A novel in verse … and the writing thereof

Language Poetry and the unbroken Baroque

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 by

Warning: We interrupt this sequence on recent revisions to bring you the following post on things only peripherally relevant to Landscapes itself, but central to poetry.

It was an amazing concert. I’m in Toronto to see my mother, but we both enjoy saying that I came all the way from Montana for the concert, just to watch people do a double take. Certainly the concert set the timing. And I’d say that flying halfway around the continent for Tafelmusik’s Galileo Project makes perfect sense. (More on the concert at the end.)*

To cap it off, I discovered I was sitting next to a woman who appeared to be editing a long document, so of course I asked if it was hers or someone else’s. It had to do with a workshop, she said, and at length let slip that she was a poet. In the end we traded e-mails and names; she’s Joan Guenther, a language poet, she told me, and indeed I found her work (and picture no less) online at Influency Salon, where she’s featured as writer, editor, and critic.

I haven’t read or thought about language poetry for a long time, but I do remember that it stresses language to bring attention to it as stuff, the way that laying oil paint on in huge gobs makes you see the paint itself, not just the picture being painted. I remember big and jagged fonts, miss-spellings, all kinds of things that made the medium, the words, their size and shape and colors, prominent.

In retrospect, I see this as part of a whole wave of reactions against author-centered modernist poetics, which were increasingly perceived as conservative, “precious,” and promoting a false sense of security about the bonds that tie a poem—or any language—both (either?) to its origin (the writer) and to that of which it “speaks.” Believing such bonds to be false, LP seeks to sever them, or to demonstrate their falsity.

Free of bonds to creator or topic (topic = subject, in lay terms, object in criticism, signified in semiotics, though I ‘m leaning towards the acronyms that of which it speaks (towis), or that to which it refers (ttwir)) —free, I say, of such bonds, the poem thus exists as itself, pointing neither backwards at the precious self who created it nor forwards at the object world it’s usually taken to represent. Instead, it is self-referential, an object in itself. LP, then, emphasizes the stuffness of words: words as things, objects as detached as possible both from the I and ego of their writer, and from the things and objects they’re usually used, or assumed, to denote. (I wonder if denotation itself is a fiction in LP.)(And as I write all of this I find so many parallels with deconstruction that I wonder whether there’s a close relationship or sympathy between that critical school and LP or whether I’m completely misrepresenting them both.)

So how does language poetry go about this? Largely by making language itself visible, so we cannot preserve the illusion that we are merely looking through transparent words at an undistorted reality beyond. One common tekneec is to spell words fonetically, thus startling readers into seeing the words themselves on the page. All the many aspects of presentation can be used to strange-ify the language, thus making it the undeniable object (subject) of the poem: diction, layout, font, grammar, and so on and on, happily every after.

Joan Guenther starts her poem “So some guy says,” with a quote (what the guy said? Of language poetry?): “You just know the poem is going to suck.” Then come the opening lines of the poem proper, their topic the “I” she does not italicize nor enclose in quotation marks, which she designates a “fantome”:

I is the fantome hanging around you: placeholder, shapeshifter, object of desire—so wants to dazzle. Awake, a constant solace. In my dreams, guaranteed admittance to the club I belong to.

Which is sure true of the “I” I know best.

*           *           *            *

Having written what’s above, I actually went and read a bit of the articles on LP on Poets.org and elsewhere, and realized that I’d missed a couple of essential elements: politics, and the source of meaning.

First of all, though I’d included LP in a movement against conservative modernism, I completely missed, not just in this writing but ever, the political urgency behind the movement. For language poets, fracturing the language is part of resistance to the imperialist hegemony of the English-speaking countries. (That could definitely be better put, but not at this time of night.)

Secondly, in foregrounding language, the Language Poets involve the reader as an active participant in constructing meaning. That foregrounding also places meaning in the language (rather than in the author) so that, as Poets.org puts it, “language dictates meaning rather than the other way around.”

One can see this idea (these words?) at work in Guenther’s poem.

“We have language long before we have thoughts,” she writes in “So some guy says” and later asks, “What is poetry doing in the universe? What is the universe doing? Does poetry do? Is the universe in?” In that playful series of questions y0u can see her following the words around, rather than herding them into line.

And that’s the point, I suspect: that in actively encouraging the reader’s participation and acknowledging the extent to which language itself dictates meaning, language poets divest themselves of the power modernist writers accrued unto themselves. They are no longer the single source and fount of wisdom and meaning in their words. They’re sharing it around.

Which is of course part of the leftist political project they support: to share the wealth, the power, the poetry. I like that.


* Baroque music, Bach first, I love as I love Shakespeare and Donne, for their playfulness, richness, and for the ways they all marry intellectual complexity to emotional depth and simple beauty.

Even if Baroque isn’t at the top of your favorites list, this Tafelmusik concert cannot but delight. Designed by double-bass player Alice Mackay and refined over two years of performances worldwide, the concert offers an extraordinary compendium of readings, images, and period music (Montiverdi, Bach, Handel, Telemann, and others less well known) on period instruments, all played without scores, and rendered in such a lively, joyous, intimate fashion that it was, all of it, absolutely riveting—so much so that I rarely noticed when the great round images on the huge astrolabe over the stage changed. I was too busy watching the musicians bow or smile at one another, pretend to compete with each other over quick alternating passages, or scold each other as when one cello player swatted an aberrant violinist with his bow. Then there’s the selection during which one violinist woos another, pursuing her about the stage as they both fiddle on. He finally falls to one knee before and follows her, still on one knee and still playing away as she gracefully retreats while answering him phrase for phrase.

The readings—from Galileo himself, from contemporaries and intellectual descendents, including Isaac Newton’s, are so well chosen, and so well read, that they do not seem interruptions. Indeed, they’re integrated with the musicians’ carefully choreographed but casually executed moves, so that as the reader, going through the seasons, arrives at autumn’s red , he indicates the extremely red hair of the violinist who has (surprise!) just arrived at stage front. One piece later, the circle of musicians revolves again, depositing front center an oboist with shoulder-length white hair, the very “long, white locks,” of Winter himself, which the reader irreverently tousles.

It’s an extraordinary show. Try to see it next time it comes around.