Generate a text only version of this page
Birkbeck, University of London home page
Help with using the Birkbeck web site
PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research

Poetics and Institutional Embarrassment

- Tony Lopez


The academy
of the future
is opening its doors

John Ashbery

The academy of the future is opening its doors
Ted Berrigan

Something very widely established in our English literary culture is embarrassment at the thing itself. When promoting your work for instance, you should not promote it directly or explicitly but do so obliquely, and pretend that you are doing something quite different. This feigning insouciance, this sprezzatura, is a social code and class marker with a cost: it blinkers insiders and makes them resist the power of direct expression. This is one of the meanings woven into that fable of courtly sophistication ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’. Thus recently the leading American poet-critic Barrett Watten, when invited to give a keynote address to the conference ‘Poetry and Public Language’, chose to explore the concept ‘poet-critic’ directly and use aspects of his own career and creative work as his example, fully exploiting the situation that confronted him. Just a few weeks later at the ‘Poetics of Globalisation’ workshop, University of Southampton, Anthony Mellors read the paper ‘Postmodern Self-fashioning’ accusing Barrett Watten of blatant self-promotion without regard for Watten’s argument or the reason or context for his invited paper. But we might very well ask, what else was Watten supposed to be doing?

I have been thinking about the causes of this sense of embarrassment and outrage for some time now. I recognise that I have the same feelings to some extent and I want to understand where they come from, what is their motivation? I have written elsewhere about a generation of poets, senior to mine, who would not engage with critical writing (it seemed to me) in case they were limited in some way by that practice. There have been poet-critics of some standing in our recent memory, but Donald Davie’s reputation is a good example of one limited by his role as a critic; maybe William Empson is in the same league. There was, among the poets who would not publish critical work, a desire to separate off the career of the poet, to seem to be independent of all the ordinary struggles; otherwise you’d get branded with the reputation of your ‘secondary’ work.

Self-promotion would obviously be a bad thing in this climate, something vulgar that our polite society would despise. The problem is that artistic and cultural practice of just about any kind is inevitably self-promotion, regardless of its apparent style. It’s not just Ezra Pound (that outlandish and unbalanced American genius) who promoted himself, but any artist or poet who printed a book or sent out invitations for a reading or exhibition. If you have heard of a poet they did some self-promotion, even Emily Dickinson. 1 So the question is not whether it is right or wrong to do self-promotion but whether the work that is being promoted is worthy of our investment of time, attention, life substance. I mean the quality of thought. Another issue is the style of promotion and what we think of style in others. This presumably opens a class divide: sorting out what we consider to be pukka or non-U.

An academic conference is a very particular kind of mixed social and business event, whatever the theme that draws people to the gathering. I don’t know how anyone could be involved without an element of self-promotion. The economy of such an enterprise is based on just that. Everyone giving a paper on whatever topic is also engaged in self-promotion. Many of the employed University speakers will have books for sale and courses to promote; they will be extending their range of contacts and, one way or another, building ‘evidence of esteem’. But the papers themselves in every case must promote the speakers. Postgraduate and research students will be showing their product to the community where they are seeking work. Employed relatively junior academics are moving on up; some people are getting laid for various reasons. All this should be completely obvious but apparently not; what else is a conference for?

At the ‘Poetry and Public Language’ meeting in Birkbeck I reported on my good friend Anthony Mellors’ Southampton position paper because it was a direct response to the Plymouth conference and I wanted to take issue with his paper on several fronts. I think Mellors misunderstands and misrepresents Barrett Watten’s contribution to the conference ‘Poetry and Public Language’ so that both intellectually and personally (as a host) I wanted to argue with that account. Now that Pores has published his paper ‘Postmodern Self-fashioning’, I no longer need to summarise it in such detail. Mellors ranges over the field of postmodern culture in the globalised economy, identifying reductive readings of Beuys’ performance practice, and confusing terms such as ‘conceptual’ work and ‘open form’, neither of which are particularly relevant to the discussion. He further identifies what he considers to be two important characteristics of Language Writing: his first is ‘affectless and interminable Steinian texts’ and the second is the radical but problematic relationship between poetry and theory:

Bernstein, McCaffery, B.P. Nichol, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten etc, wrote brilliant polemics fusing poetry with semiology and radical politics against a complacent academic poetry establishment and academic theorists who had nothing to say about post-modern poetry. (Mellors, ‘Postmodern Self-fashioning’)

I agree that there was an urgent need (back in the 80s) for applications of theory that connected with contemporary poetic practice. It seemed then that ‘theory’ was a separate academic tribe developing new jargon and working only towards generalisation; they never got close to the text. I think that it is helpful to identify the radical mixed nature of Language Writing (poetry-theory-politics) at its inception and also to understand the ad hoc practical business of setting up networks of events, publications and the reception of new writing entailed in the social horizon of a literary movement. These writers were working with the means that they had available to them: locally subsidized community print workshops, non-profit arts centres, post-industrial buildings let as domestic space, and so on. Mellors had some UK equivalent experience of this kind of enterprise roughly ten years later with the magazine fragmente that he and Andrew Lawson set up when they were Oxford postgraduate students. Following Reality Studios (which picked up this work in the 80s), fragmente was one of the very few UK journals to publish Language Writing, running a special issue in autumn 1990. 2 So Mellors has a considerable record of editorial work and investment in the UK reception of Language Writing that makes his Daily Mail style response to Barrett Watten seem surprising and uncharacteristic.

In Mellors’ paper, Watten’s conference presentation is portrayed as blatant self-promotion. Watten’s commentary on his own writing is seen as a mismanaged allegory of the poet’s career, an example of entirely self-serving and misplaced intentionality. The point of the fable about the bad reading of Beuys’ performance work becomes clear: Troels Anderson completely and reductively misunderstands Joseph Beuys; Barrett Watten (according to Mellors) likewise misunderstands his own writings. This umbrage, this irritation, this embarrassment, is turned into a kind of historical argument:

Language poetics moved quickly away from the exhaustive conceptualist experimentation of McCaffery and Nichol’s Toronto Research Group to an institutionalized neo avant-garde position.

This looks plausible at first but it is based on a category error and an old-fashioned personification. ‘Language poetics’ cannot ‘move’ from ‘experimentation’ to another position or place. Language poetics is a term used to describe all the different writing practices deployed by a rather loose set of different writing communities (a generation or so) and printed in publications such as This, Tottel’s, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Poetics Journal etc. We could say that ‘Language Poetics’ are the writings of: Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, Leslie Scalapino, Bruce Andrews, Jean Day, Michael Davidson, Barrett Watten, Craig Watson, Gill Ott, Robert Grenier, David Melnick, Michael Palmer, Larry Price, Lyn Dreyer, Alan Bernheimer, Hannah Weiner, Steve Benson, Tom Mandel, David Bromige, Bruce Andrews, Diane Ward, P. Inman, Peter Seaton, Susan Howe, Michael Gottlieb, Tina Darragh, Alan Davies, Erica Hunt, James Sherry, Ray DiPalma, Stephen Rodefer, Ted Greenwald, Fanny Howe, Clark Coolidge, Nick Piombino, Peter Ganick, Douglas Messerli, Ted Pearson, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Jed Rasula (just to start a list). But such a generalised abstraction cannot move, whether quickly or slowly, anywhere else. It can be added to, complicated or developed, it can form part of a comparison. At some future point when all these people are long dead it will need to be wound up and re-examined as an historical idea in cultural history (rather than in contemporary literary history).

What is really being discussed by proxy in an inelegant shorthand are two straightforward and connected ideas. The first is that the concept Language Writing has become an academic subject with its own by now substantial secondary literature including PhDs and critical books. This is surely a sign that there is something worth examining within the field, at least in the relative short term. It’ll die out if not. It probably wouldn’t have been such an influential idea without the intervention of Jameson looking for a way to characterise postmodern culture in America. Once there was a worldwide argument about Jameson’s essay and the projected psychology of the poem ‘China’ there was no going back. The second idea is that a whole generation gets older and, in their recent phase of life circumstances, some of them have managed to get proper jobs. This turns out to be a big error in the avant-garde integrity stakes: all artists should preferably be still living in Parisian attics (maybe in Opera backdrops or animated cartoons). 3 Anyway an American writer getting a tenured academic job is what is meant by ‘Language Writing entered the academy’. Another way of saying this, but not necessarily the briefest or clearest account, is ‘Language poetics moved to an institutionalized neo avant-garde position’ (quietly substituting the concept ‘language poetics’ for a targeted individual or a small sub-group in similar circumstances). 4

On behalf of a small organising committee, I invited Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian to be principal speakers and guests at a conference at the University of Plymouth. They were asked because of the outstanding quality of their publications in poetry and poetics, and also because of their experience as leading editors and publishers in the field. We invited them to travel to England and give keynote talks in Plymouth and to give the main conference reading at Dartington College of Arts. This arrangement was the basis of a call for papers attracting conference participants from all over UK, North America and Europe. So it is not surprising therefore that they would present their work to the conference, indeed the whole function of the conference was to put these leading American poets of the Language Writing generation together with an international gathering of scholars and poets to explore the conference theme, which explicitly included the writings of Hejinian and Watten. The organisers actively encouraged papers on the work of the keynote speakers and I’m happy to say that there were several sessions and a panel on the various writings of Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten taken both separately and together. It was in this arena that Barrett Watten gave the paper ‘The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field; Or, What is a Poet/Critic?’ that is published in the conference collection.

Now Watten’s paper seeks to deliberately connect and make explicit the whole field of work that constitutes poetics, including poetry, theory, critical writing and its psychological and intellectual motivation. He sees this field as a site of production in the industrial sense, as an assembly line rather than as the mysterious site of inspiration and instruction that was fashioned by New Critical close readers. In setting out this ambitious project, Watten identifies the Concrete Universal as an influential emblem of poetic meaning and poetic value but one that we should have by now gone beyond. He playfully expands the notion of the poetic object by taking us through ‘Object Status’, his hybrid work (facsimile source document-writing-drawing-photographic documentation-art objects-museum exhibits, etc) assembled in response to Tom Raworth’s postcard collaboration project. 5 He therefore wishes to connect poetry with all the other activities that bring it into the public sphere. He praises the trans-generic works of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein as misunderstood earlier American writers whose groundbreaking works allow this mode of writing to be located in a tradition. He is looking for a poetry that incorporates a dimension of focused critical thought and is concerned with its own production. He used his own poem ‘Correlation of Paterson, book 1’ (which formally echoes Barthes’ interpolative S/Z, but uses Paterson for a base text) as an example because he had presented it to the conference in performance at Dartington College of Arts.

What I often find lacking, I will say, in much poetry of the present – not that it is not worthwhile in other terms, no – is a connection to the conditions of its own production. If that sounds like a prescription for what counts as aesthetic experience, again I’m sorry. By ‘conditions’ I mean motivating factors, not surface effects that can never locate them, that dissolve in the bitstreams of channel switching or the identity profiling of data pools. The act of ‘erasure’ only gets us so far; I want to see the larger logic or motivation that makes such acts of abstraction and recombination necessary and productive, on other terms than simply as a placeholder for producers of like objects seen as a ‘community’ (maybe ‘community’ itself is one such logic; in which case let’s hope for an engaged one). But even more I am struck with the pervasive inability to read or comprehend the information one is given. We need high-level interpretants, and poetry can produce them.(Watten, ‘The Expanded Object of the Poetic Field; Or, What is a Poet Critic’, Poetry and Public Language, 287)

I don’t think that this versioning, this working with a specific source and rewriting, varying, complementing, arguing with it, is as rare as Watten seems to think it is. There are lots of examples in our time of writings that are made in direct response to previous books and works of art, that show in some way therefore, the conditions of their own production, from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea to Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ ‘Draft 52: Midrash’. In a sense this is what we mean by the tradition of elegy. However I am very interested to learn something of how Watten thinks about his own practice and how that practice is derived from his relationship to the works of Williams and Stein as much as to the industry and music of Detroit, and critical readings of public events which he has taken up so eloquently in a number of stunning recent works of poetry and poetics such as Bad History and The Constructivist Moment.



1 Some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were found in letters where they had a quite different layout than their first printed form. She also wrote her poems into little stitched booklets that scholars and bibliographers call ‘fascicles’. The poems were ‘standardised’ or mangled by her early editors and have only recently been seen in anything like the author’s text and eisthesis. She is the furthest pole away from a self-publicist poet – but even she sent her writings to others and made sure that they survived. See Susan Howe’s wonderful reading of Dickinson against Williams, Gilbert and Gubar, and others in My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1985).

2 Reality Studios was edited by Ken Edwards through the 80s, see also Object Permanence edited by Peter Manson and Robin Purves from 1994 on; fragmente issue 2 (1990) ‘Language Writing’ was edited by Mellors and Lawson; the latest, fragmente 9 (2007) edited by Anthony Mellors, is a terrific collection of UK only writing. 

3 This is a juvenile and Romantic notion; what we call the avant-garde can subsist, even flourish in the academy. Joseph Beuys was crucially a teacher-artist and his experience as a Higher Education teacher was formative in his breakthrough theory of social sculpture. Beuys was appointed Professor of monumental sculpture at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in 1961 and was eventually dismissed in 1972 but refused to give up teaching. So his first solo exhibition and performance event (How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 26 November 1965) was when he was in the middle of his teaching career. I met him one afternoon in May 1983 when he was preparing for a performance at Cambridge University and during the performance-lecture the next day he made one of those emblematic chalk blackboard drawings that are now in museums all over the world. 

4 Thus read Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Davidson, Barrett Watten, Fanny Howe, Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout and others. 

5 Barrett Watten, ‘Object Status’ in Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstien (eds), The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984) 110-114.


Tony Lopez

PORES webjournal, Professor William Rowe,  email: