By Kent Johnson


    "While [Language poetry's] opposition does not wholly disappear from view within this newly reconfigured field, it is no longer an assumed value; it is, rather, one option among others within a horizon that has effectively cast doubt on its own efficacy and has rearticulated and destabilized its very identity and stability."

        -Jonathan Monroe, "Avant-Garde Poetries After the Wall"

    Kristin Prevallet's essay on the Barrett Watten/Amiri Baraka debate at the "The Opening of the Field: A Conference on North American Poetry in the 1960s" in Orono, Maine "The Exquisite Extremes of Poetry (Watten and Baraka on the Brink)," Jacket #12 is extremely interesting, and her synopsis of some of the central points of contention is illuminating. In showing how thick the poetic and political differences are between these two men and the constituencies they "represent," she clarifies how this first, speech-driven exchange could have so easily degenerated into acrimony and "unclose listening". But something interesting happened in days after the debate, and since the B/W occasion will no doubt be considered in future appraisals of Language poetry and its legacy, I think it is worth getting that something into the record.

    Shortly following Orono, a somewhat concerted effort was made to extend the initial exchange into written and "live" form through the venue of Jordan Davis' Subsubpoetics Listserv. A number of subscribers to Subsubpoetics, myself included, felt that such a discussion (one in which the issues no doubt could have been more deliberately and carefully rendered, and where others might have contributed thoughtful questions) would likely produce an unusual and valuable document. It soon became clear, however, in the long thread of posts that unwound around the matter, that others were not at all eager to pursue such an idea, including, interestingly enough, some of those involved in the staging of the Orono conference and debate proper (one of whom went so far as to openly refuse assistance in providing current contact information for Baraka, with whom a direct connection was never made).

    Among those with no interest in extending the issues into a real-time written exchange, it turned out, was Barrett Watten himself, who (after the exchange of a few tentative and non-committal e-mails with me) categorically stated that he had no desire or time to pursue any on-line debate with Baraka and demanded that I desist in my efforts to arrange any written encounter. He saw my public advocacy of a continuing open conversation as a form of "pressure" (a kinder appraisal than Maria Damon's, who charged me on Subsubpoetics with "harrassment" of Watten!), and he proposed that those with an interest in the contended issues could go to the tape or its transcript and judge for themselves.

    This is too bad, in my opinion. Prevallet succeeds in suggesting both how deep and overdetermined the rift is between the academicized remnants of "Language" ideology on the one hand and more "orthodoxly" activist formulations of literary-political commitment on the other. She clarifies, as well, how very little this divide was constructively broached at Orono. It was in this spirit that a textual continuation of the debate was being proposed by some at Subsubpoetics. And it should go without saying that further dialogue *might well* have led in unsuspected directions-- possibly, even, toward productive self-criticisms and understandings on both sides. In this sense, Watten's lack of will is interesting, inasmuch as he has often vigorously advocated textual examinations of ideology in all of its forms. How often does the occasion arise where a prominent representative of avant-garde American poetics might engage, in open written forum, with a legendary figure of the New American poetry and Black Arts Movement around questions of poetic ideology? How much longer, indeed, will such an opportunity exist? Wouldn't more carefully measured intellectual combat between two very impressive minds likely yield material for the ongoing consideration of poetry's part and place in the larger culture? It's a shame, I think, and I know others agree, that further reflection and candor in this instance was not given a chance.

    Now, of course, it may be that Baraka, too (if contact information had been provided for him), would have declined; but in the end, Watten's rejection of the idea was independent of any possible answer from the former. And those with an interest in the politics of contemporary poetry are justified to ask why.

    It could be that the reasons merely come down to particulars of a personal nature: A sense of exhaustion from the initial confrontation; a feeling of not being able to talk "reasonably" with the contricant; a desire to move on with other commitments of perceived greater import, and so on. Still, Language writing secured its status as a "revolutionary" tendency in American poetry on the basis of its combative energies-- a willingness to take on established ideas about poetic politics and to polemicize with confidence about the political meanings of that challenge. When it was in the trenches, so to speak, the "movement" seemed eager for battle. Why not, therefore, on this occasion, with an opponent who happens to be not only an internationally prestigious poet, but a sophisticated Marxist thinker at that?

    Here, as partial explanation, is a conceit with which I think Amiri Baraka might be in general agreement: Language and its Post-Language residues have begun to assume, and with great eagerness, consular posts in the bigger poetic culture, and they have begun to greatly enjoy the trappings of this diplomatic success. That wing of American experimentalism (now one of U.S. poetry's most successful exports abroad, a modest cousin to the Abstract Expressionism of yore) has become a petit-bourgeois poetics of collaboration, a radicalism of appearances that gently nips, on its "long march through the academy," at its master's condescending hand. And to the extent that conceits can function something like cameras, the hesitancy under discussion comes somewhat into focus. Language poetry, that is, is very much within a moment of impasse, where its former oppositionality is being rewritten into the text of canonization and institutional accomodation. But, of course, the "success" of that accomodation is importantly contingent on prolonging the chimera of its oppositionality. It is a sticky paradox, so to speak, and it's not the time to debate with folks who can lay the issues on the line with clarity and press the point.

    At Orono, Baraka apparently quoted Lenin. It used to be that the Language poets quoted him, too. Not that they should keep doing so, but one thing Lenin once did say is that abstraction is a higher form of truth. It's my guess that more than a few future poets will read Watten's refusal to go the distance with a strong and widely respected intellectual as, precisely, reflecting a kind of abstraction of this moment in "avant-garde" poetry: a growing, almost epistemic timidity to put the cultural capital of one's image on the line.