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  • The Matter of Literacy, or Poetry without Modernity
  • Christopher Nealon (bio)

In the first lines of his 1989 masterpiece “Sun,” which looks back at the Vietnam War through a scrim of meditation on the nature of language, Michael Palmer depicts a scene of memorization or command:

Write this. We have burned all their villages

Write this. We have burned all their villages and the people in them

Write this. We have adopted their customs and their manner of dress

Write this. A word may be shaped like a bed, a basket of tears or an X1 [End Page 206]

Earlier that decade, in a small-press publication destined to become a classic of Asian American literature, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha began her multigenre book Dictée with the scene of a young Korean girl returning home from her first day of school in a new country and imagining what she’s telling her parents in the medium of a classroom translation exercise:

Open paragraph It was the first day period She had come from a far period tonight at dinner comma the families would ask comma open quotation marks How was the first day interrogation mark close quotation marks at least to say the least of it possible comma the answer would be open quotation marks there is but one thing period There is someone period From a far period close quotation marks2

These two texts have become hallmarks of experimental American poetry of the 1980s, and though they have tended to end up on different syllabi, they have been praised for similar reasons. Palmer’s poem is seen to seamlessly integrate philosophical attention with the medium of language with the affective charge of political critique; Cha’s book is seen as an interdisciplinary tour de force that places language, and language acquisition, at the center of a pointed, if melancholic, immigrant politics. Because of the related ways they make themselves available to rumination on the nature of language, even to the point where it comes to seem a structuring thematic concern, both works are seen as exemplarily “postmodern.”

In my brief remarks below, I will suggest that this tendency to read recent poetry as “postmodern” occludes the poems in ways that recall the obscurities created by reading modernist poetry as a radical break with its Victorian predecessors. Both historiographical gestures, I think, pit past and future, or the “old” and the “new,” against each other in ways that end up overformalizing politics and history, and that prevent us from seeing something like the ongoing present tense of social reproduction—of persons and poems alike.

To take the example of the pair of poems above, Palmer’s “Sun” and Cha’s Dictée have something besides their supposed “postmodernity” in common, which is that they both take part in a sprawling array of poetic topoi around the acquisition of literacy that extends from [End Page 207] Puritan acrostics to postmodern lyrics; from archetypical scenes of learning to read in slave narratives to the macaronic bookishness of Ezra Pound; or from the “white dialect” poems of James Whitcomb Riley to what Nadia Nurhussein has identified as an entire subgenre of spelling-bee poetry, which reaches a kind of apotheosis in Langston Hughes’s 1949 poem “Theme for English B.”3 You may recall:

The instructor said,

Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you—-Then, it will be true.4

The topos of the schoolhouse lives on in contemporary African American poetry, revisited with great gusto in poems like those from Harry-ette Mullen’s 2002 Sleeping with the Dictionary, whose table of contents is organized as an alphabetical primer, and which turns the classroom inside out with a nod to texts like Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, across the Spanish-English divide:

Californians say No to bilingual education in schools

Californians say No to bilingual instructions on ballots

Californians say Yes to bilingual instructions on curbside waste receptacles:

Coloque el recipiente con las flechas hacia la calle5

In another flank of this “matter of literacy,” poets working out of the avant-garde traditions of Language writing have produced a whole...


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