Date: Sun, 14 Apr 2002
Subject: "a volume of absolutely comparable worth"

I find your list of acceptable revolutionaries, "Rimbaud, Blake, Vallejo, Rukeyser, Cesaire, Artaud", to be less than helpful, in various ways, if I may. For one, it does not differ greatly (Rimbaud, Artaud) from the early canon that "materialist" poetics has been putting forward. So, going back to what is virtually the same starting point will only, in the long run, come full circle and eventually grow into a "materialist" poetics rediviva. Second, with the exception of Muriel Rukyser (a "Which One of These Does Not Belong" peculiar and seemingly personal choice) or the British Blake, it is decidedly foreign language, Europhile, and, in lacking even the beginnings of an American genealogy, it displaces revolutionary contexts that were very likely specific to their points of gneration onto an American scene that needs a somewhat more indigenous topography to take root. (It is also anachronistic in its arbitrary leap-frogging back and forth across centuries.) Thirdly, upon closer inspection, I'm not sure that brief list holds up to your second criterion, of a prelapsarian unity of feeling and thought: Artaud, who simply admitted he couldn't think anymore, and that his problem was harrowing inner nullity, was, to my mind, much more wiped out and disabled as far as anything like intellect went, and his degenerative illness was what we loosely refer to as "emotional illness," so he kind of misses feeling/thought on both counts, since all his feelings were phantasmagoria and his paranoia or whatever the specific -phrenia of his diagnosis no better equipped to write feelings than, say, a schizoid.

I can understand your hunger to start all over

and the more-or-less "anti-Language"/anti-"materialist" poetics your various jeremiads have been dreaming of, from the standpoint of its having become too easy, too widespread, too "dumbed down, "pseudo-confessionalist" in its choosing its materiality from the same sources as Confessionalism: the accidentals of one's life, etc.

I think, though, that a call for something new has to base itself at some point on something that is new, and what your essays are missing is an even provisional indicator of where within American poetry something resembling your manifesto can already be seen, if only embryonically.

There's an interesting list that's been passed over for a long time, as an alternative staring point: the list of the refusés from the In The American Tree anthology. (I regard In The American Tree as the turning point where "materialist" poetries became organized as such as a sort of full-scale phalanx, and went from pockets of scattered idiosyncracy to the national, self-proclaimed party system it has become.)

Silliman's 1st edition introduction reads:

"A volume of absolutely comparable worth could be constructed from the writing of Tom Ahern, Robert Gluck, Bruce Boone, Beverly Dahlen, Rosemarie Waldrop, Karl Young, Alice Notely, (sic) Dick Higgins, Curtis Faville, Laura Moriarty, Barbara Einzig, Jim Rosenberg, Laura Chester, Lydia Davis, Johanna Drucker, Kathleen Fraser, Gloria Frym, Peter Ganick, Merrill Gilfillan, Ed Friedman, Gerald Burns, Gerritt Lansing, Chris Mason, Doug Messerli, John Godfrey, Michael Amnasan, Loris Essary, Keith Waldrop, Geoff Young, Marshall Reese, Craig Watson, Marina LaPalma, Steve Roberts, Bernard Welt, Gil Ott, Ted Pearson, Jerry Estrin, Mark Lecard, Kirby Malong, Norman Fischer, John Yau, John Taggart, Gail Sher, Joseph Simas, Cris Cheek, Joan Rettalack, Rafael Lorenzo, David Gitlin, Jed Rasula, Keith Shein, Charles Stein, Leslie Scalapino, Michael Lally, Dennis Cooper, Dvid Benedetti, Bill Mohr, Lelan Hickman, Charles Amirkhanian, Steve Katz, Doug Lang, Bill Corbett, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Maureen Owen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Aaron Shurin, David Levi-Strauss, Sandra Meyer, DeLys Mullis, Carole Korzeniowsky, Frances Jaffer, Donald Byrd, Charles North, Jim Brodey, Madeleine Burnside, Barbara Barg, Lorenzo Thomas, Tim Dlugos, Steven Hamilton, Gary Lenhart, and others."

(It also defines further criteria for exclusion, "For reasons of ... clarity," as "poets working in other nations", "those whose primary medium is something other than poetry", or "whose mature style and public identity was largely formed prior to this moment in writing". I find the second as especially promising, especially now that digital frontiers do allow a re-consideration and fresh attention to be given to "multi-media" poets.)

I've tried before to call attention to this list of refuse'es and to second-guess what it may conceal: .

In most cases, I think, those poets would not have advanced as well the cause of "paratactic"/asyntactical poetry, as many of them continued to write might closer to "normative discourse."

Some of the refusés were later folded under the aegis of "materialist"/Language poetry in subsequent round-ups, or have drifted there over time, perhaps precisely for want of the lost alternative that that "volume of absolutely comparable worth" took down with it.

Even a cursory glance at its names, though, brings up examples that, in fact, do seem to synthesize feeling and thought in the way you might envision, such as, out of the names I recognize, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, all of whose books are perfect masterpieces

(the opening of Sphericity: "I did not know beforehand what would count for me as a new color. Its beauty is an analysis / of things I believe in or experience, but seems to alter events very little. The significance of a bird / flying out of grapes in a store reates to the beauty of the color of the translucency of grapes"),

Gerritt Lansing, where alchemical hermeticism met gay male poetry in a seemingly impossible fusion or combustion, Dennis Cooper's unique hybrid of political poetry and idealized self in his J.F.K.-as-a-boy poems, Michael Amnasan's chilling frankness about being the working class poet, the unsung epic unruliness of Blau DuPlessis' indefatigable hodgepodge, etc.

A great deal could be gained, I believe, ---all my card-catalog-scavenging to find those I could has been rewarding--- by returning to that fork in the road and seeing where the history "of winners" that was written over so many names I've simply never seen elsewhere diverged from a forgotten possible world.

As far as "materiality,"--- there's been continuous slippage in that term, and just plain ignorance as to meaning. A quasi-Marxist critique such as the polemics that accompanied "materialist" poetics had to have meant, at root, not eclipsing focus on the material itself, i.e. language, but upon the material conditions that surround its production. At some point, paratactical writing seemed like a believable hook on which to hang this hat of materiality. It did, after all, jolt with a startled re-encounter with the similar materiality of the book, in, the first few dozen times or some, opening an innocuous-looking front cover to find a total contradiction of all expectations within, hence forcing a re-examination of such expectations.

The difficulty, today, for a reasonably well-read poet is that, by dint of sheer number, it has been normalized. --- Difficulty in the sense that the original claims about materiality weather poorly, as the decades since have significantly altered the material conditions of the poet-producers but rarely effected a similary telling acknowledgement of that whole new horizon of materialist realities within the imitation-of-an-imitation poetry: MFAs, a decline in the cost of publishing, criticism about said materiality, etc (to say nothing of the Internet and the yet unexplored ways in which distribution of print poetry through Web changes its "materiality" ---immaterializing it?). There are advantages, too, in its normalization: the work itself is less difficult. It is easier, critically, to see where a thread of a story or themes do show through. It's possible to discuss whole books of paratactic writing entirely for their "content" (semantics) now, without re-hashing the arguments in favor of and their apologetics. In time, one becomes re-trained or re-conditioned to read, when it's there, entirely lucid continuities. And, likewise, not to waste too much time getting caught up in "secondary" or tertiary writing, ... although the political climate of a very small poetry world continue to make it impossible to hold up specific cases as "poor" versions of "materialist" poetics.

At any rate, I do think that distinction important to put out at the get-go: materiality as, originally, the materiality of the poet-worker's situation, the historical materialism of publication, the materiality of the medium (language) as subject to its contemporary, time-bound jargons and slangs, etc. What materiality should have been meaning all along is: who wrote it, what (political) groups benefit from the power relations that it sets in motion, ...

The poetics or theory has gotten progressively muddled as its lost that key element of its own argument. Re-embracing the dogma in its more complete form also allows its expansion across poetries that chance and power struggles shut out. You mention John Ashbery,--- but I'm continually intrigued by how much of materialist poetics fits Frank O'Hara perfectly: the historical materialist acuteness of the present moment notated in its chronometric exactitude, poetry as the product not of the lone individualist (which your Blake and Rimbaud somewhat harken back to) but the project of an entire community of interrelated manufacturers, etc.

(I never realized until just now when the radio announcer said it, that Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was written during and given its first premier in a German prisoner of war camp.)

It's important to keep in mind that the poetry is separable from the poetics, and that the same body of "materialist" work can be re-narrativized/theorized under different rubrics, ... and, vice-versa, that criteria of materialist dicta are met by work not typically identified with that banner.