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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  • At August 4, 2008 at 10:31 PM, Blogger Kirk Johnson said…


    "... a strong but undesirable reception" and Bad History as a "split" sure do resonate with me.

    "Stuck ... and still signaling" may not say it all (let's hope not) but it damn well says. Lifeboat choristers, raising up our echos esclaves / Par un trompe not entirely yet sans vertu

    All best as always,

  • At August 4, 2008 at 11:22 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'd be interested in (curious about) the lines or words that have stuck in your mind, from those that you've named.

    With Silliman, Tjanting is great no doubt, and memorable too I suppose, but for me the sentences from Ketjak are the ones that remain firmly implanted in the head (what with the repeats there, they tend to get drummed in....

  • At August 4, 2008 at 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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

    To the contrary, I think it is very odd that the "LangPo" movement is still seen as the current "thing" by so many people. It is a very valuable and productive set of ideas about literature, sure, but how long did Symbolism last -- a decade? Imagism -- five years? Surrealism -- eight years? Existentialism -- a dozen years? The New York School... LangPo is already over thirty years old... can any poetry movement be relevant to so many generations of readers? Or has LangPo not yet done its work? If so, why not? Or... is LangPo more like a political philosophy, like, say, Communism. That lasted around eighty years, so maybe LangPo has fifty more years to run. And of course no one wants to see their very own raison d'etre labelled a passing fad, so let's not do that. Maybe young writers, as always, want to create a new, fresh way of looking at writing, and since Catullus, say, that usually involves felling the sixty-year-old greybeards and replacing them with new, younger heroes with thick, wavy hair. But poetry can't be like pop music, can it, recycling new ideas every decade? Maybe posterity will sort this out for us, as it did with Romanticism: now there's a movement that lasted more than a decade.
    -- John Tranter, Jacket magazine.

  • At August 5, 2008 at 10:19 AM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    Watten's decision to launch Grand Piano raises a number of questions, but answers none of them. That's perfectly fine; criticism, self-criticism and autobiography are all useful tools in securing meaning from work, and the past.

    In what sense do ten essayists reminiscing casually about a joint reading program 30 years earlier contribute to a greater understanding of their work?

    How does roping together these ten consolidate an aesthetic-political position that isn't already inside the work itself? If Watten had wanted to make a coherent point about the effect of their mutual (though loose) association(s), this wouldn't be the method one would choose, I think.

    Autobiography, as a form, is either notoriously inexact, or strategically focused (and frequently self-serving). In none of the essays/accounts I've read do the participants address the deeper underlying point: Why are they presented as a phalanx, a "front" committed to a program, especially when the program is undefined and non-specific?

    In what sense is any of the pieces necessary to that program? Why couldn't any, or all of them, simply be presented separately by their authors in other less deliberate or ulterior frames?

    Again, I come away from them asking the same question, over and over. Does anything I've read enhance my appreciation of Watten's Decay, of Armantrout's Precedence, of Silliman's Ketjak? Does it change the works, make them seem less mysterious, or more interesting, or more subtly political or ingenious, than they did before? Not for my money.

    The agenda seems to be to furnish a kind of test case of the values of coterie, to see if the participants can find in their own memories a basis for an apprehension of those values--even if the original relations and exchanges may have been unconscious.

    In any case, who's to say whether any of it is true? Witnesses are always unreliable, and writers and artists are the last people you would expect to report accurately. Does having 10 people tell you highly inflected and manipulated accounts about a set of random events and interactions over a period of, say, five years, triangulate fact?

    Perhaps truth isn't the point. Imagination may grant us useful insights into human intercourse, free of the duty of evidence.

    What most intrigues us about biography is the contrast between reality and the artistic imagination; but with auto-biography, we're almost guaranteed not to be given this contrast.

    As usual, what I really want, is the underlying subtext: the story behind the event, the inconvenient truth behind the constructed edifice. The part that's hidden, the embarrassing admissions that reveal character and motive.

    "Permission to treat witness as hostile."

  • At August 5, 2008 at 1:54 PM, Blogger Steven Fama said…

    Lots of good questions and comments, Curtis, except your assertions,

    "Witnesses are always unreliable, and writers and artists are the last people you would expect to report accurately"

    is over-generalized bull crap.

    Witnesses come in all variety of shapes and stripes. Some witnesses are incredibly precise and accurate. Others aren't. Often it depends on the circumstances surrounding the matter being seen or recalled.

    Writers and artists as a group, no less than any other group, don't fall into one or another of the categories.

  • At August 5, 2008 at 10:02 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    Steven: I would be a little less earnest in your assertions--"over-generalized bull crap"--as a matter of fact (FACT!), legal research has proven over and over again that people are UN-reliable reporters of events and situations.

    Why is truth important to Grand Piano?

    Because the only justification for the "co-operative" nature of "Joint" autobiography is the verifiable fact of what DID take place, not what the participants "thought" or "felt" or now believe (30 years later).

    Don't you see that the desire to make a positive version of the past is almost always greater than the duty to what actually occurred? Why would they (or Watten) desire to make an account that undercut their story? The only purpose is to prove that the coterie produced positive results--that these writers responded in a powerful and correct way to the challenges of the age.

    Suppose, for the purposes of argument, we were to start from a premise that the so-called "Language Poets" were all mistaken from the beginning, that their methodology was unsuited to the issues they confronted, and that their works constitute a sly evasion of those issues.

    The a priori position is that what they did produced works of importance and relevance. But you can't prove a thesis simply through deduction. And it is as likely that their work was interesting for the "wrong" reasons, as it was for the right ones (whatever your version of the "right" may be).

    What makes this coterie more correct than any other? The proof isn't there.

    Where's the evidence of it?

    My position is that Grand Piano had nothing whatever to do with the power of the works which its participants produced. Watten would have written 1-10, Silliman Tjanting, and Armantrout Extremities, with or without the "influence" of this group.

    Retrospective editions of history have the benefit of hindsight: We can say what we like about the effect so-and-so or happenstance had upon our imaginative progress. But who's to disagree?

    What does any of it prove?

    My objection is not to any of the severally interesting componant parts of the program, but to the over-riding agenda which the presentation implies. Why are they being presented in this way?

    The best work is almost always produced by individual artists or writers in spite of whatever contemporary social milieu existed. Who among the Modernists would you exclude simply on the basis of context?

    Which of the Language Poets have written work which will live?

    Isn't that the point?

  • At August 6, 2008 at 2:27 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Thanks for all the comments, guys. I'll try to respond to some in the interstices of everything else.


    It depends on how you look at it. There are at least a few distinctions to be made.

    It seems pretty clear that the work of a movement can, after the dissolution of that movement as the "latest thing," be forgotten and then rediscovered much later, becoming the sign of possibilities that haven't yet been taken up. That's not the case with LangPo. But it can also happen that some body of work can be acknowledged as significant, discussed a lot, established as major and influential, and be quite present in discourse, all without that work having been explored thoroughly, intimately--without it having been worked through in careful analysis by practicing writers. It may even be that the constant discourse about something is exactly what makes it difficult to become involved with the actual writing in the ways that can reveal what's there. I very often (though not always) get the sense, when I hear writers talk about Language Writing as something that's "over," that these writers first encountered the work in grad school classes, had it presented to them first through the most accessible theory meant to "sum up" LangPo, with all the catch phrases about rejection of reference, etc. That makes it even harder to read the actual poetry as anything but an illustration of the theory that, in most cases, came after the fact in an attempt to describe it. Or as a "style" one might write in. All this misses the particularity of the work of individual writers, making it a series of instances of the same preexisting thing, rather than the opening of new possibilities.

    In short: there's a difference between acknowledging the status of a body of work and really getting to know it from the inside. The latter can take decades or even centuries without the possibilities being exhausted, and I feel like that work has barely begun with regard to LP.

    (People are still writing novels that wouldn't have been possible without Ulysses, but that aren't very much like it, even though that high modernist, "western culture is in decay and needs to be gathered together in one mammoth work" age has long since passed. Well, one could argue that Joyce as a model has, for the moment, been overused...)

    If LangPo is a style, then the more recent work of Hejinian, Armantrout, Silliman must be less radical deviations from that style (given their higher degree of referentiality, the tendency toward direct statement, imagery, and so on). I see that work as, instead, taking the formal possibilities that their earlier, "less friendly" work generated and employing them in order to deal with new materials. I don't think allowing a higher degree of reference (which was never absent anyway) makes their writing any less singular.

    As a writer, though, I'm interested in the poetry, made possible by LangPo, that will never be written by its practitioners. What would a "poem including history," or an explicitly political poetry, that ran with the formal possibilities raised by Silliman's work with ways of organizing paratactic units, look like (for example)?

    There is, of course, the danger of over-influence, which leads to the impulse of any younger generation to reject the older, to want to tear it down when it feels stifling (and that's the desperation I'm referring to at the end of my post). That makes sense, but it often seems like resignation to me--that the harder challenge would be to find out what directions that work, and only that work, points toward without going there, and to see whether going that way opens things up for one's own work.

    I hope my scant number of points weren't lost in this quantity of hurried blather.

  • At August 6, 2008 at 2:37 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…


    A brief comment: as autobiography, GP is, for me, mostly entertainment--though I do find the activity, the mutual interest, support and criticism of the community presented there, to be exciting and pretty inspiring (even as I suspect that some of the problems that tend to come along with "community" have remained unaddressed). At least it's entertainment that actually interests me.

    A lot of the writing, though, is much more in the category of essays on art, sociology, politics, etc. than in the category of autobiography. Even Watten's account of one of his early performances in #5 is as much an essay about some potential relations of art to social space as it is a mini-memoir of his own work. I think the project is at its most interesting in those places--and, indeed, at its least interesting where it tries to present a unified front.

    And, no--none of this really increases my appreciation for the work these folks wrote in the late '70s and early '80s--though it has been a nice excuse to reread a lot of it (or, in some cases, to read it for the first time), and I'm finding that a delight.

    More to agree and disagree with in your posts, but I'll come back to it later.

  • At August 6, 2008 at 3:42 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    The canonization of a style carries a number of risks.

    Why aren't Jackson Mac Low, Michael Davidson, Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer "Language Poets"? It strikes me that their work is a much clearer instance of the very principles which Watten and Silliman espouse in their critical writing(s), than their own work (and the work of their cohorts) is.

    The problem with canonizing coterie is that the individual writers (and artists) rarely fall into line. Breton enforced the French Surrealist movement with strict guidelines which its adherents were expected to follow, or risk exclusion from the movement.

    We can talk, for instance, about "High Modernism" and name its examples (Mauberley, Prufrock and The Waste Land, Moore's Observations, Stevens's Harmonium, Joyce's Ulysses, and so on), but woe to the critic who would attempt to make of these separate efforts the consequence of some social circumstance (bound up in conditions of class, opportunity, and sex)!

    The ten writers included in the Grand Piano program do not belong to some academy of style dictated by a strict set of principles to which they all subscribe and loyally follow. That's absurd. To make such a claim is not only to underestimate their separate achievements, but to imply that they could not have succeeded without an elaborate, and conscious, support system. Even more absurd.

    I think the whole project will collapse in on itself. You can already feel the ebbing of interest in each succeeding volume. What is the thesis, and how can it be proven?

    Ten stories times ten. One hundred mini-essays. An archive of privilege in the lit'ry wars.

    Andy, you seem preoccupied with the calamity of falling out of favor, as a "has-been." Does it really matter to you whether the public reputation is dated, or not? And doesn't the Grand Piano project itself, as a record of a specific time 30 years ago, accomplish that very purpose? Did the vortex burn itself out? But if the vortex was the point, and not the people, then who cares whether the work is important, or not? Humpty just sits on that fence forever, and never ventures to climb down.

    Movements. How boring.

    I don't give a fig whether the poets and poems I like are in or out of favor. Also, I don't care who knew who, in order that they got written.

  • At August 6, 2008 at 6:19 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…


    "The ten writers included in the Grand Piano program do not belong to some academy of style dictated by a strict set of principles to which they all subscribe and loyally follow."

    Absolutely. That's why I like Ron's strictly geographic/historical definition of the term "Language Poetry." It prevents the term from describing a way of writing, and instead becomes a convenient designator for a set of writers. It's also the definition that excludes Palmer, etc., for reasons that aren't aesthetic.

    "Andy, you seem preoccupied with the calamity of falling out of favor, as a "has-been." Does it really matter to you whether the public reputation is dated, or not?"

    What I care about is the actual writing in all its specificity, which I expect to keep reading, with delight, for a long time, whatever anyone else might think of its obsolescence. To be honest, I'm addressing it for two reasons:

    1) It makes me grouchy to repeatedly read and hear smug dismissals by people who don't actually seem to have read what they're dismissing, especially when it's fashionable to dismiss it.

    2) More importantly (but closely connected): I feel like the compulsion to always produce the most up-to-date, novel product (and it'd better be fast, before somebody else can get to it) is lousy, turning an avant-garde desire for new possibilities into a hamburger. If I want (as, for the moment, I do) to be somewhat aware of, and connected with, other writers, then I'm going to have to encounter that compulsion in various forms, and I'm going to have to defend myself against it, for the sake of my own reading and writing. So there's a personal stake, not in preserving LangPo as a canonized body of work, but in criticizing a general attitude that I see as the source of its dismissal. And not just a personal stake, since I think the "new! new! now!" attitude is bad for culture in general. Slow the hell down.

  • At August 6, 2008 at 9:00 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    Yup, I agree.

    All true.


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