It must have been in 1979: I picture it happening at Books & Co. on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, though such is the unreliability of memory that it could have been in the Diamond District at the Gotham Book Mart. In one of those places I picked up a book that changed my life. I can still recall the first words, the first sentence, the first paragraph, which is easy enough, as all three are the same: "Revolving door."
As for what follows, I can’t depend on memory, but I can go back to the book and refresh it. The next three paragraphs go like this:
Revolving door. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Revolving door. Fountains of the financial district. Houseboats beached at the point of low tide, only to float again when the sunset is reflected in the water. A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, camels pulling wagons of bear cages, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Revolving door. First flies of summer. Fountains of the financial district spout. She was a unit in a bum space, she was a damaged child. Dark brown houseboats beached at the point of low tide—men atop their cabin roofs, idle, play a Dobro, a jaw’s harp, a 12-string guitar—only to float again when the sunset is reflected in the water. I want the grey-blue grain of western summer. A cardboard box of wool sweaters on top of the bookcase to indicate Home. A sequence of objects, silhouettes, which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, dromedaries pulling wagons bearing tiger cages, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.
Here was writing that seemed totally new to me, yet at the same time answered some of my strongest implicit demands of poetry—which it clearly was, with its cumulative structure based on repetition. Yet it was prose too, though it hardly resembled anything I’d ever encountered as prose poetry, with the possible exception of certain passages in John Ashbery’s Three Poems.
I was taken with its reflexive structure, evident in the way the initial figure of the "revolving door" first signaled and then exemplified the pattern of recurrences to follow, while the "migration to the right" of the fellaheen seemed to allegorize the text’s repeated journey from the left margin of the page to the right. Yet in contrast to the formal reflexivity of Modernist works that spiral in on themselves, ever more distant and reductive, like the late writings of Samuel Beckett, here reflexivity was being used to generate a poetry that seemed, before my eyes, to grow ever more inclusive as it went along, always gathering more matter from the world. I was also taken by the concreteness of the writing, in which the words "cling close to things," as Ezra Pound demanded—the words being as thingy as the things to which they refer. This was an accomplishment of sublime attentiveness to the world and the word at once. It changed my life because it changed my sense of what I would have to accomplish to be a poet. I knew I was never going to try to write like this, but I’d been put on notice that the way I had been writing would no longer do. Suddenly much that appealed to me in other poetry, and what I had been seeking in my own, seemed mere pretense.
* * *
That book was Ron Silliman’s Ketjak. Silliman was part of a group of poets writing mostly in the San Francisco area or in New York City and whose work was called Language poetry or Language writing. Ketjak was not necessarily typical of the work these poets were producing, but it seemed to epitomize one side of the group’s efforts, which Silliman was to dub "The New Sentence," a kind of writing that "occurs thus far more or less exclusively in the prose of the Bay Area." Its characteristics, he said, include: "1) The paragraph [rather than the stanza] organizes the sentences; 2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument; 3) Sentence length [rather than the line] is a unit of measure; 4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity." Eschewing argument and narrative, the juxtaposition of these "torqued" sentences focuses attention on the surface of the text—a literary equivalent to the emphasis on the flatness of the picture plane in Modernist painting. Other poets whose work, or some of it, seemed to me to emerge fruitfully in this mode included Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten.
If Ashbery’s Three Poems was the nearest precursor I could see to the "new sentence" side of Language writing, that book’s predecessor, The Tennis Court Oath, seemed to stand somewhere behind Language’s other side. There were no sentences in this mode, which involved applying such a strong torque to syntactic structure, and sometimes even to the word itself, as to break it into fragments that can be recombined with utter arbitrariness. The Tennis Court Oath favored aggressive disjunction, with the abrupt shift from one form of meaning to another resulting in a litany of blind-side connections. Although this kind of writing was more assiduously practiced by others, Silliman sometimes took it up as well, as in the opening lines of "Force," published in 1983:
The audients of politics
in the –torium sounds
eye is for fours
is thus tragedy first
then farce, majestic speech
muttered under morning’s breath
Such poetry could have a very distinct range of subject matter—in "Force," something like the metaphorical relation between politics and theater—refusing to resolve itself into anything like a statement about its subject, even an implicit one. In such writing, unlike that of Ketjak, the perceptible world seems very much at a distance; attention is sharply focused on the textual apparatus of thought, which appears as a kind of darkness that separates us from things, perhaps because we feel ourselves to be merely an audience before which power plays out its preordained scripts. But as Watten argued (with reference to the work of Clark Coolidge, who might be thought of as the intermediary between the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath and Language poetry), such writing depends not, as it may appear, on a removal of syntax but rather on its totalization, such that each unit (typically the line) takes on a metonymic relation to any other—a "total syntax." The lyric drama of address counts for nothing in such aggressively disjunctive work.
Along with the new sentence and total syntax, there was a third leg to Language writing: poetics. These poets considered it part of their job description not only to write poetry but also to write about poetry, not so much by producing criticism of particular works as by accounting for the task of the poet and the nature of writing. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the best-known periodical associated with the movement, edited by the New York poets Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein between 1978 and 1981, consisted primarily of statements on poetics; it was in a certain sense succeeded by Poetics Journal, edited by Hejinian and Watten starting in 1981. This was the era when "French theory" was being assimilated into American intellectual life, and the propensity of the Language poets to engage in fairly abstract discussions of poetics was often seen as reflecting the trend. Yet what’s striking, if you turn back to the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, is the paucity of references to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, let alone to the less-familiar French figures who are more specifically associated with the study of poetics, such as Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, who co-founded the French journal Poétique in 1970. Not that the Language poets lacked theoretical reference points—Wittgenstein was regularly cited—but at least in their early years, a systematic engagement with theory was rare. Theirs was a mostly homegrown and autodidactic poetics, often speculative and insecure, on the edge between dialectical and self-contradictory, and wavering between straight essayistic prose, diaristic notes-to-self and a sort of ventriloquism in which statements are sounded out in order to see and hear how they echo. Little of it is now of much use in thinking about the problems of poetry. Rather, it’s valuable as evidence of what a particular group of brilliant and ambitious young poets were collectively worrying about as they were pushing themselves to invent new ways to write. Their poetry was not so much theoretical as methodical, characteristically expressing itself in expansive rather than compact forms, book-length works or sequences rather than discrete poems.
Thirty years on, Language writing is not exactly the literary establishment, notwithstanding the complaints of those who continue to begrudge it any standing whatsoever. But simply by persisting it has become hard to ignore: last year Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Bernstein had a book of selected poems published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Hejinian is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Yet to a great extent the Language poets continue to exemplify the DIY approach that has always been their modus operandi. One example is the serial publication, starting in 2006 and concluding last year, of The Grand Piano, a ten-volume "experiment in collective autobiography" by ten poets associated with the Bay Area branch of Language writing—Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman and Kit Robinson, along with Armantrout, Hejinian, Silliman and Watten. The volumes were brought out by the imprint Mode A, an offshoot of This Press, founded in 1974 and still run by Watten, whose publications include the original edition of Silliman’s Ketjak in 1978.
The Grand Piano is named for a coffeehouse on Haight Street in San Francisco where a weekly reading series was held from 1976 through 1979; several of the book’s contributors were organizers of the readings, and all of them took part. The grand piano is surely the most bourgeois of musical instruments, but the coffeehouse that took it as a namesake was located in the heart of the West Coast’s best-known bohemia. The duality is appropriate for this group of white, middle-class, university-educated poets who had not taken any of the obvious routes into the professions and seem to have subsisted on various forms of marginal employment during the five-year period on which the autobiography is focused. Later, some of them would return to the university to pursue careers in academia, much to the disgust of those convinced that bohemia is forever. There’s an at-loose-endedness to the life that these poets describe themselves as leading in the 1970s that now seems impossible, the economy of urban life being so different. But while there is inevitably some nostalgia to these backward glances, the depiction of the times is hardly idyllic. The reader is always at least vaguely aware of a kind of unease that the writers notice in their younger selves. In general, The Grand Piano is good at rendering the conflicted feelings, uncertainty and self-questioning of an aesthetic in progress. It’s been called an attempt to "control the discourse" around Language poetry, but reading the books makes that niggling charge hard to sustain; for that matter, the ten poets don’t even control one another’s discourse, let alone anyone else’s. To their credit, they seem less to be historicizing their accomplishment than dehistoricizing it—recollecting the time when it was not yet history, when its intentions were still hazy, its meanings uncodified.
Where the books disappoint is in their structure, or lack thereof. Each of the ten writers contributes to each volume, always in a different, arbitrarily pre-established order. Forgoing chronology, the series begins with a loosely thematic focus. In the first volume, Perelman leads off with a proposition: "that we consider a basic issue facing writers: love." But after a few volumes the idea that each would be thematically unified seems to have been abandoned (or else interpreted so loosely that you’d need to be a mind reader to divine what the theme might be). The result is that, despite each book being a wonderful read, with a wealth of anecdote, critical insight and even, sometimes, the thing itself, poetry, the sequence starts to feel static, like a sitcom in which each week all the main characters are still in the same situation they were at in the beginning of the last episode, and the episode before that, and so on—a kind of highbrow Friends.
* * *
Because Language poets had been tagged as theorists when one of the prime themes of theory was supposedly "the death of the author," and because they were the authors of poetry that seemed to have evacuated the prized lyric "voice" or "I"—the feelingful self as the ground of the poem’s coherence—it might be taken as a sign of retrenchment that a group of those poets have undertaken a retrospect of their project in its early years under the sign of autobiography. Have they acquiesced, finally, perhaps a minute too late, to the Age of Oprah, in which the tell-all memoir has become the most valued form of writing, and the sense of authenticity, or rather the illusion of it, is all?
Not exactly. In any case, at least with respect to these poets, reports of the death of the author have always been greatly exaggerated. Isn’t one of the best, and best-known, works to come out of Language poetry the one called My Life (by Hejinian, published in 1980 and then revised in 1987)? It would be more accurate to say that Language writing determines not to take notions like "self" and "authorship" for granted but to unsettle them. "In the most interesting ‘lyric’ poems," Armantrout writes in Part 8 of The Grand Piano, "we can still see the shifting dangerous ground on which the self stands." Or as Watten concluded from reading Ketjak, "Identity…is open-ended." Even so, identity is likely to feel a lot less open-ended when you’re in your 60s than when you’re in your 30s. Rather than the self seeming to be scarily, excitingly in danger of losing its footing on uneven terrain, it might seem uncomfortably hemmed in by the too-sturdy remnants of its previous incarnations. Looking back on one’s younger self involves both identification and estrangement, the unity of the self and its fragmentation. Where does the emphasis fall?
In opening the first installment of The Grand Piano, Perelman rather grandly frames the issue this way: "The young Marx is not Marx; or the young Marx is Marx." Doesn’t the "question apply to us, individually or grouped?" Perelman’s question practically answers itself. Despite everything, teleology hangs heavy over this project: whatever their confusion at the time over who they were and what they were doing, these were the writers who would become Language poets. And how could the invention be sorted out from the confusion? For writers and other artists, the third and fourth decades of life can be a time of immense energy, experimentation and ingenuity. But eventually one seems to have chosen a certain path that needs to be followed without looking aside; the time for experimentation is over, and the point is to cogently follow through on the precious few experiments that seemed to pay off. But what’s gained in focus may be lost in intensity; the work becomes too consistent, too settled into a groove. And who writes an autobiography of his middle age? But sometimes the aging artist—Beethoven is the prototypical example—abandons that consistency, not in order to reclaim the bravado of youth but in favor of a "late style" characterized, as Edward Said famously put it, by "intransigence, difficulty and contradiction," a "deeply unproductive productiveness."
Now in their 60s as they look back on their beginnings (with the exception of Harryman, the group’s youngest member), the poets of The Grand Piano may be wondering what their beginnings might portend of where they’re heading—what kind of late styles they can achieve. What makes the question more than usually interesting—at least if Said is right in thinking that some late styles reflect a willful isolation, an obstinate irreconcilability in which the artist "abandons communication" with the social order to enter "a form of exile from his milieu"—is that no group of poets have ever been as publicly communicative or as collaborative in their mode of production, forming themselves as a milieu along with their writing. On the face of it, The Grand Piano is evidence that things haven’t changed.
Sure, more than a few readers may consider that abandoning communication was the inaugural gesture of Language poetry—so how could it ever be the final one? But if anything, the inaugural gesture of Language poetry was rather an abandonment of the devices that encourage us to think we are communicating when we’re not. Armantrout cites Ashbery’s poem tellingly titled "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" as "a paradigmatic lyric poem," reading it as one that would "address the reader on an impossible ‘plain level,’ but the reader plays hard to get, ‘looks away,’ ‘pretends to fidget.’ This cat-and-mouse game is unmasked at the end where it is revealed that ‘the poem is you.’ The poem and reader, the speaker and listener are one, though they are estranged, internally divided." This suggests that the intractability of the poem may be nothing other than the realism with which it attends to its actual situation as it attempts to communicate itself.
There’s something heartening in the way these poets have ignored the script that says movements are for the young and are bound to break apart, often acrimoniously, as the participants mature. But will their determination to see their commitments through to the end prove a strength or a limitation? It’s strange that Watten, in his predetermined position as the poet to bring the curtain down in the final installment of The Grand Piano, sticks to an old script, evoking his notion of "total syntax" only in order to wonder whether it allows "for any kind of ending you might imagine? Or does it simply continue our project, in new and unknown ways?" Surely, ending and simply continuing are not the only possibilities. A late style, as Said envisioned it, would somehow be a way of neither ending nor continuing. Hejinian argues that "late style need not be confined to biographical lateness. Late style is also evident in responses to cultural lateness—late capitalism, for example." To prove the point, she applies the term to Jean Day, a poet younger than any of the contributors to The Grand Piano. But although I take her point that Language or Language-influenced poetry has something of the recalcitrance that Said ascribed to late styles, I’m still not convinced that the resemblance runs deep enough, maybe because I’m not convinced that capitalism has reached a late enough phase to put me in mind of its ending. What late styles share with young styles is impatience. Honorably, Hejinian (and at least some of her co-authors) are still seeking what she calls "the activist alternative to the impasse, where pessimism and frustration bring things to a halt." Maybe a true late style is not in the cards for them, just a slow migration to a vanishing point on the horizon line.