UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers

After Language Poetry
Jena Osman


Many years ago my poems were veiled confessions. The phrases and images were basically codes for something else. If the poems were structured correctly, the reader would see through the veil and get to the other side, the big pay-off: the epiphanic "ah!"

Another confession: I wrote my college honors thesis on the poems of James Wright, author of "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," which–after 10 lines of transformative descriptiveness–ends with the lines:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

As I graduated from college, I was feeling more than a little coerced by poetry. Was it really just a game of manipulation? Was it really just about hammering the point home in a gorgeous leap toward closure? Could subjectivity in poems be expressed only in this homogenized cadence? I graduated and I was dejected.

dejected was I and graduated I. cadence homogenized? this only expressed poems in subjectivity. could closure toward leap gorgeous in home point the hammering about. just really it was manipulation of game. Just really it was.

Later, I was introduced to some alternatives that were useful. The alternatives were concerned with the ways in which poetry can reflect actualities, the ways in which poetry can have a socio-political existence. These alternatives were specifically articulated for me by the dramatic theory of Bertolt Brecht and the writings of the Language Poets in the 70s.

In distinguishing his epic theater from the conventional Aristotelian/dramatic model, Brecht wrote: "The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt that too, Just like me, It’s only natural, It’ll never change, The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable, That’s great art, It all seems the most obvious thing in the world, I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it, That’s not the way, That’s extraordinary, hardly believable, It’s got to stop, The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary, That’s great art: nothing obvious in it, I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh."

The Aristotelian model in theater matches the epiphanic model of poetry. The three points in the epic model that I find to be most compelling (in both drama and poetry) are 1) turning the reader/spectator into a critical observer, 2) the work of art should force the reader/spectator to make decisions and 3) social being determines thought rather than vice versa.

Writers such as Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Palmer and the so-called Language Poets (an umbrella term that’s often used to refer to just about all poets that use paratactic methodologies) challenged the way mainstream poetry tended to treat language as a transparent medium through which to access a predetermined meaning. For them, language was evidence of our social being, and if we were believing that carefully constructed language manipulations were expressing "natural" feelings and absolute truths outside of a social determining structure, then we were fooling ourselves. In other words, they challenged the idea that thought determined language rather than language determining thought. The result was a blast of poetry where language was made material in numerous ways. Rather than the poem leading the reader by the hand toward a safe and predetermined conclusion ("I wasted my life"), the poem presented the reader with language to observe and make decisions about. In Charles Bernstein’s words, "By banishing the stasis of the monlogic picture of a world sealed off in its preconstituion...we are given in its place a world with which we must interact to understand."

Over my head, I see a bronchial mutter-my
heap on the wack bunk
I’ve wasted my wife

During world war II, a number of writers and intellectuals took refuge in Hollywood, writing scripts that were never produced. In a play which documents this phenomenon called Tales from Hollywood by Christopher Hampton, Brecht appears quite often. In the middle of one scene, the house lights suddenly come up, and a man–Brecht–walks down the aisle smoking a cigar, surveying the audience. The Austro-Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath (the protagonist of the play) says: "Brecht always liked people to be aware that they were in a theatre. I said to him more than once, but Brecht, what makes you think they think they’re anywhere else?" The play doesn’t allow Brecht to reply, but if you understand his epic theater, you realize that the problem is not that the spectator doesn’t realize that s/he is in the theater, but that the theatrical materials are seen to stand in for a reality–the materiality that is theater is seen as just a code for their own lives–something to relate to. In the words of Brazilian theater director August Boal in Theatre of the Oppressed:

Empathy is the most dangerous weapon in the entire arsenal of the theater and related arts...Its mechanism (sometimes insidious) consists in the juxtaposition of two people (one fictitious and another real), two universes, making one of those two people (the real one, the spectator) surrender to the other (the fictitious one, the character) his power of making decisions. The man relinquishes his power of decision to the image.

The Language Poets always liked people to be aware that they were reading a socio-linguistic construct. I said to them, more than once, but Language Poets (Chuck, Bruce), what makes you think they think they’re reading anything else?

They tear their hair out. They each cry out in pain: "I’ve basted my strife!"

What interests me in the Brechtian model is how it depends on a constant oscillation between empathy and alienation. It sets both opacity and transparency in dialogue. This seems to me to be the "next step" and it’s evident in a growing array of hybridizing writing practices that make use of visual, sound, performance, and cyber media in order to bring the materiality of language (and thus the reader) into a more activist position. It’s also evident in the number of works that are being created through the use of cultural and documentary materials–and it seems inevitable that in light of recent events, the detached eye of the "language poem" must share the textual stage with connective, collective, and absorptive forms. These are the directions in which I see my own work turning.

Back to OEI 7-8: After Language Poetry | UbuWeb