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A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

Can one drop the reins? Part 3: On the other hand

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by

Terry Tempest Williams was in town yesterday, so at 4:30 I closed the computer, put on my boots and raced downtown to grab a ticket. Good thing too; the hall was packed, and the talk terrific. A more committed voice for sanity in an increasingly crazy world I’ve rarely heard. The occasion was Montana State University’s annual Friends of Stegner Lecture, a talk Williams is eminently qualified to deliver: not only is she a remarkable activist, author, and environmentalist, but she knew Wallace Stegner well enough to call him “Wally.” I am going to have to read more of her work.


When I did finally post yesterday, I published a chunk of what was getting to be a very long piece about whether it’s possible to relinquish authorial control. The question had occurred to me as I read and wrote about language poetry, which seeks to do exactly that, largely in an effort to subvert, undermine, or at least divorce itself from the colonial and imperialistic projects so frequently supported by English. (And, I realize, Williams’ work is not unrelated, as she, too, seeks to challenge and oppose the worst of western capitalism—its rapacious greed, its need to control, to subjugate, to kill. Hmm.)

But I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to relinquish control, to drop the literary reins, or whether they’re tied to our wrists, or perhaps even extensions of them, not reins at all but hands and fingers. Who would chop off her hands to say, I will not try to run the world? and having chopped off one, how could she chop off the other? It’s not even possible.

And yet, and yet—My husband, a sensitive, intelligent reader, just opted out of a book we were reading together, in part, he said, because he feel so much in the grip of the writer, who has “a very heavy hand.” This of Charles Frazier, in Thirteen Moons. Steve said something similar of Cold Mountain, but I got him to stick with that one. (I know what he means, in both books; they’re heavily styled, but beautifully so, I think, so I don’t mind.)

The point here, however is this: while Steve feels the heavy weight of Frazier’s hand on every sentence, he does not feel it in everything he reads. This suggests that language poetry could indeed aim to, and succeed at, relinquishing or at least loosening control, since apparently some writing is more heavily controlled than other writing.

Or is it? Perhaps that’s just an illusion. Perhaps—and here we’re close to what I learned and even largely came to believe in graduate school—perhaps all writing is controlled, controlling, but some is honest about this and some not. According to the wave of critical studies from France that influenced so much of my English graduate studies in the 80s, language is not a simple, transparent tool, inert, innocent, with which one person speaks to another. If it’s not, then writing that admits and highlights this fact (as does language poetry) is more honest than writing which seeks to disappear, pretending to an objectivity that is inherently false.

Semiotics, structuralism, reader-response theory and other schools rang true with me, but the heart of critical theory in the 80s, deconstruction, drove me up the well-known wall. Needlessly abstruse, it seemed to me, and therefore incomprehensible (and useless) outside the upper echelons of the academy, how could it claim to be liberal or actively leftist? I had more than one argument with other students, one of which ended, more or less, with his claiming that the New Criticism of Crowe, Ransome, etc. (which aimed to make poetry accessible and comprehensible to the populace)  was imperialistic and oppressive. Stabbing my finger at the Derrida we’d been reading, I fairly spat, “This is oppressive.”

Much of what I said then about deconstruction I have thought, from time to time, about language poetry: pretentious, inaccessible, and therefore, not liberated or liberating, but the opposite. Oppressive.

Not that I felt oppressed by Joan Guenther’s “So some guy says,” the poem and poet who started all this. (Although I wish I had some idea–any idea–about why the poem (by a Canadian) ends with the cryptic “Thanks America.” No comma between. Perhaps it’s almost random, an example of the stochastic process evoked in the sentence just before it, which I discussed several posts back: “Here’s one for the life-word list: stochastic.”)

On the other hand, —well, on the other hand, I am starting to feel like Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, arguing with himself about whether this daughter or that should be permitted to marry the man that she—not he!—has chosen, starting each new position with “on the other hand,” until he has three, four, five hands in the argumentative pot.

I do not know the answer to my question. It’s one for continued thought and rumination—and writing. Certainly I believe—adamantly, profoundly—that in writing one does not merely record, but learns, discovers, and creates.