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L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y


"Goal is not to have a goal," John Cage.

"For modern poetry, since it must be distinguished from classical poetry and from any type of prose, destroys the spontaneously functional nature of language, and leaves standing only its lexical basis," Roland Barthes, from Writing Degree Zero.

"Narrativity is short-circuited from the moment the reading process is spatialized," Jerome McGann.


L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y was born in 1971 with the release of a new magazine titled This, which culminated in the release seven years later of the magazine titled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. The early 1970s was an ideal time for a new movement in poetry. Early challenges to mainstream poetry had already begun, thanks in large part to the Projectivist poets of Charles Olson, a Black Mountain poet.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y was not simply a movement to bring renewed interest to language, but to the structures and codes of language: how ideas are represented and formulated to transmit ideas, thoughts, and meaning. Jerome McGann writes of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y in his essay "Contemporary Poetry, Another Route":

Here a conscious attempt has been made to marry the work of the New American Poetry of the fifties with the poststructural work of the late sixties and seventies. As Frost, Yeats, Auden, and Stevens are the "precursors" of the poets of accommodation, Pound, Stein, and Zukofsky stand behind the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. Oppositional politics are a paramount concern, and the work stands in the sharpest relief, stylistically, to the poetry of accommodation.

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y also recognized that language is political. In the same way that American farmers hid behind tree trunks and took pop shots at British soldiers who stood in formation in open fields during the revolutionary war, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S fractured the language in an attempt to wage their own rebellious assault against the social and political structure inherent in the Imperial force of the English language. In doing this, the entire reading process was overhauled, with the reader of this type of poetry forever changed in the way that he or she encounters text of any type.

As McGann continues in the same essay, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S experimented with form and diction, ultimately bringing organization/form to where previously none (or little in the sense of being a poetic work) was found. He quotes advice given to budding L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S by poet Bernadette Mayer in her work, "Experiments":

  • Systematically derange the language, for example, write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerundive to every line of an already existing piece of prose or poetry, etc.
  • Get a group of words (make a list or select at random); then form these words (only) into a piece of writing—whatever the words allow. Let them demand their own form, and/or: Use certain words in a set way, like, the same word in every line, or in a certain place in every paragraph, etc. Design words.
  • Write what cannot be written, for example, compose an index. (Read an index as a poem).
  • Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.
  • Consider word & letter as forms—the concretistic distortion of a text, for example, too many o's or a multiplicity of thin letters (illftiii, etc.)
  • Attempt to eliminate all connotation from a piece of writing & vice versa.
  • Work your ass off to change the language & don't ever get famous.
  • A difficulty for many readers of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y is its preoccupation with fragments, nonsense, and unmeaning; as well its rejection of the narrative model that has been the basis of nearly all types of literature. The traditional mode of reading for referential meaning does not work, as writers of this type of poetry attempt to unlock meaning by first unlocking our preconceptions (and preoccupations) of meaning. Charles Bernstein, a critic and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T, says the construction (and reading) of poetry should not be envisioned as "designing a garden," but rather as "making a path." Where poets before opted to make a path along pre-existing sidewalks and avenues, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S opted to clear-cut through the wild and thick brush of the English language to create previously untrodden footpaths for a new generation of readers.

    Whether L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y succeeds to gain a large audience is irrelevent. The movement has brought together a dedicated and insular community that thrives on each other's ideas and perceptions. Many poets who are not L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S have gained a new sense of their "poetic" place and understanding from simply exploring the movement's aesthetic. Ironically perhaps, many writers considered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S resist the label and attempts to define themselves within it. Despite similarities between the work of John Ashbery and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y, Ashberry has said he doesn't align himself with these poets because he believes language should ultimately depend on references to meanings generated outside language.

    Regardless, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y remains an interesting legacy that will continue to bewilder and invigorate generations of poets and readers. David Melnick wrote in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, where his own work appeared:

    The poems are made of what look like words and phrases but are not ... What can such poems do for you? You are a spider struggling in your own web, suffocated by meaning. You ask to be freed by these poems from the intolerable burden of trying to understand. The world of meaning: is it too large for you? too small? It doesn't fit. Too bad. It's no contest. You keep on trying. So do I.



    Poets of Interest:

    John Ashbery
    Charles Bernstein
    John Cage
    Clark Coolidge
    Lyn Hejinian
    Bernadette Mayer
    Michael Palmer
    Leslie Scalapino
    Gertrude Stein


    Books of Interest:

    American Tree
     Click to Order In the American Tree (ed. Ron Silliman - soft $$)
      If even only remotely interested in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y, In the American Tree: Language, Realism, Poetry is an asset! First published in 1986, along with Messerli's Language Poetries, this anthology of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S showcases many outstanding works and authors. It surprised me to discover it remains in print, with considerable thanks to the National Poetry Foundation. In addition, keep an eye out for Silliman's out-of-print book published in 1987, titled New Sentence. This nonfiction work (though not nonfiction in the way most are familiar with) serves as a manifesto not just for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S, but for writers of all types who consider themselves innovative at best, and open-minded at least.


    Celebration
    Click to Order A Celebration of Sun and Moon Classics, No. 50 (ed. Douglas Messerli - soft $)
      Edited by Douglas Messerli, who brought the classic L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y anthology Language Poetries to light in 1986 (unfortunately now out of print), this anthology of works by experimental writers (some who are or were considered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=S) shows a commitment to innovative writing. I highly recommend this books and ask you to keep an eye out for all books by the Sun and Moon press, as they publish many exceptional experimental authors.



    L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
    Click to Order L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (soft $).
      The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book - an anthology edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews: a definitive look into L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y and includes essays by many key poets of this movement. This book is the best collection of nonfiction dealing with the easily confusing subject of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y that I've encountered. I highly recommend it if you're interested in exploring the aesthetics and roots of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y.


    Content's Dream

    Click to Order Bernstein's Content's Dream: Essays (soft $).
       Content's Dream: Essays, 1975-1984 (Sun and Moon Classics, No. 49). Essays by Charles Bernstein that help readers understand not only the aesthetic of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry but also the importance of language itself.


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