Al Filreis recently posted a quotation from George Hartley’s book Textual Politics and the Language Poets. He also posted a link to a larger excerpt from that book, which is one of the most illuminating pieces I’ve seen on the subject.
In the excerpt, Hartley explains that Language poets are united by their “rejection of the dominant model for poetic production and reception today—the so-called voice poem. According to many Language poets, the voice poem depends on a model of communication that needs to be challenged: the notion that the poet (a self-present subject) transmits a particular message (‘experience,’ ’emotion’) to a reader (another self-present subject) through a language which is neutral, transparent, ‘natural.'” Note that Hartley’s list of message types omits “ideas,” a type of message most Language poets, in their theoretical sorties, tend to embrace as the fundamental justification for their own practice. They can’t seem to stand to notion that “voice poems” can contain and convey ideas in what Annie Finch recently termed “the shared conventions of language that link poets with other speakers of our language.”
To illustrate the alternative model Language poets offer, Hartley quotes a prose-form poem by Carla Harryman, entitled “For She,” which, he writes, “challenges the ‘naturalness’ of the narrative mode by foregrounding the devices which organize otherwise disparate elements into a seemingly seamless whole.” The result, as he describes it, is a poem that “goes through the motions of narrative, but one would be hard put to summarize what story has been told.” This “going through the motions,” according to Language poet and theorist Charles Bernstein (as quoted by Hartley), is meant to confront the reader with language that is “‘decentered’, ‘community controlled’, taken out of the service of the capitalist project.” There is nothing political about Harryman’s poem, though, and if it’s “decenteredness” has aesthetic—or emotional or philosophical—value, I’m afraid I can’t find it.
This absence of the values that for me, and I think most readers, make poetry worth reading may be clear from Harryman’s poem by itself, but I want to play with it a bit to emphasize something else: the notion that by “decentering” language the typical Language poem becomes more or less a throw of the dice, an essentially random concatenation of elements. To illustrate, I’ve taken Harryman’s poem and simply reordered its sentences. Feel free to guess which version is the “real” poem “For She”:
I stared the stranger into facing up to Maxine, who had come out of the forest bad from wet nights. The back of the head resting on the pillow was not wasted. On this occasion she apologized. We couldn’t hear each other speak. I came from an odd bed, a vermilion riot attracted to loud dogs. The puddle in the bathroom, the sassy one. There were many years between us. Nonetheless, I could pay my rent and provide for him.
The back of the head resting on the pillow was not wasted. We couldn’t hear each other speak. The puddle in the bathroom, the sassy one. There were many years between us. I stared the stranger into facing up to Maxine, who had come out of the forest bad from wet nights. I came from an odd bed, a vermilion riot attracted to loud dogs. Nonetheless, I could pay my rent and provide for him. On this occasion she apologized.
There were many years between us. I came from an odd bed, a vermilion riot attracted to loud dogs. On this occasion she apologized. The back of the head resting on the pillow was not wasted. The puddle in the bathroom, the sassy one. Nonetheless, I could pay my rent and provide for him. I stared the stranger into facing up to Maxine, who had come out of the forest bad from wet nights. We couldn’t hear each other speak.
You can see which of these is the “real” version by looking into the excerpt from Hartley’s book. When you do, ask yourself if the order of Harryman’s sentences makes any difference at all. I don’t think it does. Her Language poem is so perfectly “decentered” that it has no center, no impact, no emotion, no experience, no ideas—except, of course, for the theories of language that are the sole context in which the poem makes any sense at all.
My point here is simple: when a poem is what I would call “genuine,” its force is rooted in “the shared conventions of language that link poets with other speakers of our language,” the “natural language” attacked by Language poets. Not that these “shared conventions” need to be honored blindly; but neither should they be pointlessly vitiated out of some specious pretense—and nothing is more specious or pretentious than the notion that “decentered” language somehow undermines “the capitalist project.” What it does undermine are the values that make poetry worth reading at all: the communication of experiences, emotions, and ideas in ways that change how the reader sees the world. This assumes, of course, that poetry arises from a ground of being outside language, and that readers of poetry are returned to that ground of being with a fresh perspective or heightened awareness of it.
Small wonder that Language poetry is typically airless, atomized, restricted to mechanical cleverness and vapid rhetorical gestures. Reading it is like playing the old party game, Limbo. The bar gets lower and lower while the reader strains to shimmy under it. And for what? A few laughs and bragging rights. Readers ought to expect more from poetry—and poets ought to expect more from themselves.