I've been reading part five of The Grand Piano, the serial self-mythologizing nostalgia 1970s scene report "collective autobiography" of ten poets and critics who lived in the Bay Area during the 1970s, participated in (some also directed) a reading series at the eponymous café, and later became known as Language Poets. Since one of the ten is one of my favorite living poets, I'd be following this series even if I had no interest in any of the other poets involved, nor in the way we think about literary history and literary scenes; since I do, and I do, I've been hooked.
Part five (whose keyword is "friendship," I think, unless it's "community"-- for each part there's a semi-secret noun to which all ten entries relate) confirms three senses I get whenever I read the prose Language Poets (or former Language Poets, or so-called Language Poets) write about their own endeavors:
1. It's about as useful to describe Language Poetry as if it were one thing with shared principles as to describe the Decadents of the 1890s, or the "school of Auden" in the 1930s, as if those groups of poets and poems were one thing. About as useful, but no more so.
2. All these writers (the ones whose poems I admire and the ones whose poems, not so much) thought constantly about how to get around, disable, or replace the constraints (notionally fixed reference, Gricean appropriateness, the authority or lack of authority we attribute to a given speaker) which enable most prose to make prose sense. But the degree to which those writers succeeded in doing so, and the degree to which they wanted to do so, do not indicate the depth, or subtlety, or interest, in the poems.
3. As with the deeply Christian, deeply undemocratic, or deeply democratic, poets of the past, we don't need to subscribe to the poets' principles in order to admire, enjoy, or learn from their poems; we should, though, try to learn what those principles are. Even if they seem, to us, self-contradictory, or implausible, or overtaken by events.
4. As with all other avant-garde movements in poetry (though perhaps not in the visual arts), no matter how often some of these writers (and, more shrilly, some of their interpreters) go on about the radical break (with something--- with what?) involved in modernism (whatever we take "modernism" to mean), their practice at its most interesting always links up with a literary past, one that goes back more than 150 years.
You're free to tell me that in saying something like that I haven't said anything about Language Poets, but only shown what I consider interesting. In response I refer you to Bob Perelman's entry in the new GP, in which he discusses Catullus' Odi et amo, lines that poets of apparently opposite tendencies seem to find ripe for translation, if not stuck in their heads. What poets, how, why? You know where to click...


Perelman says "I hate and I love, in Latin. I hate (love) that it's Latin." He then considers Louis Zukofsky's famous, or notorious, homophonic Catullus, discussed by Alicia here. Zuk has "O th'hate I move love," which Perelman doesn't much like (I don't think it works as poetry in English): Perelman sees Z's Catullus as part of Z's not-quite-hidden internal quarrel (on which see Dan Chiasson in last week's Times) between Yiddishkeit and a classical-Anglo tradition (Z sometimes wants to lay claim to both at once, but also demonstrates the conflict they generate within him).
Perelman also dislikes "the celebration of Catullus as a transcendental 'given,' like Bach," and dislikes, too, if I have read his prose aright. the idea that Language Poets (or anyone else) should become a "School," a taken-for-granted foundation on which later folks must build further knowledge (rather than remaking the foundations).
And yet: here he is, engaged with a tradition. Accepting part, rejecting part, quarreling with past interpretations, is what we do with traditions when the traditions are working. (When we stop asking which parts we want in them, it's archaeology; when we revere them unquestioningly it's stupidity.) Perelman on Duncan and Ahearn, Perelman on Zukofsky, Perelman on Zukofsky on Catullus, accepting and rejecting and connecting his principles to their earlier practice-- that's how a tradition operates, and it says a lot about the durability of the category "lyric" (esp. if you've been reading, as I have, a tendentious academic book about its supposedly recent invention) that it enables continuing connections between Catullus and Language Poets and...
...a poet like Frank Bidart, who has included a fresh adaptation of "Odi et Amo" in most if not all (I haven't gone back to check) of his books. Bidart's wonderful new one-- mostly short poems, where his last book was mostly longer ones-- looks, like all Bidart's work, at the tensions between hate and love, power and affection, cruelty and creation, language subordinated to something we know we mean and language allowed to resonate for purposes we do not know in advance.
Bidart doesn't (I'm all but sure) hold the same principles of literary interpretation, nor the same tastes (by and large) as the Grand Pianists, and yet to read them in the same afternoon is to see how capacious the idea of lyric, and the idea of a literary tradition, have become-- capacious enough to enable good writing even by people who would shudder a bit at the idea that a tradition was what they had joined.
Here's the title poem from Bidart's book. Here is another poem, "God's Catastrophe in Our Time," one as angry at the habits and institutions which move the body politic as any invention from the Vietnam era:
when those who decree decree the immemorial
mere habits of the tribe
law established since the foundation of the world
when the brutalities released by
belief engender in you disgust for God

hear the answering baritone sweetness of Mahler's "Urlicht"
I am from God and shall return
to God for this disfiguring
flesh is not light and
from light I am light

when I had eyes what did I do with sight
And here's the latest Bidartian Catullus, whose self-cancellations are not just an amorist's self-loathings, but also a relation one can have to a tradition-- say, to something called "lyric," which the most resonant segments of a (cough) avant garde can wonderfully repudiate, and wonderfully repeat:
What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds
the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

Originally Published: January 28th, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. January 28, 2008
     Don Share

    You can count on me to seize upon a small point in order to digress, but the king of self-cancellations and amorist self-loathings in recent American poetry must be Alan Dugan, viz. his "Love Song: I and Thou," which I had never thought to compare with Catullus till I read Steve's remarks here.

  2. January 28, 2008
     Steve

    I knew I could count on you, Don!
    Plenty of self-cancellations in Bill Knott, too. Speaking of which, do you have a favorite Knott sonnet?