Published on The Nation (http://www.thenation.com)
Vanishing Points: Language Poetry Remembered
Barry Schwabsky | January 12, 2011
Because Language poets had been tagged as theorists when one of the prime themes of theory was supposedly “the death of the author,” and because they were the authors of poetry that seemed to have evacuated the prized lyric “voice” or “I”—the feelingful self as the ground of the poem’s coherence—it might be taken as a sign of retrenchment that a group of those poets have undertaken a retrospect of their project in its early years under the sign of autobiography. Have they acquiesced, finally, perhaps a minute too late, to the Age of Oprah, in which the tell-all memoir has become the most valued form of writing, and the sense of authenticity, or rather the illusion of it, is all?
Not exactly. In any case, at least with respect to these poets, reports of the death of the author have always been greatly exaggerated. Isn’t one of the best, and best-known, works to come out of Language poetry the one called My Life (by Hejinian, published in 1980 and then revised in 1987)? It would be more accurate to say that Language writing determines not to take notions like “self” and “authorship” for granted but to unsettle them. “In the most interesting ‘lyric’ poems,” Armantrout writes in Part 8 of The Grand Piano, “we can still see the shifting dangerous ground on which the self stands.” Or as Watten concluded from reading Ketjak, “Identity…is open-ended.” Even so, identity is likely to feel a lot less open-ended when you’re in your 60s than when you’re in your 30s. Rather than the self seeming to be scarily, excitingly in danger of losing its footing on uneven terrain, it might seem uncomfortably hemmed in by the too-sturdy remnants of its previous incarnations. Looking back on one’s younger self involves both identification and estrangement, the unity of the self and its fragmentation. Where does the emphasis fall?
In opening the first installment of The Grand Piano, Perelman rather grandly frames the issue this way: “The young Marx is not Marx; or the young Marx is Marx.” Doesn’t the “question apply to us, individually or grouped?” Perelman’s question practically answers itself. Despite everything, teleology hangs heavy over this project: whatever their confusion at the time over who they were and what they were doing, these were the writers who would become Language poets. And how could the invention be sorted out from the confusion? For writers and other artists, the third and fourth decades of life can be a time of immense energy, experimentation and ingenuity. But eventually one seems to have chosen a certain path that needs to be followed without looking aside; the time for experimentation is over, and the point is to cogently follow through on the precious few experiments that seemed to pay off. But what’s gained in focus may be lost in intensity; the work becomes too consistent, too settled into a groove. And who writes an autobiography of his middle age? But sometimes the aging artist—Beethoven is the prototypical example— abandons that consistency, not in order to reclaim the bravado of youth but in favor of a “late style” characterized, as Edward Said famously put it, by “intransigence, difficulty and contradiction,” a “deeply unproductive productiveness.”
Now in their 60s as they look back on their beginnings (with the exception of Harryman, the group’s youngest member), the poets of The Grand Piano may be wondering what their beginnings might portend of where they’re heading—what kind of late styles they can achieve. What makes the question more than usually interesting—at least if Said is right in thinking that some late styles reflect a willful isolation, an obstinate irreconcilability in which the artist “abandons communication” with the social order to enter “a form of exile from his milieu”—is that no group of poets have ever been as publicly communicative or as collaborative in their mode of production, forming themselves as a milieu along with their writing. On the face of it, The Grand Piano is evidence that things haven’t changed.
Sure, more than a few readers may consider that abandoning communication was the inaugural gesture of Language poetry—so how could it ever be the final one? But if anything, the inaugural gesture of Language poetry was rather an abandonment of the devices that encourage us to think we are communicating when we’re not. Armantrout cites Ashbery’s poem tellingly titled “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” as “a paradigmatic lyric poem,” reading it as one that would “address the reader on an impossible ‘plain level,’ but the reader plays hard to get, ‘looks away,’ ‘pretends to fidget.’ This cat-and-mouse game is unmasked at the end where it is revealed that ‘the poem is you.’ The poem and reader, the speaker and listener are one, though they are estranged, internally divided.” This suggests that the intractability of the poem may be nothing other than the realism with which it attends to its actual situation as it attempts to communicate itself.
There’s something heartening in the way these poets have ignored the script that says movements are for the young and are bound to break apart, often acrimoniously, as the participants mature. But will their determination to see their commitments through to the end prove a strength or a limitation? It’s strange that Watten, in his predetermined position as the poet to bring the curtain down in the final installment of The Grand Piano, sticks to an old script, evoking his notion of “total syntax” only in order to wonder whether it allows “for any kind of ending you might imagine? Or does it simply continue our project, in new and unknown ways?” Surely, ending and simply continuing are not the only possibilities. A late style, as Said envisioned it, would somehow be a way of neither ending nor continuing. Hejinian argues that “late style need not be confined to biographical lateness. Late style is also evident in responses to cultural lateness—late capitalism, for example.” To prove the point, she applies the term to Jean Day, a poet younger than any of the contributors to The Grand Piano. But although I take her point that Language or Language-influenced poetry has something of the recalcitrance that Said ascribed to late styles, I’m still not convinced that the resemblance runs deep enough, maybe because I’m not convinced that capitalism has reached a late enough phase to put me in mind of its ending. What late styles share with young styles is impatience. Honorably, Hejinian (and at least some of her co-authors) are still seeking what she calls “the activist alternative to the impasse, where pessimism and frustration bring things to a halt.” Maybe a true late style is not in the cards for them, just a slow migration to a vanishing point on the horizon line.