Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Language Writing and Other Matters

Literary Modernism appeared to have run its course in the English-speaking world by around 1940, at least as far as fiction writing was concerned. New Directions published Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen, Grove Press went on to publish Beckett’s novels, the Nouveau Roman in translation, and William Burroughs, but that’s pretty much it. American novelists who emerged after World War Two may have incorporated specific Modernist techniques, but these were generally used sparingly. Even in the most lauded literary fiction, anything that might engage the reader’s intellect at the expense of his or her emotions was largely eliminated. Early Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Siri Hustvedt, and a few others provide the exceptions to this rule.

Poetry was a different matter, with the continuing work of Williams, Cummings, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Oppen, and the emergence of Olson and Creeley. By the 1970s, what became known as Language writing emerged. In New York, this was based around Roof Magazine, edited by James Sherry (1976-1979), A Hundred Posters, edited by Alan Davies (1976-1981), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (1978-1981). Michael Gottlieb has written an account of the New York group at this period, Memoir and Essay, published by Faux Press and Other Publications, which provides an engaging picture of the aesthetic concerns, intellectual preoccupations, and personal conflicts involved. Dozens of poets around the country were involved in the group. This was a major literary movement, with a focus on language and how it functions. 

In San Francisco, Ron Silliman was developing his specific avant-garde approach to prose poetry, as exemplified in his multipart work, The Age of Huts. From this volume, the section I still come back to is The Chinese Notebook, which can be seen as both a parody of and homage to Wittgenstein’s later work, one that is in fact influenced by that approach. Silliman also went on to develop a theory of reference in which he equated the realistic novel’s appropriation of reality with capitalism’s appropriation of the world we live in. Writers in the San Francisco Language group included Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, and Lyn Hejinian, among others.

It’s worth nothing that John Ashbery published the first of his Three Poems in The Paris Review in 1970. With an oblique approach to prose poetry and to meaning, these works have a certain affinity with Language writing. Nevertheless, Ashbery comes from an earlier generation and is sui generis among the New York School of poets.

When I first met a number of the Language writers in the 1970s, what struck me was that the they were virtually the only writers I knew who were seriously attempting to build on the Modernist impulse and take an intellectual approach to writing. Whether all their work succeeds isn’t the point. What bothers me is that few readers of The New York Review of Books know of Language writing’s existence. A major literary movement has been virtually ignored by the New York publishing world. This despite the fact that Rae Armantrout, one of the original Language writers, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2010. Ashbery’s seminal Three Poems was at one time published by Penguin, but is currently out of print. What does this say about the literary culture of corporate publishing?     

Now, the major publishers aren’t really in the business of publishing poetry—that’s left to small presses and to university presses. Nevertheless, when we come to fiction, it’s as if the major publishing houses steadfastly refuse to publish anything that makes any sort of intellectual demand on the reader. Emotion and easy reader accessibility are the primary criteria. I simply refuse to accept this as a legitimate approach. The phrase “dumbing down” occurs to me in a distinctly sinister light.

I’ve avoided getting into a detailed discussion of the theory and practice of Language writing, which varies from writer to writer. Nor have I discussed individual poets and their work to any significant extent. An interested reader might do well to start with Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay, which provides a personal view of both Language writing and literary and bohemian New York in the 1970s. For an introduction to the aesthetic issues involved, as well as many of the individual writers, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is useful. Roof Magazine and A Hundred Posters are sources for important examples of the work. Then, it’s a matter of looking up books by the individual writers, nearly all of them published by small presses.

The thing is, there’s an enormous amount of work to investigate.