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  • Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary and Race in Language/Writing
  • Amy Moorman Robbins (bio)

Once was illegal for we to testify. Now all us do is testify.

Harreytte Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary

In The Marginalization of Poetry, Bob Perelman's landmark critical study and literary history of Language writing, Perelman outlines some of the necessarily unstable tenets of this dynamic, highly political, and notoriously difficult school of writing while assembling a canon of Language writers whom he uses to illustrate specific writing practices:

A neutral description of language writing might attempt to draw a line around a range of writing that was (sometimes) nonreferential, (occasionally) polysyntactic, (at times) programmatic in construction, (often) politically committed, (in places) theoretically inclined, and that enacted a critique of the literary I (in some cases).


Asserting a crucial point of commonality across the movement, Perelman also references the movement's "deep disinterest in poetics of identity" (36), drawing a significant and still-operative contrast: that between experimental writing/poetry that is assumed to explicitly or implicitly contest the viability of any given lyric subject (perhaps particularly the racially or ethnically marked subject, as I argue below) and writing that foregrounds questions and problems of discrete, often racialized selfhood in [End Page 341] specific cultural contexts. In the terms of this binary, writing which appears to engage a "poetics of identity" is assumed to be anything but experimental. Amplifying this idea, Bruce Andrews has labeled such work "so-called 'progressive lit'" and voiced a strong claim to its inadequacy as politically engaged work:

The usual assumptions about unmediated communication, giving "voice" to "individual" "experience," the transparency of the medium (language) ... pluralism, etc.... But more basically: such conventionally progressive literature fails to self-examine writing & its medium, language.... [T]hat means that it can't really make claims to comprehend and/or challenge the nature of the social whole; it can't be political in that crucial way.

("Poetry" 23-25)

Thus in opposition to the conventions of traditional poetic and narrative forms, Language writing as a genre or loose collective is characterized by its practitioners' poststructuralist awareness of and work with the inherent instability of the signifier, as demonstrated in formally disruptive, structurally abstruse writings that render language opaque while consistently reflecting a corresponding mistrust of any attempts to locate or fix singular forms of identity, whether figured as the lyric "I" or as the sociocultural position of the poet. These writing practices are deployed as language-based critiques of normative culture, or what Lyn Hejinian has termed "the cultures that produce atrocities," often represented by bourgeois, consumerist values and capitalist regimes (326). Following the logic of Perelman, Andrews, and others, rejection of the lyric subject, which Hejinian has termed a "simpleminded model of subjectivity and authority" (329), in fact precisely equates with denial of the trappings of the contemporary social order. In this way, to contest the very notion of the unified and coherent literary subject in these contexts is implicitly to promote a progressive ideology conducive to fundamental political change via deconstructed/restructured language and exploded conventions of narrative signification.

However tidy or obvious this separation of the conventional lyric from Language writing may seem, the division has not [End Page 342] occurred without concerted debate, particularly over assumptions surrounding who is presumed to write in conventional lyric. In a published conversation, Leslie Scalapino takes issue with the following claim put forth by Ron Silliman in an earlier essay:

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example—are apt to challenge all that is supposedly "natural" about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers—women, people of color, sexual minorities...


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