Language poetry

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Language poetry

Language poetry: A school of postmodern, avant-garde American poetry that arose in the 1970s and that foregrounds language rather than expression or meaning. As Language poet and theorist Ron Silliman explained in “The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets” (1975), a selection of Language poems accompanied by notes, Language poets are linked by “concern for language as the center of whatever activity poems might be.” The name itself has been subject to debate, with some practitioners preferring L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y and others “language writing” or “language-centered writing.”

Language poetry, which emphasizes process or method and embraces collaborative creative activity, is characterized by the use of nontraditional, nonnarrative forms. Notably, Language poets reject the conception of poetry as a communicative mode. Questioning the referentiality of language, they emphasize that writing is based on codes and conventions and stress the reader’s role in making meaning. They also reject the narrative model, embracing disjunction, fragmentation, and incoherence. Indeed, in “Experiments” (1984), Bernadette Mayer recommended that poets “systematically derange the language” — for instance, by using only prepositional phrases — or turn a list of random words into a poem. Journals associated with the movement include This (1971—82), edited by Robert Grenier and Barrett Watten, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978—82), edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. (Grenier’s pronouncement “I HATE SPEECH,” in his essay “On Speech” from the inaugural issue of This [1971], has served as a rallying cry for the school.) Andrews and Bernstein also edited a collection of theoretical writings on Language poetry, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984).

Significant influences on Language poetry include twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games, modernist poets Gertrude Stein and Louis Zakofsky, the Beat writers, and poets John Ashberry and Robert Creeley.

EXAMPLES: In the American Tree (1986), an anthology of Language poetry edited by Silliman; Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1987), originally a collection of thirty-seven poems composed of thirty-seven sentences, one for each year of her life, later revised at the age of forty-five to include forty-five poems of forty-five sentences each; The Grand Piano (2006—10), a collaborative, serial work by ten Language poets who describe it as “an experiment in collective autobiography.”

Image langue: See semiotics.