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  Oh Say Can You See . . .
Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally
, edited by Romana Huk (Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press, 2003)
US$24.95 paper, ISBN 0-8195-6540-7

Assembling Alternatives selects 24 out of more than 80 papers originally given at the conference of the same name that took place over five days in autumn 1996 at the University of New Hampshire. The conference brought together five English-speaking communities ­ the U.S., U.K., Canada, Ireland and Australia ­ to explore the relationship between nation and poetic experimentation. The list of contributors to the book amounts to a roll call of leading poets and critics and includes Caroline Bergvall, cris cheek, Trevor Joyce, D. S. Marriott, Peter Middleton, Bob Perelman, Lisa Robertson, Keith Tuma, Barrett Watten and John Wilkinson. Every essay has original, and sometimes controversial, things to say and surprising connections to draw between different poetries or between those poetries and non-poetic discourses.

One doesn’t have to read very far into Assembling Alternatives to realise two things. First, that what Huk defines as its project ‘to consider how the abstract identification/construction of ‘nation’ creates deep cultural boundaries, even [within] … the largely white community that has taken part in constructing the dominant avant-garde aesthetic’ is, in fact, the pretext for asking a number of urgent questions about that avant-garde aesthetic. Second, that for Huk and many of her contributors most of these urgent questions involve the wide variety of practices that can be subsumed under the term U.S. Language writing. Peter Middleton remarks at the end of a typically thoughtful essay ‘Imagined Readerships and Poetic Innovation in U.K. Poetry’ which addresses the continuing prevalence in U.K. innovative poetries of models of exile and isolation that,

These have been bad times for presses, readings, grants, education and recognition. Poets have done much to resist these conditions. Small presses, little magazines, conferences, workshops, and even the unsung efforts of certain people who have persistently ensured that poets stay in touch with each other’s work, have made an enormous difference. What has sometimes been lacking are the self-representations of poetry, readership, community and political intervention that would facilitate these activities further. (140)

In contrast, U.S. Language writing has been highly visible and highly successful in the self-representations Middleton outlines and what haunts contribution after contribution is the extent to which the Language writing model might be more widely applicable. Indeed, around of the third of the essays deal directly with either its past, present and future or with its implications; and many others refer to it.

Middleton’s essay addresses both the differences between U.S. and U.K. ideas about the avant-garde and the tensions that emerge when Language writing seems so dominant. A significant proportion of the introduction ­ like the essays it summarizes ­ is similarly devoted to the differences between U.S. and other poetries and poetics. For example, Huk asserts on p.1 that of the countries represented at the conference and in the book only the US can ‘boast of prolific production in the way of an avant-garde poetics, as well as having turned heads at big presses and within academe’. Tensions are also felt in the introduction when ‘the dominant avant-garde aesthetic’ is defined as one ‘grounded in European post-structuralist theory’ and which therefore ‘recognizably links art communities in North America with their British, Irish and Australian counterparts’. (2) One can think of many poets in Britain and elsewhere who would identify themselves as avant-garde but who would be unlikely to identify themselves as ‘grounded’ in post-structuralism. In fact, this needs to be said as loudly and as often as possible because large areas of innovative writing continue to be derived from earlier projects. This has been obscured because recent innovations have often been justified by a small number of philosophically trained poets willing to make public interventions at the same time as post-structuralism was beginning to gain ascendancy in the academy. The result is an understandable but largely unexamined tendency to read backwards.

However, to Huk’s credit, if she seems unaware of difficulties with her definition now, she reports that Trevor Joyce and Billy Mills were certainly aware of them at the conference. Mills, she reports, ‘critiqued the conference’s proceedings because they seemed, from an Irish perspective, to be constructing a notion of the avant-garde “purely in American terms”’. (3) Huk observes that,

Attempting to reassess one’s own positions in these matters is difficult because poststructuralist forms of linguistic theorizing have themselves tended to dislocate speakers from individual contexts as well as words and images from their comfortable homes in accommodating discourses at the same time that they assume the need for detailed critique of such structures in culture. (3)

One’s immediate response to this is well, actually, no: it’s difficult simply because we always think home is the world. One of the most traumatic but enlightening experiences is when, as children, we first go and play at a friend’s house because until that moment we thought everyone’s house, and, by implication, the things that went on inside it, were like our own. The passage does more than exemplify a ready-made critical discourse exceeding its object: taken with Peter Middleton’s summary of the British scene post-Thatcher, it points to differences between US and UK views of the avant-garde. Middleton’s summary assumes that poetic activity is inextricable from external conditions. To put this crudely, one might say that poetry’s recognition that it is formed by external conditions is the starting point for poetic activity as an attempt to reform and re-form them. In contrast, Huk’s response to Mills’s critique describes self-reflexive and possibly self-regarding linguistic activity whose excitements seem to imply political insulation. It is an insulation that becomes plainer if we rewrite one of Huk’s phrases slightly: ‘Late twentieth-century economic practices have tended to dislocate speakers from individual contexts as well as words and images from their comfortable homes’.

The inward looking language world implied by a poststructuralist narrative comment seems perfectly logical from a US perspective because US poetry and poetics are able to position themselves in a long tradition of writing about poetry’s attention and of drawing attention to poetry as attention. Take, for example, William Carlos Williams’s poem ‘Between Walls’:

the back wings
         of the

hospital where
         nothing

will grow lie
         cinders

in which shine
         the broken

pieces of a green
         bottle

The lineation of the text draws our attention to the spaces in syntax but also, by implication, to institutional and therefore social and cultural syntax. Without wishing to over-read the poem, the hospital ­ the place where bodies are repaired and healed and returned to social and political agency according to dominant ideas of such agency ­ stands for the social and cultural body in which and from which our perceptions are usually made. At the same time, and with equal force, the poem is drawing our attention to its own surfaces: ‘of the’, ‘will grow lie’, ‘the broken’, ‘pieces of a green’. Now, it would be possible to make a reading that says that the form of the poem mimes ‘the broken pieces of the green bottle’ or reproduces the non-space that is ‘the back wings of the hospital’.

Such a reading would ignore the fact that the stanzas of the poem do follow a deliberate syllabic pattern ­ 5, 6, 5, 6, 7 ­ and that this pattern is probably the result of finding that organising the poem according to more familiar units of speech ­ e.g. ‘the back wings of the hospital’ ­ would have produced, in terms of the object of the poem’s attention, 3 inappropriately regular tetrameters. The result of the poem’s form is certainly that our attention is drawn to ‘of the’ in the same way that the poet’s attention is drawn to the broken glass. More importantly, the form implies that all parts of language are worthy of attention and also that, to borrow the words of artist and theorist Bracha Lichtenberg-Ettinger, ‘forms that do not form a unity are forms as well’.

From here, it is a relatively short journey to the kind of attention being attended to in Robert Creeley’s poem ‘Blue Skies Motel’ which begins ‘Look at / that mother-fucking smoke stack // pointing / straight up.’ There is the same attention drawn to syntax as in the Williams but something else too. If poetry is the enactment of a particular type of attention, the poem implies, then just registering that attention is quite sufficient. ‘Mother-fucking’ is unexpected poetically but colloquially it is sufficient for us to be able to deduce that, even if we don’t often use the exclamation ourselves, the poet is probably drawing attention to the chimney’s height and profile against the sky. The way that our attention is drawn to ‘mother-fucking’ parallels the way the poet’s attention was drawn to the chimney. But that is not the whole point: we are also being asked to pay more attention to the signifier than the signified so from here it is an even shorter distance to poetry that does not give us access to anything other than its own surfaces. ‘Look at that mother-fucking ‘waffles march’’, we might exclaim when first reading Charles Bernstein’s ‘Even So’.

Another way of saying this is that US innovative poetries can draw on a long tradition of naturalizing poetics into the poem itself. (This leaves open the question of whether Language writing is merely folding out what earlier American innovative poetries folded-in.) Another important distinction between US and UK avant-garde poetries is that America has always had both the desire and the ability to transform theories into reproducible, saleable and tradable commodities. In the first half of the twentieth century, this was the case with, say, psychoanalysis and management science that, in the era of mass production and high employment, ensured that the individual remained economically productive. In the latter half, it was the case with deconstruction and post-structuralism which, to borrow an image from Barrett Watten’s essay here, quickly got booted onto the academy’s hard drive. They were then fed back into mainstream culture to underwrite the ways in which the individual’s subject position ­ previously guaranteed by full, lifelong employment ­ came under attack from the forces of the free market. Language writing has become just such a commodity which, depending on one’s viewpoint, is or isn’t complicit with the structures it claims to critique.

If Language writing is a commodity and if it is complicit, then this may just be because it is a type of American poetry and American poetries of all types have invited marketability with open arms in ways which British poetries of all types rarely have. For example, most would agree that the ‘New Generation Poets’ promotion was a brutalizing aberration. Similarly, Peter Middleton’s discussion of isolations and exiles could be equally well applied to the British so-called mainstream. In the context of considering Language writing as tradable commodity, it is interesting to note that what comes across most powerfully from some of the American contributions to Assembling Alternatives ­ essays by Barrett Watten and Bob Perelman and, to a lesser extent Steve Evans, as well as quotations throughout the book from the critical writings of Charles Bernstein ­ is a sense of anxiety about how to stay ‘new’, how to keep the avant-garde ‘avant’. The question raised by both Watten and Perelman would seem to be ‘how can the avant-garde go on being produced’ which, ironically for a book devoted to reading what are termed postmodern poetries, seems a highly modernist question. Watten and Perelman are, however, aware of the ironies.

It is worth spending time on these distinctions and the assumptions that underpin them because the book’s introduction takes too much for granted. Assembling Alternatives seems to be concerned with disassembling assumptions and Huk tells us that,

The argument of this book is, then, that understanding the embedded nature of one’s own formative assumptions in the articulation of an avant-garde poetics is difficult unless an attempt to read other’s versions of ‘the radical’ is made, and through that encounter with otherness one’s own construction of ‘innovation’ is reassessed. (4)

Despite such scruples, the overall impression gained from much of the rest of the introduction is that avant garde equals Language writing and that Language writing is the benchmark for any other poetry we might choose to call avant-garde, experimental, or linguistically innovative. Some of the conference’s and the book’s other starting points seem equally confused. For example, Huk tells us that she started out wondering whether it was possible ‘[to] change the seamless way we read such [avant garde] practice across national boundaries’. However, it’s highly debatable whether we do in fact read ‘seamlessly’. If a book jacket tells us that someone is ‘one of Australia’s leading experimental poets’ that immediately prompts questions about what that writer’s practice means in comparison with, say, Allen Fisher. Similarly, a visit to a conference or festival like the annual Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry makes plain the impossibility of ‘seamless’ reading. What might have been said is that there are identifiable readers and writers who will be pleased and interested to receive particular poetries wherever they originate from. Indeed, reception as a formative condition of avant-garde poetries is a topic that is largely absent from Assembling Alternatives.

Continual references in the frame of the book to postmodern poetries are equally bothersome. Postmodernism is, of course, notoriously hard to define but it has nonetheless become the orbiting point for a number of distinct meanings. This is not, of course, the place to unpack these but one thing that can be said is that postmodernism increasingly seems to involve species of comfortable hybridity which seem absent from the work of many poet-critics in Assembling Alternatives and from the work of the poets they discuss. This hybridity might, in turn, be said to articulate a less comfortable truth about the ‘post-‘ in postmodernism: that ‘post-‘ means that it is simply too much hard work to follow through the full implications of modernism. Again, this is not a view that could be applied to many of the poetries discussed.

So, what of the 24 essays themselves? Every reader will find things that engage, excite and irritate her so I’ll focus on some of the essays that do one or all of those things to me. Alison Mark’s ‘Poetic Relations and Related Poetics’ makes an excellent double reading of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice and Charles Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption but doesn’t engage with the implication that we should pay greater attention to Forrest-Thomson because Bernstein has. Isn’t her work of interest in and for itself? And isn’t a lot of that interest located as much in its articulation of a particular cultural moment ­ feminist poetries in the 1970s, the impact of French theory ­ as in its susceptibility to transnational readings? Keith Tuma’s ‘Slobbering Distance: American, British and Irish Exploratory Poetries in a Global Era’ gives a typically less-deceived account of differences between UK and US avant-gardes by arguing that, whether one likes it or not, US Language writing offers other avant garde poetries models for both success and community. Part of the model of success has been the ‘limited good fortune’ of ‘American exploratory poets […] to engage segments of what is by British and Irish standards a large and stable university public’. (147-8) Part of the model of community has been that where ‘exploratory poetry in England struggles to gather its energies into active, communal discourse’ such a discourse has always been inextricable from US Language writing.

John Wilkinson’s ‘Too Close Reading: Poetry and Schizophrenia’ and D. S. Marriott’s ‘Signs Taken for Signifiers: Language Writing, Fetishism and Disavowal’ make detailed critiques of Language writing from the broad perspective of social and psychological pathology. Wilkinson uses the poetry of John Wieners as a means of highlighting what he sees as a tendency in Language writing to be ‘schizoid in its blank control’ while Marriott spends some time discussing the processes of phobic speech. One can’t help feeling that the initial impulse of both papers was to wind the Americans up by associating Language writing with mental dysfunction but Wilkinson and Marriott both end by sketch-mapping the ground for urgent political critiques. Nancy Gish’s discussion of Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay in ‘Complexities of Subjectivity: Scottish Poets and Multiplicity’ might seem like an odd inclusion but it makes two extremely valuable points that ought to reverberate far beyond its Scottish context. First, that the work of these writers and of many other Scottish poets innovates in ways that cannot be described by ‘American and English binaries of Language or mainstream poetry’. (262) Second, that the binaries generally construct innovation in poetry as more a matter of what a poem looks like than of what it does and how it does it. Other essays that grabbed my attention were Philip Mead’s account of the Australian scene in ‘The American Model II’ and Caroline Bergvall’s ‘In the Place of Writing’ which argues that writing takes place in a wide variety of spaces beyond the page. Bergvall’s piece had the merit of summarizing the main theoretical positions. Mead is particularly good on the way a large range of American poetries, particularly several generations of New York poets, have been enabling for Australian writers.

Assembling Alternatives is a stimulating introduction to a range of activities and debates that have hardly impinged on the UK scene; and, at around £17 for 412 pages, the book is extremely good value. For British readers, the book will prompt urgent questions about avant-garde poetry and poetics. Here’s mine:

    How dominant are American ideas of the avant-garde?

    Is the UK culturally a part of Europe; and, if so, should we be making more effort to relate ourselves to European avant-garde traditions?

    British discussions of innovative poetries tend to refer to a very small number of interventions, some now rather dated. Does this signal a critical impoverishment, a lack of engagement with contemporary practices and/or a general inattentiveness to such practices? And does this time lag signal how UK poetics are different from US poetics

    Many of the essays in Assembling Alternatives talk about community: what does community mean in terms of avant-garde poetry and poetics? And can we have it if we can’t say what it is?

    There is a greater sense of active community in the small town of Auzon in the Auvergne than in most British towns and cities: as with my second question, should we be looking to Europe?

    If we could say what community means in order to have it, what would it bring us; and would that ‘what’ be more or less than Alison Mark writing about Charles Bernstein writing about Veronica Forrest-Thomson?

Note I am indebted to Ed Firth, Peter Middleton, and Chris Wentworth for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

         © David Kennedy, June 2003