UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers

After Language Poetry
Stacy Doris


I consider Language Writing to be an avant-garde; the last avant-garde of the twentieth century, and perhaps the last we will see. I think of avant-garde movements as a long-term product of such factors as the Industrial Revolution, and I don’t know if there will be any avant-gardes in the future. The Language phenomenon has been and continues to be a powerful generative and social force for poetry. The movement has succeeded in gaining recognition for contemporary experimental poetry as well as its antecedents--from writing by Gertrude Stein to the Objectivists to Jackson Mac Low--among certain national and international readerships. It is also largely thanks to the Language group that innovative literature and those who write it are recognized by American academia. Since the United States basically lacks what might be considered an intellectual community in general, academia is virtually the sole realm where thinking is a fairly acceptable pursuit in our country.

Language poetry draws attention both to the non-representational capacities of language as material, and to the political power inherent in new writing. The generation of writers who came after the Language writers; my generation, experiences the oppressive bulk of our predecessors’ accomplishments, and also the freedom we owe to their affirmation of writing as an exploration and process. Some of the Language writers have faulted our generation as incoherent, indefinite; lacking a program. This in part has led us to examine our collective identity, and to feel obliged to defend our status as a group without an identity. We are susceptible to feel pressure in terms of thoroughly knowing and living up to the works of the Language writers. This tension is perhaps more self-imposed than imposed. The Language writers have offered direct, personal support to some of us in a variety of ways. While Charles Bernstein and several of his contemporaries have encouraged a generously broad range of emerging poets, other members of the original Language Writing community have singled out two or three promising successors from among us.

In terms of the differences and similarities between innovative writing from my generation and the Language group’s work, the ways and extents to which our writing relates and responds to theirs is different for each of us. One important premise inherent in the Language experiment is that poetry can be informed by and take the forms of a variety of other writing, including literary and social and political theory. This tenant has been held and explored by various poets through history, but I have been most directly influenced by its use in Language Writing. Another, and in my mind related, concept that Language Writing seemed to me to advance is that poetry can be revolutionary; that by reinventing syntax, opposing and questioning grammar, and so on, we open language and thereby society to new organizational alternatives. I consider this idea endemic to avant-garde movements in general. But for me, it was initially through an acquaintance with Language Writing that the notion of poetry as revolutionary came to valorize and energize my own pursuit of writing. In dwelling upon and exploring related perspectives, I came to a sort of understanding that induces me to keep writing books. I realized that there is no poetry which does not reify the cultural values from which it emerges. Poetry may be effectively critical of the society to which it corresponds, but it remains at the same time, by definition, an affirmation of that culture and its creative capacities. The work of Bruce Andrews, which I greatly admire, exemplifies what I am trying to express. Andrews’ work is transgressive: it succeeds in dismantling and rewiring the social and corporal body of today’s America. In doing so, it serves at that same time as a faithful portrait; a celebration of our culture as it is.

My work is partly motivated as an exploration of this realization, and a questioning of poetry’s limitations and implications in terms of society. I would not have arrived at this space of inquiry without the opportunity of dialoging with Language Writing and Language writers. The problem which stimulates my writing has no solution, but that is no reason not to examine it.

Back to OEI 7-8: After Language Poetry | UbuWeb