Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I'm going to preface this post by saying that, for the most part, I love the language poets. These are just my initial impressions from reading Eleana Kim's piece and my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the movement. I wanted to quickly get down some of my thoughts and then tease them out in later, more substantial posts. Hopefully, having said all of that, the following doesn't come off as some polemic tirade against them.

First, it seems to me that the language poets were more than a little consciously aware that they were trying to "become a movement" despite their, to me, rather transparent objections to the language label. Silliman, in particular, seems ideologically bent on promoting the genre through a steady stream of anthologies (in which he, more often than not, includes his own work). I don't get much of a sense of anti-hegemony from them at all--despite their claims of wanting to create "alternate social formations." As a group, they were more organized, more self-aware, and more capitalistic than their forbears.

Next, I'd like to address the whole "movement" thing. Other than being a self-created movement within poetry, what were the larger social implications of LANGUAGE? Lacey mentioned that they have been highly influential on other writers and poets, which, if true, is not insubstantial--but how much have they really affected the way writers (other than poets) write? This is a serious question. I'd like to know who, duly influenced by Watten, Hejinian, Silliman, et al, is challenging the hegemony in the larger culture (outside of poetics). By eliminating the author from their own work, I believe they have an almost built-in irrelevance outside of poetry (not that there is anything wrong with that). But people need flesh and bone, skin and phlegm human beings to emulate and rally around and, unfortunately, they won't find that person here. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, but language is not going to start a revolution by itself--it needs a face. Try to imagine the Gettysburg Address without Lincoln (or even Howl without Ginsberg).

I did my own, completely unscientific test and googled language poets as compared with other poets past and present to see how many hits they received. Langpos got, mostly, in the tens of thousands of page hits compared to New York School, Beats, Modernists, Imagists, etc. who were all in the millions. Even Christian Bök returns millions of pages. And, just because he kind of reminds me of him, I entered Ed Begley Jr. and found he registered twenty times the hits Barrett Watten does.

Even though it may not sound like it, I really think the Langpos were onto something. If the goal, however, was to affect society outside of poetry, (which I believe, despite the rhetoric, it was), I think Language stumbles. It is difficult for the lay reader to connect with and so, without some heroic poetic persona to follow (ah, that personality thing again--I am obsessed with celebrity), it becomes but a pebble rolling on the literary landscape--not a landslide. Perhaps their legacy will be in their influence on others (as Lacey suggests) or as the form the next great movement rejects.

To be continued...


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Organized and self-aware, certainly, but capitalistic? How so?

I wonder about the whole "changing writing outside of poetry" thing. Is that really the goal? It's a fair question to ask what change (social, political, aesthetic, etc.) the Langpos have effected, but we should probably start by asking how they imagined that change would manifest itself, and then go on to ask whether they were successful, and in what ways.

I'd also like to talk about the necessity you posit of there being a human face to "rally round." How would the Langpos respond to that?

Michael said...

I was rethinking this almost as soon as I posted it. I have this (misguided)notion that poetry can have some kind of relevance "out in the world." I do believe language poetry is highly influential in the poetic community but I guess what I'm looking for poetry that can start a revolution. I realize this is probably ridiculous and I should be institutionalized for thinking it but, hey, its not like it hasn't happened before. Like I said, I think the language poets were on to something but I haven't, as yet, been able to articulate what that is or why language poetry itself seems to not quite be it (perhaps it has something to do with that elusive personality aspect). It is something I am going to explore in my next post.

I don't know why I get the feeling the Langpos are thinking bigger--it just seems like Silliman (in particular) is everywhere trumpeting the party line... if L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is not capitalistic, it certainly feels that way to me. Perhaps they're selling historical relevance?

I don't know if a person can be one's own arbiter of what constitutes "avant-garde-ness." Almost as soon as you proclaim it, it vanishes.

Anyway, all stuff for another post. Thanks for your comments, they've helped me disentangle some of my own thoughts on the subject...

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

To my mind, if you use those equal signs in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, you're doing one of two things:

1) talking about a specific period of time in poetic history sometime in the early to mid 1980s, or

2) being sarcastic about a dozen or so specific poets.

Really, I've observed that the equal signs are used nowadays only sarcastically. If you don't want to tag yourself as a Language poet hater right off the bat to your readers, you might want to let go of the equals signs.

If you're really interested in them as a group, or "movement" as you believe they dubbed themselves, you need to read the Grand Piano series. There's a ton of information in there; some great stuff.

Michael said...

Duly noted. Unintentional snarkiness deleted. I've just recently started reading the Grand Piano series and it is wonderful. Thank you for your feedback!