Liz Rahaim's report on John Ashbery's influence on four "language poets"
(written for the 2002 Kelly Writers House Fellows seminar)

Over the past couple of weeks I have corresponded with four so-called Language poets; Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, and Charles Bernstein; to investigate the extent to which Language poets consider Ashbery influential on themselves and Language poetry as a whole. In George Hartley's Textual Politics and Language Poets, he makes clear that the term "Language poetry" is a label that's meaning may vary depending on who is defining it. He however lists several poets who are widely considered Language poets since they have appeared in Language anthologies published between the years 1973 and 1987, as well as critical essays and particular poetry magazines. The four poets I have corresponded with are among those he lists.

Hartley states in his preface that "Specifically, what has come to be known as Language Poetry is held out to be one of those poetic modes of the present moment…which functions as such a critique [of a capitalist society]" (xi). Hartley avoids generalizing the political motives and writing styles of these poets, and suggests more simply that "what connects these writers…is a 'community of concern for language as the center of whatever activity poems might be'" (xii). Hartley assumes that Language poets, in their work, attempt to challenge the model of communication that the conventional "voice" poem depends on. As a result, most Language poets reject traditional forms of writing, such as the linear, autobiographical, chronological narrative, and "attempt to remind us of the socially contrived basis of any writing." They do this by "draw[ing] the reader into the production process by leaving the connections between various elements open, thus allowing the reader to produce the connections between those elements. In this way, presumably, the reader recognizes his or her part in the social process of production" (xiii), and this may function as a critique of a capitalist society. In this form of writing, the conventional, hierarchical relationship between the writer and reader changes; the writer no longer commands the reader how to read or think, but allows the reader to become active in the poetic process itself by giving the reader the freedom of interpretation. A further goal of Language writing and its often ambiguous structure is to make the reader aware of the process of ideological framing. In this way, Hartley ascertains that Language poets' challenges to conventional poetic structures encourage the reader to consider and challenge the "socially-determined frames" in which he/she is accustomed to viewing the world, and therefore Language poetry is a form of ideology critique (xiii).

Ashbery seems a precursor to Language poetry in many ways; Hartley determines The Tennis Court Oath as the most influential Ashbery text on the Language poets. The book demands in the words of Language poet Bruce Andrews, "Behavioral reading, rather than hermeneutic ones" (24), through its inconsistencies of tone and syntax, and its fragmented imagery. Hartley asserts that the Language poets focus on "The essential insight of Ashbery's work - the social production of meaning - … in an examination of the politics of the use of language" (24). They leave out Ashbery's "tortured meditation on perception and representation" and use irony rather as "a guard against ideological contamination" than "a questioning of language" (24).

Bob Perelman, an English professor here at Penn as well as an established poet and critic, exclaimed "Of course Ashbery has influenced me: he's written some of the best, most provocative, most formally interesting poems of the recent period." Perelman mentioned The Tennis Court Oath as "hugely influential on the early work of the Language writers (and the fact that Harold Bloom, representing normative academic appropriation of JA, called that book a mistake boosted its cachet with us)." Hartley quotes the critic Harold Bloom as calling The Tennis Court Oath "'the outrageously disjunctive volume,' flawed because Ashbery 'attempted too massive a swerve away from the ruminative continuities of Stevens and Whitman'" (23). Yet, as Perelman suggests, Hartley attributes the book's influential role in contemporary poetry to this "swerve." Perelman comments on the influence of Ashbery's later books as well. "Three Poems, long prose poems, was a great invitation to many: the most normal, low-key prose could add up to something tremendously complex and uncategorizable," he says, referring to the book's influence on many Language poets' (including his own) attempts at prose poetry. Perelman considers Ashbery's later poetry as having "an analogous impact [as his prose poems]. Ashbery throws the most interesting monkeywrenches into the increasingly banal distinction between 'innovative' and everyday language." Perelman has not deliberately tried to copy Ashbery, but admits "I suppose it is true, at whatever level of generality, that the prior and ongoing example of Ashbery helped me imagine the formal potentials of detaching the most ordinary speech in poems like 'Chronic Meanings,' 'Confession,' and 'China,' among others." In considering the rest of the New York School's influence on his work, Perelman says that O'Hara has been "a more vivid influence" on him than Ashbery, especially his "younger self." Perelman mentions a likely Ashberian influence on his current work, judging that "I think the ekphrastic Ashbery (poet who writes to painting, on paintings, at paintings) has something major to do with my just-finished collaboration with painter Francie Shaw: Playing Bodies, 52 poems to her set of 52 paintings." The collaboration is not published until next year, but was shown recently at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Ron Silliman, a friend of Perelman's, is the author of several volumes of poetry and a book of criticism, has edited several issues of literary magazines, and has also received many honors from the year 1970 to his most recent fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2002. In his comments on Ashbery, he seems to rather appreciate and admire his poetry than admit a strong influence. In regards to the New York School, Silliman says "I think that Schuyler has had a more direct influence on me because of his great capabilities as a descriptive poet, which is my own personal inclination as well. And Frank O'Hara, because he comes so heavily out of [William Carlos] Williams' work, as do I." I had asked Silliman if Ashbery's use of language has affected his own, and he responded that "I don't think, actually, that Ashbery had any great influence on my sense of language, in part because I've read so much linguistics over the years that Ashbery's work has tended to serve as verification rather than theory when I've read it."

Silliman does trace his impressions of Ashbery over the years, and how Ashbery's work influenced him to think about his own. Silliman had first read Ashbery around 1965 in the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry. Although he was "more taken with the writing of projectivist poets," he liked Ashbery's work there and bought Some Trees and The Tennis Court Oath: the only available Ashberian texts at that time. Silliman remembers "I really liked the Oath, which seemed radical and strange, but I was surprised and disappointed to some degree at the conservativism (really caution) of Some Trees. So in those years of the late 1960s, when I was a teen and in my early twenties, I paid attention, but generally kept his work in the back of my mind, not at the forefront." However, after Silliman read Three Poems his "'back of mind attitude' changed." He had already begun writing his own book-length prose poem, Ketjak, but then saw Three Poems as "a remarkably brave piece of writing that truly achieved something that had not been done before better elsewhere." Silliman believes that "Ashbery's sense of the sentence is very different from my own, the way he slides and glides around it, but it is always wonderful to read." He declares Three Poems "one of the great books of poetry in American history."

When Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was published, Silliman remembers feeling "amused, because I could see - as a primary level in the text - its satire of a certain sort of academic book, with one lengthier piece surrounded by shorter lyrics." As a result, poets wrote similar satires in the 1970s and early 1980s, and Silliman thought "the joke wore very thin, especially as the academic poetry scene, always anemic, pretty much dissolved in its influence altogether." He concludes that "By the end of that period, the only significant example of that kind of book seemed to be Ashbery's."

Silliman read Ashbery's Flow Chart "utterly enchanted"; "It was again a completely different kind of writing from any of his peers, either in the New York School or elsewhere." Silliman declares that "After Three Poems, it's my favorite writing of his. Since then, I've read everything [of Ashbery's] and liked most of it."

Rae Armantrout teaches poetry writing at the University of California in San Diego, and has written several books of poetry. In response to my question, she said "Has Ashbery been an influence on me? Not directly. But there is something about the way he says a thing while also somehow unsaying it that I feel close to." She mentions Three Poems in particular, the Ashberian work that made the greatest impression on her. "The grasping at experience began to seem almost a faux grasping (if you can picture that). Reading Three Poems you're bound to realize, at some point, that you're being teased, that you'll never get 'it' because there is no 'it.' Now if I could only learn that lesson in real life!"

Armantrout also muses that "Maybe there was something in [Ashbery's] style that gave me permission." Many of her poems are prose poems or have prosaic qualities, and in a 1998 interview conducted as part of a series by Daniel Kane, she admits that she can think of "no good reason to go to prose." Often her decision has to do with vocabulary; "long clunky-sounding words - essay words - would look silly in skinny little lines." She also thinks it would seem "ridiculous" to break prosaic sentences or dialogue into lines. In this way, her writing of prose poems seems a natural inclination, rather than a decision influenced directly by Ashbery's example.

Charles Bernstein is the director of the Poetics Program and teaches at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has authored several volumes of poetry, two books of critical essays, has edited several books and volumes of literary magazines, and has received many honors from the year of 1972 to his most recent, the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize of the University of California, San Diego for a lifetime contribution to poetry and scholarship in 1999. In response to my questions, Bernstein states "I am not so much interested in influence…I greatly admire the work of James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Frank O'Hara and each of them have been crucial for me in different ways in my reading, writing, and thinking about poetry. I often teach their work." Ashbery had a profound effect on him when he first read his work. For his own writing, Bernstein says, "Rivers and Mountains, especially 'The Skaters,' and Three Poems would be the most crucial early influences, along with, though more conceptually, The Tennis Court Oath." He views The Tennis Court Oath as "one of Ashbery's most important books from the point of view of the poetics associated, for example, with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine [Language poet] Bruce Andrews and I edited in the late 70s and early 80s." Interestingly enough, Hartley pinpoints Charles Bernstein as "one contemporary poet to benefit from Ashbery's 'swerve' from Stevens and Whitman" in The Tennis Court Oath; "The disjunct syntax, the incomplete statements, and the radical shifts of imagery [in Bernstein's poetry] all recall Ashbery's early work" (24), Hartley states. Judging from Bernstein's response however, Ashbery's influence on him was more subtle than direct.

The varied responses I received from these four Language poets suggest that Ashbery has influenced their work, if to a lesser degree for Silliman and Bernstein than for Perelman and Armantrout. They certainly view his work as important; I think Perelman articulated quite well the general sense of these poets' responses when he said, "I suppose it is true, at whatever level of generality, that the prior and ongoing example of Ashbery helped me imagine the formal potentials of detaching the most ordinary speech…" In short, Ashbery's innovative work that often challenges convention seems to set the example of possibility for Language poets in their own work as they too challenge convention in creative, new ways.

If you would like to learn more about Language poets in general, or the ones who I corresponded with for this report, here are my sources:

Hartley, George.  Textual Politics and the Language Poets.  Bloomington and
Indiana University Press, 1989.



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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:27:15 EDT