Wednesday, November 14, 2007

on The Grand Piano, part 4

I find each installment of The Grand Piano more intriguing than the last.

As the project goes on, the standpoints of the participants seem increasingly to diverge (I'm not certain whether this is happening in the writing itself or as a cumulative effect of reading). There's a friction , I think, between this divergence and Barrett Watten's ongoing attempt to cement the legend of Language Poetry. In much of his writing (here and in The Constructivist Moment), Watten is concerned to solidly establish the 'we' of these writers in a history of singular avant-garde cultural formations--to present the 'Language School' (of which he's, I think, the only member to employ that phrase, comfortably and without scare quotes), with all its variety, as a unified moment and rupture, a negative expression of discursive formations in a particular nexus of sociopolitical situations. Watten wants this writing ensconced in literary history, and for that he needs a myth.*

It's this myth that most often comes under attack when people complain about Language poetry (rather than the writing itself, which most critics seem not to have read very thoroughly): the presentation of an avant-garde collective, a unified front without precedent, claiming for itself a permanently oppositional status that these critics claim has become institutionalized, gaining power in terms of social status while losing power as a radical critique. This is already a caricature of Watten's presentation; while there is a drive toward a particular kind of institutionalization (of the 'school's' cultural significance, more than of the writers and their paid positions or blogging status), he most definitely sees LP as historical, and has insisted on the relation of the work to specific contexts.** If LP needed a defense against these dismissals, though, I find the fractured picture painted by this memoir to be a more compelling one than any instance of a more thoroughly theorized coherence.

Watten's approach has its varied antipodes and alternatives in The Grand Piano. Ron Silliman tends toward a more modest mode of historiography, crisp and straightforward (his entry here concentrates on the "talks" series, often unjustly overshadowed, in discourse about LangPo's theoretical production, by The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, perhaps because the printed records of the former are simply harder to find). Rae Armantrout's contributions are condensed, wry, direct and full of uncertainty. "I guess," "I hope so," and "I don't know"appear frequently, and (as in her poems) there's a discomfort with easy categories and answers. Here her recent bout with cancer and the relation to mortality that comes with that (which, incidentally, her most recent poems treat with a humor that astounds me) are juxtaposed with a nostalgia for an infinite, open time to place 'everyday life' (this volume's central concept) at a distance. Steve Benson's mode is an increasingly incisive self-questioning. Lyn Hejinian continues the philosophical investigations that have always characterized her work (though in a new and more explicit way since Happily), here meditating on the nature of memory in relation to the everyday and placing reminiscences about Tuumba Press beside events in the newspaper from 1977 to 1979. Kit Robinson (an exemplary poet with regard to the relation of writing to the everyday) here looks at poetry and jobs; as with the majority of his entries and his poetry, this one is characterized by a 'keeping-on-one's toes' sort of restlessness, an attention that wanders while remaining attentive. Carla Harryman's contributions are unsummarizable. They're regularly the most wide-ranging and self-sufficient of the bunch and, regardless of their position in the order of a given volume, seem to elicit the most response, from outside readers as well as from the other participants. They deserve their own blog post.***

Bob Perelman is certainly the most direct and skeptical questioner of the 'myth' (and has been so increasingly for at least a decade now), and of his own status in relation to it, both as participant and as critic. In book 4, Perelman introduces 'utopia' into the conversation, with its unstable relation to the concept of everyday life ("utopias aim at a clarified, just version of what everyday life could be; and in bad times, everyday life can seem like a utopian prospect" (GP4, p.116)). In this history, is utopia being treated as something that's already happened? Language poetry as entrenched, protected, "an unimpeachably recognizable object of study" (p.119)? Perelman's account of the panel "Language Writing and the Body" reproduces, in a displaced way, the same variety of investments in accounting for this writing that one finds in The Grand Piano, contrasting Steve Benson's self-critical performance, Leslie Scalapino's implied critique of narratives like GP, Maria Damon's feminist analysis of women's avant-garde writing (including Harryman's contributions to the collective autobiography, which contain the lion's share of its explicit instances of feminism), and Bruce Andrews' apparently 'LangPo-canonical' presentation. Perelman contrasts this event, in which he finds an uncomfortable 'MLA-like' character, with the Talks, which he found much more open, unstable, in process, utopian. He then recounts a conversation with Andrews at the after-party about whether there is, or has been, any 'Language writing' per se, and the answer is highly ambiguous. In conclusion, he asks who holds the "two-edged sword" that carves "the trench that founds Utopia... King Utopus or His Majesty the Ego"[?] (p.126).

It's less the opposition of this skepticism and uncertainty to Watten's heroism that makes up The Grand Piano's picture of a collective than it is the kaleidoscopic differences among all its contributors' work. As the project progresses, the 'collective' known as 'West Coast Language Poetry' loses, not its reality, but its subsumption of its individual members under a single umbrella (or piano).*****
The collective is coming to seem like something that happened (happens? happens here again? in any case, an in-motion occurrence rather than an organic entity) between its participants, in the crossing of the various shifting lines of friendships, collaborations, events, writings, responses, individual relations to separate social contexts overlapping and diverging. The collective subsists (subsisted? in any case, rather than 'exists,' 'existed') in the proposal of it, the calling it into question, the interest in it as an event and the lack of that interest as central, in singular/exemplary works and in ongoing processes--in the shifting relations between all these. Instead of a force, a wedge, a school, a set of rules--something being done, a real epiphenomenon of actual things being done and imagined.


Two notes unattached to particular moments in this post:

--As this divergence occurs, Watten's own contributions become more specific, more essays in their own right; though they've had this characteristic all along, the deliquescent "we" dominates his tone to a lesser extent in GP 4, even though it does end with "we were just about to make a big noise" (p.85). Here he makes brilliant statements on the relation of writing to the everyday, on negativity and art, in relation to a series of presentations he gave in December 1979, culminating in the premiere of 1-10, one of those exemplary moments in contemporary poetry.

--I'd guess I'm more attracted to this dispersed picture of a writing community than to Watten's partly because I discovered Language Writing with a group of friends in Urbana back in 1995 or so (none of us had any idea who these people were, and the writing didn't tell us that either), in the context of a less lasting but just as multiple nexus of collaborations, enthusiasms and interrelationships, in which some of us (including myself) were given to bold theoretical pronouncements, others not, and in which all of us had different kinds and degrees of investment. The fact that this poetry took us by surprise, seemed so strange and estranging, seemed to come out of nowhere, that it didn't seem to form a unity at all, has become progressively more valuable to me as I encounter more and more people who came to the same writing in universities, presented with a small bit of the theory first, had it packaged for them--people who were given the arguments for the writing before they had a chance to encounter the writing itself.

*I want to point out that "myth" doesn't equal "lie," and that my preference for the presentation that emerges from this collective memoir doesn't equal a wholesale dismissal of Watten's project in this regard.

**There's also, in many of these criticisms, the always-disturbing hatred of what's passed, the reviling of the old, the "over" (which is not only cold but inaccurate, since some of these writers are, I'd argue, producing their finest work now).

***I haven't said anything here about the other two participants, Tom Mandel and Ted Pearson. It's only for reasons of space, but it's unfortunately typical; they're writers who have received less attention than the others in general.

****Either one will protect you from the rain; the piano is bigger, less mobile, and more canonically musical (the umbrella would require the invention of new techniques, and probably a contact microphone). Furniture and the Sitting vs. the Portable Object and the Walk?

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