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This item is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

Letters from Simon Currie, John Lucas
Language Games (1)


I enjoyed A. Norman Jeffares' piece 'On Editing Gogarty' (PNR 136) with examples of the latter's wit. I am sure he knows the comment about a colleague, a professor of medicine not known for his kindness to patients: 'That man has as many degrees as a thermometer but a much lower capacity for registering human warmth.'


Language Games (2)


There may be a case for Charles Bernstein's poetry, but Paul Quinn's piece (PNR 136) certainly doesn't make it. On those occasions when, to adapt Dryden, he deviates into sense, he persuades me only that Bernstein's language games are simply ersatz tricks for appearing politically OK. We're told that Bernstein uses 'syntactical and linguistic experiments designed to elude official templates' - the templates of those who own the language of Power and who perpetuate this power 'with transparent ease'. If such ease is transparent, then it surely follows that the Power can be seen through? In which case I'd have thought confrontation and challenge were more appropriate than eluding a template-whatever that means. But of course we have to understand that Bernstein is out there on the margins, together with his fast-moving guerillas, always on the move against Power. Except that, as Quinn has to acknowledge, Bernstein and other Language poets have been embraced by university presses, are widely taught, and are beginning to make inroads into the crucial anthologies. If anything the charge has shifted to accusations of selling out - "The Long March to Tenure" in the caustic phrase of the movement pioneer Ron Silliman.'

But that's the first and last we hear of the charge, which is anyway beside the point. Because L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is surely no sort of threat to the academy. It's merely another style. Not that Quinn wants to admit that. "'Sentences" ... like a number of the more melancholy early satiric poems, is ultimately less concerned to suggest escape routes than to transcribe the trap: the life-sentence to which many are condemned and contorted [sic], the ready-to-wear phrases to which we cut our cloth in turn [sic]. The poem's sentences seem to mix standard middle class ennui, with non-standard underclass alienation ("they want you to clean / They dont have no feeling / They want to know 'What should I call you?' )'. Standard middle class ennui. Oh, of course. And though I haven't a clue what the phrase 'non-standard' is doing here (there's something extra-special about 'underclass alienation' perhaps?), I can recognise a cliché when I see one.

However, 'To use language in ways that do not succumb to the traps and snares of command or convention, to the job-description or the inherited form, is central to the politics and poetry of much Language writing.' Much? Surely it must be central to all such writing? But leave Quinn's habitual resort to weasel words out of it: is he suggesting that sonnets are like job-descriptions? Or that non-Language poems succumb to the snares and traps of command or convention? What, all of them? Well, yes. Language poetry, on the other hand, makes possible a break for freedom. 'In Language poetry such torsions are on behalf of, and in collaboration with, readers -those fellow fugitives from the chain-gang; the goal is a collective activity more thoroughgoing and even more integral, more explicit and dynamic, than the necessary reciprocation poets always seek.' The readers don't write the poems, of course. But as they are fellow fugitives it might be reasonable to suppose they don't actually need the damned things. They know. Know what? Oh, all about middle-class ennui and underclass alienation. After all, these escapees from the chain-gang are presumably made up (exclusively, I'd guess) of those who have to buy the anthologies 'which are widely taught in American Universities'. Collaborators? It might be more accurate to call them students learning how to achieve good grades by cutting their cloth into ready-to-wear phrases. (An A for alienation.)

Still, Bernstein has moved on. Quinn offers to our admiring gaze an example of 'a self-invented mode [Bernstein has dubbed, "The Nude Formalism", a carnivalesque parody of the sonorous austerities of The New Formalism. "Pinky Swear" is atypical sonnet of this type:

Such mortal slurp to strain this sprawl went droopy
Gadzooks it seems would bend these slopes in girth
None trailing failed to hear the ship looks loopey
Who's seen it nailed uptight right at its berth ...

And so the poem proceeds on its awkward way; [possessing] "the beauty in a lack of grace" reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek defence, made by a friend of mine, of Fenimore Cooper's "conscious inadequacy of style"'. Bernstein, you see, means to write badly. You can't lose, can you? He does, though, not because he's parodying the new formalism but because, as any reader of Lewis Carroll could tell him, he's a hundred or so years too late.

But then everything to do with Language poetry, at least as Quinn presents it, is too late. It's Dada for beginners topped off with a sprinkling of sixties marxism. Even beginners, though, ought to have some care for the meaning of words. I take it that when Quinn speaks of 'the principle effect' of recent Bernstein poems being one of 'a clamorous sound-world which operates aslant meaning, on the brink of semantics, never quite connecting' he wants to identify something of major importance rather than a rule of law. Or is this an example of where, perhaps to point an ennui and adorn an alienation, we are to acknowledge the propriety of Humpty Dumpty's nominalism?


Paul Quinn replies:

'There may be a case for Charles Bernstein's poetry...' concedes John Lucas generously. Actually, I hadn't realised it was on trial. Misguidedly, I thought I was tracing some continuities in Bernstein's imagery and ideas as reflected in Republics of Reality. Admittedly, even if I had realised, and mustered a more spirited defence, I suspect I would have received short shrift: Language poetry will remain guilty until proven innocent for some people. It is curious, though, how any broadly sympathetic account of Language writing seems to bring out the hanging judge in reasonable, 'disinterested' chaps like Lucas. The original piece made passing reference to this phenomenon, which is worth more detailed study. Indeed, it is almost an inherited form (though much closer to the job description than the sonnet) in its own right, replete with its own conventions.

Defending a metaphor is rather like explaining a joke - an admission of failure. So I'll hold up my hands when I say that my reference to 'ready-to-wear phrases to which we cut our cloth in turn', does mingle (mangle?) metaphor with paradox. Tortuous, yes, but 'sic' no. I was trying to suggest that the poem 'Sentences' concerns the way in which much self-expression labours under a false sense of autonomy and is in fact deeply conventional. We think we are making sentences that are in fact already made and proceed accordingly. The bespoke is already spoken for, already ready-to-wear. A handy illustration of this is the fact that Lucas's carefully tailored observations - 'it's merely another style', ,sixties marxism', 'Humpty Dumpty nominalism' etc - can all be found, almost word for word, in previously published commentaries by similarly hostile critics. Unintentional, I'm sure, but off-the-peg all the same.

As for 'weasel words' ...well, perhaps I could take lessons in textual strategy from so carefully selective a reader; one who writes as if 'Pinky Swear' represented the only type of poem produced by Bernstein or indeed the only type discussed in the piece; a reader who knows Bernstein's mind more than the poet himself, or than any critic who has bothered actually to read the poems. Bernstein writes badly, he assures us, patronising and omniscient at once, 'not because he is parodying the new formalism but because, as any reader of Lewis Carroll could tell him, he's a hundred or so years too late.' In fact, he IS parodying the new formalism here, and Bernstein is more than aware of the Carroll tradition and of other traditions - apart from Dada - (traditions which the article makes a point of mentioning) but to admit this would challenge the caricature of a witlessly belated marxist that Lucas is eager to construct.

The references to 'standard' and 'nonstandard' which causes Lucas such distress - and gives him such mileage is in context clearly (though evidently not clearly enough) related again to the poem 'Sentences' and its deployment of standard and non-standard English sentences. But I should have spelt this out. In this presumptuous, shorthand way I was addressing an ideal reader prepared to compare commentary and poem in good faith.

I could go on, but shrill peevishness is yet another (very British) inherited form best avoided (or eluded). Better to leave Lucas to his own rhetorical devices. His favourite seems to be the one where he splutters out a question ('What, all of them?') then immediately supplies an emphatic answer ('Well, yes!'). Here, I think, he has found his own ideal style. Long may this self-sustaining conversation continue.

This item is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

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