Thursday, July 10, 2003

Free Space Comix wants to know:

I’ve been assured by several emails that the Language school has never been in fact “attacked” by the "mainstream" (or "Official Verse Culture") -- that most of the “attacks” came from within our own New American "lineages." Is this true?

I think it's true that sustained, in-print attacks on Language writing by "mainstream" poets or critics are rather rare--the attitude tends to be one of ignorance or snide one-line dismissal. Example: I once sat in on a class with Helen Vendler (that dean of ye olde OVC) on contemporary American poetry, and was surprised to notice that the final lecture of the year was scheduled on the syllabus to be about "Language Poetry." So I dutifully showed up for the last class to hear what she had to say. I was totally floored: she'd say "Here is an example of Language Poetry" and then read a piece of Russian Futurist zaum writing or something by Michael McClure, something that involved a lot of nonsense syllables (in camped-up fashion--you've never heard Williams's "The Sea-Elephant" if you haven't heard her saying "Blouaugh!")--and then laughing and saying, "Well, that isn't poetry." "Language Poetry" for her obviously just meant anything vaguely avant-garde or nonreferential, and it just "wasn't poetry."

When I was working on my senior thesis I ended up going in to talk to her about the topic, and when I asked her about Language poetry again she recommended a book to me: Vernon Shetley's After the Death of Poetry. It's about as good an example as I've seen of a "mainstream" take on Language writing, as well as a contribution to the burgeoning "poetry is dead" literature.

The funny thing about what Shetley calls the "MFA mainstream" is that nobody likes it; I dare you to find a single critic who says "Oh yes, MFA programs are wonderful, they've done so much for poetry." Here's Shetley's schema, which is essentially a political one: the aesthetic of the MFA programs, with its "unexamined belief in the power of subjectivity to shape meaningful poetic forms," is flanked on the left by Language poetry, with its "erasure of subjectivity," and on the right by New Formalism, with its belief in "the power of traditional poetic forms to shape subjectivity." (I remember thinking when I read the book that such a simplistic political schema seemed totally weird, but I've come to realize that people in all camps actually believe this.) Of course, Shetley's conclusion is that our poetic future lies not in any one of these schools but in the "difficult" work of great individuals like Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and John Ashbery.

Shetley does actually take the time to read and discuss people like Bernstein, Silliman, and Andrews, and his ultimate condemnation of them is probably as sustained a "mainstream" attack on langpo as I've seen. Here's his conclusion:

Whatever meaning [Bernstein's] "The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree" has, then, is a matter of surfaces. There is nothing to penetrate because no meaning is hiding behind any other; all are equally available, and the poem offers no grounds for choice. But if this sort of poem is ultimately too easy to read, it's also too easy to has failed to devise a sufficiently rich set of rules for itself...When the poet is free to choose words without regard to goals other than polysemy, the polysemy that results scarcely seems an achievement...Bernstein's poem, and much of the writing that goes under the "Language" rubric, may be looked as as either all meaning or all randomness, but the interesting area, and the area of genuine difficulty, lies between. (151-2)

No comments: