4 Modes of Poetry (Part 4)

And now we come to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the third of four styles of contemporary poetry. I think this from/style/theory is the most difficult to learn because of its complexity and non-traditionalism. For those familiar with language poetry, the previous statement is one of the dumbest things I could ever say. But coming from a high school English teacher who works in a very successful, academically rigid school, language poetry is a completely foreign concept. I am going to try and define language poetry–at least by providing some general guidelines and suggestions–and then apply those concepts to Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings (from the collection Recyclopedia).

Before I dive into figuring out language poetry, here is an example from Mullen:

Starving to muffler moans, boa scarfs her up. Feathers tickle her nose. Kerchief, fichu. Gesundheit.

In order to understand language poetry, one must understand Ron Silliman’s theory of the existence of the new sentence. In this article, George Hartley reviews the theory, but also explains what Silliman is getting at. Here’s a summary:

  • The sentence is the main mode of composition (instead of lines)
  • The paragraph organizes thoughts instead of stanzas. It is a unit of quantity rather than logic, while sentence length is the unit of measure
  • Sentence structure is altered for ambiguity
  • Syllogistic movement is (a) limited and (b) controlled and moves towards the paragraph or the whole
  • Language cannot move towards outside things–each sentence must refer to another within the poem itself.
  • Limited syllogistic movement keeps reader’s attention at the level of language: the sentence or below

Silliman’s premise with language poetry is that language should only be used to recognize itself rather than an outside idea. In terms of thought, nothing is higher than the sentence. Or in other words, language generates meaning rather than meaning generating language. Let’s analyze the above poem looking at some of these ideas.

In terms of sentence structure, there is a combination of complete sentences and fragments. The first sentence is the longest, with each shrinking in length until the one word finale. The ambiguity in this poem doesn’t necessarily come from the sentence structure, but rather from the words themselves. And to understand the wordplay, one must understand the context of the poem. Trimmings is a collection that is a response to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, where each poem is a different article of clothing or accessory (for the most part). So with this poem, we have muffler, boa, scarfs, kerchief, and fichu. True to the imagists, there are no ideas but ideas in things here. Muffler could be “muffle her”, and boa could be a snake turning the noun to a verb. The feathers tickle, suggesting not a handkerchief but a sneeze. Bless you. So is the poem about a woman wrapped too tightly in materialism, thus sick and sneezy? Is the poem about a snake that ate a bird? Is the woman getting dressed allergic or sick? (In talking to my students about this poem, one came up with the snake suggestion that I had never thought of. My initial reaction was that it was a bit of a stretch in terms of the context of the poem amidst a larger work, but it’s still an interesting possibility.) There is no concrete meaning except in the existence of scarf-like clothing items.

Here’s another poem from Mullen’s collection:

Menswear, the britches. Rosie flies off the handle. Jeans so tight, she pants. Wants to cool out, slacks off.

Obviously, the object being described is pants: Menswear, britches, jeans, pants, and slacks. This fits the context of the clothes found throughout the collection. Pants and slacks, being nouns, are used as verbs, and britches reminds me of Robert Frost’s birches (did a really just mention Frost in the same thought as language poetry? I’m not suggesting anything by that). Again, there’s ambiguity on several levels:

  • If men wear the britches in the relationship, some women get mad by such a tight grip and can revolt by being slackers.
  • Men swear, the bitches. This makes Rosie mad, concluding the same way as the previous interpretation.
  • Rosie is a feminist, causing men to swear and call names. The she pants are too tight for him, and he just needs to chill and not try to wear the pants in the first place.

Not being raised in the language poetry family, approaching poetry in this manner intrigues me. The wordplay fascinates me. But as I synthesize more of theory behind language poetry, I grow skeptical of the theory’s ability to withstand itself. Here’s what Lyn Hejinian says about language poetry in her introduction to The Language of Inquiry:

[P]oetry [is] the dynamic process through which poetics, itself a dynamic process, is carried out. The two practices are mutually constitutive and they are reciprocally transformative. it is at least in part for this reason that poetry has its capacity for poetics, for self-reflexivity, for speaking about itself; it is by virtue of this that poetry can turn language upon itself and thus exceed its own limits.

I think this position closes off poetry to those who desire to theorize. Poetics being the theory of poetry, it makes sense that poetry would be the expression of said theory, but I don’t think poetry is limited to merely expressing theory. (As a side note, I’ve read over and over this quote and I can’t figure out if Hejinian is saying poetry is only the expression of theory, or can be the expression of theory. For the sake of discussion, I’m assuming she’s limiting poetry to poetics). I’m also unsure of the last phrase regarding poetry turning language upon itself. What is exceeding its own limits: poetry or language? Can a poetry limited by theory in turn extend beyond itself? If language exceeds its own limits, it must be admitted that it has limits, and thus is unable to fully exist as the language poets say that it does. This same kind of logic drives the theory of evolution–that something can naturally grow and evolve beyond itself, disregarding inherent limitations.

Hejinian also states that “Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.” Let’s draw circles in the ground and call it logic. Hejinian suggests that if language is taken apart, there is meaning. And if meanings are taken apart there are contexts. So the root here is contexts, but then contexts can never grow into images or terms. I think terms are connected to language. So if I have this right, language is nothing but contexts and contexts can never grow into language.  So is language poetry simply an exploration of futility?

Later in the same introduction, we come across this gem: “Poetry, therefore, takes as its premise that language is a medium for experiencing experience.” I’m glad it is “a” medium instead of “the” medium.  Is there even a difference between experiencing and experiencing an experience? If one doesn’t experience an experience, it fails to be an experience (unless the failure was an experience in itself. An infinite loop I say…). However, it is interesting to connect language to experience. Children don’t remember early childhood; could it be because their language has yet to develop?

Finally, I’m having difficulty connecting language to experience because there’s a third unmentioned party involved: an entity. I am the synthesis of language and experience, but the “I” is often absent from language poetry due the self’s nature of incompletness.  Regardless of language, how can “I” experience without the presence of “I”?

My final beef with language poetry is the lack of the line. I’m at a point where I think the line is an integral part of the poem. I understand that language poets see the sentence as the mode of measurement, but getting rid of the line seems to be tossing out the baby. From what I’ve read of the language poets, the writing really is wonderful and thought provoking. But a poet can create ambiguity, infuse tone, and include emphasis (among other things) through line endings. It seems as if the language poets have already limited themselves to their theory, and then built an additional panic room void of certain poetic possibilities. Choosing to end a line infuses the self into the poem–but doesn’t choosing to screw up grammar do the same? Doesn’t choosing to ignore the line do the same?

Despite my qualms with the theory behind language poetry, Trimmings by Harryette Mullen is an engaging read. I was determined to find the connections between the sentences and the poems, and it was intellectually (in a good way) entertaining to figure out the meanings and contexts. The poems seem to identify costumes with which people try to define themselves, others, and relationships. Near the end of the collection though, the focus shifts beyond clothing objects and moves towards larger things, like language. The final poem reads:

Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence. A veiled, unavailable body makes an available space.

Because the entire collection refers to various types of clothing, language in this poem works well representing clothes. It could also be a theoretical breakdown as language is not a specific object here. The ambiguity of a body clothed in language being veiled by silence is astounding. Or is Mullen suggesting that the whole language theory in essence is stifling? I’d like to suggest a re-spelling of the last line sentence.:

  • Availed, unavailable body makes unavailable space
  • Availed, an available body makes an available space

Throughout this entire collection, Mullen creates connections between clothes/accessories and life. Meaning comes from objects and is expressed via objective language. But even at the most critical point of Trimmings, the ability of language to stay completely and truly autonomous is called into question, which–in my mind–suggests that the foundation of langpo may have some structural deficiencies. So is it possible to integrate some ideas around language poetry with those of other forms/schools? That’s what the hybrids set out to do, and I’ll save that for my next post!


7 thoughts on “4 Modes of Poetry (Part 4)

  1. This is interesting stuff, Joel. I’m with you—the langpo construct feels defective, but the results (specific poems by specific poets) are sometimes exciting. For me, this excitement comes when the poem goes beyond the langpo framework. Mullen’s seems to do that, because she consistently uses the langpo focus on language itself to address the social aspects of language: its “clothing” nature. Just as we often judge people by the way they dress, we judge people by the way they speak or write. Mullen deconstructs the language in order to deconstruct the judgment, to show (again and again) how language misleads or at least leads us away from questions that might make us uncomfortable with our judgments. After all, if words and clothes are saturated with preconceptions, we’ll have to be thinking all the time!

    On the other hand, I wonder if most readers of Mullen carry the implicit critique into their daily lives. There’s a kind of bubble-mentality, a isolate quality, to langpo practice. It reminds me sometimes of listening to a wine aficionado describing the difference between this or that vintage of Malbec; it’s interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, even amazing—the way a palate can make these fine distinctions. But it doesn’t help me taste those differences myself. A $12 Malbec tastes as good to me as a $40 Malbec. So if I spend $40 I feel I’ve been ripped off and slightly humiliated. This is how I often feel after reading langpo!

    I should add that poetry has gone through these kinds of phases throughout history. A period of robust diversity and popular appeal—such as we see (to stick with English examples) in the works of Daniel, Shakespeare, Drayton, and Jonson—morphs into the fantastic metaphorical complexity of the Metaphysicals, then declines into hyper-fastidiousness (Dryden and Pope) focused on minutiae (“The Rape of the Lock”) and an over-valuation of linguistic effects. Poetry in these late periods becomes a product of highly educated people writing for themselves and generally wealthy patrons. (We have something of that going on today, in my opinion. People dropping $30,000 on MFAs in order to write for other people who have acquired MFAs. Not good.) What we’ve never really seen before is a conscious application of theory to the practice of writing—theory, I mean, about language itself. Barfield critiques the rise of linguistic theory in great detail and with great passion, so I won’t try to reprise his arguments; I do recommend him as an antidote, though: Poetic Diction. Essential reading….

  2. I hear what you’re saying about isolating mentalities, but because of the way Mullen ends Trimmings, I don’t feel isolated, tricked, or poetically wedgied. But some of the other poets on the list you gave me had me looking like Beavis…or Butthead.

    I laughed when you used the word deconstruct because I purposely avoided it to steer clear of another theory. Am I getting paranoid? Shoot.

    Is there a chance the Barfield book would/could be a textbook for the summer workshop? I’ll read it for my capstone anyways, but it’s just a thought.

    After all is said and done, I do have a growing appreciation for langpo, even if the theory has problems. I wonder if said theory will evolve and grow or if the rules (however concretely unwritten they may be) will be updated and modified as things work or don’t work out.

  3. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in a nutshell? « Very Like A Whale

  4. Bam. My brain feels like my uncle’s eyes looked that time he ate way too much corn.

    But now I really want to read Trimmings.

  5. Yes, it’s definitely a brain warp, but well worth it if you want to better understand the contemporary poetry world.

  6. I would love to use Barfield but he would be a course in himself, I think. Maybe excerpts, though; I’d have to trash the copyright laws….

    On LANGUAGE… Mullen is among the best because she is not all about the language; the language is a figure, almost a metaphor in the richest sense. Her poems (prosems?) are often like Edgar Müller’s 3D street art: you’re aware of the surface while seeing into the depths. Good stuff!

  7. I’ve always read and even tried to write Langpo as an extension of “automatic writing” with an emphasis on language itself. I don’t know if that’s wrong, but it’s allowed me to enjoy Langpo poets more. I look forward to your hybrid post.

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