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  • "What Good Is Poetry and How Do You Get to Change the World":Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyance as Translation
  • Daniel Benjamin (bio)

See PDF for artists' original presentation of poems

Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal (1978) opens into an aporia. "I SEE WORDS," reads her forehead on the cover, and the preface reads: "I SEE words on my forehead IN THE AIR / on other people on the typewriter on the / page These appear in the text in CAPITALS / or italics." The words we see on Weiner's forehead on the cover represent the words that she sees (see fig. 1).

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Figure 1.

Cover of Clairvoyant Journal, used with the permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.

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But they are not the words she sees; as Jackson Mac Low remarks in the blurb on the back cover, Weiner sees the words "on her own forehead (in such a way that she can perceive them from within)." We see the words she has drawn on with marker, an act of Weiner's writing. By the time we open to the first page, we are already reading from this doubled position.

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Figure 2.

Opening page (partial) of Clairvoyant Journal, used with the permission of Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in trust.

The start of the journal itself is filled with contrasting orders, from the menacing ("GET OUT") to the textual ("leave more space") to the mundane ("get linoleum"). Sometimes these orders seem to argue for their own priority ("BEGIN / BEGIN WITH ME"); elsewhere they function as secondary reminders of authority ("YOU HAVE ORDERS"); and they even turn upon themselves. When "GO OUT" is quickly echoed by "GO WORDS," we wonder to whom the words are speaking. When "dont underline that's an order" appears in italics (that is, underlined on the typewriter) we wonder how the [End Page 364] transcriber of these voices can negotiate these contradictory demands (see fig. 2). But the space of this negotiation, both for the writer and for the reader, can never be separate from their textual space.1 As Judith Goldman writes, "To read Weiner's poetry is … to confront her claim to clairvoyance, which makes the critical reception of her work an incredibly complicated matter: her emphatic experiential claims and the terms on which she makes them at once legitimate her poetry a priori as testimony and overtly perform as a persuasive strategy within what are extremely self-consciously literary works" (122).

Weiner's work is at once excessively open, and excessively opaque. She presents to us the words that she sees, but the means by which she sees them are not repeatable by her readers. And this problem is, I will argue in this essay, an interpretative problem that is foremost a political problem. How do we recognize a voice from the outside that insists upon its irreducible otherness, and yet demands to be heard? Can the poem, as Paul Celan writes in "The Meridian," "speak in the cause of an Other—who knows, perhaps in the cause of a wholly Other" (180)?

Weiner's Language poetry context might not at first seem apt for this consideration. As Marjorie Perloff, whose criticism has [End Page 365] unquestionably had the most important role in Language poetry's entrance into the canon, has written:

Language poetry provided a serious challenge to the delicate lyric of self-expression and direct speech: it demanded an end to transparency and straightforward reference in favor of ellipsis, indirection, and intellectual-political engagement. It was closely allied to French poststructuralist theory, later to the Frankfurt School, and hence it was, by definition, a high-culture movement. By the late '90s, when Language poetry felt compelled to be more inclusive with respect to gender, race, and ethnic diversity, it became difficult to tell what was or was not a "Language poem."

("Poetry on the Brink")

In Perloff's view, Language poetry is a "high-culture movement" that is defined by its theoretical alliances. Its "intellectual-political engagement" is specifically opposed to "inclusiv[ity] with respect to gender, race, and ethnic diversity"; the politics of...


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