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After Language Poetry
From OEI 7-8 2001: AFTER LANGUAGE POETRY
In my view, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers managed a successful culmination to a modernist/postmodernist ethos by creating exciting emphases on the material of poetry, language. Consciousness of material in the making of the work leads inevitably to the readers particular engagement with its relations, rather than or in addition to, say, depiction, emotion or unmitigated rhythmical or tropological givens. In L=A=N=G=U=A=G=Es new patterns, breaking could be seen with making and, most importantly, did not let up. What was interesting was not only punctual effects or periodic manifestations of self-consciousness about process.
The conventions or conceits or ambitions of "language writing" seemed to be to invent methods that were more than mere disruptions of conventional expectations or slaps at the boring themes and complacent aesthetics of most contemporary poetry. This was accomplished by creating or suggesting or representing new orderings of discourse (language). Also at work were the exploiting of relations among elements that derived from, emphasized, or variously mimicked or jumped away from particular orders of language, a certain relentlessness, and at least a theoretical expectation that a readers encounter with new continuities and juxtapositions would lead to new orders of thinking along with the new aesthetic experience.
As you can see, I think of language writing in formalist terms. And some language writing sometimes implicitly or explicitly propelled itself with explicitly (Russian futurist-) formalist notions. Of interest to me was the putting into practice of notions that granted a sort of transcendence to the interrelation of elements, as in Khlebnikovs "transrational language" and Shklovskys "estrangement." You could see and enjoy how the writers distinctive devices, ambitions, styles and voices combined and flowed as material form. Meanwhile, language writers also had a strong awareness of critical writings in semiotics, linguistics, and social theory of the seventies, which they played with or used to motivate things, more or less implicitly.
Personally, I worry that my formalistic bent, which is associated in my own mind with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (and relates to particularities of my education) does not always see far enough towards the potential domains available for combining, appropriating, reinventing and creating. After language, if there is such a thing, I find the most innovative American writing and the most interesting projects are those that motivate their work with complex conceptual systems and/or intensely developed views of the world, those that exploit entities other than language, or systems considered as semiotic relations per se, those that juggle several at a time or hypertrophy one or several, and those in which irony can diffract into several directions. If I continue to describe what I prefer in terms of what and how I think about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Id add those that combine looking at the present with divulging historical recurrences while at the same time somehow or other displaying awareness of the history of poetic forms, or those that play intensely with forms, especially when they also spin the writing out of various givens or domains, say, of philosophy, daytime TV, science or comic books.
How then can writing after language differ from other poetry writings exploitation of cultural potential and phenomena, and the development of techniques? How does one work with whatever aspects of culture with some of the ideals and ambitions applied in language writing? I always want poetry to be as encompassing as possible. So I find ideological motivations that become discernable for instance in writing with prolonged gravitation on the levels of current event or media discourse insufficient when there isnt enough variety or development of other elements working with them. Writing that re-propagates minimalistic projects can also fail to accomplish what poetrywhich I feel should be commensurate with innovative writingmust in contemporaneitys grasp, in grasping and revealing contemporaneity, and in leading and transcending it.
If writing after language entails finding new ways of working with the evolution, contradictions or complexes of other disciplines or cultural domains to propel aesthetic innovation and interesting work, the current risks seem to involve settling for limited positions, whether subjective (no matter how hollowed, sarcastic or self conscious), sociological/cultural critical (no matter how revealing, encompassing, or apparently apt) or ideological (whether ironically deployed or politically correct or both). The legacy of language writing is vigilant attention to processes for enlarging poetrys content, the movement of the voice, and poetrys rhythm, layout and sound; the inherited goal is to extend the bounds of poetics.
Another area in which language poetry has been extremely important to me is the way the original L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E people established a sort of community structure (in NY) which subsequent "generations" confederated into as it evolved. Since this community structure met and meets around poetry readings, Im also thankful for the way that it establishes not only audiences for works and synergies around them, but also a sort of oral guarantee, a way of achieving the delivery of resonations.