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27 Andrew Ross Reinventing Community: A Symposium On/With Language Poets These are not the most propitious times for the idea of "community ." The dominant definition of communal activities today tends to be more like that of a "support group," as if to reflect the current ascendancy of an atomistic culture of survival and advancement, where the alternatives are likely to be grisly and Hobbesian, or else a "special interest" group, with its suggestion of petty, even paranoid, self-indulgence. On the other hand, the tradition, among writers and artists, of avant-garde communities, historically associated in various ways with the politics of vanguardism, has lost much of its legitimacy as an indirect result of the sweeping left critiques of vertical, or centralized forms of organization. Less frequently do we see the heroicization of the bohemian dream of acting out Utopian desires in a setting that is materially distanced from the institutional reaches of bourgeois society. The cultural power of preindustrial nostalgia that governed the romance of the counterculture has long since faded under the pressure of post-punk cynicism. In short, a community of writers which would take itself seriously as a community might have to wholly reinvent, rather than merely redefine, the purposive values associated with that term. Nowhere has this task of reinvention been more actively pursued than in the case of the writers associated, either centrally or obliquely, with the name of language poetry, a term originally coined to defame the poets and tendencies associated with the journal L =A =N= G = U=A = G=E (1978-82). And nowhere has the sense of community been acknowledged with so much technocultural realism, or owed so little to the romance of an idealized Gemeinschaft. For poets, like them, who became active in the early seventies, the question of "community" was as likely to be posed in the form of a socially integrated lifestyle in loco as it was to cover intellectual interests shared across geographical space. The result, in the case of the language poets, proved to be a heady combination, with two sizeable residential communities in the Bay Area and New York, and a network of communications built up, year by year, with writers in other cities, regions and countries. Living and writing, for the most part, outside of the institutional circuits of the poetry scene, and publishing in their own magazines and presses, many of these poets came to recognize that an integral component of the poetics which they were developing had to do with examining the everyday social relations which underpinned the production, distribution and reception of their work. Seldom had a single 28 the minnesota review artistic community undertaken such a critique as part of its agenda for addressing the aesthetic imperatives of the day. On the other hand, there is nothing like a systematic sociological critique to point to, largely because of the diverse (several dozen writers, at one time or another, have been associated with language poetry) and decentralized shape of the community . In fact, some claimed that it was an idealized overinvestment, even a promotional self-indulgence, to present the appearance of a selfconscious community with shared interests. For those, however, who had been responding, with immediacy and commitment, to each other's work for many years, it had become a habit of mind to acknowledge the quasicollective nature of the social relations involved in their practice of making poetry, and this collective aspect was not to be dreamed away by the ideology of the poetic loner/genius. Geneologies, elective affinities, and the anxieties of influence are the critical trappings of the tradition of the spiritually driven individual talent. For writers who make it their business to preserve some kind of control over their own affairs, the sources and frames of reference for their work are almost always contextual, tailored to times and places, and shot through with socialized intentions. The seventies and early eighties was a time when writers were responding in their own ways to the explosion of critical theory, and the transformation of political philosophies that followed in the wake of post-structuralism. Much of what went under the name of language poetry was the fertile result...


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