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...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poetry and Personality

How much does the personality of the poet have to play in a poetic form's acceptance? Does a poem in and of itself have the power to create change (as activism, a movement, or whatever) or is there some kind of "I want to be like that person" thing going on?

The reason I ask is because I've been thinking about celebrity lately (as I am wont to do) and what makes someone "popular" outside of their own circles. It seems to me to be like a snowball gaining momentum as it rolls down a hill--snowflakes (lets call them "people") tend to get run over by the larger movement, not necessarily because they are positioning themselves in the path but, more likely, because they can't get out of the way. Eventually the mass gets larger and larger until, finally, other people do jump on because they are feeling left out. But what creates the initial momentum (especially as it relates to poetry)?

I would argue that boredom with previous forms leads to a lot of the shift in consciousness that precedes a poetic movement. The new thing is always difficult and, almost by definition, resists becoming relevant. The relevance, I would argue, comes not from the form itself but from the people pushing the movement--the avant garde, if you will. Imagists like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein weren't writing poetry in a vacuum--they were engaging in a dialogue that said, "Hey, doesn't it seem as if that old thing has kind of played itself out? Look at what we're doing over here." Had they been communicating only with each other, however, it wouldn't have caught on. They were out in the world having parties and gatherings, salons and shows, and attracting more and more "first adopters,"--those people who lead by the sheer force of their personalities. Eventually the piling on begins.

By today's standards Ginsberg's "Howl" seems pretty tame but, at the time it was truly groundbreaking--and the reason it seems tame today is because Ginsberg and his fellow Beats were worth emulating (at least to those outsiders looking in). What they were saying had to be said, of course, but the way they said it was challenging to societal norms, cultural taboos, and--at that time--could get you thrown in jail. But there was something about those guys that enough people were willing to take a risk (to buy their poems and books, rally around them, defend them, etc.). People looked at a lifestyle that was remarkably different from their own (and thus appealing) and began to glorify it. The sense of freedom the Beats projected--and just enough of a ring of truth in what they were saying--made the poetry itself a difficulty worth overcoming. What warm-blooded American boy didn't want to be Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady (and what girl, deep down, didn't want them)? For many, the advantages of a raise in stature amongst a certain group outweighed the problems inherent in trying to get through something as dense as Burrough's "Naked Lunch."

Poetry seems destined to remain on the fringes for now. There are so many disparate and often engaging art forms these days, something as "simple" as language has a hard time competing for attention spans that have become not unlike those of weasels on meth. Of course the form itself is important--people aren't going to respond to something that's been trod over and over until it is as flat as a tapeworm nor are they likely to respond well to sound poetry that barely stops short of causing eardrum hemorrhaging--but I'll bet the next time a poetic force comes along to shake up the world it'll be because the person or persons responsible for it couldn't be ignored.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In Defense of Word Clouds

Jodi Dean argues over at iCite that meaning is not at stake in word clouds (which she mistakenly refers to as “tag clouds”). But is meaning really “at stake” in most speech or writing? When every pundit on television and radio can bloviate incessantly about what this or that “means” and still not come up with an adequate answer, who is to say word clouds are an any less useful form of discourse? I would argue that, as the reader (or viewer as the case may be), it is my place to ascribe meaning and I can get as much of it, if not more, from a word cloud than many of the things that pass for argument or dialogue today. Language is far from adequate to convey “real” meaning anyway (if such a thing even exists), but it is the best tool we have. If I can look at words in a different way and make connections that I wouldn't have made except for the word cloud then I have gained something that used-up clichés and blowhard analysis can never give me.

I guess what I'm having difficulty understanding is, if indeed “meaning is not at stake in tag (word) clouds," why is Dean having such a problem with them? So what if words become images? It isn't as if word clouds are somehow usurping regular speech in everyday dialectic (as she seems to be implying) or that they haven't existed since at least Dadaism and the Russian avant-garde (as she acknowledges).

Dale Smith at Possum Ego latches onto Dean's thesis to use it in his, apparently ongoing, argument against flarf. The presumption that “contextual meaning” is of prime importance in poetry is, in my opinion, a ridiculous one. Poetry is, above all, art—and art is what I as the artist derive from its creation or you as the audience gain from its consumption. I don't need my “ah ha” moment spoon fed to me, thank you very much. Some people do and those people, I would argue, are missing out on plenty of meaning. I'm sorry Dean and Smith don't “get it” but, fortunately for me, it's not necessary that they do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Word Clouds Part II

and another concerning the economy...

Wordle: Capitalism in Peril

"Word Clouds Are Symptoms of the Decline of Symbolic Efficiency*" (and I think I like it)

From a research paper I wrote about Thomas Hobbes...

  Wordle: Leviathan


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

I remember our Jack Williamson
and also our yellow tree thingies.
I remember more than an
awkward taste of sweet N. Scott Momaday.

I smiled, or laughed, when you shouted
Yosuke Matsuoka! Yosuke Matsuoka!
and looking for bacillus calmetteguerin
in a something thing.

I remember me and all my Whiggishness
and you and your strange fascination with
And a head, that moved.

So, when you left, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,
you did not leave me,
because of what I gave you for a long, long time after.
You are lobster rabbit.