Monday, March 9, 2009
The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book
Edited by Bruce Andrews & Charles Bernstein
How much of writing is the acquisition and enactment of tactics? That is, the process of writing can serve as a dissemination, in addition to a focalizing, of experiential recognition. Writing, as a noun, may activate writing, as a verb - this allows for a vitalizing assessment of experience. It was through my discovery of the work of the Language poets that I have been able to realize the preeminence of reading, its assertive promise. Prior to encountering the works of writers such as Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery and Lyn Hejinian, I had not conceived of reading as a necessarily creative act. McCaffery outlines a language-centered writing whose “…readers do not consume signs so much as confront them as opacities or produce them from ciphers. A language centered writing dispossesses us of language in order that we may repossess it again.” Such assertive conceptions of reading’s activation as a form of writing are what partially spurred me towards maintaining such a blog as this one. “The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book,” edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, attempts “…to open things up beyond correspondence and conversation: to break down some unnecessary self-encapsulation of writings… and to develop more fully the latticework of those involved in aesthetically related activity.” Collecting work from the first three issues of the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, this book allows the reader to confront, through a looking back, the plentitude of possibilities still to be realized by a open and aggressively assertive poetics.
The recently discussed collection of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s journal, “0 to 9,” manifested a geography of poetics linked by both location and aesthetics. Though its net of reference does extend beyond such strictures as place and generation, “The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book” for the most part focuses upon a specific community of writers based, or at least originally based, on the West Coast. Andrews and Bernstein stress that the book is concerned with “…writing that places its attention primarily on language and ways of making meaning, that takes for granted neither vocabulary, grammar, process, shape, syntax, program, or subject matter.” Additionally, “this involves an opening of the field of activity and not its premature foreclosure.” One of the books achievements, and an excellent argument for its relevance, is its cogent definition of a constituency of like-minded poets. Poetry is in many ways a correspondence, and this volume helps to recognize it as such.
Ron Silliman, in one of his contributing essays, baldly confronts the class realities of Language writing, stating “…black American poetry, in general, is not language writing because of what so-called language writing is – the grouping together of several, not always compatible, tendencies within “high bourgeois” literature. The characteristic features of this position within literature have been known for decades: the educational level of its audience, their sense of the historicity of writing itself, the class origin of its practioners (how many, reading this, will be the children of lawyers, doctors, ministers, professors?) &, significantly, the functional declassing of most persons who choose such writing as a lifework.” Silliman defines a class-based writing, stating, “Bourgeois literature can either reinforce or undermine the historic confidence of the bourgeoisie, that its role, if not “inevitable,” is at least for the best. Or not.” He concludes one of his essays, “If By “Writing” We Mean Literature…” with a call to arms, imploring us, “Let us undermine the bourgeoisie.” Labeling himself and his colleagues as bourgeoisie, Silliman facilitates a reassessment of one’s own identity. Writing need not concern itself with expression, but the very act of it allows for a personal verification through the text, instead of simply within it.
The very nature of the book is that of a celebratory solidarity, yet it is a profound difference that is so often highlighted by the texts collected. Multiplicity is on a privileged display, even amongst such ostentatiously like-minded writers. Look at the volume’s subsection entitled “Readings.” A good portion of this section is devoted to a writer whom these poets express a profound affinity, the great Gertrude Stein. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine “…asked a number of writers to respond to…three short selections from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914)…to give their sense of the ways of reading this text – what it means, how it means, & in what ways it might seem relevant to their own concerns in writing.” The plural of “ways” is important, as it affirms the multiplicity of interpretation.
The first of the three Stein selections, “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” suggests an active sighting. Robert Grenier in approaching Stein defines sight as “…thinking feeling looking remembering even inventing imagining certainly tasting surely listening hearing talking... meaning potentially all human process…” What sight here suggests is a holistic, a totalizing attention, and by that I mean an attending to. Grenier also quotes from Stein, in her “Poetry and Grammar,” wherein she helps clarify much of what I’ve tried to discuss, writing that “…looking at anything until something that was not the (conventional) name of that thing but was in a way that actual thing would come to be written.” Addressing the writing as its own object and not just the vessel of meaning privileges its potential. As an object, writing also allows for a greater interpretive identity, one that moves beyond the hoary stricture of meaning and towards experience.
Jackson Mac Low’s close reading of “A Carafe That is a Blind Glass.” is, at the same time, a close investigation of how he reads. Mac Low, like Grenier, treats Stein’s text with a sensory focus. To emphasis the text is here affiliated with emphasizing the act. The interface between the writing and the reader (their reading) becomes porous. Mac Low chronicles the reaction of reading; he notes, “I go from word to word, seeing the shapes of the printed words, hearing the sounds inwardly, noting rhymes, assonances, alliterations. Where an image is suggested, I see it inwardly.” This inward reading is also worth mentioning, as the internalization of the text suggests a possession, the repossession of the word that McCaffery mentions elsewhere in “The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book.”
This inward motion is also an important element in regards to how language based writing considers referentiality and representation. In an interview conducted for Catalyst magazine, Charles Bernstein writes, “Visual representation typically concerns whether or not a painting ‘‘looks like’’ something identifiable—a landscape, a person, a bowl of Rice Krispies. But what if what is being represented is not a bowl of soup but the soup bowl inside your mind. Then again, what happens if that obscure object of representation is not being represented but created in the process, so it is not a report of some thing seen or known outside the poem but an act of making.” Again, we are confronted with writing as a truly creative act, instead of as a simple “place-holder” between two states. We can also see here that representation as such may not exist, but there is a reckoning with object. Grenier, in discussing Keats, further clarifies, “…not reference, but recognition of structural identities binding the world (trace state where sound is a calling forth)…” The writing recognizes a thing, instead of representing it. Through this recognition, an actualization occurs.
Christopher Dewdney’s “Fractal Diffusion,” anthologized in this collection, provides excellent examples of much of what has been discussed above. The piece is its very declaration of its self, starting with the statement “In this article I am going to reify a progressive syllabic/letter transposition in units of ten. Starting with the letter A and working through the alphabet I will replavece eavech letter ave syllaveble normavelly starting the paverticulaver letter in question.” The explanation of the piece becomes the piece itself. I am reminded of the excellent “I Am Sitting Alone In A Room,” by the composer Alvin Lucier, who himself has many vital ties to contemporary experimental poetry. Dewdney and Lucier’s pieces both feature a clear, expository text whose ostentatious ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ is obscured through the implementation of a strict procedure. The text is transformed to become a ‘message’ in and of its self, or to put it more clearly, a text that is initially expository becomes experiential. The repetition of Lucier’s explanatory statements may jar the listener as it introduces a level of artifice – Lucier is not actually speaking to a specific listener. Instead, a specific listener is listening to a recording. As “Fractal Diffusion” progresses, the language is defamiliarized, but this diffusion is in many ways a resuscitation.
“The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book” is an important book not simply because of the considerable worth of its poetics and investigative writing, but also because it focuses with clarity and definition upon a tradition of American experimental writing. The efforts of Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein and the other excellent contributors to this volume help contextualize a history for progressive writing. This has not only aided to finally place the previously “lost generation” of Zukofsky, Niedecker, Oppen and others, but also to assure that latter writers, whether they be the more radically experimental Flarf poets or the progressively open poets featured in Cole Swenson’s recent anthology, “American Hybrid,” can also be assured of their historicity. “The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book” is not just an affirmation of a specific Language based writing, but also of the greater tradition of open-minded, progressive American poetry.