joshua clover



The editors asked me to write an essay explaining the evolution of Language poetry. I don’t know how to. I offer instead theory, history, an apology, a reading, a quotation, and a reading list: the usual suspects.

A Tale of Two Steins

“Chickamauga is where I’m from and Canada’s where I’m bound” doesn’t strike me as poetry. On the other hand, “Chickamauga is where I’m from and solitude’s where I’m bound” does. Not a poem, not especially good poetry, but poetry. It’s in the equivalence (the machine of metaphor in the skin of grammar) drawn between “Chickamauga” and “solitude,” which in common speech are not exchangeable terms: one’s a place, one’s an emotional circumstance. This error – the confusion of kind – sets poetry apart from common speech. That, and line breaks.

The other category of speech which depends on confusion of kind is the riddle – all chickens know this, and all roads. Here’s a riddle I liked in second grade: You’re in a room without doors or windows, no exits at all, with nothing but a television set and a saw. How do you get out? Like almost all riddles – crucially – this is a language game better played out loud, so forgive the transcription-flawed answer: take the saw; saw the television in half; two halves make a whole; climb out the hole. One likes especially the poetic repetitions, how each phrase is linked to the previous by a repeated term, while another term will link it to the next: saw/saw, half/halves – a child’s terza rima, coaxing us forward into the (w)hole-hearted confusion.

The confusion here is twofold1: the first is the rather uninteresting one between whole and hole. Of essence is that this homophone starts the chain of confusion, which gets very interesting very quickly. It engenders the understanding that language is a troubled instrument. The second confusion is that between the sound “(w)hole” and the functional hole through which we escape. This is a confusion of kind between, as a Swiss grad student would have it, signifier and referent.2 And while the riddle poses this as a way out, it presents a terrible trap. If the “hole” and the hole are identical – if they occupy the same space – one can’t point at the other; language suddenly can point only at itself; there is no outside.

This riddle is the riddle of our century’s philosophical investigations.3 Husserl’s phenomenology and Einstein’s relativity offer much the same revelation as Cubism: we exist not in g-d’s green meadows but within our own perceptive boundaries. Language proposes and vows to bear4experience across such thresholds, but this solves nothing; if we’re not trapped within ourselves, we’re still trapped within language itself. This crisis is crystallized by a forlorn Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”5

This sense of inability to elude the sphere of language, which permeates contemporary Western thinking, is the crux of the biscuit: the central forlornness of life after Jehovah Lector, author of the real, passes from our regard. The exitless room from which Sad King Ludwig tries to escape is language itself – but since the only escape is a language game, there is no way out.

How then might we treat of 20th century poetry? If poems are based on confusion of kind, it would make sense that poems openly interested in this oceanic, century-wide problem of language would be fascinated with this particular confusion of kind. That is to say, one would expect a sort of poem which is, in its dreamy way, perpetually confusing holes and holes. But that sounds a little nasty. It would be easier for everyone involved were there poems perpetually confusing roses and roses; if there were, say, a poem in which rose appeared as signifier, signified, and referent indiscriminately – no determining which apparition was which. And look! Here’s Gertrude Stein strolling onto the world-historical stage to proclaim “a rose is a rose is a rose.”6

Try to puzzle out which is the word “rose,” which indicates the idea of the rose, and which stands for a particular rose . . . and you will find a scented but slippery slope. And what if you imagine the poem to mean not merely that linguistic identity is endless? Consider this reading: [The phrase] “A rose is a rose” is a rose. Not merely does this collapse the distinction between word and thing, but between phrase and thing; between proposition and thing; between metaphor and thing. Language here cannot be about roses any more than you can be about a reader7 – each falls endlessly into the other.

There is no more falling out for Gertrude than for Wittgenstein; that she fits the same crisis into less space than the German architect proves only the difference between poetry and philosophy.

411 Is A Joke

So that’s a lineage of Language poetry, and its essence. But any lineage is flawed, and essence more so. Especially these. I would be happy to say that the two Steins are the Adam ‘n’ Eve of Language poetry. Or De Man, Derrida, and Dylan; Ashbery, Cage, and Picasso; or Walter Abish and Apollinaire. Maybe it’s all about Benjamin and Roussel. But really it’s Husserl and Beckett, or maybe Jabes and Zukovsky; maybe whoever first inverted “No ideas but in things!” or invented the term L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.8 I could make an argument for each of those teams being a true lineage, and in each case I would have to make a different description of the resultant essence.9 Connecting a whirl of historical dots into a certain shape is like overlaying a constellation on a bunch of stars in the heavens: a good opportunity to inscribe one’s own mythology on the sky, but also ideology-bound and hegemonic, arrogant and inaccurate. When I look at Andromeda some nights I see Josie and the Pussycats.

It may be that Language poetry isn’t poetry particularly10 – it’s the heisting of the century’s language game. That poets did the crime is no more surprising than that painters and sculptors co-opted phenomenology. The weird thing is that Language poetry is no harder to “get” than Cubism; the other weird thing is that it’s lasted as long as it has without the support of the fabulously wealthy collectors who supported Cubism through its period of popular rejection. Foremost among those collectors was, of course, Gertrude Stein – history is an ever-closing loop, after all.11

The most convenient complaint about Language poetry is that, in the words of one poet, “It spends the whole poem looking at the horse and saying ‘Is that really a horse? How can you tell?’ instead of hopping on and going for a ride.” After all, Shakespeare didn’t spend his days wondering if hecould compare thee to a summer’s day, but whether he should. It’s the Language poets who are agreeing to be trapped by the language-game.


“Because I’m writing about the snow not the sentence . . . “

So begins Michael Palmer’s Sun. It’s a self-cancelling claim: he’s written about “writing” before the “snow” falls. The letters are falling on the page, exactly as real as the snow falling on cedars.12 This in and of itself isn’t particularly interesting; it’s simply what Language poetry does, despite Michael Palmer’s claim not to be a Language poet.13 “Can you decode the birth of the sign//from the miniskirt, the unconscious, TV, the/mirage//of the referent, the equation/of A with A”14 makes us worry that he’s simply been reading an essay like this and following orders, setting the theory to music. In another book, “Words would come in smoke and go, inventing the letters of the voyage, would walk through melting snow to the corner store for cigarettes . . . “15 One certainly sees the appeal for poets: poets love their words, experience them as actual characters perhaps. And the smoke, dissipating and brief; the snow, disappearing in the streets – each seems a fruitful image of writing, the world’s communication of itself which appears briefly and must be read, even as it slips away from us. So what; what does it matter to manifest words as pieces of the world, finally equal to the other pieces rather than merely about them?

Well, it doesn’t matter – not intrinsically, at least. The burning question16 for Language poetry (as for every other formal behavior) is whether this obliteration of the Hierarchy of Things, such that words become of a piece with the other pieces, might make Language poetry mean in a way other poetries might not? Making the form alone makes poems which sit on the page purring and winking and wasting time; what we must love is the poem which makes matter from the form. Or antimatter. Sun seems like a good test case here: it confronts the philosophical concerns openly and directly, states relevant theories, and starts nonetheless with the odd, seemingly barefaced claim that it is not about language.

The sixth and final section of the book Sun is called “Sun” (as is the fifth section) and begins with a series of commands.


Write this. We have burned all their villagesWrite this. We have burned all the villages and the people in them

Write this. We have adopted their customs and their manner of dress

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X17


Really, in most ways this resembles a traditional lyric poem; indeed, it resembles at first a familiar demand that America’s military pageant in Vietnam be acknowledged in writing. But by the fourth line/stanza, that Languagey aspect starts to creep in – though “basket of tears” is also an invitation to Surrealism. By the eighth, the confusion of kind is complete: 

Let go of me for I have died and am in a novel and was a lyric poet, certainly, who attracted crowds to mountaintops. For a nickel I will appear from this box. For a dollar I will have text with you and answer three questions. 

The poem is by now doing the Language poetry thing full force, with both pathos and comedic verve: the human poet has fallen into the paper story, and text has become of a kind with sex. That might be another pure version of the confusion of kind on which Language poetry is based: the ultimate sensual act identical to the great act of the mind.18But still – we’re doubters, remember – we’re curious as to the gain of gainsaying the relationship of words and things. If the pathos of the poem endlessly recapitulates the isolatedness in our languages, I’m not sure that’s enough for an entire movement. It’s moving, though; when the writer later announces “I was born on an island of the dead. I learned language on this island but did not speak. I am writing to you from this island,” well, I find that powerful; it’s emotionally rich. Still, it’s solipsistic if there’s where the story ends. Solipsism, like most tributaries of the Nihil, seems like the least outcome of the 20th century’s philosophical crisis.But the story doesn’t end there. In this world, because words are as alive as anything else – because they might head out for cigarettes at any moment – they get to act as characters, capable of bearing the emotional weight of the poem, “about violins and smoke” but just as equally about “lines and dots, free to speak and become the things we speak, pages which sit up, look around and row resolutely toward the setting sun//Pages torn from their spines and added to the pyre, so that they will resemble thought”. The poem breaks language down to its least marks, its lines and dots, its lone letters: “only characters like A-against-Herself, B, C, L and N”; somehow these are equal to “Sam, Hans Magnus, T. Sphere, all speaking in the dark with their hands.” What exactly Thelonius Sphere Monk is doing in the poem merits a different paper, one which starts with the famous description of jazz as “musicians telling jokes to each other.”

“F for alphabet, Z for A, an H in an arbor, shadow, silent wreckage, W or M among stars.” Signs are getting more and more confused, more and more collapsed. So what? Toward what end is this collapse, this theoretical motion and reflexive forlornness? What comes from this? The same question is on the speaker’s mind, or voice:

What last. Lapwing. Tesseract. X perhaps for X. The villages are known as These Letters – humid, sunless. The writing occurs on their walls

The recursive motion through which the villages return to the poem is a gesture which predates Language poetry considerably. But the nature of that return is utterly changed. The villages are letters, and are burned. Pages are burned (to resemble thought) and thus must be villages. The speaker is writing a book; the writing occurs on the walls of villages; they are burnt villages. The writing is the fire, or the sign of the fire. And so on. Once words become equivocal things, the chain of transmutation – the motive of metaphor – is nearly infinite, inconsistent, irrational. By this measure, Language poetry is indeed more poetic than other sorts of verse: confusions of kind bloom like roses and roses and roses, each with fold on fold, folding in on itself indefinitely: it’s a chain of implication which binds everyone in the language-game; the language-game which is the dream in which begins responsibility. And in the midst of this garden, the lyric rose – the poem of genocide, and of the guilt that its authors can’t erase – by any other name smells as acrid.


Philosophical Investigations 515

“Two pictures of a rose in the dark.”


1 As it happens, “twice-folded” is one way to translate the Greek word diploma; a trivial problem (from trvium, loosely, the Greek word for grad-school).

2 Or maybe between signifier and signified; it’s hard to discern whether that hole is the abstract case of hole or a particular hole, since this is a story I’m telling and not a real room. Either way, this is the death of the sign, which is only a sign if it’s divisible into signifier, signified, and referent.

3 One might want to confine the debate to Linguistic Theory – after all, the damage seems limited to the sphere of Saussure’s semiotics: important enough to merit a department at Brown University, but barely a gleam in the eyes of most curricula. Except that you will likely encounter, say, an ethics debate in which law prof Katherine Mackinnon holds that the representation of rape, in images or words, is an act of violence with an exchange-value equal to a physical rape. Or philosopher/comedian Jean Baudrillard reassuring us that we need not worry about nuclear weapons: because they work only to represent what badasses we are to other nations, they form only a language of annihilation rather than any actual damage. Or J.L. Austin’s Speech Act theory, interested in language for its “performatives,” the units of speech which are actions unto themselves. Or Gödel’s Theorem, showing that there are more true statements than provable ones – the most common lesson drawn from this problematizes the hope of self-consistent systems, but the delightful side effect is that of rendering language as a child’s “plus one” game: it will always be more than all the things we can say about it; we will never come to its frontier. Or consider the deconstructionist holding that “the text is composed of all possible readings of the text,” or New Criticism’s invocation of the “intentional fallacy,” the main effect of which is sophomores claiming that The Odyssey is about holding on to your dreams, because “that’s what I got out of it” . . .

4 “To bear” is carried down from the Latin ferre, on which we build both ferryboats and metaphor: No wonder Captain Jack says “When speaking of boats, the topic of language is never far off” (The Truth in Painting, Jacques Derrida, University of Chicago, 1987).

5 Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Blackwell, London, 1963).

6 Stein’s preceding sentence is “civilization began with a rose.” There is enough to say about all these roses to fill several books. For example, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World, John Malcolm Brinnin, (Addison-Wesley, Reading, 1987).

7 Cf. Walter Benjamin, “The sight of immediate reality has become an orchid.” (The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, Harvard University Press, 1992). Benjamin’s study of how infinite replication obliterated the real – “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Illuminations,Schocken, 1968) – takes up the actual (that is, economic) effects of the collapse of the signifying chain, laying the foundation for Baudrillard’s simulation theory, and the rest of Postmodernism as well.

8 This is the original name of the movement. We like how it insists on the identicality of signs, but hate how hard it is to type.

9 Supposing I pair Roussel (“a president of the republic of dreams,” per Louis Aragon) with Jacques “Language is the whirlpool which picks up the tree and throws it” Derrida: Between the former’s construction of fantasy worlds out of photorealistic detail, and the latter’s Deconstruction work, I would certainly end at Language poetry’s political rejection of narratives of the self – because “the story of well-off European males needs no more telling” – and that would in no way be a false version. Just an incomplete one. And of course, there would be an honor in that: version is the child of verse is the child of veritas.

10 So I hear, occasionally: My six-year old could write that, et cetera.

11 Wittgenstein, on the other hand, didn’t collect much art. He occasionally designed unattractive little houses or dreamed of running away to join the proletariat, but mostly he was a superstar philosopher. His entire refutation of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum lay in an insistence that words only mean insofar as they are used for particular purposes: “If a man says to me, looking at the sky, ‘I thinkit will rain, therefore I exist,’ I do not understand him.” (in Raymond Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1990).

12 One must have a mind of Stevens, one must have a language of winter.

13 William Gibson, by the same token, claims not to be a “cyberpunk” sci-fi author. Nobody wants to take the weight of the name, but what’s done is done – even the carpenter says ye shall know me by my works…

14 Sun (North Point Press, Berkeley, 1988), p. 61.

15 Notes for Echo Lake (North Point Press, Berkeley, 1981).

16 It is this very burning question which will appear shortly, on certain walls…

17 Sun, p. 83.

18 And indeed they are, for in the poem – as in the marketplace – each is exchangeable for the same coin.


Books as Fragments: List as Study in Subjectivity


Charles Altieri: Subjective Agency: A Theory of First Person Expressivity and Its Social Implications, Blackwell, 1994

Bruce Andrews: The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Poetics of the New), SIU Press, 1984

Rae Armantrout: Necromance, Sun & Mooon, 1991

Charles Bernstein: A Poetics, Harvard, 1992; Contents, Dream, Sun & Moon, 1986

Clark Coolidge: At Egypt, The Figures, 1988

Kathleen Fraser: Il Cuore: The Heart: New and Selected Poems 1970-1995, Wesleyan, 1997

Robert Grenier: Phantom Anthems, O Books, 1986

Barbara Guest: The Countess of Minneapolis, Burning Deck, 1991

Lyn Hejinian: The Cold of Poetry, Sun & Moon, 1994; The Cell, Sun & Moon, 1992; My Life, Sun & Moon, 1987

Carla Herryman: Animal Instincts, This, 1989

Paul Hoover: The Novel, New Directions, 1990

Paul Hoover, ed.: Postmodern American Poetry, Norton, 1994

Susan Howe: The Nonconformist’s Memorial, New Directions Press, 1993

Ann Lauterbach: And For Example, Penguin, 1994; Clamor,1992; Before recollection, Princeton, 1987

Nathaniel Mackey: Eroding Witness, University of Illionis, 1985

Laura Moriarty: Rondeaux, Roof, 1990

Alice Notley: Descent of Alette, Penguin, 1996

Michael Palmer: At Passages, New Directions Press, 1996;Notes for Echo Lake, North Point, 1988; First Figure, North Point, 1986; Sun, North Point, 1981

Bob Perelman: Virtual Reality, Roof, 1993

Marjorie Perloff: Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Princeton, 1990; Poetics of Indeterminacy, Princeton, 1981

Leslie Scalapino: Way, North Point, 1988; that they were at the beach – aeolotropic series, North Point, 1985;Considering how exaggerated music is, North Point, 1982

Leslie Scalapino, ed.: O anthologies, O Books, 1988

Ron Silliman: The New Sentence, Roof Books, 1987

Anne Waldman: Helping the Dreamer: New & Selected Poems 1966-1988, Coffee House Press, 1989

Barrette Watten: Total Syntax, SIU Press, 1984