Introduction: Periodical Pastiche

In a 1975 issue of Jerome Rothenberg's Alcheringa—a vibrant ethnopoetics magazine published through Boston University—Ron Silliman famously constructs the first attempts towards a terminology for a new "tendency" of American poets: "whose work might be said to 'cluster' about such magazines as This, Big Deal, Tottel's…Called variously 'language centered,' 'minimal,' 'nonreferential formalism,' 'diminished referentiality,' 'structuralist.'"
1 In this thesis, I take Silliman's characterization of this tendency quite seriously, and through it, explore the poetics clustering around little magazines such as This, Doones, Wch Way, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Open Letter, and Silliman's own Tottel's, long before this "tendency" became grouped under the problematic heading "Language poetry" in the 80s.2 The common history of Language writing views Silliman's collection as the first gesture, a central event, towards a cohesive grouping of this strand of innovative America poetry.3 Aside from the sheer political force Silliman's polemic collection introduces to countercultural poetics in the mid-seventies, his collection also spurred the mimeo-dialogue among writers of "diminished referentiality" that began the distinctively group-forming, independent publishing economy of the Language poets.4 Looking very closely at this early gathering of Language writing, we will wonder what might have been written if the name 'Structuralist' had stuck instead of 'Language,' how one might approach a reading of this work through the passé shades of French structuralism, and what role this description played in relation to Alcheringa magazine and experimental letters of the early 70s.

To a reader familiar with the Language poets, the label "structuralist" is a stranger among more expected appellations: "minimal" (appropriate of Clark Coolidge, Robert Genier, or Aram Saroyan, for example), "language centered" (materialist poets like Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and Ray DiPalma group under this description), or "diminished referentiality" (David Melnick and Barrett Watten are but two of many poets fighting the "tyranny of the sign" in English letters). Structuralism, on the other hand, is laden with over-quick associations: Saussure, Jakobsen, Levi-Strauss, then Lacan, Barthes, Althusser, Foucault; phrases like "pig/fig," "death of the author," or, as the English frenzy might have it, "Anglo-American Adventure"—truly, this ought sound strange as a title from Ron Silliman, an adventurous experimental poet taught under a second generation of San Francisco Renaissance writers in the Pound/Williams tradition.5

While re-imagining this early event of Language writing through a structuralist lens, I make no attempt to define either term--"Language Poetry" or "Structuralism"--which would be a quixotic venture unto itself. Instead, for a definitional inscription of structuralism, these pages work from François Dosse's excellent History of Structuralism, trans. Deborah Glassman, (Mineapolis: University of Minesota Press, 1997). For Language writing, Bob Perelman's The Marginalizaiton of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) has been essential, in addition to the definition of "Language Poetry" given most succinct and accurately in Craig Dworkin's encyclopedic entry (2005) mentioned above. These exemplary accounts have played in coordination with study of source texts ranging from Barthes' Critical Essays to Bernstein's Contents Dream, from John Hopkins' The Structuralist Controversy to Ron Silliman's In the American Tree—in differential opposition to a host of problematic historical articles on all sides.

To approach Alcheringa in 1975, it is necessary to return to a paper trail of the widely convoluted, cacophonously obscured historical relationship between the arts and what has come to be called "theory" in the United States. Toward this purpose, writing in the first seciton will cluster around the year 1966, a pivotal moment for theory as French structuralism arrived in the States though a conference at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, producing a book originally titled The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy, published in 1970. An indicator of the importance of this event: in The Future of Theory Jean-Michel Rabaté ties the interpretive "knot" of 'Theory' around this "fatidic date."6 Signaling both the effective birth of a booming international structuralist discourse, and the death knell for "structuralism" proper in France, the text from this conference was hugely important for philosophical thought and practice, popping up in publications as diverse as radical poetry magazines like Open Letter and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and popular academic journals such as Yale French Studies or The Evergreen Review. For a measure of "the most fundamental issues" of the conference, Rabaté turns to the preface for its republication in 1973 wherein Deleuze is cited "to point out some commonalities of thought that would nevertheless bypass superficial divergences or last-minute mood swings:

    'A cold and concerted destruction of the subject, a lively distaste for notions of origins, lost origins, recovered origins, a dismantling of unifying pseudo-synthesis of consciousness, a denunciation of all mystification of history performed in the name of the progress of consciousness and the unfolding of reason.'"7

In this thesis, I explore the appropriation, manipulation and radical praxis of these structuralist theories by two small magazines from within the context of the delirious international celebrity of structuralism in the late 60s and early 70s—implicitly questioning why these sources were interested in this sweeping phenomena, and consequently, how dramatic shifts in innovative poetry and poetics of this time may productively be considered as structuralist movements. For post-war English art and poetry, this structuralist moment finds distinction, or difference, in comparison to the long traditions of lyrical voice essential to both established and countercultural conceptions of poetry. From the Romantic tradition through Ezra Pound and the Black Mountain school projectivism—the cohesive subjective ego was the order of poetry. Language poetry is a moment of rupture, by index, its break illustrates exactly the momentous cultural reordering of philosophy—from phenomenology to structuralism—in the 60s and 70s.

This adventure may at first appear off track considering the 'canonical' roots of Language writing in Stein, Wittgenstein, the Futurists, John Ashbery and other anomalous challengers to the lyric voice: however, I hope to demonstrate that in addition to and complicating the influence of these various historical roots, the Language writers must be considered in light of structuralism, and indeed that this discussion of the "structuralist activity" of Language writing is a partlicularly luminous (and necessary) device. Similarly, it might be argued that the influence of theory on Language writing is often noted and thoroughly (if not excessively) explored. However with its post-boom fallout of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, the structuralist paradigm has fallen from productive writing about the Language moment—here I hope to reinvigorate and reinvestigate Language writing's relationship to theory in the interplay between Language and structuralism, in difference to the phenomenological lyric voice.

Building this relationship we will first pick up a prescient Cambridge journal from 1966 called Form. An eclectic, self-reflexive magazine with a pedagogical project that mixed historic formalism, trendsetting structuralism, kinetic arts and structurally innovative poetry, Form is a fascinating entry point into a moment of structuralist theory, radical experimental writing of late sixties, and the role of the little magazine in the time of the 'mimeo-revolution.' Situated in 1966, Form provides an exciting material touch-base for adventures into this watershed moment for both the occasion of "the structuralist controversy" in the States and for the movement of powerful cluster of countercultural poets immediately preceding the Language poets—namely, the "New Americans." This diverse group named after Donald Allen's 1950 anthology reached an apex of dominance and a beginning of decline at Berkeley in 1965—a moment remarkably crystallized through the manuscript of Charles Olson's infamous drunken reading/performance published in 1966. The confrontation of these two forces seen through Form—in their positioning among the historical avant-garde/modernist projects and a breadth of experimental writing projects in the 60s—I argue, prepares an rejuvenated reading of Silliman's cluster of appellations in Alcheringa 1975.

Surprisingly, the first intersection of these two powerful currents (experimental English poetry and the structuralist discourse) can be traced precisely to this Cambridge magazine begun in the fertile summer of 1966. In the brief three-year, ten-issue run of Form, many translations of important structuralist papers were first introduced to an English audience alongside, or rather, within, a complex of historical and neo-modernist innovative artistic/poetic projects. From the pages of Form, the emergence of English concrete poetry was explored in conjunction with a critical importation of Brazilian concretismo; a neo-modernist project recuperated essential documents from the historical avant-gardes; the Black Mountain school received some of its first international scholarly recognition; a reflexive media theoretical commentary on the specificity and cultural role of the little magazine (through the history of 'great little magazines') was brilliantly pursued in pedagogical fashion—all of this strategically arranged by the editors page by page and issue by issue to provoke a dialogue the relationship of form(alism) to structuralism in the arts.8

Silliman's "The Dwelling Place" contends, as do most histories of Language poetry, that the most accurate and concise definition of a Language poetry 'group' is the consistent roster of writers whom published each other in a relatively closed economy of independently produced magazines—This, Hills, Tottel's, 100 Posters, Doones, Sun & Moon, Là-Bas, Roof, The Figures, Sentences, Joglars, Tuumba Press, and later, criticism-based journals like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Open Letter, and Temblor—these publications wrote, carried, and delivered the definition of the Language 'moment.' In a sense, one cannot remove the history these writers from the medium of the little magazine very literally—more precisely: the only way to understand the historical event of Language poetry is to look closely at the medium of the periodical—its formal characteristics and structural cohesion, how it relates (inter)texts in space-time, and the vast realm of questions around what is proper to the space of the magazine. For these questions, my adventures into these little magazines from the 60s/70s pay particular attention to the marginalia, the editorial commentary, the details of production and the structural relations of the contents in the magazine: the same close reading one would apply to the writing, which is itself always positioned in relation to the elements of the printing, its historical context, and its contemporaneous intertext. Thus, to prepare a reading of Silliman's naming/group-forming event for Alcheringa—in the full media-specific tendencies of its clustering—Form is almost too good an object for preparation: its arguments revolve around a similar recuperation of the historical avant-garde, it shares an interest in formally interesting, unemotive verbal art, it demonstrates a nuanced artistic understanding/appropriation of the rise of structuralist thought, and it presents a compelling argument about the form of the little magazine.

    To see the cargo unloaded temporarily onto a dock, this dock, is to see the work in new contexts in which cumulative effects occur from beginning to end as well as more specific internal effects. So what surrounds a piece – before & after – again brings time, as its most actual presence, into play….

    –Jed Rasula, introductory note to Wch Way 1 (1975)

Craig Dworkin opens his entry in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry (2005) with the following statement of a misunderstanding:

    The discrepancy between the number of people who hold an opinion about Language Poetry and those who have actually read Language Poetry is perhaps greater than for any other literary phenomenon of the later twentieth century…Indeed, only a quarter-century after the phrase was first used, it has come to serve as an umbrella term for any kind of self-consciously "postmodern" poetry or to mean no more than some vaguely imagined stylistic characteristics – parataxis dryly apodictic abstractions, elliptical modes of disjunction – even when they appear in works that would actually seem to be fundamentally opposed to the radical poetics that had originally given such notoriety to the name "Language Poetry" in the first place."

Charles Bernstein often comments on this common confusion, stating that it would two years of intense reading for even the informed reader to begin to follow the distinctive poetics, politics, and polemics of the Language Poetry movement. Indeed, the bibliography of the Language poets is immense, multitudinous, riddled with contrary vectors, obscure texts, and idiosyncratic readings—from Gertrude Stein to Wittgenstein; casual references from Russian Formalism to Althusserian Marxism; hailing from the tradition of the modernist American triumvirate Pound-Williams-Zukofsky to Creeley-Olson-Duncan-(Ashbery); in reaction to New Criticism's institutionalized lyric verse and a vast array of emotive countercultural voices; colliding with the New York School on one end and Deep Image poetics on the other—and out from all of this, Language poetry emerged with a distinctive communication questioning activity and fairly tight arrangements of writers and limited-run publications—indeed, the Language poets are difficult to follow.

    For me the historical past is a sort of gluey matter for which I feel an inauthentic shame and from which I try to detach myself by living my present as a sort of combat or violence against this mythical time immediately behind me. When I see something that might have happened fifty years ago, for me it already has a mythical dimension.

– Roland Barthes, in response to Paul de Man's critique
of "To Write: Intransitive Verb?" (1966)

Then, Marjorie Perloff writes in Poetic License: "Given this context, poetic discourse is that which most fully calls into question conventional writing practices and which defies the authority of the chronological model."9 In a sort of combat or violence, perhaps, to contemporary post-structural implications of Barthes mythical dimension of history, Perloff's writing practice seeks to confront this 'gluey' historical problematic though "close listening" and "differential reading."10

In her 2004 manifesto opening Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy titled "Crisis in the Humanities? Reconfiguring Literary Study for the Twenty-first Century," Perloff redefines this mode of "differential reading"—demanding a renewed pleasure in the questions—and the difficulties—of bringing seemingly opposed vectors of hermeneutic activity into play.11 Perloff's pointed critique of post-structural "new New Criticism" dissects the "ironic preservation of the autotelic text" in contemporary criticism.12 Often using Language poetry as a reference point, Perloff urges for a criticism that restores an interest in "the author's intention and reader's response."13 According to Perloff, the criticism of poetry must restore concepts from chapter 4 of Aristotle's Poetics: the excitement of discovery—a "pleasure of recognition" and a "pleasure of representation."14 Through these pleasures, Perloff renews a fascination of the text while avoiding the traps of post-structuralism's erasure of difference.

In line with Perloff's critique, in the first chapter, I offer the performance of a differential reading of a single historical artifact: the first issue of Form (1966). Listening closely to this item will replace the impossible act of elaborating a context for the multifarious textual sources, precursors, and thinkers important for the Language writing examined in the second chapter. Instead it performs a differential reading of a single issue of this magazine in its philosophical and aesthetic context in 1966—a year that marks a flashpoint for several of the most important strands of twentieth century philosophy and poetics. From this approach, if there is a context to be articulated, I would echo Jean-Pierre Vernant's understanding of 'context' as presented in 1966 at the Baltimore symposium: "every message implies a necessary complicity between the interlocutor and his audience."15 Further, if I acknowledge this context of necessary complicity in the composition of my staging of this work, it is to develop a discontinuous field for productive allusion, a predictable model for an unpredictable project. The Language writers would take this self-reflexive notion of an complicitous reader-writer context to construct new ways of questioning poetry, language, and the act of reading: I offer it here to argue for a productive exploration of disjunctive materials that elides a suffocating causal hermeneutic while remaining open to the dialogic echoes of the past.

In fact, the failing of this approach is exactly the loss of a drawn-out narrative of causal development: instead, looking at these two disjointed moments provides a device to cultivate a more adventurous (un-traversed) reading performance—each chapter structurally cohering on its own, with allusive interplay between the two. The particular (necessarily, my) composition of 1966 though Form is thus the foreground for a related textual event in 1975. Much is gained by looking at Form in this way: as a forum of careful provocation and exploration of many of the important issues and conversations shaping the work to follow, as a critical/theoretical work which analyzes the functions of the magazine through a magazine—the media that came to define the Language group of writers—but most importantly, from Form in 1966 we can begin to describe the language-altering structuralist break in philosophical thought. The "structuralist revolution" was, for these writers, truly revolutionary: the death of the author, the absence of the subject, a new artistic legitimization of scientificity, the serious application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the Althusserian resurrection of the Marxism—this revolution wrought unheard of changes for a conception of language, writing and the practice of verbal art. These changes, I argue, are essential for a reading of the formation of Language poetry constructed by Silliman in 1975.