Thursday 12 June 2008

The Avant-garde and Language poetry

This article looks at the workings of the Avant-garde, using "Language poetry" as an example.

Coming to Terms

First, some terminology

  • The terms "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry" and "Language poetry" are somewhat loaded. In conversation with Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews said he felt more uncomfortable about the "poetry" word than about "Language". He might have preferred the term "Language Writing", but said he found "poetry" more marketable. In the UK especially you'll see the term "Linguistically innovative poetry" used instead.
  • Some say the avant-garde is dead - it's been suggested that the Impressionists were the first "official" avant-garde, and that the New York Poets were the last. Postmodernism, people claim, revealed avant-gardism as fundamentally sterile and outmoded - "there is no real resistance to the new, no stable norm from which the defiant artist may depart", writes Lehman, "If we are all postmodernists, we are none of us avant-garde, for postmodernism is the institutionalisation of the avant-garde" (p.11). So what replaced it? Culler "celebrates contemporary academic theory as a replacement for the (apparently extinct) literary avant-garde". If you don't like my use of the term "avant-garde", replace it by "experimental".


Whatever the merits of the resulting work, new movements are useful to curators, the press, and publishers. They also give publicity to the affected genre. Movements can be a reaction to previous movements (in the UK "The Movement" followed "The Apocalyptics"), a reaction to stagnancy, or a transplant from another art. Timing's all important to a movement's success, which may not be a reaction to the Arts at all - "the great changes in literature are non-literary in origin; and the same causes that produce the new work produce, in time, its audience. Wordsworth's poems did not produce Wordsworthians", (Jarrell, "A Note on Poetry", 1940).

Language Poetry emerged in the 70s, a period of distrust in the USA - Watergate and Vietnam were live topics. The Language poets perhaps reacted against Confessionalism too. The time was ripe for revolution.


Movements tend to portray themselves as utterly new (like Dada) or as a return to better times (as with the Pre-Raphaelites). They try to distance themselves from the present - "The poetic avant-garde sees the body of poetry as rotten and open to invasion; in fact, to clear the rot away is seen as a necessity. The avant-garde is aggressive, and there's no avoiding it, though it perceives itself as being ethical and necessary." (John Kinsella, "Spatial Relationships"). But it takes a risk if it ignores the present. According to some, the avant-garde's special status and energy derives from its opposition to the mainstream, a type of parasitic relationship even if this relationship fashions itself as an 'adversary relation' (Louis Armand).

The Language poets claimed Gertrude Stein as an antecedent, and an anthology by Rasula and McCaffery, published by MIT, included poets going back centuries. But for most readers the poetry looked radically new - Peter Middleton (a poet worth reading if you're interested in UK/US mainstream/experimental issues) has written that "Almost all readers can perceive that these innovative poems immediately incite a question: Is this really a poem?"

What is Language poetry?

Like many Avant-garde movements, Language poetry chased the art-form back to its source - in this case words more often than sounds or letters; the idea was that language should dictate meaning rather than the other way around. The movement was motivated by mistrust of the spurious authority of the confessional voice, but also a mistrust in lyricism and grammar. The Language poets broke sentences into disjointed phrases and broke phrases into words in order to cleanse language of corruption and banality. The reasoning wasn't that 'modern life is fragmented so poetry must be fragmented too', rather that language had already mirrored itself too much on the modern world with its smooth-talking, ego-centred media stars - all very laudable, but if nothing much is left at the end, it's a fruitless exercise, as if, disgusted by the commercialisation of Xmas, Xmas were banned altogether.

Lyn Hejinian tells us that the poetry "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierachies" (The Rejection of Closure, p.272). This seems a rather far-fetched analogy to me, and I doubt whether many new readers find the work inviting.

N. NourbeSe Philip "saw the lyric voice as one of the tools used to further the ends of colonialism", adding that "If there is one central image that sums up english literature studies in the Caribbean for me, it would be the daffodil... we had never seen them ... yet our very futures depended on being able to write about these bloody flowers" (Assembling Alternatives, p.198). She goes on to say that she's "far more interested in working with the structure of the language to destabilize the image of the daffodil" but the way she does it -

   Is not a daffodil
   and not

just doesn't work for me; the image isn't stable in the first place.

And when cris cheek proposes the question "why should I start trying to read something ... if I later discover that I have wasted my time?" the answer doesn't convince me - "Such questions reveal an overwrought case of contracting the Protestant work effort on the part of their posers. They overstate and reinforce values belonging to phallogocentric investiture."

But there's another defense of their methods which I find more acceptable. Linguistics in the last few decades has turned from the study of well-formed, logical sentences to the study of real-life language. Asked "Does your wife like porridge?" the response "All Scots like porridge!" would easily be understood by humans, though it looks like a non-sequitor. Conversation is full of omissions, hesitations, revealing switches of tone and register that we're not always conscious of. Language poetry adopts this wider notion of how language works, going beyond the literal meaning to include fragments, sampling, catch-phrases, etc.

Note that this emphasis is commonly combined with a suppression of narrative, character development, etc. If you imagine a landscape reduced to a blue rectangle for the sky plus a green rectangle for the land, and you concentrate on the brushstrokes and subtle color-contrasts, you'll have an extreme visual analogy of the style.

But not all their work's extreme. Andrews and Bernstein wrote that "The idea that writing should (or could) be stripped of reference is as bothersome and confusing as the assumption that the primary function of words is to refer, one to one, to an already constructed world of things". As Ian Davidson's written, "The language writers operate within that tension between word without referent and word with direct referent".


This is the end of Bernstein's 6 page "Dysraphism". (dysraphism is an abstruse medical term meaning a kind of birth defect) -

    Dominion demands distraction - the circus
    ponies of the slaughter home. Braced
    by harmony, bludgeoned by decoration
    the dream surgeon hobbles three steps over, two
    steps beside. "In those days you didn't have to
    shout to come off as expressive." One by one
    the clay feet are sanded, the sorrows remanded.
    A fleet of ferries, forever merry.
    Show folks know that what the fighting man wants
    is to win the war and come home. 

Before you read on, read the piece again, looking for sound effects (alliteration, assonance), internal associations and use of the same word in different senses. Note the rapid shifts in perspective. Gelpi writes that "the verbal play avoids or disguises interpretive comment or constructive patterning because such impositions would suggest a center of perspective, attitude, response - in short, all that is dismissed as the lyric ego of the Romantic-Modernist poet. The last sentence ... is not really bent on saying anything about the compassionate insight of entertainers or the attitudes of soldiers but is phrasing a sentimental platitude so as to savor the shape and weight of its monosyllables as verbal 'facts'."

Even if the heroic/Romantic "I" is absent, at least with this poem the sentences are intact. Here's part of a poem by the highly regarded Susan Howe which goes further

        amulet     instruction              tribulation 

        winged     joy       parent           sackcloth         ash 

        den     sealed      ascent         flee 

        chariot    interpret       flame 

        hot     arc     chaff       meridian 

        in the extant manuscript SOMEONE
                has lightly scored a pen over

        diadem       dagger       a voyage      gibbet 

If this is still too conventional for you, try this extract from MacLow's Words nd Ends from Ez, based on Pound's "The Cantos"

    En nZe eaRing ory Arms,
    Pallor pOn laUghtered laiN oureD Ent
    aZure teR,
    tAwny Pping cOme d oUt r wiNg-
    preaD Et aZzle.

    ool A P

Spreading the Word

Some groupings are self-chosen and tightly organised (under Breton, disobediant Surrealists were expelled). Such groups might, like the Futurists, produce Manifestos. Other groups (e.g. "The Impressionists") might be loose-knit - a media creation. The US Language poets were in the main happy to be bracketed together. "The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Anthology" appeared in 1984 (the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine started in 1978), but even before then the poets proved adept at working their way into existing networks, publications and anthologies. Shock tactics are used to launch movements, but not in this case. The group was especially good at producing theoretical articles; important in a country with so many universities and students - "a new literature requires new institutions, and these institutions are as much a part of its aesthetic as the literary works that they weave into the social fabric", Bernstein, "Provisional Institutions" (in Arizona Quarterly 51), p.144

Gaining local support

In times of unrest, dissatified poets and oppressed minorities can be more easily drawn into an existing counter-movement. Even if new members follow few of the leaders' core values, the group can benefit from the association, and the individuals can further their career. E.g. in the Punk era, groups like The Police and Jam benefitted from being classed as Punks. The incomers may encounter problems though. 1) If their work has revolutionary content (Gay, Feminist, etc), it may have to take second place to the revolutionary form. 2) It's likely that the group's power hierarchy will be similar to the mainstream's - white male Americans might lead.

Several existing fringe poets (non-mainstream because of their methods, forms or content) were attracted to the Language Poetry cause.

Tomorrow the World

It was natural that the Language movement began in the USA - its art world is big enough to support many minorities - and natural that it would spread - the avant-garde has a history of Cosmopolitan/International operation. Canada, Australia and the UK were obvious targets for Language expansion. Australia was in the process of switching allegiance from the UK to the USA anyway. In the UK there was some theoretical resistance from the Avant-garde - the experimental poets were prepared to remain outsiders rather than band together. According to Bloom, "British poets swerve from their precursors, while the American poets labor rather to 'complete' their fathers." ("The Anxiety of Influence", p.68)

The Backlash

According to Jed Rasula, "Language poetry ... seems to have nourished poetic practice in marked nondenominational ways" but sooner or later with any movement, the backlash will begin. The mainstream will take whatever appeals to them (perhaps something trivial), and consign the rest to history. As Tuma suggests, the Avant-garde is like a Multinational's blue sky design lab - most of the zany ideas will never see the light of day. This partly explains the over-production and apparent lack of quality control that Avant-garde work is accused of.

New movements often start with an extreme stance. If the inevitable watering-down comes from within the group, it can lead to a widening of membership rather than a loss of face. Around the turn of the Millennium, Bob Perelman made a case for the "syntactic and rhetoric effects which have been systematically denigrated in Language writing" and suggested that "contact with familiar social structures in language is a crucial element for politically and poetically ambitious work". Silliman published "The New Sentence". More Language poets started writing in sentences. Perelman's "a.k.a." begins "I am often conscious but rain is now visibly falling", which isn't too unconventional a way to address the issue of a self/world split.


In 2004, the influential "Best American Poetry" anthology was guest-edited by Lyn Hejinian, a Language Poet. This was evidence of the genre's success, but the book attracted much adverse publicity. Nevertheless, Perelman and Susan Howe amongst others have good reputations, and Denise Riley (the UK's "language poet", according to some, though I don't see much connection) appears on the 2006 Oxfam CD of poets along with Roger McGough and John Hegley. The poetry's become a common component of US MFA poetry curriculums.

I'm sympathetic to some of their precepts, but even if one accepts their analysis I think one can doubt their solutions - they could have used the style of cryptic crosswords, or the clean slate of Esperanto, or computer Animation to de-stabilize words. They wanted to avoid at all costs their work being mistaken for commodities, but they don't seem to mind being mistaken for things that the public find equally offensive - bourgeois aesthetics, elitism, etc.

One measure of the success of a theory (Wordsworth's introduction to "The Preludes", for example) is the quality of the resulting poetry. Language poetry still divides audiences - "What the mystified liberal or smug conservative reader sees as engrossing content purveyed through transparent and powerfully harmonic, undissonant language, radical critique sees as the naked balls and chains of ideology, elastic and insidiously self-reproductive" (Bob Perelman, 2003). Whenever it gets publicity (most recently with the publication in 2006 of "The Grand Piano" - a collective autobiography by ten Language poets) its reputation is challenged anew.

Revolutions subsequent to Language Poetry all seem to involve computers and technology. Language Poetry might prove to be the last text-based new movement. At least it's kept poetry in the headlines, it's widened the range of allowable poetry, and it's narrowed the gap between theory and practise (though not in the way that most people wanted). And don't think that it will never happen here in the UK - Keith Tuma suggests that "From the United States it can sometimes seem that the struggles of exploratory poetry in Britain today duplicate the struggles of 'language poetry' ten or fifteen years ago", so watch out.

See Also

  • "Theory of the Avant-Garde", Peter Burger (trans. Michael Shaw), University of Minnesota Press, 1984
  • "The Theory of the Avant Garde", Renato Poggioli (trans. Gerald Fitzgerald), Harper & Row, 1971
  • "Postmodern Art, or the Impossibility of the Avant-Garde", Zygmunt Bauman, in "Postmodernity and Its Discontents", Polity, 1997
  • LINEBREAK (downloadable talks and readings)
  • The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties (Marjorie Perloff)

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