Mind Your 'L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E'

A Poet’s Memoirs Raise More Questions Than They Answer

By Vladislav Davidzon

Published February 14, 2011.
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MEMOIR AND ESSAY By Michael Gottlieb Faux Press, 170 pages $16

Poets of the Language School (aka the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group, tendency, faction or sociological phenomena — the occasionally rancorous debate continues) have risen to become the dominant avant-garde of modern American poetics. The first generation (including Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel and James Sherry), now in their 50s and 60s, are now the oldest generation of teaching poets, and their influence constitutes a formal problem with which any practicing young American poet must grapple.

Loosely grouped around the eponymous L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine (February 1978 to October 1981) edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, Language poets sought to radically alter the way language was to be deployed in American poetry and experimental writing. They sought to loosen poetic language from what they perceived as the stifling artificiality of archaic literary tropes, to lower the pitch of the poet’s voice to a demotic register and to broaden the kinds of vocabulary that could legitimately be employed in a poem. The techniques involved sampling, collage and invoking chance. The movement was an American version of the French OULIPO movement, and it carried the overtones of the era’s ideals of radical emancipation into the domain of American poetry.

These were poets whose critic-practitioners were as canny and theoretically nimble as any, who supped ravenously at the post-structuralist table, rode forth under the banner of “political commitment” and waged ideological war upon the counter influences of the lesser avant-gardes (The New York School, The Beats, the West Coast School) as well as upon the naturalist confessionalism of mainstream American poetics. Finally, after many skirmishes and much countercultural activity they tethered their steeds at the mossy walls of the Ivory Tower. And thus, three decades later, we have a plethora of anthologies, critical commentaries, collected essays, theoretical tracts and conference proceedings as well as a massive trove of work posted on Buffalo University’s Electronic Poetry Center.

But until now, there has been little depiction of the internal dynamics of the group. What were the readings at the Ear Inn like? Did the poets even like each other? New York poet Michael Gottlieb’s beautiful and compulsively readable two part “Memoir and Essay” published by Faux Press begins to fill in the gaps. The elegiac and seductive Bildungsroman “Empire City” — the eponymous memoir — is a recollection of 1970’s New York in raucous twilight and decline. It constitutes the opening salvo of his memoir cycle, conceived, written, arranged and published out of chronological order.

The first volume, his childhood and first generation Russian-Jewish immigrant patrimony, remains to be published. The one about his love life, projected to be the last, is to be written when “my wife is too old to care.”

Having co edited the Language School journal, Roof, and having published 13 volumes of scrupulously constructed poetry as carefully denuded of grammatical strictures and as shorn of narrative and articles as any poet of his generation, he reveals a secretly husbanded novelistic streak.

The narrative is expressionistic, composed of ephemeral shards and fragments: The prose is mellifluous, elliptical, rhythmical and inflected with a lapidary self-consciousness that shades at times into tentativeness. Descriptive passages, sentences and subclauses circle and sprawl and pile up around their subjects. The sensibility is spare — no bludgeoning lyricism here — but it shapes a fully formed, ruminative and colloquial idiom. Here is the epiphanous chance reading of a Clark Coolidge poem in a literary magazine:

You did not need to tell stupid stories anymore. A poem could be what it was supposed to be about — the indigestible, irreducible, unredeemable words that flung themselves at us every day, the language that, in its infuriating, inexhaustible, immeasurable confusion, yet limitless precision, lived, teeming, out there, outside our door.

The rest is a document of the 70s, a much mythologized moment of unity in the arts and the flowering of the neo-avant garde. Gottlieb writes of Merce Cunningham, Agnes Martin and John Cage of how poetry, music and minimalist painting cross-pollinated. Arguments at bars and readings. The constant quest for the perfect apartment in New York. Bohemian camaraderie in self-publishing magazines, assembling bookshelves and inheriting spoons.

The memoir consciously eschews discussions of what it feels like to write poems in favor of moving descriptions of belonging to a group of poets and artists. Of his wordsworthian friendship with poet Alan Davies he writes of their first meeting simply, “There he was.”

As a historical narrative follows epic depictions of sweeping events with the social dynamics of the aftermath, so here Gottlieb has poet Hannah Weiner kicking him under the table at a bar when she disapproves of his date, Davies crashing his car into the Brooklyn Bridge, a blowout with Bernstein over his aristocratic refusal to lick envelopes, Ted Greenwald exacting downtown vengeance at an uptown reading, and the stridently, even luxuriously, Marxist Andrews hawking literary magazines as only a natural salesman could.

Gottlieb’s meticulous gaze and novelistic gift for psychological insight have caught a great deal many such moments. The judicious indiscretions of a deeply discreet voice conceal much more then they reveal, and Gottlieb’s obvious good faith and deep feeling for all involved make some recollections guarded. Yet, this very good faith earns the trust of a reader, and some portraits do indeed carry enough impish bite to threaten long-held friendships.

Fittingly the book caps the memoir with “Jobs of the Poets,” the prescriptive essay of the book’s title. As with an earlier, shorter version (first published online in the poetry journal Jacket), it asks that eternal question of revolutionaries and existentially committed litterateurs: “What is to be done?”

The essay is composed entirely of questions answered only with other questions. It dissects, in more than 30 segments, the problems of the ethics of poetry, living as a poet, making a living and living for poetry in the language of citizenship. What it means to have a job, hold a job one does not like (this connects quite naturally with the portions of the memoir recounting Gottlieb’s many day jobs), the kind of job a poet can do, must do and is “allowed” or “required” to do. Soberly, and with a hint of melancholy, the essay interrogates the young poet on how he will conduct his art and craft.

The success of a largely expressionistic memoir lies always with the question of comprehensibility — with the writer’s ability to rouse our capacity for empathy and sentimentality for someone else’s lost world. Gottlieb succeeds vividly in conveying his memories of being young, sensitive and alive in a remarkable time and place. So remarkable, in fact, that they lead the poet, like his city, inexorably to the pathos of age and degeneration. The materiality of the flesh and the fragility of youth are melded with the analogous ephemerally of the city and of poetry:

The city back then was mysterious, impermeable. An impenetrable locus of hidden doings, serene, awesome in its ability to ignore. Its decay seemed regnant. And inevitable.…… This place was an endlessly arresting scrim. And all manner of dramas, from rewritings of Nadja to revivals of Fantomas, were surely being played out across it, beneath it, above it. If only it was possible to penetrate into those other worlds.

Vladislav Davidzon was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and educated in New York. He is a poet and translator currently based in Paris.

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