Marjore Perloff

"The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties"

Source: The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 215-38. Orignally published in American Poetry Review (May-June 1984), 13(3): 15-22

"oilfish" to "old chap" for "C"

Performing military service for the king and bearing a child have a common medieval root. The progression to this point is first academic, then technical. Textbooks give way to textiles which lead to T-formations and T-groups. We pause to add "th" and proceed through Mediterranean anemia, deep seas, Greek muses, pesticides, young shoots and the instinctual desire for death. It is there that we find "thane" to be followed by all manner of "thanks," including the "thank-you-ma-am"--a ridge built across a road so rain will roll off.

--Tina Darragh, on the corner to off the corner1


But this is a false tart, the trap door insecurely latched, a tear in the velvet curtain. Yet the tear was but a drop of glycerine sliding down her cheek. Nonetheless skin is not porcelain, however it spots.

--Ron Silliman, ABC2

Floating on completely vested time, a lacrity

To which abandon skirts another answer

Or part of but not returned.

Confined to snare, the sumpter portion

Rolls misty ply on foxglove, thought

Of once was plentitude of timorous

Lair, in fact will build around

It. Shores that glide me, a

Tender for unkeeping, when fit with

Sticks embellish empty throw. Days, after

All, which heave at having had.

--Charles Bernstein, ""The Sheds of Our Webs, from Resistance3

But is it poetry? Tina Darragh's paragraph is a mock page from a dictionary; instead of "oilfish" to "old chap" (which is, of course, not under "C"), we are given a set of riddling permutations of words beginning with "t": "technical," "textbooks," "textiles," "T-formations," "T-groups." One or two phonemes (/k/, /kst/) can make all the difference. Add an "h" to "t" and you introduce a Greek element: "Mediterranean anemia" (evidently "thalamic hemorrhage"), "deep seas" ("thalassa," which gives us the word "Thalassian"), "Greek muses" (e.g., "Thalia"), pesticides ("Thalline"), "young shoots" ("thalluses"), and "the instinctual desire for death" ("thanatos"). Then "thane" and "thanks" and a "thank-you-ma'am" which, so the OED tells us, got its curious meaning ("a ridge built across a road so rain will roll off") from the fact that such a ridge or hollow in the road would cause "persons passing over it in a vehicle to nod the head involuntarily, as if in acknowledgement of a favour." (The first example cited by the OED is from Longfellow's Kavanaugh (1849): "We went like the wind over the hollows in the snow; / the driver called them 'thank you ma'ams,' because they made everybody bow.") And where does the "C" of the title come in? In the riddle of the first sentence, which pits "conscription" ("Performing military service for the king") against "confinement" ("bearing a child").

How curious, the text suggests, the vagaries of words that can, with the shift of a single phoneme or two, mean such different things as "thane" and "thanks"; with the addition of a suffix or two, turn "thanks" into "thanatos," or again, with the addition of a word or two, turn "thanks" into an idiom meaning ridge or hollow in the road. The signifier, it seems, is never merely transparent--a replica of the signified. The prefix "con," for that matter, generates life as easily as death.

Again, when, in the first line of "Carbon," Ron Silliman removes a single phoneme from a word ("false start" becomes "false tart"), he creates intriguing plot possibilities: to make a false start by falling through a trap door is one thing; to position a "false tart" in this setting, especially given the tear in the velvet curtain, quite another. But then "tear" (rip) becomes a teardrop, and one made out of glycerine at that. It is difficult, the text implies, to distinguish artifice from reality. Skin spots, porcelain spots; "Nonetheless skin is not porcelain."

Charles Bernstein takes this sort of word play a step further, almost to the point of unintelligibility. In "The Sheds of Our Webs," neologisms abound: "a lacrity," "sumpter" ("marshy" or "low-lying" on the model of "sump"?), "plentitude." More important; grammatical position is frequently ambiguous: is "sheds" a noun or gerund ("sheddings")? "Abandon skirts" a verb followed by its direct object or a subject--verb clause? "Tender" a verb or adjective or noun? There is no way to be sure, especially since many of the words in ambiguous syntactic position are homonyms. Thus "vested" means (1) "conferred as a legal right" as well as (2) "wearing a vest"; and, what is more disconcerting, "tender," if a noun, can mean (1) "a formal offer to supply goods or carry out work or buy at a stated price"; (2) "a person who tends to look after something"; or (3) "a vessel or vehicle traveling to and from a larger one to convey stores or passengers etc.," more specifically, (4) "a car attached to a steam locomotive carrying fuel and water."

But is it not the function of syntax precisely to tell us which of these possible meanings is the appropriate one in the context? "Art," as Hugh Kenner puts it with reference to Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," "lifts the saying out of the zone of things said."4 And the "saying," in the case of "The Sheds of Our Webs," becomes a way of foregrounding the human need to escape confinement (the "plentitude of timorous lair"), the need to rid ourselves of our defenses, to shed our webs, which are also "sheds" in that, "Confined to snare," we hide within them. "Floating on completely vested time" is, after all, a way of skirting the issue with "a lacrity" rather than real conviction: "abandon skirts another answer" (or, abandon[ing] our skirts is an answer that brings in no returns). The poet opts for "Shores that glide me, a / Tender for unkeeping": he is, so to speak, the vessel that carries the cargo, even if others perceive it as an "empty throw." The thing is to make an imprint, to leave "Days, after / All, which heave at having had."

The prominent alliteration and assonance in these last lines, indeed, the highly formalized sound structure of the whole poem, with its stately diction and heavy stressing--

Rólls mîsty ply on fóxglôve, ‖ thóught

Of ónce was pléntitûde or tímorous

Láir. ...

recalls Hart Crane rather than, say, Williams. "Shores that glide me, a / Tender for unkeeping" is nothing if not Cranean even as Crane points back to the Yellow Nineties and to Swinburne. Indeed, in a curious way it is fin de siècle that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of our own fin de siècle recalls in its renewed emphasis, after decades of seemingly "natural" free verse, on prominent sound patterning and arcane, or at least "unnatural," diction.

But of course the immediate impression likely to be produced by a Bernstein or Silliman poem is that Swinburne or Crane have somehow been put through the Cuisinart: what finds its way into the bowl looks, at first sight, like so many chopped and hence unrecognizable vegetables. Faced with the syntactic and semantic difficulties I have been describing, the reader may decide that "language-centered writing" is little more than a clever hoax. What is the value, I have heard it asked, of these little word games when we all know that the business of poetry is to convey the concrete particulars of experience, the response of the sensitive individual to the vagaries of human suffering and struggle?

In their more theoretical writings (essays, reviews, prose poems, manifestos, interviews, and various hybrids of these) the Language poets have addressed themselves to precisely such questions. "Poetry and philosophy," says Bernstein in a recent essay, "share the project of investigating the possibilities (nature) and structures of phenomena,"5 an assumption shared by such otherwise diverse Language poets as Ron Silliman and Lydia Davis, Clark Coolidge and Douglas Messerli, Lyn Hejinian and Tom Raworth. I propose, therefore, to take up some of the central theoretical assumptions that govern language-centered writing, assumptions that take us back into the poetry itself. But then, as the poets repeatedly tell us, the distinction between theory and poetry is an arbitrary one anyway, even as generic and prosodic differentiation violates the integrity of the text as "language-work." For Olson and Creeley, "Form is never more than the extension of content." For the Language poet, this aphorism becomes "Theory is never more than the extension of practice."6...

But whatever the generic category, the important distinction to be made is not between "story" and "prose poem" or "story" and "essay" but, as Charles Bernstein points out, between "different contexts of reading and different readerships" (D, p. 35). To read such "writerly" texts as Hejinian's My Life or Davis' Story, is to become aware of what the Language poets call "the rights of the signifier."7 Again, to "lay bare the device," a term the Language poets have borrowed from the Russian Futurists, does not necessarily mean to write in verse rather than prose, or to write lyric rather than "essay" or "manifesto." It means only that "the Word as Such"--what the poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh called, in the title of their manifesto of 1913, Slovo kak takovoe8--becomes the primary poetic determinant.


To emphasize the Word as Such is, inevitably, to pay special attention to sound patterning, to phonemic play, punning, rhythmic recurrence, rhyme. It is a paradox of language-centered writing that, despite its frequent recourse to prose rather than verse, and its refusal to separate "philosophy" from "poetry," sound structures are heavily foregrounded. This is not, of course, coincidence: a violation of "normal" language habits is in itself a commentary on these habits--in this case, the recourse to the frequently bland free verse that currently passes for "poetry." As Charles Bernstein puts it in the introduction to the Paris Review "Language Sampler":

... there is a claim being made to a syntax ... of absolute attention to the ordering of sound's syllables. ... Not that this is "lyric" poetry, insofar as that term may assume a musical, or metric, accompaniment to the words: the music rather is built into the sequence of the words' tones, totally saturating the text's sound. ...

(p. 76)

Take, for example, Charles Bernstein's recent poem "Dysraphism," which appeared in Sulfur, 8 (1983). Here is the poet's note on his title:

"Dysraphism" is actually a word in use by specialists in congenital diseases, to mean dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts--a birth defect. ... "Raph" of course means "seam," so for me disraphism is mis-seaming--a prosodic device! But it has the punch of being the same root of rhapsody (rhaph)--or in Skeats--"one who strings (lit. stitches) songs together, a reciter of epic poetry," cf. "ode" etc. In any case, to be simple, Dorland's [the standard U.S. medical dictionary] does define "dysrhafia" (if not dysraphism) as "incomplete closure of the primary neural tube; status dysraphicus"; this is just below "dysprosody" (sic): "disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech."9

Bernstein's sensitivity to etymologies and latent meanings is reflected in the poem itself, which is an elaborate "dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts," a "disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech" in the interest of a new kind of urban "rhapsody." The "mis-seaming" of the poem brings together the life of the entire city--let us say New York--with its overheard conversations, advertising slogans, Wall Street jargon, medical terminology, TV clichés, how-to manuals, remembered proverbs, wise sayings, and nonsense rhymes. Like Joyce's "Aeolus" chapter in Ulysses, it playfully exploits such rhetorical figures as pun, anaphora, epiphora, metathesis, epigram, anagram, and neologism to create a seamless web of reconstituted words:

The pillar's tale: a windowbox onto society.

But heed not the pear that blows in your

brain. God's poison is the concept of

conceptlessness--anaerobic breath.

No less is culled no more vacated--temptation's

flight is always to

beacon's hill--the soul's


Endless strummer. There is never annul-

ment, only abridgment. The Northern Lights is

the universe's paneled basement. Joy

when jogged. Delight in


(p. 41)

This is not nonsense talk, the collaging of whatever bits and pieces happen to enter the poet's consciousness. Rather, "Dysraphism" violates standard language so as to foreground the discourses actually operative on contemporary writing: the "literary" ("pillar's tale" for Chaucer's "Miller's Tale"), the "sociological" ("a window[box] onto society"), the recourse to proverbial wisdom ("But heed not the pear..."), the obsession with film titles (Endless S[tr]ummer), book titles and publishers' blurbs ("Joy when jogged" for "the joy of jogging" or "Delight in / forefright" rather than "foreplay"). Instructions to the waiter or waitress new on the job ("Fill / the water glasses--ask each person / if they would like / more coffee, etc.") alternate with parodies of medical textbooks ("vaccination of cobalt emissaries pregnant with bivalent expasperation, protruding with inert material") and the lingo of the business conference ("It's a realistic package, it's a / negotiable package, it's / not a final package").

"Dysraphism" thus presents the reader with a world in which the articulation of an individual language is all but prevented by the official discourses that bombard the consciousness from all sides. "Blinded by avenue and filled with / adjacency," "Arch or arched at," how do we avoid speech as mere repetition? Perhaps, the poem implies, by decomposition and recharge--in this case, particularly the recharge of sound. For the psychological self-projection ("Twenty-five years ago I walked..." "It was that night I knew...") of most contemporary free verse, Bernstein substitutes the overdetermination of sound. Sometimes we hear a quasi-Elizabethan iambic pentameter ("that hits the spring to sing with sanguine bulk"), sometimes the tunes of Tin Pan Alley ("No where to go but pianissimo"), everywhere the chiming of rhyme: "Morose or comatose," "Best of the spoils: gargoyles," "Reality is always greener / when you haven't seen her." "Prose / pose" "Poem, chrome," "A fleet of ferries, forever merry." Words, that is to say, are not dependable when it comes to signification, but the play of their sounds is endlessly pleasurable. "Thread / threads the threads, like / thrush. thrombolytic casette." Or, as we read on the poem's last page:

That is, in prose you start with the world

and find the words to match; in poetry you start

with the words and find the world in them.

(p. 44)

In a world "Riddled / with riot" (a play on Yeats' "Riddled with light" in "The Cold Heaven"), "there is always something dripping through," if we can find it. Otherwise, "We seem to be retreading the same tire / over and over, with no additional traction."


The unmasking of contemporary discourse in poems like "Dysraphism" is, of course, far from innocent. Both in San Francisco and New York, the Language movement arose as an essentially Marxist critique of contemporary American capitalist society on behalf of young poets who came of age in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. ...

For one thing, what the Language poets call late monopoly capitalism is never compared to the economic system of existing Marxist countries--the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and their satellites. "The rise of capitalism," writes Silliman, "sets the preconditions for the rise of the novel, the invention of the optical illusion of realism, the final breakdown of gestural poetic forms" (LB, p. 126). Where does the rise of communism fit into this picture? Is Silliman implying that in contemporary China, "the optical illusion of realism" has given way to a valorization of "gestural poetic forms"? Or is the very opposite not the case in countries that can only tolerate socialist realism? Indeed, the transparency of the signifier, its loss of power to be in its own right, seems to me the very hallmark of discourse in the literary journals of, say, East Germany.

Still, poets like Silliman and Bernstein are on to something important when they lament the "invisibility" of language in our "literary" culture. "The words," says Silliman sadly, "are never our own. Rather, they are our own usages of a determinate coding passed down to us like all other products of civilization" (LB, p. 167). The dominance of a sophisticated technology, whether under capitalism or socialism, means that language is always in danger of becoming commodity. Those of us who have taught courses on poetry are familiar with the student with a very high IQ, say a computer science major, who cannot make anything of a poem like Blake's "London" because he or she cannot conceive of a linguistic or social context in which one might refer to a soldier's "hapless sigh" as "Run[ning] like blood down palace walls." In the discourse of medical text books or legal briefs, such statements simply make no sense. ...

Writing is inevitably repetition, but each repetition reveals something else. As Charles Bernstein puts it in a poem called "Sprocket Damage":

What happens opens up into what

                                                       happens the next time.10

Or, as Ron Silliman playfully paraphrases Freud so as to avoid the familiar id and ego, "When words are, meaning soon follows. Where words join, writing is" (LB, p. 16). >



1 on the corner to off the corner (College Park, Md.: Sun & Moon Press, 1981), p. 7.

2 ABC (Berkeley: Tuumba, 1983), unpaginated.

3 Resistance (Windsor, Vt.: Awede, 1983), unpaginated.

4 A Homemade World. The American Modernist Writers (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 60.

5 "Writing and Method," Poetics Journal, 3 (May 1983), 7.

6 See Charles Bernstein, "Interview with Tom Beckett," The Difficulties: Charles Bernstein Issue, ed. Tom Beckett, Vol. 2, no. 1 (Fall 1982), 35.

7 See Nanon Valaoritis, Introduction to "Poésie Language USA," Change, 41 (Paris: Seghers, March 1981), 159. The section devoted to "Language Poetry" in this issue is on pp. 151-88.

8 See Vladimir Markov (ed.), Russian Futurism: A History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 129-31.

9 Sulfur, 8 (1983), 39.

10 Islets/Irritations (New York: Jordan Davies, 1983), p. 5.

Source:  Marjorie Perloff, "The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties," in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 215-38.