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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 430-433

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Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. By Libbie Rifkin. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press. 2000. viii. 172 pp. Cloth, $37.95; paper, $16.95.
Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. By Ann Vickery. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press; Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New England. x, 354 pp. Cloth, $60.00; paper, $24.95.
The Language of Inquiry. By Lyn Hejinian. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. 2000. ix, 438 pp. Cloth, $45.00; paper, $17.95.

These three books—two critical studies and one volume of collected essays by a prominent language writer—consider relations of politics, professionalism, [End Page 430] and the public voice of formal innovation in American language writing traditions. Rifkin's study adroitly combines biography, autobiography, sociopoetics, and rhetorical analysis to study the roles and career transitions of four major avant-garde poets since midcentury. The 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference is a useful stepping-off point, because the event brought together formally experimental work of the East and West coasts. The ingeniousness of this study depends upon its concise takes on moments of career transition and well-articulated theoretical underpinnings. If too much avant-garde theory has placed anti-establishment politics in opposition to "making it" and to institution building, Rifkin rightly perceives that this view defines the cultural field too narrowly and underestimates the construction of authorial agency itself as artifact and site of reception. She finds more "fluctuating," "multilateral" formations of avant-garde identities, often in confrontation with the binaries lodged in poetic tradition, in a variety of wavering authorial performances through which problems of reception are reworked. Charles Olson's talkfest at the Berkeley Poetry Conference reading, a shattering of ego equilibrium for both the poets and audience members, is paradigmatic of the kind of authorial performance that may be seen in other venues, from Zukofsky's cutting and culling of a hermetic archive at the University of Texas to Ted Berrigan's elaborate staging of the death and resuscitation of coterie publications. Given that much has been said about at least three of the four poets in this study, the consequences of these career moves for biography or for the reading of experimental texts is not always expected. Yet wherever Rifkin opens a new chapter in the history of the cultural field, she convinces us that each writer is freshly shaping the contours of reception. A chapter on the least known of these figures, Ted Berrigan, succeeds especially well in capturing the comic bravura and strange ironies of Berrigan's "monumental self-elegizing gestures" and Keatsian kitsch (124). Indeed, the genre of elegy itself, functioning as a poetic institution, may have more to do with shaping structures of anticipation for avant-garde poets than is explicitly discussed.

Whereas Rifkin's study elides the question of women and gender, presumably drawing firmly together career-making, masculinities, and cultural capital, Vickery's historiographic approach to women's participation in language writing movements of the seventies, eighties, and even nineties foregrounds an impressive accumulation of gender-marked evidence. The double marginalization of women in language writing movements—differentiating themselves from feminist orthodoxies of the unified self and from conventional poetic notations of lyric subjectivity—has been commented upon by writers such as Kathleen Fraser, Joan Retallack, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Susan Howe. But the surprise of this extensive survey of unpublished letters (the Howe-Hejinian correspondence appears to have been especially important), tapes, interviews, workshops, and ephemera of language-writing events is how many lesser-known voices and highly inventive projects register as important to how and why gender lines have been drawn or resisted. Work by Rae Armantrout, Bernadette Meyer, Johanna Drucker, Tina Darragh, Carla Harryman, [End Page 431] Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Hannah Weiner, and others are mentioned, and this is the only study in which certain projects such as Hejinian's editorial work...


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