The Language Poets

The writers who emerged in the 1970s and have been identified variously as “Language poets,” “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets” and “so-called Language poets” generally conceive of themselves less as a movement or school than as a loosely knit community of writers who, with a particular intensity from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, cultivated their own means of literary production and engaged critically in each others’ work. Although a diversity of formal and thematic concerns characterize the writings of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Tina Darragh, Ray Di Palma, Robert Grenier, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, P. Inman, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, and Hannah Weiner (just a few of the many Language writers who could be listed), in general, these writers may be said to view lived experience more as a construction of language than as a transparent reflection of it. Language writing extends the tradition of avant-garde poetry exemplified by Donald Allen’s groundbreaking 1960 anthology New American Poetry: 1945–1960, which cast a number of poetic groupings (BLACK MOUNTAIN, NEW YORK SCHOOL, BEATS, SAN FRANCISCO RENAISSANCE) decidedly against the mainstream, or “academic,” verse of the time. Language writing also revisits the work of neglected modernists (Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and Velimir Xlebniko, among others) and is often informed by Russian formalist and French poststructuralist theories of language and ideology. Additionally the civil rights and free speech movements, along with the protests against the U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War, provided a stimulus for many of these writers.

While the Allen anthology delineated the major tendencies in avant-garde poetry for several generations of poets nurtured on modernists, such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, other tendencies emerged on the 1960s cultural landscape that Allen could not have anticipated. The work of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson became syntactically freer. Ted Berrigan led a second generation of New York school poets by using a variety of collage techniques in his sonnets that picked up where John Ashbery’s “Europe” and Frank O’hara’s “Biotherm” left off. Objectivist poets from the 1930s either returned to writing poetry (George Oppen) or garnered attention after years of neglect (Zukofsky). Jerome Rothenberg’s anthologies reasserted the importance of neglected modernists and poetries from cultures previously dismissed as “primitive”. Something Else Press, founded by Dick Higgins in the wake of the antiart movement Fluxus, included reprints of important works by Stein (The Making of Americans [1966], Geography and Plays [1968]), and Lucy Church Amiably [1969]) in its catalogue. John CAGE and Jackson Mac Low introduced chance-based compositional procedures into music and writing, while performance art, free jazz, and the feminist and Black Arts Movements also began to flourish. Such interests worked their way into poetry journals and little magazines, such as Caterpillar (edited by Clayton Eshleman), Joglars (edited by Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer, immediate precursors of Language writing who have generally distanced themselves from group alignments), and 0 to 9 (edited by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer, whose workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the early 1970s were attended by several Language writers). One issue of Toothpick, Lisbon and the Orcas Islands, edited by Andrews and Michael Wiater (fall 1973), contained work by a number of writers who would by the end of the decade be known as “Language poets.”


Charles Bernstein

In 1971, Grenier and Watten launched This magazine out of Iowa City, home of the country’s first creative writing M.F.A. program (the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and thus a mainstream poetry establishment through which a number of avant-garde dissidents had passed. This 1 (winter 1971) featured a cluster of review-essays by Grenier, whose declaration “I HATE SPEECH” signaled an all-caps challenge to a projective verse rooted in speech and the breath, while the issue also contained an homage to the recently deceased Olson. Claiming “I want writing what is thought / where feeling is / words are born” (qtd. in Silliman “American” 497), Grenier proposed a poetry of attention to language less as a way to refer to the world and more as a fact of experience in its own right. He also applied such attention to critical writing: His own review of Stein’s Lectures in America consisted of 14 quotations from her book, one quotation from Creeley, and only five lines of his own commentary— essentially letting her work speak for itself.

If Grenier’s review-essays in This 1 assumed a more critical stance than most of that issue’s poetry, language- centered poetries were nonetheless united with the first critical assessment of the writing in “The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets,” a special section Silliman edited in 1973 for Alcheringa. Rothenberg, who coedited this ethnopoetics journal with Dennis Tedlock, first put Silliman in touch with Andrews and Bernstein in the early 1970s. This mini-anthology presented writing by Andrews, Barbara Baracks, Coolidge, Lee DeJasu, DiPalma, Grenier, David Melnick, Silliman himself, and Watten. “What connects these writers,” Silliman states, is “a community of concern for language as the center of whatever activity poems might be” (Silliman “Dwelling,” 118). The exemplary work of Coolidge and Grenier, Silliman argues, “goes after a direct confrontation with language, words,” such that “neither the words nor the processes of the poem . . . point out or away from the poem itself” (118). Citing Creeley’s claim (as Grenier had earlier) that “poems are not referential, or at least not importantly so,” Silliman emphasizes that “words are not, finally, nonreferential”; rather, these writers are interested in “diminish[ing] the reference,” “the creation of non-referring structures,” the “disruption of context,” or “forcing the meanings in upon themselves until they cancel out or melt” (118).

By 1977 a Marxist political orientation (certainly manifested in private discussions and correspondence before this time) was added to the focus on language itself. Steve McCaffery gathered essays by Andrews, Bernstein, Silliman, and himself in a forum on “The Politics of the Referent” for Frank Davey’s Toronto journal Open Letter (summer 1977). For McCaffery the referential aspect of the linguistic sign (that is, that the particular word refers to a particular object or concept) is linked to Karl Marx’s critique of the commodity fetish: The meaning of words becomes a product that language users consume naively or in bad faith. Writing that thwarts conventional meaning-making processes thus critiques such consumption, turning the reader from a passive consumer of meaning into an active producer of meaning. Another of Silliman’s essays from 1977, “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” extends this critique of reference to the broader historical development of language use under capitalism.

Many Language writers had also by this time converged geographically around key poetry journals and poetry presses. Perelman and Watten moved to the San Francisco Bay area by 1974 (bringing with them the magazines Hills and This, respectively), where Watten’s college friend Silliman (who had been editing Tottel’s since 1970) had joined forces with Yale friends Steve Benson and Kit Robinson. The latter’s one-shot magazine Streets and Roads, 1974, contained work by many of these writers. Shortly thereafter Watten began a reading series at the Grand Piano, a café on Haight Street in San Francisco, and Perelman began a series of poet’s talks in his Folsom Street loft. Geoffrey Young and Laura Chester began their press, the Figures, in 1975, and Hejinian began her Tuumba letterpress chapbook series the following year. Each press had nearly 20 titles in its catalogue by the end of 1978, while Watten added nearly a dozen titles under his This Press imprint. Meanwhile a number of writers had arrived in New York City since 1975: Andrews and Lally from a fledgling Baltimore–Washington, D.C., poetry scene, Bernstein (returning) from the West Coast, DiPalma from Iowa City via Ohio. Bernstein began a reading series with Ted Greenwald at Greenwich Village’s Ear Inn in 1978, the same year he and Andrews began the journal that would soon name this burgeoning activity.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E ran for only four years (1978–81) but served in that time as a clearinghouse of information on writing from both coasts. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E published no poetry per se. Instead a typical issue might have contained a forum on one or two poets or topics, review pieces on new works that typically eschewed evaluation and became new works in their own right, and bibliographies or excerpts from a wide disciplinary range of recent journals. Although many of the publications reviewed in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E were hard to obtain even then, the editors offered readers photocopies at cost. With more than 100 contributors, little aesthetic or political consensus resulted. At times lively debates emerged over the value of nonevaluative reviews, the merits of Cage and the artist Marcel Duchamp, and the efficacy of anarchism and Marxism. Nevertheless the magazine gave an appearance of coherence to the group and thus a point of entry for its critics.

The May 1979 issue of the Bay Area newsletter Poetry Flash ran a feature on “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry” that, in part, charged the group with being overly theoretical, willfully obscure, dogmatic, and elitist. Silliman often became chief defender of the group—and not just in Poetry Flash. In the preface to “Realism: An Anthology of ‘Language’ Poets” in Ironwood 20 (1982), Silliman recalled the history of language- centered writing, enumerated the various publications and other activities of the group, outlined the changed circumstances of avant-garde poetry since the 1960s and the shortcomings of the New American poetry, and emphasized the importance of readership, audience, and community. Soon other widely circulated journals began publishing collections of Language writing. Bernstein edited a 50-page “Language Sampler” for the Paris Review (issue 86 [1982]) and a 100-page feature of “43 Poets” for boundary 2 (volume 14 [1985/6]), while Joan Retallack contributed an omnibus review of recent Language publications to Parnassus (volume 12 [1984]). These journals appealed to broadly literary and academic readerships and helped Language writing reach new audiences.

Silliman expanded upon his Ironwood defense in the preface to In the American Tree (1986). At more than 600 pages, this recently reprinted (2001) anthology remains the most comprehensive primary source for Language writing, even while Silliman lists, beyond the 40 writers it includes, more than 70 additional writers from whom “an anthology of comparable worth” could be drawn (xx). A year later Douglas Messerli edited the shorter “Language” Poetries anthology for New Directions, giving the group its first book-length presentation via a trade publisher with ties to the historic avant-garde of Pound and Williams. These two anthologies sparked a new round of debates, which, by this point, included important academic critics, including Jerome McGann and Marjorie Perloff. The mid-1980s also witnessed the appearance of essay collections by Bernstein (Content’s Dream [1986]), Perelman (Writing/Talks [1985]), Silliman (The New Sentence [1987]), and Watten (Total Syntax [1984]).

Many Language writers continue working today, although the intense group activity has subsided. Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry has begun the process of writing the history of Language writing; a similar activity has taken place in another form, an online collaborative work called “the Grand Piano” (after Watten’s reading venue) by nine members of the Bay Area group. Ann Vickery has demonstrated how many of the issues confronted by Language writing were framed quite differently for women associated with the movement. Bernstein, Perelman, and Watten have obtained tenure-track positions in university English departments, spurring some (including Silliman) to suggest that the original antiacademic stance of the group has thus been compromised. At the same time a younger generation of writers has emerged, in some cases out of the very M.F.A. system Language writing rejected. While their work furthers some avenues of investigation opened up by Language writing, these younger writers are less inclined toward polemic.

Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Kim, Eleana. “Language Poetry,” Readme.
Messerli, Douglas, ed. “Language” Poetries. New York: New Directions, 1987.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Silliman, Ron, ed. “The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets.” Alcheringa 1.2 (1975): 104–120.
———. In the American Tree. 1986. Reprint, Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2001.
Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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