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After Language Poetry
Juliana Spahr


I first read something that was called language writing in a workshop with Robert Kelly in the mid-1980s. I was a sophomore in college but I didn’t really sit down and read it with any thoroughness until I started graduate school. My first semester of graduate school Charles Bernstein taught a seminar with an extensive reading list, most of it not required but recommended. I spent most of my days that first semester at the library reading through that list of recommended reading. What I enjoyed was how this work that was grouped under this term "language writing" was reconfiguring my mind. In my thinking, I tend to begin with detail and then if I am smart enough, I move from there to the system. What was useful about language writing for me then, was that it kept demanding that I look at the system, most obviously the system of language, before I marveled at the detail. Often language writing does this by using formal restraints. For instance, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which I find to be one of the most powerful works of the late twentieth century, was written when she was forty-five and there are forty-five sections of forty-five sentences. My Life makes autobiography into a dramatic new shape–one governed more by the limitation of the number forty-five than by narrative development. Also Ron Silliman’s Tjanting in which he uses the mathematical guide of the fibonacci series to determine the number of words in the sentence (the fibonacci series is that equation where the sum of the two pervious numbers are added together so 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8). His use of the fibonacci series, the pattern that a sunflower uses to arrange its seeds, guides me to think about the difficult and expansive nature of connection. Less mathematical but equally as transforming, was Susan Howe’s attention to the system in the details of history in her work, Bruce Andrews’s attention to the refuse of language and his refusal of aesthetics at every moment, Bernstein’s attention to parody and forms, Joan Retallack’s attention to chance. I found value (and its cousin beauty) in these new forms. I found value in the retreat from individualism and idiosyncracy and in works that instead pointed to heady and unexpected and yet intimate pluralisms. And in writing that helped me to think of culture as large and connective. And in writing that comments on community and that moves poetry away from individualism to shared, connective spaces. And in writing that reveals how our private intimacies have public obligations and ramifications, how intimacy has a social bond with shared meaning. The tendency in language writing that writing not be given up to aesthetics only or even aesthetics mainly means a great deal to me.

Similarly influential is the model that the many women language writers provide. Women enter into poetry in the United States around modernism, with typical mixed results. But after modernism, they get tossed in the looney bin with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. So language writing’s self-aware roots in modernism and, to use Hejinian’s word "inquiry," rather than confessionalism, felt to me to be a way out of the sad poetess model. If I wanted to write things down, it need not be about my angst. It could be about thinking!

I know some feel as if language writing is the end, that there is no further place to go, and that younger writers can only go back. But to me there is much new exciting writing coming after language writing. While the writers associated with language writing have done much to politicize writing, to break down hierarchies between readers and authors, and to investigate subjectivity in terms of class and gender, they have strangely avoided doing much investigation around race or sexuality. When I look for the legacy of language writing on writers that come after it, what is exciting to me are the large number of emerging writers who are using the concerns and intents of language writing to discuss race and/or sexuality more directly (and my point here is that as much as language writing could be thinking more about race and/or sexuality; writers who write more directly about race and/or sexuality also need to think some about language writing’s attention to the systemic). Harryette Mullen’s work is the often mentioned example around issues of race. And I would also include Pamela Lu’s Pamela: a Novel, Renee Gladman;s Arlem and Not Right Now, and Summi Kaipa’s Epics–all works that I feel owe a huge debt to My Life. And also work by writers such as Edwin Torres, Catalina Cariaga, and Myung Mi Kim who use an attention to language’s structures to investigate culture. My hope is that the attention to structure, to the system, that language writing concentrates on can help the writers that come after it refigure themselves and their thinking into new connections and opportunities.

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