by Mark Wallace

Q:     What is postlanguage poetry?

A:     Like the term postmodernism, the term postlanguage poetry implies that such poetry comes after another significant area of literary activity, in this case language poetry. So defining postlanguage poetry involves defining language poetry also, and defining as well what it means to "come after" that previous literary movement.
     It's important to recognize that providing a complete definition of any area of literary activity is impossible, since literature is too multi-faceted, rambunctious, and iconoclastic to fit the limits of any definition. So any definition of an area of writing practice must either be conceived of as limiting, or what is perhaps more useful, as a provisional and partial way of understanding the changing complexities of literary practice. At best, definition should perhaps be seen as a shifting process which enables illuminations about a shifting practice.
     Broadly, then, language poetry can be defined as the work of an associated network of writers who share in the main a number of questions about the relation between language and the politics of cultural production, although the directions in which they take these questions are often significantly different. Some language poets, like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Leslie Scalapino, have become well-known; others of equal excellence (Joan Retallack, Carla Harryman, P. Inman, Nick Piombino, Tina Darragh, James Sherry, Tom Mandel, Hank Lazer, many more) have not, although for some of them this situation may be changing. Language poets tend to see language as constructed by relations of power, and not as either transcendent, universal, or natural. Language poets are for the most part intensely interested in literary theory, and thus see the theoretical issues raised by their poetry as a central part of the poetry itself, in contrast to more traditional literary practitioners who think of criticism and theory as descriptive, secondary, and in many cases irrelevant. In particular, many language poets have noted the way in which grammar structures tend to support the power structures of western societies. One key concern of the language poets involves the ways naively representational language that claims to describe the world "as it is" remains blind to its own encoded structural limitations. Language poets have also pointed out how traditional European poetic genres and forms tend to naively reflect western values. These writers consciously identify poetry as conditioned by the ideological limitations and power of the written word in western culture.
     For all these reasons, language poets are radical revisionists on the level of poetic form. They tend to reject traditional forms, lyricism, narrative, subjectivity, and naively representational writing, as well as the emphasis of their own predecessors in American innovative poetry, the New American poets, on poetry as dictated speech. Many of their rejections are meant as strictly proscriptive -- there are things many language poets believe poetry should not do if it is to stay true to their theoretical insights.
     For the most part, postlanguage poets have accepted the notion that language structures inevitably affect, and are affected by, the politics of cultural production. They have also accepted that language is constructed by relations of power, and that it cannot naively access either transcendence or the natural world, or unproblematically represent the way the world "actually is." Yet their relation to literary theory is often very different from language poets. For the language poets at the time of their emergence, literary theory was a marginalized discourse that freed them to ask questions about the relation between language and cultural production that academic discourse and the established poetry networks of that time ignored and even denied. For postlanguage poets, who are usually 10-30 years younger than language poets, literary theory often seems a dominant discourse of academic and literary power. While offering theories about their practice was a revolutionary move for the language poets, albeit one with a long history, postlanguage poets often feel that theorizing their practice is a burden. Literary theory has often seemed to them something that the dominant power structures of the academy and their elders in avant garde poetry have demanded that they create in order to justify their practice as poets. Literary theory does continue to be a central part of the practice of many postlanguage poets, yet they tend to undertake it with an ambivalent and often wearied eye.
     Furthermore, postlanguage poets have tended to use genres and forms often explicitly rejected by some language writers. Thus, while narrative, lyric, spirituality, and a poetics of the everyday appear often as elements that language poets think should be rejected, postlanguage poets such as Juliana Spahr, Susan Smith Nash, Jefferson Hansen, Liz Willis, Peter Gizzi, Chris Stroffolino, Jennifer Moxley, Joe Ross, Lisa Jarnot, myself and many others have been consciously using one or several of these elements in their work, without returning to the sort of naive justifications of those elements that continue to be a feature of more mainstream American poetry. The result has often been the extension of key questions asked by the language poets into areas that the language poets were not interested in. It's important to point out here, also, that both language and postlanguage poets have been very interested in what Bob Grumman has called "pluralaesthetic" work, that is, work that uses the language arts in conjunction with such non-word based arts as music and the visual arts.
     Postlanguage poets have a much broader geographical spectrum than do language poets, who tended in language poetry's initial phases mainly to be urban writers living on the coasts of the United States, particularly New York City and San Francisco, although there were also strong groups in Washington, D.C. and Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. The broadened geographical spectrum of postlanguage poets attests to the success of language poetry; many more writers have been influenced by language poetry than were initially a part of its practice. This geographical expansion has effects on the level of practice, since postlanguage writers tend to be influenced by a broader spectrum of environments than the language writers. For instance, it's possible for postlanguage writers to come from New Orleans or Oklahoma or Minnesota or Hawaii, and to be influenced therefore by a different environment than coastal urbanism. Postlanguage poets have been exploring the links between poetries from a growing number of traditions and these very specific regional influences, and often explicitly use such possibilities to open boundaries. Only one of many such examples is the work of Buck Downs, Jessica Freeman and some other poets of southern background who are interested in applying the disruptive elements of language writing to southern literature and music, producing work that does such things as cross language poetry with the Texas blues or Cajun music and culture.
     Inextricably linked to this geographical diversity is the problem of gender, and also of cultural diversity. Both language and postlanguage poetry have a large number of female and male practitioners, although gender problems are no more easily resolved in experimental poetic contexts than anywhere else. At this time, postlanguage poets are beginning to develop a broader cultural diversity than language poets, although there's certainly a fair amount of diversity in both groups. But given the larger number of postlanguage poets, a greater cultural diversity is almost inevitable. There are a growing number of postlanguage writers who highlight problems of identity politics from specific cultural positions, who critique the limits of identity politics, and who intend to cross and shatter cultural boundaries. Writers like Harryette Mullen, Tan Lin, Susan Schultz, Rodrigo Toscano, Myung Mi Kim, Bob Harrison and many others have explored the complex ways that problems of cultural identity interact with poetic practice.
     Furthermore, while language poetry is, initially, essentially a moment in North American poetry, albeit with a complex relation to world poetries, its world-level success has created effects which can be felt in many areas of world poetry. What definitions one would want to give to these world poetries, and how those definitions would relate to language and postlanguage poetry in North America, probably is better left to someone who has greater access to those world poetries than I currently feel I have.
     Taking all these possibilities for postlanguage poetry into account, I would therefore focus on two aspects of such work that seem to me crucial. One is hybridity: the great emphasis in postlanguage work on mixing traditions, crossing boundaries, and critiquing notions of form as pure or singular. This hybridity perhaps seems most clearly different from language poetry in the way postlanguage poets use elements rejected by language poets -- narrative, lyric, spirituality, and a poetics of the every day -- although by no means are these the only elements of postlanguage hybridity. The other is resistance to definition: many postlanguage writers refuse to fit singular and identifiable categories, in some cases even switching forms and influences radically from book to book. Far from offering similar solutions to problems of poetry, postlanguage poets tend not even to agree on similar problems, a tendency which makes them hard to anthologize, generalize, or even critique in more than individual cases or small groups. Thus, an essay of this sort, in intending to provide a general understanding of postlanguage poetry, comes dangerously close to being an oxymoron. In both this hybridity and resistance to definition, postlanguage poetry also remains a consciously critical poetry, one unwilling to accept either the norms of the surrounding culture or of previous generations of poets.
     For me, the most troubling aspect of postlanguage poetry is the way some of its practitioners deny outright the significance of literary theory, or reject the idea that literary production is shaped by conditions of power. Such writers have argued, to differing degrees, that language can access transcendence or naively represent the world. They have on occasion argued that literary politics is irrelevant to their practice, that mainstream poetic forms can be accessed unproblematically, or that there is no significant distinction between avant garde and mainstream literary practice. Some have suggested that fragmented or disjunctive language needs to be rejected in favor of language that synthesizes and unifies various strains of poetry. Such writers seem to me to have failed to deal with the theoretical challenges presented by a genuinely postlanguage poetry, and thus not to be genuinely postlanguage writers. But making such a judgement, of course, arises simply from the specifics of my own definition of what constitutes postlanguage poetry, and thus begs the question of the usefulness and limitations of such definitions. Perhaps at best it defines a field of worthwhile discussion.

Q:     Is your definition then prescriptive more than descriptive?

A:     A little of both. In some ways I'm simply describing what's happening, although any act of description is always loaded by ideological bias. But in other ways, for instance in relation to the theoretical problems that I think a genuinely postlanguage poetry cannot avoid, there are things that I think writers probably shouldn't do if they want to be considered postlanguage according to the definition I'm offering here. But of course the fact that I say that is not going to prevent anyone from doing anything they want, or calling it anything they want. Why would anyone care whether they meet someone else's definition of poetry? I think they would care only to the extent that they share that sense of definition, or at least some of its concerns. And one of the unique things about postlanguage poetry is how few definitions and concerns are actually shared.

Q:     Is postlanguage poetry an improvement of language poetry, that is, has postlanguage poetry progressed past language poetry? Or is postlanguage poetry derivative of language poetry, that is, fundamentally dependent on the insights and practice of language poetry?

A:     Neither. In general, the idea that literary works progress over time is a fundamental misreading of the way literature works in relation to the world. The notion of progress, of improvement, implies that something is getting better. It is certainly arguable that western societies have progressed -- in some areas of people's lives things might be better. In others, however, there has been no change or things have gotten worse. Still, I think it could be argued that life for many people in western culture is much better than it would have been two hundred years ago, although that is true often at the expense of non-western cultures, and certainly there's not been as much progress as there might have been for most people even in western culture.
     But to think of literature as improving over time seems mistaken. At their best, works of literature are as complex as their times and aware of their times. At their worst, they unconsciously reflect the prejudices and limitations of their times. But this condition is equally true of every generation of literary production. The questions for each generation of writers differ, and thus their explorations of those questions also differ. But to say that work has improved implies that the questions a new generation of writers asks are better questions than those the previous generation asked. But they aren't better -- it's just that a different set of questions has become relevant. Of course, any new generation has as part of its questions the answers which a previous generation has offered, as well as the limitations of those answers when they emerge into the new context that such answers have themselves helped to create.
     Thus, the problems of postlanguage poetry simply differ from those of language poetry, and thus potential explorations of those problems differ as well. Of course, the history and significance of language poetry form a key element of the problems facing postlanguage poets, because language poetry opened a broad range of problems, such as the relation between writing and transcendence, that remain key to postlanguage poets. Thus, postlanguage poetry is greatly indebted to language poetry, while at the same time moving in different directions.

Q:     Is postlanguage poetry best thought of, then, as a direct response to the problems of language poetry in a new historical context?

A:     Not necessarily. Some postlanguage writers have as their main influences avant garde or even more traditional poets who have little or no relation to language poetry. For instance, Rod Smith has pointed out that the New American poetry has often been a bigger influence on the form of many postlanguage writers than language poetry has. It's possible for a postlanguage writer to be less influenced by language poetry than by the Objectivist tradition, projective verse, American ethnic poetries, New York School poetry, or many other poetries. Yet my sense is, again, that no matter how much the influences on postlanguage writers come from non-language poetry sources, such writers ignore the theoretical insights of language poetry about the relation between language and cultural production at the peril of reasserting a naive and anti-theoretical poetics. The postlanguage poet who pays no attention to the theoretical insights of language poetry does so at the risk of misunderstanding how poetry is related to cultural production. Applying the term postlanguage poetry even to those "avant garde" North American poets of the 90's who are less directly influenced by language poetry makes sense to me because it highlights the crucial significance of problems surrounding poetry and cultural production (and the related problems of how grammar and syntax inform that production), problems that language poetry brought into focus.
     Of course, it's quite possible for a postlanguage writer to find, in the other groups mentioned above, possible explorations of that problem that seem more worthwhile than those put forward by language poets. My use of the term postlanguage poetry implies the centrality of language poetry in a way that many writers I might consider postlanguage would explicitly and perhaps even angrily reject. And for good reason, too, in many cases. The term "postlanguage" must be considered a way to begin talking; I'm more than willing to stop using the term if a better way of talking about these issues becomes apparent.

Q:     In defining distinctions between language poetry and postlanguage poetry as a distinction "between generations," or indeed in making any definite statements about the differences between poets or between schools of poetry, isn't there a danger in oversimplifying the historical messiness of influence?

A:     Absolutely there is such a danger. That's why, again, the remarks here have to be taken as a process, a way to begin talking about the exceedingly complex problem of poetic influence. Thinking in terms of generational conditions is definitely limiting, but seems more accurate as a way of beginning the process of examining current problems of poetic influence than many other formulations. Still, it would certainly be equally important to discuss particular poets and their particular influences both as part of, and outside, the general framework I'm offering here. I'm just not doing that at the moment.
     One relevant problem is that the intense intermingling of language and postlanguage poets often makes it impossible to distinguish between the two groups. Nor is it even necessary to distinguish between them, to define in each and every instance who is a language poet and who is a postlanguage poet. When the provisional nature of definition is taken as too absolute, it becomes ridiculous. There's no need to line poets up against a wall and say which one belongs to which group. Indeed the practice of many language and postlanguage writers blurs the distinctions between the two groups entirely. This blurring becomes even more the case in an environment in which some writers associated with language poetry have moved in what might be considered postlanguage directions, while some younger postlanguage writers engage in formal experimentation very similar to that of language poetry. In their recent work, some writers associated with language poetry, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, and Nick Piombino for instance, have been incorporating elements that might be thought of as postlanguage, including European forms and rhyme schemes, representation and narrative, and social constructions of cultural identity and subjectivity, although they use such elements in ways that expand possibilities for innovation, and critique and expose received notions of tradition and form. On the other hand, some postlanguage writers like Rod Smith and Rob Fitterman write a poetry of highly torqued fragments that seems very close to language poetry, although in their work there are elements of lyricism and a poetics of the everyday that still mark them as postlanguage writers.

Q:     But if the intermingling is so intense, is there really any need to make distinctions between language and postlanguage poetry at all, or even to call anyone a postlanguage poet? Aren't all such distinctions a way of achieving critical hegemony over the variability of poetic practice?

A:     Any critical approach to poetry has limits, just as any poem does. But it does not follow from that truth that any discussion about the general terrain of contemporary experimental poetic production is a way of achieving cultural hegemony. If we believed that to be true, then we would have to stop discussing poetry and poetics entirely, or discuss it only in particular cases without reference to the larger historical frameworks in which all poetry occurs. Yet even in discussing only a particular writer or poem, one's thinking would still be limited, although in different ways.
     In fact, saying that a given approach has limits says nothing at all. One always should keep in mind the famous Olsonian statement that "limits are what we are inside of" -- every writer and act of writing has limits. The issue is rather what particular limits, and illuminations, a specific practice creates.
     Poetry and poetics are inseparable. We can't have poetry without discussion of poetry, and we certainly can't discuss poetry without having poetry itself. Furthermore, making distinctions is not the same as making binary oppositions. We can note that different practices have different characteristics without necessarily having to determine which is best. Indeed, the idea that all distinctions are oppressive is itself oppressive, forcing all acts of writing into one homogenous mold from which no difference is discernible.
     In the United States, mainstream poets, and even some who might be considered avant garde, have often suggested that any discussion about groups of poets is false and misleading. Poets should be considered only as individuals, these arguments say. Then, in the case of mainstream poetry, only those supposed individuals who conform to the dictates of mainstream poetry are recognized as individuals worthy of attention. In the case of avant garde poets who make the same claims, the argument usually is that groups of poets who speak about themselves as groups, as the language poets for instance have, are interested only in achieving a Stalinist hegemony over poetic practice, in which dissenting practices by individuals become increasingly ignored.
     Both arguments seem to me powerfully false, based on the deeply American idea that only individuals count, and that any discussion of groups of individuals constitutes oppression. But individuals, while they certainly do exist in an intense and multi-fold variability, also band together with others as part of social life both in art and in cultural life more broadly. Poets respond to the life around them and to each other, and the literal result of responding to others is necessarily to form groups of greater or lesser size and degree. However complex in an individual case, the history of poetry is also the history of individuals interacting with each other, which is to say the history of groups, however occasional, partial, or shifting. Partial and shifting discussions of those group interactions seem to me important to any postlanguage theorizing.

Q:     What then is the best way to think of the relation between language poetry and postlanguage poetry, if not as an either/or opposition in which one must inevitably be superior?

A:     Although there is no single "best way," I think one highly significant way to think about the relation between the two is as a collaboration, albeit an uneasy, tentative, contradictory, and contested one. Postlanguage poets need to be aware, I believe, of the insights of language poetry, and their practice therefore becomes to varying degrees a creative collaboration with the productions of language poets, although that collaboration includes many writers who are not language poets at all. Because they are older, language poets may have less need to collaborate with postlanguage poets, although the advantages for them of doing so may be great, especially as it may help them keep their attitudes towards poetry flexible.
     It's crucial to point out that because of the various historical and cultural differences between language and postlanguage poets, some of which I've mentioned in this discussion, postlanguage poetry has already extended the theoretical insights of language poetry into areas outside that of language poetry itself, and in the process has both distorted and expanded the value of those insights.
     For me, the primary value of postlanguage poetry is its ability to extend a fundamental theoretical insight of the language poets -- that language constitutes and is constituted by cultural production -- to a growing array of possibilities for poetry. For the postlanguage writer, more so than at any point in the history of poetry a broader and conflicting range of poetic forms and genres have become available for use, without the need to resolve such conflicts, and without the essentializing notion that use of any form or genre commits the writer to naiveté regarding the historical production of literature. Without the theoretical insights of language poetry, such a position would not be possible. But it is the implication of those insights put into practice across a rapidly growing set of poetic options that marks postlanguage poetry as a distinct moment in the history of poetry.