Friday, June 23, 2017



(University of Iowa Press, 2016)

Questioning the Questioner’s Quest

The old put-down about weak stand-up comics fits for this book, too: He not only tells ‘em; he explains ‘em. The vocabulary of theory gets in its own way a lot here. “If the obdurate language of Andrews’ poetry is oriented, as aesthetic, toward an irreducibly material signification, it has its motivation, as cultural, as a mode of questioning Dante’s poetics” (176)—Bruce Andrews is just one of his fellow travelers who get explained in terms like these. Professor Watten is working on revealing the driving forces in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement, their evolution out of the “cultural logic” of their times, and the impulses that carry forward from there to a legacy of some consequence. Early in the book, Watten lays out LangPo’s “three most distinctive features” as “radical particularity,” “aesthetic negativity,” and “formal agency” (9). As the chapters progress, he uses these terms to highlight aspects of works by Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, and many more. A whole chapter is given to “Collective Autobiography: The Grand Piano and the Politics of Community,” discussing in great detail that group project and revealing the struggle for community in and after it. The claim for community is an essential part of the claim for the socio-political relevance of LangPo. Their work on form and content evolved from claims for a relationship between form and context that get some elaboration in this book. The chapters tend to display one of those “distinctive features” in works by Language writers and to loosely link it to political context and work being done in other arts at the time. These relationships unfortunately often seem idiosyncratic to Watten’s thinking in this book; a reader is left to see or not see the connections in “the relationships developed between form and context” as “the basis of a critical art practice” (7). There’s a lot of thinking here, but the connections are loose and one of the book’s main terms (allegory) is used without much definition at all.

Watten’s book is one composed by a professor, for professors and wanna-be professors, and mostly about professors—some of whom are also poets. The final chapter tries to establish a new modernist character called the “poet/critic,” but that part was played even by Dante back in the day. The “unified project of poetry and poetics” claimed for modernism and its post-s may be more on-going than this book cares to see (202). “Poetics was a necessary component of Language writing,” Watten plainly states (216). And then he elaborates: “Poetics is a productive discourse of the making of the work in its condition of possibility, extended to many forms of making—including the social and sexual, gender and race” (217). These claims follow up on ideas from his intro like LangPo being able to develop from its beginnings “specific to the politics and culture of the 1970s” (4) into “new relationships between poetic form and social formation, poetics and practice” (7). Where he helps us with examples and explanations of techniques for writing, poets may want to take note; however, Watten’s claims are only as good as they are useful for us.

This book can help us to see what some astute writers have done with the demands of shaping a poetics toward experiences for both writers and readers that might make some difference in our world. Writing about Lyn Hejinian, he says her “work has consistently involved the unpacking and layering of narrative material in poetic form.” If you have read even just My Life, you may recognize how she “separates and recombines temporal sequences (of language, image, event) and reflective judgments of them toward a horizon of possible experience—life lived not before the writing of the work but as a consequence of it” (217). That lived “consequence” is more interesting than any in literary history because it is a meaningful basis for choosing a poetics, as any of us writers has to do—whether we put it in fancy terms or just into practice. There’s a stance in such a praxis about identity and the “many forms of making” it, “including the social and sexual, gender and race” as Watten listed them. He brings this discussion around to the poet Barrett Watten himself, and even comments on “the impropriety of doing this” (207). This is the figure of the one who both “tells ‘em” and “explains ‘em.”  “The poet thus redefined becomes the maker of a reflexive object that enacts and criticizes the conditions of its own possibility, while the critic becomes the site of discursive knowledge that explains and expands the resulting reflexivity of the object” (211). Watten’s explanation of some of his own works leads to his broadest assertion of what LangPo has offered, and the weakest concept in his argument: “the making of the poem, in this sense, is analogized, even allegorized, by the poet” (222). This is where the “self-reflexive claims for structure as agency” (203) entered the Language-writing mythology as “a moment of doubling” in this hybrid role or “mold” (212-213). Chapter 6 “The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field: Or, What Is a Poet/Critic?” closes the book with this combined figure and the fulfillment of it by Watten himself and the legacy of LangPo. A key term in this discussion and in the whole book is “allegory,” apparently referring to a kind of global analogy with the mediating social whole as what gives their works their worth.

If you count the number of page references to “allegory and allegorical writing” in the Index, you can see that it is mentioned on one out of every ten pages in the book. Only once is it about Dante; mostly it is about the likes of Bruce Andrews or Watten himself. Why this term? Why talk of allegory in a world so long after Dante and the theologists made it a central concern? It almost seems that Watten wants some part of that world back. His reasoning is nearly Augustinian. Watten seems to want a political truth in facto behind the structures composed in verbis by his exemplary poets, displaying an almost theological belief that cultural logic and political structures dictate the meanings of our world. This is Marx made biblical. Some of the early LangPo laborers worked usefully at more basic levels. Founding father Ron Silliman approached the idea that how the poem expresses itself, beyond its content, can give it political clout. His 1985 essay “Towards Prose” (collected in The New Sentence) carefully showed the difference between composing by hypotaxis or by parataxis and offered concrete practical advice for writers in making those choices. Watten helpfully shows his key concepts in practical application by admirable writers and gives them useful definition much of the time. With allegory, the story is different, though; he uses that term loosely about a wide variety of writers as if it merely refers to having a meaning apart from the surface content of the work. He ignores the technical history of the term. Dante’s fine tunings of types of allegory in different works and his construction of a new poets’ allegory to equal that of the theologians in its doubleness (its being “not an allegory of ‘this for that’ but an allegory of ‘this and that,’ of this sense plus that sense” as Charles Singleton put it) are sloppily reduced in Watten’s use of the term.

Cultural logic and the mediation of the social whole in every part are concepts that we can use in thinking about our work as poets, but we need much more carefully and practically constructed thinking in this direction than we usually get. To simply make a claim for effectiveness through raising “questions of poetics” in a text is not enough; practical thinking is needed too. To see from more than one angle at once, that’s what poetry is good for. To double down and work to present multiple contexts of what you’re presenting, that can make all the difference: a critical perspective and a liberating one can be combined by careful work, with laughter as the measure of the distance between them, as Freud explained in Der Witz. The most revealing sentence in Questions of Poetics is on page 179 where Watten recognizes the “common necessity” shared by “avant-garde agency and mass-cultural discourse” (like Stephen Colbert, his example): “to remain conscious within a language of systematic denial.” To reveal that denial and raise that consciousness is the task of a writing that might have a chance to change things right where poetry does its job, in people’s minds. Laughter comes from there, too, and that’s where both the avant-gardistes of art and those of TV do their best work and have their greatest effect. Unfortunately, Watten’s book seems to lack humor. Unfortunately as well, its clearest goal seems to be an unapologetic apologia that would firm up LangPo’s place in literary history. As my friend David Bromige would have said, “Get over it.”


T. C. Marshall was raised among wolves and now works among poets, which is even more challenging. A rather elaborate essay of his was included this year in Brian Ang's poetry-month anthology on "Post-Crisis Poetics." Last year, Tom presented a paper to a seminar working with that topic at Buffalo's conference on "Poetics (the next) 25 years." Those pieces are parts of his work developing both a theory and practical proposals for how to move beyond "the aesthetic," and not look back.

No comments:

Post a Comment