What is “language writing” anyway? The very phrase sounds like a puzzle — it makes me feel like the down-home musician who wondered, after hearing someone ask about folk music, “but isn’t all music made by folks?” Isn’t all writing made of language? Speaking, as Barrett Watten does in his ruminations on the movement, of “a foregrounding of language as opposed to reference” is not helpful, since reference is merely an aspect of language and not outside it. What is helpful is Watten’s earnest effort to trace the origins of what he and others call language writing back to its precedents, before the term itself was invented in the 1970s — that is, back to the New American Poetry of the ‘50s and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the early ‘60s, as well as parallels with the Conceptual Art of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, to name a few. He wants to understand, as well, its subsequent history — in which he played a large part — as the group associated with it scattered across the country from concentrations in the Bay Area and New York (with an important outpost in Washington, DC), and many of the participants (notably Watten himself) turned to the study of poetics (and concomitantly, though Watten doesn’t highlight this, to an academic grounding for practices that had at first been understood as counter-institutional). He wants as well to take onboard some of the critiques that have been directed at language writing by a successive generation of poets, and its influence on such movements such as flarf and, particularly, conceptual poetry (of which he presents cogent criticisms). But he’s equally intent on charting internal developments within the group, particularly as they emerged through The Grand Piano, the long-term project of collective memoir by ten poets associated with the California wing of the movement, including himself. In a sense — and despite the somewhat gnarly, involuted language in which much of it is couched — Questions of Poetics is a quite personal attempt to follow up The Grand Piano with another round of stock-taking: an individual rather than collaborative response this time, but not an individualistic one. He wants to construct a history, but not of the kind that Nietzsche would have called “monumental,” in the hope that there might be “an avant-garde to be continued” rather than one condemned to suffer (or to have already suffered) what the critic Paul Mann once called its “theory-death.” It’s this underlying optimism about the future of poetry that makes this book so heartening, despite my inclination to disagree or at least quibble with something on almost every page. I’ll let one example stand for many: In a passage on the noise rock band Wolf Eyes, Watten describes how their “negativity” (an important value for him) is established by “the materiality of sound.” But just as all writing is language, all sound has its materiality (unless it’s that unheard sound, said to be sweetest). No sound is more material than another — not Burt Bacharach, not Strauss waltzes, and not Wolf Eyes either. If a certain musical art form offers a special emphasis on or experience of this materiality, such an emphasis or experience is itself not material, or anyway not material in the same way. I’m sorry, too, to read in this section that “the embodied affects produced by the music may lead to a space of reflective listening that, according to some listeners, can be psychically redemptive” — the italics are mine, and they are there to contend that Watten, as a critic, owes it to his readers to say whether these affects are redemptive according to him. Hearsay is not enough. Yet, in his writing about art, he shows himself part of the great tradition of poet/critics when he analyzes the objectivist photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the non-narrative figurative paintings of Neo Rauch in tandem through “a social dialectic of aesthetic regions,” something that no conventional art critic would have dared. According to me, that’s one way of starting to fill Watten’s promissory note toward a continuable avant-garde. Another, of course, is his own poetry.
Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (2016) is published by University of Iowa Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.