How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem, Part II

Prufrock's Blackboard

BC #1: "On The Prosing of Poetry"


1. "Textual Politics and the Language
, George Hartley

2. "Language and Postlanguage
, Mark Wallace

3. "Textual Politics and the Language
, George Hartley

4. "Poetry of Play, Poetry of Purpose:
     The Continuity of American
     Language Poetry"
, John R. Woznicki

5. "Textual Politics and the Language
, George Hartley

6. "Advice given to budding
     L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S",

     Bernadette Mayer

7. "Poetics, Polemic, and the Question
     of Intelligibility"
, Benjamin Friedlander


When poets shake words and roll them onto the page, they are looking for fresh combinations, hoping to evoke new ideas. Meaning—though not necessarily unwelcome—is beside the point. If it appears at all, it is either by accident, or as a result of a reader's Rorschach-like projection. It is not something intended, or "put there," by the poet. For most poets, this is a starting place for a poem. For Language Poets, this is its end.

The need for coherence appears to be basic, perhaps even neurological. Science has proved the human brain strives to find a pattern, an order, a meaning in chaos. What isn't coherent, we strive to make so. It satisfies us. Thus, before settling for separate, unconnected pieces, beautiful as they may be, we will look hard for connections.

While shapes and colors can become untethered from their representation, or meaning, a poem can only become fully untethered from meaning if it is without words. This is because the smallest irreducible piece—the word—retains meaning, in and out of context. A totally meaningless poem would logically consist of a blank page. In spite of this difficulty, some poets do manage to make extremely close approaches to the state of meaninglessness while still using words:

    & I the magic in her stew
    the north whine abundantly
    saccharine to the chew
    old stairs like all the majesty
    was theirs
    to take a lark
    or flare largely malingering
    adipose aversions
    went right out the finnetre
    into the bowl
    where deceit is not known
    & the dumb dance in delight
    in the roar of the

      "If .Gif Were a Place," Charles Bernstein

This poem is not meaningless in an accidental sense; that is, in the sense that the poet intended to write something coherent but failed. Instead,

Joan Houlihan is a poet-essayist who lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in such publications as Gettysburg Review and Spoon River Poetry Review. A mini-chap of Joan's work is found at:
Web Del Sol.

this poet intends to put words together in a way that defies coherence, because he is a Language Poet. Language Poetry is wordplay, without the play. When poets engage in pure wordplay, they leave meaning to chance or projection; Language Poets, on the other hand, are obsessed with meaning in the same way an atheist is obsessed with God. Every poem is designed to disprove its existence. Why would a poet strive to create incoherence? According to Bernstein, one of Language Poetry's founders and leading practitioners, such striving produces poetry that is "decentered, community-controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalistic project."1

Thus, every poem is another manifestation of certain ideals:

    Language poets tend to see language as constructed by relations of power, and not as either transcendent, universal, or natural. Language poets are for the most part intensely interested in literary theory, and thus see the theoretical issues raised by their poetry as a central part of the poetry itself, in contrast to more traditional literary practitioners who think of criticism and theory as descriptive, secondary, and in many cases irrelevant.

    In particular, many language poets have noted the way in which grammar structures tend to support the power structures of western societies. Language poets have also pointed out how traditional European poetic genres and forms tend to naively reflect western values. These writers consciously identify poetry as conditioned by the ideological limitations and power of the written word in western culture. 2

The Language Poet must construct, not just a poem, but an uber-poem, a poem that does more than "mean" something, a poem that eclipses westernized thought structures, transcends cultural products, and frees minds enslaved by capitalism. Radically PC (Poetically Correct), Language Poets strive to create a new world order, hoping to acheive their goal with such lines as:

    fro appears before us
    The matter is so
    Can we share its kind of existence
    The brink that's the sympathy
    Sound circling point of hearing
    Think how different it is when we come to point of
    "I" moving about unrolled barking at blue clouds
    devoted to each other?
    To hasten to the point? to evade anxiety? to picture?

      From "The manner in which we are present at this time to and"
      by Lynn Hejinian

Paradoxically, the more incoherent the poem, the more meaningful it is, because it is testament to the fact that "producing" is not the goal—that's

Language Poets, on the other hand, are obsessed with meaning in the same way an atheist is obsessed with God.

a goal fit for a capitalist society, not a Language Poet. The poem's very incoherence is a protest that "meaning" is a socially constructed, contextual, and therefore, tainted, entity. To capture pre-meaning, or "surface"— the babbling that cannot speak its name—is a nobler goal. In order to save us from the Western capitalist construction called a poem, the Language Poets had to destroy it. But two other possible reasons for writing Language Poetry come to mind:

  • The poet cannot succesfully create a coherent poem and so makes a virtue of his failure.
  • The poet cannot successfully create a coherent poem and so uses poem-as-pretext for expounding critical theories—something he or she can do, and that, happy coincidence, ensures an academic career.

To be a Language Poet at the movement's birth in the early '70s, was to be a raiser of consciousness, a radical. And it was so easy to join—no writing required, simply reading one Language Poem was sufficient because doing so "draws the reader into the production process by leaving the connections between various elements open, thus allowing the reader to produce the connections between those elements. In this way, presumably, the reader recognizes his or her part in the social process of production."3

The circle is complete. Simply by "reading" a language poem, one became part of the larger political protest. So much less taxing than travelling to Washington to tie oneself to a gate. And, since Language Poetry was democratic, anyone who

It meant nothing. Staring up at us blankly, thrashing and burbling senselessly, it just was. Pure non-sense.

"believed" in the aims of Language Poetry was also automatically qualified to write it since no voice, awareness of audience, or purpose was required; no cultural constructs such as poetic conventions were used, no poetic traditions were honored, no poetic talent (another worthless cultural construct) was necessary. No meaningful work could therefore be produced. Furthermore, the work could not be measured, judged, rated, ranked or in any way acted upon as a "product." It meant nothing. Staring up at us blankly, thrashing and burbling senselessly, it just was. Pure non-sense.

Armed with an inexhaustible talent for rationalizing their poetic incoherence, Language Poets formed along the roots of traditional poetry like fungi, sprouting a twisted tendril called "The New Sentence." Of course, this new sentence was not really a sentence at all (further evidence of how meanings aren't necessary to the words they come with). As its inventor, Ron Silliman, assured us, "...Each New Sentence gains its disorienting effects by being placed next to another, to which it has, apparently, only tangential relevance." 4

Thus, the following Language Poem:

    Optimize, categorize, resort to promptness. Every day exacts the cost of
    drawstring. Evanescence is the goal of gradual removal from a foreground
    meant to be productive. I chose the color blue to tantalize a setting
    echoing my bounty. Each workaround leaves evidence of a moments breath.
    A kind of precipice that will mince trickles of completion. Name an
    animal that does not need to pilfer and resume what you were doing on the
    high wire. Braying wish worlds cauterize the lively texture of self
    worth. I thought the sole prerequisite for rodeo was to be of certain
    mind. Ink disturbs worlds in the way a polished cleaver frames
    catastrophe as sequential acts of will

      "Desk" by Sheila Murphy

Is superior to the following non-Language Poem:

    I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
    Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
    All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
    Desolation in immaculate public places,
    Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
    the unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
    Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
    Endless duplication of lives and objects.
    And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
    Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
    Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
    Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
    Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

      "Dolor" by Theodore Roethke

Why? Because the first poem produces the desired "disorienting effects." It exists outside of the context of external, socially-imposed, capitalistically-mandated, activity.

Simply by "reading" a language poem, one became part of the larger political protest. So much less taxing than travelling to Washington to tie oneself to a gate.

But the second poem has, in fact, produced something (meaning) and, beautifully constructed though it may be, it is by definition, inferior. It has used up its potential in the service of production, served its capitalistic ends and is now tossed like an empty take-out carton in the street—consumed, corrupt and kaput. Leaking with meaning, such writing was actually victimizing us, the readers, holding us hostage to corrupt Western ideals. By contrast, Language Poetry was "....constructive in its demolition of the conventional relationship between the active (dictatorial) writer and the passive (victimized) reader." 5

The Language Poets restored us to our natural, infantile state of total confusion and, heady with lack of closure, we were sent on our way while they worked to accomplish grander things, to: 6

  • Systematically derange the language, for example, write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerundive to every line of an already existing piece of prose or poetry, etc. Get a group of words (make a list or select at random); then form these words (only) into a piece of writing—whatever the words allow.
  • Attempt to eliminate all connotation from a piece of writing & vice versa.
  • Take a traditional text like the pledge of allegiance to the flag. For every noun, replace it with one that is seventh or ninth down from the original one in the dictionary. For instance, the word "honesty" would be replaced by "honey dew melon."
  • Take a piece of prose writing and turn it into poetic lines. Then, without remembering that you were planning to do this, make a poem of the first and last words of each line to see what happens. For instance, the lines (from Einstein):

      When at the reception
      Of sense-impressions, memory pictures
      Emerge this is not yet thinking
      And when. . .

      Would become:

      When reception
      Of pictures
      Emerge thinking
      And when

  • Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.

Like the Dadaists before them, but lacking their flair, fun, creativity, and talent, Language Poets used their work as a statement about the culture

For example, the word "honesty" would be replaced by "honey dew melon."

in which it was created. They made readers hip to the act of the poet, the use of the word, and the dependence on context for meaning. Unfortunately, they didn't stop there. They continue even now to " ...reject coherence based on the human standard since that [coherence] has already been determined, given a position in the hierarchy of capitalist society." 7

We miss the coherence that meets human needs. Meanwhile, the point of incoherence becomes clearer: to secure an academic career postion in the hierarchy of capitalist society.

                                                                                          [copyright 2000, Joan Houlihan]

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