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After Language Poetry
From OEI 7-8 2001: AFTER LANGUAGE POETRY
Dear editors of OEI,
There are many ways your question could be interpreted. On the one hand, "How do you conceive of innovative poetry in America after Language poetry?" could mean, "how is it possible to conceive of such a thing." As if Language poetry foretold the end of all innovation by virtue of its late-century formalist extremism. Strange though this may sound, it is a "position" held by some-poets who feel that we can no longer "make it new," nor should we. In the wake of this belief, some return to the innovative formal programs which preceded Language poetry, writing out of formal ideas connected with Black Mountain, the New York School, Berkeley Renaissance or Beats, ideas that are by no means exhausted, and which continue apace among younger and older writers alike, as if Language poetry never happened. I've also seen other young writers argue, with some resignation, that though there is "nothing new under the sun," the innovations the Language poets adopted from the European avant-garde are still rich with possibility and there is no good reason to abandon them. The appeal of Language poetry's energy, defiance, politics and, though greatly overlooked in critical writing on their work, fun has spawned an enormous number of adherents, many of whom have written some great poetry in the last couple of decades. However, because Language poetry was the last credible avant-garde in the US to be critically assimilated (a process which is still on-going) all poetry that uses the formal devices they favored (whether radical juxtaposition, paratactic prose, or, for that matter, even field composition!) gets subsumed under the category "Language poetry," not unlike when everything "strange" became "surrealist." Of course, in time all of this will straighten itself out and, to future generations of readers, invisible distinctions will become glaringly obvious, as will the differences among the Language poets themselves. The question, then, is not perhaps, "how do you conceive of innovative poetry after Language poetry," but rather why would you want to do such a thing? The answer for me, here greatly simplified, is twofold. The first is selfish, "because as a reader one gets bored with the same old kind of poetry!" The second is serious, "because as a poet, the burden is upon me to find the best formal solution to express this particular historical moment in such a way as to expose its logic (or illogic) at every linguistic level, from the intimate life of the individual to the larger geo-political world and on out into the universe. I realized that sounds rather grand, but then again, what's worth doing is worth being deluded about.
As for your second question, "How do you define your own relationship to Language Poetry," I can say that, though I was reluctant to admit it at the time, as a set of theories about writing Language poetry ceased being of any help to me about 1989. This however was not before I had been inspired by their insistence on keeping poetry political and their significant continuation of the tradition of the small magazine and small press. More significantly still, it was through Language poetry that I was introduced to many of the writers I continue to hold very dear, poets such as Zukofsky, Oppen, Duncan and Creeley, to name only a few. Also, though the theoretical framework behind the movement ceased to answer all my formal needs, I continue to admire much of the poetry being written by individuals associated with Language poetry, poets whose personal work has continued to grow and change. Here I might name Bob Perelman, Rae Armantrout and Michael Gottlieb, but that would just be the beginning of a longer list.