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Journal Article


Gardner, Thomas


Contemporary Literature, Volume 33, Issue 2, p.177-190 (1992)

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American Poetry of the 1980s: An Introduction 

As an opening illustration of some of the issues these essays on American poetry of the last decade are concerned about, let me offer Robert Hass's "Spring Drawing"—the first poem in his 1989 collection, Human Wishes

A man thinks lilacs against white houses, having seen them in the farm country south of Tacoma in April, and can't find his way to a sentence, a brushstroke carrying the energy of brush and stroke 
—as if he were stranded on the aureole of the memory of a woman's breast, 
and she, after the drive from the airport and a chat with her mother and a shower, which is ritual cleansing and a passage through water to mark transition, 
had walked up the mountain on a summer evening. 
Away from, not toward. As if the garden roses were a little hobby of the dead. As if the deer pellets in the pale grass and the wavering moon and the rondure—as they used to say, upping the ante—of heaven 
were admirable completely, but only as common nouns of a plainer intention, moon, shit, sky
as if spirit attended to plainness only, the more complicated forms exhausting it, tossed-off grapestems becoming crystal chandeliers, 
as if radiance were the meaning of meaning, and justice responsible to daydream not only for the strict beauty of denial, 
but as a felt need to reinvent the inner form of wishing. 
Only the force of the brushstroke keeps the lilacs from pathos—the hes and shes of the comedy may or may not get together, but if they are to get at all, 
then the interval created by if to which mind and breath attend, nervous as the grazing animals the first brushes painted, 
has become habitable space, lived in beyond wishing. 

Like many of the strongest poems of the decade, this is a piece responding to an acknowledgment of language's limits—in this case, a man's inability to "find his way to a sentence" that, in carrying to completion a "stroke" of language's "brush," would offer up a dreamed-over landscape whole and radiant. That acknowledgment seems at first bound up in what Hass calls the "strict beauty of denial," in which being stranded on the unwordable radiance of a memory produces something grief-soaked and lonely and dead. But then, reaching for a simile to capture that stalled space and becoming instead caught up in the expanding textures of the comparison itself, he finds himself in a different sort of response. The opening up of the simile—not being able to complete a sentence is "as if" one were left only with a memory while the woman in question left, flew home, chatted, showered, and walked out in the evening—exaggerates the gap often overlooked in the construction "as if" but also discovers in doing so that the gap can be handled, and played with, and thought within. That sort of acknowledgment keeps one moving "away from, not toward" a completed sentence, but now Hass finds a wealth of things to be "attended to" in "the interval created by if"—both the imagined landscape of her walk with its roses, deer pellets, moon, and deepening sky and the cascading series of "as if" statements teased into a striking meditation on the very gap they pointedly signal. Like Penelope weaving and unweaving her "sentence," attentively alert in that pause, Hass uses the stroll to think about the energy-sapping domestications  still alive in our language ("pale grass," "wavering moon," "rondure"), the way such "complicated forms" leave the world "a little hobby of the dead," and the need instead for "common nouns of plainer intention." None of that completes the sentence about Tacoma farm country, but jarred into a new way of thinking or writing that articulates "a felt need to reinvent the inner form of wishing," Hass has found a new way to attend to the gap and make it "habitable space." The question of completion and possession left suspended—"the hes and shes of the comedy may or may not get together"—something else, a wandering alertness "beyond wishing," gets made out of that radiant daydream. Call it a different sort of brush- stroke, nervous and attentive and alive. 

The best analysis I know of the alertness that makes such a space habitable can be found in the work of Stanley Cavell. Extending an early inheritance of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin by working out readings of such diverse examples as American movies, Shakespearean tragedy, Emerson, and Thoreau, Cavell claims that the skeptic's refusal to settle for anything less than perfect knowledge of the world is in fact "a refusal to acknowledge his participation in finite human existence" (Themes 60) or "a drive to reach the unconditional[,] . . . the desire to refuse human limitation, the limitation of finitude" (Disowning 17). A rich example for Cavell is "Othello's radical, consuming doubt"—prompted not by Iago's rumoring but by Othello's world—dissolving flight from limits: "He cannot forgive Desdemona for existing, for being separate from him, outside, beyond command, commanding, her captain's captain" (Disowning 136). Cavell's crucial move—one I've found very useful in thinking about poetry of the last decade or so—is to attempt not to refute skepticism (in fact we can't have perfect knowledge of the world) but to go beyond it by offering an alternative response to the sense of limitation it interprets. Cavell calls this "liv[ing] our skepticism"—that is, coming to see "the sense that something escapes the conditions of knowledge ... [as] the sense, in fact, that our primary relation to the world is not one of knowing (understood as achieving certainty based upon the senses)" (Senses 106-7). What would that relation be? "It is true that we do not know the existence of the world with certainty; our relation to its existence is deeper—one in which it is accepted, that is to say received. My favorite way of putting this is to say that existence is to be acknowledged" (Senses 133). 

Rather than avoiding limitation through a disappointed drive for certainty, Cavell (like Hass) finds within the uncertain space opened up by those limits the possibility of a relation to the world "closer, or more intimate than the ideas of believing or knowing are made to convey" (Themes 192). Gerald Bruns unpacks Cavell's move in this way: 

Stanley Cavell . . tries to imagine thinking as something receptive rather than assertive-thinking that starts out from "acknowledgment" where the idea is that the claim of other people on us is not a truth-claim but a call for recognition .... Our relation to the world, to other people as the world, requires that we forego knowing, not in the sense of abandoning reason for something else, some alternative mental state (poetic frenzy, say, or the madness of hearing voices), but in the sense of acknowledgment as the recognition of the otherness of other people. In the hermeneutic tradition, this is called openness, . . . a letting-be (Gelassenheit) of the impenetrability and ungraspability of the other, say her reserve or self-standing, her resistance to domination and control. 

("Tragic" 699

The characteristic turn for poetry of the eighties has been to have seen this limit-generated, unsponsored intimacy open up within the sentence. To borrow again from Bruns, this time from his recent Heidegger's Estrangements, many of our most interesting poets have discovered "the renunciation of linguistic mastery ... where poetry opens itself—enters into, listens or belongs to—the mystery of language, its otherness, its nonhumanness, its density, its 'danger' " (xx) to be the source of a new sort of attentive response to the world. Though often more troubled or less controlled than Hass, these poets join him in seeing what Bruns calls "the weakness of the logos" (58) as something to be entered and embraced rather than overcome. 

This special issue begins with three overviews of the decade, all describing, in different ways, how one might "attend" to the interval opened up when a writer "can't find his way to a sentence." Marjorie Perloff's "Toward a Wittgensteinian Poetics" argues that Wittgenstein's attempt to "bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use" by making clear, for each, "the language-game which is its original home" is central to experimental poetry of the eighties. In particular, as she sees it, Wittgenstein's "distrust of grammar," the way he "treats ordinary language to the process of 'beginning again and again,'" can be seen to have initiated current "notion[s] of poetic writing as self-interruption, the production of short units—aphorisms, fragments, gnomic sentences—that undergo repeated correction, contradiction, and especially recontextualization." The language games which Perloff's poets attend to, of course, are not those Wittgenstein brought to consciousness, but their stubborn, relentless concern for the way language functions does seem to bear his stamp. Hass's stalled sentence, Perloff would claim, like much of the work of this "decade when the cult of personality that had dominated American poetry from the confessionalism of the fifties to the 'scenic mode' . . . of the seventies began to give way," has found in "the attempt to chart the limits of one's language" a rich, explosive field to explore. 

Perloff supports this argument by examining a number of representative works that "have declared themselves as manifestly Wittgensteinian"—by which she means, quite literally, poems that take Wittgenstein's oddly opaque and lucid investigations and "give them a slight spin" in order to open new territory within the language games they track. Ron Silliman's "Sunset Debris," for example, in its increasingly disorienting display of "syntactic indeterminacy," creates what Perloff calls a "verbal vortex" where "a reader cannot know what language game is being played" and is thus forcibly awakened to questions about language's demands for submission not normally visible. Rosmarie Waldrop's explicit reworking of Wittgensteinian phrases and propositions in The Reproduction of Profiles demonstrates that the everyday use of language, when examined closely enough, is shot through with the complications of gender and power. The interval she opens and moves through is the one "grammatical terror opens . . . between you and yourself in order to insert the mirror." John Cage's Norton lectures, on the other hand, dissolving and recontextualizing Wittgenstein and other source texts, make that attentiveness seem more open-eyed, almost tactile. "Let's see," Perloff imagines Cage saying, "what these everyday words will mean when we change their context, simply by omitting neighboring words, ignoring punctuation marks, and then splicing the words we want together." 

Charles Altieri also uses Wittgenstein, but in a different sort of way. In terms quite close to Hass's, he argues that poetry's investigation of "how we inhabit the sentences we speak" "provides models of thinking at once more subtle and more conceptually provocative than we find in the prevailing theoretical stances." If "theory" can be said to have responded to the collapse of "romantic notions of a deep-buried and alienated self desperate for expression" by "reducing subjectivity to subjection within linguistic and social codes"—a subjection perhaps resisted by a "working negativity" but never overcome—Altieri envisions a different response—in Cavell's terms a different way of living out the truth of skepticism. Rather than positing (and lamenting the loss of) strong images for the self, recent poetry has demonstrated that "how one establishes one's relation to utterances and situations provides a sufficient grounding for the range of identities and identifications that constitutes subjective life." Hass's ungrounded "interval created by if," that is to say, provides an area within which one might "establish expressive energies" by, as Altieri puts it, "tak[ing] responsibility for propositions." Wittgenstein, with these concerns in mind, not only shows the way back to nonacknowledged language games but also demonstrates that engaging the "bounding conditions" of one's actions "calls forth constructive energies" which "present the contours of an insistent expressive will ... bound entirely to the facts of a shareable world." And that gives Altieri a way to claim that the foregrounded struggle with the ambitions and limits of language so characteristic of this decade "gives subjective agency a duration and a gathering power without having to attribute to it any mysterious inner life." 

Altieri's examples are John Ashbery and C. K. Williams. (Here, to a degree, he parts company with Perloff, suggesting that "it may not be the most experimental poets who provide the richest engagement in distinctly contemporary intellectual issues.") Ashbery's "As We Know," finding no way to an idealized expression of love and awakening instead to the contingencies of the activity of speaking, establishes in that ungrounded space a "we" composed of "two independent ways of knowing joined through the 'as' of the telling." In attending to Williams's long lines, we enter an area where "it seem[s] as if language could eat away at itself endlessly, destroying the voice that one desires it to mediate." By implicating himself in and engaging the fact that "what promises expression also keeps undoing itself in its greed to capture and balance," Williams, in what he calls "this breathtakingly rapid back-and-forth aligning- realigning of the displaced center of gravity," demonstrates the way the play of the mind "finds a home within the activity of language." 

Roger Gilbert's examination of what he calls "the period style of the eighties"—writing whose "hallmark is an obsessive play of shifting surfaces" in which "discrete bits of information" from "very different registers of discourse" are restlessly braided together—is perhaps more uneasy about how the inability to find one's way is played out. Gilbert's way of talking about this gap is to speak of our current awareness of the distance between lyric speech—Hass's yearning, in a poem Gilbert examines, "to sing one thing so true that it is true"—and the social and political world which song would address. He calls this a gap between "pleasure and politics." The nervously alert period style he is concerned with holds itself in that contested space by being "ironically aware of the endless levels of artifice and mediation that make up both public and private experience," rendering them apprehensible "as bundles of words and images supplied by an array of sources, none of them wholly reliable." 

Because both realms are similarly constituted, reasons Gilbert, the negotiations of style and syntax are forced to the fore as poems seek ways to make the word bundles of "individual experience and the social realm talk to one another." That prompts the claim that a New Formalist work such as Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (in its reduction of political speech to one more element in the "dense concatenation of particulars" of middle-class life that Seth lovingly re- creates and inadvertently undercuts) and a Language school work such as Silliman's What (in its treatment of political reflection as one more element, "momentary and discrete, . . . localized and separable" within the poem's discontinuous, entangled blocks of writing) are both engaged, however different their levels of sophistication and awareness, with the same issues. They negotiate, uneasily, the same held-open space. Hass's "Berkeley Eclogue," then, in its more troubled tone—its "anxious efforts to justify [a] desire to sing in the face of [its own] corrosive irony"—seems to Gilbert the stronger poem because of the way that space is made more self-laceratingly alive. 

To return one more time to "Spring Drawing," we could say that the five essays which follow seek to map and name the landscape opened up by the "weakening of the logos." Employing aspects of all three strategies described by the overview essays—roughly, displaying the pressures involved there (Perloff), registering them (Gilbert), or engaging them (Altieri)—these poets differ quite markedly from each other on what is to be attended to in the space but agree on its location—within the remains of the sentence. Michael Davidson's essay on the implications of Robert Duncan's commitment to marginality addresses these issues in a particularly striking way. Duncan has always been a poet for whom the "god-step at the margins of thought"—the disturbance that calls attention to a border's inadequacy and renders it unstable—"provide[s] access to a larger vision of things." As Davidson notes, Duncan's theosophical upbringing gave him a model of the world in which the broken-off, unending sentence was crucial: "reality was seen as a vast, corrupt text that needed translation, and reading involved an active subversion of the text's surface to reveal heretical meanings beneath." Commonly, Duncan's poems are framed as responses to apparently marginal disturbances, "the poet engaged in reading (or ... writing) a text, whereupon lexical or philological questions about individual words disturb concentration and permit entry into a deeper level of comprehension." 

What happens in the two books Duncan published in the eighties, after a self-imposed fifteen-year silence, is that his commitment to this sort of transgressional entry becomes at once more literal and less benign. Making his way through a landscape where boundaries have been blurred and made unstable now also means "mak[ing] what is at stake in their transgression visible." For example, Dun- can's "Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn's Moly" quite typically "project sexual content" into Gunn's work from a position literally on its margins, thus "recogniz[ing] in the more formal verse of Thom Gunn desire for a measure that might accommodate sexual and psychological states beyond measure." Duncan makes it clear, however, associating this textual transgression with the memory of a "coming-into-speech [linked to] an act of physical violation," that the space where the sentence wanders homeless is deeply contested and often highly charged. What is attended to, in Davidson's words, are "irregularities . . . that cannot be consigned to some presymbolic, nonlinguistic state any more than they can be tempered in verse. They live literally in the margins of books where 'all the slumb'ring dark / matter comes alight.'" 

Using Charles Bernstein as an example and looking at competing claims being made for the way Language poetry "works to impede reference or smooth 'projection'" in order to "draw attention to the way discursive practices produce the reality they appear simply to convey," Tenney Nathanson brings the political implications of these questions more clearly into view. Nathanson looks at two characteristic practices of the period: what he calls collage (a "collision of competing idioms" which captures the "fading of person into discursive position[s], . . . a series of available phrases from available codes") and pulverization (in which "isolated words seem to flit ... among received if not quite specifiable discourses and language games"). He finds convincing the claim that such practices, by "disrupt[ing] syntactic and semantic coherence," work to resist or critique "the often invisible violence with which subjects are constructed and inserted into symbolic structures and the practices that purvey them." As Bernstein puts it, giving his own spin to the terms I've been using, "the role of the individual isn't so much expressing his or her individual self, but rather resisting various flows, ideologies, and habitations. And I would suggest that listening—attending—is a better model for such resisting than emoting or expressing." 

Less tenable, for Nathanson, are the claims which see in such poetry "another mode of linguistic functioning"—one which, in liberating words "from the prior diacritical codes that engender meaning only at the price of robbing the word of its self-sufficiency and the speaker who employs it of his unalienated autonomy," achieves a kind of "expressive, nonreferential immediacy." Nathanson argues that such a desire for "apocalyptic liberation" is never achieved—that such poems, in Julia Kristeva's terms, "repeatedly evoke a musicated language, gravitating toward the semiotic and disrupting symbolic coherence" but never freeing themselves from language's symbolic demands. Where Duncan registers the violence of such disruptions, these poems register the interplay of "terror" and "utopian aspiration"—an aspiration which, while "unrealized and per- haps unrealizable . . . may nonetheless energize political practice." 

What Lyn Hejinian attends to, David R. Jarraway suggests in his discussion of her involved, subtle play with the limits of realism in My Life, are possibilities within the medium itself. Hejinian's fluid sentences, Jarraway shows, repeatedly confront the impossibility of "accurate representation." That confrontation, in her poem's terms, proves generative, introducing into the text "A pause, a rose, something on paper, . . . the contents of that absent reality, the objects and occasions which now I reconsidered." Each of her descriptions simultaneously establishes a boundary and offers itself as a site where what it bounds out might then come into play—the poet "feeding extra words into the statement already there rather than making up a new one, 'making place in the given space' as she rhythmically puts it, thus 'making more sense' through the 'displacements that alter illusions.'" Foregrounding limits, then, as it disrupts Hejinian's dream of getting close to what happened, also reveals that "only the past limitations of writing can present it with its own future possibilities." 

Here Hejinian seems most notable, suggesting that what flowers or is displayed in that "pause" is not violence or unrealizable aspirations but a "retrieval" or an elaboration of the act of meaning. As she puts it in an essay, "While failing in the attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things." Citing phrases from the poem, Jarraway describes the alert wandering of Hejinian's sentences in terms Cavell would be quite sympathetic to: a language "full of surprises and unexpected correlations," its "repetitions free from all ambition," a language which, in failing to connect with and fix the external world, shows itself to be "productive with activity." 

Like Hejinian, Duncan, and Bernstein, Kathleen Fraser (in Linda A. Taylor's reading) is also drawn to a sense of "one's at-oddness" with language's linear thrust. Like the others, she too has built a poetry out of what she calls "a listening attitude, an attending to unconscious connections, a backing-off of the performing ego to allow the mysteries of language to come forward and resonate more fully." And for Fraser as well, "A boundary . . . defines a space as a focus of attention, distinct from surrounding space that, through the boundary's demarcation, becomes the margin." Fraser, though, "claims this margin as feminine and . . . considers woman's marginal position within the borders of a language privileged and sustained by phallogocentric traditions of thought." This means, as Taylor sees it, that Fraser's use of a language both "watchful and fluent, allowing the variants of yourself to have voice" needs to be examined in a way such that "the question of gender [is not] erased, declared a nonissue." 

Watchfulness, or attending to one's inability to find a sentence, becomes for this poet, then, in the words of one of her speakers to a male lover, an acknowledgment that "It is difficult, even at this moment, to assert my language in the powerful field of your reality." Understanding, at this boundary, "why her speech is so mediated by the pressure of his presence" becomes the first step in counteracting that pressure, because it identifies a muted, "irrational, disjointed substratum beneath our processed, homogenized, male-coherent assimilation of life's raw data to acceptable interpretive models." Fluency, then, becomes that which resists the models, following instead "movements of overlap, separation, conflict, and contiguity," "interweaving multiple voices and stories." Although, as we have noted, such a desire for "a different measure, interrupting the formal order and dismantling its structure" is characteristic of experimental male poets as well, Taylor would argue that what is opened up within the sentence is the possibility of "a feminine claim to language, a full and powerful seizure of voice." 

Bonnie Costello's essay on a work completed early in the decade, Jorie Graham's Erosion (1983), gets at the wandering of language in another sort of way. In contrast to Graham's current investigations of the way images unravel and the still moment dissolves in a "region of unlikeness," Costello sees the earlier work as asserting "modernist values and ambitions." The uneasiness of Erosion, then, the way its central ambitions are qualified or rendered "vulnerable," registers an early version of those pressures which, for many writers of this decade, eventually made it impossible to find a direct way to the sentence. 

These modernist ambitions, as Costello describes them, are embodied by the "masterpieces of visual art" (by Signorelli, Masaccio, Klimt, and so on) that many of Erosion's poems "yearn to approach." If "erosion, loss, grief, the past, history, evolution, dispersion" characterize the world Graham observes from, then works of art seem to embody an alternative—"an integrated, centered eternal space set apart from the flux, even rescuing us from its absolute effects." However, even as Graham charts what is for her a "strong pull toward an iconic center . . . in which the transient world is arrested even as it is evoked," a number of the poems make it clear that for the observer "there is not entrance, only entering." Graham's "peripheral vision" in response to these works of art, then, makes clear both the hold of that vision of completion and rescue on the imagination and "the 'tragedy' of art, which awakens in the be- holder a desire for presence" which cannot be sustained. Graham's most recent work, and that of her strongest contemporaries, has been engaged in what she calls keeping "the gap alive"—discovering what can be done in the tragic space Erosion discovers yawning open. 

Thomas B. Byers's examination of what has come to be called Expansive poetry—a quite visible movement in the eighties dedicated to "the return of form and the rise of narrative"—gives us a way to step back from the concerns raised by the first two groups of essays and see what happens when the tendency of the sentence to wander is deliberately ignored. If, as these essays suggest, the sentence strays under pressures described variously as linguistic, political, social, temporal, or gender-based, there is no inherent reason why those awarenesses couldn't be charted and responded to by what Byers calls an "unabashedly stylized use of meter" acknowledging "human creations as artificial and culturally determined," or by narrative models "implicat[ing] the poet in a dialogic play of voices foregrounding history and community." Indeed, there are poets who come to mind who do just that. As Byers argues, against many hasty generalizations about this movement, "There is no intrinsic connection between meter and conservatism, poetic or political." 

But, for Byers, not to respond, not to at some level raise and engage these issues, is for this movement to leave even its very best poetry vulnerable and open to being "used." Though claiming to be "apolitical," much of this work, as Byers makes the case, in its "op- position to the difficulties of both modernism and poststructuralism" and in its refusal to see "that there has been a major paradigm shift in the ways we analyze the self, language, and their relationship," has made several political alignments, some unwitting. Although claiming to be "transcending . . . ideological allegiances" by "tap- ping into . . . the verities . . . available exclusively in the aesthetic realm of poetry," this movement has, Byers's critique shows, taken a stand. Either becoming "implicitly [and unexaminedly] conservative"—"The great problem of life is control, not change; the answer is classical form and not sympathetic action"-or allowing their politics to be articulated for them, these poets, in refusing to attend to the full play of language, may risk losing their voices. 

This issue is dedicated to L. S. Dembo, whose work with the objectivists and other poets and whose editorial eye at Contemporary Literature encouraged many of us to ask the sorts of questions about language explored here, and provided a place from which to speak. I hope that some of the rigor, tension, and ungrounded play of his interviews with the objectivists—to mention just one example—is reflected in these essays. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 


Bruns, Gerald. Heidegger's Estrangements. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989. 

-----. "Tragic Thoughts at the End of Philosophy." Soundings 72 (1989): 693-724. 

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 

-----. The Senses of Walden. Expanded ed. San Francisco: North Point, 1981. 

-----. Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes. San Francisco: North Point, 1984. 

Graham, Jorie. "Introduction." The Best American Poetry 1990. Ed. Jorie Graham. New York: Collier, 1990. xv-xxxi. 

Hass, Robert. Human Wishes. New York: Ecco, 1989. 

Koethe, John. "Contrary Impulses: The Tension between Poetry and Theory." Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 64-75.

-- - ---- - -- ---- - - -- -- - - -- -- -- - ----- - -- --

 “Spring Drawing” © 1989 by Robert Hass. From Human Wishes by Robert Hass, published by The Ecco Press. Reprinted by permission.

 John Koethe has recently made a similar point about poetry's attitude toward these limits, also looking toward Cavell. He writes, "Rejecting naturalistic conceptions of expression and Cartesian accounts of the self in favor of views that argue for the social construction of these notions may involve a reorientation of one's attitude toward them, but should not prevent one from exploring and exploiting all the expressive possibilities afforded by language, however socially constituted these may be" (71).

 Jorie Graham has spoken of this as "the forcible undoing of the sentence," the awakening of "something other than the lust-for-forwardness, with all its attendant desires for closure, shapeliness, and the sense that we are headed somewhere and that we are in the hands of something" (xxi, xxvi).