Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Toy Piano

[This post began as a meditation on The Grand Piano, part 1, & became something else – a meditation on the reception of Language Poetry by a poet born in the mid-1960s, who first encountered the language poets on the page in his early 20s, & only met them in the flesh somewhat later.]

By the time I graduated from Virginia Tech, I was pretty deeply versed in “high” modernist poetry. I had written an honors thesis on the Poundian ideogram & its contemporary manifestations in Robert Duncan’s poetry, Guy Davenport’s fiction, & Hugh Kenner’s criticism. I was reading Ronald Johnson, Olson, WCW, Jonathan Williams, Robin Blaser, Leslie Scalapino. I had started to read Zukofsky. And I had heard, but only heard, something about this thing called “language poetry.”

Over the next few years, as I pursued my grad work at Cornell, I worked hard to bring myself up to speed on this “new” avant-garde. I bought & read the anthologies – The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, In the American Tree, “Language” Poetries – and the few critical works as they hit the shelves – George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), Linda Reinfeld’s Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (1992). The campus bookstore had a pretty excellent poetry section, & I could get almost any new book from Sun & Moon or Roof as soon as it was published. And the used bookstores wre unfailing sources for the prehistory of many of the LPs’ publishing, in the form of Ithaca House books.

During I think my 2nd year at Cornell, John Taggart alerted me that a pair of very interesting poets were on their way to Ithaca; the following Fall Harryette Mullen joined the faculty & brought with her her then-husband Ted Pearson, who had been – in his own inimitable parlance – one of the “original players” of the Bay Area Language “scene.” Ted was always delighted to talk, & I, young & impressionable, was happy to spend many hours listening to him reel off lists of names, recount reading series, and analyze the various components of the San Francisco poetry world in the previous decade. (& I would be the last to deny that Ted, thru the example of his own spare, highly lyrical – & sadly undervalued – writing, taught me a great deal about how to put together a poem.)

By the time I got around to writing my dissertation (on LZ and Wallace Stevens) & to reshape it into the book that was published as Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge, the language poets & various others who moved in their general neighborhood had come to represent for me a clear continuation & rethinking of Z’s own innovative poetics. In my book I directly discussed poems by Michael Palmer & Charles Bernstein, & name-dropped at some length a number of other folks – Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Erica Hunt, Lyn Hejinian. (An emblem of my divided loyalties, however, was that my final chapter, on continuations of the “Objectivist” tradition, focused not on any of them but on Taggart & Ron Johnson.)

This is not to say that Language Poetry was entirely unheard of in Ithaca in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, tho the poets in Cornell’s MFA program – AR Ammons, Kenneth MacClane, Phyllis Janowitz, & Robert Morgan – showed little interest in much alt-poetry. (They had other things to offer: Bob brought John Matthias & Geoffrey Hill to campus, & Phyllis had on the wall of her office a life-sized, deeply-cleavaged photograph of her novelist daughter Tama, who seemed to smile down when workshop became insufferably tedious.) Cecil Giscombe was managing editor of Epoch; he brought Nathaniel Mackey for a reading, commissioned me to write a review of Bedouin Hornbook & Eroding Witness, and allowed me to edit an issue of the magazine in which Clark Coolidge and Charles Bernstein appeared.

But even as he was ruminating over the good old days in San Francisco (over endless cups of coffee, followed by bourbon shots with Heineken chasers), Ted was alerting me to the existence of what WCW once called “a new wave of it” – a group of younger writers – God help me, of more or less my own generation – who were carrying on the Language torch: Andrew Levy, Benjamin Friedlander, Jessica Grim, Jena Osman, Jennifer Moxley, and others. As if my own sense of provincial belatedness were not already acute enough – not merely was struggling to take in the example of an avant-garde now almost 2 decades old, but I needed to come to terms with a cohort of writers my own age, for whom the LPs were immediate & available forebears.

Perhaps, I now believe (sour grapes?), there something enabling in such belated marginality. At least, when I read Jessica Smith, a poet perhaps 15 years my junior, lamenting the almost hegemonic influence of the Language Poets at Buffalo, I feel grateful for not having come of age in the shadow of that “scene,” and only coming to touch the hem of its garment in later years.
This is the point where I actually start talking about The Grand Piano – but damn! Mr UPS has just brought me 550 pages of page proofs to read, & J. is out of town thru the weekend (San Diego, the Shakespeare Association) so I have to get up at 7 to feed the children – and what am I gonna say about Nausicaa & Oxen of the Sun tomorrow night – what am I doing blogging?!?


Norman Finkelstein said...

Mark, you tease! I looked at the start of your post and said to myself "At last! Scroggins is really going to give us his take on langpo. He's going to survey its strengths and weaknesses, the sociology of its avant-garde position, the implications of its successful bid for academic hegemony, and the ensuing marginalization of other formations equally entitled to being regarded as worthy successors to high modernism. He's going to point out the risks when previously marginalized poets attempt to write their own literary histories, not the least of which is a self-regard bordering on narcissism. Lay on, Scroggins!"

But no. Mark actually has a life apart from his blog. But it's OK. The gratefulness you express in the penultimate paragraph of your post speaks volumes. We will patiently await further developments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark. As one who shares your judgment that Ted Pearson's poetry is sadly undervalued, I'm happy to announce that Singing Horse Press will be publishing Ted's new book, Encryptions this summer. I'll let you know when it's out and about.