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Language Poetry

Poetry and Language Writing: Objective and Surreal by David Arnold (Liverpool University Press) It has been variously labelled 'Language poetry', 'Language writing', `L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing' (after the magazine that ran from 1978 to 1981) and `Language-centered writing'. It has been variously defined as non-referential or of diminished reference, as textual poetry or a critique of expressivism, as a reaction against the 'workshop' poetry enshrined in creative writing departments across the United States. It has been variously described as non-academic, theory conscious, avant-garde, postmodern and oppositional. It has been placed according to its geographical positions, on east or west coasts of the United States; its venues in small magazines, independent presses and performance spaces; and its descent from historical precursors, be they the Objectivists, the composers-by-field of the Black Mountain school, the Russian Constructivists or American modernism a la William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. Indeed, one of the few statements that can be made about it with little qualification is that 'it' has both fostered and endured a crisis in representation more or less since it first became visible in the 1970s.In this timely volume, David Arnold not only provides a means for coming to terms with this influential mode of writing and its ongoing crisis of representation but also reassesses the complex relationship between language poetry and surrealism, through discussion of some of late twentieth-century’s most innovative poets, including Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, and Barrett Watten.

As far as period is concerned, it currently occupies a liminal space between past and present. For a start, most of the writers involved are still alive, and writing. That said, the positions from which they write, not to mention the audiences for and the contexts of their writing, have changed dramatically since the 1970s. Language writing = for this is what I am going to call 'it' = now features in university syllabuses on both sides of the Atlantic, and several of those involved have accepted academic appointments.' Critics have registered these shifts in different ways. For example, when Hank Lazer revised his 1988 essay 'Radical Collages' for publication in volume 2 of his Opposing Poetries (1996), he changed the title to `Outlaw to Classic: The Poetry of Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman'. 'Classic' is, no doubt, being used somewhat ironically in the context of the oppositional stance of these two writers but the preposition signals the difficulty of classifying careers and practices that remain in formation.

If Language writing is achieving 'classic' status of a heterodox kind, we should not be surprised to find a certain amount of anxiety surrounding its influence over contemporary American poetry. In their introduction to Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics in the 1990s,3 produced within the series 'Modern and Contemporary Poetics' by University of Alabama Press, Mark Wallace and Steven Marks acknowledge the success of what they call 'L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing' in helping to expand the arena for 'avant-garde poetries' (pp. 1-2). At the same time, their collection of recent interventions in the field of poetics is motivated partly by a desire to answer those who feel 'that no new and significant directions in avant-garde poetry have developed after those poets' (p. 2). The fact that the 'past' of Language writing is so recent, and not coterminous with the lives of 'those poets' themselves, generates a certain amount of qualification on the part of the editors. When they account for the absence from their collection of essays by Language writers, they cite 'the greater level of exposure' that these writers have received, though they swiftly note thereafter that this exposure remains 'undoubtedly insufficient' (p. 2).

Such qualification is particularly understandable in light of the ongoing careers of writers like Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman and Susan Howe.`' It becomes even more so when one considers that only four years earlier, and in the same series, Christopher Beach edited a similar anthology, Artifice and Indeterminacy, in which the 'new poetics' of its subtitle were almost exclusively represented by the Language writers.' To some extent, the collision between Beach's newness and that of Wallace and Marks is softened by the fact that Beach presents his selection as an anthology that is overdue; a search through publications from the late 1990s, he suggests, returns numerous collections of poetry by these writers but discloses `no comparably wide-ranging anthology of their poetics' (p. ix). Interestingly, whereas Wallace and Marks offer no appeal to the academy in their rationale, Beach implies, rather problematically, that 'the coming of age of the poetic avant-garde in the 1990s' is defined by the growing attention of professional scholars (p. vii). Such a view turns Lazer's earlier celebration of the extra-curricular status of Language writing on its head.

Even this brief comparison of two perspectives illustrates the difficult terrain that must be crossed by anyone who wants to give an account of Language writing. Questions of definition and period are currently unresolved and are likely to remain so. In the present work, I have no desire to petrify Language writing with definitive fixity, nor to allocate it a niche in some official archive of the literary past. If there is a point to discussing any aspect of what has come before, it is surely to create some kind of significance in the present. My early encounters with Language writing first took the cast of research when I began to think that this amorphous and heterogeneous body of work had been only partially interpreted by critics who sought to frame it as ideology critique. In this respect, although my discussion is undeniably informed by theories of society, the psyche and signification, it lodges most comfortably with those attempts to place Language writing in relation to its literary precursors. For me, the 'present' significance of such a project has a lot to do with a re-evaluation of the legacies of post-structuralism. These legacies continue to slide through the discipline of literary studies like the glowing effluvia of a giant volcano that blew its top some time ago but still demands our vigilance and, perhaps, our respect.

From this point of view, it is no coincidence that my scepticism over the blanket description of Language writing as ideology critique goes hand in hand with an enthusiasm to raise the profile of Surrealism in the context of twentieth-century American poetry. It is fair to say that, in general, Language writers have been reluctant to claim Surrealism as a positive influence. As will become apparent, this wariness is not unrelated to the keenness for continental theory shown by many Language writers, since, Jacques Lacan and Walter Benjamin apart, these theorists did not have much time for Surrealism, at least as far as Language writing's aspirations to theoretical rigour were concerned. What I hope to demonstrate in the chapters that follow is that the reluctance to acknowledge positive comparisons with Surrealism is often based on a reduced account of the poetics and the politics of the European movement. Lift this limiting frame and novel correspondences, unlooked-for affinities arise. It is to this end that many of my readings are directed.

 I begin by discussing the part played by Surrealism as a negative exemplum for the early poetics of Language writing. In this context, Surrealism stands routinely accused of expressivism, of leaving writing at the service of the subjective interior. The problem with this charge is that it engages with Surrealism only at the level of its aspirations. Breton did, indeed, hope for the ultimate unification of the self but, as more than one critic has observed, this hope inevitably came up against the materiality of the language. My attempt to align Language writing and Surrealism in this respect draws on Peter Nicholls's account of a modernist 'poetics of negation'. From this perspective, the two tendencies share a mode in which the gap between language and the world becomes a space for critique and opposition. In my argument, this space serves, in turn, as the ground for a positive comparison between Surrealism and Objectivism, both of which negotiate in their protean poetics the 'murky realm' between objective forces and subjective experience. Fredric Jameson and Hal Foster have also drawn attention to the conflicted poetics of Surrealism and their work helps to contextualize my discussion further. Particularly valuable for my purposes is Foster's understanding of automatism as a technique that tends as much to the dissolution of the subject as it does to its unification. The tension discerned by Foster feeds into my own interpretation of Nachträglichkeit as a kind of aberrant principle of automatic writing. To read the automatic texts of Surrealism in the light of this concept is to bring them within an interpretative frame where they might sit more congenially alongside Language texts. The chapter ends with one such reading of a section of The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault.

Continuing in this revisionary vein, Chapter 3 turns to the improvisations of William Carlos Williams. Williams is an important figure for many Language writers and their reception of his work has often been at odds with canonical representations of it. My aim in Chapter 3 is to show that Williams's positive engagement with Surrealism has been unnecessarily muted, in discussions both of his own poetics and of his 'influence' on subsequent phases of oppositional writing in the United States. In my view, what links Williams, Surrealism and Language writing is precisely a sensitivity to the intractability of language, tending towards a poetics of negation. The normative function of genre is also at stake in this connection and a substantial section of the chapter is given over to reading Williams's The Great American Novel in relation to Breton's Soluble Fish as an example of a Surrealist 'false novel'. After some extended close reading, I begin to explore the broader prospects for the links I am making. Blues is the anchor for this section. As a small magazine, it offers a more finely calibrated, albeit partial, measurement of the protean poetics characterizing the shift from first- to second-wave literary modernism. To read the contributions to Blues of Williams, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler is, in my view, to discern no clear boundary between the orthodox American followers of Surrealism and its renegade dissidents.

In Chapter 4, I expand the field still further by proposing a Surreal-Objectivist nexus. As this coinage implies, I am working backwards as well as forwards here, unpicking, where I can, the definitive fixity with which criticism has absorbed these two groupings over the years. Clear definition was part of Louis Zukofsky's aspirations for poetry at the beginning of the 1930s but it is one inevitably snagged in the field of desire. It is on this field, I suggest, that Surrealism and Objectivism draw close, close to the point where, once again, clear distinctions between the two begin to dissolve. I pursue this dissolution through Zukofsky's contributions to Blues and into the 'symposium' he stages with Tyler and Ford, towards the end of the supposedly foundational Objectivist edition of Poetry in 1931.

As far as the concept of nexus resists closure, in both categorical and temporal terms, it allows me to conjecture the persistence of a Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus into more recent American poetry. In Chapter 5, it is my contention that the work of Michael Palmer can be read in these terms. In his commitment to what I call a poetics of witness, he willingly steps into the 'murky realm' between subjective experience and objective forces. Specifically, he opens up the subjective side of Objectivism by stressing the need for an 'unrelenting exposure' of the self. The sensitivity to otherness that results links the poetics of witness to the disjunctive temporality of Surrealism, as well as to the discourse of responsibility that Woods identifies as an important ethical continuity between Objectivism and Language writing. For Palmer, the voice of poetry is often engaged with a re-articulation that cannot be reduced to simple repetition. As I show, Bretonian Surrealism is one touchstone for this aspect of Palmer's poetics. Nowhere, perhaps, is the ethics of poetry more urgent than in the representation of war, which accounts partly for my concentration on Palmer's sequence 'Seven Poems Within a Matrix for War'. Also alive in this discussion of the poetic 'theatre' of war is Benjamin's image sphere, rocked as it is by the contemporary face of the informational image.

Like that of Palmer, the writing career of Susan Howe is somewhat en avant of the emergence of 'Language' as a cultural signifier in the late 1970s. It is in her concern for the 'dark side' of American history that she connects with the themes of the present work. If Palmer's writing bears witness to the more recent traumas of America's violent history, Howe's reaches back still further, to the ungovernable and silenced relics of the Puritan settlement. As with Palmer, her respect for the abject of this settlement leads her writing into a re-articulation that simultaneously opens horizons on to past and future. Her work is already familiar to scholarship in these terms but the suggestion that her project of recovery also has a stake in the Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus is, I think, a new one. Williams is a hinge figure in this respect. In simple terms, In the American Grain is a precursor text for Howe's My Emily Dickinson. In terms of Nachträglichkeit, however, her writing determines retrospectively Williams's reception of Surrealism. According to the way Howe understands Puritan attitudes to reality, there already existed an American poetics of negation to which Surrealism could be accommodated by a modernist writer so inclined. My discussion of Howe's work also departs from some recent scholarship in seeking to blur the boundary between her 'praxis of writing' and her 'inner life'. The shift is prompted by Howe's decision to add prefaces to new collections of earlier works. By no means generically orthodox, these texts invite the reader to the junctions between the national history of the United States and the life of Susan Howe.

In the final chapter, I turn my attention to the writing of Barrett Watten. As poet, editor, theorist and, more recently, tenured scholar, Watten has been pivotal in the life of Language writing. As well as doing much to foster the significance of Objectivism for contemporary American poetry, he has considered explicitly and in some detail the relationship between Surrealism and what he now calls the 'Language school'. I reflect on Watten's early account of Surrealism as a defence of the self and move on to consider his serial poem Complete Thought as a text in which the Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus becomes once again a possibility. The image sphere is active in this discussion, since it allows for a comparison of Surrealist poetics with Watten's commitment to the integrity of his 'materials'. This term in turn hinges the poem to George Oppen's collection The Materials (1962), wherein, I argue, the writer is equally exercised by the reciprocity of subjective and objective states. To read these two texts in relation to each other is not just a critical convenience but respects Watten's Constructivist method. As I have already noted, this method itself relies partially on the concept of Nachtraglichkeit. Watten looks to Russian precursors much more positively than he does to Surrealist ones but it is nonetheless telling that a concept active in Surrealism has become integral to his method.

 I try to open the way for a more positive discussion of Surrealism and Language writing than has hitherto prevailed. I have depended heavily on formal analysis and theoretical concepts. True to the idea of 'nexus', however, and to cultural poetics in general, I have no desire for this discussion to float free from history. The encounters, as well as the missed encounters, between Language writing and Surrealism are historically as well as formally and theoretically determined. If the 'new sentence' has a lineage, William Carlos Williams is an important figure in it. Silliman's reference to Kora in Hell points both to this disclosed continuity and to an undisclosed linkage. For the period in the 1920s when Williams was exploring improvisatory form was also the time of his greatest enthusiasm for Surrealism. Although his interest in the European movement has been long noted, accounts of it have tended to be overly coloured by his ultimate rejection of it. After all, the story usually goes that the Williams of the improvisations is superseded not by the Surrealist Williams but by the Objectivist Williams. In the two chapters that follow, we will become increasingly aware of what a Surrealist Williams and a Surreal-O-bjectivism might look like.

When Ron Silliman cites Kora in Hell as a formal precursor to the 'new sentence', he intervenes in the politics of canon formation, for the Williams of the improvisations is not the same writer as the Williams known and celebrated for his exemplary American voice. As Hank Lazer points out, to understand the 'particular traditions' of Language writing we need to acknowledge the ways in which its participants have engaged in 'a deliberate act of rewriting literary history'.' Despite the playful title of the essay in which he makes this claim — 'Language Writing; or Literary History and the Strange Case of the Two Dr. Williamses' = Lazer makes clear that this act has entailed a battle over the representation of Williams. This battle has not taken place on a level playing field; by the time that Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein joined the fray in the 1980s, there already existed a hegemonic version of Williams as 'the poet of common objects, immediate description, and common life'.2 By the 1980s, this characterization had come to sponsor both the appearance of his work in anthologies and a preferred aesthetic in poetry workshops across the nation.

Against this academically sanctioned version of Williams, both Silliman and Bernstein stress the oppositional bite and drive of his work. For Silliman, the 'critical element of oppositionality' shared by Williams with Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley was 'the identification of method with content'.' From this perspective, the virtues championed in the hegemonic version of Williams were mere 'surface features'. Similarly zealous, Bernstein presents Williams as exemplary amongst his peers for his 'activist position in respect of the place of poetry'. Williams is an activist in two senses: firstly, because of his refusal to accept the subservience of writing to the coercive regimes of any academic discipline, be it philosophy, literature or science; secondly, because of his own project to make writing itself active. These two senses are clearly related. As long as it was in thrall to 'conventional education and rational scholarship', writing was simply being 'used' to represent intellectual and emotional states, and was not 'allowed to enact them'.' For both Silliman and Bernstein, then, an important feature of Williams's oppositionality is his commitment to writing as practice, by which it might be understood both to be something in its own right and to do something.

In a similar way, perhaps, Language writing's project to rewrite literary history has done something to criticism. In his important book Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, the Williams that Stephen Fredman reads — and reads so sensitively = has much in common with the activist Williams recovered by Silliman and Bernstein. Indeed, in the preface to the second edition he is keen to emphasize that his enquiry into the use of prose by American poets grew out of 'the context of the poetry scene in San Francisco in the seventies' (p. vii). The scene that he has in mind is the emerging network of talks, performances and small publications that helped to shape Language writing on the west coast.' In flexing the reach of his enquiry back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Williams, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery, Fredman is himself rewriting literary history, from the perspective of a recent phase in which Language writing has made all the running in poetic innovation. His intervention is relevant both to a sounding of the poetics of the improvisations and to an understanding of the neglect to which Williams's Surrealist side has been subjected. In this respect, Fredman's narrative is founded on a scepticism over French forms that chimes with the suspicion of Silliman and Bernstein. So, in the preface to the first edition, he advances his coining of the term 'poet's prose' partly on`the basis that 'the more common "prose poem"' has been debased through its association with 'the atmospheric sentiment of French Symbolism' (p. xiii). In his subsequent discussion of Ashbery's relationship to the French prose poem, Surrealism also comes under attack. Taking issue with Michael Benedikt's view that the prose`poem is 'a virtual ink blotter for the unconscious', Fredman goes on to berate 'classic Surrealism' for its commitment to an image-based poetics which, although 'startling', nonetheless adheres generally to 'very static verse forms or classically constructed sentences' (pp. 131-32).

The Ashbery that Fredman reads is to be set apart from this counter-tradition that is not counter enough. In a move that we have already seen, Ashbery is aligned with French writers who are 'fringe figures' as far as Surrealism is concerned (p. 132). At the same time, Fredman seems to reproduce Benedikt's conflation of prose poem and automatic writing, citing Ashbery's own expression of 'boredom' with 'the automatic writing of orthodox surrealism' (p. 132). A small host of assumptions get away scot-free in Fredman's efforts to delineate an American tradition of 'poet's prose', one that actively engages grammar and syntax 'in order to investigate language at a much deeper level' (p. 132). Why should Benedikt be allowed to represent `the poetry of Surrealism', just because he compiled an anthology of the same name? Why, in a work so intent on specifying the characteristics of literary forms, do the distinctions between prose poetry and automatic writing go unexamined? In defence of Fredman, his is not a book about Surrealism, but it is surely fair to expect a degree of vigilance when the movement is invoked as antithetical to the tendency that he is seeking to establish.

I have tried to align my reading of Blues in the previous chapter with the slender but significant section that Marjorie Perloff has cut through first- and second-wave literary modernism. But to keep the coordinates as clear as possible I have deliberately delayed addressing one of her major claims, namely that what is at stake in her new mapping is 'the nature of the Objectivist experiment'.' Perloff specifically has her sights on Louis Zukofsky. She situates Zukofsky's early "Objectivist" poetry' alongside the kind of Superrealist prose written by Erskine Caldwell and Edward Dahlberg. In challenging preconceptions with this very localized analysis, Perloff is in tune with a recent trend to re-evaluate Objectivism in terms that assume as little about their 'object' as possible. In a recent collection of essays, for example, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain exhort readers to think about The Objectivist Nexus, where 'nexus' is preferred as 'a term useful for resisting definitive fixity while encouraging a continuing discussion of cohorts and groups'.

The current work is offered as a contribution to this discussion. Notwithstanding the distinctions that Perloff draws between European Surrealism and American Superrealism, her analysis has the unnecessary and unfortunate effect of muting Williams's engagement with Surrealism and Superrealism. Given that the relationship between Zukofsky and Williams is part of the narrative of Objectivism = and I think this is hard to dispute = her mapping of the transition from first- to second-wave modernism also limits the account of what I would like to describe as the `Surreal-O-bjectivist' nexus, a nexus in which the two tendencies meet in the field of desire. Indeed, in the traffic between 'real' and 'fantastic' that Perloff identifies in the lost aesthetic of the late 1920s, I discern a problematics of desire that both shapes the Objectivist relationship of Williams and Zukofsky and deforms it with Surrealist inclinations. This dynamic manifests itself in some unexpected material locations; my drawing of it will include Zukofsky's contribution of poems to Blues = the Surrealist profile of which is already in play = but will attend to these texts as tentative responses to what Richard Frye describes as the 'objectivist premonitions' of Spring and A11. Frye's expression has a special resonance in my reading of Willliams's Spring and All, where it signals both the protean character of his Objectivism and the phantom of Surrealism which lay in its future path. When he publishes poems in Blues, Zukofsky is responding to Spring and All from within a context that includes Surrealism. Surrealism also ghosts the foundational moment of Objectivism, in the shape of 'a symposium' between Zukofsky, Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford.

In exploring this network of encounters, I want specifically to resist the 'definitive fixity' that would divide Surrealism and Objectivism in the crucial phase of transition from first- to second-wave modernism. The boundary between these two modernist movements has already received scrutiny in the context of scholarship on the writing of Lorine Niedecker. Jenny Penberthy's work on the correspondence between Niedecker and Zukofsky draws attention to Niedecker's dual 'affiliation' to Surrealism and Objectivism. Elsewhere, Peter Nicholls has pursued the Surrealist inflection of Niedecker's writing, finding it in both her early and her later work. In subjecting this boundary to further interrogation, I am also calling into question the idea of an 'orthodox' Surrealism, crisply defined in terms of a commitment to dream imagery and a poetics of the inner life. In a movement given to commanding statements of position and led by forceful personalities, orthodoxy recurs again and again as an issue. But, as Perloff illustrates in her study of Superrealism, the international scope of Surrealism allows for many mediations. Much = often too much — is assumed when an American writer is labelled as a 'follower' of André Breton. I don't dispute the emergence of 'orthodox' Surrealism as an influence on twentieth-century American poetry — one that is construed sometimes positively, sometimes negatively = but I do think that the history of its emergence has been, at times, abbreviated. Concerned with the nuances of American modernism, critics have sometimes latched on to this orthodoxy as a secure point of contrast for their analyses.

The significance of the Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus for my broader discussion of Language writing is twofold. On the one hand, it advances the case for the imbrications = if not influence = of Language writing with Surrealism. On the other hand, it helps to explain why this relationship has been subterranean and unsubstantiated, since it charts the increasing visibility of orthodox Surrealism as the only kind of Surrealism with which American poets might compare their work.' Objectivist writers have been acceptable antecedents for Language writing for some time. The materialist cast of their poetics and their exile from the canon of American literature = until recent years at least = chimes with the leftist and dissident stance that writers like Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten took in the early phases of Language writing. In the context of this lineage,

Surrealism is too easily reduced to the subjectivist and bourgeois antithesis of a tradition grounded in the personal experience of strife and obscurity. To show, as I hope to do, that the border between subjective and objective is not a secure one for either movement is to identify a crux that persists in the poetics and practice of Language writers. In this sense their declared bonds with Objectivism are ghosted by invisible ties to Surrealism.

The Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus is also punctuated by questions of political intervention. The transitions between first- and second-wave literary modernism at the end of the 1920s were by no means co-terminous with the political commitment generated as a response to the Depression but they were, nonetheless, part of the same historical process. At a practical level, the conditions in which poetry was produced and disseminated changed.' In theoretical terms, the pressures on the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity in writing intensified, as writers were called upon to justify their practice in materialist terms. This situation anticipates the questions that many Language writers put to themselves later in the century. The situations are not, however, smoothly analogous. For Zukofsky and Breton, the political picture was one where the left had a strong profile; by contrast, debates on referentiality staged in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and elsewhere grew out of a keen sense that the corn-modification of writing was a well established norm. Nonetheless, it is not a misrepresentation to suggest that, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, both Zukofsky and Breton were engaged with `the politics of the referent', Zukofsky through his commitment to historic and contemporary particulars, Breton through a stand against the emergence of `neo-naturalism'. Both resist the pressures to backtrack on the gains of first-wave modernism; both attempt to clarify the passage between consciousness and the material world. Emblematic of this struggle is Benjamin's idea of the long-sought image sphere', that state in which 'political materialism and physical nature share the inner man, the psyche, the individual'. Benjamin's utopian concept inaugurates my travels through the Surreal-O-bjectivist nexus.




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