The Measure of Measure:
Ego, Positivism, and
The Smiling Pig of Language Poetry

David Hickman

"What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about
we must pass over in silence."

Ludwig Wittgenstein -- Introduction to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

"Perhaps the cardinal principle-of American Language poetics... has been
the dismissal of "voice" as the foundational principle of lyric poetry."


Voice passed over in silence. The poem as authorless accretion. The "poet" merely an instance in the textual play of history through consciousness, in which Barthes' death of the author comes fully into a poetics and a poetry of its own.

It is an irony with a certain beauty to it, as well as a certain suggestiveness. As if hope might be found in the elimination of the speaker from that which is spoken, and the secret held between the lines of every poem might be whispered in the words there is no poet, there is only language. There is certainly some value in this perspective, as there is also value in the notion of voice. In fact, the Marjorie Perloff essay referenced above concerns itself with attempting a reconciliation between the language project and the notion of voice, in an apparent about-face from what has been a long standing opposition in the language camp.

There is at least one problem in the original, oedipal "dismissal" of voice from Bernstein et al's scene of poetic making, however, one that a later reconciliation cannot ameliorate: the theoretical necessity that is claimed in language poetry's dismissal of the author is, in the end, as almost all motives are, wrapped around a hidden history. It is a history that the language project, bent on tricking the ego out of its influence through a planned and systematic denial of its presence, (this, ironically, being the oldest trick in the ego's book) could not possibly see the implications of, since the emphasis of language poetry is not on the full awareness of the writing subject, but on the dismissal of awarenesses that are not immediately linguistically treatable. --A positivist tactic, and one that allows for the continuation of a naiveté which is casting itself more and more in the literary marketplace as nouveau chic.

The result is a poetics that allows the poet to elude responsibility for his or her text (and at the same time to appear "avant garde" if for no other reason than the strangeness of the offering) by pointing to the text and claiming that "language did it" and that the poet is, if not merely a bystander to language and to its history, then at best a martyr to the very ego that he/she attempts again and again to slay in anti-heroic fashion. Moreover, it is a poetics that leaves the poet in the position of treating language as a natural resource, and in the course of doing so yielding a tautology of Brobdingnagian proportion, in which language is leached of inherited meaning by being surveyed, analyzed and broken into quanta, that quanta then used as the building blocks for the language poet's finished text. What is often overlooked in this process, by poet and critic alike, is that the resulting poem, in the act of its construction, is necessarily imbued with the author's personal and ideological meanings, which are, ironically, also inherited meanings. Nonetheless the poetry is set before the world as something new, something against the syntax of the "official verse culture" that language poets claim to critique, while offering as an alternative its own syntax, that has as its subtext the very same human agendas and subjectivities. That such a poetry can be offered as an urgent call to arms against mainstream poetry can only be understood as the result of a rather powerful lacuna at work inside the socio-cultural inheritance that language poetry rests its poetics on. A large and unhealthy strain of that blank space inheres around the legacy of logical positivism and the stunted perceptions its epistemology has helped to create, and still leans on heavily, like a bright, machined fist.

For it does indeed appear that language poets have emerged out of the discursive economics of positivist epistemological practice to forge a poetics, and because it is a poetics which lacks awareness of that context, it is problematic on at least two levels: how the poetry means, and whether or not that meaning serves the ends it claims to. Certainly the latter has shown itself to be subject to question as readily as the former, since the language project, which has spent a great deal of time questioning (attacking is probably a more accurate word) the power dynamics inherent in mainstream poetry circles, itself does what any and every empirically-based project aspires to, whether intentionally or not: deliver more power into the hands of those that control production. Language poets have accomplished this, not by a poetry that offers superior insight, but rather by exploiting the readily exploitable weaknesses of the mainstream. It is important to note here that when this results in a successful critique, it is not because the poetry inherently provides more for the reader than mainstream poetry, but rather that language poetry offers the illusion that it offers more by proclaiming in its poetics an allegiance to theories cribbed from many sources, nevermind that few, if any, of those theorists had in mind a language poetics as they wrote.

This is not to claim that language poets have managed to create for themselves any substantial power, by the way, or that their motives, insofar as their method enables them to understand them, are necessarily insincere; but rather that their practice produces results that are quite different from their stated aim, that of de-stabilizing and challenging the dominant poetries, or, as Charles Bernstein claims, to "rattle the chains" of free verse.(1) In reality, language poetics is simply a different form of packaging for the same methods and aims as the "official verse culture" it seeks to negate, in effect embracing it while failing to recognize itself as doing so. It is useful to call to mind Hegel in this regard: "...we see what happens, as always, to a bad subterfuge, viz. that it is itself ready to be used against what it is supposed to support."(2)

At the very least then, positivism and language poetry share a common influence -- the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, a favored source of language poets. What they share (and perhaps more importantly -- how they share it) can best be illustrated by presenting a partial list of the tenets of positivism and comparing them to some of the tenets around which language poetry appears to coalesce.

Positivism rests in part on the following assumptions:
1. Absolute knowledge is not possible.
2. What is not measurable is not to be included.
3. Only what can be spoken can be known and, therefore, manipulated.
4. Emotions and qualities cannot be measured and are cognitively meaningless.
5. Epistemology must reflect utility & predictability, regardless of what must be eliminated to achieve it.(3)
6 A statement is meaningful only if it can be proved true or false by means of the experience of it -- i.e. the verifiability principle. (The statement itself must provide the method for its verification -- and it is always easier to do this with a series of quantities than it is with a series of qualities, since qualities require human beings to understand them, not arbitrarily organized algorithms mediated through epistemological prejudices.) (4)

The consequences of this methodology for a poetics are inevitable:

Psychological structures such as id, ego, superego, the unconscious, archetypes, etc. must be ruled out. They are not, in the end, quantifiable. A concept like "voice" has no place, since it too cannot be quantified. History is suspect, because it must inevitably be mediated through language and its accompanying subjectivities which are not measurable: official histories, revisionist interpretations, teleological myths, personal and historical-cultural mythologies, ontology, and more. Language itself then, in its historicity, is suspect, so that only the immediacy of, and the "concreteness" of language is suitable as a subject for poetry. Ideas are incidental, and history, when it is included, is treated as a residue inherent in language and in the inheritances of the text.

As an example of how positivist thought has influenced language theorizing, consider these lines from page 91 of Ron Silliman's "The New Sentence" which attempts to articulate a new conception of the sentence:

"The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument.
Sentence length (rather than the line) is a unit of measure;
Syllogistic movement is (a) limited; (b) controlled"
At first glance these statements seem radical, truly worthy of an avant garde poetics. After all, they seem so new, so opposed to the hegemony inherent in language. But it is worth asking toward what end a quantification of language might really be aiming. If it is meant as a refusal of syntax, and the meanings that syntax carries, then quantification is only of limited use, since it cannot possibly mean anything without being embedded in the context it rejects. That is to say, it is absolutely dependent on the meanings inherent in natural language in order to quibble with the inheritances of natural language. This contradiction is not only why language poets have been described as highly theoretical; but why that designation has been used as something of an excuse for the obscurity of the work itself, as the poetry cannot convey its meaning without reference to the theories that explain it -- theories that rest on the very syntax the language poets wish to de-stabilize. But if language poetry is meant as a refusal of, or investigation into, epistemology (as Charles Bernstein claims to advocate) then it is even more problematic, since the epistemology that is being challenged is itself one that espouses measurement as its primary tool -- a measurement employed at the expense of meaning, and for the purpose of harnessing quanta in order to objectify, and to objectify in order to manipulate. Language poetry, in adopting measurement as a means toward refutation of the dominant paradigm, has, without realizing it, embraced that very paradigm, inhabiting with the scientist's zeal the insular panopticon it sought to escape from. Considered from this point of view, language poetry's chief subject becomes its own effort to embellish with poetry its own self-referential web of favored theories, all the while acting as if this inescapable tautology somehow sets it apart.

It is through the manipulation of language as if it is an object that the positivist position begins to show itself implicit in this poetry. The emphasis on the "concreteness" of language truncates the representational by virtue of an ideological stance that is stated explicitly and clearly (i.e. in plain English) outside (or above) the poem. The ideology that generally suffuses these works states as its aim the liberation of oppressed people from the exploitation of the dominant culture. This is certainly a laudable aim. But if the methodology used to speak against this leans heavily on the same methodology used by the dominant forces of a culture that enslaves and oppresses, then that ideology is necessarily undermined. We are left still wrestling with the impulse that, through its measuring capacity, has birthed the intellectual cul de sac which presently advertises itself à la Fukuyama as the End of History, but which in fact commemorates the birth of a new and deeply problematic impulse: that of the micro-manager who holds the policies and procedures manual in his/her hand, even when the product is poetry. Through its unconscious sharing of a common epistemic heritage, Language Poetry ignores what is beyond the measure of its sensibilities and in so doing creates within the confines of its poetry something resembling a moral clean room in which nothing but the material of language and its algorithms and theories are sanctioned, and the taint of being human is suspect, something best treated as incidental, a kind of flavoring that, regrettably or not, cannot (at least not yet) be excised from the text.

In this way language poetry and the postmodern social structure work hand in glove. The dominant culture excuses its boundless excesses in part through the appropriation of a middle class anxiety-poetics that purports to absolve itself by confession of sins, usually minor, and if not minor, then sins that happened so long ago that no one can be indicted for them. Language poets, on the other hand, attempt to sanitize inherited meanings in the name of theories that are for the most part also inherited, (the selection of which, again, is as heavily laden with moralizing as the inherited moralizing impulses language poetics and postmodernism deplore, and just as subject to distortion by personal motive), as if that would render the poetry somehow victorious over the hegemonic impulses that exist in language. But a poetry that conflates historical-linguistic baggage with the poets' own displaced desire while ignoring the ego structures that resist that desire, simply cannot speak to an epistemology that does the same thing, or to (human) beings who, at their core, exist as meaning in and through the desires that meaning must carry. In this regard language poets appear at times as having clapped their hands over their ears while singing loudly enough to drown out the sound of gunfire in the street. Such a poetry can't help but be complicit in the culture it critiques. The simple desire to step out of the current ideological frame cannot help. Nor can stylized sentence quantities and/or gaps (backed by a theory which is referenced directly or indirectly by the poem) that are intended to represent a space underneath epistemology. Sleight-of-hand of this kind can only result in the chronic and obsessive re-arrangement of parts without end. Attacks on the ideologies that fuel epistemology cannot help either, since the epistemology still stands, and will give rise to new forms of those ideologies as it evolves, and new refutations to ideologies that appear to threaten it until the epistemology itself is understood for what it is.

So as language poetry has attempted to displace meaning from its traditional place, what has in fact been achieved is a subterfuge that, like any human construct, also yields meaning, though it is a meaning beyond the supposed communal nature of the language poet's approach. It is a meaning that, like "traditional" meanings, is always referential, and like traditional meanings, always has an agenda, though the references are not of signifier to signified in the usual way but are mediated through the poem as an intentional creation. Underneath that complex of poem and theory, there is of course a person who subscribes to a set of beliefs. The poetry, in short, elides a rather explicit and complex set of agendas which are transmitted in exactly the same way that all agendas are transmitted: through a text derived from a context which is carefully chosen and controlled by the author and necessarily inheres in each sentence, each phrase and each space of that poem. At least a few of the poets themselves are aware of this, and their awareness adds a kind of duality to their project that rides the fence between rejecting meaning outright and corralling it for their own purposes. Within the poems however, meaning lives as an attack on meaning, and readers are expected to take away the belief that their own struggle with the text is somehow a substitute for the poet doing his/her work well.

The character of the attack described above is also one in which meaning and clarity (which are not reducible to mere cognition, and are most vivid and most useful when clearly rendered) are conflated with the hegemonic impulses of empire. That this is a profitable subject for poetry is not at issue here. It is rather that in conflating clarity with hegemony at the expense of a poem's capacity to hold what it critiques in balance with what it offers, language poetry suffers profoundly, reducing itself to mere stuttering when, in our time as in few others, much more is needed. In this reduction, language poets have inadvertently offered us a poetry that can profitably be read as hand-wringing over the inadequacies of a linguistic /positivist oriented approach to the (internal and external) phenomenal world, once their central thesis that language is not always perfectly trustworthy --an idea that these poets, or postmodernists for that matter, can hardly claim as their own discovery -- is understood.

As one might expect, then, when the overlays of linguistic and other theories are seen through, language poetry differs very little from the "voice" poetry it claims to critique. In fact, the poems which have been offered in the latest phase of the project appear to have been deliberately toned down in order to appeal to a wider audience. The trappings are distinctly middle class, even in the fretting over political matters that take place between the quantified banalities of everyday life and the theoretical framing that predictably accompanies each and every poem. That these poets have had success infiltrating MFA programs is relevant in this regard and seems a sure sign of their commodification, and of the implementation of, for the first time in history, a poetics aspiring towards a teachable "avant garde." Marjorie Perloff's comparison (in the essay cited at the beginning of this paper) of a Charles Wright poem to the work of Ron Silliman and Susan Howe, demonstrates these points beautifully, even as it is not intended to.

Finally, when seen in the light of its positivist inheritance, it seems language poetry does indeed have a voice, and a rather hypnotic one at that. It speaks most often in the same monotone as the flat-affect of the scientist . Meanwhile, language poets, if in the position to do so, have shown themselves quite willing to assume the perks of the successful poetsignature, perks derived from the same value system they disdain in their critiques. In psychology, this phenomena is well known and appears under various headings, though it can be summed up here in a single phrase as "the identification with the oppressor." It is not a question of making excuses for other poetries when one criticizes language poetry for these shortcomings, however, but again of pointing out that language poetics, which has so very carefully and deliberately attempted to set itself outside, and even above the mainstream, has no verifiable claim to do so. In fact, it is unlikely that any poetics will be able to achieve this; perhaps the best that can be hoped for may be a greater awareness of the epistemological underpinnings of one's critique.

What I see when I look at the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E dilemma outlined above, then, is a picture of what the end of an empiricism that is divorced from the incredible panoply of human meaning and experience might look like: an endless self-referential tautology that denies responsibility for its creation while it makes an artifice of that denial. It is a picture of a struggle that uses an inadequate strategy for taking up that struggle, since, in the end, what means is the essence of poetry, and every meaning that is humanly possible to understand must be understood if we are to know about ourselves. Those meanings, once encountered, are not to be categorized then desiccated, concretized and framed, but rather to be used to inform us of what it is to be human, and to gain, hopefully, a little compassion for ourselves as a species as we attempt to evolve past our present circumstances.

Some Reflections

In the Kroger where I used to buy groceries, there was always a mass of pink and gray sausage at the butcher counter that the butcher kept sculpted in the shape of a smiling pig. I could not walk past that face without imagining the slaughter of the animals that rested there --their gutting, chopping and grinding into the thick paste that was the medium for that meat-gray pair of eyes. Every time I walked by I marveled that this face was made, not only as an outlet for the butcher's creativity, but as a marketing technique that no one found remarkable. Since language poets have approached language in much the same manner, I cannot help, when I read them, but think of that pig, scraped together out of the ruins of actual pigs into a snout and a smile. It survives in my mind as a logo shaped out of the very thing it advertised, an organic 'emoticon' staring endlessly down aisle number three.

It is a small wonder then that Charles Bernstein handled his moment of perceived betrayal at the hands of his inevitable suitors with such bad form during the poetics list fiasco of late 1999. It appears that his own poetics left him with only one model for dealing with challenges he just didn't seem to understand: sleight-of-hand first, and, failing that, simple truncation before moving on. Before it was over, there were several poets who found themselves the victims of Bernstein's aphasic sensibilities, poets who undoubtedly took him at his word when he and other list-favorites invoked a rhetoric of inclusive discourse. The imposition of a self-acknowledged list 'censor' is proof enough of Bernstein et. al.'s inability to live up to their expressed convictions, but Mr. Bernstein's refusal to acknowledge his actions and their effects on others (in any public forum that I am aware of ) is even more troubling . That the list is home now only to ads for readings and publications is as regrettable as it is insulating for these poets, particularly when one remembers the buzzword of "community" so fondly proffered by many of the listees. It is also informative to note that Mr. Bernstein, who has made so many nods to Marxism in both his work and his posts to the list, finally invoked his rights as list owner when the list no longer yielded to management's agenda; this is perhaps proof enough of the thesis advanced above, that a poetics that is cast in and around a positivist legacy is likely to come to grief when it has a formative influence on human beings.

To actually explore the gaps in everyday speech requires something other than a data-set that has disregarded the ego/voice and its "corrupted" syntactical inheritance and its aggregate of conventionalized meaning. It requires at the very least an individualized understanding of the origins of the gaps in the human beings who speak. This requires an individual analysis of each speaker, not a rule-based and ritualistic repetition-compulsion that stutters out of a poetics that denies the gap as quality even as the poet struggles inside it experientially. One would not be very far afield to call this repression. Given this substructure it is not surprising that language poetics, and subsequently the poetry, fails to grasp its epistemological inheritance. One must do more than defer to the dominant paradigm's method in order to name or interrupt that paradigm. In other words, poetry must not be afraid to mean, and to mean clearly and provocatively, and in the pursuit of meaning one must elucidate both an archaeology of epistemology and of the ego-structures that sustain it. The irony here is that in the case both of western culture and of language poetry, these two complexes -- ego and epistemology -- are largely ignored. Needless to say, it is the opinion of this writer that hope lies in a different direction. That direction is towards the hard work of ferreting out the epistemic spine of western culture and showing it for what it has become: a way of knowing that is opposed to knowing in all its nuance, subtlety and subjectivity. For a poetry that approaches this method I refer the reader to the work of Joe Brennan and Carlo Parcelli, who have taken on this very project in all its harrowing and grueling effort.

As for language poetry's place in history, I believe it is secure, if for no other reason than the industry and dedication with which these poets have pursued it. But it will be the canonizing of a poetry that has staked its claim, at least in part, by dismissive attacks on the very canon which language poetry, and all poetry, owes its existence to. I don't suppose this is anything new, in fact, who cannot be accused of it ? (For those who would like to sample the flavor of these attacks I suggest a look at the archives of the UB Poetics List.) But in the case of the language poets, their indictments of poets both living and dead while coveting those poet's place in the pantheon of the historically revered /reviled, has not been advanced from a place of superior poetic accomplishment, or superior moral psychological, or ethical insight. Rather, these attacks were launched from a parenthetical space, one that seeks to usurp historical flow by indictment, unsupported by either a successful poetics or a successful poetry. In short, language poetics' advances on the canon are made out of envy, one that actively avoids the implications of its own existence --that one must always love to hate the very thing that one hates to love but needs to love in order to hate it....

Neither Marxism nor any other ideology has any real balm for this human difficulty, a difficulty that has been exploited relentlessy while being continually formed and re-formed into something approaching a religion by capitalism and the epistemic underwriters of its consumerism. Nor does Language poetics offer any hope here, rather it is a reflection of that difficulty, which they happily quantify even as their quantification feeds more L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E branded product into the culture machine. Of course, in the end envy still exists, something any person anywhere can be heir to. But for one to affect so many with a rhetoric that assails mainstream poetics and its canon while coveting the place those poets hold in the canon is to invite criticism and comment, if only out of one's own dismay at so much revisionist history. To understand these objections, one has only to have witnessed some of the about-faces clearly observable inside the language movement: Mr. Bernstein's Marxist identifications and then his appearance in an ad for the yellow pages; his recent association with the admitted right -winger Richard Dillon in the Live At The Ear project; the face-saving about-face of the language poets on the subject of voice through Perloff; and the thinly veiled coveting of the canon disguised as an egalitarian argument against the very concept of a canon.

Finally, that language poetry is touted by these poets as that which will supplant traditional or mainstream poetries, is sociologically interesting if nothing else. Perhaps meaning will be relegated to a dusty corner of literature if they or their inheritors prevail, and the direct experience of, and illumination of, meaning(s) in poetry and elsewhere will be considered an antiquarian curiosity. If so, it will be a tragedy that will matter to only a very few, since the word tragedy will itself be suspect, and a broken tautology will serve instead, one that bravely presses forward into a blank space, colonizing it with a further blankness, clothed in the appearance of syllabic randomness. It will be the poetic complement to channel surfing, in which each blip of the screen is drowned in the next before anything can become too pressing, too cogent --a poetry made to order for a collective attention deficit disorder, as well as for those who do not wish to be engaged at any visceral level when they read.

Has language poetry yielded better poetry than the Moderns? Or the "voice" poets ? The answer, for me, is obviously no. I do not find their work more valuable than the work of those whom they claim to critique, and I do not turn to language poetry for pleasure when I read. There is too great a disparity between the claims these poets make for their work and the work itself, so that, in the end, their proclamations of a superior vantage point simply cannot be substantiated. There is just too much the works leave out.


     (1) Paul Quinn, "Rattling the Chains of Free Verse: The surprising survival of Language poetry," Jacket #12.

     (2) G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 204.

     (3) These tenets are based in part on an article at: Positivism by Grolier.html (If, in the heat of the creative meoment and/or as a reult of poor memory I have neglected to give credit where it is due, please notify me through the editors and I will included it as soon as possible)

     (4) Mauro Murtzi,

David Hickman, editor of TROPE: Poetry & Graphics, has contributed "HAND STICK ROCK BONE SPEAR MY GOD KALI YUGA" to FlashPøint #2 and "Fragments" to FlashPøint #4.

More FlashPøint essays on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry can be found at:

"A=R=T M=E=A=N=S", by Joe Brennan

Responses to "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" by Henry Gould and Mark Wallace

"The Trouble With Mediocrity", by Carlo Parcelli

"Definitions in Process, Definitions as Process/Uneasy Collaborations: Language and Postlanguage Poetries", by Mark Wallace