be excused / PCF Romeo: The ice is so solid I cannot break through; send help” (8). In addition to a surprising capacity to instigate romance, the code contains, as Weiner reveals, latent Shakespearean possibilities. Bending the code's rules to comic effect, she uses the metalinguistic names of the letter-flags—the “a” and “J” flags are actually called “Romeo” and “Juliet” in the manual—as character names; at moments, these flag names also become message content (“TMV Shall I have the pleasure to or of / F Foxtrot” [91]). While the code scripts would seem to limit the kinds of information that would be communicable, connotation stretches these limits in ways that the fanciful names of the flags themselves suggest.

The poems also elaborate features of reiterative absurdity in the code, as is the case with “TQA POSSIBLE-ITY”:

TQB I doubt if it is possible
FRW Barely possible
TQD Is it possible?
TQE Possibly
TQF Quite possible
FBJ As slow as possible
FBG As quick as possible
FAI As fast as possible
FBO As soon as possible


The text not only exposes certain redundancies within the signal book (after all, what are the salient differences among “FBG,” “FAI,” and “FBO,” even if one is not establishing communications under difficult conditions?), but also the proclivity of the code to mimic natural language. The similarities between the letter-strings show that while these arbitrary signifiers do not contain roots exactly, “an analogy in their composition” still obtains (Barthes, “Elements” 51). In thus forcing the code to ridicule itself, Weiner plainly demonstrates another stratum of “possible-ity” it does not officially recognize.

A certain arbitrariness in terms of the extreme variation in degrees of completeness of the code's units is also foregrounded by the poems. Weiner uses code units employing pronouns and other deictics, which require additional contextual completion, as full responses and sabotages particularly vulnerable metalinguistic code phrases, as occurs in “BVZ IT”: “BNV It will do / BIX Will it be? / BOU Will it do? / CQG What or which is it? / CDY Its-self (see also he, she, it or person-s or thing-s indicated)” (25). Weiner purposely leaves messages containing blanks blank, emphasizing structure over content, as well as soliciting the reader's (or listener's) active engagement in the construction of the piece. Referentless as many of the messages are, they may also produce an effect of extreme constraint, as with “EDQ Any Chance of War”:

EDQ Any chance of war?
ODV Good chance
IFK No chance of peace
YU Has war commenced?
YX War has commenced
YW War between———and———has commenced
ZIN How many wounded?
PKN No. of killed and wounded not yet known
ZIM How are the wounded?
YGJ Without arms
FGX Without assistance
YL Want immediate medical assistance
CP Cannot assist
NC In distress. Want immediate assistance
CX No assistance can be rendered. Do the best you can for yourselves.
GBT I shall bear up
GBV May I, or can I bear up?


Simply using messages intended to be constative to invent a context structurally limited to such pathetic, not to mention bleakly reiterative, possibilities overproduces meaning in the form of an antiwar message.

Weiner notes that incorporating interactive components into her work “begins in Code Poems with the verse of alternate forms, ‘He, she, it———can be,’ which also has to do with de-sexualizing” (“Mostly” 65). Yet “de-sexualizing” is a modest term for what several of the code poems achieve, given that they go beyond leveling or neutralizing gender (if such leveling can really be possible) to undermine the norms of meaning the code would prescribe, precisely through the strategic deployment of gendered terms.12 “CHW Pirates,” for instance, defies the normative gendering of “pirate,” ridicules the vestigial and haphazard quality of gender attribution to objects in English (as with the feminization of ship), and performs a confounding slippage in reference—from invader to craft—that grammatical divisions like gender supposedly function to prevent: “CJD I was plundered by a pirate / CJF Describe the pirate / CJN She is armed / CJP How is she armed? / CJS She has long guns / CJW I have no long guns / BLD I am a complete wreck” (17). Obviously thrown into the bargain are Weiner's plays on warfare's phallic connotations, which the code cannot factor out of its units. Gender becomes a code for code and additionally a code for the intrinsic failure of code to carry a stable meaning: gender is an error message. Weiner's code poem experiments subvert the uniformity of generalized positions of specular understanding. They expose the incomplete maintenance of delineations between names, ordinary language, and metalinguistic functions in language, illustrating this slippage in levels of discourse most convincingly when using gender as an axis through which a syntactic principle inadvertently becomes thematic. Recuperating this slippage, Weiner revolutionizes the otherwise context-bound and antiquated code by creating a new context of value in which the messages express content not originally “intended” by the system, a failure ultimately productive for an oppositional polity. Clairvoyance was to extend and alter Weiner's experimental inquiries significantly, leading away from this totalizing promise.


At times reading like an index of the major countercultural movements active at the moment of its composition, Clairvoyant Journal contains intermittent entries stretching over a four-month period, from March to June 1974.13 The journal also reflects, if often only obliquely, Weiner's extremely lively social-cultural life: she was active in New York's experimental performance, writing, art, and music scenes; she also participated in several streams of Eastern religion whose teachers had relocated to Manhattan in the early 1970s.14 For the journal's purposes, Weiner's involvement in these communities functions as a backdrop to the unusual day-to-day experience occasioning and informing the work: seeing words.15 But what, after all, is unusual in this? As Charles Bernstein begins a review of the journal: “We all see words” (284).

Nothing less than a coup within the diaristic genre, Clairvoyant Journal presents language and experience in relation as a Mobius strip.16 Weiner documents what is essentially a phenomenon of mediation that announces it mediates nothing but mediation itself. The “mediated mediation” of clairvoyance works in two ways: “seen” words not only call attention to, and thus displace, their own opacity, but they also remark on their own ambiguous status as “presences” (since “seen” words are clairvoyantly seen, their appearance is existentially indefinite). Further, Weiner inscribes herself within the work as a principle of misrecognition, whereby language is irreducibly experienced as meaning. She thus prevents the journal from affecting the self-edifying commutability that Paul de Man identifies as an autobiographical function.17 Ostentatiously adrift from their normal existential parameters, words no longer promise that they will do what we want them to do, whether we mean to limit them to instrumental, informational, or representational functions. They propose instead that we may do only what they, as a vehemently exteriorized guarantee of meaning, desire: “Is Ok Come a / reverse? Get Anxious Join is that Why anxious The words tell you to do / things you don't feel certain about doing” (57). Aided by clairvoyance, Weiner writes between these two limits, transcribing a dictation that (re)marks a position where the authority-effect of meaning fails (words existing where they do not exist), even as she also takes—and records herself taking—that dictation at its word, allowing it to assume a literal and objective form. As Weiner's documentation of her own behavior suggests, the authority-effect is ineradicable; it continues to operate whether we perceive ourselves as possessors of that authority or not. What Weiner records, in fact, is the unendurable yet enduring contradiction that we believe in this authority even as we may be caught between our failure to appropriate it and language's ultimate imperviousness to it.

In experiencing clairvoyance, Weiner saw fragments of printed text projected onto the world, even onto other literal texts, by “the other part of the mind” (“Mostly” 55), words simultaneously there and not there: “Sometimes a master can help me change that energy back to another center, or I / just have to be told it's not realistilc, men Shut Up” (Clairvoyant 7). The form and content of these phrases were such as to give Weiner not a glimmer, but a sustained sense that words see us—that we are spoken by language. Despite or perhaps because of the apparent fragmentariness of its phrases and the uneven visuality of their arrangement …, Clairvoyant Journal conveys a visceral sense of how unrelenting was Weiner's uncanny apperception. Weiner achieves this continuity through the formal rigor with which she records having her slightest gesture and thought registered and pronounced upon from without by seen words as she responds, records her responses, and records recording her responses to this peculiarly interactive form of surveillance: “Figure it out Wonder why they Connecticut use an / dont go out / “when its Upper Case You have to shift and dont when it's lower case and I / hate you sensitive” (7). Clairvoyance demands transcription, not representational synthesis.

In this sense, if difference or meaning is always already in effect, there is an illusion of a rule or principle giving rise to and governing it. As Weiner's experience reveals, what is presupposed by any meaning is the extra-logical criterion of its possibility, belief—or what Weiner calls “pre thought thinking” (4). It is notable that the relationship between opacity and discipline often falls out of the equation entirely in discussions of this quasi judgment, largely because belief is assumed to take place within an equational, mutualizing structure. Of persuasion, singularly but ineludibly coercive, and our susceptibility to and dependency upon it, Mikkel Borsch-Jacobsen writes, “[Suggestion] does not communicate a message … it communicates a state of faith … that is to say, both a receptivity to the message and an identification with the emitter. … The listener completely appropriates for himself this discourse of the other; hence also its contaminating, contagious power” (66-67). The first entry of Clairvoyant Journal, in fact, replays this scenario ironically: “Bernadette's Mayer Experiments this book is mind con- / trolled the Walk Bernadette language ex communicate her words so through it / goes through” (4). As Weiner remarks, her own work (“this book”), as writing, is susceptible to “mind control,” and upon receiving and thus always already using language, it appropriates this domain; Mayer's “Experiments,” in turn, are excommunicated in communication.18 According to Borsch-Jacobsen's logic, because we give authority through belief, we simultaneously gain it, in effect transferring to our own account a credibility, an epistemological figure, not proper to us, because belief offers this promissory note. We come into being “contagiously,” cognizable because recognizable, always already persuaded to be persuadable and in turn becoming persuasive. This scenario of mimicry, in which possession/appropriation is conditioned by possession/suggestibility, thus rather suspiciously mimics the more traditional cognate of clairvoyance. Weiner's comment on the normative scene of writing presses this point: if we assume language's transparency, “so through it / goes through,” we are enspirited and obedient, “Walk,” but because the hypnosis of normalcy is double-edged, it allows us both to borrow and to obscure our lease on authority. Self-powered, and not mind-controlled, we walk.

Perhaps it is because belief is persistently narrativized within a structure of entitling equivalence that the metalepsis, the prehistory of reversal, through which we perceive ourselves as the originary causes of our actions and the sources of our words, is so intensely tenacious. As Weiner explains: “Why didn't call Nijole learn that almost / everything that comes from People is a spank reverse Cancel appears over reverse” (5). Instead of our seeing this reversal, “Cancel appears over” it (and thus no spanking). The way to this cancellation is paved by the pronoun “I,” as Benveniste postulates: “Language is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I” (226). Weiner explains that the successful subsumption of this distinctly otherwise-clairvoyant “I”—one that sees clearly, its language transparent—involves being seen and seeing oneself: “You wonder if Rhys saw a big Hannah when you saw a little Rhys? / Once he saw you get larger then he got larger 20 feet You Get It” (19). The initial distortion, as Weiner points out, involves a continual juggling act, a comparative relation to others as well as a meconaissance of the self. The pronoun serves a stabilizing, invisibly mensurative and commensurating function in this circuit, acting as “erased money”: “Why did pronoun see Rhys Chatham across the / entrance to a store sort of an erased money” (6). The self, its first guise this disguise, may circulate in the coin of the pronoun as within “defensive armor” (Lacan, “Aggressivity” 17): “Charlestein / degraded him also Charlatan who see the little Big Who In your money” (19).19 Weiner also observes that the catachrestical, objective value of the pronoun prevents inflation: “Every- / thing seems to be negative five dollars more than pronoun Cut It Short / Whys says Out asked about a table see 40 price 45 No Hannah Dunga - / Rees pronoun's are used cost $3 much quieter energy than the Dumb grey / corduroys How Are You free pants” (11). Yet pronouns are also an exaction, the condition of an exchange that might seem fair, but is not free.

Indeed, even as the mechanisms of “rational” transaction are anatomized and demystified by the journal, there is nevertheless a pervasive sense that the constant externalization of language, spoiling even momentary fictions of mastery, cannot but take its subjective toll. If clair-voyance's exteriority allows for an understanding of metalepsis, it does not produce an exit through which Weiner may leave behind what will stubbornly persist in following her, the fact of meaning itself. Short-circuiting the reversal accomplished by the legerdemain of interiority leaves belief intact, as the existential indeterminacy of the words is always already gainsaid by their recognizability.20 Just recognizing words given to be seen—much less the process of reading, transcribing, and reacting to them—testifies to their persuasiveness and grants them, without any conscious agency on Weiner's part, meaning: “I've h/e/ad another Holy Day At The Typewriter” (8). That their appearance is not controlled by Weiner, but is nevertheless contingent upon her presence creates a glaringly asymmetrical relation, an uncomfortable loss of equanimity. Hoarding meaning even as they impossibly deny it, clairvoyant phenomena force a visible instantiation of self-difference that inevitably recapitulates a mensurative scenario, but in a relation of disequivalence, one that Weiner herself experiences as a punishing reflexivity.

This double bind is in full force in the history Weiner gives of clairvoyance's “primal scene.” Weiner's relation of this history—even as we must take her word that it faithfully conforms to events that she alone was party to—is rigorously structured, consisting in three carefully chosen examples that demonstrate the logical development of the linguistic paradoxes inherent in the experience of clairvoyance:

When the words first began to appear in August 1972, they appeared singly. The first word, Wrong, appeared about an inch long, neatly printed at a 45 degree angle to my pant leg. Later words appeared in two word phrases some of which, as No-Alone, I did not understand (Early Journals, 1972, unpublished). In my naive (or natural form) desire for completion I would cry “where is my T-is it the phrase ‘not alone’ that is meant” and why cannot I or it or the spirits that I then sometimes thought it was, speak English. The phrases developed but remained a phrase right up through the Clairvoyant Journal (1974, Angel Hair 1978). In April sometime I think I got down on my knees and begged or prayed, please let me see one complete sentence. On April 15th I did see one, printed in small letters on the edge of my kitchen table that had come to me from Lenny Neufeld via Jerry Rothenberg. It said, “You Won't Be Any Happier.”

(“Mostly” 55)

The first word Weiner sees clairvoyantly is “Wrong.” Like a notice stating, “Don't read this,” the word's content paradoxically negates its phenomenalization: as the word's very legibility marks out for it a certain persistence, it must be “right,” yet it gives its meaning as “wrong.” In its unsettling play of self-subverting self-referentiality, the word either challenges its own right to exist or it labels itself as the sole but improper vehicle for another point of view. It both affirms and denies itself, and in this case, since Weiner reads it, its denial is its means of affirmation. The next instance, “No-Alone,” is at once obviously a phrase and something that falls just shy of being a phrase. Its disfiguring truncation renders it opaque, withholding the “closure” or clarity Weiner “naively” or “naturally” desires. The word's “T” is not merely not there, but not-there, missing—the word has a whole form of which she will receive only a part. Its loss migrates to become her loss, as Weiner turns the lack within the phrase on herself: she is the one who cannot read it. This phrase is also eerily self-referential, as form purposively cripples its content. Weiner is prevented from understanding a message (potentially) about the structural given of understanding, “not alone.” Although it is “No-Alone” that cannot “speak English,” the mutilated phrase induces in Weiner a sense that it may be read correctly. This contradiction within the words—that as they announce their illegibility, illegibility itself becomes what is read, and that this illegibility is in turn reversed to become a standard of completion by the reading, believing subject who thus cannot measure up—is also evinced by the long-awaited, complete clairvoyant phrase, “You Won't Be Any Happier.” Longing for a plenitude of meaning, for the sentience of the sentence, Weiner sees what appears to be not merely a piece of floating text, but a response. This correct sentence again pits content against form, delivering a message about the impossibility of plenitude as if heedless of its own completion. On the one hand, the sentence's point is that the unit of any meaningful utterance is the sentence.21 On the other, it tells Weiner that, complete or not, it retains its opacity, its alterity, even as it gives an answer.

Weiner embeds these paradoxes in the journal's form. Working within the material constraints imposed by her electric typewriter, she lets each of the three typescripts utilized in the journal correspond to a given word's place of appearance: the words written in all capitals were seen at large (or, as Weiner notes in the introduction to the journal, projected on her forehead from within); the words given in italics were sighted on the apparatus or on the page; and the words in lower-case issued “normally” from Weiner herself (“Mostly” 60). She found, however, that these objective, material distinctions were always already congruent to voice: “It turned out that the regular upper and lower case words described what I was doing, the Capitals gave me orders, and the underlines or italics made comments. This is not 100٪ true, but mostly so” (“Mostly” 60). Not only does Weiner posit the restriction of material finitude against a frictionless mode of recording that would allow a direct encounter with “mental detri tus” (Damon), the concrete limits of representation are always already metaphorized, the tonal attributes of each typescript defining an attitudinal posture within the clairvoyant scenario.

Given that it is through these voices that Weiner herself comes into being as the abased apostrophe of the text and in turn cannot but apostrophize the fragments she sees—“I See A Big Apostrophe” (Clairvoyant 10)—she effectively uses the imperative mood and the quasi mood of commentary to color the otherwise commutative vocative case or figure. Weiner also defies the lyric's rhetorical pretensions to objectivity, “the defensive motion of understanding” (de Man, “Anthropomorphism” 261). As Paul de Man cautions, figures of consciousness that deny their own mediation and propose the totalized commensurability of readers are built into language; for de Man, this “complicity of epistemology and rhetoric, of truth and trope” marks the violent assimilation of metaphor to concept, to normativity (243). Against this, the journal demonstrates that language's authority-effect as it inheres most basically in the figure of apostrophe cannot be other than multiple and relational. Indeed, Weiner manages to do this because she has established precisely how, at what cost, and to whom the written voice and reading subject have always already returned trope to concept and thus denied figurativity. The obvious suggestion of triangulation within the structure of the journal shows not only that it is possible that the authority we credit may not be credited back to us, but that social and syntactical protocols require the overdetermination of difference to prop abstract equivalence.

Thus ingeniously inverting the Lyric through the text's apostrophe of her in the least possible equalizing mood, the imperative, Weiner demonstrates that the self in roman typescript is perpetually indebted for her own representation to the words in capitals that interpellate her: “You're A Pronoun” (6), “Quote” (5), “Dont Finish This Sentence Structure” (6), “Use The First Person I, The Person” (20). From capitals issue orders and proclamations that make the slightest action on the part of the self already reactive: “Cupcake There's / so much interference while I was doing the dishes Use Soap” (8). Here the self appears vulnerable to suggestion even in daily habits. This not only denaturalizes mundane activities, but expropriates the self's agency as her daily activities appear as demands coming from without. Given the ostentatious whimsy of its commands, the method of this exteriorized authority is its madness. The voice of the “ought” is often rudely interruptive (“Sorry About This Page Stupid” (8)), charging a phrase being written by the self or an object in the world to correspond with an imperative hitherto invisible or unrelated—indeed, one obviously produced by its very appearance: “Last night sleeping with him / thank you single Rhys interfer- / ence when we were about to fuck Two Women Two Children Honey- / Moon and Toots so we Shut Up didn't Obey Reindeer” (34). With its decided emphasis on ends over means, the imperative voice in Weiner's text is obviously not categorical in the Kantian sense. Its contours are those of the selfish demands of a voice hierarchically removed, yet all too familiar. Meaning as the performative effect of its ludicrously imperious, rather than contractual, expression is exaggeratedly unreasonable, equally infantile and tyrannical, even as the formal mandate through which that authority is expressed may posture as justly authorized.

If clairvoyance spoils the precarious promise of symmetry between the sending and receiving sides of language by presenting the position assumed to authorize meaning as ridiculous, contingent, and absolute, the third voice of Weiner's structure draws out the dynamism of exchange as ratiocinative procedure. Although the mandate of capitals would appear to orient the transactions of the page, giving them their form and their value, italics shows sub ordination to be not entirely inescapable. If meaning must be surrendered to words appearing clairvoyantly to the self, the matter of establishing what that meaning consists in becomes distinctly contestatory, as the words in italics engage Weiner in an itinerary of corroboration and dissent, layering the modalities of knowledge available within the journal's textual field. Recuperated as an apostrophe (thus not pure trope) and displaced from the frantically responding self, italicized words become a viable position in excess to capitals' authority. They are inscribed as an incompletely colonized difference that contributes to the erosion of the text's supposed specularity: “Kathy said she felt like she was prostituting herself and she dreamt about our! dream Ivery bad vibes / follow the leader / she didn't want to follow the leader she was supposed to” (16). Yet if the italicized text, with its often sarcastic, rather than sympathetic, “commentary” does not automatically recapitulate the more obvious hegemony of capitals, it nonetheless maintains an ambivalence towards the self, becoming a vehicle of power more subtly masked: “go to grief Trying to Out ask forgiven to read the underlines Save” (16). For both self and italics take up a commentative or narrative mode, though the self is anxiously reactive in relating knowledge, while the italics are somewhat sadistically detached in doing so.

As Charles Bernstein observes of the journal, “An electric energy that completely fills the page […] manages to fuse the eruptive fragments (‘voices’) into a continuity” (“Making” 284); “the text makes one piece of (with) all this activity” (285). Bernstein's appreciation of Weiner's accomplishment in unifying the discrepant elements of her text is not entirely misplaced, but it does mask Weiner's larger point, which is that the text cannot fall apart. The epistemological positions composing the field never become altogether discrete, for the differences in value they would produce share in the determinate meaning figured by apostrophe. Yet the journal also strains against the double life of value in its three-voice economy, as modal inflections traduce their material forms when the typescripts not only seem utterly arbitrary, but even flamboyantly unable to contain their points of reference.

Clairvoyant Journal, in fact, establishes layers of sense and levels of discourse adhering to the materiality of language in spite of the “multiple autonomies” (Kimball) dominating it, often undermining, rather than deferring to Weiner's admittedly abstract schema. The journal maintains an edgy present tense on the cusp of its own emergence—not merely referentially, in the sense that Weiner keeps up with what she sees and how she reacts, but by attending to the language once she has written it: “#? ٪ ٪ Jingle Bells” (7); “Do Nut oh I'm a nut I eat donuts you believe” (15). Weiner is now really seeing things, clairvoyant, because she composes through the material aspect of “seen” words; to be clairvoyant is thus paradoxically to turn the ritual mundanity of believing in words inside out. Letting meaning coast on such tomfoolery takes courage: “April Fool Brave Girl” (15). Even as the journal records clairvoyance as an experience of the vertiginous excess in language recuperated in materially literalized, externalized figures of authority, in counterpoint to this serious matter are associative distractions that refuse materiality's subordination to meaning: “Try praying: Our father who art be right over / A song: 1-lere we go round the mulberry bush the / grapefruit John the mulber y mush Give Up” (9). Yet in this particular hilarious interchange between devotion and non sequitur, between memory and iteration, among sense, sound, and sight rhyme, it is Weiner trying to establish belief, and the words outside her that are playing around. As power is revealed to be the meaning of even this most literal sense, the otherwise materializing tactics of insubordination may be turned over to the authorities. Weiner submits voice, including her own, to superimposition and discrepancy, alluding to an unreachable alterity; in doing so, she creates not an undecideable text, but a clairvoyant one, in which the reader experiences the supplement of materiality as a contradictory analogue to her reading presence.


  1. Charles Bernstein uses the term “dictation” to describe clairvoyance in his Line break interview with Weiner. As he remarks there and in his review of Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal, “Marking Words Visible,” the term is Jack Spicer's. This connection is extremely important and one with which Weiner would have been familiar. See Robin Blaser's beautiful essay, “The Practice of the Outside,” in Spicer's collected books for an in-depth discussion of “dictation.”

  2. With nonpaginated books, which include Nijole's House, Clairvoyant Journal, Written In, and The Zero One (1985), my practice has been to count the title page of the text as page one when referencing in this article.

  3. Charles Bernstein discusses Weiner's schizophrenia and its metaphorical relation to her poetry in a remembrance of Weiner that first appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter in 1997 (“Hannah”).

  4. The logical and ethical problem of the “singular witness” is the main topic of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.

  5. Drawing on Lyotard's The Differend, John Sayer uses this problematic to structure his analysis of the Native American political predicament in his history of the Wounded Knee Trials. Sayer's study approaches these events through their copious media coverage.

  6. For a discussion of colonial tropes and the secularization and appropriation of Eastern religion and spirituality in nineteenth-century occultism as practiced by the English at home and abroad, see Gauri Viswanathan. For a discussion of racial personae as mediating the “other scene” in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and English spiritualism and as ventriloquized in fictions of conversion in Shaker and other charismatic Christian sects, see Elizabeth Mayes. Both discuss the privileged relationship of women to occultist discourses.

  7. For a discussion of this “future anterior” or subjective modality, see Gayatri Spivak, “Ghostwriting,” esp. 70-71 and 78-82. Spivak also discusses the importance of the “radical counterfactual in history” in “Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value” 213.

  8. Of course, up until 1970, when she began “hiding out in a cheap apartment” (silent teachers 69) on the lower east side of Manhattan, Winer also had her “day jobs”: shortly after graduating from Radcliffe College in 1950, she moved to New York and, in succession, worked for three publishing houses, took a position as an assistant clothing buyer at Bloomingdale's, and became a lingerie designer (Bernstein, “Hannah”; Weiner, silent teachers 69).

  9. Weiner's numerous performance works throughout the 1960s generally involved disarticulating the conventions of cultural forms and social experiences. One example is the legendary “Fashion Show Poetry Event” of 1970 that she organized with poets Eduardo Costa and John Perreault, for which they enlisted a number of artists—Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, among others—to design costumes, while the three poets wrote a poetry program to accompany the ventures down the catwalk. (Apparently, Weiner herself, using her experience as a designer, also created a costume—“an all-purpose, many pocketed cape … : no need for luggage when you fly” Perreault 81).

  10. For an insightful discussion of other American avant-gardist poetries that make use of “preexisting vocabularies,” see Watten, esp. 23-24.

  11. As Perreault remembers of the 60s period, “Hannah Weiner was best known for her code poem performances. One night she had two people waving flags at each other from one end of West 26th Street to the other. I remember her Central Park band-shell spectacle that included flares, flags, and Coast Guards” (8). The pieces were not only performed live in various arts festivals and art-activism events protesting the Vietnam War; a production of “Any Chance of War,” was made into a film, and other texts appeared in a number of gallery venues and journals.

  12. Megan Simpson similarly suggests, “A language-oriented woman writer is more likely to suggest in her work that [the gender bias of systems of knowledge] is a function of the way that disciplines maintain their linguistic influence and claims to objectivity by reinforcing gender categories and definitions” (9).

  13. Clairvoyant Journal represents selections from Weiner's journal project, other portions of which had been previously published. An audio version of selections from the Journal was published by New Wilderness Audiographics.

  14. Weiner's diverse and extraordinary group of friends at this time who are mentioned in the journal include Jerome Rothenberg, Bernadette Mayer, Jackson Mac Low, Kathy Acker, LaMonte Young, and Phillip Glass, to name only a few. Weiner attended the meditation retreats of Swami Satchidananda, a Hindu master of hatha yoga who founded Integral Yoga International in Manhattan, and lectures given by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Approximately the last quarter of Clairvoyant Journal was written at a 1974 Satchidananda retreat.

  15. To cite Weiner's clairvoyant and even her nonclairvoyant writings in prose format is inevitably to alter them. I have tried to indicate wherever possible when the text presents a word on the diagonal by using the line break symbol between letters without spacing; because these chop up words, they are fairly differentiable from Weiner's own line breaks. As will be discussed, Weiner often employs unconventional orthography. Her spelling has been preserved in quoted passages in this essay.

  16. This is also observed by Bernstein, who states, “Weiner's work stands as a remarkable extension of the diaristic tradition in literature” (“Making” 284).

  17. As de Man states in his seminal essay, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” “Autobiography … [is] a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs to some degree in all texts. The autobiographical moment happens as an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution” (70).

  18. Mayer's “Experiments,” actually a collaboration done with students from one of her writing workshops at the Poetry Project, is a work listing possible writing experiments that disarticulate linear prose and that propose numerous techniques of citation, fragmentation, and categorization.

  19. Clairvoyance even ironizes as it estranges this substituting function, as it becomes, like belief, contagious, spreading to situations where our uniqueness would seem necessary: “Secret says Donnie's forehead / Michael's face appears on mine making love to Donnie Israel Your Whole / Insurance Feels Bad When Love Making be careful” (23).

  20. This formulation draws somewhat on Judith Butler: “An irresolvable ambiguity arises when one attempts to distinguish between the power that (transitively) enacts the subject, and the power enacted by the subject. … At some point, a reversal and concealment occurs, and power is what belongs exclusively to the subject” (15).

  21. As Lacan states, “Signifiers always have several, sometimes extremely disjointed significations. The sentence, though, has one unique meaning, what I mean is that it can't be lexicalised—one makes dictionaries of words, of word usages or locutions, but one doesn't make a dictionary of sentences. Hence, some of the ambiguities tied to the semantic element are reabsorbed in the context, through usage and the utterance of the sentence” (Seminar 279).

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