A long time ago, I commissioned for Fence’s first issue an essay on Language poetry. And I’ve never stopped regretting it. Until now!
My motivation for wanting to publish what I thought of at the time as a layperson’s guide to Language poetry was, as most of my motivations are, originally quite personal. I was sick to death of people telling me that my own poetry was “language-y”; what they meant by that was something uninformed and slurry-ish; I know because I was likewise uninformed and slurry in my comprehension of the terms in question. In the early 1990s, at the University of Iowa, where I was, and where people cast these terms like seed corn on fertilized soil, it was kind of like saying “these poems are cool but I don’t understand them.” Or, “why are you writing like this? I don’t get it.” I guess you could say that there was a conflation at the time between “Language-y” and “language-y.” To say that a poem was “language-y” was to say that it was using words in ways that didn’t adhere to strict grammatical and rational rules. It was prioritizing the words over the “meaning.” This had a vaguely romantic sense of danger attached to it, but my sense was that no one knew why. That there was a quite meaningful history and belief system adhering to the word “Language” as it applied to poetry was, as I was to find out later, something else altogether.
That something else altogether is laid out in a most useful form in Sarah Rosenthal’s introduction to her as yet unpublished anthology of interviews between Bay Area poets. Reading it I was made to think again about my lack of interest in the term “experimental”—I think you could read the introduction as being of interest to, and about, just “poets,” and you’d be well served.
Because “I don’t believe in innovation.”*
*apologies to John Lennon