A Response to Joe Brennan's "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S"

by Mark Wallace

     I agree with Joe Brennan's concern that contemporary poetry should portray a complex sense of ego relations, or what I might prefer to call subject positions. The importance of developing a sophisticated understanding of the relation between the poet -- the writing subject -- and the poetry that subject produces should certainly be recognized, and has in fact been one of the major ideological concerns behind the poetry newsletter Situation I have edited since 1991. At the present moment, mainstream confessional poetry continues often to present its writer as a transcendent, unified subject whose reality exists prior to and outside social constructions -- that is, as a solitary voice who can directly express individual emotions through crafted language, and is even perhaps in touch with the spiritual oneness of the universe which the poet must only praise.

     That sympathy stated, however, I'm afraid I find Brennan's take on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics inadequate. Furthermore, while I can hardly claim the same level of familiarity with psychoanalytic theory as I can with contemporary poetry, there seem weak links even in his discussion of the field with which I take it he has most expertise.

     First of all, Brennan tries to construct a theory of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing without reference to the poetry produced by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers. Like the many modernisms which have influenced it, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing has certainly produced a great deal of poetic theory. But to use that theory alone to measure the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, as Brennan has done, could be compared to trying to measure the value of Ezra Pound's work without analzying the Cantos. This failure is far too typical among critical theorists who attempt to approach L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as some subset of practices within their own critical domain, as Brennan does in this case by trying to subsume L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry into a failed example of psychoanalytic theory. Such a move has an intensely hierarchical, institutional basis, whether or not Brennan recognized that move as such when he made it. In academic institutions, the theorist who writes in linear argumentative prose, and who sees literature merely as a example of his theories, almost always becomes guilty of an attempt to pacify and dominate poetry. In such arguments, poetry becomes a field whose own history (which is not discrete but nontheless real) can be ignored, as Brennan does ignore it. Such arguments also equally ignore (as Brennan does) the fact that much poetry is structured in a manner profoundly different and even opposed to linear arguments, and therefore calls into question any attempt to make it linear. In short, like many academic critics Brennan treats L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as a sort of primitive culture worthy only of consideration at those moments when the people of that culture speak like he does.

     Brennan doesn't use adequate evidence to prove his points, since he quotes for his arguments only a few lines from the whole body of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing (far less than he quotes, of course, from psychoanalytic theory -- I mention this as a further example of Brennan's theoretical biases). But even if he had used more evidence, it's nonetheless crucial to understand that there's an inevitable disjunction between poetics and poetry of which Brennan takes no account. To use Pound as an example again, what Pound often says in his essays he is doing is by no means all that he is doing.

     I agree with Brennan's critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing to the extent that certain statements of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics (particularly those early in its history) do show an attempt to deny the role of subject position in poetry. Barrett Watten's use of a quote from DeKooning ("I keep painting until I paint myself out of the picture"), which appears in the opening essay to Watten's poetry collection Conduit, is a case in point (11). Emerging during the 1970s and '80s partly in reaction to the naive notions of presence and voice that dominated not only mainstream American poetry but also the alternative New American Poetry, early L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics particularly often denied or ignored the role of the individual voice in poetry in much the same way that Foucault, for instance, described the individual not as transcendent creation of God but as a creation of Western culture and language. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics emphasizes the structural, social and political nature of language as far more central to poetry than the individual ego. In that emphasis, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing has a kind of classicism, although it focuses its investigations of structure on the sociality of language rather than in a search for God-like unities and balance. But just as Foucault has later been critiqued for paying insufficient attention to potential fluctuations in the status of the individual, fluctuations that may have a definite power for social resistance, many L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing statements could be criticized as rejecting the role of voice too entirely. Watten is by no means the first poet to claim such a possibility, of course -- one only has to remember T.S. Eliot's notion in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that the poet must attempt to eliminate his own personality in the act of composition.

     More signficantly, though, Brennan seems unaware that in his recent work, Watten takes more direct account of Lacan and psychoanalytic theory than many other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, indeed has been a proponent of the same kind of theoretical work that Brennan admires. Still, Watten's continued criticisms of "expressive subjectivity" and "the expressive lyric" seem similar to some of his earlier comments (Bride, 33). But it's unclear at this point whether in using such terms, Watten is simply talking about the mainstream poetry that he doesn't like, or whether he continues to believe that there is a poetry that can get entirely beyond "expression." The answer to that depends on exactly what he means by expression -- that is, whether he takes expression to mean, more narrowly, the expressing of personal emotions, or more broadly as simply the expression of any type of meaning.

     But one can't judge the whole body of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing by only the earliest statements of its practitioners, or even by examining the whole career of one of them. Ron Silliman's poetry has been almost obsessive in its detailing of the writing subject as a material reality -- again and again, his own psychic processes are explored as part of the physical world. Charles Bernstein has written more than one poem about his family and his upbringing, although certainly not in a mainstream confessional narrative. Indeed Lyn Hejinian's My Life is in some ways nothing other than a tale of her evolving consciousness, although again the emphasis is on consciousness as a function of materiality and language rather than as a transcendent creation of God. Any successful starting point for Brennan's critique would have to involve analysis of the complexity of ego structures enacted in such works.

     Mention of Hejinian leads to another flaw in Brennan's approach; his attempt to see both L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and psychoanalytic theory as purely masculine. Brennan writes about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as the development of men like Messerli, Watten, Andrews, Bernstein, and Silliman -- where are Hejinian, Scalapino, Harryman, Darragh, Retallack and the other women who have produced some of the finest L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing? And while I can claim no great expertise in psychoanalytic theory, can Brennan really be of the opinion that understanding "the Freudian ego... through mediation by Lacan" represents at this stage in psychoanalytic theory a "radical position"? Brennan makes no reference to the complex deconstructions of Lacan found in writers like Irigaray and Butler, who in many specific ways have criticized the universalist and masculinist biases of Lacan's theories. Brennan seems unaware that his own "radical position," from which he seeks to criticize certain notions of the ego, has itself already been criticized by such writers.

     I'm afraid, too, that at times, the writing and close reading in Brennan's essay undermines his case. A number of his statements make little sense -- and I don't mean that I don't understand them. A statement about the methods of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers such as they "appear at times to be little more than a series of positivist constructs overlaid in subjective terms" would be wrong, I think, if it was clearer -- I suppose he means that Bob Perelman's use of the word "efficiency" is an example of a positivist construct. But does he really think that Perelman's statement that "The utmost reduction compatible with efficiency is the first and last thing to aim at" is equivalent to a belief on Perelman's part that the goal of his own poetry is efficiency? The syntax of the statement is far too slippery to be understood that way -- Perelman is closer to stating a paradox that the reductions of efficiency are both necessary and to be avoided. Unresolvable paradoxes are hardly positivist. And by the phrase "overlaid in subjective terms," Brennan seems to mean "expressed subjectively," "using subjective language," or even "approached from a personal viewpoint" -- a problem which further obscures his point. The fact that Brennan never explains what is "subjective" about Perelman's statement (other than the fact that Perelman is discussing his own approach to poetry) or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing more broadly only makes the confusion more intense.

     Granted, at the end of his article Brennan does claim his essay presents "a preliminary and therefore limited focus." And he seems to bring up some of the flaws of his own essay, perhaps most pertinently the way he misreads L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing by "the necessary presumption (conflation) of unities that in fact probably do not exist." But is the admission of such limitations really sufficient? Isn't his claim that his reading of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing is "preliminary" simply a way of saying that he hasn't read enough of it to know whether what he's saying is true? What is one to make of the fact that he seems to center his critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing on a single comment Douglas Messerli once made in conversation?(1) Would he find a similarly "preliminary," that is to say less than fully informed, reading of psychoanalysis useful? Or would it simply be premature? Wouldn't it seem especially premature if it was criticizing the shortcomings of psychoanalysis without knowing the field? And shouldn't the fact that he knows he is presuming unities that perhaps do not exist lead him to undermine those unities, rather than simply to continue with them? It's not enough to recognize an error and allow it to stand. It reminds me of a question I once asked my students: "Is it all right to rob a person as long as you admit it afterwards?" Although I respect Brennan's desire to engage L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, I'm afraid that once again, the complexities of poetry and poetics have been plundered by a critical theorist more interested in his theories than in poetry, and who thinks that the part of poetry which does not fit those theories can be conveniently ignored.


     (1) I find Brennan's use of an "off the cuff" comment by Messerli to construct a whole theory of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing mystifying (Brennan 1). In the first place, such a comment can hardly have the same status as a published statement. And even if it could, it doesn't seem clear that Brennan has made an adequate attempt to understand what Messerli meant. Brennan seems to be suggesting that Messerli does not understand that his creation "of the persona of Christopher Columbus" relies on his own perspective rather than being an objective creation of such a persona. But it seems obvious that Messerli must understand that -- otherwise he would literally have to think that he was recreating an unbiased and factually true version of Christopher Columbus' voice, an idea too ridiculous for anyone to believe, much less a sophisticated contemporary poet-critic.


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

Watten, Barrett, The Bride of the Assembly Line (Providence, RI:           Impercipient Lecture Series, 1997)

----------------------, Conduit (San Francisco: Gaz, 1988)