Why a Duck? Self, Locality, Community, and Relevance in the Work of Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe

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Title: Why a Duck? Self, Locality, Community, and Relevance in the Work of Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Witte, John
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2010
Publication Date: 2010


Subjects / Keywords: Charles Bernstein
Susan Howe
Psychic Poetry
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This thesis examines the poetry and essays of two contemporary poets, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. The purpose in doing this is to examine their relationship to each other in light of the aesthetic tendency known as Language Poetry as well as to examine the significance of Language Poetry as a whole. In the first chapter, I study the dissolution of the self in both authors�work. In the second chapter, the concept of �locality� as it is understood by the midcentury poet, Charles Olson, is explored in relation to the writers. In the third chapter, the formation of Language Poetry is analyzed in terms of the generic difference between the essay and the poem. This thesis is an attempt to understand the relationship that experimental writing has to society as a whole, especially a movement like Language Poetry, which is part of a strictly formalist tradition.
Statement of Responsibility: by John Witte
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2010
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Zamsky, Robert

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Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
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Classification: local - S.T. 2010 W8
System ID: NCFE004348:00001

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Material Information

Title: Why a Duck? Self, Locality, Community, and Relevance in the Work of Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Witte, John
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2010
Publication Date: 2010


Subjects / Keywords: Charles Bernstein
Susan Howe
Psychic Poetry
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: This thesis examines the poetry and essays of two contemporary poets, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. The purpose in doing this is to examine their relationship to each other in light of the aesthetic tendency known as Language Poetry as well as to examine the significance of Language Poetry as a whole. In the first chapter, I study the dissolution of the self in both authors�work. In the second chapter, the concept of �locality� as it is understood by the midcentury poet, Charles Olson, is explored in relation to the writers. In the third chapter, the formation of Language Poetry is analyzed in terms of the generic difference between the essay and the poem. This thesis is an attempt to understand the relationship that experimental writing has to society as a whole, especially a movement like Language Poetry, which is part of a strictly formalist tradition.
Statement of Responsibility: by John Witte
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2010
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: Zamsky, Robert

Record Information

Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: local - S.T. 2010 W8
System ID: NCFE004348:00001

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WHY A DUCK? SELF, LOCALITY, CO MMUNITY, AND RELEVANCE IN THE WORK OF CHARLES BERN STEIN AND SUSAN HOWE BY JOHN WITTE A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts Under the sponsorship of Dr. Robert Zamsky Sarasota, Florida November, 2009


Table of Contents Abstract Introduction .1 Chapter 1 Poetic Reading and the Dissolved Self Chapter 2 Locality, Its Definitions, an d Its Implications Chapter 3 Genre, Negative Community, and Hi story: Poetics as Politics...57 Conclusion..78 Bibliography


John Witte New College of Florida, 2009 ABSTRACT This thesis examines the poetry and e ssays of two contemporary poets, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. The purpose in doing this is to examine their relationship to each other in light of the aesthetic tendenc y known as Language Poetry as well as to examine the significance of Language Poetry as a whole. In the firs t chapter, I study the dissolution of the self in both authorswork. In the second chapter, the concept of locality as it is understood by the midcentu ry poet, Charles Olson, is explored in relation to the writers. In the third chapter, the formati on of Language Poetry is analyzed in terms of the generic difference between the essay and the poem. This thesis is an attempt to understand the relationship that expe rimental writing has to society as a whole, especially a movement like Language Poetry, which is part of a strictly formalist tradition. Robert Zamsky Division of Humanities


Introduction On the problem of avant-garde aesthetic s and poetics we may further say that, inversely to the classical tradition and mo re extremely and intensely than in the romantic movement, it is precisely these ideological and psychological characteristics that make a unified, pe rmanent substratum for a poetic and an aesthetic which, from an analytical po int of view, would form a complex, so chaotic as not to seem reducible to a lowest common denominator. -Renato Poggioli (The Theory of the Avant-Garde, 5) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was the name of a New York based magazine that ran from 1978 until 1982. Charles Bernstein was an editor of the magazine, and later published an anthology of poems and essays by the same name that included work by both himself and Susan Howe, among ot her authors that had appeared in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. The term later came to be used, against many of the authors wishes, to refer to the writers published in the magazine as a whole. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Lang uage Poetry, Language Centered Writing, or simply LangPo all became signifiers of an art group that may or may not have existed before it was named. Critical discussion surrounding the nebulous group of writers that included anyone who had been publis hed in the aforementioned L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, as well as This ROOF, Tuumba Press, or Sun & Moon Press, just to mention a few. 1 The writers lived on both the east and west coasts, and the range of authors that can be considered to be a part of Language poetry has only expanded since the group first started writing in the mid 1970s. The writers ar ent held together by any sort of regular meetings, like Oulipo, nor geography, nor are membership in Language poetry determined by a single dictatorial patriarch, as was the case with Andre Breton and the


Surrealists. So what makes a Language Poet? W hy use the term at all? What do they have in common with one another, if anything? To address this question, I chose to focus my thesis on two radically different writers. Charles Bernstein is, undoubtedly, th e best known Language poet. His tireless advocacy for experimental writing, his prolific output, his larger than life public persona, and the foundation of several independent pres ses and archives, such as the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo and PennS ound at University of Pennsylvania have garnered strong attention of the literary world. If anyone is a quintessential Language poet, its Charles Bernstein. But, if Charles Bernstein is the repres entative for Language poetry as a whole, its hard to even sum up hi s career succinctly. His style is intentionally scatter-shot and unpredictable. Seemingly w ith every new work, he switches voices or styles, often interacting with drastically different forms in the duration of one book. Hes written librettos, nursery rhymes all variety of essays, lyric ballads, and many poems that cannot be easily categorized. Simply put, ther e is no consistent aesthetic in Charles Bernsteins work, in the traditional sense of the word. Other than his boisterous, often glib sense of humor, there is not very much on the surface to tie his work together as a whole. Susan Howe, on the other hand, is, perhaps, an easier poet to categorize. Her experimental attitude results in a consistent set of concerns and a semi-predictable style that is, often, much more aesthetically pleasing than Bernsteins. Her work is formally engaging and consistent, and her style is rec ognizable. In many of the ways that matter, shes a drastically different writer from Bernstein. And yet shes considered to be a canonical, if somewhat aberrant member of the Language school of poetry. The contrast 2


between the two writers proved useful in writing my thesis, as it allowed ample opportunity to demonstrate th at the disparity between th eir work, and not just the similarities, define the avant-ga rde group to which they both belong. My first chapter deals with a starting point that both authors have in common. Language Poetry can reasonably be understood to be a response to the Death of the Author moment in continental philos ophy. The lyric subject of both Howe and Bernsteins poetry is obscured and distorted, although their s ubversion of the concept is often very different. Bernstein often tries to hide his voice through complicated shows of ventriloquism and irony. The chapter starts w ith a discussion of Bern steins use of irony, which is a concept thats e ssential to understanding his wo rk. To Bernstein, irony is a process by which meaning is complicated a nd altered, but not avoi ded completely. For him, the range of what irony can do is much wider than simply negating sincerity, which is a concept that he seems to find of little use in his writing. The first reading of the chapter, Three or Four Things I Know About Him demonstrates the slippery nature of this irony by being completely serious, but intended to sound clich and overwrought. The irony in the piece, as well as the unus ual spacing, turns it into a heightened grammatical object of sorts, and serves as a commentary on the nature of narrative and discourse, that these things ar e often no more than the playin g out of clichs imbedded in the language of a piece. This ironic distance becomes more and more outlandish and experimental in the last two Bernstein readings of the chapter. These introduce the idea of ventriloquism in Bernsteins work, a technique that he uses to separate himself from the language that hes using, thus making that language an entity unto itself. In Shadowtime he reanimates the 3


philosopher Walter Benjamin and enacts ma ny of the philosophers ideas about the acoustic properties of language, which allows him to simultaneously treat language as an independent object and to deal with Benjamins ideas, all while disposing of his own voice entirely. Susan Howe is less interested in irony and ventriloquism than in disappearing from her poems completely. Howe ofte n acts as a mix between a historian, a cartographer, and a curator, presenting and disse cting material as it relates to the subject that shes discussing by utilizing collage and impersonation. The histories that she constructs are strictly litera ry, depending on the presentation of found letters and texts, or through the careful close reading of authors th at she considers to be excluded from the history of literature. Through this process, sh e is building a literary history of outcastsa canon of forgotten authors that have been, inte ntionally or unintentionally, left out of the literary text books. Her presentation of these wilderness voices is also an attempt on her part to write without ego, as her lyric subj ect recedes into the writing and becomes just another text in the collage. Its a move thats distinct from the distance that Bernstein puts between himself and his poetry, but the results are essentially the same: the dissolution of the self in their writing a nd the subversion of authorit arian literary conventions. In my second chapter, I move onto one of the big concepts that Bernstein and Howe champion as a replacement for the requirement for universal meaning implied by signature driven writing. Its a concept that Charles Olson refers to as polis, but Bernstein and Howe often refer to as the lo cal. In its simplest terms, writing about the local means to be writing with specificity and with an eye towards community building, but, for our authors, it can also mean a set of specific counter-conven tional standards that 4


differs from dominant litera ry conventions in that thei r influence is limited to the localized space to which they refer. In the wo rk of Charles Olson, originator of the word postmodern, the local means an actual geogra phical location: the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. His Maximus Poems focused obsessively on th e physical and historical details of the town, and were often published as letters in local newspapers. Theres no doubt that these poems were meant for reside nts of Gloucester (although their density and fragmentation made them rather unpopular amongst the mostly working class population of the town). The heroic title character of the poems was, in fact, an avatar for Olson, but he was also a mantle that anyone with the polis in their eye coul d take up and use to build up his community through the act of writing poetry. Susan Howe takes the idea of locality in poetry and uses it in a way very similar to Charles Olson. The democratic implications of writing about the experiences of a place rather than the experiences of a person had a multitude of implications for Howe. Although, where Olson was interested in bui lding myths around his earthy American locales, Susan Howe was interested in excisi ng a sinful and painful history. In her poem Thorow Howe writes about her time as an arti st in residence in upstate New York, but, as opposed to bardically immortalizing the town in song, she writes a fiery polemic against colonization, grammar, a nd any paternalistic European system that would seek to control the natural wilderness of the place or, as she calls it, its primal indeterminacy. Ultimately, the poem that she writes take s poetic techniques pioneered by Olson and creates a system of vision of locality that is, most certainly, very critical. Bernstein, predictably, is harder to pin down. He theorizes about polis much more distinctly than Howe does, and yet his poetry lacks the dedication to physical 5


location that nearly all of Howes work has. For him the idea of the local is expanded into a more abstract idea of community that is defined by mutual r eading and writing, not entirely dissimilar from his treatment of Be njamin in the first chapter. The secondary conversation that surrounds Language poetry, as well as the shared aesthetic goals and philosophies, if not necessarily practices, of the Language poets is Bernsteins version of the local, and Language poetry itself becomes the si te of counter-conventional community that he refers to in his essa y at the beginning of my second chapter. This brings us to my third and final chapter, which focuses on the role of secondary writing and genre distinction in defining an avant-garde community and its historical or social signif icance. Blurring the distinction between poetry and essay is common practice for most Language poets, and it s commonly interpreted to be intended to level the genre di stinction between the forms. But Language poetrys attack on both poetic and discursive conventi ons are specific to their form s, and the details of where they draw the line between essay and poem often times have a wide ranging effect on how Language poetry views itself as a hi storical and literary phenomenon. Along with Charles Bernstein and Susa n Howe, significant space is given to several literary critics in this chapter. Included ar e Barrett Watten, a foundational Language poet in his own right, and Oren Izen berg, a relatively recen t participant in the conversation surrounding Language poetry. What they both seem to agree on with regards to Language poetry, is that the group is more than just a literary group, but more of an activist group along the lines of 60s radicals like The Weathermen or Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers. This brings up an interesting question of what responsibilities should be doled out to poetry for social relevance, and whic h should be given to socially 6


engaged writing, which Jurgen Habermas w ould define in oppositi on to literature as philosophy. This question is the crux upon whic h my thesis rests. What can literature do? What role does artistic production play in the formation of counter-culture? As would be expected, the answers to these questions are more complicated than one would like. Literature for the authors doesnt need to be justified; its a political goal unto itself, and its one that creates a counte r-culture as its enacted. The scope of my thesis gently expands from chapter to chapter, starting with a discussion of the self, and then moving on to a discussion of locality and community, and then finally to the significance of that co mmunity in society. Not coincidentally, the actions of the authors are interpreted diffe rently throughout the chapters, as well. The dissolution of the self in the first chapter is primarily a deconstructive act; but the picture we get of Language poetry in the la st chapter is primarily one of reconstruction, as the writers try and build a literary community, post-revolution. 7


Chapter 1 Poetic Reading and the Dissolved Self The writings of both Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein have been criticized for being anti-personal, more concerned with lite rary criticism and philosophy than with so called real life. Richard Kostelanetz, for instance, criticizes Bernsteins poems because he says they lack signature ( A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes 64). It is a reputation gained by Bernsteins persistently obtuse oeuvr e and his effectiveness as an essayist, but there is certainly some truth to the critique. Bernstein and th e other poets associated with the Language school continue to employ a vari ety of techniques to either erase or complicate the signature to which Kostel anetz refers. This signature can be a recognizable poetic voice, that is, a cons istent style and diction; but, on a more fundamental level, poetic signature is a re ference to the lyric s ubject, the authorial presence needed to assert control over a piece of writing and achieve sincerity. Saying that Bernsteins work lacks signature is tantamount to saying his work lacks Roland Barthes dead Author. The idea of pure communication and the popular idea of poetry as a sphere for a sincere expression of ones feel ings are concepts that the La nguage poets reacted against, but that is not to say that the writing is nihilistic or dry. Rather than posit their poetry opposite sincerity, thus making it insincere, Bernstein and his cohorts opt for a more complicated process of meaning through the manipulation of irony. From the ashes of Barthes dead Author God, both Howe and Bern stein seek to reintegrate the personal 8


into the act of writing. They do this with a refo rmulated idea of what the self means in poetry and a set of poetic techniques that more closely resemble the tools of an editor, curator, or ventriloquist. The personal is sti ll present in the writing of these two authors, but the lyric subject has been abandoned fo r a fractured model of selfhood that exists only in the context of interetextuality. Charles Bernstein its like a living death going to work everyday sort of like being in a tomb to sit in your office you close the door theres the typewriter theres th ree or four maybe three hours of work to be done between that nine oclock and five (Bernstein, Contents Dream 13) The tone of this passage from Three of Four Things I Know About Him by Charles Bernstein should be familiar to most readers. Experiences like this one are commonplace and most working people have pr obably uttered words similar to these. Doubtless, Bernstein himself would agree with the sentiments as he wrote them, but that does not necessarily imply that he means wh at hes writing here The distance between reader and writer is emphasized, as the rela tionship between inten tion and meaning is complicated but not erased. This passage is extremely ironic, as is evident from the overblown diction, the recycled clichs, and the disruptive spacing. But, what ironic can mean is much more inclusive than a more traditional definition of irony might allow. Bernsteins irony cannot be equa ted with insincerity, as much as the pieces diction and sense of humor can sound strikingly like Bernst eins usual rhetorical stance. The overall voice of the piece, however, belongs more to popul ar clich than to Bernstein himself. In 9


this case, the ironic distance between Bernst ein and the language hes using serves to emphasize reading as a process of interpreta tion (that can be disrupted and changed). The question of who a poems voice or signature belongs to is essential to understanding the motivation behind Bernstei ns work. Language poetry was born out of a desire to eschew neo-romantic modes of poetry. One of the main poetic tenets that Bernstein and his colleagues have sought to rethink is sincerity, or a pure expression of a fully congealed and accessible self. In her essay, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the 80s, Marjorie Perloff argues, Bernstein and his fellow poets take poetic discourse to be, not the expression in words of an individual speaking subject but the creation of that subject by the particular se t of discourses (cultural, social historical) in which he or she functions ( DoI 220). The implications of Perloffs argument for the work of Charles Bernstein are expansive. A discourse in hi s work should be defined quite loosely, as any body of language that implies a set of premis es or ideas. This can include a literary canon, or some facet of (pop) culture, but it of ten takes a form more abstract than either of those. In or 4 Things I Know About Him, its a type of pop-Marxism that borders on small talk. In his essay Collage and Pulverizati on in Contemporary American Poetry, Tenney Nathanson contends that For Bern stein as for many other Language poets, narrative is simply the playing out of premises already latent in the discourse that purveys it; its progress and closure naturalize mean ing-producing operations that ought to be foregrounded rather than concealed (Nathanson 303). This premise is most certainly true in the case of or 4 Things. The logical progression of the essay is disrupted by the unusual spacing, which foregrounds what that lo gical progression actually is: a recycled 10


clich. The argument being made by the sp eaker (work sucks) is implicit in any discourse surrounding work in an office environm ent, showing that the essay never really had a logical progression, just a predeter mined form and conclusion. The way that Bernstein, a political radical and a person who worked in an office for years writing medical reports, foregrounds and exposes the borrowed and predetermined nature of this argument is highly ironic, despite the possible presence of what might be called sincerity behind these sentiments. As the piece continues, theres no escape from the nine to five self by claiming that the five to midnight self/ or the midnight to eight self/ is not really like this (19). The theme of the fragmented self is important to this piece and to Bernsteins writing in general. The kind of alienated modern conditio n to which Bernstein here refers can, in fact, be read as analogous to the lyric subj ect in Bernsteins work. To whom does the voice of this poem belong? Certainly not to Bernstein. This brings up an interesting question of ventriloquism. Be rnstein is simultaneously distancing himself from the language of his essay while neve r saying anything that he do es not mean. He inhabits the generic language by throwing his voice into it. It is a practi ce that we see him develop further in a later poem, Slap Me Five Cleo, Marks History, published in 2005. In Slap Me Five, Bernstein writes in the tradition of ekphrastic poetry, voicing a character named Michael Anthony, cousin of Ma rc Antony. The painting described in the poem is Bernard Duviviers Cleopatra, and it is printed along w ith Bernsteins piece. The painting depicts Cleopatra in the act of co mmitting suicide after having found her lover, Marc Antony, dead. The palace guards are attempting to restrain the queen from hurting herself, prompting Cleopatra to raise her hand in either an act of resistance or, as 11


Bernstein cheekily suggests, in an eponymous gesture of camar aderie (a high five). The poems strangeness comes from its staging, an interaction between the reader and an imaginary character, who is giving an imaginary tour of an art gallery. Ekphrasis, it should be noted, is an an cient genre of poetry surrounded by a large and almost as ancient body of critical work. The term descri bes a relationship between a written poem and a mute visual object, like a sculpture or a painting. For many theorists, ekphrasis is a problem, because it provides a clear example of the problems surrounding many forms of artistic representa tion. As a result, there is an unusually large amount of critical theory about what amounts to relativ ely obscure type of poetry. To understand the reason why Bernstein is interested in this poetic tradition, we look to W.J.T. Mitchells characterization of the genres main theoreti cal problems in his essa y Ekphrasis and the Other: The "otherness" of visual representati on from the standpoint of textuality may be anything from a professional competition (the paragone of poet and painter) to a relation of political, di sciplinary, or cultural domination in which the "self" is understood to be an active, speaking, seeing subject, while the "other" is projected as a passi ve, seen, and (usually) silent object. [. .] Like the masses, the col onized, the powerless and voiceless everywhere, visual representation cannot represent itself; it must be represented by discourse. (Mitchell, 160) According to Mitchell, the act of voicing a subj ect in a painting has historically risked an abuse of the power dynamic between the voiced and voiceless. It is this power dynamic that Bernstein is seeking to upend. Ekphrasis provides for him an opportunity to engage 12


with a large and highly speciali zed literary discourse and a th eoretical problem to subvert as well. In Bernsteins case, the voice is th rown into a character, neutralizing the power dynamic and throwing the status of the speaking self into question. Hello, my name is Michael Anthony [] Anyway, you know, enough about me. You didnt invite me here to talk about myself, well you didnt invite me here at all. So, lets get on to the subject at hand, because we havent got all day. We see before us Bernard Duviviers Cleopatra .-Hey Jimmy! Get up from the bench, take the headphones off, and come over here or you wont be going to the roller rink later! (GM 74) The speaking subject, in this case, becomes an other itself because of the distance that Bernstein puts between himself and the speaker. The voice used here does not belong to Bernstein, or to any of the characters in the painting, creating a power neutral space, where the dynamics of the written word and the image are less one-sided than the ekphrasis that Mitchell describes. The maneuve r separates the authors observation of the painting from Bernsteins person. The self and the other in this context are both set apart from reality into the sphere of the poem, on ce again placing artifice at the forefront of the piece. The power issues inherent in genre are further undercut by the inanity of Anthonys observations, like his assertion that Cleopatras sandals are chic. The voice 13


ceases to be logical in this way, blurri ng the difference between linguistic and nonlinguistic expression, and ceding an advantage that the voiced self has over the voiceless other. There are also repeated addresses from the other voices towards fictional audience members (Hey, Jimmy!), in anot her alienating maneuver that makes a joke out of the poems reliance on artifice. It ha s the effect of highl ighting the linguistic constructs of the poem, specifically its pol yphony. The singular logi cal voice is infused with a subversive level of noi se, hindering Michael Anthonys ability to even make a point. This is not a thesis about ekphrasis, but Bernsteins use of several invented personas to destabilize a power dynamic implied by a traditional form of poetry certainly resonates with what we want to sa y about Bernstein. The poem subverts and problematizes its lyric subject in favor of a larger discou rse. The polyphony and silliness of the poem simultaneously limits its reli ance on singular selfhood while throwing itself into a poetic tradition. Because of this poe ms relative accessibili ty, as well as the exaggerated presentation of Bernsteins own signature (his te ll-tale sense of humor, in this case), this piece is a development from Three or Four Things I Know about Him; but it has the same basic goal: complicate or eliminate the poe tic personality, and redefine that personhood in term s of a borrowed discourse: ekphr asis, in this case, rather than pop-Marxist clich. What is important about this is the wa y that it characterizes Bernsteins poetic strategy as a whole. He doesnt so much write as he inhabits. He throws his voice, he props characters up like puppets, and he loses himself in linguistic constructs. The spoken feel that Three or four Things I Know A bout Him has in common with Slap Me Five, 14


Cleo is an illusion, and e xplicitly so. As opposed to a poem with a less explicitly artificial lyric subject, the coherence that these pieces appear to achieve is extremely sarcastic. Charles Bernsteins intentionally distracting sense of humor puts a gulf of ironic distance between himself and the constr ucted Bernstein persona. The recognizable signature that Richard Kostelanetz determines to be essential for a writers success is present in abundance in Cleo and in Thr ee or Four Things to a lesser degree. The sarcastic voice is permutated into polyphony or near unrecognizable generality, however, and further subverted by the ridiculousness of its markers. The self in Bernsteins writing is a golem, a conglomeration of alien material, and what he allows to be recognizable in his work is often rec ognizably ridiculous. This exercise of poetic agency thro ugh unoriginal language (clichs, other characters, and, perhaps most importantly, poetic forms like the lyric ballad) makes Bernstein at least as much an editor as he is a poet in the tr aditional sense. Even his interpretation of the Cleopatra painting can be considered an act of reading just as much as an act of writing. In the first lines of his seminal e ssay-as-poem, Artifice of Absorption, we get to the h eart of Bernsteins poetics: A poetic reading can be given to any piece of writing; a poem may be / understood as writing specifically designed to absorb or inflate with, proactive--/ rather than reactive--styles of reading. Artifice is a measure of a poems / intractability to being read as the sum of its devices & subject matters. (A Poetics 9) In this account, artifice is the sum of the stipulations and ru les that a piece of writing puts on the readers ability to perform poetry on any given pie ce. Bernsteins entire oeuvre 15


revolves around reading, as we can find exampl es of his engagement with the work of philosophers and other poets, poems, poetic forms, pictures, TV shows, Pac-Man, and more. Charles Bernsteins tactic of poetic reading is mirrored in his activities as an editor. He has been involved in numerous editorial projects, starting with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine in the 1970s and including the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY-Buffalo and PennSound at Univ ersity of Pennsylvania. Bernstein is what he himself would call a hyphenate d poet: a poet-edito r-publisher-teacheradvocate. In a foreword that he wrote fo r a reprinting of Louis Zukofskys classic collection of essays Prepositions about Zukofsky, Bernstein makes an assertion about Zukofsky that is very similar to the poetic reading that he advo cates in Artifice of Absorption. For Zukofsky, he says that concepts such as reality or knowledge are disembodied and inert. Knowing, [Zukofsky] insisted, takes place in particular acts of perception (xii). This is what the possibility of analysis holds for Bernstein: It is a particular act of perception, or poeti c reading rather than a pronouncement of knowledge (about Zukofskys poetry, in this case). It would be fair to characterize Bernsteins as an editorial poetics. Poetic perception can be turned not only onto a literary discourse, but onto a historical one as well. In the libretto for Shadowtime an opera about the life of Walter Benjamin, we find a convergence here of the themes familiar to us by now: the ventriloquism of Cleo, the editorial engagement with a body of work as seen in Bernsteins foreword to Zukofsky or any of his editorial work. In Shadowtime Bernstein engages with and aestheticizes philosophical, literary, and hi storical discourses all at once. These issues are embodied by the life of Walter Benjamin on a grander scale than 16


any of the other pieces examined so far. In her essay, Constraint Concrete, Citation; Refiguring History in Charles Bernsteins Shadowtime Marjorie Perloff says that In comparison to earlier Language poe ms, including Bernsteins own, Shadowtime signals the return of the repressed, which is to say, th e desire to write a poem of semantic density even though here [. .] there can be no cl osure, no covering statement, no center of set presence (Perloff, Shadowtime 27). Bernstein characterizes Shadowtime as a thought opera. Its first act depicts Benjamins journey out of Germany duri ng the Second World War, as well as his ultimate death. From there, he descends thr ough several kabalistic levels of interrogation on his way through the afterlife, facing questi ons from the likes of Pope Pius XII, a Liberace-like singer named The Lecturer, Hitler, and Groucho Marx. Benjamin is repeatedly questioned and mocked by his interr ogators, prompted to explain his opinions on the doctrine of similarity (one of his own philosophical ideas), a Drer engraving, and the work of Karl Kraus (one of his c ontemporaries). The music for the opera was written by Brian Ferneyhough, an experimental English composer known for his highly complex use of polyphony. The text of the libretto is extremely dense, and its reliance on academic readings and acoustic similarity over more easily comprehensible dialo gue or plot makes following the story next to impossible. In his essay Music and Words, Ferneyhough says that he asked Bernstein to produce a text that at one and the same time would accept manipulation (permutation, repetition, mass exchange of segments) and be, in its own right, an independent poetic text (Music and Words 1) As such, the libretto can be analyzed as a stand alone piece. 17


Benjamin is presented as a highly idiosync ratic figure in the opera. While alive he is questioned by his friend, Gershom Scholem. The conversation is argumentative, and shows Benjamin defining himself in terms of a type of intellectualism that his friend finds foolish and nihilistic. Scholem says, Are you ready to be the new Rashi / Raising commentary to new heights / so that the art of criticism / Becomes a sacred process / Releasing the sparks inside the words? ( Shadowtime 50). The sense of newness here is important. Scholem finds the critic-philosophe r archetype that Benjamin helped invent troubling, calling Benjamin the Adventurer King of Ambiguity and Obscurity. Benjamin is presented alternately in the ope ra as being both new a nd old. A harbinger of things to come while mortal and hopelessly outdated when interrogated after death. This preoccupation happens because, ultimately, Be rnstein is interested in presenting new possibilities for the self, not onl y in critiquing old ones. While the death of Benjamin may indicate a closing off of certain possibili ties for idiosyncratic thinking, Bernsteins libretto is, ultimately an optimistic affair concerned with new forms of selfhood. In his essay Shadowtime and Faithful Interpretation, Joel Bettridge writes mainly about a monotone spiritualized affect th at Bernstein uses when reading this libretto on his own. He claims a sort of optimism on Bernsteins part because of this, connecting him to the faithful investigations of Thomas Aquinas. W ith this in mind, he asserts this about the text itself: Even so, I want to suggest that rath er than countering the text of Shadowtime or the opera, Bernstein's readings serve to emphasize what we may too easily overlook: where those already committed to the idea of language's brokenness find their evidence, Shadowtime sees the conditions 18


in which meaning becomes reliable enough to ground ethical thinking and behavior. (Bettridge 740) Shadowtime is a meditation on politics and ethics of the kind that other writers might think impossible given Shadowtimes postmodern lack of faith in logic. This piece presents Benjamin as both an outdated archetype and a harbinger of future academic trends. His language based mysticism clearly mirrors the faithful interpretation that Bettridge finds in Shadowtime. The slippages and the expe riments with the physical qualities of language, with which Shadowtime deals almost exclusively, should be understood as more constructive than deconstructive. In the context of this chapters specific project, this is where Bernstein is redrawing personhood in a way that might allow for engagement in spheres like the social, political, or ethical. First, we must address the issue of ve ntriloquism. Starting with the most obvious example, Bernstein writes an enormous amount of dialogue in this libretto, most often for historical figures. Many of them are grante d the powers of specific voice (the two headed Marx seems to be an exploration of such nuances), and some of them are too fractured to have such an opportunity. In any case, characterization in the opera happens rather incidentally, as the main purpose of the di alogue is to animate Benjamins philosophy. The scene where Benjamin suffers an inquisiti on at the hands of a two-headed monster of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx shows the way this animation plays out. 3. Two-headed figure of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx, with Kerberus (Hoquetus-Melodrama) Karl: Is it possible to forget without re membering that one has forgotten? Walter Benjamin: As a child I mistook my as for qs and ds for fs. I 19


looked for the signs between the letters. Later I went to the university but the letters were replaced by vowels wh ich I could never pronounce. I made my way and my way made me. [] Groucho: Say the magic word and get one free ride around Alexanderplatz, say the magic letter and everybody returns to just as it is. A duck, was crossing the strasse and th e peacock said, Why a duck? Why a rabbit? Why a pipe? Why a carousel? Karl : How many lyrics does it take to ma ke an epic? How many epics does it take to break an egg? How many eggs does it take to get from Ghent to Aix? (85) In the scene partially transcri bed above, Walter Benjamin is descending into the afterlife and is interviewed by both Groucho and Karl Marx. The two Marxes are something of a joke on Bernstein himself, an exaggeration of his own aesthetic concerns. That monsters relation to Bernstein is worth exploring though, as is its relationship with Walter Benjamin. Bernsteins actions in creating a conversation be tween these two entities can be characterized as, first, animating anothe r persons writing, then animating his own aesthetic, and, finally, pitting t hose two animated sensibilitie s against one another. This interaction is interesting for several reasons but the main question I think, is how far Bernsteins sympathy for the work of these figures goes, and to what point they are representative of his own creative approach. To start, this quote from Walter Benjamins essay On the Mimetic Capacity will provide an opportunity to co mpare his sensibility with Bernsteins: The highest capacity for producing similar ities, however, is mans. His gift 20


of seeing resemblances is nothing othe r than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. (Reflections 333) He goes on to say that all language is based on onomatopoe ia, but the roots of those noises are too far in the past for man to remember. Language, then, works as a record (a canon he calls it), and the history of our imitation is recorded through physical aural similarities between languages. This is one of the main phenomena Bernstein is dealing with, exploring certain linguistic happenings and taking Benjamins theory to be an aesthetic proscription. An example of this pr oscription: The scene with the Marxes ends with Benjamin saying Take me behind the sc enes and I will show you another scene and another after that, but the tiny man inside the works is no longer there, for he has gone off to work ( Shadowtime 85). The image of the stacked scenes that Bernstein assigns to Benjamin recalls the repeated or layered structures that recur throughout the entire libretto. There is a good example of this in a scene between Benjamin and a Portuguese innkeeper, as the philosopher counts the minutes until his inevitable death.: Listen to the count run out / 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 / now take a stop and once more / 1, 3, 2, 4, 8, 5, 10, 6, 7, 9 / another stop, again / 9, 6, 4, 5, 8, 3, 2, 7, 1, 10 ( Shadowtime 34). This is one example among many where variations on lines ar e repeated, to the e ffect of creating a multiplicity of orders for readings, implying that no reading is really linear. In an interview with Eric Denut, Bernstein explains his attraction to Benjamins work: [Benjamins work] is a good example of multipolar, rather than linear, thinking. Benjamin's form of reflect ive writing suggests a poetics of multiple layers or figures. A line of thought may seem to go off into one 21


direction then drops back to follo w another trajectory, only this new direction is not a non-se quitur but rather echoes or refracts both the antecedent motifs and this is the unca nny part -the eventual ones. I mean this as a way of rethinking what is often called fragmentation or disjunction. Think of frag ments not as discontinuous but as overlays, pleats, folds: a chordal poetics in which synchronic notes meld into diachronic tones (Charles Bernstein Interview) The idea of layering is clearly pertinent to the way that Shadowtime is structured. The musical terms that he uses near the end of the quote are pertinent to Bernsteins use of repetition, as well. By coming up with an alternate order for nu mbers one through ten, Bernstein also creates an acoustic resonan ce between the syllables, a vague similarity between lines that happens every time he re peats a variation on the same phrase (another example: Frau Gurland, Herr Benjamin / makes no exception. / Frau Gurland, Herr Benjamin / No exceptions. / Frau Gurland, Herr Benjamin / Exceptions ( Shadowtime 35)). Benjamins canon is built on just thes e kinds of physical similarities. These aural gymnastics recall Benjamins notion of the onomatopoeic origins of language. The consequences of mimicry on continui ty and memory are hinted at in the interactions between Benjamin and the Marxes (Is it possi ble to forget, the signs between the letters) In Benjamins philo sophy, no language is original, and the use of language becomes a transformative act. It turns a person into something else, or at least ties people into a larger historical canon. Ther e is noticeable similar ity between this idea and Bernsteins participation in ekphrasis earlier in this chapter. As Benjamin passes into the afterlife, through circles of existence, the inquiry can sometimes be thought to be 22


coming from Bernstein himself, especially w ith the example of the two-headed Marx. If the Marxes are representative of Bernstein, then their convers ation is not only a dialogue between two aesthetics, but representative of Bernsteins own relationship with Benjamins writing. Furthermore, since Shadowtime is an exercise in reanimating Benjamins philosophy, the conversation can gi ve us some insight into Bernsteins relationship with his own poem. On a more linguistic level, we can hear specific voices in the conversation, as well. For instance, Say the magic word and get one free ride around Alexanderplatz (85) sounds distinctly like it came from the mouth of Groucho Marx, and, even though its attributed to Karl Marx, so does How ma ny lyrics does it take to make an epic? How many epics does it take to break an egg? (85) Neither Groucho nor Karl were ever forced to talk about poetry or the Holocaust, and they especially were never responsible for anyones decent into the af terlife, but this is an ex ample of Bernstein borrowing aspects of other peoples writing. There is, however, a reversal in this case: instead of his usual strategy of placing his voice into unorig inal situations, he has taken the voices of other writers and placed them in a context of his own invention. In both cases, he is inhabiting something that is no t his, but exerting his own ag ency through it. I made my way and my way made me (85), says Benjam in in one of his responses. This quote is applicable to Bernstein as we ll because the amount of agency he exerts over Benjamins life and philosophy is both concrete and hard to define. By expressing an aesthetic personhood through an editorial poetics, the avenues for agency that Bernstein leaves available for himself revolve around his choice of material with which to engage. And so, by describing the death of Walter Benjamin, 23


voicing his philosophy, and contra sting it against a figure like Karl Marx, Bernstein is setting up stipulations for his fractured write rly identity. And the outer limits include two leftist philosophers and a mast erful ironist, suggesting that the identity that Bernstein wants to discuss is that of the New Left, a system of ethical thinking and behavior (Faithful Interpretation), as Bettridge phr ases it. As Walter Benjamin descends, the hole left by his absence cannot be filled. For Bernstein, the category of the idiosyncratic figure of the critic mystic that so upset Sc holem, that Benjamin represented died along with him. The death of this archetype l eaves the poet to engage politically and philosophically by throwing his voice, and fracturing his identity. In Shadowtime one cannot be an intellectual any more, one can only inhabit intellectualism. Susan Howe As far as issues of voice and agency go, Susan Howe makes for an interesting contrast to Charles Bernstein. If Charles Be rnstein writes an editorial poetics, Susan Howe writes like a curator. Bernsteins poetic technique is dependent on reading, characterized as a mode of perception. Ho we is not unconcerned with perceiving and engaging with other work, but she is, more often, arranging and presenting it. Howes work often takes the form of a self-reflexive literary collage, a critical examination of literary traditions into which Howe disappears and even implicates herself. While she is the more aesthetically distin ct of the two, she often hide s her voice where Bernstein would use a more recognizable diction. This means that the most recognizably personal elements of her poetry, like her influences, her environment, and her history, all avoid any indication of her, or, to compare her more directly to Bernstein, there is no Susan Howe character (as there is certainly a perf ormed Bernstein character) with which to 24


work. The contrast can best be introduced by analyzing a three sentence comment she makes in the introduction to My Emily Dickinson a highly personal and idiosyncratic reading of an often misunderstood poet. Howe argues that A poet is never just a woman or a man. Every poet is salted with fire. A poet is a mirror, a transcriber (8). While this is a very direct comment on her own poetic ideas, she is, in this case, responding to a quote by William Carlos Williams: Never a woman, never a poet . Never a poet saw sun here (8). She comments, I think that he says one thing and means another, proceeding to make her every poet is salted with fire statement. What he means, according to her, is that the poet is a gende rless position, and the poem a neutral space. The passage says a lot about Susan Howe. It in troduces us to the idea of the poet who is not there and the poem that negates identit y, promoting absence over presence, and, as she eventually posits in the body of the text, silence over speech. In a passage drenched in I (My book is a contradiction of its epig raph., But I love his book., I am heading toward certain discoveries. .), the most direct thesis statem ent she makes regarding her writing is deferred away from her person and onto Williams. Her reading of Dickinson is extremely personal, but Howe goe s out of her way to remove herself from the proceedings. Susan Schultz argues the point nicely, in her essay Exaggerated History: Howe's view of Dickinson's silenc e is both enabling and disturbing because it values that silence over publication: "I think," she tells Ed Foster, "she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no 25


longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap" (170). The difficulty of Howe's work may, in part, stem from the fact that she herself uses language to aspire to the condition of silence and the immateriality to which her books can not aspire. (Exaggerated History) And yet, despite that longing for immaterialit y and the complete invisibility of the poet, her poems are easier to pick out of a crowd th an Bernsteins. This insistence on absence, over Bernsteins fragmentation of presence, ma nifests itself in Howes relationship with her source material. Where Bernstein is read ing whatever sources he is engaging with, Howes process seems to be the opposite. She allows herself to be read and be interpreted by the specific writings of other authors. This phenomenon is at the forefront of My Emily Dickinson Howe often makes herself invisible, disappearing into impersonations and invisib ility, not dissimilar to those of Charles Bernstein. Here are two examples of Howe slipping into an Emily Dickinsonlike voice: At the center of Indifferen ce I feel my own freedom the Liberty in wavering. Compression of possibility tensi ng to spring (22); and: Not to set forth my Self, but to lose and find it in diligent search. Obedien ce and submission to one will, was the journey of return to the sacred source human frailty had lost (46). We see the tell tale signs of Emily Dick inson in these passages: the spontaneous capitalization, themes of obedience and lib erty reminiscent of the Master letters, and even a slightly outdated di ction. Both of these passages are just quick breaks between block quotes, in places where Howe might bare ly be noticed any way. What is terribly interesting about both of them is that they both involve discussion of selfhood. Just as 26


Howe starts to talk about herself, she shie s away and starts to impersonate Dickinson. As poetry changes itself it changes the poets life, (11) she says at the beginning of the book. What she is talking about is not a ro manticized idea of the magical power of writing. She suggests that writing determines selfhood. One writes oneself. Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender (138). Poetry, as a specific type of writing (a negative space, for Howe), has the power to fracture identity and to redefine it beyond old genres. She specifies that this is a possession of self. There are new possibilities in Howes fractured identitie s, precisely because of their reliance on exposing historical and lingui stic continuums, on providing an absent space for the traditionally silent. Consider T.S. Eliots Tra dition and the Individual Ta lent. In this foundational modernist essay, Eliot espouses a proto-struct uralism, favoring any new piece of writing as an utterance in a larger literary system. The individual talent, to him, is inevitably going to come out of a literary hive mind. It was a moment when literary criticism necessarily moved away from sentimentality and persona l confessions towards an admission that criticism is as inevitable as breathing. Ultimately, this essay spawned the New Critics emphasis on the text over the au thor/subject. It is a lineage of critical thought that is popularly considered to be influential for Susan Howe. Marjorie Perloff begins her essay, L anguage Poetry and The Lyric Subject, by placing the original Language poetry movement within the context of the the death of the subject, as developed by writers like Ro land Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Frederic Jameson. However, she points to Jameson, in particular, as someone who takes satisfaction in the passing of the Modernist Giants, a condition that she claims has 27


largely been internalized by modern literary discourse. Of Howe, she says that the common characteristics of the voices she uses to frame her poetry, as well as the visual layout of her poems, provide a signature as unique and personal as any we have in poetry today. The combination of a reconstitu ted conception of the lyric subject, and the restriction of that subject to existing only within the sphere of the text, places Howe much closer to a Modernist New Criticism continuum than one might otherwise have suspected. Added to this is Susan Schultz insi stence on the essential conservatism of Howes project. As Schultz argues; As she writes in the "Silence Wage r Stories" section of The Nonconformist's Manual: Words are an illusion are vibrations of air Fabricating senselessness He has shattered gates thrown open to himself (38) These are lines that no Language poet would set upon the page; given a more complete syntax, the passage might be claimed by that American metaphysician, Wallace Stevens. In her foundational book, Dance of the Intellect Marjorie Perloff argue s that two distinct strains of poetic criticism ex ist: the age of Pound and the age of Stevens. She posits Language poetry as the heir to Ezra P ounds fragmented formalism, and accidental destruction of the poetic e go. This idea is foundational to criticism around Language poetry, so referencing Stevens in this particular critical discussion places Howe in a different poetic tradition than, say, Charles Bernstein. So, how might we summarize the relati onship between Howe and this Eliots essay? Howe understands herself in terms of a similar conception of tradition, as a similar 28


sort of literary utterance. The difference be tween her and Eliot, though, is the nature of that system. Eliot characterizes the tradition thusly: What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them (Selected Essays 5). It would seem that Ho we has a similar idea of the new, as shes changing the context of past documents as sh e engages with them. However, for Eliot, that ideal order among themselves makes lite rature its own organic entity. No one can write without engaging with a big, universal canon of all the writers who have ever lived. It is an idea that shows its limits when Eliot re fers to the poet as being subordinate to the mind of Europe. Clearly, this kind of th inking is highly problematic. Here are two reasons why Eliot has the room to revert to Eurocentrism: 1) the ca non is separate from any specific text and 2) it de pends on an idea of universal ity. Susan Howe differs on both of these fronts by building her own canons made of silenced writers and writers outside of the Eurocentric patriarchy. There is not an organic ideal of the dead to her, there is only an exploration of what has in fluenced her specifi cally, celebrating their places on the margins and simultaneously marg inalizing what someone like Eliot would consider the canon. She uses specific te xts and demonstrates how she comes out of them, and she doesnt allow herself to fall into the trap of thinking that every other author has her lineage of influences, also taking away the privileged positions of more mainstream authors. Also worth noting, the le vel of abstraction that Eliot deals with allows him to ultimately propose a less ideologi cal way of approaching literary criticism (its not historical criticism he labors to point out). By pointing to a specific literary 29


lineage, Howe points to a historical one as well. Its not just a theore tical point, of course. The blood on her ancestors hands and America s original sin (first contact) are ever present concerns for her. Howe introduces her collection Singularities with a found document: Extract from a Letter (dated June 8, 1781) of Stephe n Williams to President Styles: In looking over my papers I found a copy of a paper left by the Rev. Hope Atherton, the first minister of Hatfield . the plot of A rticulation of Sound Forms in Time, the poem that starts Singularities is lifted directly from historical documents that Howe used. Not only that, but she implies a plot with this excerpt. The proceeding poetry is a copy of a paper left by the Rev. Hope Atherton. So, Ho we wants us to treat what follows as a found document in and of itself. The technique itself was fairly common in an era of American literature that Susan Howe would be interested in for reasons of locality. One recalls the framing device used in The Scarlet Letter a similar claim of historicism and foundness is attributed to Ha wthornes novel as to Howes poetry. I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment [. .] They were documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature, or at least, written in [Jonathan Pues] private capacity, and apparently with his own hand (Hawthorne 32). The narrator of The Scarlet Letter is a writer who has lost his in terest in writing. An artist who seems to have deadened the desire to actually write (by working at a customhouse), but has retained some sort of writerly instinct. No longer seeking nor caring that my na me should be blazoned abroad on titlepages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue The Custom House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and bl ack paint, on pepper ba gs, and baskets of 30


anoatto, and cigar-boxes [. .] But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest quietly, revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions [. .] brings it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the sketch which I am now writing. (Hawthorne 29) Compared to Hawthorns curator, Howe is bot h more and less easy to contextualize. She does not provide a narrative about how she found the documents, but she does provide a specific year, and, significantl y, actual found documents from history. However, the idea of this curatorial instinct being a deadened ve rsion of the authorial instinct is both helpful when applied to what Howe is doing. That the novel is supposedly found in Boston, not very far from Howes native Connecticut is an implicit connection that hi ghlights the issue of locality that also goes into Howes treatment of documents. This c onnection is an exampl e of her surrendering herself to both a literary and geographic history, and doing something new in Eliots sense. The association brings up the parallel wilderness narratives in the two works as well. Only Howes work, however, deals with the implicit racial connotations of the other from the wilderness, a problem that she further complicates by refusing to provide a stable self to that other. Howe begins A rticulation of Sound Forms in Time with this comment about its main character, Hope Athe rton:. In our culture Hope is a name we give women. Signifying desire, trust, pr omise, does her name prophetically engender pacification of the feminine? Pre-revolution Americans viewed America as the land of Hope ( Singularities 4). The wilderness is equated with femininity, an irrational force that must be civilized and rationalized, and Hope Atherton is implicated by this savage 31


female force, rendering him both a female and a savage. The conflation of wilderness and femininity is familiar in this case, since Hawthorne does essentially the same thing to Hester Prynne. The image of the voice on th e margins is not a new one in American literature (Hester Prynne or even Debbie Edwa rds in John Fords The Searchers for a more recent example), and it is this sort of narrative that Howe taps into. And so, the act of finding documents starts to become very explicitly ideological (by way of race and gender) for Howe. The trad ition that the individual talent comes out of is not, after all, the mind of Europe, but a foreign body. Ultimately, the individual is treated invasively by tradition, and the maintenance of a cohe rent poetic ego is given a racialized consequence in Singularities Performing an act of ventriloquism with the traumatized (that is, fractured) wilderne ss ego is how she seeks to overcome those consequences. The space of wilderness is a negative space much in the same way the poem is negative space to Howe at the beginning of My Emily Dickinson a place that is neither male nor female, negating Atherton s identity through traumatic experience. Found documents are not the only way that Howe complicates the speaking subject. Her personhood is further hidden by the ex treme artifice of the first section of the book. The poetry that follows is, until half way through In Time, written in a literal transcription of a period Connec ticut accent. Prest try to se t after grandmother / revived by and laid down left ly (7). This is clearly supposed to be an interpretation of oral speech. But that voice is also extremely artif icial. She is not thro wing her voice, like Bernstein would, she is using a voice that is completely alienated from the time and place that both her and her audience would find comprehensible. Not only is it placed in a different historical epoch, but it i further fragmented by the trauma of witnessing a 32


slaughter and exhaustion brought on by Athertons wanderings. Clog nutmeg abt noon Scraping cano muzzell Foot path sand and so gravel rubbish vandal Horse flesh ryal tabl Sand enemys flood sun Danielle Warnare Servt Turner Falls Fight us Next wearer April One ( Singularities 6) This poem reads like a first journal entry fo r Rev. Hope Atherton, the only man left alive after the slaughter of an entire garrison of American troops (sent out to do the very same to Connecticut natives). There is no punctuati on; there are no complete thoughts. Only a regurgitation of random memo ries from the trauma: Daniel Warner (Daniellle Warnare) is, presumably, one of the men in Captain Turners force, Horse flesh may be the last thing Atherton has eaten, and nutmeg might be a mispronunciation of Nipmunks, one of the tribes that tortured his comrades to death. To make a strictly narrative reading of this poem would be a mistake, however. The possible slippage between nutmeg and Nipmunk, and the vari ous bodily interactions he could have had with horse flesh (Did he eat it? Did he see it burned? Whos e horse was it?) are a part of the ambiguity of these lines. The only meani ng we get from them is given to us by the context of the documents at the beginning of the narrative. Otherwise, it is a voice that 33


has lost the ability to convey information effectively. Trauma and the real trump languages ability to form a coherent voice or person. At the half way point of In Time, a change in voice occurs : Impulsion of a myth of beginning / The figure of a far-off Wanderer (12). This is first time where the poem provides a comprehensible speaker. It is important to remember that the poem has been presented as some sort of found docum ent, which means that after wandering and muttering, Hope Atherton was bound to writ e something down at some point. The narrator is in fact sti ll in character, but the figure of Hope Atherton, during the course of the act of writing, has further lost a sense of self. Athertons referring to himself in the third person is a reflection of the poetics of negation that Howe talks about in the introduction to My Emily Dickinson and referenced by Schultz in her essay. Writing, to Howe, is analogous to the wilderness, an act that erases identity, and Atherton has taken on a distinctly female invisibility. Once he wr ites down what happens to him, he others himself as the Wanderer, starting the proce ss of self-destruction that written language can signify for Howe. The section goes on to employ several fragmenting techniques that are more specific to visual representation than the first half of the piece. The artificiality of the spoken section is replaced by a more obvious kind of construction, where personhood is naturally fractured in writing. Inhe rent in writing is the lack of any obvious author (or even an authorial illusion, like one finds in the cas e of the spoken word), which is part of why Howe is so interested in f ound documents. She wants her poetry to be read the same way that shes reading all of her s ource materials: a slave to context, but minus individual contribution. The aut hor is absent in all of the documents that shes found, and she wants to surrender her authorship to a lineage of personless texts. 34


The same approach can be applied to My Emily Dickinson It is a work of almost entirely block quotes and, predictably, found documents. This book is often filed under literary criticism at the library, but, as th is analysis suggests, the categorization is troubling. By setting up a system of historie s and documents, Howe intentionally leaves herself very little room to act ually analyze Dickinsons work, making it hard to call this a work criticism. Part of Ho wes complaint about criticism of Dickinson is the way it consistently focuses on the biographical over Dickinsons actual contribution to writing. The books focus on historical criticism would seem to undermine this interpretation, if it were to be read as a piece of literary critic ism. But, if one reads it in light of Howes project in Singularities we can see that she is, in fact, building a history for herself. The act of compiling a history is very different fo r Howe than reportage of details. For Susan Howe to say anything about where Dickinson to ok poetry, she has to make her a part of a writerly continuum. She advocates a visual reading of Emily Dickinson, an interpretation that is entirely too idiosyncratic to make Howe i nvisible. Starting with the title of the book, Howe announces herself as involved in the cont ent of the piece in a way that is more intimate than scientific analysis. My book is a contradiction of its ep igraph she tells us in the very first line, and she is right. The ab sent or silenced aut horial voice is not the same thing as a nonexistent authorial voice, and one will eventually reach the conclusion that Howes curatorial instincts have an ag ency of their own. One recalls the deadened but operative authorial instinct of Hawethorns avatar in Scarlet Letter The ambiguity between critical work and creative work exemplified by My Emily Dickinson might ultimately be where Bernstein and Howes approaches to the personal 35


have the most in common. Both are seeking to undermine the idea of an authoritative voice, an issue that becomes more prominent in the realm of scientific or critical writing. In the act of reading another author, both au thors similarly create an interplay between the absence and presence of their own speak ing voices and those of the authors that theyre engaging with. For both of them, the writing self is dependent on participation in a discourse, and works like My Emily Dickinson or Bernsteins foreword to Prepositions frame these discourses nicely, in a way that bleeds over into Singularities and Shadowtime The personal exists in these works, but it is impossibl e to separate from issues of intertextu ality and heritage. 36


Chapter 2 Locality, Its Definitions, and Its Implications Charles Bernstein ends his book A Poetics with an essay called Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form. Titled with a reversal of a more common topic of consideration the politics of poetic form, the essay outline s the aesthetic features of political language, as Bernstein envisions it. It is as close to a poetic thesis statement as he comes in the entire book, but he takes pains to point out that the essay is meant to do anything but neatly cap his argument: No sw an song will serenade these poetics to their close, only further complications to abet wh at has preceded, add some chiaroscuro to the dozing points of light; plug up some holes and drill some more, calling the leaks poetry, the clogs excess ( A Poetics 218). That being said, Bernstei n runs through what amounts to a summary of his poetic techniques in this essay, and ends on a list of his literary influences (three Marxes, four Williamses), making it an extremely useful piece of selfcriticism. He, ultimately, advocates for a co mplex aesthetic of irony and fractured poetic voice as a means to engage with politics. Significantly, he begins the piece with a discussion of public language or language that conforms to dominant conventions and thus claims to be universally compre hensible. Conventions in the essay are an amorphous set of rules that govern communicative acts within specific cultures and subcultures. Bernstein says that they determine what is allowed into a particular specific discourse: what is accepted as sensible or appropriate or within the bounds of morality ( A Poetics 219). To break with these conventions and form counterconventions is the 37


desirable alternative to which is a textual condition we will here after refer to as locality. It is this discussion of convention and count erconvention as a means of localization that interests us. Bernsteins argument stems from one of the founding principles of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, as summarized by Marjorie Perloff in Avant-Garde Community and the Individual Talent: The Ca se of Language Poetry: Poetry is not natural speech but, on the contrary, somethi ng carefully constructed (29). There is no such thing as natural speech in Bernstein s writing. The idea of convention here can be read as a variation on the idea of artifice from Artifi ce of Absorption. All writing has artifice, and it can never be simply in formative. The notion of conventions, for Bernstein, explores the idea that this artifice is socially c onstructed and holds a type of authority. To him, mastering and reinventing new conventions in writing is an act of individual authority. Formal authority, for Bernstein, suggests a natural speaker, or, more formally, a lyric subject. As demonstrat ed in my previous chapter, Bernsteins conception of the poetic ego is one of fractured affect and constantly shifting genre. The author, for him, is already dead, but that is not to say that he has no interest in bringing the subject back in a different form. Poetic ego in his work exists in a continuum of literary and social discourses --fractured, but existing within the confines of certain stipulations (as defined by issues of intertextuality or social discourse). In short, the natural speaker is dissolved, replaced by a necessarily more nebulous figure. In this chapter, I am interested in finding the outer limits of that figure, the subject with which Bernstein or Howe is engaging. The local for poets like Charles Bernstein (as well as Susan Howe) describes a variety of methods by which the poets define the conventions 38


that they have chosen to define themselves by. Bernstein provides a description of both the process, and a possible ex ample of localized poetry. Indeed, in its counterconventiona l investigations, poetry engages public language at its roots, in that it tests the limits of conventionality while forging alternate conventions (which, however, need not s eek to replace other conventions in quest of becoming the new standard). Moreove r, the contained scale of such poetic engagements allows for a more comprehe nsive understanding of the formation of public space: of polis. ( A Poetics 219) Convention is a concept that is specific to a certain do main, and counterconventions, while carrying authority of thei r own, differ significantly from dominant discourse in that they are also a form of inves tigation. In this sense, polis is a mode of interpretation and a type of reading, in addition to a location. Polis leaves open se veral possibilities for interpretation, physical space and community (or a public) featured prominently among them. In this conception of locality, polis is a part of setting up counterconventional investigations. Conventions can also be defi ned by something extra textual, like physical geography. Bernstein goes on to describe this pro cess of localization as writing the new. Stylistic innovation is defined by context for him, that is, both place and time. This opens up the possibility of conventions being de fined by history as well as geography or community. Bernstein, of course, does not distinguish between these possibilities quite so neatly, but it is useful to parse them out becau se there are specific techniques associated with each strategy. Localization is, for Bernst ein and Susan Howe, related to a type of reading, making it a literary idea. So, while the local can include an extra-textual idea like 39


geography, it is inherently rendered as a fo rm of writerly discour se. Concrete issues become just another set of possibilities am ongst literary continuums in which Howe or Bernstein might place themselves. The most obvious example of localiza tion, physical location and geography, has a grandfather in the poet Charle s Olson. Highly influential for all of the Language poets, Olsons archivist tendencies defined a whole set of poetic techniques that poets like Bernstein and Howe have since made their ow n. Olsons fractured writing owes much to the tradition of Ezra Pound. His Black Mountai n School of poetry is popularly considered to have forged a link between modernism and later schools of avant-garde American poetry, and he is often sited as one of the originators of the term postmodern. His canonical collection of poems about the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, The Maximus Poems were written over the course of mo re than 20 years and were often published in local newspapers. They took the fo rm of letters to the editor or editorial articles, and were always avai lable to Gloucester locals to r ead. The notion of polis that Bernstein touches on in Comedy and Political Form is an idea that he gets from Olson. Like in Bernsteins essay, polis is a flexible term in the older poets work: So few / have the polis / in their eye [. .] There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass there are only / eyes in all h eads, / to be looked out of ( Maximus 28-29). In this section polis is simultaneously characterized as a subject of observa tion and the mode of observation itself. Polis is in the eye, and the eye is all there is, so one sees polis by way of an action. We also gather from the passage that it is a democratic process, that there are no hierarchies. So, the act of seeing pol is is something that anyone can do (but no one but Olson chooses to): So few need to, / to make the many /share (to have it, / too) 40


(29). While quotes like this demonstrate Olson s failure to eradicate his own ego from his writing, he still leaves the posit ion of the poet, the lone se er, the autobiographical figure that Olson names Maximus in The Maximus Poems to be taken up by anyone who chooses to adopt Olsons poetics, like Bernstein or Howe. Locality is ultimately a textual condition that refers both elements of content and of the eye used to translate that content into poetry. To polis is an act that can be learned by adopting a collection of localizing techniques and principals. First and foremost amongst these principl es is the idea that the poem is meant to reflect the physical space (specificall y, for Olson, the populated suburban space of Gloucester) by means of heterogeneity. This passage appears on the first page of the Maximus Poems : Feather to feather added / (and what is mineral, what / is curling hair, the string / you carry in your nervous beak, these / make bulk, these, in the end, are / the sum (1). In her article On Olson s Geographic Methodology, Penny TselentisApostolidis interprets this passage to mean that the poet builds his poem out of the random, mixed elements of reality; and cit y, nest, and poem become the context for the unity (125). This unity is purely textual. In the process of building a heterogeneous poem/textual city, Olson utilized minute de tails about the space with which he is engaging. The nest like elements of his poems include both mapping and historicism, and these categories can apply to both the place its elf and the people that populate it (who are an extension of the place). Olson uses the idea of polis to style hi s writing throughout the epic collection of poems. The Maximus Poems begin with an invocation of history and physical space: And there! (strong) thru st, the mast! [. .] o Anthony of Padua sweep low, o bless / the 41


roofs, the old ones, the gentle steep ones / on whose ridge-poles the gulls sit, from which they depart, / And the flake-racks / of my c ity! (1). Immediately we know from the gulls and masts that Gloucester is a nautical town. We further know that Olson values the older and more individualistic architec ture of the roofs, the old ones, the gentle steep ones. He does this by invoking the spirit of a ubiqui tous Portuguese saint, a reference to the colonial history that founded Gl oucester (a history that he do es not interrogate, but seems keenly aware of, nonetheless). Olson displays an almost obsessive sense of where they are, physically: North 42 37, West 70 40 It is enough Glouceste r, / to say where it is, (20), and he couples that geographi c specificity with a penchant for naming significant landmarks: (if you go, for highbush, / to Dogtown, or, July, / with pails, up Old Salem Rd, / Ill not be th ere / as I used to (21). Naming places and mapping out geographica l markers were indicators, for Olson, of a profound ambiguity between information and the way that it is conveyed in the realm of literature. In the first volume of The Maximus Poems he says, There may be no more names than there are object / There can be no more verbs than there are actions (Maximus 36). It is from lines like this th at we get the popularized notion of Olsons work that form is never more than an extension of content. Ols on did not take this principle to mean that poetry was simply a means to communicate content, but his limitation of names and verbs are more of a constraint caused by the specificity of content (in the case of The Maximus Poems the scope of conten t is the town of Gloucester), making this passage a statement of aesthetic constraint. Literary language is limited by the scope of the cont ent with which it engages, so Olson would use specific objects and places to define the stylistic elem ents of his poems. This ambiguity between 42


content inexpressible through language (the experience of geography) and poetic form itself has been incredibly influential on the language poets. And, yet, there is an ambivalence in Olsons legacy. He leaves plen ty of room for modern poets to grow. Says Burton Hatlen in his artic le Toward a Common Ground: Is the person a function of the local, a pr oduct of a specific historical juncture? Or is the local a function of the person w ho brings that time and place into the fullness of its being, through an act of poe tic imagination? Olson wants to have it both ways, but can he? (Hatlen 245) Here we get at the crux of the problem with Olsons poetry, and the legacy against which someone like Susan Howe contends. Olson prov ided many of the tools that modern poets use to work towards an egoless poetics, but Olson placed himself in the position of the bard, the mythologizer. It was Gl oucester that he was writing fo r, but he set himself up as Maximus: the eulogizer of a voiceless geogra phic location. It is important to understand the nature of Olsons relationship with his subject matter. In an early section of the Maximus poems, he writes an ode to one of the towns founders: O r that carpenters / who left Plymouth Plantation / and came to Gloucester, / to build boats (30). The carpenter is foundational to Gl oucesters inception, and we ca n get a pretty good idea of the mythological quality that Ol son gives his subject in this instance. He goes on to say, That carpenter is much on my mind: I think he was the first Maximus / Anyhow, he was the first to make things, /not just live o ff nature (31). Maximus is an autobiographical figure. Olson throws his voice into the character, but, ultimately, he and Maximus are engaged in the same activity: making things William Carlos Williams said in his introduction to The Wedge that A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. 43


We can see his influence here with Olson s understanding of the poem as a thing, but Olson seems to be more insistent that the poem-object has a builder. There is a certain macho ring to the im age of the myth-maker or the builder, which Olson only makes that much stronger by comparing himself to a blue collar craftsman. Not only that, but there are undoubted ly issues of representation involved in the act of mythmaking, which, unfortunately Ols on often takes in an explicitly misogynist direction. The implication of this problem atic relationship between myth-maker and mythologized object are made more obvious when Olson speaks of nature: she is known as / Weather / comes generally / under the /met aphrast (36). The metaphrast in this case is synonymous with Olson himself, who is engaged in the act of translating the physical world into poetry. Significantly, he pl aces nature (which is female) under the act, making the problematic gendered relationshi p between himself as a bardic figure and the voiceless physical world explicit. To Olson, nature is female, and it needs to be translated and represented by a Ma ximus. Hatlen goes on to argue: Olson in some measure departs from the precedent that Williams had established, by making the city hemaphroditic rather than male: the Genetic / is Ma the Morphic / is Pa the City is Mother (M 179). [. .] Yet elsewhere Olson archetypally conflates Earth mass mo ther milk cow body, (M 333). [. .] Simply to dismiss Olson as a misogynist is too easy; for in fact Olsons radical thinking of the way human beings stand w ithin space and history has been deeply liberating to many subsequent writer s such as Susan Howe (Hatlen 247). Olsons legacy on experimental poetry is linge ring, liberating, but deeply problematic, as Hatlen goes on to explain in the work of Ed Dorn and Theodore Enslin. This legacy of 44


post modern minutiae, coupled with a more historical reliance on gendered archetypes, and a cohesive male lyric subject, frame certa in modern American poets in an interesting way. For example, the idea of nature and phys ical space having a gendered identity and the sinful aspect of American history that the idea is a party to are dealt with in the work of Susan Howe who ties an Olsonesque idea of space to sense of historicism, and also pays much more attention to problems of representation. Susan Howe In her long poem Thorow, Susan Howe wr ites of her experiences as a writer-inresidence in the small town of Lake George, New York. The first half of the poem consists mainly of historical analysis, while the other half can be categorized as more confessional in its style as it chronicles Howes own expe riences with the landscape of Lake George. Geography is made an issue from the very beginning, as Howes highly polemic introduction makes the following statement: In the seventeenth century European adve nturer-traders burst through the forest to discover this particular lo ng clear body of fresh water. They brought our story to it. Pathfinding believers in God and grammar spelled the lake into place They have renamed it several times since. In paternal colonial systems a positivist efficiency appropriates primal indeterminacy (41). This passage is incredibly important for understanding Howes relationship with cartography. She has just ali gned the act of naming with those who believe in God and grammar, putting language, mapping, and patria rchy all on the same side. It is a self consciously problematic decisi on, as Howe even refers to the othered wilderness (and the natives that reside in it, in an Olsonian extension) as primal indeterminacy. Native 45


Americans, of course, had language themselv es; and Howe is clearly conscious of the risk she is taking by rendering them silent. Critic Will Montgomery says in his article Appropriating Primal Indeterminacy: While the poem itself is a complex and re sonant response to historical violence, the forcing style of prose in Howes preface, with its crushing-together of categories and its declarative tenor, reflects elements of the programmatic language use that she seeks to dismantle (743). The observation is, of course, astute, and useful from the position of looking back on a poem which, originally publishe d in 1987, is now more than 20 years old. However, I would say that the interpretation is simply voicing a discomfort that Howe herself is trying to excise. When Howe refers to the wilderness as she, the Strange (43), she is engaging with a history of archetypal language, and lionizing the traditionally marginalized linguistic figure (Mother Nature). Unlike Montgomery, who says that Howes edifice of overdetermined struct ural analogy [sheds] little light on the operations of any of these terms (743) (t hese terms being grammar, patriarchy, and cartography), I would say that Howe is lionizing the voiceless, not because she holds any delusions that she can avoid the issues of representation that history and cartography present, but because she seeks to make the stru ctures related to that historical violence more obvious. In other words, she strive s to understand original sin, rather than pretending to eliminate it. In her essay E xaggerated History, Susan Schultz says of Howe: Howe adopts the mask of an editor, reviser, or r edactor (a fine word that combines reading with acting, in both its senses). That is she takes as given that our histories and literature have al ready been written, and makes it her task to alter rather 46


than reinvent the record. Howe is essentially working with the same archetypal language that Olson was in The Maximus Poems As opposed to relying on the archet ype of nature being female, she engages with the idea, and exposes it. Susan Schultz comments on this in Exaggerated History: The danger is that the new language is too close to the old; by using the old words, she threatens to reinscribe ol d forms. Howe makes of these risks both revelation and paradox--the oppositions that Howe so often attempts to transcend threaten to undermine her histori cal (and so untranscendental) project. (Exaggerated History) Schultz goes on to argue that Ho wes revision of literary hist ory is problematic in that it reproduces a state of silence for women in her texts, but permits th eir voices to speak through the agency of the reader. The eff ect is not necessarily democratizing, but profoundly tied to the idea of be ing an archivist in its desire to reproduce and analyze a condition. More than that, Howe creates a cognitive dissonance when she ennobles silence as a virtue. It is an intent ionally threatening proposition, as the silent wilderness is ultimately a source of terror in most American poetry. Ultimately, for Olson, nature is something to be translated into poetry, but Howe seeks to let the wilderness take over her poetry. In the second part of Thorow, she has a serious of strangely formatted pages that use the space of the page, as well as the content, to convey meaning. One, in particular places a stanza in the middle of the page, in standard formatting saying The Frames should be exactly / fitted to the paper, the Margins / of which will not per[mit] of 47


/ a very deep Rabbit (57). On the margins of the page however, the rules that the stanza in the middle is dictating are by no means being followed. As a matter of fact, the tyrannical stanza is pos itively overrun with upside down and crooked text that says things like Picked up arrowhead, Tranquillity of a garrison, hier oglyph, mud, shrub, etcetera, etcetera. The phrases are printed over the more centrally formatted text, creating an anarchic visual effect. The wild, which is equal parts Native American artifact and untouched nature, is taking over the grammatical rules of Howes poem. The reference to Henry David Thoreau is obvious enough in the tit le, and she even references his desire to make literature wild in her introduction. While she undermines and makes threaten ing the language that she uses in these ways, Howe is still a prisoner of those same mediums. Howes inte raction with space is essentially defined by the history of litera ry discourse. Wilderness and geography bear the undeniable trappings of language and gra mmar, and, just as importantly, romanticism and literary heritage. Shes al ways dealing with a representa tion of her subject. In winter the Simulacrum is closed for the season (41) says Howe in the intro to Thorow, and the term can certainly apply to the systems with which she is engaging. There is a level of abstraction involved in her view of space and history, because it will always be processed through language and cultural history. There seems to be a contradiction in her work. If cartography is such a patriarchal practice, what should we make of Howes own poetics? While she only deals with already invented categories and names in her work, rather than i nventing new ones like the early European settlers did, the archivists urge is still there. The second half of Thorow is still a personal narrative that features Howe wander ing Lake George and 48


documenting what she sees. Her exploits and observations include specific locations and a reliance on personal pers pective throughout: Walked on Mount Vision (49), The expanse of unconcealment / so different fr om all the maps (55), Here is dammed water (53). Ultimately, she proclaims, Author the real author / acting the part of a scout (51). It is unclear who the real author refers to (it is unlikely that Howe would refer to herself in this way), but the role of scout seems to be a problematic one for Howe. It would seem the poem depends on representation and perspective as much as a map might, albeit it deals with the issues differently. The only explanation as to how this might work is the notion that Howe consid ers the poem a differen t space than the map, one with different qualities. She labels her wo rk the Spiritual typogr aphy of elegy (55). This plays into the paradoxical relationship that her poems play to silence and nature, as characterized by poets like Susan Schultz; as negativity and paradox become a sort of holy state, a stutter in the non-narrative as Howe might characterize it. Ultimately though, the problem of her arch ival poetics goes unsolved, and her work never ceases to run the risk of patriarchal ownership of which she herself seems so aware. Peter Quartermain, in his seminal critical work Disjunctive Poetics characterizes the situation thusly: Howe is, more than any American writer I can think of [. .] burdened by history: the burden, of retrieving from erasure and marginality those (women) who have been written out, without (as Howe puts it in her prose introd uction to Thorow) appropriating primal indeterminacy, is compounded by the drift of the primal toward the immediate, toward the abolit ion of history (and hence of language) altogether. History, like language, is not and cannot be linear (194). 49


Finally, Howe uses the similar archivist tec hniques as Olson, but with a degree of guilt and overwhelming self-consciousness. Howe tr eats her sources very differently than Olson treats his. While Olson sees himself as building a nest out of the texts and details that he includes in his epic, Howe is much rougher on those she quotes Her vision of the local is one that seeks to, in a lot of ways, do the exact opposite as Olson. She is interrogating a history, as opposed to build ing a myth. The local for her is an overwhelming constraint, not just aesthetically and thematically; but also in terms of what it allows her to do. It is ultimately a burden, and it is a problem to which she cannot help but succumb. Charles Bernstein Charles Bernstein is, in his own way, just as much a historian as Susan Howe. The difference is that Bernstein tends to pick hi stories that are less a lien; he tends more towards the contemporary or the popular. Where Howe revels in antiquity and the first contact of Thorow, Bernstein more frenetica lly seeks to engage with a wide variety of cultural discourses. Ultimately, the locality of his poems is defined by a larger, more all encompassing sphere, and thus, despite his st rong opinions on the subject, hes a much harder poet to pin down as far as what the word local might mean in his poetry. We can get our start from the introduction to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book which is a volume of back issues from a literary ma gazine that Bernstein edited with Bruce Andrews. The two men are both given cred it for writing the introduction to the book: Focusing on this range of poetic explorat ion, and on related aesthetic and political concerns, we have tried to ope n things up beyond correspondence and conversation: to break down some unnecessary self-encap sulation of writers 50


(person from person, & scene from s cene), and to develop more fully the latticework of those involved in aesthetically related activity (ix). From the beginning of the movement, Bern stein was characterizing poetry as a group activity. This idea of poetic community is impor tant in framing his discussion of polis, or any set of counterconventions. To him, locality can be described as a list of stipulations that define any poetic activity, be it by way of an aesthetic ally united group, a geographic location, or a history. The concern often mani fests itself via editorial engagement with poets to whom Bernstein considers himself akin. In The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book Bernstein references Ron Sillimans work on several occasions, indicating an affinity for his aesthetic and political idea ls. Silliman is commonly consid ered to be a Language Poet in a similar vein to Bernstein, and his work is included in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E anthology. In Bernsteins first piece in the collection, Stray Stra ws and Straw Men, Bernstein bookends his discussion of natural language with refere nces to Silliman. Ostensibly, the piece is a close reading of Sillimans poetry, but the writer is only mentioned by name at the beginning and end of the piece. The description of his aesthetic philosophy in between could apply to both Bernstein and Silliman, highlighting the aesthetic approach that they have in common with one another: It is natural that there are modes but there is no natural mode (41) That affinity that Bernstein feels for Sillimans work is presented in opposition to poetry at large early in the essay: His works are composed very explic itly under various conditions, presenting a variety of possible worlds, possible language formations [. .] work described as this may discomfort those who want a poetry primarily of personal communication, flowing freely from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm 51


of life, lived daily (39). The language in this early co llection is clearly combative and polemical in nature. However, the formation of us and them rhetoric cant be pe rformed without first constituting a functional definition of us. It is here in passages like this that Bernstein and his coalition of aesthetes form their comm unity by way of their shared concerns over style and form. Arguably, they spend the major ity of the book defining what they have in common, generally by performing close readings of either common influences or each other. The pieces have titles like A Th ing about Language for Bernstein, Bob Perelman, 7 Works, Clark Coolidge, and M y Work, with an entire section of the book dedicated only to readings, and many more editorial pieces scattered throughout the other sections. This project, th e entirety of which hinged on an internal dialogue of close readings, fits Olsons idea of polis very well. Every member of the community has taken up the acts of perception and writing, uniting it in a se lf-reflexive poetic dialogue. In Avant-Garde Community and the Indi vidual Talent, Perloff asks the question is Language poetry in fact the achievement of a few poets who theorized its aims and methods, or would the move toward an aseman tic, asyntactic poetry have occurred in any case? (22) Her answer ultimately seems to be that, as the movement progressed, it became increasingly clear who the individual vo ices were and who the driving forces are behind LangPos ideology. She recognizes the groups ethos as being community oriented, but lands on the assertion that common perception of the movements dogma ceased to fit its most visible poets as they progressed. This is important to consider because it is tempting to think of The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book as a work created by a group of naturally cohesive poe ts. In fact, the writers includ ed in the collection proved 52


to be very different, making the book more of an exercise in shared writing practices rather than a group manifesto. The book may ha ve served the purpos e of introducing the Language poets into popular poetic discour se, but its focus remains on the idea of community being a collection of actions, ra ther than the beliefs of one specific community. Along these lines, Bernstein s editorial work with this collect ion carries itself forward through his career. Editing and reading are, arguably, his ma in poetic tools, and they have their roots in an engagement with other peoples work (close reading here can mean anything from an editorial introducti on for Louis Zukofsky to reanimating Walter Benjamin and following him through the after life). His discussion of conventions and counter-conventions in A Poetics mirrors his concerns with founding a community governed more by aesthetic reas oning than by geography or st rict formal stipulations. Furthermore, editorialism is st ill a huge part of Bernsteins uvre. Two of his biggest projects from the last decade have been online poetry database s called the Electronic Poetry Center and Pennsound, respectively. These communities that Bernstein sets up, it is important to assert, are all textual in nature. The writers mostly lived in differe nt parts of the country. LangPo was not built around geographic locality, but through text, in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book For him, counterconventions and the localized ac ts of authority that are implied by them are not social rules but liter ary ones, informed by social conditions. He says that conventions are not identical to social norms or standards, although this distinction is purposely blurred in the legitim ization process (A Poetics 219). In the Some of These Daze series of personal letters included in Bernsteins 2005 collection of poetry, Girly 53


Man there is an example of convention temporarily being broken misshapen, and eventually reforming into an even more restri ctive set of rules. The letters were written by Bernstein, a resident of New York City, in the months following the attacks on the World Trade Center. Their inclusion in the colle ction is startling at first, from a poet who ordinarily eschews conventional ideas of poetic sincerity, but a close reading of a few passages shows these letters to be invaluable to understa nding localized literature. The passages deal with the ever chan ging ethical codes of public discourse, dealing with one type of locality (the space of New York City) only in so far as it concerns the more abstract community of New York City. We will start off with a passage that immediately follows the attacks: After the long and strange Odyssey back from LaGuardia airport this morning, I went to a jammed local upper west side coffee shop. [] Outside, two guys with work boots and cell phones strapped to thei r waists yelled toward the coffee shop, I cant believe these fucking people are sitting in a caf when the city is being blown up (17). Following the traumatic incident, ordinary beha vior is seen as inappropriate within the community of New York, culminating in an or dinarily uncalled for speech act on the part of the two men with cell phones. Clearly, in the wake of th e incident, conventions for appropriate discussion have ch anged, but, it is important to note, they have not been codified yet. It is not until the next lett er, dated September 12, 2001 that, the politicos are speaking about talking with one voice (21) At this point in the trauma, the ordinary rules for appropriate discourse have been upturned, but, as yet, are still only made up individual exercises in authority (like yelling ones opinion at a caf full of people). It is 54


not until Letter from New York dated November 22, 2001, that Bernstein (having regained his composure), depicts a return to normalcy, or an event that inscribes the dominant conventions of discourse once again: By this point, late in November, everyone is exhausted over the topic -11. Everything is subject to the -11 test--how does this read/sound/play after September 11? [] Today my son Felix went to the annual Thanksgiving Day parade, presented by Macys, the big de partment store. [] Huge balloons of popular movie and TV characters float a bove Central Park West, a reminder that we inhabit a world of Disney Gods who live in a DVD Olympus. [] We are all getting back to normal here in New York (32). In this case, the re-ascenda ncy of the dominant social discourse is expressed by domination over the physical space of New York. Specters of consumerism float overhead, safely reassuring Charles Bernstein of the same parade he saw fifty years beforehand. These balloons are a symbolic syst em, and should be read as such. They are a very explicit example of public language, the kind with which Bernstein has earlier advocated engaging. It is in this environmen t that requires citizens to speak with one voice, that Bernstein regains his composure and sense of ir ony. The incident is a perfect example of a conflation of seve ral types of locality, but, Bern steins real concern at the end of the letters is the text ual constraint of television characters and Thanksgiving. This is an example of public language on a large scale. To work against these dominant conventions, which is clearly Bernsteins intention, he must localize. Perhaps our best chance for understanding what he is doing is to think of there being different levels of locality for language, the outermost being public language and the most specific 55


poetry. To localize, for Bernstein, is to pi ck a linguistic sphere with which to engage; and, ultimately, his refusal to equate the lo cal with the physical re veals that poets like Olson and Howe work on the same level of abstraction. 56


Chapter 3 Genre, Negative Community, an d History: Poetics as Politics The generic distinction between poetry and expository essay plays a significant part in the politics of Language poetry. The critical discussion surrounding the movement, carried on by Marjorie Perloff, Peter Quartermain, the poets themselves, and a sizeable group of others, has undoubtedly been essential in histor icizing the group. Its an activity that has mostly occurred in exposito ry terms, and has been essential in placing the group if only because critical discussion ha s been necessary for the writers to define their project as compared to other authors and literary movements. Language poetry has always depended on the close r eading to determine its relationship with writers of past generations, and these close r eadings generally o ccur in essay form. This conversation has also been important in developing Langua ge poetrys sense of itself as even being a group at all; certainly more important than th e specific aesthetic si milarities between the poets work. This generic distinction and its rela tionship with history and politics is complicated by the fact that both the poetry and the criticism associated with Language often come from the same people, and little di stinction is made betw een critics and poets. In fact, many of the best known pieces of writing in the Language catalogue, like Bernsteins Artifice of Abso rption, blur the distincti on between the two types of writing. When this relationship between poe try and criticism is redefined, our understanding of the works historical, political, and an thropological significance 57


changes as well. Critics and poets posit this generic distinction in often disparate ways, and their understanding of the subculture surrounding Language poetry changes with each variation. Charles Bernstein gives the space in be tween criticism and poe try its own generic distinction: poetics. To him, poetics repres ents the critical capaci ty of poetry and the poetic capacity of cri ticism. Poetics is focused on th e practices of writing, performing, and reading. In short, poetic s is a genre of concrete pract ices, of writing unto itself, and Bernstein vouches for the value of a genre of this kind. He se es poetics value as existing in opposition to the rising popular ity of literary theory over literature itself: Poetics, in this system, becomes another form of poetry--something to be subjected to criticism and analysis but not the model for the practice of criticism, scholarship, or interpretation that it, nonetheless, continues to be (Poetics 130). Ultimately, the aim of poetics as a genre is to cease to be treated solely as an object of criticism, and to position itself as its own critical tool. Genre and Community In his chapter on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in The Constructivist Moment Barrett Watten, a foundational member of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and the original editor of This magazine, asserts that to maintain the hi storical specificity of literature, it is necessary to have a notion of genre as produced in specific contexts (59). This quote is the distillation of a polemical line of reasoning that draws a distinction between literature and literary criticism in the work of language centered writers like Bernstein and Howe. Although this claim may seem to contra dict the desire of Language poets to link poetry and poetics, it connects the issues of ge neric distinction and historical engagement 58


in a very useful way. Watten goe s on to illustrate his point with a somewhat tossed off analysis of Bernsteins essay-as -poem, Artifice of Absorption: The disruption of expository conventions in Charles Bernsteins essay Artifice of Absorption, whose argument is broken in to what may seem like free-verse poetic lines, is still addressed to the form of the essay: it was published in a book of essays. While Bernstein frequently incorpor ates discursive lan guage in books of poetry, his poetic effects ar e different from his expository ones simply because the transgression of expository norms s till preserves them as a moment of negativity; poetic norms have different claims, whose transgression is dissimilar to that of exposition. (59) Transgression (of both poetic of discursive no rms) is historical for Watten in a manner very similar to that of Bernsteins vision of polis formed by transgression: the formal experimentation is an act of unsanctioned au thority that parallels the genesis of avantgarde community. What Watten seeks to empha size is that the counterconventional space of the Language writing community, like most other countercultures that Watten cares to name, only united its members disparate and varied writing practices by negating dominant social and literary norms. There is a striking similarity, for Watten, between action taken against an oppressive government, and acti on taken against oppressive writing standards, and analogous countercultu res form around both revolutionary actions. So, for Watten, generic specificity is essential to maintaining Language poetrys relevance. The moment of negativity places this writing within a community and also within history: This development occurred in terms of a dynamics of feedback, in which there 59


was not simply an originary moment of definition or refusal but a continuous, dialogic practice out of which the fo rums of language-centered writing emerged. Above all, this development was histori cal, helping to bring together the group of authors [] by reflexively defining the range of formal possibilities of their work (60). Watten helpfully asserts the role of mutual reading and so called secondary writing between the language poets in the formation of a range of formal possibilities. These activities help build th e writers vocabulary for artistic as well as discursive production. The difference between secondary and pr imary work frames Wattens essay from its onset. For him, the avant-garde (a term that he applies to Language writing as both an aesthetic and political classification) strives to be both a critique of representational forms and a stable form itself, thus creating a possibility for c ontradiction from the outset. Watten describes the result of this contradicti on as an endlessly self -reflexive system of theorization. For Watten, this perpetual secondary discussion does not necessarily result in a loss of critical force for an artistic move ment. Even if its theory death at the end of history undermines teleology, the avant-garde al ways claims a material form that, as provoking discourse, continues its logic of critique (48). Material form, then, is poetry and discourse is secondary writing; and bot h are necessary for critical engagement. In Watten estimation, the self-sustaining discussion that can result from revolutionary writing is exactly that: self-sustaining. The t heory death at the end of history that he describes is necessary for the avant-garde to become its own stable representational form. Wattens argument, and the questions it ra ises, is essential for understanding the projects of Charles Bernstein and Susan Ho we. Experimental writing practices and the 60


discourse surrounding them are important in de veloping an engaging social critique, or a reentry into history (43) as Watten calls it, after its initia l negation. Despite his championing of experimental writing practi ce, however, Wattens argument for a strong generic difference between the two types of wr iting implies the need for a clear critical language in order to explain av ant-garde art and make it socially relevant. This aspect of his argument, as I will argue, discounts La nguage poetry as a literary movement and makes it more of social one. However, the im plication that transgressive literature must perform both a critical and formal function, a nd especially Wattens conclusion that this results in a shared counterconvential space, is essential in order to understand Bernsteins and Howes work. Charles Bernstein argues the need for th is counterconventional space in his essay Provisional Institutions: Alte rnative Presses and Poetic I nnovation in very concrete terms. Does anyone wonder anymore what the effects will be of th e consolidation of publishing and book distribution compan ies into large conglomerates? Let them read cake (PI 135). For him, the dominant cultural forces that would bury poetry alive (133) are more than an abstraction, th ey can be named (Barnes and Noble, Harpers National Poetry Month, The New York Times Book Review etc.). For him, small presses and reading series constitute an alternative not only to these dominant institutions of literature, but also to the cu lture that supports these conve ntional forces. The essay is interesting for looking at the mechanics of avant-garde di stribution and counterculture. What Bernstein does here, is name his enemy (peddlers of the idea of culture, like the New Yorker ), and the means by which this en emy may be revolted against (small publishers like Sun & Moon Press, or even smaller institutions). 61


The name of the essay, of course, is Provisional Institutions, implying the stipulative nature of these presses. They would not exist if dominant modes of distribution were adequate. The designation sp eaks to a sense of temporariness that defines Bernsteins vision of avant-garde co mmunity. This community has its own set of conventions, but they are defined and made necessary by dominant lit erary institutions and, by implication, would cease to exist in their current form were these dominant institutions to cease to exist in theirs. This much is evident in the ever evolving writing practices of the Language poets themselves which have manifested themselves in radically different ways over th e years, providing few consiste nt aesthetic characteristics, but showing a reliable attitude towards dominant aesthetic norms. For Bernstein, the situation that would lead to the dissolution of the avant-garde has less to do with the content of these big in stitutions (although he finds that content despicable) than with the idea of bigness itself. The power of our alternative institutions of poetry is their commitment to scales that allow for the flour ishing of the artform, not the maximizing of the audience [. .] These institutions continue against all odds, to find value in the local (PI 143). So, while individual institutions ma y be provisional, the need for localized poetics and counterculture is not, if only to provide a space that values artform over distribution. Cultural hegemony is what makes counterculture necessary, and its existence is continual. Bernstein summarizes significance of this cycle at the very end of his essay: Literature is never indifferent to its institutions. A new literature requires new institutions, and these institutions are as mu ch a part of its aesthetic as the literary works that they weave into the social fabric. [. .] When you touch this press, you touch a person. In this sense, the work of our innovative poetries is fundamentally 62


one of social work. (PI 144) Besides neatly summarizing the need for the continual renewal of th e avant-garde, this passage also makes explicit Be rnsteins conflation of soci al and literary work, of the literature, the people who produce it, and the means of production. In his article, Language Poetry and Co llective Life, Oren Izenberg takes this equation that Bernstein makes about the rela tionship between poetry and the community that produces it and fleshes out its implications. It is just such an anthropological motive that underwrites Language poetrys peculiar forms of self-presentation and preservation--its tendency to publish not just its poems but its conversations a bout poems [ ] as though on behalf of some future civilization studyi ng its own past. (Izenberg 139) In Izenbergs estimation, there is a generi c difference to be made between the poems written and the conversation surrounding them. Language poetrys self-criticism follows directly from this sense of itself as a comm unity, and Izenberg asserts that Bernstein and his fellow writers are, in fact, writing their own histories. This resonates strongly with Wattens suggestion that a sense of generic difference is essential to the avant-garde finding its place in history. Here, one could think of the function th at literary essays served for Ezra Pound and his editorial work as an Imagist, a Vo rticist, and generall y restless champion of innovative writing. As an early avant-gardist and an influential figure for the Language poets, we find his critical wri ting to perform a similar func tion to theirs in terms of historical relevance. One of the essay form s that he and other influential modernist writers often used at the time was the manifest o. This type of essay had a clear interest in 63


staking out its authors place in history, if only because proclaiming oneself an innovator automatically begs a comparison to ones forerunners. Pound promoted and formed numerous avant-garde groups during his life time, often giving the groups aesthetic stipulations and purpose. In the case of the Imagists, he famously said to use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something, a move that implied that superfluous words had been used before. For him, an essay was a chance to form a group, which was to him, a way of interacting w ith the canon of literature. It is important to note that Pound thought it proper for poets themselves to find their own places in history, rather than leaving the job to professional critics: Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarian s, concocted to explain their metres ( Modernism: An Anthology 96). This model of manifesto a nd the intentional courting of literary history also holds tr ue for the Language poets. Izenberg, in his description of the se condary discourse surrounding the poetry, even infers that this conversation is more poetic than the work itself. On the subject, Izenberg says, and not just those conversation but jokes amidst the conversations, laughter at the jokes, stumbles, interrupti ons, and silences-- (Izenberg 139). This description unmistakably assigns a poetic ism to the secondary discourse that is intentionally absent in the actual poetry. Bernstein would certainly agree that the particular aesthetic qualities cr eated by the practice of this extra-poetic conversation are at least as important as its content. He would even agr ee that the discussion surrounding Language poetry merits the same attention as the poetry itself. It co uld be said, in fact, 64


that Izenberg has here defined the ge nre of poetics in its essence. Izenbergs description of the group s poetic work, however, is somewhat diminutive as compared to how someone like Charles Bernstein would choose to describe the body of writing. Izenberg refers to it as being experimental, in the sense that the poetry exists mostly as an example of the lit erary theory drives it. The work itself, he insists, is unaffected and insubstantial, doing little more than implying an ethical or ontological system (rather than an aesthetic one ). Counterintuitively, he says that this is an optimal response on the part of the Language poets to their own philosophical impetus. Language poets tend to treat the ob jects of their art--poems--as epiphenomenal evidence of a constitutively human capacity for free and creative agency that is the real object of their interest (Izenberg 136). Izenbe rgs analysis ultimately concludes that the perceived thinness of Language poetrys actual body of work is ev idence of its implied communal production. The poetry is equiva lent to language itself, language representing a kind of potential for the pr oduction of both a poem and a person. Thus, in his estimation, Language poetry is universal, in a sense, because its dissolution of specific aesthetic style or affect (its voicelessness) makes their poetry widely applicable as a meditation on human ontology. This analysis gives Language poetry an impor tant in role in historical and political thought. Both Izenberg and Watten insist on the social relevance of these writers, thinking of the group as being much closer to something like the Weather Underground or the FSM than the Objectivists or the Surre alists. This model of the Language poets as a historically significant revoluti onary community is in keeping with the implication of the poets themselves, and, in fact, is the key to fleshing out their political significance. But 65


for these critics, relevance may come at the cost of literature itself. Denying writers like Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe the capacity to be poets puts the power of discourse firmly in the realm of critical language, and takes it away from poetry. In essence, to deny that Charles Bernstein is a poet, primarily, is to also take the power of social engagement away from literature. We can see an example of this line of reasoning in Jurgen Habermass book, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity specifically his essay On Leveling the Genre Distinction Between Literature and Philosophy, which he wrote in response to Jacques Derrida and his extensive influence in the world of continental philosophy. Habermas, while not an intellectually conservative thinker by any means, expressed his dismay with postmodern thoughts abandonment of what he re ferred to as the Enlightenment project of seeking truth through reason. He charac terizes Derridas concern over his own philosophical language as that of a literary author, not a philosopher. The distinction between literature and philosophy has very important consequences for Habermas: Philosophy also occupies a position with tw o fronts similar to that of literary criticism [. .] On the one hand, it directs its interest to the foundations of science, morality, and law and attaches theoretical claims to its statements. Characterized by universalist problematics and strong theoretical strategies, it maintains an intimate relationship with the sciences. [. .] It maintains just as intimate a relationship with the totality of the lifeworld and with sound common sense, even if in a subversive way it relentlessly shakes up th e certainties of everyday practice. ( Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 208) Habermas puts science, literary criticism, morality, and truth on the side of philosophy, 66


and on the other side he places literature. Li terature, then, has no relationship with the lifeworld in this dichotomy. Thus, calling De rrida a literary author, for Habermas, is something of a veiled accusation of rarified academic posturing that is necessarily in opposition to political activism. It is important to point out that Ha bermas and other post-Marxist authors of similar persuasions have influenced Charle s Bernstein significantl y, and he references Habermas in more than one of his essa ys. Bernstein would surely object to a demonization of the philosophers work, even if he would disagree with Habermas in this instance. With that said, this passage can serv e as a type of warning. He takes the liberty of aligning literary criticism on the side of philosophy, making hi s relevance to our discussion more obvious. Literary criticism is meant to make literature more relevant, because it uses objective rather than self-reflexive language. Th is is interesting because it seems to imply a danger for Izenbergs di stinction between secondary and primary writing in Language poetry. The difference between the two must be that literary criticism is more comprehensible, or its language is more objective or scientific, than the language of poetry. In Izenberg s essay, secondary discourse is absolutely necessary in order to build a counter-conventional community but to put priority on this as having historical and political significance over poetic output is to put literature in a type of apolitical ghetto. The solution, it seems, is not to ignore the necessity for critical discourse, but to assign poetry partial responsibil ity for that discourse, or rather to have a third mode of literary language that can fulfill both poetic and critical duties. The conversation surrounding Language poetry that Izenberg describes has an aesthetic quality to it that makes it other to both cr iticism and poetry. This third genre of literary 67


language is what Bernstein refers to as poetics, and its fl exibility is what makes it so useful as a mode of criticism. Bernstein and Genre So, we return to Bernsteins Artifice of Absorption, an essay written as a poem, a commentary on genres of language, and a pr ominent piece of poetic s. Artifice is a piece of discursive writing, in that it engages in a conversation about poetic form, but it also replicates the techniques that it discu sses, by incorporating line breaks, alternate punctuation, and midsentence dashes, among other effects. Bernstein frames his discussion of absorption, that is, the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that he sees as coloring the experience of read ing, by insisting that there are no nonsemantic elements of language. Punctuation, visual placement, and other elements that cannot be voiced are extrasemantic. He says this to counte r a popular interpretati on of modernist and postmodernist poetry that interprets formally inventive poetry as meaningless, or devoid of content. Writing, Bernstein claims, is never without meaning, but meaning is not always (and, indeed, cannot be completely) intentional. Meaning, for Bernstein, is a process rather than a designation of value and the process is tied up in the process and the effect of reading: So there is always an unbr idgeable lacuna between / any explication of a reading & any actual / reading. & it is the extent of these la cunas-/ differing with each reading but not indeterminate-/ that is a necessary measure of a poems / meaning (12). Meaning, then, is not tied ex clusively to an explicati on of a reading, (secondary writing) but to a primary experience that close reading cannot hope to replicate. This is not to say that poetry is meaningful a nd essays are not, but simply that the meaningfulness of both forms of writing comes fr om the combined eff ect that the content 68


and form (these two concepts should not even be separated) have on th e reader. That is to say, essays are meaningful only inso far as they are read as poetry. Finally, we return to Wattens question. Is Artifice of Absorption an essay, a poem, both, or neither? And does that determination have any impact on the pieces historical and political impact? Bernstein s essay, ultimately, works very well as a meditation on political writing (as well as po litical reading). Early in the discussion, he uses the following example to explain the concept of absorption: In order for a / sociohistorical reading to be possible, absorption / of the poems own ideological imaginary must be / blocked (21). So, to read William Wordsworth uncritically is to accept Romanticism as an ideology. To Bernstei n this precludes an historically informed reading of the poem (21). Any piece of writing, essay or poem, must serve as a primary and discursive text, placing its elf in history while also ma intaining its status as an inclusive space. Wattens designation of Artific e as an essay serves one part of this purpose, giving anti-absorptive techniques us ed by Bernstein a target. Absorption, after all, is a phenomenon associated with the reader, not with the writers in tentions. In order to block absorption, the expecta tions that the reader brings with him or herself must be specified, and so, Watten is ultimately correct that Bernstein is addressing the discursive normativity of the essay rather than the poem. This prompts the question, in what se nse is the essay meaningful? Early on, Bernstein declares his intentions for Ar tifice: In contrast, why not / a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphor icity, / or tropicality: one in which the inadequacy of our / explanatory paradigms is neither ignored / nor regret ted but brought into fruitful play (17). Bernstein is looking to exploit the inhere nt weaknesses of l iterary criticism. 69


These weaknesses, essentially, revolve around the essays inability to accurately recreate the experience of reading a primary work. Be rnstein both highlights and attempts to amend this problem by often including exte nded block quotes in the essay. These quotes are on almost every other page, and the passages that Bernstein is dealing with are often included in their entirety. More importantly th an that, the essay is a primary text in its own right. So, Habermass dichotomy between discursive and literary language breaks down in Bernsteins essay. Bernstein does not call for an abandonment of discursive writing techniques, but instead is seeking to expand th e vocabulary available for discursive writing, and to allow poetry the opportunity to be discursive as well. An essay that fails to recognize its form al qualities as such, for Bernstein, speaks volumes about what a writers intentions mi ght be. In her extended riff on Bernsteins critique of dissertation writing, Susan Sc hultz extrapolates the potential purpose behind writing that intends to be without form or style: Style, then, is a facade that becomes c ontent a content intended to sell. The product to be bought, if not consumed, is either the candidate at her MLA job interview, or the successful candidate marketing her dissertation as a book. In both cases, as anyone who has served on a hiring committee can attest, the style of writing and the writers methodology are as important as content and often, in fact, dictate the content. [] Writing thus loses any revolutionary force it might potentially have and becomes the instru ment of the discipline (in its various senses) that perpetuates, and is perpetuated by, a status quo. (A Poetics of Fashion Statements) Schultzs argument concerns the link between artifice in writing and artifice in the world 70


of fashion and how Bernsteins critique of both can be related to consumerism. Transparency, to Bernstein, does not exist. Or ra ther, transparency itself is an artificial technique. While he does not go so far as to condemn transparency as a technique in A Poetics the problems associated with faking sincerity seem obvious. In much the same way that minority voices are often accused of being too self-conscious or lacking in content, supposedly formless writing relies on an invisible standardization of artifice to appear solely concerned with content. Schultz rightly claims that this type of writing is inevitably intended to be consumable Capitalist consumption finds an analo gue in Artifice of Absorption in the process of absorption itsel f. Absorption and antiabso rption can include any number of colorations within a single text relating to the inclusion and exclusion of the reader. A perfectly absorptive text implies the absence of both the author and the reader, leaving a text that is unaware of the process of its construction and of the voyeurism of the reader. To use anti-absorptive technique s (like unusual line breaks in Bernsteins essay) is to block this process of absorption and change the process of mean ing in the text. This is not a purely moral debate that favors exclusive ove r inclusive literature, but an articulation over the dangers of keeping a reader ignorant of these effects. The dilemma of absorption might be called a dilemma / of belief (the sance of session): what is lost / if one reveals the grounds of belief & what is / lost if one conc eals them (71). Bernstein, in fact, claims to be working toward absorptiv e means: Something powerfully absorptive is needed to pull / us out of the shit, the id eology in which we slip- (76). Writing, then, should provide an alternate perspective, while empowering th e reader to recognize this alternative as a perspective Writing cannot escape ideology. 71


Howe to Read History Susan Howes interaction with historical texts takes this concept of transparencys impossibility and puts it into practice. Trad itionally historical writing comes with a certain claim of objective transparency, wh ich, for Howe, results in a hegemony that deletes minority voices from our cultural me mories. Howe makes it her job to revive these ghosts, and her poetry often revolves around an attempt to retroactively write inclusive polyphonous histories. This practi ce often blurs generic boundaries, combining the more discursive writing style of historical analysis with a set of formally rigid poetic techniques (like impersonation, puns, visual presentation, and collage). These histories are certainly antiabsorptive in Bernsteins sens e of the word, as the poly-vocal aspect of the writing, as well as Howes refusal to structure her arguments around topic sentences and solid conclusions, prevent the reader from taking any of the voices included in Howes histories (including her own) as omniscient. In his essay, And End of Abstraction: An Essay on Susan Howes Hi storicism, John Palattella asserts that Fiercely historical, [Howes] poetics assumes authority whil e resisting authoritativeness because it makes claims without anchoring them in a historys presumed sovereign Necessity (Palattella 97). In Howes work, the singular voice of the historical text is denied, in favor of a more antiabsorptive approach. In such pieces of writing, meaning cannot be determined by the content of the passages alone, as Howe is often careful not to reach definitive conclusions in her writing. What is concrete in her work is the phys icality of language it self, the realities of which she places at the center of her historical analysis. Palattela frames his essay with a 72


discussion of Howe and a disc ussion formalism that involves the Scottish concrete poet, Ian Finlay, and the Abstract expressi onist Ad Reinhardt. He concludes: If for Finlay and Reinhardt the end of ar t is astringent abstract formalism, for Howe the end of abstract indeterminacy is the pragmatics of art that locates the means of historical understanding in a pro cess of linguistic and rhetorical play that sounds out identity through the language world (and language of the world) surrounding it. (Palattella 76) Howe finds discursive possibili ties in acts of artistic practic e. Language itself works as a historical canon, often providing a much more reliable source of information in Howes work than any single historical account. Howes writing is often self-reflexive in its exploration of these linguistic phenome non, dwelling on the minutiae of languages usage. In other words, Susan Howe is a poet. My Emily Dickinson remains one of the easiest places to examine Howes relationship with genres of writing. The book occupies a space similar to that of Bernsteins Artifice of Absorp tion in that it is certainly intended to function as a piece of discursive literary criticism, but the writing techniques used keep it from fitting Habermass definition of philosophical langu age (meaning any and all forms discursive writing). At the same time, its relationship with literary history is slightly different (and, perhaps, slightly more complicated) than the negation that Watten assigns to Artifice, making Howes relationship with these genres harder to pin down. Howes Emily Dickinson is a one woman avant-garde. The quintessential radical poet, she simultaneously resists, participates in, and is excluded from both the literary culture of her contemporaries and current discussion of literary history. To Susan Howe, 73


Dickinson exists in a blindspot, the physical and spiritual location of which she equates with a wilderness: Givens of Dickinsons life: her sex, class, education, inherited character traits, all influences, all chance eventsall carry the condition for her work in their wake. To release those gestures of intention that make her poems great, she chose for some reason to shut herself inside he r childhood family constellation. This selfimposed exile, indoors, emancipated her from all representations of calculated human order. ( MED 13) In this passage we get a sense for the tens ion between the events that predetermined Dickinsons exclusion from literary culture, and the intentional isolation that placed her outside the influence of dominant cultura l trends (the Second Great Awakening, in Dickinsons case). In this regard, Dickinsons isolation takes on a counterconventionality similarity to Language Poetrys formation of avant-garde community. This negation is complicated, of course, by the fact that it was, in some sense, forced upon her. Howe also later relates Dickinsons decision to neve r publish her work to a Calvinist idea of election, arguing that Dickinson believed that, if her work was worthy, it would inevitably be recognized due to Gods inte rvention. The doctrine of predestination had largely started to be replaced with the c onversion experiences of Arminian theology during the Second Great Awakening. This puts her in line with the out of vogue mainline Protestantism of Jonathan Edwards. Truly, Howes idea of countercultu re is a complicated one if it includes Jonathan Edwards and all of the Calvinist de nominations of Protestantism, but Howe puts this religious idiosyncrasy in perspective: 74


Dickinsons refusal during her teens to jo in the Congregational Church during the Great Awakening that swept the region on ce again left her startlingly alone. Dislocation first rends the seeking soul. Splendor is s ubversive to the Collective will. In the eye of the present, fragments of past presents. My presence keeps a promise to past meanings. ( MED 54) Here we get a sense of Howes relationshi p with Dickinsons isolation. She obviously relates with Dickinson, and that empathy resu lts in a subtle commentary on the genre of the two womens writing. Howe must keep a pr omise to past meanings, putting her in the position of the expositor, writing a secondary text to Dickinsons poetry. But Howe then goes on to highlight the similarity be tween Dickinson and writers that came before her, similarly subsumed in the wilderness. Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, and Anne Hutchinson are among those counted as Dickinsons literary forebears. Significantly, these authors are together in this literary and hist orical netherspace, forming, for Howe, a kind of community ac ross time. Radical writing practices place both Howe and Dickinson in a radical American tradition. There is a certain generic distinction to be made be tween Howe and these other writers, however, for her role in bringing this history together. Despite the fact that Howe often reads Dickinsons poems as liter ary criticism (commenting on Dickens, Shakespeare, and Emily Bronte, among others ), she does not assign Emily Dickinson the weight of charting a genealogy. The relationship between thes e two genres is discussed by Ming-Qian Ma in Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howes Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk: Howes fusion of history a nd poetry, carried with increa sing emphasis to the point 75


of interdependency or mutual identifi cation, functions to reposition the power relations between the two by providing poetr y with an entry point into history, into what hitherto has always been the sealed authoritarian discourse of history. (Ma 719) Susan Howe does not really relinquish her role as poet, saying Rhyme and meaning are one, death completes my life and makes it mine. Master is still sleeping, Gun still soliloquizing. Self will fight transforma tion, hold fast alert, unresting ( MED 129). Clearly this is not the language of an essayist. Howe sees her writing as upsetting the power dynamic between history and her own poetic practice, but she al so herself avoids paternalistic writing practices while in the ro le of the poet-historian commenting on other writers. Generic distinction, ultimately, may be mo re completely blurred in Howes work than in Bernsteins or the other language poe ts, because of her dedi cation to the role of poetic practice as her sole means of engageme nt with history. Compared to the other writers, Howes moment of negation is certainly far less intentional than Wattens model of the avant-garde, as his idea of c ountercultural poetics does not seem to include the possibility of a writer already having been excluded from mainstream literary culture, or at least does not dwell on it as a cause for an avant-garde to form. The difference between Howes model of how radical wri ting forms and the avant-garde of other language writers is especially interesting for the effect it apparently has on her idea of community. While she has done plenty of colla borations and spent a number of years as a professor, one still has a hard time imag ining Howe participating in Izenbergs anthropological Language community: the community Howe builds for Emily Dickinson 76


is made up of writers that died a hundred years before she was born. As opposed to the people who happen to write poems that populate Izenbergs avant-garde, Howes radical community seems to have more in common w ith the dead letter office of Melvilles Bartleby. One cannot help but see a correla tion between these differences and the effectiveness of Howes refusal of genre. Clea rly, the concept plays an important role in defining the dynamics of a writers sense of her or himself in relation to both culture and counterculture. These poets redraw the lines between genres are not attempts, as Habermas might suppose, to eliminate the possibility for political engagement, but to explore new and innovative ways that writing might relate to that engagement, forging the third genre of literary language be tween the poetic and the discursive. 77


Conclusions This project has been a long time in devel opment. And, for the entirety of the year and a half long process, my goal in studying th ese writers has always been political. What is the political and social relevance of experimental writing? What are the limits experimental literature and why does it matter? Originally, my intent with the thesis had been to deal with autotelic experimentation a nd to explain (that is, to defensively justify) its importance to society as a whole. But, lik e all long projects, my original intentions were mutated, expanded in some areas and curt ailed in others. For example, the passage I used from Habermass Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in the third chapter had originally been intended to play a much bigger role in the thes is than it did. I had wanted to use his steadfast insistence that literature cant affect mainstream society as a way to frame my entire argument, perhaps mentio ning him in my introduction and using his standards of social relevance as my own. Th e thesis I had in mind would have fit much more neatly for, say, Bertolt Brechts epic theater than for Language poetry. I imagined that Language poetry was a type of highl y nuanced activist poe try that employed Modernist ideas polemically and stretched fo rmalism into a political activity. What I found while writing the paper was, predictably, much more complicated. What became clear about Bernstein and Ho wes view of literature, was that they didnt feel the need to justify the act of writing. For them, literature is a political end in and of itself. So the question of the politic al in their writing became less about making literature matter so much as it meant fretti ng over the politics of the poem as an entity. 78


Language poetry seeks to create democratic, anti-authoritarian writing. Poetry acts as a simulacra of society, but is still its own political goal. The closest reference point for Language poetrys aesthetic id eology, surprisingly enough, may be Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transcendentalist has become an increasingly common name to me ntion in relation to these writers, especially Charles Bernstein. Bernsteins thesis advisor at Ha rvard, in fact, was Stanley Cavell, a well known American philosopher and Emerson schol ar. Like LangPo, the distinction between literary and political philosophy is thin fo r Emerson. In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson says, Whoso would be a man, must be a non-conformist (Emerson 132). For Emerson, this can apply both to ones pers onal choices and to the way in which one writes poetry, two activities that are, for him, not at all distinct from one another. To be a non-conformist, to Emerson, means to be writing newly, to be working towards formal innovation. This is the basis of how his ethi cal system works. We see the connection more strongly in his essay The Poet: It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty as it lies in the minds of our amateurs that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon s oul (Emerson 303). Archaic as concepts like soul and beauty may seem when discussing work of LangPos nature, the merging of the ethical and the formal is perhaps th e driving force behind this body of writing. The transition of my thesis from the stri ctly rhetorical in my first chapter to the borderline anthropological in my third chap ter illustrates the strange connection that Language poetry makes between the social and the literary. Their wr iting cannot strictly be considered literature as literature because, as Oren Izenberg so eloquently argues, the formation of their community is every bi t as important as the work that theyre 79


producing. And yet, to consider their work to be negligible or repetitive, as many mainstream critics do, is to rob the community of its purpose and its form. They are a group of people that write about each other and about authors that influenced them, forming a nebulous and ineffable literary community. In many ways, Language poetry is the activist group that I had hoped it was, but that activism always takes place within the space of writing itself. The topic of my thesis, the poetry of Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, never changed. All of my work rela ted to them and the artistic movement in which the both participated. However, I believe that the formation and significance of Language poetry, as posed by my thesis, could be used to illu minate the study of any number of cultural or artistic avant-gardes. While Language poetry was certainly specific to its particular moment, the culture surrounding it and the way it views its own transgressive tendencies is a useful model for studying counterculture in general, especi ally counter-cultural literature. 80


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