Friday, October 31, 2003

Fascinating article in the new Critical Inquiry by one Oren Izenberg: "Language Poetry and Collective Life." He produces an acute analysis of what supports an opinion that I've often heard expressed, and have expressed myself on occasion: the ideas behind Language poetry (as expressed in numerous essays, interviews, and manifestos) are fascinating, the poetry is dull—and not just dull, but dull in enormous quantities. Here is what looks to be Izenberg's thesis paragraph:
"Language poets are experimental, that is, because they treat their poems not as semantic tokens or as aesthetic objects but as examples, and it is the curious nature of an example that while there must be enough of them to warrant an inference, in no single one of them is it self-evident what the example is an example of. Language poems are social in that what they take poems to be examples of is the unique capacity to produce language altogether and thus to announce—as nothing else at the moment seems to be able to do with the same persuasiveness—the existence of something fundamentally human on which the very possibility of social life can be predicated. Language poetry considered under this description is simply not a literary practice, for it does not produce objects that belong to any category of language use. Nor is it, properly speaking, an aesthetic practice, for it is not oriented toward aisthesis, or perception. It is, rather, an ontological and ethical practice. Language poets produce poetry that is precisely equivalent to language, where language is considered as a kind of creatural knowledge or potential; therefore Language poets tend to treat the objects of their art—poems—as epiphenomenal evidence of a constitutively human capacity fo free and creative agency that is the real object of their interest" (Critical Inquiry Vol. 30 No. 1 [Autumn 2003]: 135-36).
It's a sweeping article, centered on an application of Chomsky's theory of generative grammar (which is in passing succinctly explained for the first time in a way that I could understand) and linguistic competence to the work of the Language movement in general and the Davidson-Hejinian-Silliman-Watten collaboration, Leningrad. In some ways I think he's basically correct, but even he admits that it is possible to take these poems as aesthetic objects; while singling out a passage from Tjanting as an example of "the overall thinness or insubstantiality of the poems Language poets have made. One might call this quality their anaesthetic" (134) he later admits that it's possible to carry out the Language project as he sees it while "reintroducing into Language poetry a more traditional lyric sensibility." This is in reference to Michael Palmer, "a poet whose work, incidentally, I find quite beautiful" (156) and for someone with my own lyric sensibilities that "incidentally" seems far from incidental. Not all Language poetry is intent on defeating the judgment of taste; perhaps what's missing from Izenberg's argument is a consideration of the sublime chora that saturation in Language poetry can provide for its readers. I should point out that he does validate the overall project in a somewhat backhanded way; it's just hard to imagine one of the practitioners he discusses wholeheartedly concurring. It would be interesting to read some responses to this article, especially from Mr. Silliman himself.

No comments:

Popular Posts