Poetry News

Ron Silliman Redefines Language Poetry in Light of Community, Conceptualism, Time...

By Harriet Staff

Ron Silliman is using the tag "Language Poetry" on his blog for the first time in ten years, starting off by remarking on the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House in April that he missed due to travels on the West Coast. A reading in San Francisco prompts the following:

One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

After considering the anthology in light of sociology, community, and geography (all v. interesting), it's all about community:

One senses the tension in the negative take on community one hears in Johanna Drucker’s eulogy for conceptual poetics in the recent Poetry Project Newsletter [Ed. note: we reprinted the Drucker piece here], and referenced again in Tom Fisher’s assessment of the O●blēk Anthology in the Resisting Communities panel of the Penn conference. In these frames, community = elitism, whereas a generation earlier (i.e. my generation) it was taken – perhaps on face value – as the alternative to the rugged individualism of the New Critical-cum-Cold War aesthetics that had attempted to abolish modernism as just one more of those failed European –isms that rendered the 20th century as one long killing field.

In practice, this is impossibly complicated – Drucker, whom I’ve known since 1974, is hardly a member of a younger generation when she consigns conceptualism to a past that is at best theoretical. But she does speak to the alienation many writers no doubt felt that there was a post-avant poetics called Langpo, called Conceptualism, called Flarf, whatever, that one could exist apart from. The community she negates is one that emanates from the fact that there is power in numbers, but what she objects to is not the numbers, but the power. It’s an interesting position.

In San Francisco, still responding to this initial question at the Center for Psychoanalysis, I noted that in the 1970s & early ‘80s, there were many poets – Drucker among them – who had progressive critiques of language writing & that several seemed very adamant about letting you know that language poetry was not them. It was ironic, therefore, to see Jerry Estrin described as a language poet in his own obituary, or to see Leslie Scalapino lumped in with that very writing she so often seemed to be critiquing. The presence of Ted Pearson as a co-author of The Grand Piano – he is not included in In the American Tree – is a testament to that fluidity.² As I answered that question, I noted the presence of Beverly Dahlen, another perfect example of this phenomenon, sitting right in the first row of the audience.

Am I a language poet? In that sense, was I ever? The term, as has been pointed out repeatedly, was chosen by Alan Soldofsky & it stuck, rather in the manner that Herb Caen’s coinage of beatniks clung to an earlier generation of poets, none of whom fit the stereotypes that soon attached like barnacles to the term.

In the way that San Francisco Renaissance may describe any poetry – or at least any anti-Quietist poetry – written in that city between 1945 & 1960, language poetry is a phrase that appears to become broader, looser, more inclusive & less meaningful every year. Leslie Scalapino must have cringed to have heard herself lumped in with writers whom she was forever critiquing, but her criticism was always that of a friend. As were the critiques of Bob Glück, Bruce Boone & so many other writers who were attempting to clear some ground for their own literary efforts. They were not the critics who complained that language poets were Marxists (never true of more than a handful of us in any event), were theorists (ditto), or were, to pluralize a phrase as it was once applied to me in the American Book Review, “Stalinist thugs.”

Read the whole thing, which includes some redefining of terms, here.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2012