L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E  P=O=E=T=R=Y

language poetry

Language poetry possibly began in 1971 with the NY magazine This, which in turn led, seven years later, to a magazine entitled L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Its spiritual forefathers were Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein {1} and Louis Zukofsky, {2} and the movement drew on the anti-capitalist, sometimes Marxist, politics of the time, especially the writings of Lacan, Barthes and Foucault. Though initially opposed to the teaching establishment, preferring to operate through the small presses, the movement gradually drew closer to academia, before fragmenting and losing its intellectual ascendancy in the usual avant garde fashion. Many of its one-time member are still well-known, however, and writing strongly: Charles Bernstein, {3} Ron Silliman {4} and Bob Perelman. {5}


Aims are best grasped by what the movement opposed: {6}

  • 1. narrative: no story or connecting tissue of viewpoint or argument: poems often incorporate random thoughts, observations and sometimes nonsense. {7}

  • 2. personal expression: not merely detached, the poems accept Barthe's thesis that the author does not exist. {8}

  • 3. organization: poems are based on the line, not the stanza, and often that line is discontinuous or fragmentary: the poems reject any guiding sense of purpose. {9}

  • 4. control: poems take to extremes the open forms advocated by Williams and the Black Mountain School.

  • 5. capitalist politics and/or bourgeoisie values. {10}

Some Examples

The above would seem to make language poetry baffling difficult, but generally it isn't. Who could not be charmed by Bernadette Mayer's Synesthetes at the Writers House? {11}

Synesthetes at the Writers House.

I'm pleased to announce
that staying at the Writers House
is like living under a multi-colored apple tree
in winter; syneshetes would tremble with pleasure
tempera paint and chalk make a formidable coat
of many colors, in summer pink and white blossoms fall on your head
to the south here, a forest
to the east, only snow and a garden
to the north a road and forest
to the west forest, a blue halloween-observing house

From Synesthetes at the Writers House by Bernadette Mayer. Kelly Writers House

With its playful tone and gentle mockery of social address, the poem is exactly about its subject, synaesthesia, which it aptly demonstrates later with the sky looks blue which feels like stilettoes / Sophia's plant is green, just like an 'E'.

Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman has a looser associative thread of meaning, but all lines are opening words of everyday sentences: {12}

Chronic Meanings

The phone is for someone.
The next second it seemed.
But did that really mean.
Yet Los Angeles is full.

Naturally enough I turn to.
Some things are reversible, some.
You don't have that choice.
I'm going to Jo's for.

Now I've heard everything, he.
One time when I used.
The amount of dissatisfaction involved.
The weather isn't all it's.

You'd think people would have.
Or that they would invent.
At least if the emotional.
The presence of an illusion.

Symbiosis of home and prison.
Then, having become superfluous, time.
One has to give to.
Taste: the first and last.

I remember the look in.
It was the first time.
Some gorgeous swelling feeling that.
Success which owes its fortune.

Come what may it can't.
There are a number of.
But there is only one.
That's why I want to.

Chronic Meanings by Bob Perelman. Virtual Reality

Why so pleasing? Because the lines themselves make us want to know more. And because they obliquely follow on from each other. What is Symbiosis of home and prison but staying put or confined in some way? 'Doing time' is serving a prison sentence, and 'superfluous' points out that time indeed stands still when we have nothing unusual to do: Then, having become superfluous, time. And then. And so on: the many teasing connections in the poem hardly need pointing out.

That sense of fun is apparent in Thinking I Think I Think by Charles Bernstein: {13}

Thinking I Think I Think

. . .The man the man declined
to be, appraised at auction at
eighty percent of surface volume.
Cube steak on rye amusing twist
on lay demo cells, absolutely no
returns. Damaged goods are the only
kind of goods I ever cared about.

The lacuna misplaced the ladle,
the actor aborted the fable. Fold
your caps into Indians &
flaps. Dusting the rigor mortis
for compos mentis. Rune is bursting
out all over a perfidious quarrel
sublates even the heckling at
the Ponderosa. A bevy of belts.
Burl Ives turned to burlap. Who
yelled that? Lily by the lacquer
(laparotomy). I'm strictly here on
business, literary business.
I propose the codicil-ready cables?
Like slips gassing in the night.
Chorus of automatic exclusions.
Don't give me no label as long as I
am able. Search & displace, curse
& disgrace. Suppose you suppose,
circumstances remonstrating. . .

Thinking I Think I Think by Charles Bernstein. Fence Magazine

Bernstein goes further by muddling phrases: Like sl(h)ips g(p)assing in the night. By adding riddling remarks: Search & displace, curse & disgrace. And thoughtful nonsense: The man the man declined to be. But it's fun, entertaining, not to be taken too seriously.

Though not deeply personal, poems have their own voices and takes on situations. Here is David Bromige sending up Rilke's Herbsttag. {14}

Fall (Rilke into Californian)

It's getting chilly, nights. If you don't have a pad by now,
Too bad. If you're not seeing someone
You're likely stuck that way, they went back to school.

Crack a book yourself. Write in Starbucks.
Go walkabout downtown. [Time passes]. Hey, lookit
the leaves, wind, etc. doing their thing. Rustle rustle.
Contrast and compare yourself. Cool!

Rilke into Californian) by David Bromige. The East Village Poetry Web

Language poets are not always adverse to using old forms, which they pull gentle fun of while still getting something out of. An example is Douglas Barbour's breath ghazals {15}

breath ghazal 17:

hard for a breath i tarry           harried
into the body of time no            please

yet the lack of breath
s death      even in movement the care

taking the earth & its air           making
the ruined lands fair            again

breath ghazal 17: by Douglas Barbour. The East Village Poetry Web

And common to many is an exactness in the speaking voice: they sound as a good radio script. Kit Robinson's line 56: {16}

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/robinson/robinson_line_56.html: line 56 NNA

Hey, poetry lovers!
it's good to see you
here on the page

The white spaces
are looking good
today, huh?

Hey, I gotta admit
I'm not too clear on
what all the different

Things are that I'm actually
doing with you guys
I think maybe we have Bill

S. speaking at your
show in England or
something like that

From line 56 by Kit Robinson. The Crave



For all their playful, throw-away appearance, considerable knowledge and literary skill is needed for these poems. The fragments have to be entertaining, and they have to 'sit right' in the lines.

The playful, the ludic, the 'just suppose' is an important element in art, and we'd be dull creatures not to respond. Naturally, being members of the avant garde, its exponents could lead critics a merry dance into the thickets of radical theory, {17} in which they may or may not have believed. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is a clever art, sophisticated and fitfully entertaining. Perhaps it's not poetry as was, and undoubtedly it shirks larger responsibilities, but it anticipated our consumerist world of news snippets, ad men and political sound bites, becoming less radical when reality caught up with art.

Representative Poets

A few of the better-known figures in the movement:

Bruce Andrews {18}
Rae Armantrout {19}
Steve Benson {20}
Charles Bernstein {21}
David Bromige {22}
Clark Coolidge {23}
Alan Davies {24}
Ray DiPalma {25}
Robert Grenier {26}
Carla Harryman {27}
Lyn Hejinian {28}
Susan Howe {29}
Steve MacCaffery {30}
Michael Palmer {31}
Bob Perelman {32}
Kit Robinson {33}
James Sherry {34}
Ron Silliman {35}
Barrett Watten {36}
Hannah Weiner {37}


A short list of small presses representing language poetry (and other contemporary) writers:

References and Resources

1. Gertrude Stein. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/stein/.
2. Louis Zukofsky. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/zukofsky/
3. Of Time and Charles Bernstein’s Lines: A Poetics of Fashion Statements. Susan M. Schultz. Jul. 2001. http://jacketmagazine.com/14/schultz-bernstein.html. Extended Jacket (issue 14) article.
4. Ron Silliman. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/silliman/ Author haomepage at EPC.
5. Bob Perelman. http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C0F0508. Listings on The Academy of American Poets.
6. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y. 1999. http://www.poetrypreviews.com/poets/language.html. Short Poetry Previews article with links to books in print.
7. "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes" an introduction to language poetry. Jerome McGann. 1988. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/%7Eafilreis/88v/mcgann.html. Extract from McGann, Jerome J., Social values and poetic acts : a historical judgment of literary work (Harvard Univ. Press, 1988).
8. Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo. Marjorie Perloff. 1998. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/langpo.html. Language poetry in context: essay with good bibliography.
9. After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries. Marjorie Perloff. 1998. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/free.html.
10. Textual Politics and the Language Poets (excerpts). George Hartley (1989) Aug. 2004. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/hartley.html. Emphasizes the political aspects of the movement.
11. Bernadette Mayer. Synesthetes at the Writers House. http://writing.upenn.edu/wh/about/mayer.html target="_blank".
12. Chronic Meanings. Bob Perelman. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/%7Eafilreis/88v/chronic-meanings.html. Poem from the book Virtual Reality.
13. Thinking I Think I Think. Charles Bernstein. http://www.fencemag.com/v1n2/work/charlesbernstein.html. Fence Magazine.
14. From Fall (Rilke into Californian) David Bromige. 1994. http://www.theeastvillage.com/tc/bromige/p3.htm. The East Village Poetry Web: Volume 4.
15. Breath Ghazal 17. Douglas Barbour. 1994. http://www.theeastvillage.com/tc/barbour/p3.htm. One of ghazals in The East Village Poetry Web: Volume 4.
16. Line 56. Kit Robinson. 2002. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/robinson/robinson_line_56.html NNA.
17. Vernon Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 139.
18. Bruce Andrews’s Venus: Paying Lip Service to Écriture Féminine. Barbara Cole. May 2003. http://www.jacketmagazine.com/22/and-cole.html.
19. Rae Armantrout. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rae_Armantrout Brief Wikipedia article with links.
20. Steve Benson. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/visitors/bensonbio.html. Bio from Kelly Writers House.
21. Charles Bernstein. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/703. Academy of American Poets bio and links.
22. David Bromige. http://www.theeastvillage.com/tc/bromige/a.htm. Nine poems at The East Village Poetry Web.
23. Clark Coolidge. http://www.poetrypreviews.com/poets/poet-coolidge.html. Poetry Previews article and links to book.
24. Poetry in a Time of Crisis. Juliana Spahr. 2002. http://people.mills.edu/jspahr/poetrycrisis.htm NNA. Article on the poetry of Alan Davies.
25. Ray DiPalma. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/samples/dipalma.html NNA. Brief listings on Kelly Writers House.
26. Robert Grenier. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/grenier/. Grenier author page at EPC.
27. Carla Hayyman. http://www.fact-index.com/c/ca/carla_harryman.html. Fact Center bio and listings.
28. Lyn Hejinian. http://www.literaryhistory.com/20thC/Hejinian.htm NNA. Listings at Literary History.
29. Susan Howe. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/howe/howe.htm. Modern American Poetry page.
30. The Art Of Noise: Peter Finch Sounds Off. Claire Powell. http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/peter.finch/noise.htm NNA. Article on Peter Finch and contemporary music, mentioning Steve MacCaffery.
31. Michael Palmer. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/98. Academy of American Poets bio and links.
32. An interview with Bob Perelman. Toh Hsien Min. Mar. 2002. http://jacketmagazine.com/16/perelman-toh.html. Jacket 16 interview.
33. Kit Robinson. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/robinson/ NNA. EPC bio and links.
34. In the Cold Earth and Beneath the Bluish Sky. James Sherry. October 2003. http://www.thebrooklynrail.org/poetry/oct03/jamessherry.html NNA. Long poem in the Brooklyn Rail.
35. Ron Silliman's Blog. http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/. Much information on poetics and contemporary scene.
36. Barret Watten. http://www.english.wayne.edu/fac_pages/ewatten/. Barret Watten homepage at Wayne State University.
37. The Miraculous Objects of Hannah Weiner. Alan Clinton. Jun. 2002. http://nasty.cx/archives/000925.php NNA. Extended article in Nasty magazine.
38. Language Poetry, the legacy of "new poetries," and the contemporary avant garde. Al Fireis. Fall 2004. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/chap900a.html. Extensive references for course 88.
39. Small Press Traffic. http://www.sptraffic.org. Events, publications and personalities in the San Francisco poetry scene.
40. Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/home.html. EPC's excellent listing.
41. SPD Online. http://www.spdbooks.org/. Represents over 500 small press publishers.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.