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After Language Poetry
Brian Kim Stefans

From OEI 7-8 2001: AFTER LANGUAGE POETRY



My own sense is that there has been neither a smooth transition from the paradigm of "language poetry" nor has there been a "clean break" with it. There are several younger writers who wish language poetry never happened, some who believe that the tenets of language poetry are still the best thing going, and some who are picking and choosing from among the ideas that language poetry put forward and trying to reconcile these with more traditional poetic values.

There are several reasons for this. One is that, even when Language poetry was most in the ascdendant, there were still strong strands in experimental work that didn't owe anything to their theories or work. Some writers, like Susan Howe, are considered "Language poets" even though her work shares little with the work of the main figures, while other writers, such as Eileen Myles and the ever-productive John Ashbery, were putting out strong work that didn't owe anything to them.

Also, it never had the grip on the public imagination that, say, Beat Poetry had, probably because it lacked any "lifestyle" element -- no costumes, no drugs -- and because it had a fairly technical, and not humanistic, approach to poetic value. It was a highly self-conscious movement which often put forward a very methodical way of writing, and American poets by nature tend to disavow this kind of self-consciousness since it conflicts with a sort of romantic liberatarian attitude that believes the poet is a free thinker and a "witness to events" who is also, as an act of rebellion perhaps, an improvisational writer.

I'm being reductive here, of course, but this is an element that runs from Whitman (who was, to a degree, in conflict with the methodical, continentally-inflected writings of William Cullen Bryant) through the Beats to Ann Waldman and the late A.R. Ammons. It's not a viewpoint to which I'm entirely unsympathetic.

Language poetry is also often seen as elitist because it never dealt adequately with issues of race, gender, and sexuality, at least as a whole. Since one of its early premises was the critique of "identity" and the self, it never had the language for dealing with minority issues that attempted to legitimize "identity" as a central subject of discourse. As a result, there was a sense of haughtiness on the part of the Language poets who didn't want to "stoop to that level," though recently there have been more attempts by Language poets to incorporate these issues. Not suprisingly, most of the Language poets -- certainly of the first generations -- are of European descent (which is to say, "white").

So what that leaves is a poetic past that seems at once finished, incomplete, still lingering, in its death throes, yet more relevant than ever. Several mainstream writers have made their career marks by incorporating Language methods in their work, for better or worse, and it's sort of become hip again in some quarters.

As for me, I've spent a lot of time imitating the works of writers I admire -- from Ezra Pound to Charles Bernstein -- and have always been interested in trying everything possible to write a poem. There are a huge amount of formal explorations that the Language poets have made, and I certainly identify strongly with this impetus toward radical new methods. However, I've also been interested in writers the Language poets never took under their wings (usually non-Americans, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Haroldo de Campos, etc., or not "avant-garde" like Martin Johnston, an Australian), and have tended to want to avoid the American-centric, Oedipal attitudes -- WE are the next big generation -- that have marred some of their approach.

As I suggested above, I'm much more interested in the idea of the poet as cultural agent and "witness", of a reinvestigation of some of those "libertarian" poetics attitudes (and am avoiding the academy at all costs), as well as a reconciliation of my own specificity as an Asian American writer with the more theoretical, methodical, post-humanist aspects of the group.

I've moved very much into digital technology with my work. Most of my most ambitious projects have been for the internet (they appear at www.ubu.com). "The Dreamlife of Letters," for example, is a long Flash piece that owes a big debt to Brazilian concrete (it's my love letter to that country), and my new piece, "The Truth Interview," a collaboration with the poet Kim Rosenfield, is not a poem at all but a collage of animated texts, an interview/profile of Rosenfield, a sort of "web portal," and travesties of common web phenomena such as the pop-up box advertisement and the subliminal sexual ploys in web imagery.

I also deal with "avatars," having written a long sequence in the voice of someone named "Roger Pellett." Though these are traditional "poems" -- words on a page -- I somehow attribute them to the anonymity that is natural to web culture, and is an open field for play.

I think my work is a direct descendant of that of the Language poets, but because of this attention to digital culture, I am more prone to see text as "data" and even less as the autonomous art-works and sanctified language that Language poets themselves once criticized, and yet for the most part didn't overcome or replace with new attitudes. My closest peers in this effort have been those centered around the ubu chat group -- Darren Wershler-Henry, Kenneth Goldsmith, etc. -- but since I live in New York, I am in constant contact with writers of many stripes, and hope to steal from them also.

My hope is that my work will remain public, like the way graffitti is public, and will never be marred by a critic's misguided attempt to place it back into the box of continental Modernism.

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