In the American Tree

(The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetries and Their Aftermath, with a Special Reference to Charles Bernstein Translated)

Presented as one of the Keynote Addresses at the opening session of International Conference on 20th Century American Poetry, hosted by Central China Normal University, Wuhan, China, July 21, 2007

In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera has an American senator looking at his four children running across a large expanse of grass toward a stadium with an artificial skating rink. “Describing a circle with his arm, a circle that was meant to take in stadium, grass, and children, he added, ‘Now that’s what I call happiness.'” For Kundera, this attitude represents what he calls “totalitarian of kitsch”. Something which, to him, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

Now, this definition could almost come from an essay by Charles Bernstein on what he calls “Official Verse Culture” of the present-day North-America, characterized as it is by easy, pre-fabricated sentiments, the supposedly universal “emotions of normal people”, and the rule of “easy acceptability”. But note also Kundera’s comment, only a page or two later: “[T]he smile at [the Senator’s] face was the smile Communist statesmen beamed from the height of their reviewing stand to the identically smiling citizens in the parade below”.

I’m using Kundera, a Central-European novelist not that close in his artistic ambitions to Language Poetries , to suggest that the Language project merits to be viewed outside the quite narrowly American (or Western) context it is often represented in. My claim here will be that Language as a “movement” may rather be seen as related to, and reacting against, the structures and mentality of the Cold War and the 20th Century Mass Communication Society. As to the Cold War, specifically, I’m not so much interested in its inner ideological antagonisms, as suggesting it to be seen as (the first) global structure of cultural dominance, and one where the influence of its opposing poles to each other (or indeed a shared set of “values”) is more pertinent. It was also a structure that, in East as in West, meant the introduction of simple but powerful state-ideologies – much larger than either totalitarian kitsch or official verse culture – and their implementation by means of various kinds of cultural, educational, social, media-related and other controls. It was the beginning of the development that, in the opinion of many, has led to the shallowing of the public life, the emptying out of cultural heritages.

The core group of Language poets can perhaps be seen as representing the first American TV Generation, and the “languages” they have been interested in have often been precicely those of the controls I mentioned. More importantly, though, they should, in my view, be seen as the first serious gathering of poets to react to the changing conditions of poetry in this new environment. Where some of their immediate predecessors – the Beats, the New York Poets – can be seen as having flirted with the mass consumer culture, most of the Language Poets come across as seriously concerned with (even disturbed by) some of the consequences of that “New Society” for poetry and to literature more generally. Against a more conventional view of them as just “hard line” experimentalist, I tend to see in them an almost moving “conservationist” attitude combined with most radical questioning of the fundamentals of “literature”. This “paradox” can be where their lasting value comes to be seen.

I know that Charles Bernstein will soon talk more extensively about the “fate of the innovation” – so suffice it to me to say here, as regards this paradox, that I think of the Language movement as having, already, established a new kind of literary tradition: a “tradition of innovation” where some of the central elements are the following:1) renunciation of the military metaphors so characteristic to many of the old avantgarde movements (Dada, Futurists), 2) abstaining from formulating an “alternative” artistic program or from staging itself as a solution to society’s antagonisms and delusions, 3) making use of a kind of a network economy that enables the group (I know it is not correct even to speak about group in connection to Language) to grow organically, 4) a certain peer-to-peer (poet to poet) structure, that radically changes the dynamics of how the art form evolves: public or critical success, with its attached model of successive “paradigm shifts” comes to be replaced by ongoing interchange between poets; in short, Language has helped to “bring poetry back to the poets”, 5) and finally, the imperative of innovation.

In the imperative of innovation, central to my argument is its practical ubiquitousness: the new poetical praxis that language has helped to introduce has a tendency so to exclude the idea of “applied poetry” – at least it has demonstrated that a community of “innovative poets” in the strict sense of the term can continue to grow, even more rapidly than any other part of the poetry community at large. This new situation requires us to reconsider the value of “newness” in evaluating the merits of new poetry – as it is replaced by such notions as “untimeliness”, “strangeness”, “being-out-of-placeness” etc. We are dealing with a set of new kind of sensitivities that may sound striking as explained, but are felt more than natural by the members of the poetry communities in question. I wouldn’t exclude this having affinities with some changes taking place in the culture at large (networking as a new general principle of group formation, new kinds or subgroups and sects, etc…).

Much of this gets admirably expressed in Charles Bernstein’s definition of poetry as “ultimate small business”. This idea could be seen as modelled on a Pound’s networking activity, or Joyce organizing his own reception. This is one of the reasons why I think of the contemporary revival of innovative poetry as a descendant of the early poetic and other Modernism proper.
When I leaf through an anthology like The Other Side Of the Century, by Douglas Messerli, from 1994, today, I’m struck by how strongly “controlled” the writing is. Compared to it, more conventional anthologies from the same period almost seem as series of randomly generated – almost Googled! – versions of a set of few predefined themes. This suggest that, against some still popular misconceptions, the new innovative poetic culture has very little to do with the famous “Death of the Author” – or to put it otherwise, serves as an example of Roland Barthés’ original claim of that death testifying to the birth of writing (only we are not talking about writing that would attempt to express the two successive tears of totalitarian kitsch).

One of the indications of this emphasis of writerly control is how it is reflected in the positions taken by the two most important contemporary tendencies purporting to “carry on” the Language project: Conceptual Writing and Flarf. Both these tendencies are geared to “loosen” or question the control of the author on the poetic work – even in the “non-naturalistic” and disjunction-oriented way generally found in Language Poetry. With Conceptual Writing, the target is precisely the idea of writer as the one “in control” – cf. Kenneth Goldsmith’s punch line, “I am a word processor.” The author still decides what goes into the work, but the detailed control on individual words and sentences, and their interplay, is renounced – often with the delightful result of the work gaining in “insights”… In Flarf, the emphasis is on “writing badly”, and in the “disturbing” quality of the content which often derives from online chatrooms and other Internet “rubbish”. With a twitch, Flarf thus comes across as poetry that is – once again – interested in “free flow of emotions”, and in how the writer personally feels about the “content” (the imperative of “disturbedness” demanding her to loosen her control on that…). Conceptualism and Flarf can be seen as examples of how “any true avant-garde provokes a legacy that looks very different from itself” (in Craig Dworkin’s admirable formulation) – and I mean that as a compliment to both Language poetry and to these its contenders.

The new evaluative criterion of “untimeliness”, as outlined above, may today already be applied to the reception of the Language poetry itself. Here I must contradict myself: against what I said about the importance of peer-to-peer, poet-to-poet structures, I would like to suggest reactivating the old Benjaminian idea of “a poem never been meant to its readers”. In this new emerging context, something like this could be seen as happening in conceptualism (cf. Kenny Goldsmith’s claim of him “not having a readership”), but also as an extension of large parts of Charles Bernstein’s practise, where the imperative of innovation is accompanied with the dictate of “difficulty made difficult”. Instead of seeing Bernstein’s work as “inconsistent” (Richard Kostelanez) (even in the meaning of consistent rejection of consistency (Hank Laser)), I propose studying it precisely in its consistent rejection to meet its readers – on a communicative basis. (Something which, to once more (mis)use Kundera, has tended to give it a quality of a certain “unbearable lightness”.) To exaggerate a bit, it may be that the work of the most prominent member of the original language group is the most in need of re-evaluation.

Before moving on to my conclusions, allow me one more remark, on a theme that in this context can rightly be seen as fundamental: language. In the early discussions between the members of the core group of Language poets, the basically structuralist, Saussurean idea of “language determining the reality” was rather prominent. Taking my lead from a Bernstein poem, “Don’t Be So Sure”, I would like to claim the following: de Saussure and Bernstein agree on a fundamental point, that of language being “in the last instance” socially determined, and differ in how they interpret this. For de Saussure – as to much of the later poststructuralist thinking – the social conditioning (“lien social”) is what determines the famous “arbitrariness of the sign”: language is what is socially accepted as such. Compare to this the Bernstainian formulation: “Poetry’s social function is not to express but, rather, to explore the possibilities for expression.” Explore, not far from question; question, not far from reject; reject; not far from destroy. In this perspective, the new innovative poetries of today cannot exactly be one with language(s). Their attitude is not that of “a floating signifier”, and the imperative of innovation can be seen as expressly opposed to the (still somewhat) fashionable Post-Modern attitude of “anything goes”. On the contrary, nothing (as such) goes. Where for structuralist and post-structuralist theory, the “lien social” determines what is acceptable, we need to concentrate on the other side of the coin: to what does not gain acceptance. Difficulty has to be made difficult.
In fact I have been talking about the international reception of Language Poetries all the time. The scene of innovative new poetry todays is fundamentally global – not least thanks to the impact of Internet. Still, I would claim that there are two receptions of Language, overlapping but different: domestic and international. I will close with a set of theses on these.

One. In a certain sense, Language really was and is an American phenomenon. Based on several structural factors that I cannot go deeper in here, the new innovative poetries there have become to be very much identified with genuine (“alternative”) American values and – on another level – with the tradition of English language and literature.

Two. I would claim that – to a certain extent – the tradition of Language Poetry in special is not transferable to any other national context. Or put it that way: it’s influence at that level will come more through works that have not been translated, or are not translatable. I may not be the right person to say this, having being responsible for a volume of translations of the work of Charles Bernstein into Finnish, but then again, he can already be said to be part of the Finnish poetry scene – not as imported poetic “content”, but as an active actor.

Three. The influence of Language writing outside its “homeland” is bound to happen on a transnational level. The case in point is today’s situation in Scandinavian countries where there is an active transnational movement along the lines of what we have seen in US and Canada. As in North America, there is a lot of resistance to that new development – resistance that is always expressed on a national basis. On another hand, the fact of this new development taking place on transnational level helps to activate certain fundamental tenets of Language writing: not being directly tied to any native language as such, the new international poetries will come to chart even more unprecedented territories. I have proposed a concept of literature of “Barbaric English” – the English spoken as a second language. This has now developed into an interest of all kind of barbarized versions of all the languages involved (I just finished a longish poem in Norwegian, a language I don’t know enough even to know what I have said in the piece.) These development will evidently pose new challenges for American poets, many of whose, if truth be told, are only too complacent with only disfiguring their own dear English.

Four. More than any other poetry before it, the body of the Language poetry will change when translated. (Something like that definitively happened to a Bernstein poem I translated without even looking at it – and to another, which originally is in gibberish, yet now has definitive content in Finnish and Swedish, as well as more gibberish versions based on those.) In fact, the implanting of the Language tradition into the transnational space will be a process and undertaking comparable to the radical misprision effected by Pound vis-a-vis traditional Chinese poetry – except that the misplacements here, because of the more “undecided” and heterogeneous nature of “original”, will be more substantial. In fact it will be more a question of creating altogether new poetry based on beneficial misunderstandings and contextual changes.

Five. A word on China is in place in this context. I started by alluding to the international situation during the early years of Language poetry. Now, as we all know, China will have a growing impact to the present one in future. I’m aware that something similar to the process that led to the growth of Language movement is already taking place in China and in Chinese – the Internet acting as a crucial enabler even here. Of course, one can only regret certain restrictions that the Chinese government, with the help of Western online giants, has effected here. We must hope they will be lifted – as I believe they will. I recently read that with its present Internet penetration of 10 percent, China is now the second biggest Internet country, only a little behind the US, with its 90 percent penetration. Sooner than we in West even realize, Chinese will be the dominant language of the Internet. This will open enormous new possibilities for the Chinese poets to creatively misunderstand also the tradition of Language poetry, perhaps ending up with one more large scale misprision across the continents.

To describe that eventuality, we could say, along with Charles Bernstein, at the end of his essay “The Revenge of the Poet-Critic, or The Parts Are Greater Than the Sum of the Whole”:
I open the door and it shuts after me. That is, the more I venture out into the open the more I find it is behind me and I am moving not toward some uninhabited space but into a maelstrom of criss-crossing inscriptions. The open is a vanishing point – the closer I get to it the greater the distance from which it beckons. And I begin the journey again.
Now that’s what I would call happiness.

Charles Bernstein in Campinas, 2006