Language Poetry and the postmodern avantgarde

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While the idea ofpoetry as "language experiment" can be traced as far back as Whitman, the evolution ofAmerican poetry from Whitman to the modernists to the postmodern Language writers involves a gradually increasing attention to the potential of poetry as a medium for the exploration of language itself. Like their predecessors in the New American Poetry movements of the 1950s and 1960s, the Language Poets of the 1980s and 1990s were strongly committed to the idea of poetry as an agent of social and political critique. But whereas the New American poets tended to express their critique of contemporary society through direct statements of anger, outrage, or disgust, the Language writers were more interested in using poetry to examine the ways in which language operates within a range of social, cultural, and literary discourses.

The difference between the New American Poets and the Language writers is in part generational. The Beats and other postwar poets reached their poetic maturity at a time when the country was enjoying a period of economic expansion accompanied by a restriction of certain forms of social expression: from within their bohemian communities in New York and San Francisco, they used their poems to express a rebellion against the conformity, materialism, and social hypocrisy of the late 1940s and 1950s. The poets of the Language group, on the other hand, came of age at a time when the initial "boom" of postwar economic expansion had ended, and when the impact of the media-driven commodity culture was so pervasive as to be universally recognized. Whereas the poets of the 1950s and 1960s were guided by what Paul Breslin has called the "psycho-political muse" of poetry - spurred on by a communal goal of liberating the psyche from "the false consciousness imposed by society" - the Language Poets were responding to a very different set of concerns.7 Their poetics were based less on a conception of remaining "open to experience" and more on a project of foregrounding the operations of language itself. Language, they argued, is not merely a vehicle for explaining or translating experience but a generative agent in the poem's composition. The poem is written not as a means of expressing emotions or personal qualities of the author, but as an expression of a complex grid of social and historical relations. Where a poet like Allen Ginsberg had used his poems to comment on the distorted values of the dominant American culture ("America") or to chronicle the anti-establishment gestures of his generation ("Howl"), the Language Poets tended to avoid direct pronouncements, preferring to critique society through reference to the underlying structures oflanguage and ideology.

There are two primary explanations for this shift. The first is that by the 1970s and 1980s American culture had become so saturated with language in all its debased and mediatized forms (advertising, television talk-shows, bestsellers, political "sound-bites") that it was no longer possible to conceive of poetry in terms of a "natural" language generated by the poet himself or herself for a particular occasion. In other words, the Language

Poets suggested, there was no longer the possibility of achieving either the modernist ideal of the "direct treatment of the thing" or the postwar ideal of a poetry based on an expression of the "self" and on the actuality of human speech. In the group manifesto "Aesthetic Tendency," several of the Language writers used a post-Marxist analysis to attack the narrowness of mainstream poetic norms, and especially of the "expressivist" lyric which had become the dominant form of American poetry.

The second reason for the fundamental change in poetics had to do with the proliferation of literary theories challenging the notion of language as a transparent medium for the communication of thoughts, concepts, and images. The poststructuralist ideas of such theorists as Jacques Derrida suggest that language is fundamentally a system ofdifferences in which words ("signs") do not capture or represent meanings but only refer to other signs in an infinite deferral of meaning. The seminal works of Derrida and other poststructuralists such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault appeared during the 1960s and early 1970s, at exactly the time when the Language movement was coalescing. The Language Poets, like the poststructuralists, rejected the ideal oflinguistic transparency: the idea that language can reflect in some immediate and direct way the objects or experiences it attempts to describe.

Over the last two decades of the century, the Language Poets explored the intersection of language, history, and ideology in a number of different ways. Susan Howe, for example, used source texts taken from the archives of American history and literature to fashion linguistically complex reflections on national and personal identity. In Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987), she drew on the historical account of Hope Atherton, a colonial minister who was separated from the militia he was accompanying during an Indian raid in 1676. In her poetic reconstruction of Atherton's adventures, Howe used a number of idiosyncratic poetic forms, expressing through the fragmentation of language both the disorientation of Atherton as he returns to civilization and the inability of the historical record to capture the sense of his lived experience.

Other Language Poets used various kinds of formal operations as a way of determining elements of the poem's composition. In Lyn Hejinian's My Life (1980), she adopted a procedural form based on her age at the time of composition. The poem originally consisted of thirty-seven sections of thirty-seven sentences each, and was revised eight years later to forty-five sections of forty-five sentences. The text also plays against the generic structure ofautobiography: while each section represents a year in Hejinian's life, a given section will be made up of a mosaic of discontinuous sentences referencing radically different styles and generic conventions. Within a single section, we may find memories, images, historical observations, and personal reflections:

A urinating doll, half-buried in sand. She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers. I mean untroubled by the distortions. That was the fashion when she was a young woman and famed for her beauty, surrounded by beaux. Once it was circular and that shape can still be seen from the air. Protected by the dog. Protected by foghorns, frog honks, cricket circles on the brown hills. It was a message of happiness by which we were called into the room, as if to receive a birthday present given early, because it was too large to hide, or alive, a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons.

In the passage from section 4 quoted here, the poet's childhood self is presented within a gender-coded environment, one in which she must be "protected" from the outside world, in which she will become increasingly aware of such traditionally feminine preoccupations as fashion and beauty, and in which she must remain untroubled by societal "distortions." Hejinian plays with gender identifications in such a way as to confuse our assumptions: the girl, lying prone in the sand, is associated metonymically with the urinating doll next to her, but she is also seen playing with a toy truck, typically the symbolic locus of a male child. In the final image, we again experience gender confusion in the form of a male animal coded as feminine: "a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons."

The passage also exemplifies the sheer play of language which occurs throughout Hejinian's multilayered poem. Hejinian's use of repetitions, puns, and inversions creates a poetic fabric that is at once comforting and estranging. The phrase "name trimmed with colored ribbons" with which the section begins mutates into a "mane trimmed with colored ribbons." The relationship between "name" and "mane" is left ambiguous: it comes to represent the way in which language can shift, through sonic or orthographic resemblance, into different discursive and semantic registers. The "name" trimmed with colored ribbons, perhaps something a four-year-old girl would bring home from a friend's birthday party, is transfigured into a "mane," the mark of an animalism that works in semantic opposition to the social world.

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