restricted access 8. After Language Poetry: Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents
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In the spring of 1999 I was invited to give a paper at a conference called “Page Mothers” (the title refers to women editors of little magazines and experimental poetry journals), held at the University of California, San Diego. In my essay I discussed the origins of Language poetry—a movement whose original theorizers were a group of male poet-intellectuals. When I expanded the essay for presentation at the Barnard College conference on “Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women” (1999), I went on to trace the gradual transformation of early Language theory into a more inclusive “experimental” poetics that opened up the field to women and minority poets. But I concluded with a caveat—a caveat that aroused some resentment in my audience—as to the current demand on these “experimental” poets to write theoretical essays as had the founders of the Language movement. Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue requested the essay for their 2002 collection, The World in Time and Space: Toward a History of Innovative American Poetry in our Time. 8 After Language Poetry Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents Are you sure, she asked, you’re talking of ideas? Dark, emptied of touch would be entire, null and void. Even on an island. Rosmarie Waldrop, Split In¤nites Innovate: from the Latin in + novare, “to make new, to renew, alter.” In our century, from Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne!” and Ezra Pound’s “Make It New!” to Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (Grove Press, 1960) and Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960–1990 (Sun & Moon, 1994), novelty has been the order of the day. Think of the (now old) New Criticism, the New Formalism , the New Historicism, le nouveau roman, and la nouvelle cuisine. As I was writing this essay, a message came over the Internet announcing the British poet-critic Robert Sheppard’s Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry , 1978–1997.1 And in recent years, two important anthologies of women’s poetry—Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK, edited by Maggie O’Sullivan for Reality Street Editions (London, 1996), and Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman Publishers , 1998)—have made the case that,in O’Sullivan’s words,“much of the most challenging, formally progressive and signi¤cant work over recent years, particularly , in the U.S. . . . is being made by women”(Out of Everywhere 9), thus leading directly to the title of the Barnard conference: “Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women.” It was not always thus. The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that innovation was once synonymous with sedition and even treason. In 1561 Thomas Norton wrote in Calvin’s Institute, “It is the duty of private men to obey, and not to make innovation of states after their own will.” Richard Hooker in 1597 refers to a political pamphleteer as “an authour of suspicious innovation.”The great Jacobean dramatist John Webster speaks of “the hydra-headed multitude / That only gape for innovation” (1639), and in 1796 Edmund Burke refers to the French Revolution as “a revolt of innovation; and thereby, the very elements of society have been confounded and dissipated .” Indeed, it was not until the late nineteenth century that innovation became perceived as something both good and necessary, the equivalent, in fact, of avant-garde, speci¤cally of the great avant-gardes of the early century from Russian and Italian Futurism to Dada, Surrealism, and beyond. I cannot here trace the vagaries of the term, but it is important to see that so far as our own poetry is concerned, the call for Making It New was the watchword of the Beats as of Black Mountain, of Concrete poetry and Fluxus as of the New York School. At times in recent years, one wonders how long the drive to innovate can continue,especially when,as in the case of Sloan’s Moving Borders, ¤fty contemporary American women poets are placed under the “innovative”umbrella. Given these numbers, one wonders, who isn’t innovative ? And how much longer can poets keep innovating without ¤nding themselves inadvertently Making It Old? The problem is compounded when we turn to the relationship of innovation to theory. When the various French post-structuralisms of the postwar¤rst became prominent, they were known as la nouvelle critique. But as time went on, la nouvelle critique became known as post...


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