The Difference is Spreading Stein

A burgeoning generation of 'language-centred' writers is seen as having offered a materialist critique of the expressivist tendencies of the New American poetry as encapsulated by Robert Grenier's famous pronouncement 'I HATE SPEECH' in the first issue of This in 1971. As much as stylistic allegiances, Language poets like Watten, Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian are as likely to cite socio-political context as occasioning the formation of the extensive network of publishing, collaboration and reading spaces that have been grouped together under the umbrella term Language poetry. Hejinian explains that the Language generation was emerging from the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and was bonded by exposure to the 'disguised irrationality' of institutions:

by some coincidence, we all individually had begun to consider language itself as an institution of sorts, determining reasons, and we had individually begun to explore the implications of that. (Hejinian, 1989, p. 34)

For this generation, Olson's heroic 'Field Composition' demanded serious scrutiny. Witnessing the failed war in Indochina and the end of the expansionist optimism underpinning the New American poetry (Silliman, 1986, p. 484), they were partic ularly sensitive to the masked realities of Olson's mythic poetics of discovery. Of course, the 'SPACE' that Olson saw as an American heritage was populated by natives, and the new continent was not 'discovered' so much as brutally colonized. This is a preoccupation of Susan Howe's work. Howe shares Olson's interest in the use of historical documents within poetry, and has learnt from his projectivist exploration of the use of the typewriter to exploit the space of the page. And yet, countering Olson's rhetoric of discovery, Howe is interested in the American continent as it was necessarily constructed by the emigrants to New England in the Great Migration. Howe is fascinated by the way that the unnerving 'Statelessness' of the American wilderness forced the settlers to fall back on their being united through scripture. As the essay 'Encloser' suggests, the crossing of the ocean was also a leap into the recently translated vernacular Bible, and the myth of themselves as the promised people setting out for a 'virgin garden pre-established for them by the Author and Finisher of creation' (Bernstein, 1993, p. 181). If Olson fetishizes openness, Howe attends to the fear provoked by the prospect of such an experience, and how it forced the emigrants into 'God's Plot' as a protective shield enabling them 'to survive the threat of openness' (ibid., p. 190). Therefore, the experience of the new terrain was mediated by a text:

Somewhere on the passage they had to convince themselves that the land was holy and that they were on a mission from God as laid down in the Old Testament. These emigrants saw the land through a book. A sacred book. Divinity was tangled in place. They were a new typology. They were inside the story. (Ibid.)

In Howe's work the page is always a territory whose white expanse is subject to settlement/invasion by the printed word. She is fascinated by history as discourse; a text marred by what is excluded from it — particularly women and the natives written out of the American story by the myth of the discovery of a virgin land. As she states in the opening text in The Europe of Trusts: 'I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted — inarticulate' (Howe, 1990, p. 14). It is significant that this agenda is carefully acknowledged as a 'wish'; Howe is well aware of the oxymoronic task of voicing the silent, and of articulating the inarticulate.

Olson privileged etymology and the archeological dig into the word's history that would eventually reach the world. This tenet again demanded scrutiny: Language poets began writing in an intellectual climate buzzing with the ideas of continental 'theory' that precisely problematized the 'naturalness' of the relationship between language and world. Hejinian's 'The Rejection of Closure' rejects the assertion that 'FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT' (Olson, 1997, p. 240) and instead proposes celebrating an open text that is not organically inclusive of the world, but is 'formally differentiating' (Perelman, 1985, p. 271). As such she imagines no equal fit between words and things, but sees the very inequality as a necessary gap that pays homage to the 'incomplete' vastness of the world. Instead of Projective verse's bid to blur the distinction between form and content, Hejinian wants to highlight it:

For me, a central activity of poetic language is formal. In being formal, in making form distinct, it opens — makes variousness and multiplicity and possibility articulate and clear. While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things. (Ibid., p. 285)

The Modernist Gertrude Stein's influence is strongly felt by Language poets, particularly because of its radical upsetting of just the conventions of what proximity words have to things that so concerned Hejinian. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E asked a number of their contributors to respond to three short sections from Stein's 1914 landmark Tender Buttons, using it as an exercise in encouraging methods of reading attentive not just to what the poems might mean, but to how they might do so (Andrews and Bernstein, 1984, pp. 195—207). In Stein's work 'things take place inside the writing, are perceived there, not elsewhere, outside it' (Hejinian, 1986, p. 133). This maintenance of readerly attention at the level of the language itself became a unifying preoccupation of Language writing.

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