Eleana Kim

Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement

This essay was written in 1994 and, with the exception of minor editing for clarity, has not been rewritten. It does not, in other words, take into account material published in the years since.

What Is Language Poetry?

Although it is now breaking up from the inevitable power struggles that occur when individual artists or writers realize the limitations of group identity, it was, in its day, the most organized literary movement, ever, on American soil1

In January 1989, the article "Publishing Language Poets" appeared in Publishers Weekly’s Independent Publishing section. The headline itself might be read as a cute appropriation of the poets’ own defamiliarizing strategies — is "publishing" an adjective or a verb? Who is the subject doing the publishing? Surprisingly enough, it is the poets themselves, and the article goes on to examine the marketing strategies of these small press successes. For Publishers Weekly, what distinguishes the group is not their avant-garde writing practices, but, rather, their unexpected profit margins. Language poetry is constructed as a niche market, and its small presses as entrepreneurial ventures: "What makes this so fascinating as a publishing phenomenon is that Language writing has come of age strictly within the confines of independent publishing."

This mainstream "fascination" with Language poetry’s "success" — their sales of what PW considers to be "perfectly acceptable quantities of poetry," and even "profitability" in a genre which rarely breaks even for the larger publishing houses — perhaps signals the inevitable end of an aesthetic avant-garde that "makes it" in commodity culture. This is what critic Jerome McGann predicted in 1987 when he suggested that Language poetry would have to grapple with "the classic avant-garde dilemma of how to proceed once the culture at large begins to take some sympathetic interest" ("Language Writing," London Review of Books, October 15, 1987).

McGann’s terms — the "classic avant-garde," the "culture at large," and its "sympathetic interest" — are essential to the definition of Language poetry. The connections between the movement and the European avant-gardes of the 1920s have been examined by academics who promote its formal innovations and political interventions, as well as frame it within a narrative of American transavantgardism or postmodernism.2 As a poetic avant-garde, this movement lies in opposition to two dominant poetic modes: the institutionalized workshop aesthetic and the preceding generation of the American avant-garde, the New Americans.3 McGann’s rhetoric of "the culture at large," however, is misleadingly overstated.4 Operative only within a specific sphere of poetic production and in relation to a limited audience, Language poetry’s reach and the "sympathetic interest" that it aroused were restricted to other producers in the field or to academics such as McGann who were involved in the legitimation and dissemination of this new aesthetic practice.

An equally important consideration in any definition of Language poetry is the degree to which it was a self-identifying group. The group’s identity is, in many ways, a product of critics and scholars interested in establishing it as the latest in avant-garde formations, and the poets themselves demonstrated deep ambivalencies as the tendency began to gain currency under the Language moniker. The poets often resisted a unified identity even as their public manifestations exhibited a more or less stable core to the movement. McGann’s comment comes at the end of a review of two anthologies published within one year of each other, both compiled by Language poets: In the American Tree (1986), edited by Ron Silliman, and "Language" Poetries (1987), edited by Douglas Messerli. These two documents offer two very different "packagings" of Language poetry and reflect different stances toward the "culture at large." With an explosion of anthologies from "special-interest groups" entering the marketplace in the 1980s, these two collections marked a unique place within the literary field.5

The most obvious difference between the two anthologies is their physical size. Silliman’s 600-page text, in sheer weight, could rival that of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Compiling forty writers, with an additional ninety-one acknowledged as "honorable mentions," In the American Tree: Language, Realism, Poetry symbolically represents the official canon of the Language movement. Yet Silliman’s compendium explicitly resists the traditional "great works" function, attempting radical inclusivity despite the exclusivity of the form.6 Published by the National Poetry Society (University of Maine, Orono), this volume consecrates what was until then arguably more of a tendency than a movement as such, and it registers Silliman’s undeniable editorial power in presenting the public face of this movement.

"Language" Poetries, published by New Directions, at less than a third the size of Silliman’s tome, offers up the movement in a much more culinary presentation. Featuring twenty poets, Messerli’s primer is intended to provide an introduction to the group which would be "a selection provocative enough that it sends its readers out … in search of other ‘Language’ work." Messerli foregrounds the importance of "community," which he considers to be the sole stable characteristic of Language poetry. He then proposes the work of the twenty poets to be "representative of that larger community," admitting, however, that "it is an extreme understatement to say that this short anthology can't even begin to represent the diversity and quality of the many voices of this poetic community"(9). As the title of the anthology suggests, there is no one Language poetry, but many Language poetries.7 Messerli has gathered these twenty poets as representatives of the community, yet he is reluctant to have them perceived as representational.8

The difficulties of selection and representation are acknowledged by both editors, yet, as Publishers Weekly might put it, they are targeting two very different markets. Silliman’s book operates in a literary field governed by shared poetic codes. Messerli’s, on the other hand, despite the carefully placed scare quotes, is catering to a more general reading public that wants to know, "What is ‘Language’ poetry?" He is less concerned with challenging preconceptions about the movement than with providing a coherent answer to this question. "Language" Poetries ultimately privileges group identity over the individual work, whereas Silliman takes pains to contextualize the group within a historical and poetic framework which would then allow a different question to be asked, namely, "what, within this territory, is the individual doing?"

The contrary impulses operating here shed light on the difficulties inherent to a consideration of Language poetry as a movement. In the decade prior to the publication of these two anthologies, a host of reductive assumptions had been circulating around Language poetry as it gained currency in certain literary circles, and Silliman seems to be openly addressing the major issues that concerned the group’s relation to other poetic formations. The title, In the American Tree,9 speaks to the New Americans, with whom the Language poets were in a bitter struggle over questions of poetic inheritance, tradition, and the role of literary theory. Named after Kit Robinson’s poem which opens and concludes this volume, it resonates historically with William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, thus linking this selection to a tradition of American poetry claimed by a majority of the New Americans. To those who would accuse the group of language ideality, the subtitle "Language, Realism, Poetry," and the title of Silliman’s introduction, "Realism, Language, Poetry," signal his attempt to restore the work through a new relationship to "reality" and the "poetic." And with a soft buff green cover with a pattern of childlike line drawings of trees,10 Silliman seems to be contradicting the "technocratic," "militant," and "anti-humanist" characterizations which had been fast accumulating around this writing community.

Positioning Language poetry as a conscious reaction against the speech-centered poetics of the Williams tradition, Silliman sees the writing collected in his anthology as "the invocation of a specific medium, language itself" (xvi). Yet it is not only the Modernist privileging of the medium which characterizes this group, but the third section of Silliman’s tripartite structure. Called "The Second Front," this section contains essays which are "intended to show how the concurrent discourse on poetics ... relates to, and illuminates this writing" (xxii). It is surprising that neither Messerli nor Silliman mention the politics of these writers in their introductions. Having been known for their Marxist postures and their radical politicism of poetry, Language writers are framed by these editors less as a politically-motivated tendency, than as a "natural" development in the Modernist tradition, carrying on the Poundian dictum to "make it new." Silliman does, however, offer an alternate introduction for the movement. "For Change," a group introduction for a selection of Language writing appearing in the French journal, Change, appears in the "Second Front." As this collective statement addresses the socio-historical underpinnings of the movement, Silliman’s diplomacy in suggesting it as one of many possible ways for a new reader to consider the writing might be seen as mitigating the charges of political dogmatism that had often served as justification for a rejection of the aesthetic work.

As a self-conscious "avant-garde" formation, Language poetry, mostly in the hands of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Barrett Watten developed alongside the canon reformations of the early 1980s as well as amid the debates surrounding identity politics and the future of socialism in America. Already considered "unquestionably the hegemony movement of the day" in 1979 by Bruce Boone,11 this loose group of young poets in the subsequent decade coalesced to force an important and unprecedented shift in American poetry. The danger, of course, for any self-conscious emergent formation is the lack of an outside from which to view itself. As noted by Peter Middleton in 1988, "As long as it is treated as a style, a barbarism, or a theory, it may be rendered placebo and silent."12 Spotted from the outside as a significant formation, these Language poets responded to the necessity of defending their individual and collective legitimacy from these external pressures and thus was set into motion a series of debates which is the movement of Language poetry.

The negative polemics raised against the Language school project ranged from invocations of McCarthyism and corporate juntas (which were often more revealing of their authors’ own conservative attitudes), to dismissals of their so-called avant-gardism at a time in which the term itself had been evacuated of its historical or political effect. For more open-minded English department academics, however, the reception of Language poetry became an interesting exercise in close-readings, with a dash of theory to spice up an essentially Kantian aesthetic of pleasure in recognition. Coinciding with the rise of cultural studies, Language poetry was taken up by leftist academics as a radical alternative to the lyric tradition. Scholars such as Andrew Ross saw their emergence as an opportune moment to reexamine Marxist aesthetics and the its application to culture and language.13 The relationship between politics and poetry was explored with great enthusiasm, yet these responses often tackled their claims of literary subversion without examining the actual effectiveness of their poetic techniques. These poets, in providing their own package of critical discourses, were easily promoted by critics like Ross for their alterity, or else summarily dismissed as "self-indulgent" or "narcissistic."

As critics on the left and the right vied to legitimate or undermine this new group’s position within the literary field, many definitions of Language poetry proliferated in a generally unconsidered and uncomprehending manner. The poets own counter-polemics often resorted to reductive terms to assert what sometimes seemed to be a homey communitarianism or else an over-zealous and equally reactionary formalism. In taking matters of criticism into their own hands, these poets strove to subvert the co-optive tendencies of conventional criticism and academia, and produced a body of work which maintained a stronghold on the margins of American literature. This position, however, in critiquing the center, could be seen as simultaneously maintaining it as the center.

The tension between an externally-imposed, homogenizing group identification and the poets’ own insistence on a heterogeneous, communal aesthetic tendency is consistently present in the polemics which surrounded Language poetry’s emergence. In many ways, these polemics determined the reception of the artistic work by the "culture at large," and the anthologies are two manifestations which can be read as responses to the controversies taking place over the group’s artistic legitimacy. The rhetoric of community was a major force of cohesion for the group, and fell into contemporaneous debates over identity politics, as well as into the reductive culturalist assumptions that have proven to be the limitation of identity-based political movements.

In the past several years, the state of poetry, and concomitantly, of Language poetry, has shifted. Along with the assimilation of the group’s basic tenets and political strategies into a welcoming leftist academic agenda,14 the group’s deformation has left many of the major participants (most of whom are still writing and publishing) refining their initial positions. Some are now making a living by working in the academy. Bob Perelman, for example, is now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His "reminiscence" of the Language school days in the November 1993 Voice Literary Supplement rings with an admission of youthful arrogance, describing the moment as a "nice prestige vacuum, we were ears and pens for each other."

The Publishers Weekly article perhaps marked the logical end of Language poetry, symbolizing the avant-garde dilemma fully played out. Yet Messerli and Silliman’s questions still remain: "What is Language poetry?" and "What, within this territory, is the individual doing?" Language poetry was a self-conscious avant-garde group whose poetic and historical distinctions were articulated across of broad set of concerns, primarily in terms of artistic production and the analogous relationship of formal technique to social resistance. It is a writing practice that started as a collective belief of a new generation of poets which became an actual shift in the consideration of poetry. Loosely chronological, the chapters that follow trace the development and trajectory of the movement in different contexts and frameworks, considering its impact on the field of literary production, and outlining the tensions between the group’s internal identity and the ways in which it was appropriated or dismissed by other poets, academics, and the older generation of avant-gardists, the New Americans.

Language poetry’s constitution as a literary movement is not to be found by isolating the work or evaluating the variegated poetics (which resist objectification), but in considering how the reception of the work was determined by other factors operating in a highly contested literary field. I intend to show how these discourses shaped a collective identity and articulated a project in terms of a differential relationship to the "dominant" literary conventions. And also, how, in the context of the new social movements of the 1970s,15 the contestations within the local San Francisco poetry scenes necessitated the cohesion of political and aesthetic principles which proved unsustainable beyond the fixed boundaries of the enclave.

1 Weinberger, Eliot, from "Davidson and Weinberger on Language Poetry." Sulfur 22. Spring 1988.

2 see Kalaidjian, Greer, Ross.

3 Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production (1993) provides the theoretical framework for much of this paper, especially in describing the relationship between the New Americans and the Language writers. The full emergence of the workshop aesthetic by the 1970s is evident from innumerable complaints by writers on the left. It was not, therefore, due to the Language poets’ "avant-gardism" that the institutionalized aesthetic became recognizable, nor was that the primary motivation of their project. The contributions they have made are mostly restricted to the specific sphere of production which for convenience I will be calling the New American, composed of those poets who were included in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and those who were affiliated with them. "Avant-garde" in their anti-bureaucratic, anti-institutional positions and practices, the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and the Black Mountain School precipitated the opening of the literary field, through the maintenance and transmission of alternate traditions otherwise suppressed by the university canons. Throughout this document I will be considering them the "old-garde," or "the consecrated avant-garde," and despite the highly selective co-optation of certain of those figures by the "establishment," it was in large part due to the normalization of those practices that the Language poets came into difference.

4 The attention granted poetry by the "mainstream" could hardly be considered to be in the realm of popular culture. Even with recent developments in "public" poetry such as MTV’s Spoken Word series and an increasing audience for performance art, poetry in America retains the aura of a hallowed and quasi-religious genre.

5 "The twenty-odd years since Allen’s collection have seen the publication of a vast number of special interest anthologies and a proliferation of critical methods aimed at opening the accessible canon to historically disenfranchised groups" (Allen Golding, "American Poetry Anthologies," from Robert vonHallberg, Canons, 1983). A look at the Poetry Index Annual, although hardly comprehensive, provides a general overview of the anthologies published in the 1980s. A considerable number of collections were devoted to women, foreign, gay and African American poets.

6 Techniques which oppose the monological sense, singularity of "argument," and reduction of experience to humanistic sentiment which typify the one-page workshop lyric make the work of many of these writers resistant to the anthology format.

7 The different terminologies for this writing reveal the difficulties encountered by both the writers and their commentators in naming this tendency. The following is a list of nomenclatures which have been used to identify the group: "Language Poetry," "Language writing," "Language-centered writing," "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry," and "so-called Language Poetry." I use "Language poetry," lowercasing "poetry," in acknowledgement of the writers’ interests in demystifying the "poetic" from institutionalized genre categories, but with the opinion that the writers were, by and large, oriented to the poetic tradition.

8 Jackson MacLow, Hannah Weiner, Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Ted Greenwald, Peter Seaton, Michael Palmer, Ray DiPalma, James Sherry, Rae Armantrout, P. Inman, Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein, Tina Darragh, Alan Davies, Carla Harryman, and Diane Ward.

9 It is also the name of a poetry series, airing on KPFA-FM, San Francisco, beginning in 1978, and which often featured poets from this milieu.

10 The cover by Francie Shaw recalls the early issues of Hills, Bob Perelman’s small magazine which was vital to the beginnings of the formation.

11 Poetry Flash #74, May 1979. Boone, a gay writer and member of the Communist Party, was speaking from a specific critical perspective, and his pronouncement, made in the incipient stages of the formation, needs to be contextualized on a local level.

12 Middleton, Peter, "Language Poetry and Linguistic Activism", Social Text, 1988.

13 Andrew Ross, "The New Sentence and the Commodity Form," Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Larry Goldberg, 1987. Ross states, "Clearly we are also discussing the fate of Marxist aesthetics, a tradition in which there have only been highly circumscribed roles for poets … this serious project undertaken by the language poets [is] a sign that a certain conception of Marxist aesthetics has perhaps matured, if not wholly come of age, and most significant of all, in America."

14 see for example, Andrew Ross, "The New Sentence and Commodity Form" (1983), in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed., Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 1988.

15 cf. Chantal Mouffe, "Hegemony and New Political Subjects: Toward a New Concept of Democracy," in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 1988.

Jump To

What Is Language Poetry?
Tradition and Communal Praxis
San Francisco, circa 1975
Theory, What Theory?
Rumor in the House of Fame
The New Americans vs. the Treed Americans

[Back to Readme]