[EDITOR'S NOTE. My own connection to what came later to be called “language poetry” goes back to the early 1970s and first contacts with Ron Silliman & soon thereafter with Bruce Andrews & Charles Bernstein, all of whom I helped to bring together. It was my perception – possibly misguided – that the experimental work that they were then reviving had, like a number of earlier modernisms, a bona fide resemblance to forms of language play and word magic that I had been uncovering in shamanistic & related poetries & that I was then putting forward in works like Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin. I first broached this with Silliman along with an invitation to contribute something along those lines to Alcheringa, the magazine of ethnopoetics that Dennis Tedlock and I were then publishing, in a letter dated 6 August 1973. The pertinent sentences read: “What I’m principally writing to you about -- & it takes me a long time to get around to it – is to wonder if you’d be interested in contributing something to ALCHERINGA, specifically an exploration of the relation between tribal poetry, non-wester game or graphic elements, etc. & the formal end of matters in the work of writers in their mid-20s. Maybe a kind of mini-anthology, a sort of reverse TECHNICIANS, with the contemporary work up front & the analogies & derivations (the non-western counterparts) revealed in commentaries. Or any way you’d think to handle it.”
The result, which touched only lightly on the ethnopoetic part of my proposition, was in fact the first anthology (on however small a scale) of language poetry, with some speculation (soon to be answered) about what that poetry might possibly be called. The lineup of poets was described by Silliman as follows: “9 poets out of the present, average age 28, whose work might be said to ‘cluster’ about such magazines as This, Big Deal, Tottel's, the recent Doones supplements, the Andrewseditedissue of Toothpick, etc. Called variously ‘language centered,’ ‘minimal,’ ‘nonreferential formalism,’ ‘diminished referentiality,’ ‘structuralist.’ Not a group but a tendency in the work of many.” The poets included in the first run were Bruce Andrews, Barbara Barracks, Clark Coolidge, Lee De Jasu, Ray Di Palma, Robert Grenier, David Melnick, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. (J.R.)]
SURPRISED BY SIGN (NOTES ON NINE)
1. What connects these writers beyond my impression of a connection is what I take to be a community of concern for language as the center of whatever activity poems might be, and for poetry itself as the "perfection of new forms as additions to nature." Which raises questions, problems, answers, solutions, recalls old modes (half-forgotten modernists such as Arensberg, say, or the work of certain Russian Futurists) and reflects concerns that have not previously been so extensively explored in the context of American poetry (e.g., for the work of such as Lacan or Barthes) Some have come to this more or less isolately, while others have found use in the work of their peers. Inevitably, present correspondences will fade as each body of work follows the trajectory of its own logic; others may develop. What this is, then, is a fix-in-time of writing which bears a family resemblance.
2. Any poem's a language: a vocabulary plus a set of rules by which to process it. For example, English terms which are aural equivalents to words and word-parts of Latin + the structure of the poems of Catullus. More commonly: the usual vocabulary of the writer + a stylized conception of speech. But if what one goes after is a direct confrontation with language, words (Grenier: "What now I want . . . is the word way back in the head"; or as Charles Bernstein, a younger, Steinimpacted writer, puts it: "wordness") or beyond (Tom Clark, prefacing Big Sky 3, implies that for Coolidge words are a surface intended to reveal "Neural activity . . . a multiplicity of simultaneous operations functioning in a continuum. The basis for the system is frequency modulation"), what vocabulary, what set of rules? First, neither the words nor the processes of the poem must point out or away from the poem itself, a literal reading of Creeley's "poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so," must not carry the reader's attention away from the fact of what's at hand. Even the use of the line to describe speech (Grenier again: "Why imitate 'speech' . . . ? (I)t is only such. To me, all speeches say the same thing"). What it finally becomes, as Grenier so clearly saw in "On Speech" (This 1) is "First question: where are the words most themselves?"
3. Words are not, finally, non-referential. For they originate in interactions with the world. Even Melnick's metalanguage is based in its relation to a vocabulary of derived terms. What can be done, however, is to diminish the reference, an activity common to the work of all nine. By the creation of non-referring structures (Coolidge, DiPalma. Andrews), disruption of context (Grenier, DeJasu), forcing the meanings in upon themselves until they cancel out or melt (Watten, the poem Tri, and, elsewhere, in the work of Michael Palmer). By effacing one or more elements of referential language (a tactic commonly employed by the Russian Futurists), the balance within and between the words shifts, redistributes. Consider the i in I drink rice as a constant around which audio-visual variants are developed, the clarity a consequence of the reduction of context. Or Watten's self-referring Methodical Descriptive Prose, innermost unit (word) pointing out to the sentence(s), outermost unit (paragraph) aimed back in, to the same point. Or the flickering reoccurrences of information (letter, sound, quantity, meaning) in Coolidge's work, each term of equal import (the one truly Steinian element in his writing). Or DeJasu's presentation of signifiers with (the at least hypothetical, implied) signifieds, the referential nature of emotional or intellective discourse "mapped out," an ironic mode. Roland Barthes, in the essay "Is There Any Poetic Writing?" (Writing Degree Zero, 1953), confronts diminished referentiality as achieved by effacing connections (best present example: DiPalma's third poem: "it is the Word which is 'the dwelling place' . . . it shines with an infinite freedom and prepares to radiate towards innumerable uncertain and possible connections. Fixed connections being abolished, the word is left only with a vertical project, it is like a monolith, or a pillar which plunges into a totality of meanings, reflexes and recollections . . . ."
4. The "Hunger of the Word," desire to become, as Coolidge once in correspondence noted, "growing word plant," is as old as "in the beginning, etc." (The vertical in Shakespeare: "Edgar I nothing am.") In
, 1912-1930, the Futurists
(Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Kamensky, Zdanevich, Pasternak, the Burliuks,
Kruchenyk et al) and their Kenners, the Formalists (Shklovsky, Tynjanov, Brik,
Jakobson), aimed at it, head on. Shklovsky: "Words are a human need even
apart from meaning," or, elsewhere, "all that the work of poetic
schools amounts to is the acquisition and demonstration of new devices for
deploying and elaborating verbal materials." Such views can be traced back
to the foundations of Russian Litcrit (Potebnya, 1835-91, saw poetry as a
defense mechanism of the word, to assert the word's autonomy in the face of
external forces, and argued even that "the word is art, more exactly,
poetry," a century before Grenier's work), finding their most common Futurist
expression in the neologism (Mayakovsky "invented" over 2,000 words),
and their wildest (and most useful in the present sense) extension in the
theory of zanm, and the zaumniks of the group called 41°
(Kruchenyk, Khlebnikov, Zdanevich), a "transrational" language (cf.,
here, the poems of Melnick and Andrews) made up of wordfragments, non-words
sounding wordish, words with letters rearranged in alphabetical order, with
ranDOm capiTalS, etc. (Zdanevich, with sophisticated graphic dimensions a la Finlay,
and exacting instructions for pronunciation, seems almost a direct ancestor of
some of the work of Mac Low and Schwerner). Russia
5. Beyond such "cues" as coneretism or certain tribal literatures, the work of two men ought also to be noted as fire source: Creeley and Eigner. Creeley's work, both in the poems and in such essays as "To Define" and "Poems are a complex," has sensitized many to the possibilities of getting at, to, in the word. Eigner, by fact of physical situation, has take the logic of speech as such out of discourse, creating sequences of presences. Power to their words.
6. The descriptive term, by fact of its intention, does not exist, for its substance lays elsewhere, in table, sky, chair. But is there a grammar capable of imposing order on a room, the couch in a corner as some predication? The paradox of Quine's Pegasus (Word & Object, p. 176) is not in the language, but rather a specific literary tradition, wherein words are transparent and one could not see Dickens as primarily a writer of phrases. Certainly such assumptions did not control Sterne's composition of Shandy. Nor a Balinese Ketjak, that powerful oral form. Language exists, is real, has weight, is physical: one finds in tribal literatures poetries of sound or the visible more than equal to a Cobbing or a Furnival. The bias of course was against the "pre-literate," a question of domination previous to information. If these aspects of language have come to a legitimization, seen now as integral faculties of mind (in the Chomskian usage of that term), during the modern and so-called post-modern periods, it has principally been through the indirect influence of the visual arts, the likes of Picasso who first began to accept and explore the possibilities of that universe. One sees in the deliberate primitivism of a Harry Crosby a tendency that
could be followed through Finlay or Gomringer to the "sophisticated" machines of Coolidge (or, to turn to a slightly older worker, one could argue that the Anglo-American body of poetry most invested with a heritage of the literature of tribal cultures is that produced by MacLow via computers). Such poetry is no longer simply an extension of the formal grammars of the written.