Thursday, June 17, 2010

LangPo for the Long Haul

I wouldn't disagree with the assertion that Language Poetry distinguishes itself from the dry confines of Marxist formalism by allowing the author the room to upturn, uproot and upset the conventionalized narrative strategies several generations of writers and readers have absorbed; it is a refreshing notion that the author needn't be taken to task or potentially punished for not following a political script. Language , though, is that thing that we cannot step out of it and take a hard look at, as if through a microscope, and this is an idea that has been with writers for like generations, those poets and writers at the further edges of their period's cultural lines. The  inspiration to  engage in free-play with the usual phrases with all sorts of convention -shattering constructions didn't begin with the Language Poets. Few of the like-minded iconoclasts coming before them, however, were as much fun. It was double- barreled combination: the theories were exciting and persuasive, and the poems challenged, provoked, irritated, and entertained, and after all the controversy and reasoned dismissals and lines in the sand, the books were still read, still on the shelves , moved from apartment to apartment, still capable of making you want to yell "eureka" when the right deconstruction came along.
What I'd say is that writings of LangPo's central writers--Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, the late Leslie Scalapino, Barrett Watten, Fanny Howe, Bob Perelman--read amazingly well after the decades have passed. It is a poetry that foregrounds language and it's seductive verbal templates as the subject, but this is not a poetry to stall itself on the trite assertion that the subjects and meaning of writing are undecidable, or that the writer and his or audience are seduced by multiple hegemonies intended to keep populations complacent . These are not dry politicos--within their shared interests in how ingrained rhetorical approaches create the coherent narrative line that amounts our existence, each poet is distinct in their thinking , in their writing.
Rae Armantrout's inward, delicately arranged lyrics project a personality assuming itself through a continued assault of formula poses, Ron Silliman assembles the details of the overheard and the closely observed for something coming close to the jazz visuals painter Stuart Davis awarded his art patrons, Bob Perelman directs a circus with a dozen center rings where the tropes of advertising,the Academy, Literature, television and popular culture transgress over each others' obtuse  readings  of simple phrases,  and Leslie Scalapino insisted on recalling and imagining a hard perception from all the angles,like a cubist painting, luring a reader to look at a skeletal phrasing about a tangible event, and then making them look at it again, from a different vantage, in a different voice, in different clothes, until one is frightfully aware of how vulnerable one is when they are shaped in the word choices of another agent. This is the trusty sidekick horse in Ed Dorn's Gunslinger cautioning all he came upon to make take care as to not find themselves "described", as it is the equivalent of being eaten alive.  These descriptions of their poems, of course, are too general to be of any critical help, but they do  show, I think, that Language Poets were not an ossified political movement with members co-signing each other's over recited talking points; these good people are a diverse group.
One might name their own choice example of destroyers and creators who've livened up the verbal assaults prior to the avant gard, but my favorite of the moment is Mikail Bakhtin, who wrote of the writer charged with the task of "making strange" the language of their tales, and of the ploy of "defamiliarizing" the narrative in ways that force to reader to grasp the linguistic tricks and twists that are at play. Bakhtin, I suppose, had a socialist utopia in mind as the ideal situation at the end of his philosophical rigor, but his assumption seemed to be, along with most Modernist ideas of icon smashing, that a collective Awakening would assert itself once the audience was exposed to the figurative props were exposed and from there be empowered to make real decisions about how to maintain social change. The real result, of course, is legacy of experimental writing informed by provocative, if occasionally opaque theories. The work itself is judged , in retrospect, on aesthetic value rather than political virtues, which is another way of saying that entertainment value has usurped transformative promise as the thing we look for. Language poets haven't forgotten their progressive desires , it seems to me, but they seem unburdened by the notion that one must consider their work as a continuous critique of what capitalism has done with our language. Theirs is a poetics of pursuing an approach that honestly interests them.