Barrett Watten’s critical poetics
A review of
Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences
University of Iowa Press, 2016.
by Luke Harley
Paragraph One follows: 1:
Barrett Watten’s choice of title for his latest work tells us much about his ambitions for this book. If Roman Jakobson’s Questions de poétique (1973), published at the ‘zero hour’ of neoliberalism and in the same year that Clark Coolidge’s long poem The Maintains first appeared, was the ‘gold standard’ (9) for poetics in the 1970s and 1980s, Watten aims for Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences to be just as much of a game-changer.
But recent online debate suggests that Watten is writing within a scene that, due to an entrenched resistance to his critique of the immanence, positivism, holism, and utopianism of the New Americans, seems reluctant to even read what he is putting forth. In part, this is a consequence of what Watten refers to as his ‘nearly obsessional’ commitment to negativity. Watten employs this term in a rich but unconventional way.
Far from being a ‘happiness-stealer,’ as any quick Google search of the term would suggest, in Watten’s usage it means the exact opposite: a ‘questioning of positivity, originating in Hegel’s account of religion.’ In this era of a Fox News president, an anti-intellectual clamor to endorse false positives shows few signs of slowing down. Given this, Watten’s championing of negativity – what he calls a resistance to a ‘positivity ultimately grounded in authoritarianism’ – seems more needed than ever, even if its associations with anti-cheerfulness make it a tough sell.
Committing himself to negativity, as Watten is well aware, puts him at odds with ‘the power of positive thinking’ – an idea as American as apple pie. And Watten’s reimagining of negativity, after Hegel, Adorno, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault, and Žižek, into a force querying unexamined assumptions, hasn’t always made an easy fit into canonizing narratives. (165)
That said, there is also the question of whether Watten, in the face of this resistance, has managed his public profile as effectively as he might have. Watten has had quite a few dust-ups over the years – with Robert Duncan (1978), Amiri Baraka (2000), and Nathaniel Mackey (2018) most notably, all figures affiliated with the New American tradition – and these have exposed fault lines in experimental poetics that have been fertile ground for scholars to examine. Decades separate these incidents, and each are contextually different.
Watten’s consistent role as a negative to be overcome by his adversaries has been noteworthy, as has the hint of querulousness in his after-the-fact reflections. In his introduction to Questions of Poetics, and then later in some of the electrically charged chapters, this type of posturing remains, but has been toned down. And while it would be easy to dismiss Watten’s latest work on these grounds – as animus masquerading as poetics – this would be to miss so much that is of importance in this book.
I read Questions of Poetics as an unabashed admirer: it is a brilliant polemic, and stands tall among recent works of criticism for its boldness, depth, and razor-sharp inventiveness.
Questions of Poetics comprises six chapters, all of which were originally presented as plenary lectures, talks, seminars, and keynote addresses between 2000 and 2014. All the chapters are thought-provoking, and some have already become well known. Of the six included, the fifth, ‘On the Advantages of Negativity: Avant-Garde Poetry, New Music, Postindustrial Art,’ perhaps makes for the book’s most logical access point.
Watten wrote on this topic in The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003), and before that in two essays for Poetics Journal, ‘The Politics of Style’ and ‘The XYZ of Reading: Negativity (&).’ In addition, at least half of Watten’s essays in The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (2010) explore negativity, as do his contributions for Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (2009). But what’s striking in Questions of Poetics is the topical relevance of the author’s ideas: there is a real sense that now, perhaps more than ever before in the United States, negativity’s time has arrived.
In Constructivist Moment the argument was literature-focused. Heidegger, Žižek, Foucault, and Lyotard were enlisted to frame a discussion of Wallace Stevens, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Robert Grenier, and David Wojnarowicz. Here, in Questions of Poetics, the argument is broader, Watten scrutinizing the locus classicus of critical theory on negativity, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970), but considering how its ideas might be applied today.
Eschewing hagiography, Watten identifies a ‘ghost of authoritarianism’ in Adorno’s late writing, noting the ‘authorial, aesthetic, or formal’ limits of his work. Yet Watten doesn’t abandon Adorno; he wants to ‘preserve the critical significance of aesthetic negativity, in relation to larger cultural logics.’ (166) Taking up the baton himself, Watten suggests that the sheer variety of aesthetic uses of negativity in avant-garde practices, including sound, photography, and sculpture
demand an expanded account of the work of art as a locus of engaged, critical, and transformative agency. (168)
From here, Watten constructs an iconoclastic new approach to criticism – an attempt to lift poetry out of its present malaise, as it were. He begins by first defending the Language school – of which he has been a central figure as a poet and editor, and arguably his cohort’s most important theorist – from assertions, initially made by Marjorie Perloff, that it is a period style. Watten sees the term period style as a crude distortion of poetic reality, signifying
a set of static attributes, associated with fixed aesthetic or literary periodization.
He also suggests that its deployment is political, akin to a form of literary Thatcherism. In Chapter 2, ‘Late Capitalism and Language Writing,’ Watten examines Perloff’s ascription of the phrase period style, a ‘blade runner’ for the task of ‘reducing the history of difference and antagonism for a diminished textuality, materiality, indexicality,’ to Language poetry. Rethinking the ‘macroeconomic 1970s,’ (80) Watten notes that his movement formed in direct response to what David Harvey and others termed ‘neoliberalism,’ whether as a reaction to the ‘rapid introduction of laissez-faire economics of the Chicago school’ or political events such as the 1973 suppression of Salvador Allende’s popular socialist regime. (78)
Perloff made a ‘determined attempt’ to deny this link between radical form and politics in Language writing from the outset, Watten argues. But her stance has hardened of late. We see this in chapter 1 of Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010), where Perloff chides three Language poets for their ‘predominately abstract language’ in which words and phrases refuse to ‘add up’ to ‘any sort of coherent, much less transparent, statement’ and ‘pronouns have no discernible referents.’ (226)
In an endnote, Watten notes how her comments on period style in relation to Language poetry were immediately publicized by Al Filreis in a May 30, 2008 piece in Jacket2 (‘Language, Period Style of the 80s’) and then hastily picked up by two of her preferred poets, Kenneth Goldsmith and Steve McCaffery.
In defense of Perloff, she might have simply been making choices about her artistic preferences – as all critics are entitled to do – and Watten’s work has never been her cup of tea. But Watten sees her separation of the radical particular in Language writing, the ‘privileging of the part over the whole,’ from its political agency as more than just a mere judgment of taste; it is an attempt to denude his cohort’s left-leaning writing of so much of its aesthetic power. (85)
Perloff’s critique of Language poetry in this regard is itself ‘neoliberal,’ not simply textual. As Watten argues, it balances an ‘economic requirement for free flow of capital (seen in the unleashed meaning effects of the material text)’ with a ‘political necessity to limit interpretation to aesthetic ends (seen in the rejection of any motivation for these devices that is not simply textual)’:
Keeping the world safe for free flows of language is Perloff’s goal, as she combines appreciation of random meanings and open possibilities with a dogmatism typical of politicians of the Right. The current revival of Marxist poetics puts to rest the vulgar claim that Marxist methods are irrelevant right after 1989; while historical contexts have changed, it is Perloff’s dismissiveness that is out of date (and she has done little to account for the revival of Marxist approaches in response to the global crisis after 2008). (83)
To counter Perloff’s anti-Marxist narrative, Watten introduces an entirely new critical framework – one which allows for Language writing and other related avant-garde practices to continue to expand and evolve on their own accord, without being subject to misrepresentations.
He calls this approach a critical art practice, and it seems designed, to borrow the author’s phrasing, to ‘tilt the earth back from its eccentric orbit.’ Of course, if Language poetry is indeed a critical art practice, its global reach, manifold particularity, and longevity – surprising, no doubt, to many on the other side of the fence in the Bay Area poetry wars – become easier to theorize; Watten’s framework enables an account of that open-ended dynamism.
In addition, any ageist dismissals of Language writing on generational lines, as an aesthetic moment that has had its day, are rendered moot. Given the stakes here, Watten is careful in outlining what he means by a critical art practice. He employs the phrase at least ten times in Questions of Poetics, mostly in the introduction. In each case, as he clarifies in ‘Document 74’ on his website, his usage suggests a
basic assumption that bridges material signification, and especially the key device of Language writing, the radical particular, with more expansive aesthetic and cultural concerns (including how an active ‘present’ is foregrounded, against the background of the past as dead labor, by different art movements).
Whereas period style has a specific usage dating back to Johann Joachim Winkelmann, a critical art practice, Watten proposes, is more modern and open-ended. But what might be the test for meeting its standard? He tries to flesh out some parameters without imposing a ‘one-size-fits all’ definition.(199) On the one hand, Watten defines it, as Language writing itself has often been defined, by what it is not – and, in that regard, it is certainly not the inflated immanence of New Americans such as Charles Olson or Robert Duncan, whose ‘person-centered’ and expressivist, rather than ‘language-centered’ and constructivist, approach to making meaning is perceived as dogmatic, closed, and ideological.
Nor is it the type of value-conferring art endorsed by Perloff and her acolytes, which tends to resolve into interpretive coherence. Instead, Watten proposes that any critical art practice, be it Language writing or its related avant-garde practices,
extends agency from the work’s materiality to the question of its genre assumptions, finally intervening in the cultural logic or lifeworld it stems from. (8-9)
Moreover, a critical art practice doesn’t have to be literary – and it is here that Watten moves beyond Adorno, whom he claims was ‘bollixed’ when it came to jazz and other culturally specific genres, styles, and idioms. (187) Adorno failed to realize that there is ‘no pure negativity that stems directly from the isolated work,’ and that negativity is
always mediated by genre, which may have its own investments in affirmative culture. (188)
Having established this point of difference with the Frankfurt school theorist, Watten sees the potential for any ‘questioning’ art, whether it be experimental poetry, music, sculpture, or other newer genres such as site-specific and installation art, to meet the critical art practice test. What matters is merely that such art ‘interprets the critical force of [its] material signification per se’ and continues ‘the logic of negativity as an open series of critical interpretations.’ (9)
In chapter 5, Watten points to four textual groupings, three of them nonliterary, to give a sense of the ‘multiplicity of the negative’ that he has in mind. (198)
First, he cites Bruce Andrews’ dismantling of former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly’s false positives on The O’Reilly Factor; second, the ‘compositional difficulty and sonic irreducibility’ (183) of John Cage’s 1974 chance composition Etudes australes (although in Part 7 of The Grand Piano, Watten also writes about Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor’s jazz improvisations as instances of negativity-charged phenomenology); third, the ‘romantic anticapitalism’ of Detroit-based noise band Wolf Eyes; and fourth, post-1989 nonnarrative genre paintings by Neo Rauch, and postindustrial conceptualism by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
The author’s assuredness when writing about these ‘regions of practice’ is impressive, but this remains, in its genre-busting leaps, an unorthodox move. (188) Yet Watten is insisting that, in their radical particularity, aesthetic negativity, and formal agency, each of these moments of cultural production meet the critical art practice test by providing
real-time engagement with fundamental assumptions of language, style, form, genre, medium, person, identity, discourse, reception, history.
In his introduction to A Guide to Poetics Journal (2013), Watten notes that in Language (or language-centered) writing the subject is ‘under erasure’ in a ‘distancing aesthetic.’ In this way, Watten defines his movement as operating in direct opposition to the ‘embodied’ subjectivity of the New Americans and the ‘self-presentations’ of the Confessional poets. Of course, the self is not exactly ‘under erasure’ in Watten’s critical art practice idea; far from it.
In the face of mass incomprehension, the author wants his work to be approached with fresh eyes, and without the hidden agenda of identity-baiting that has hindered its reception since the 1980s. Yet Watten, to his credit, doesn’t mask his self-interest in ushering this new critical framework into literary currency. On the contrary, he divulges his self-investment from the outset, and makes it clear to the reader that he wants his idea of a critical art practice to be read as counter-canon of sorts against periodizing narratives that make judgements about poetry according to fixed value systems.
These narratives first began, Watten argues, with Perloff’s ‘The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties’ (1985), where a poetics of radical particularity was endorsed but in a way that saw Language writing as ‘the reemergence of autonomous form, to be celebrated through close reading.’ (13) Alternative readings were put forward in the late 1980s by Andrew Ross and Jerome McGann, each of which provoked debate (in Critical Inquiry and other fora) about the significance of Language writing. But Perloff’s interpretation gained ascendancy, and for many in Watten’s scene it
amounted to a betrayal of the cultural and political aims of the movement, while others took it as the royal road to literary recognition. (13-14)
Furthermore Perloff rubbed salt into the wound through her (quite recent, but now outdated) attempts to condemn Language writing to the literary mausoleum. Watten singles out Perloff’s later paper ‘After Language Poetry’ (1999) in this regard, calling it the ‘watershed moment’ in terms of this attempted relegation of Language writing to the status of period style. (7)
Carla Harryman heard Perloff present this live at the February 1999 Page Mother’s Conference at UC San Diego and felt compelled to write about it nearly a decade later in The Grand Piano. In Harryman’s account, Perloff had been invited to provide the concluding remarks to the conference and struck a dissonant note with her comments. In front of an audience of women writer-publishers and scholars brought together by Rae Armantrout and Fanny Howe to discuss ‘the impact that women had had on innovative writing throughout the century,’ Perloff opined that as much as it was important for women poets to write reviews, it was in their interest to leave
theorizing about our work to professional literary critics, and, simultaneously, that the first important theoretical work of the Language school was written by Steve McCaffery, a male poet, in the 1980s…
For Harryman, it was the ‘concatenation’ of these skewed propositions that led her to ‘declaim the need’ for The Grand Piano project to Hejinian. And Watten, identified as one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of Language writing in ‘After Language Poetry’ for his authorship of Total Syntax (1984), continues that critique here. Rather than recognize the critical art practice that Language poetry had become, Perloff was attempting to throw Watten’s movement into the ‘ashcan of history.’ (16) In doing so Perloff needed an alternative, and she found it, Watten posits, in conceptual writing; in the early 2000s she ‘mobilized’ a campaign to endorse it as the successor to Language poetry. (7) But Perloff’s anointing of conceptual writing as the New was misguided because it was based, unlike Watten’s critical art practice, on a
conventional art periodization in which one avant-garde arrives by succeeding another (as from Dada to surrealism to abstraction). (7)
Moreover the conceptualists themselves, even though they have been ‘eager to embrace their ascendance,’ have so far seemed incapable of theorizing their relationship with the Old. (7) Watten points out a strong tendency towards historical oversight in conceptualist writing, an avant-garde practice which he evidently regards as little more than a second-wave revival. For example, while works by Bernadette Mayer were included in Caroline Bergvall et al.’s I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (2012), poetry by other women Language writers who were pioneers of conceptual writing’s techniques were left out (notably, Hejinian’s 1977 work Writing Is an Aid to Memory, the compositional processes of which are explained in Part 3 of The Grand Piano).
Similarly, Ron Silliman’s BART (1982), Sunset Debris (2002), 2197 (2004), and The Chinese Notebook (2004); Kit Robinson’s use of a preexisting lexicon in The Dolch Stanzas (1976); and Watten’s own use of documents in Bad History (1998) have been insufficiently referenced by Goldsmith and others. Watten regards this as unfortunate because conceptual writing
bears more than a trace of formalism in constructing its break from past practice: history and style, within the limits of genre, coalesce to provide necessary and sufficient criteria for writing to be termed ‘conceptualist.’ (151)
To Watten, it is more than scholarly discourtesy: it is symptomatic of an epoch where ‘generation has become a microniche’ and where there is
too much divergence between theory and practice, both overdeveloped in their own terms.
Watten does hold out an olive branch to the conceptualists by acknowledging that their writing ‘has provoked an inquiry into the relation of radical experiment and social and artistic transformation at the present time.’ (164) He grants the validity of their presentism – as long as it is understood that ‘every presentism is a historicism, and vice versa.’ But Watten is adamant that the conceptualists’ claim to having reinvented the wheel is ‘bunk.’ (164)
In the fourth chapter of Questions of Poetics, after analyzing On Kawara’s date paintings, Watten takes aim at what he sees as the shallow, opportunistic presentism of Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Rob Fitterman, and Vanessa Place. Dworkin, arguably the most accomplished of these four, comes under attack for three reasons: first, his inability to historicize ‘the range of formal procedures that conceptual writing inherits from conceptual art in its development from the 1960s’; second, an insufficient acknowledgment of his own ‘appropriation of the of the goal of defamiliarizing language by mere reversal of Language writing’s range of formal values from the 1970s and 1980s’; and last, his failure to address the ‘problem of a proliferation of post-avant strategies, many of which depend on some version of Language or conceptual writing, during the 1990s and 2000s.’ (154)
Watten’s bold font gives a sense of his frustration with the reluctance of Goldsmith and others to meaningfully acknowledge their forebears. The capacity is there, especially in Dworkin’s case – just not the will. And while Dworkin’s introduction to Against Expression ‘does better in historically framing conceptual writing’s innovation’ than Goldsmith’s effort, it remains ‘primarily a postmodern, language-centered’ account that is ‘restricted in terms of both form and genre.’ (155)
Dworkin’s account of the Language school’s technical innovations – and of the entire range of experimental writing from the 1970s on – is nonexistent. Faced with an overwhelming proliferation of techniques, conceptual writers seems to narrow their range and force to methods of citational or algorithmic ‘repurposing’ or ‘organization.’ But there have been any number of avant-garde techniques not defined as conceptual writing that may be defined in this way, from Dada cut-ups to John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance procedures to the New Sentence and OuLiPo. (155-156)
Chapters 4 and 5 are sure to trigger debate, but Watten’s other chapters are generative as well. Chapter 3 looks at The Grand Piano, a 101-essay, multiauthored memoir that, from a position of temporal, cultural, and geographical ‘elsewhere,’ attempted to rethink the early years of Language writing in the Bay Area. Watten, who studied at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, and again as a doctoral student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was central to the whole process of putting The Grand Piano together from his latter-day base in Detroit. And if it was Harryman’s exasperation with Perloff’s talk in 1999 that fermented the idea for the project, it was Watten who conceived of its ten-part form, who designed its piano-themed covers, and who played the role of ‘lion-tamer’ (Hejinian’s phrase) to make sure that its ten authors all made it to the end.
For this, Hejinian asserts, Watten ‘deserves enormous credit,’ especially given the internal divisions that emerged during the composition of the project and in its aftermath. As I noted in ‘Poetry as Virtual Community’ (2013), Watten’s essays are some of the more engaging in the series: he writes with depth, precision, and self-deprecating wit about the origins of Language writing, and seems galvanized, beneath it all, by the project’s anti-Perloffian agency. And yet, perhaps because Watten’s name is so synonymous with The Grand Piano, it has mostly been bypassed by critics, especially those on the East Coast. Charles Bernstein, for example, appears to have The Grand Piano in mind when he refers to ‘minor outbreaks of nostalgic regionalist autobiographical revisionism’ in his own 2016 work of criticism, Pitch of Poetry.
While Bernstein claims he has ‘had a hard time coming to terms’ with The Grand Piano – if that is indeed the text that he is referring to – the ten authors themselves have probably been taken aback by how their ‘ensemble of aesthetic, political, performative, and gender relations’ has been met by near critical indifference. (80) Hejinian, with whom Watten has spent hours working alongside for A Guide to Poetics Journal and Poetics Journal Digital Archive, explains this situation:
At the reception of The Grand Piano as the little books came out, the East Coast became quite sardonic in many cases. People would make comments like: ‘well, they’ve got a grand piano, I’ve just got a harmonica.’ And everyone would laugh and think, we’re so cool we’ve just got harmonicas.’ The Grand Piano was the name of the café [in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco] where we did a lot of the readings in the early days. That’s the name of the title in order to aggrandize our orchestral production [laughing].
I think, ultimately, a lot of us as it happens are from California, which is quite odd or rare. California is a place for which the final frontier is Hollywood and now Silicon Valley. It’s a place to which people have come from the East. And as it happens, I think everyone who contributed [to The Grand Piano] is from California. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing that suffuses one’s consciousness.
In chapter 3 of Questions of Poetics, an abbreviated form of an edgier essay published in Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry (2013), Watten explores these fault lines ‘between divergent assumptions of community.’ (134) The Grand Piano ended acrimoniously, with Bob Perelman exiting the project and two others, Rae Armantrout and Ron Silliman, struggling to make it to the end. Watten’s essay in Questions of Poetics, which addresses the Perelman exit more gently than in the earlier version, attempts to make sense of all this, what he calls ‘a substantial change in the group’s self-understanding’ from 2011 onwards,
something like a crisis of community or even belief in the project. (109)
Watten divides the chapter into six musically-themed sections, ‘Piano,’ ‘Forte,’ ‘Beginnings,’ ‘Middles,’ ‘Ends,’ and ‘Coda,’ and dissects the reasons for the ultimate fraying of the collective. He notes, for example, that by the final volume some of the contributors were ‘haunted by those left out of our structure.’ (135) In addition, he refers to tension over gender politics (Harryman’s ‘dissension’ towards Silliman’s valorization of the Brat Guts project, notably); internal discomfort about terms such as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘Language writing’; and ‘pressures’ from New York poets that ‘eroded confidence in the objectivity of our process.’ (135)
Watten is not completely candid on this topic – appropriately enough, he refuses to divulge the details of the ‘agonizing and soul-searching exchange’ that took place on the Listserv prior to Perelman’s departure. (135) But otherwise he interrogates the project, as participant and observer, with impressive rigor, and in doing so manages to do a convincing job of rising above any claims of partiality. For scholars, this is all useful material; the next step, which Watten already anticipates, will be to find out more about why exactly certain individuals were included in the project, and why others weren’t.
Chapter 6 in Questions of Poetics, ‘The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field: Or, What Is a Poet/Critic?’ also appears in a modified form of an earlier version, and is much the better for it. Watten first presented this chapter as a lecture at University of Plymouth in March 2007, having been asked to give a keynote address on his poetics by Tony Lopez. Lopez’s requested focus, from the beginning, was on Watten’s own work, which accounts for the preponderance of the first-person ‘I’ within the chapter (a not uncommon feature in Watten’s writing) and the self-acknowledged ‘illicit’  passages in which he analyzes two instances of his own poetry, the 1978 poem ‘Radio’ and the 1992 long poem Under Erasure. (207)
Watten’s original essay, first published in the conference volume, seems to have been cut by about fifty per cent in the Questions of Poetics version. Discussions of work by Peter Seaton (‘An Example from the Literature’), Lyn Hejinian (Book of a Thousand Eyes), and Nathaniel Mackey (‘Other: From Noun to Verb’ and Djbot Baghostus’s Run) were then added to give the chapter a less self-reflective focus. In his headnotes to the chapter, Watten describes the end-result as a ‘kind of thought experiment in poetics’ which aims to show, in a series of stages,
how the poem as object can expand in terms of language, form, genre, and media. (201)
It is an interesting and challenging essay. Watten looks at modifications of the object, after the New Criticism (W. K. Wimsatt specifically, and others in the 1957 anthology New Poets of England and America) and modifications of the subject (Charles Olson, and others in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry) as a result. The gendering of the poem as object links the two: Watten, as part of his critique of the New Americans, proposes that the New Critical ‘concrete universal’ is gendered, an Oedipal object, and that Olson’s notion of ‘objectism’ changes that.
From here, Watten wonders about the gendering of the poem not as object in Language writing. The claim, and Watten’s insight, is that there is a fundamental fantasy of parthenogenesis that extends from Olson to Language writing – and Watten cites the homosocial Legend project, which he wrote about in The Constructivist Moment, as an example of this. Since then Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (2004) has clearly informed Watten’s work on gender, but the author would be the first to acknowledge that years working collaboratively alongside Hejinian and Harryman have also been crucial to the evolution of his views.
Arguably the chapter’s finest moment is when Watten analyzes Olson’s ‘The Moebius Strip.’ An early postmodern text in Selected Writings (1966), Olson attempts in this poem to challenge the dualism of the subject and object. In a close reading that draws upon chapter 6 of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Purple Passages (2012), Watten shows that Olson, in his supposedly parthenogenetic remaking of the poem as subject / object, still approached the process of making poetry as
continuous with masculine subjectivity, seen in terms of phallic energy and renewal. (213)
Watten acknowledges that Olson makes a ‘first step’ in his ‘recasting of the postmodern poet in the mold of the poet/critic,’ but is adamant that there was still ample corrective work on gender to be done by those that followed.
With Seaton, too, that job remained unfinished; Watten sees Seaton’s ‘An Example of the Literature,’ initially published in Poetics Journal, as anchored in 1970s/1980s thinking about gender. Yet Seaton’s text did mark a further progression in terms of its assertion of the ‘unquestionable legitimacy’ of the combined production of poet/critic. (217) In Hejinian’s ‘combinatorial poetics’ however, all the labor challenging gender conventions in the New Americans reaches its constructivist apogee – or, at least, one possible apogee.
In Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes (2012), the New American blindness to gender exclusions, so prominent in the work of Olson, Creeley, and Duncan, is finally put to rest. Here Hejinian, making poetic ideas documented in her essay ‘La Faustienne,’ employs a figure, the story-telling Scheherazade of Arabian Nights fame, whose
radical particularity (of telling) trumps the concrete universals (of knowing) associated with the deluded and dominating methods of Faust as the type of Western man (and knowing subject) the poet places under erasure. (218)
This is poetry emanating from poetics, but also poetry informing poetics; both are creative texts, and neither is privileged above the other. Hillary Gravendyk, reflecting on Hejinian’s belief that poetics can be just as much an art form as poetry, has called for the hyphen between ‘poet’ and ‘scholar’ to be removed. Gravendyk wonders whether we instead might be ‘poelars’ and ‘scholets’ (or, Watten might add, ‘croets’) rather than compartmentalize the two. And while the poet-critics of Watten’s first-generation Language cohort have had great success in dismantling the oppressive hegemony of the New American masculinist subject, Hejinian admits that her cohort have found race-relations more fraught terrain to negotiate. In March 2015 she used an essay for the Boston Review to think about her own attitudes to race, suggesting that both she and her peers have been guilty of ‘color-blindness’ in the past:
Was it the case, as some have recently argued, that back in the era of the long becoming of the Language writing movement (say 1975-1990), literary work by writers of color was deemed irrelevant to white avant-gardists? I don’t think so. My own scene was predominantly white, but writers of color provided somewhat more than a mere token presence, given the importance of such people as Lorenzo Thomas, Ted Pearson, Erica Hunt, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, David Henderson, and (a little later) Harryette Mullen to it. But that presence wasn’t recognized as per se non-white. As I remember it, we thought and talked well about power structures, gender, capitalism, imperialism, and we spoke very little, if at all, about race.
That doesn’t mean that Hejinian and Watten have been passive on this matter, especially in recent years. On the contrary, a case could be made that both, since the late 1980s, have been early, progressive forces in terms of asking serious, and much-needed, questions about identity politics – especially race and ethnicity – through their editorship of the final three issues of Poetics Journal. Moreover Watten’s introduction to Diasporic Avant-Gardes, where he explores the negativity of radical particularity in work by Jones/Baraka, Mackey, Braxton, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and Fred Moten, among others, makes astute contributions on this subject, as do Hejinian and Watten’s headnotes in A Guide to Poetics Journal.
Watten addresses this issue, what he calls ‘the relation of Language writing to identity politics,’ in chapter 1 of Questions of Poetics. (21) In doing so he makes no claims to offering the last word on race-relations – far from it – but his essay does proffer an engaging account of the 1960s as a period in which politics and the person underwent radical transformation as a part of a totalizing critique. First presented at the ‘Poetry in the 1960s’ conference at Orono, Maine in June 2000, it was this paper that stirred up a now-legendary debate with Amiri Baraka, who was present during its delivery. Watten’s dressing down by Baraka, who queried a number of his assertions from the back of the room, and then again – more vociferously – in a mutually declared teach-in two days later in the University of Maine’s student café, has since been salivated over by those resistant to Watten’s critique of mythopoesis.
Yet, as charismatic as Baraka’s well-practiced theater might have been, his actual argument demands closer scrutiny than it has so far been given.
Eager to avoid this event becoming yet another ‘object’ that reductively defines his career and is endlessly returned to for unfriendly reasons, Watten has embarked on a process of reappraising Baraka’s conduct that day. He has done so, it seems to me, not so much as a face-saving exercise but to stay faithful to his aesthetic principles; Baraka, in opposing aspects of his presentation, was behaving in a way that was symptomatic of attitudes among (mostly male) poets of Watten’s generation. And these attitudes demanded to be interrogated lest they become unexamined false positives.
In an early such move, for Jacket2, Watten remembered how Baraka
launched an impassioned attack on my claim that the politics of the student movement was any kind of politics at all, and that went as well for the antiwar movement (which Baraka associated with his own debate with Allen Ginsberg).
Merely by defending himself in this way, Watten drew criticism – from Joshua Clover, most notably – and felt compelled to respond with a more comprehensive account of how the Orono events unfolded from his perspective. In a follow-up post, Watten observes that his attempted connection between his own experiences as an undergraduate at Berkeley and Language writing’s emergence in the 1970s, via an incorporation of Ernest Laclau’s Emancipation(s), piqued the attentions of a proprietary Baraka. This was ‘not the history that he [Baraka] had made,’ Watten writes, ‘nor could he identify with it.’
Baraka was defending his hard-won ground; Watten was threatening it. By the end of the conference Baraka was conciliatory, but his initially combative approach left a bad taste, even if his belligerence had not been entirely unexpected. No doubt thinking of his own experiences with Duncan at the San Francisco Poetry Center in 1978, Watten observed that ‘many’ of the New Americans of his acquaintance
could be aggressive and intolerant when they felt their turf was being questioned; Baraka continued in the period style, as it were, with additional edges concerning Black mastery and authorship.
Baraka particularly objected to Watten’s playing of a Bobby Seale video clip, from Mark Kitchell’s documentary Berkeley in the Sixties (1990), in his multimedia presentation. This excerpt was focused on a ‘decisive moment’ in the Free Speech Movement on Sproul Plaza in October 1964, and Baraka mentioned it frequently in the café discussion. (23) Seale is quoted in this excerpt as saying that he and his fellow Black Panthers ‘hadn’t even read’ Mao’s Little Red Book but were nonetheless selling it to students on the Berkeley campus (including Watten, possibly) to bring in money for shotguns. Prior to playing this clip, Watten contrasts the Black Panthers with the student radical movement at Berkeley. Both movements, he argues, ‘were part of an overarching cultural logic of liberation in the 1960s, and each articulated the other,’ even though at times this
seemed reducible to a kind of competition between the Panthers’ claim to authentic status as the oppressed in Oakland and the students’ claim to political agency in Berkeley. (52)
As is discernible here, Watten approaches identity politics in sometimes disarmingly unsentimental terms, without the dollops of liberal guilt that often appear in well-intentioned leftist writings about race. That leaves him exposed, in today’s climate, as a white poet-academic, but also ensures that his writing, from another lens, is arguably more progressive than he is given credit for. Apropos his application of Laclau’s six-pointed schema of emancipation to this historical moment, Watten claims he did so because its account of the ‘empty signifier’ seemed ‘perfect in this case.’ Nor does Watten feel that he should retreat from this position; he will
continue to claim that there are many empty signifiers being traded, even now, as symbolic content with liberationist ends: Commune Editions, for one.
But Watten does admit that the ‘predominately white, middle-class, public university students
lacked one of the distinguishing features of Laclau’s emancipatory schema – the prior existence of oppression – and the Panthers articulated their revolutionary agency by claiming that position. (52)
Watten is adamant that Baraka, resenting not only his suggestion that the Panthers didn’t read Mao but that a white Language poet could launch a competing (and carefully theorized) view of history, was being ‘reductive.’ In chapter 1 of Questions of Poetics, he insists that he wasn’t asserting that the Panthers did not represent ‘a legitimate protest of oppression,’ only that ‘the symbolic politics of their project is [often] confused with its legitimacy.’ (55) But Baraka’s testy anti-intellectualism offered yet another example of a wider problem in the Newark-born writer’s oeuvre that Watten had already written about in ‘What I See in How I Became Hettie Jones’ (1998) and The Constructivist Moment.
As Watten put it in Jacket2, Baraka’s poetry is
haunted by what does not come under the rule of the signifier (including any particular political position, Marxist or otherwise). This is not to say that Baraka does not have the politics he says he does, but that the poetics of what counts as political are indissociable. Reducing Baraka to a political position — or worse, a symbol — is overly simplistic: politics is constituted by poetics, and vice versa.
Otherwise, reading chapter 1 today, there is not much about it that seems controversial. Unorthodox, yes – Watten’s move away from the material text to the cultural mode of production is unfamiliar, but follows cultural studies (and Walter Benjamin, Pierre Macherey, and Raymond Williams) in bringing nonliterary texts into dialogue with literary ones. And this shift towards the cultural had a critical purpose: by focusing on the years immediately preceding Language writing, Watten was showing that his movement was not context-less, motive-less, and ‘primarily textual,’ as espoused by some scholars, but in fact emanated from specific political, cultural, and expressive aims. (24)
And one must bear in mind the original requirements of the Orono conference, which stipulated that presenters return to the 1960s. This was a decade that is frequently downplayed by neoconservatives, because of what Watten regards as a prevailing polemical atmosphere that is
at its basis presentist and that sees the return to historical contexts as generationally authoritarian claims. (5)
Watten begins chapter 1 by arguing that he ‘seeks common ground’ between the textual politics of the Language school and expressivist poetics (Black Arts, Chicano, feminist, gay/lesbian). (23) He locates his ‘point of departure’ as the October 1964 event at Sproul Plaza; the Seale clip, which so infuriated Baraka, is included because its very selectivity provokes, and thus suggests reasons why the Black Panthers failed in their political goals. From here, Watten studies Anselm Adams’ 1967 photographic portfolio Fiat Lux – ‘a brilliant record, seen in retrospect, of the rational order out of which the student radical order and later counterculture were created’ – and Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals (1962-63, published 1970), with the poet shown to recognize language-centered compositional techniques but still live ‘language and image as embodied.’ (44)
In the second half of the chapter Watten addresses the origins of the ‘turn to language’ in poetry and makes his audacious claim for the Free Speech Movement as a direct precursor of the Language school. Watten non-reductively reads four poets – Duncan, Levertov, Merwin, and Creeley – who gave readings or taught at Berkeley in the late 1960s, and through their work
defined possibilities and limits for poetry in relation to an unfolding crisis of politics. (57)
Merwin’s The Lice (1967) was read ‘for its nonsurrealist otherworldliness and veiled references to Vietnam,’ (57) while Duncan is critiqued as a ‘radical and conservative at once’ whose poetics of emancipation ‘devolve… into hermetic truths of enduring value rather than real-time political experience.’ (60). Levertov, through her activism and confrontation with Duncan’s mythopoesis, is looked upon more favorably, even if her poetry’s transparency, as in To Stay Alive (1970), was not what was needed. Creeley too, through the ‘intensification of language in his work and its relation to fragmented subjectivity,’ if not his own reticence towards collective politics, is seen as more obviously pointing the way forward for Language writing. (57) And Baraka’s non-attendance at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference is mentioned, though not dwelled upon:
History puts representation to test in each of these poets [Duncan, Levertov, Merwin, and Creeley], leading to new possibilities for poetic technique. At the same time, the outside of the contemporaneous Black Arts movement, and its primary representative in Amiri Baraka, questions the sufficiency of these poetic alternatives – and must be registered, if only by its absence. (68)
Looking back now, one can see how Baraka’s decision not to attend the 1965 conference was to have lasting ramifications. By asking his friend Ed Dorn to attend as his substitute, Baraka took himself out of the conversation, and left the Berkeley Poetry Conference an all-white affair. (And in early 2015, when the time came to organize the conference’s 50-year anniversary event, this original lack of diversity was noted, and led to the creation of the Crosstalk event.) Yet Baraka’s absence in 1965 was of little direct consequence to the Berkeley students, Watten argues.
Of more immediate concern was the example provided by on-campus lecturers such as Northrop Frye. Invited to Berkeley in the winter of 1969, Frye proved soon enough that he had no stomach for activism; rather than follow Levertov and engage in the collective politics of the period, he offered merely an allegory of recurrence in Edmund Spenser. A year later, Frye wrote ‘The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism,’ where he discussed the People’s Park riot in ‘mythopoetic terms.’ (233)
By that stage, however, a 27-year-old Grenier had arrived on the scene, operating out of a fourth-floor office in Wheeler Hall. Grenier too preferred to retreat from the fray, adopting an ‘antivisionary “outsider” stance’ that involved repeated day trips to San Mateo County. (69) But he did use his classes to eschew the melodrama of Creative Workshop lyricism and show the possibility of a radically formalist poetry that
begins with a social command to nonreferentiality, a refusal to refer to cultural orders in the process of collapse, even as evidence of their pressure survives in many cryptic references in the work. (69)
As observed in The Grand Piano and The Constructivist Moment, Grenier seemed the perfect mentor for Watten and his likeminded peers. Grenier’s focus on signification moved beyond ‘the agony of social context that Creeley made the test of representation,’ and his disconnected non-sequiturs offered a form of negative disconnection from the horrors of international political events. (70) Yet it would take the work of poets ‘after Grenier,’ Watten argues in Questions of Poetics, to ‘reverse the asociality of Creeley’s turn to language.’ (71)
Watten set up This magazine in 1971 as a 22-year-old; he was typesetting it at night at a print shop in Coralville, Iowa, and working with Grenier on assembling it. From issue 4 onwards Watten took over the reins himself: a sizable undertaking. Watten includes an image of the cover of This 7 in the final pages of chapter 1, because it was this issue that really began the process of charting the emergence of Language writing. In texts from these issues (7 to 12), the materiality of language
is not merely a question of autonomous form; form itself, as constructed out of ungrounded language, speaks to the question of the foundational ground that had been effaced in the legitimation crisis of the 1960s. (71)
But what about examples of actual poetry? Many readers of Questions of Poetics would be wondering how this all played out in the poetic line. Chapter 1 concludes with a fragment of Watten’s verse from this era, itself marking a decisive break from ‘the failure of poetic subjectivity in its confrontation with the historical present.’ (72) Watten’s early materialist poetry has not yet been given the attention that it deserves; in Bernstein’s Pitch of Poetry, for instance, it is given only a cursory mention.
But Watten is not one to let ‘bad history’ win the day; he will risk disrupting critical orthodoxy if it means a more accurate, less skewed view of literary history. Watten quotes from his poem ‘Non-Events,’ but he could have chosen any number of his poems from this period. As its title suggests, ‘Non-Events’ offers a constructivist act of negative refusal in which form becomes ‘a constitutive ground built upon a precedent chasm’:
Until we advance nothing seems possible
until a bridge is built upon us.
Window openings scale the divorced
speed of rooms to permanent time. What
foundations a stone supports, rolling hills
collapse. In this utopia the common
bond lowers threshold of doubt.
A virtual x-axis, crowded by on-looking I’s. (72)
It makes for a slightly conceited ending, in its recalibration of literary history so that Watten’s own poetry and editorial work feature front and centre; not many other critics would have the panache to make this their chapter’s final flourish. But this is pure Watten: honest, defiant, and absolutely committed to calling it exactly as he sees it.
And that is what I love about Questions of Poetics: for all of its occasional lashings of animus – just about all of which, it could be argued, propel the narrative rather than mar its impact – this is a serious work of scholarship that probes areas that others are unwilling, or quite simply unable, to tackle. It does so, moreover, with a theoretical virtuosity that one can do nought but admire. In his introduction to Questions of Poetics, Watten reflects on his life in letters and the long, politically demanding process of putting together the book. Here, he offers the following Chinese proverb, which he tells us had been given to him by an artist in Taiwan in the early 1970s: wen shan xiu qi (‘the clear air comes from the mountain of things.’) (1) Whether Watten provides ‘clear air’ in all his arguments is for readers to decide, and there are other ways to the mountain’s summit than I have provided here. But there is no doubt that this is a polemic of note, and utterly deserving of immediate attention.
Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote,
you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs;
and vice versa.
1 Watten appropriates Jakobson’s ‘gold standard,’ but in a way that expands Jakobson’s linguistic model to incorporate theory, culture, history, and so on. Coolidge’s The Maintains, excerpted in This and published in 1974 as the inaugural book of This Press, has appeared regularly in Watten’s criticism. Indeed in Part 9 of The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco, 1975-1980 (Detroit: Mode A / This Press, 2007) Watten observes that, in its ‘overturning of lyric subjectivity by means of a pre-given “poetic vocabulary,”’ Coolidge’s book-length poem has ‘become close to a fixture of my poetic genealogy.’ (216)
Probably Watten’s most substantial analysis of The Maintains occurs in his 1997 talk / essay ‘The Bride of the Assembly Line: Radical Poetics in Construction,’ in The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003). The Maintains is here described as the ‘constructivist apogee’ of Coolidge’s work, offering a compelling instance of a ‘social text.’ (135) In Questions of Poetics Watten calls the publication of The Maintains in 1973 ‘a defining moment of Language writing,’ and adds that Coolidge, in choosing this title, ‘must have had a sense of how the grammatical disjunction between the article “the” and the verb “maintains” would insist on an irreducible materiality as productive of unresolved meanings.’ (9)
2 Watten, ‘Document 76: On Negativity’ (July 4, 2018, http://bit.ly/2KQV78z). In his introduction to The Constructivist Moment, Watten wonders whether negativity, as a ‘tertium quid’ uniting the ‘disparate topics’ in his criticism, in fact works paradoxically to ‘convey a positive consistency.’ Watten acknowledges in this passage that he has found this ‘to be the most difficult question’ to address throughout The Constructivist Moment. (xxii)
3 Ibid. In Astradur Eysteinsson’s The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), as Watten notes in The Constructivist Moment, the phrase ‘aesthetics of interruption’ is used rather than ‘negativity.’ (xxiv)
4 Watten, ‘Document 76: On Negativity.’
5 Watten’s 40-year-old dispute with Duncan has been chronicled extensively. The Baraka event occurred at Orono, Maine in a New American-friendly setting, but the issues at work there were different to those that Watten encountered in 1978. For more on the Watten/Baraka argument, see Kristen Prevallet, ‘The Exquisite Extremes of Poetry (Watten and Baraka on the Brink)’ in Jacket 12 (July 2000, http://jacketmagazine.com/12/prevallet-orono.html), and Jasper Bernes, Juliana Spahr, and Joshua Clover’s ‘Baraka / the divide’ in Jacket2 (January 4, 2014, https://jacket2.org/commentary/baraka-divide).
Watten’s dispute with Mackey flared up on Facebook on May 8, 2018, after Watten took umbrage with Grant Matthew Jenkins’ review (http://bit.ly/2rem6lX) of Questions of Poetics. At root, Watten and Mackey’s argument seemed to be about sharply differing opinions regarding Robert Duncan’s legacy. Watten expressed his displeasure about Jenkins’ revisiting, as his opening gambit, the 1978 Watten/Duncan encounter: see ‘Entry 33: The Duncan Thing’ (May 5, 2018, http://bit.ly/2KDGFBj). The subsequent discussion between Watten, Mackey, and others that took place on Facebook, and then on an email chain, covered interesting terrain, including: Duncan’s attitudes to race; the schism in contemporary poetics based on ‘myth,’ rather than ‘race’; Watten’s lingering displeasure about his treatment by Duncan and others during the Bay Area poetry wars; my own conversation about Questions of Poetics with Mackey in Paris, October 2016; Mackey’s concerns about a moment of ‘ghettoizing’ language by Watten on Facebook (the phrase ‘some ppl, in some contexts’); and Watten’s editing practices on This. For more on this, see Watten, ‘Document 71: Purloined Letters’ (May 24, 2018, http://bit.ly/2x7lSmM) and Mackey, ‘The Barrett Watten/Nathaniel Mackey Encounter (May 23, 2018), https://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com/dispatches-news/the-barrett-watten-nathaniel-mackey-encounter/.
7 Watten, ‘Entry 10: The selfie as poetics’ (May 11, 2014). https://jacket2.org/commentary/entry-10.
8 See Goldsmith, ‘Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius,’ Harriet (May 30, 2008, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/05/marjorie-perloffs-unoriginal-genius), and McCaffery, ‘Language Writing,’ in Jennifer Ashton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 143. Filreis’ piece can be found at http://jacket2.org/commentary/language-period-style-80s. Watten also addresses this question in ‘Document 73: Period Style’ (June 15, 2018, http://bit.ly/2HW6KJq.)
9 Perloff has been very enthusiastic about some Language writers, in particular Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. With Watten, there is history: he has questioned Perloff’s context-less and apolitical readings of Language writing from early on, and has been a thorn in her side.
10 Watten, ‘Entry 10: The selfie as poetics.’
12 In chapter 3 of The Constructivist Moment, and later in his introduction to Diasporic Avant-Gardes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, co-edited with Carrie Noland), Watten critiques Bernstein for lapsing into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ account of negativity in his essay ‘Poetics of the Americas’ (Modernism / Modernity no.3, 1996: 1-21). Bernstein is here guilty, Watten asserts, of a reductive view of identity politics – and thus a levelling out of negativity – when discussing Language poetry and its relation with emergent styles from other cultures of the Americas.
13 Watten, ‘Document 74: Critical Art Practice.’ For a discussion of radical particularity, in Watten’s most recent usage, see ‘Document 75: Radical Particularity’ (June 23, 2018, http://bit.ly/2KhSGz4). In Questions of Poetics Watten describes radical particularity (‘the making of the poetic form out of the serial accumulation of myriad particulars, each a different fractal of a larger form’), aesthetic negativity (‘the critical distance from original contexts taken by the making of radical particulars and their contestation of larger forms of organization and subordination’), and formal agency (‘the critical alterity and interpretive openness of the work’) as the ‘three most distinctive features’ of Language writing.
14 Hejinian and Watten (eds.), A Guide to Poetics Journal: Writing in the Expanded Field, 1982-1998 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013): 27.
16 See McGann, ‘Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes,’ in Robert von Hallberg (ed.), Politics and Poetic Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 253-76; and Ross, ‘The New Sentence and the Commodity Form: Recent American Writing,’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 361-80.
17 Harryman, Part 5 of The Grand Piano (Detroit: Mode A/This Press, 2007): 123.
19 See Perloff, ‘After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents’ (1999, https://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/perloff/after_langpo.html).
20 Watten, ‘Entry 10: The selfie as poetics.’
21 Watten, ‘Entry 1: Presentism,’ Jacket2 (January 2, 2014), https://jacket2.org/commentary/entry-1.
22 There is more research to be done on Dworkin/Watten, focusing on reasons why the former insufficiently acknowledges the latter as a literary ancestor. Close study of their correspondences over the past decade or more would seem crucial. One should note that Dworkin’s recent essay, ‘Poetry in the Age of Consumer-Generated Content,’ in Critical Inquiry 44 (Summer 2018), provides more evidence of the ahistoricist tendency that Watten identifies in Questions of Poetics; here Dworkin attempts to sever any historical claims from the presentism of conceptualism. (See pages 674 to 705)
23 Harley, ‘Poetry as virtual community’ (February 7, 2013), http://jacket2.org/reviews/poetry-virtual-community.
24 Kate Fagan and Lyn Hejinian, ‘A Fable for Now: Kate Fagan Interviews Lyn Hejinian’ (July 9, 2014). Cordite Poetry Review, http://cordite.org.au/interviews/fagan-hejinian/.
26 In his introduction to Diasporic Avant-Gardes, for example, Watten describes The Grand Piano as ‘in many ways’ a ‘challenge to “dominant” avant-garde aesthetics, where any such thing as autobiography or historical reference is bracketed.’ (13)
27 I am aware of only two other substantial reviews, apart from ‘Poetry as virtual community,’ of The Grand Piano: first, Barry Schwabsky’s ‘Vanishing Points: Language Poetry Remembered’ (Nation, January 12, 2011: 33-36); second, Antoine Cazé’s ‘Intimate Communities: The Theory of Practice’ (in Theory That Matters: What Practice after Theory, ed. Kacpar Bartczak and Malgorzata Myk, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013: 106-24). James Sherry also made an attempt to blog every issue on The Grand Piano for Jacket (issues 32-35), but gave up after Part 4.
28 Charles Bernstein, ‘Wolf: With Stephen Ross,’ a 2013 conversation in Pitch of Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016): 284. Bernstein’s use of ‘regionalism’ and ‘nostalgia’ appear throwbacks to the period when New York thought itself the center of the art world. Watten, in Part 8 of The Grand Piano, reflects on the resilience of New York provincialism vis-à-vis Bay Area attitudes; he notes that in New York, ‘if value is not where one is located, one must move to where it is,’ whereas in San Francisco ‘value is a simultaneous but unrealizable co-presence; one has every reason to remain outside.’ (161)
Readers should be aware of the context behind Bernstein’s comment: in Part 3 of The Grand Piano Bernstein was referred to only as ‘N.’ by Watten when recalling their early meetings in the 1970s. Bernstein wasn’t the only person referred to only by an initial in this essay, but in one of the anecdotes in which he appears – in New York, in 1976 – Ted Greenwald and Tom Raworth are given their full names, whereas Bernstein isn’t. In Pitch of Poetry Bernstein’s thinly veiled opposition towards The Grand Piano might be interpreted as a reaction to this.
29 ‘A Fable for Now: Kate Fagan Interviews Lyn Hejinian’ (July 9, 2014). http://cordite.org.au/interviews/fagan-hejinian/.
30 Armantrout was mostly concerned about her career; Silliman was anxious to protect the publication of The Alphabet (2008) with Alabama University Press.
31 Watten considered replacing this chapter with an essay on Anthony Braxton, and apparently raised this possibility with the editors of Iowa Press’ Contemporary North American Poetry Series. The decision was ultimately made not to do so – perhaps regrettably for Watten, given it would have made for a timely riposte to recent online discussion about his supposed inattentiveness to artists of color. Watten, it should be noted, has been writing about Braxton for at least 13 years. His 2005 lecture ‘Transposing the Limits of Organic Form: Language Writing and Anthony Braxton’ was presented at New York University’s Current Free Practices in Music and Poetry conference in March 2005, and is mentioned briefly in Diasporic Avant-Gardes.
32 Watten’s propensity to analyze his own poetry has disconcerted some readers. In an endnote (#17) to the final chapter of Questions of Poetics, he acknowledges criticisms of his work along these lines, adding defiantly: ‘Once and for all, it must be said: I know the risks I take when I do this; it is part of a larger critical project; it is meant to work in certain ways connected to the structure of desire; I hope it works for you.’ (255) Watten’s self-readings of his poems I nowadays find immensely useful, given the scarcity of scholarship on some of his work and its undeniable centrality to the emergence of the Language school.
33 In ‘The Secret History of the Equal Sign,’ the second chapter of The Constructivist Moment, Watten addresses Legend (co-authored by Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray diPalma, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman, published 1980) at length, and compares it in gendered terms with Harryman and Hejinian’s more transgressive collaborative novel The Wide Road (begun 1991, published 2011).
36 Lyn Hejinian. In Part 2 of The Grand Piano, Watten reflects upon his attending a public meeting of a communist organization in May 1975, during the fall of Saigon; back then, in the midst of stagflation, it was risky to be a poet given the ‘fragmented, ugly, and incoherent’ American culture at that time. (11) In addition to small acts of solidarity, such as attending Jonathan Jackson’s funeral, Watten recalls hearing Kathleen Cleaver speak in the lounge of the Student Union at Berkeley. In a moment comparable to LeRoi Jones’ encounter with Rubi Betancourt, as documented in ‘Cuba Libre,’ (1960) Watten remembers asking Cleaver, in the aftermath of the expulsion of white Civil Rights activists by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, how ‘middle-class white people’ could ‘aid the struggle for liberation.’ Cleaver, then in her mid-20s ‘but taken to be politically authoritative,’ responded:
There are parallel struggles that must be undertaken in the community in which you find yourself. (17)
Cleaver’s advice, then, was that black liberation was not directly a white liberal concern – and Watten took heed. But there were also aesthetic differences, which should not be understated. The Black Arts Repertory Theater/School had been formed by Jones/Baraka not long after Malcolm X’s assassination in February 1965, and the black poetry that emerged from the Black Arts movement (as collected in Baraka and Larry Neal’s 1968 anthology Black Fire) was expressivist. Such poetry was almost diametrically opposed to what Watten’s crowd was moving towards under the influence of Russian Formalism, Wittgenstein, Western Marxism, French structuralism and poststructuralism, and écriture feminine.
And while Hejinian argues, in ‘En Face,’ that the Language poets were unaware of postwar black linguistic innovation, such as the Howard/Dasein poets, the Free Lance Group, the Umbra group, and others recuperated in Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (1997) because they weren’t really looking for it, Watten has a different take. He points out that there were no black poets interested in the Language scene until Thomas came around – and Hunt, with whom he shared an apartment and was anxious not to tokenize in print. In addition, as Hejinian and Watten both write about in Part 7 of The Grand Piano, the Language poets embraced improvised music, even if their poetry, with its different form, did not always make this as explicit as some would now prefer it to have been.
As for Mackey, Watten had seen his work in Temblor, and possibly in Sulfur before that; he also owned every copy of Hambone from 1982 onwards. But he didn’t notice Mackey’s poetry as much as he might have done until after Bedouin Hornbook was published in 1986. In recent years Watten has become a staunch enthusiast of Mackey’s music-inspired epistolary fiction, admiring (among other things) its lingual attentiveness, formal innovation, and deconstruction of the masculine sublime.
37 Lyn Hejinian, ‘En Face,’ (March 10, 2015), Boston Review, http://bostonreview.net/poetry/lyn-hejinian-forum-response-race-avant-garde.
38 In May 1984 Hejinian and Watten published a ‘Women and Language’ issue in Poetics Journal (no. 4). But there was no equivalent issue put together to explicitly explore race, although the final three issues, Elsewhere (no. 8, 1989), The Person (no. 9, 1992), and Knowledge (no. 10, 1998) offered a limited engagement with this subject. Hejinian, in her Boston Review essay, is quite critical of her own editorship of Poetics Journal in this regard; she admonishes her own back-footedness here, seeing it as ‘a matter of bad faith: a failure to face what is going on.’ Later, in a March 13 Addendum included in her Boston Review piece, she clarifies what she meant by this phrase ‘bad faith’:
Watten, for his part, is adamant that his material labor as an activist, editor, poet, and essayist provide evidence of real-world progressiveness in this area. In 1976, as recalled in Part 3 of The Grand Piano, he typeset Ishmael Reed’s multicultural anthology Califia and decades later found evidence of this work at a ‘dumpy used bookstore in Royal Oak, Michigan.’ (86)
Nevertheless, Watten does acknowledge that his own front-footedness in terms of exploring race via poetics, a gesture so apparent in Diasporic Avant-Gardes, only really began in the late 1980s / early 1990s when experimental poets of color started to come to the fore. Poetics Journal had two issues in the 1990s, but Harryette Mullen and Kofi Natambu were included in The Person (1992), and other writers of color, including Thomas, Rodrigo Toscano, and Pamela Lu, were included in Knowledge (1998). Mackey’s work was never published here, and that was an absence that Watten and Hejinian would seek to correct; indeed, Watten’s decision to include Mackey in chapter 6 of Questions of Poetics, as well as in Diasporic Avant-Gardes (via an excerpt from Bass Cathedral), could be interpreted as an attempt to do just that.
39 See, for example, Hejinian and Watten’s headnotes for ‘What/Person? From an Exchange’ in A Guide to Poetics Journal. Here they comment on the debate between Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman that erupted in the late 1980s. This debate was focused on whether white male heterosexual (WHM) poets, such as Silliman, are less inclined to explore identity politics in experimental poetry because ‘theirs was not in question.’
In contrast, poets of color, gay, and lesbian writers are not afforded that luxury; for socio-historical reasons they are obliged to ‘tell their story’ in a much more identitarian manner. (27) Hejinian and Watten observe that this debate, ‘which is still not included,’ took place ‘on the threshold of a ‘major shift in the cultural politics of the avant-garde and its relation to identity politics,’ and has led to a new generation of minority writers (Harryette Mullen, Renee Gladman, Pamela Lu, Tisa Bryant, Tan Lin, Rodrigo Toscano, among others) ‘taking full advantage’ of its subtleties and inherent contradictions. (378)
Importantly, both A Guide to Poetics Journal and Diasporic Avant-Gardes appeared in print much later than had been intended. Hejinian and Watten had to approach five publishing houses for the Guide, and lost several years in the process. The Guide and companion Digital Archive should have appeared in 2005-06 but eventually made it to print, through Wesleyan University Press, much later in 2013-15. Similar delays occurred with Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Watten and Noland had to go through several presses and withdrew from one.
The UC Irvine conference that Diasporic Avant-Gardes was drawn from occurred in 2004 but the book itself didn’t come out until 2009, and then came with a $90 price tag. A paper version emerged in 2011, but the landscape had changed. Such delays meant that Watten’s introduction, and his 2004 talk ‘Franco Luambo Makiadi’s Universalism and Avant-Garde Particularity’ (chapter 6 of Diasporic Avant-Gardes) have so far been barely cited by scholars.
40 See Watten, ‘Entry 2: Decades,’ Jacket 2 (January 4, 2014), ps://jacket2.org/commentary/entry-2. The quoted anecdote first appeared in Watten, ‘Thinking through Orono,’ Sagetrieb 20/Paideuma 40 (2013): 99-100. Watten has considered the poetics of revolutionary symbols in two other articles, ‘The Poetics of Historiography: An Interview with Lytle Shaw,’ Shark, no. 3 (2000): 42-63, and ‘More on Orono,’ Jacket2 (January 6, 2014), https://jacket2.org/commentary/entry-3.
41 Watten, ‘More on Orono.’
46 In ‘What I See in How I Became Hettie Jones’ (Poetics Journal Digital Archive), Watten approaches Jones/Baraka’s work, rather uniquely for a male poet of his generation, from the perspective of his ex-wife, Hettie Jones Cohen. Watten observes that Jones Cohen’s autobiography ‘offers another account of culture that a singular, authorial one, continually returning to moments of literary collaboration.’ (1670) Whereas Jones / Baraka, following Olson, was deeply invested in the masculine sublime, Jones Cohen deconstructed that gendered narrative by admitting a multiplicity of perspectives into her own account of their married life in the 1950s/early 1960s.
Hejinian, in her addendum to ‘En Face,’ calls Watten’s essay, published in Poetics Journal X (1998), ‘one of the most astute and courageous of writings by a member of the ‘poetic avant-garde on race and cultural production,’ and Watten’s essay is certainly insightful in its diagnosis of problematic issues in Jones/Baraka’s writing that have been scarcely discussed. In chapter 8 of The Constructivist Moment, Watten offers another critical consideration of identity in Jones/Baraka’s work, focusing this time on The System of Dante’s Hell (written 1960-61, published 1965). Watten here discerns a ‘drive to control boundaries in the construction of identity’ in Jones/Baraka’s narrative about growing up in Newark, but leaves it at that. (330) From afar, Baraka’s conduct at Orono could be seen as offering real-world evidence of the tendencies touched upon in The Constructivist Moment.
47 Watten, ‘More on Orono.’
48 Baraka’s absence created a vacuum that was filled by the Third World Liberation Front in 1967-68. This led to the founding of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley – a subject about which much could yet be said.
49 Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference (June 17, 2015) was hosted by Betti Ono, and featured work by Giovanni Singleton, Douglas Kearney, and Craig Santos Perez. It came about after the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG) led a successful campaign denouncing the decision to invite Vanessa Place to the 2015 Berkeley conference.
50 Watten discusses This 7 to 12 in his final essay for The Grand Piano, calling this sequence ‘definitive in many ways of the emergence of Language writing in its primary form, alongside the contributions of other journals and editors.’ (233) He then argues, in this same essay, that ‘there has still not been anything like an adequate literary history of the emergence of Language writing, with the radical democracy of its magazines and presses as its social formation.’ (233) Watten’s critical account of the early moments of Language writing in chapter 1, uniting theory, cultural history, and text, points readers in that direction.
51 Watten’s early poems might now be read, with some validity, as attempts to resolve the contradictory meanings of Berkeley in the 1960s – clashes between Free Speech, enlightenment critique, absence of ground, the failure of myth and expressionism, and multiple political conflicts and over-determinations.