- Voicing the Neonew
Postmodern poetry, especially Language poetry, is coming in from the cold. Not so long ago, postmodern poets published their work exclusively in small journals and disseminated it through small presses. Their radical differences from members of the Deep Image, Confessional, New York, and New Formalist schools probably condemned them to the margins of the publishing and the teaching worlds. But so, it seems, did their desire not to take part in (or to be co-opted by) that world. The climate is changing, however; a poetic greenhouse effect has lured well-known Language poets, among them Bob Perelman and Charles Bernstein, into the academy. Susan Howe has a book forthcoming from the well-established Wesleyan University Press. And the generally conservative pages of Verse, a journal published in Great Britain and the United States, have opened to their “neonew” (the word is Perelman’s) attack on traditional versifying. The shepherd for this latest assault is Jerome McGann, long a lobbyist (or apologist, depending on your sympathies) for Language poetry.
Language writing is at once post-structuralist and interested in history, power, and leftist ideology. Language poetry bears an acknowledged debt to the Modernists’ style, if not their substance; it also shores fragments against ruins, although it means to revel in that fragmentation. This issue of Verseseems geared more toward the demands of the initiated than toward those of the merely curious; as McGann notes in his introduction, no anthology of postmodernist poetry is complete without postmodernist prose (these writers, like the Modernists, are poet- critics). The lack of a critical background hurts, as does McGann’s teasing introduction. I will dwell a bit on the introduction, because its paradoxes seem to me central to the movement that McGann describes in it.
If editors are a species of literary parent, McGann is a benevolent father who neither instructs his progeny nor leaves them to fend entirely for themselves. His introduction takes the middle ground between these options, hinting at purpose, yet refusing at all turns to name it. And a tenuous middle ground it is, at least for readers not already privy to postmodernism’s concerns—and perhaps also for those who are. For McGann does not so much mediate between the reader and the texts that follow as write an introduction that consistently fails to introduce. His various indeterminacies would not be so frustrating were he not to promise something more specific. “[T]he aim here is to give a more catholic view of the radical change which poetry has undergone since the Vietnam War” (6). “From a social and historical point of view, this collection aims to show certain features of the contemporary avant-garde poetry scene which are not apparent in [other collections]” (7). McGann never makes clear what he means by “radical change” and the “certain features” that distinguish his anthology from those that come before (Ron Silliman’s In the American Treeand Douglas Messerli’s 1987, Language Poetries, An Anthology).
McGann’s prose imitates the postmodern poetries he has chosen, and begins to define them by unravelling the kinds of definitions that we still like to believe govern the selection-process for any anthology. Curiously, however, McGann subscribes to his own set of definitions. According to McGann, these are not just Language poems, though “all the writing here is language-centered, whether the work in question is ‘Language Writing’ properly so-called (e.g., the selections from Hejinian, Bernstein, and McCaffery) or whether it is not (e.g., the selections from Howe, Bromige, or D.S. Marriott).” The secret to the difference between Language writing and language-centered writing lies, one assumes, in the names here mentioned. Rather than witness the move from the “authority” of Blake and Shelley to the nonauthoritative postmodernist realm of language, we move from one set of Big Names to another. The proclaimed gulf between “vision” and “language,” the Romantics and the postmoderns, is not so wide after all.
McGann’s introduction, then, for all its principle...