L=A=N=G Po’s Long Run? Or time for a new moment? Mesmer & Gordon discuss….

SHARON MESMER:
 
 
Nada, last week we were discussing the phenomenal 40-year run of Language Poetry as a prevailing literary mode/model (forty years as of this year, if you date it from the first issue of This).   I don’t know if any “movement” has stuck around for as many years, considering that it so intimately brings with it the influence of what immediately preceded it: if you connect it with FOH’s “Second Avenue,” we’re now talking 51 years.  We were joking about this — Language Poetry: die already!  — but a few days after our conversation I was sort of desultorily looking through Michael Gottlieb’s MEMOIR AND ESSAY, and I found (maybe coincidentally) this (the italics are mine):
“The sixth issue of This was the first I came across . . . (it) had a long, brilliant piece by Clark Coolidge.  There didn’t seem to be a title.  I had no idea who he was, but on the copyright page of the magazine was a little note, ‘This Press has recently published “The Maintains” by Clark Coolidge . . . ‘  I ran up to the front room of the Gotham, and there, in with the other ‘C’ poets was ‘The Maintains.’  And it was beautiful; it was amazing.  It was clear to me from that moment on: you didn’t need to tell stupid stories any more.  A poem could be about what it was supposed to be about — the indigestible, irreducible, unredeemable words that flung themselves at us every day, the language that, in its infuriating, inexhaustible, immeasurable confusion, yet limitless precision, lived, teeming, out there, outside our door.  There could be no subject, or at least no subject greater than this.  Let the words be themselves, don’t try and yoke them into some tyranny of argument, they would tell you what they were about.”

Poets discover poetry in different ways, and each way is a powerful, revelatory moment.  Mark Strand wrote this about Pablo Neruda’s “moment” in the New Yorker in ’03:  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/09/08/030908crbo_books1
Two different revelatory moments here.  Neruda’s is bound up with human emotion (“I felt an intense emotion and set down a few words, half rhymed but strange to me, different from everyday language . . .  I wrote them neatly on a piece of paper); Gottlieb’s loosed from it (“Let the words be themselves … they would tell you what they were about”).  Yet, both are interpreting **something** — but for all of LangPo’s disavowal of a guiding and hierarchical “I” telling stupid stories, Gottlieb’s knowing “you” (really “me”) seems to be “receiving” words like a privileged stenographer of the indigestible, the irreducible, unredeemable.  It’s like a reverse conversion: “Unredeemable words are flinging themselves at me, and I am just writing them down and letting them be because what they really want is to tell us — those of us with eyes to see/ears to hear —  what they are about.”  
For forty years.  
I understand the moment of revelation, and I think Gottlieb’s book is fascinating — especially that passage.  But: isn’t it time for a new moment?  And what will that moment look like, do you think? 
x, S

*************************************************************************************
NADA GORDON
 
 

Hi Sharon!

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OK, well, whoa, whoa, whoa, I think we need to back up a little and think about your hypothesis here, whether it is really true and whether it is really phenomenal, and also to put it in both larger and smaller contexts.  I want to start with the smaller contexts first – that is, you and me as individual poets – and in doing so also respond to what seems to me a mischaracterization of my position in regard to language writing in your first paragraph.  You and I have quite different genealogies as poets.  In your work, the vestiges of Beat and Slam are palpable. You studied with Ginsberg, you were (are) an Unbearable, so already perhaps built into those alliances is a kind of suspicion of or hostility toward language writing.  For me, although I had steeped myself in poetry since my early teens, my first real flowering as a poet in a community of poets happened in the heady air of the Bay Area Language scene in the 80s. So I really was very close to what was happening there, although very young and marginal, and the writing of that group was totally seminal to me.  I don’t think I have ever wished that the influence of their work would “die already”! I’m not saying either that I’m free of suspicions or hostilities to what might be taken as repressive elements of the most simplified (and hence not really accurate) forms of langpo dogma, but that’s another matter, maybe to address later. 
Another question:  Is forty years really a long run for a poetry movement?  Or is that just something we might think now in the 21st century where you blink for a moment and then everything is different?  (I mean, for how long have people been writing sonnets?  not that that is a movement, bu t you know what I mean.) And is your dating really accurate?  Can you really date the beginning of punk as a wider cultural phenomenon from the early Stooges?  or was it more from 1977 or so, when the meme had started seriously spreading through the media?  It’s interesting that you connect back to Second Avenue as a possible precursor to LP, but couldn’t you, if you are defining Language Writing as a kind of stylistic tendency (which is a problematic definition) go back even further –  to Mallarme? Of course, that’s silly.  No one could call Mallarme a language Writer or O’Hara either… because really the term belongs to a historical affiliation of (stylistically vastly different) writers, not to a particular tendency. I suppose I’m curious to know how you see the legacy of language poetry having prevailed, and in whose works, and why (or if) that troubles you.
I do know that when I would come back to the US from Japan throughout the 90s, and when I first moved back here in ’99, I would sometimes find myself annoyed by what seemed like a vast number of both language poetry imitators (who often diluted the impact of the earlier work) or anti-language-poetry reactors (who defined their works in opposition).  I would say that then it really was prevailing in a way that it is not so much now, although it’s hard for me to say this with any certainty, since I have always occupied such a tiny niche in poetry that in fact I have no idea what is “prevailing” (i.e. in MFA programs, in classrooms, in little magazines – most of which I don’t read  – in book publications, etc.).  That is, I know what I think about and I have some idea what my friends think about, but I don’t have any sense of a national or global map of poetry sensibilities.  Maybe you can speak to that better than I can.
I DO think that the Flarf & Conceptual movements are a kind of Cain & Abel to Language Poetry’s Adam-Eve.  Both movements still frolic about in some kind of garden (not Eden – definitely postlapsarian)-of-language-as-material, but Flarf works with the repressed lyricism and hot energies that some (that word is important) language poetry disdained, and the Conceptualists take the language poets’ work with framing and art-historical theory to a new extreme.  So in these senses, the language movement survives in these highly mutated forms. Key members of both Flarf and Conceptualism have been closely involved with language writing and writers for decades.
I don’t know, Sharon.  I sort of hate taxonomies of literary influence.  It seems like something that boys do, and it seems that if we were to really parse it, it would be unimaginably complex and tangled.  I mean, what is the influence of LP on, say, most of the writers published by Belladonna?  or  on NY-school-ish lyric poets like Anselm Berrigan and Dana Ward?  How does the LP influence play out differently on the two coasts? or the cities in between? What is the influence of LP on docu-poetry? or eco-poetry? How are the Flarf and Conceptual writers differently influenced, and by what writers in particular?  I could go on posing questions like this, but it might get tiresome.
Regarding the two “a-ha” moments you counterpose (Gottlieb’s and Neruda’s), I don’t really see all that big a difference, except that Gottlieb’s actually sounds a lot more effusive and lyrical. .  I don’t find Gottlieb’s version any less emotional than Neruda’s; something about Neruda’s neat writing seems a little anal to me, actually.  And to be honest, I really would rather read Gottlieb than Neruda.  I do think that, historically, language desperately craved (if you can groove for a moment on my anthropomorphizing) the liberation that Gottlieb describes there.  I still think it wants it, and I still often find those moments in my reading and writing almost ineffably ecstatic.
Regarding LangPo and “the I”… well, the (arguably, according to some) great collaborative work of the movement in recent years has been The Grand Piano, with lots of Is telling lots of stories, so I don’t think that critique of them really holds water anymore.  It was decades ago that Barrett Watten wrote the line, “Start writing autobiography” (which people then proceeded to do.).
And you know what, I think poets are, really are, “privileged stenographers.”  We didn’t make the language.  It moves (in) (around) (through) us.  Our notion that we are controlling it is only ever a fiction we are telling ourselves.
As to your last question, I think it is always time for a new moment.  I think Flarf was a new moment.  Conceptualism maybe a little less obviously so, since there was so much in the way of historical precedent, including the works of several language writers and NY school writers and artists, too.  I don’t know what the next moment will look like but I hope that it astonishes me. I suspect it might have something to do with (already has something to do with) multi- and inter-media:  a Compleat Art?
TO BE CONTINUED…

What do YOU think?

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6 thoughts on “L=A=N=G Po’s Long Run? Or time for a new moment? Mesmer & Gordon discuss….

  1. hi friends,

    this is great. please keep talking.

    I don't think 40 years is long at all, but also, probably, that there is, in the bigger picture , no particularly discreet aesthetic/political boundary around “language poetry” rather just a set of relationships (personal or otherwise). and don't these relationships last almost as long as human lives? or even longer, as lives and deaths overlap and new people are born? even refusal of relationship is the relationship, so a movement & its haters in the end, become one creature.

    flarf, however, felt very tangible and new: like a thing that was a thing itself, and a well in which we have dipped (or were baptized in, or swam, or in nada's case, took some kind of elaborate bubble bath).

    I think we are arriving, anyways, at a kind of compleat art, but its a matter not of the “Frame” but of the frantic-and-hot-messy-state of framlessness. will try to write a little more on this later somehow. I've been thinking how expression or anti-expression isn't even that interesting to consider anymore, like that is some old tired opposition.

    xo

    anne

  2. this is very interesting nada.

    but anyone who thinks of language as “material” is a goof.

    i dunno why so many poets think it is that language is somehow “material” as if it was its own entity which it totally isn't. everyone else has gotten over the materiality of the signifier thing a long time ago but i feel as if mostly poets whose work i encounter through silliman's little funnel are still harping on these ideas that are nothing more than a fashion.

    i mean people are still doubting the “I” or the “fascist ego” or “bourgeois subject” or whatever but in the same breath they posit themselves as something apart from language like a zen-ish emptiness that just records it like a camera.
    i for one come from a school where the camera doesn't record the movement of language but where it is literally like the contractions of a muscle i-e the tongue and brain and spine and the rest of it all…

    movement always sounds cool but it can also refer to digestive processes. one thing i like about langpo is when abbreviated it sounds like some obscure chinese monk poet.

    i did have an idea once though that language is basically over

    at least externalism and extension but that takes a lot of nut-cracking to get to the heart of
    ???

  3. i for one come from a school where the camera doesn't record the movement of language but where it is literally like the contractions of a muscle i-e the tongue and brain and spine and the rest of it all…

    So, then, that it's material? Atoms moving in space and the like?

    Shrug. Anyway, this is an interesting discussion, though I think it could also use to recognize that langpo hasn't had a 40-year reign, but that it fizzled out or morphed or evolved into something quite different in, oh, the 90s sometime I guess, or at least moved into late langpo, which seems like a different beast, but then again the only reason to be interested in the taxonomy is to be mindful of differences and distinctions as a mode of generally paying attention to things. If you even want to do that!

  4. oh sorry nada

    i didn't want to butt-in with a long prosaic mess of text. though i do write poetry myself i am primarily a person that comes from different art forms… so my point is basically that a “wave-form” is not material. the sign isn't material. even if you stand separate from the language as it flows through you notating it like those weirdo people that while writing grocery lists think that god overtakes their hand and then they start up a church in utah i think there is usually some kind of motivation… desire.

    the form of a letter is more than the physical ink. it has some kind of telos to it. one of my music professors who i still correspond with had told me that “language is over.” that language itself has reached its end in humanity. he was speaking of mostly the words and sentences and french/japanese/english aspects… not the whole pragmatic and gestural and imagistic aspects. but perhaps even these too have reached a point.

    i think of language writers as absurd as paint-painters. a very modernist kind of thing to try to focus on a puremateriality in the very framework of meaning itself… “meaning itself” is kinda unintelligable… ence the end of language. i personally also meant to convey that in spite of reading about the arbitrariness of the sign i'd consider it otherwise… but i'd save you from more rambling on this subject. like imagine a stop-sign in the middle of nowhere with no road…

    i have read about “post-language” poetry. i think every art has to confront its medium at some point… eventually it may get over it. i mean reading silliman's old poems that actually include the word “syntax” in it is really less enjoyable than other poems. even some of langpo's imitators and mannerists you see in mainstream journals constantly use “language” of this or corny lines like “the wind speaks rain fluently” garner reward money.

    ok i'll leave this alone i'm probably scaring folks off. thanks.

    -ry

  5. Henry Rollins
    on a marble
    in space.

    Rare Herb
    in his / her
    special place.

    Doctor Bombay,
    can you make every word
    be a tinkle
    of a blonde girl's nose?

    Paul Valéry Bertinelli brand
    facial bank robber
    panty hose, and

    Van Halen's
    'space album'.

    yours,
    Lanny
    “I can't wait to see
    Mercedes in space”
    Quarles

    no logic please!

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