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  • “Note on My Writing”: Poetics as Exegesis
  • Nicky Marsh (bio)
Susan Howe, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974–1979. New York: New Directions, 1996.
Leslie Scalapino, Green and Black: Selected Writings. Jersey City: Talisman, 1996.

Frame Structures and Green and Black are single-author collections written by two poets associated with the Language movement in American poetry. Leslie Scalapino’s collection gathers together excerpts from a number of her long poems published in the previous eleven years and ends with a new poem that shares the title of the collection, “Green and Black.” Susan Howe’s collection contains unabridged (although slightly altered) versions of her four earliest poems which, in their original form, are no longer in print. The central difference between the two collections, as Howe gathers her earliest work for publication and Scalapino excerpts from her latest, can possibly be explained by the relatively different standing the two poets have accrued within the academy; as Howe is tentatively accepted by the mainstream, Scalapino remains more thoroughly “experimental.” What these two poets share in these texts, however, beyond their imprecise categorization as experimental or Language writers, is an apparent, and for both largely new, desire to locate the significance of these poetics for the reader.

“Note on My Writing” is the promisingly explicatory title of the opening essay in Leslie Scalapino’s latest collection. This title suggests, as do the other three “notes” that interleave the excerpts from Scalapino’s poems, that these short essays offer some process of initiation—that they bring to light how this sometimes unyielding and sometimes dazzling verse should be read, or at least how Scalapino would like it to be read. Susan Howe’s collection is similarly prefaced with a sense of introduction and elucidation. Frame Structures is not only the title of the book but the title of an extended inaugural essay in which Howe in her eclectic chronicling of fragmentary history left by the marginalized, familiar to readers of her other works, now turns to examine her own past and familial genealogy. This sense of literary autobiography/family history opens this collection of Howe’s earliest poems: the “frame structure” this combination delivers, from within which we are reading, seems to be that of the poet herself.

The introductions or explanations with which these two works begin may be part of the acceptance by many of the writers involved in Language writing’s linguistically disruptive and politically skeptical project that they are being published and read as substantial contributors to American poetics. The collections by Howe and Scalapino can be placed alongside the other anthologies and literary histories—Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century, Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere, and Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History—that have emerged in the mid-nineties as testament to the growing significance of Language writing within the mainstream American literary academy. However, these works by Scalapino and Howe also call into question any homogeneity of meaning or intent that Language writing either claimed or received by attribution. Their putative foregrounding of the materiality of language now seems to be a construct that many key participants in the movement are more than willing to deconstruct. Hence, these collections indicate not only the growing popularity of the experimentalism associated with Language writing, but also how complex and varied this writing actually is.

The differences between Susan Howe and Leslie Scalapino are borne out by the stylistically distinct ways in which they locate the significance of their own work. In “Note on My Writing,” Scalapino is tersely explicit about what her writing means to her. The sentences are sharp and blatant: “I intend this work to be the repetition of historically real events the writing of which punches a hole in reality (as if to void them but actively)” (1). The energy that Scalapino suggests her work conveys is coiled up into the spring-like keenness of the writing. Nothing can be wasted when “a segment in the poem is the actual act of event itself” in a poetics that denies the distance between the text and its referents, making the text its own action (1...

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