- Entries on a Post-Language Poetics in Harryette Mullen's Dictionary
Choice voice noise.Harryette Mullen, Muse & Drudge
A quick perusal of the table of contents in Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) reveals that Mullen has left the letters I, U, and Y out of her abecedary. This erasure becomes the punning subject of a poem in the book titled "Why You and I," which begins, "Who knows why you and I fell off the roster?" and ends, "who can stand to reason why you and I let / our union dissolve to strike the orderly alphabet?" (78). Though Mullen's barrage of punning questions in the poem is certainly playful, her choice of deleted letters is significant. These poems are not the product of a traditional lyric "I" shaping the language to evoke the epiphanies of an essential self. Instead, Mullen conspicuously puts that "I" under erasure. Confirming this goal, "All She Wrote," the first poem of the book, consists of a list of excuses for why she is not writing: "Forgive me, I'm no good at this. . . . By the way, my computer was stolen. Now I'm unable to process words. I suffer from aphasia. . . . I went to bed with writer's cramp. . . . Then Oprah came on with a fabulous author plugging her best-selling book" (3). If this is "All She Wrote," then the remaining poems in the book must be the products of something other than the writing "I."1 [End Page 357]
Mullen's erasure of the lyric "I" clearly reflects the influence of a Language poetics that dismisses the central "voice" of workshop poetry, rejecting a naive notion of inspiration in favor of various forms of proceduralism. In his typology of postmodern poetic forms, Joseph M. Conte explains that with procedural poems, "rule-dominated composition relieves the poet of the burden of the self, since the 'personality' of the artist is no longer called on to direct the creative process" (40). How, then, do we account for the uniqueness of style and even personality that emerges among different Language-influenced poetries? As Marjorie Perloff points out, the "us-versus-them rhetoric" of Language poetry's founding manifestos has become complicated by many contemporary avant-garde poetries that seem to manifest a personality within the procedures ("Language Poetry" 433). The theorists of lyric and Language poetics have certainly drawn the battle lines: inspiration or systematization, lyric "I" or language function, voice or noise. But contemporary experimental poetries often tell a different story. Perloff rightly wonders, "must it be either/or?" (416). The complicated interaction of procedure and personality in Language-influenced poetic creation has yet to be adequately theorized.
As the paratactical construction of Mullen's line "choice voice noise" from Muse & Drudge suggests, her work certainly seems to complicate these lyric/Language binaries (65). Mullen began her career writing a voice-based, Black Arts–inspired poetry, represented in Tree Tall Woman (1981). Her next books, Trimmings (1991) and S*PeRM**K*T (1992), influenced by Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons and Ron Silliman's New Sentence, illustrate a shift from writing the "I" to considering the subject and language itself "not as transparent but constructed." In an interview Mullen explains how these two approaches created different audiences [End Page 358] for her: the former drew people of color in community readings, and the latter drew homogeneously white audiences on college campuses. Muse & Drudge (1995) allowed her to bring these two approaches and these two audiences together, with its blues-inspired quatrains and experimentation with language and form ("Interview," Hogue par. 12). In the essay "Poetry and Identity," Mullen explores the difficulties of being a "black" poet and an "experimental" poet and insists on a more inclusive poetics that allows for both.2
Sleeping with the Dictionary is Mullen's avant-garde ars poetica, offering a poetics of both/and: both experimental and black, to be sure, but also both procedural and inspired, both linguistic and embodied. In it, she figures poetic creation neither as a romantic epiphany of the poet's essential self nor as pure linguistic or procedural play. Instead, the book manifests an alternative poetics...