Friday, July 25, 2008

You can now download my reading with Carrie Etter from Tuesday's "Series A" in Chicago by clicking here. Some dirty words blanked out for radio.

Monday, July 21, 2008

reading in Chicago tomorrow

Tuesday, July 22nd

All the way from London: Carrie Etter

All the way from Madison: Andy Gricevich

Reading poems in Chicago
Series A

Friday, July 18, 2008

Watten's Grand Piano

I've revised my discomfort with Barrett Watten's stance as represented in the collectively-written memoir/essay The Grand Piano. I'd seen the attempt to present a unified front for Language Writing, in the form of a story about a singular avant-garde movement appearing dramatically on the scene, as exactly the wrong move, at a time when so many writers of my age (plus or minus a decade or so) use "LangPo" as a broad stylistic term, without historical specificity, in a generalized way that misses the then-and-still-staggering breadth and variety among and within the writing of its practitioners, absorbing their work into a sound-bite series of descriptions paraphrased from two or three essays written in the early 1980s.

In the light of his contributions to GP 5 & 6, as well as his recent note on the "1970s" conference in Orono, I've come to see Watten's critical project as an effort to retain a place for radical art (and its extensions into the larger culture through poetics, literary history and criticism) at the institutional table--to keep it from being displaced entirely by official criticism, which, even at its best, is almost always far behind art, both chronologically and philosophically. As regards "Language Poetry," this is a place that's barely been gained--a tenuousness that shows in the easy reduction to formulas mentioned above.

In GP 6, Watten revisits his first book of criticism, Total Syntax (a book I've found endlessly fascinating and influential, and which absolutely deserves a reprint). He focuses on that book's distinction between "technique" and "method." "Technique" is everything about how the work is constructed, while "method" is technique's extension in the form of engagements with the world outside the work, whether through its manner of reception, the forms of its presentation, or the range of materials about which it has something to say. Technique is "the beginning of a series that provisionally arrives with the work" (p. 76), while method is what comes "after," beyond its making.

At the end of his section of #6, Watten cites Progress and Total Syntax as the "sites" he's left, places to be returned to. That the latter is included puts the "split" in his career in a new light for me. Before the split (which might be marked by Bad History), there's a concentration on the production of new work, corresponding to "technique--" the period in which he was writing poetry. After it, there's the period characterized by The Constructivist Moment (his second critical collection), as well as most of the writing on his blog. This phase addresses, in one way, the matter of method. (The use of these terms in this way cheapens them a bit, since Watten's been concerned with both all along. I'll return to them in their richer and more provocative implications in the next post).

The picture that emerges now for me is of a poet and critic whose commited and unapologetic thinking has pushed into often counterintuitive areas in which the result can't be entirely predicted. The fact that I find The Constructivist Moment less compelling, less radical than Total Syntax has as much to do with the fact that the more recent work is addressed to an institutional context in which I'm not currently involved (or particularly interested) as it has to do with the quality of that work. It's an attempt to make frames for the reception of poetry that depend on something more vital than the mere economics of publication and distribution, to expand it into the extra-poetic. I remain skeptical of most academic discourse and worried about ways in which this effort might backfire, producing a strong but undesirable reception for the art in whose name it's made--but that institutional address is a job that needs to be done in some way, and I'm glad that he's doing it.

And he does qualify the "we," in a substantial footnote, claiming that it's to be used as a "shifter" rather than a "rigid designator"--that each writer undertook different investigations in his or her own way, around some shared concerns and a number of different ones, and that these individual works were encouraged by the group dynamic. That's a distinction from the "unified front" picture, and sounds pretty damn good to me.


I've also just reread Watten's first two collections, Opera/Works and Decay, the former for the second time and the latter for the umpteenth. I'm still blown away by their singularity, their strangeness that hasn't faded a bit, their breadth and humor and unique form of rigor. In a recent post-reading conversation somebody claimed that Language Poetry is about "the process of the experiment" to the exclusion of the poem. When I disagreed, he said something like "nobody remembers specific lines from a Charles Bernstein poem, or a Barrett Watten poem." I realized just how wrong that is; sentences from Silliman's Tjanting, language from Bernstein's Controlling Interests, lines from Armantrout's and Perelman's work, and most definitely from Watten's Decay, Complete Thought, Conduit and others have stuck with me for a long time, still signalling what's possible.

The aggressive energy with which so many writers compulsively argue that this writing is a thing of the past, an "experiment" that long ago ran its course, indicates all on its own just how far the work is from having been absorbed.

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