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Language poets

Language poets

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The Language poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, after the magazine that bears that name) are an avant garde group or tendency in United States poetry that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In developing their poetics, members of the Language school took as their starting point the emphasis on method evident in the modernist tradition, particularly as represented by Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky. Language poetry is also an example of poetic postmodernism. Its immediate postmodern precursors were the New American poets, a rubric which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance.



While there is no such thing as a "typical" Language poem, certain aspects of the writing of language poets became heavily identified with this group: writing that actively challenged the "natural" presence of a speaker behind the text; writing that emphasized disjunction and the materiality of the signifier; and prose poetry, especially in longer forms than had previously been favored by English language writers, and other nontraditional and usually nonnarrative forms.

Language poetry has been a controversial topic in American letters from the 1970s to the present. Even the name itself has been controversial: while a number of poets and critics have used the name of the journal to refer to the group, many others have chosen to use the term, when they used it at all, without the equals signs, while "language writing" and "language-centered writing" are also commonly used, and perhaps the most generic terms. Discussions of the politics of the name and nature of the movement may be found in Michael Greer's article, "Ideology and Theory in Recent Experimental Writing or, the Naming of 'Language Poetry,'" [1] and in Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry, Lyn Hejinian, The Language of Inquiry, Barrett Watten, The Constructivist Moment, Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, and Charles Bernstein, My Way: Speeches and Poems. Online writing samples of many language poets can be found on internet sites, including blogs and sites maintained by authors and through gateways such as the Electronic Poetry Center, PennSound, and UbuWeb.


Language poetry emphasizes the reader's role in bringing meaning out of a work and came about, at least in part, in response to the sometimes uncritical use of expressive lyric sentiment among earlier poetry movements to which the Language poets felt a kinship. In the 1950s and '60s certain groups of poets had followed William Carlos Williams in his use of idiomatic American English rather than what they considered the 'heightened,' or overtly poetic language favored by the New Criticism movement. In particular New York School poets like Frank O'Hara and The Black Mountain group emphasized both speech and everyday language in their poetry and poetics. In contrast, some of the Language poets emphasized metonymy, synecdoche and extreme instances of paratactical structures in their compositions, which, even when employing everyday speech, created a far different texture. The result is often alien and difficult to understand at first glance, which is what Language poetry intends: for the reader to participate in creating the meaning of the poem.[2]

With reference to earlier poetry movements, it would be important to note that both Watten's & Grenier's magazine This (and This Press that Watten edited) along with the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, published work by notable Black Mountain poets such as Robert Creeley and Larry Eigner. Silliman considers Language poetry to be a continuation (albeit incorporating a critique) of the earlier movements.[3] Watten has emphasized the discontinuity between the New American poets, whose writing, he argues, privileged self-expression however mediated through language, and the Language poets, who tend to downplay expression and see the poem as a construction in and of language itself. In contrast, Bernstein has emphasized the expressive possibilities of working with constructed, and even found, language.

Gertrude Stein, particularly in her writing after Tender Buttons, and Louis Zukofsky, in his book-length poem "A," are the modernist poets most influential on the Language school. In the postwar period, John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and poets of the New York School (John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan) and Black Mountain School (Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan) are most recognizable as precursors to the Language poets. Many of these poets used procedural methods based on mathematical sequences and other logical organising devices to structure their poetry, and this practice proved highly useful to the language group. The application of process, especially at the level of the sentence, was to become the basic tenet of language praxis. The influence of Stein came from the fact that she was a writer who had frequently used language divorced from reference in her own writings. The language poets also drew on the philosophical works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially the concepts of language-games, meaning as use, and family resemblance among different uses being the solution to the Problem of universals.

History of language poetry

Early history of language poetry

There is more than one origin of this highly decentered movement. On the West Coast, an early seed of language poetry was the launch of This magazine, edited by Robert Grenier and Watten, in 1971. Coming out of New York, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Andrews and Bernstein, ran from 1978 and 1982, and featured poetics, forums on writers in the movement, and themes such as "The Politics of Poetry" and "Reading Stein." Equally significant for the understanding of this movement of divergent, though interconnected, poetry practices that emerged in the 1970s was Ron Silliman's poetry newsletter Tottel's ((1970-81)[4], and Bruce Andrews's selection in a special issue of Toopick (1973), as well as Lyn Hejinian's editing of Tuumba Press and James Sherry's editing of ROOF magazine. The first significant collection of language-centered poetics was "The Politics of the Referent," edited by Steve McCaffery for the Toronto-based publication, Open Letter (1977).

In an essay from the first issue of This, Grenier declared: "I HATE SPEECH". Grenier's ironic statement (itself a speech act), was, in the context of the essay in which it occurred, along with a questioning attitude to the referentiality of language evidenced even in the magazine's title, later claimed by Ron Silliman, in the introduction to his anthology In the American Tree, as an epochal moment--a rallying cry for a number of young U.S. poets who were increasingly dissatisfied with the poetry of the Black Mountain poets and Beat poets.

"I HATE SPEECH" — Robert Grenier

"Thus capitalized, these words in an essay entitled "On Speech," the second of five short critical pieces by Robert Grenier in the first issue of This, the magazine he cofounded with Barrett Watten in winter, 1971, announced a breach - and a new moment in American writing.
Ron Silliman[5]

However, it was equally the range of contemporary poetries that focused on "language" in This, Tottel's, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and also in several other key publications and essays of the time, rather than a single declarative sentence, that established the field of discussion that would emerge as Language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poetry.

Indeed, during the 1970s, a number of magazines emerged who published poets who would become associated with the Language movement. Some other literary magazines associated with the movement in the 1970s and 1980s included A Hundred Posters (edited by Alan Davies), Big Deal, Dog City, Hills, Là Bas, MIAM, Oculist Witnesses, QU, and Roof. Poetics Journal, which published writings in poetics and was edited by Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, appeared from 1982 to 1998. Significant early gatherings of Language writing included Silliman's selection "The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets" in Alcheringa, (1975) Bruce Andrews's selection in Toopick, (1973) and Charles Bernstein's "A Language Sampler" in The Paris Review(1982)

Aside from magazines and presses, a number of poetry reading series, especially in New York and San Francisco, were important venues for the exposure of this new poetry and for the development of dialogue and collaboration among poets. Generally considered most important were the Ear Inn reading series in New York and, especially, the Grand Piano reading series in San Francisco, which was curated by Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman, Tom Mandel, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson, Carla Harryman, and Steve Benson at various times.

Poets, some of whom have been mentioned above, who were associated with the first wave of Language poetry include: Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Abigail Child, Clark Coolidge, Tina Darragh, Alan Davies, Carla Harryman, P. Inman, Lynne Dryer, Madeline Gins, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Jackson Mac Low, Tom Mandel, Bernadette Mayer, Steve McCaffery, Michael Palmer, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Nick Piombino, Joan Retallack, Erica Hunt, James Sherry, Jean Day, Kit Robinson, Ted Greenwald, Leslie Scalapino, Diane Ward, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Hannah Weiner. This list accurately reflects the high proportion of female poets among the Language movement.[6] African-American poets associated with the movement include Hunt, Nathaniel Mackey, and Harryette Mullen.

Language poetry in the early 21st century

In many ways, what Language poetry is is still being determined as of this writing, (spring 2006). Most of the poets whose work falls within the bounds of the Language school are still alive and still active contributors. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Language poetry was widely received as a significant movement in innovative poetry in the U.S., a trend accentuated by the fact that some of its leading proponents took up academic posts in the Poetics, Creative Writing and English Literature departments in prominent universities (University of Pennsylvania, SUNY Buffalo, Wayne State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, San Diego, University of Maine, the Iowa Writers' Workshop).

Language poetry also developed affiliations with literary scenes outside the States, notably England, Canada (through the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver), France, the USSR, Brazil, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia. It had a particularly interesting relation to the UK avant-garde: in the 1970s and 1980s there were extensive contacts between American language poets and veteran UK writers like Tom Raworth and Allen Fisher, or younger figures such as cris cheek and Ken Edwards (whose magazine Reality Studios was instrumental in the transatlantic dialogue between American and UK avant-gardes). Other writers, such as J.H. Prynne and those associated with the so-called "Cambridge" poetry scene (Rod Mengham, Douglas Oliver, Peter Riley) were perhaps more skeptical about language poetry and its associated polemics and theoretical documents.

A second-generation of poets influenced by the Language poets includes Eric Selland (also a noted translator of modern Japanese poetry), Lisa Robertson, and many others.

A significant number of women poets, and magazines and anthologies of innovative women's poetry, have been associated with language poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. They also represent an often distinct set of concerns. Among the poets are Leslie Scalapino, Madeline Gins, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Johanna Drucker, Abigail Child, Karen Mac Cormack; among the magazines HOW/ever, later the e-based journal HOW2; and among the anthologies Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK, edited by Maggie O'Sullivan for Reality Street Editions in London (1996) and Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Jersey City: Talisman Publishers, 1998).

Critique of Language Poetry

Template:Essay-like The recent publication of The Grand Piano [7] has caused a reassessment of the place of the important West Coast branch of "language writing", and affords an opportunity to reexamine the achievements and dilemmas of Language poetry.

The Grand Piano [8] describes itself as "an experiment in collective autobiography". It was begun over email by ten poets identified with Language poetry, who sought to reconnect their writing practices and to "recall and contextualize events from the period of the late 1970s." When completed, The Grand Piano, will comprise ten parts, in each of which the ten authors appear in a different sequence, often responding to prompts and problems arising in the series.

These ten poets, who began active engagement in writing and publishing in the 1970's, are often identified with the so-called "West Coast" branch of this "school", sometimes labeled "San Francisco Language Poets". The Grand Piano is an opportunity for some critics, artists, writers, and readers to critique or survey "Language poetry". When the lens is focused on this movement's legacy and ongoing influence, divisiveness and controversy are the watchwords. Battle lines are often drawn among viewpoints arguing for and against Language poetry's 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.

Some poets, such as Norman Finkelstein in a conversation with Mark Scroggins, have stressed their own ambiguous relationship, even after decades of fruitful engagement, to "Language poetry". Finkelstein, referencing specifically The Grand Piano, points to a "risk" (if foregrounded) when previously marginalized poets attempt to write their own literary histories, "not the least of which is a self-regard bordering on narcissism".[9]

See also

Further reading


  • Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein, eds. The "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
  • Armantrout, Rae. Collected Prose. San Diego: Singing Horse, 2007.
  • Bernstein, Charles, ed. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. New York: Roof, 1990.
  • Messerli, Douglas, ed. Language Poetries. New York: New Directions, 1987.
  • Silliman, Ron, ed. In the American Tree. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 1986; reprint ed. with a new afterword, 2002. An anthology of language poetry that serves as a very useful primer.

Books: Poetics and Criticism

  • Andrews, Bruce. Paradise and Method. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.
  • Bernstein, Charles. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1985
  • ———. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992
  • ———. My Way; Speeches and Poems. University of Chicago Press, 1999
  • Davies, Alan. Signage. New York: Roof Books, 1987.
  • Friedlander, Ben. Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
  • Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
  • Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1988. Rpt, New Directions, 2007.
  • ———. The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.
  • Huk, Romana, ed. Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
  • McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York: Roof Books, 1986.
  • ———. Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2001.
  • Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Piombino, Nick. Boundary of Blur. New York: Roof Books, 1993
  • Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 1987. An early collection of talks and essays that situates language poetry into contemporary political thought, linguistics, and literary tradition. See esp. section II.
  • Scalapino, Leslie. How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. Elmwood: Potes & Poets, 1989.
  • ———. Objects in the Terrifying Tense / Longing from Taking Place. Roof Books, 1994.
  • ———. The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence. Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
  • Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
  • Ward, Geoff. Language Poetry and the American Avant-Garde. Keele: British Association for American Studies, 1993.
  • Watten, Barrett. The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2003. See esp. chaps. 2 and 3.
  • ———. Total Syntax. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Books: Cross-genre & Cultural writing

  • Davies, Alan. Candor. Berkeley, CA, 1990.
  • Perelman, Bob, The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. Detroit, MI: Mode A/This Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-9790198-0-X - this work is described as an ongoing experiment in collective autobiography by ten writers[10] identified with Language poetry in San Francisco. The project will consist of 10 volumes in all.
  • Piombino, Nick. Fait Accompli. Queens, NY: Factory School, 2006.
  • Scalapino, Leslie. Zither & Autobiography. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2003.


  • Suman Chakraborty. 'Meaning, Unmeaning and the Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E' See: Indian Review of World Literatute in English (Online Journal) PDF Display
  • Michael Greer, "Ideology and Theory in Recent Experimental Writing or, the Naming of "Language Poetry," boundary 2, Vol. 16, No. 2/3 (Winter - Spring, 1989), pp. 335-355
  • Perloff, Marjorie. "The Word as Such: LANGUAGE: Poetry in the Eighties." American Poetry Review (May-June 1984), 13(3):15-22.[11]
  • Barlett, Lee, "What is 'Language Poetry'?" Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 741-752. Available through JStor.

Notes & references

  1. boundary 2, Vol. 16, No. 2/3 (Winter - Spring, 1989), pp. 335-355
  2. See, for example, Ronald Johnson's RADI OS in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, volume 1.
  3. For an extended poetic meditation on form by Sillman, see the poem Wild Form
  4. available on-line at the Eclipse archive, link here: Tottel's Magazine
  5. "Introduction: Language, Realism, Poetry" from In The American Tree (See below "Further reading: Anthologies")
  6. Template:Cite
  7. The Grand Piano a website devoted to an experiment, or project, of "Collective Autobiography" begun by 10 of the so-called "West Coast" group of Language poets. The plan is for 10 volumes to appear. The first volume appeared in November 2006, and thereafter in 3 month intervals.
  8. for additional details, commentary, and links see Barrett Watten's piece How The Grand Piano Is Being Written and James Sherry's commentaries in Jacket The Ten-Tone Scale
  9. "The Toy Piano" a piece from Mark Scroggins's blog Culture Industry, with commentary by Norman Finkelstein
  10. The ten writers are Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson. This book further describes itself as follows: "It takes its name from a coffeehouse at 1607 Haight Street, where from 1976-79 the authors took part in a reading and performance series. The writing project, begun in 1998, was undertaken as an online collaboration, first via an interactive web site and later through a listserv"
  11. this article on line link here

External links

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