Language Poetry and Social Justice

When reading Charles Bernstein’s “Lives of the Toll Takers,” I found that although the poem is chaotic throughout, streams of thought near the end seem to coalesce around the theme of societal injustice, especially pertaining to the Holocaust.

On page 172, Bernstein connects Jewish culture to passivity: “self-reproach, laden with ambivalence, not this or this either . . . whose only motivation is never offend, criticize only with a discountable barb,” and then makes the bold statement: “Genocide is made of words like these . . .” It seems incredibly harsh to blame language used by the Jews for mass murder clearly inflicted on them by another, dominant culture and government. But Bernstein explains his pronouncement somewhat in his reference to Nietzsche, on whom Hitler based some of his ideas, and Pound, who was anti-Semitic: “Pound laughing (with Nietzsche’s gay laughter) all the way to the cannon’s bank . . .” Here, he portrays dominant Western (literary) culture as one that favors literature made up of language that can ultimately be terribly destructive. (I think that Bernstein intentionally references authors known for their iconic literary/philosophical works more than for Holocaust connections)  I think that Bernstein is not blaming any one kind of language, used by any group or author, but rather holding the ways in which our entire society uses language accountable: language is the way in which human beings communicate with one another, and therefore a driving force in every aspect of society. Drastic change in the way that language is used is therefore necessary for creating a culture in which genocide cannot happen.

In “Barbarism, Hejinian also blames language structures for creating a society that could bring about the Holocaust. She says in response to Adorno’s statement that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, “Poetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities.” (326) This statement twists Adorno’s words to assert that language must change in order to change our culture, and claims that the task of poetry should be “not to speak the same language as Auschwitz,” (326).

Hejinian also lists a wider set of cultural goals for Language Poetry as “premises,” (322) of their outlook on language and society. Hejinian includes in her list, “racism, sexism, and classism are repulsive,” (323) and “institutionalized stupidity and entrenched hypocrisy are monstrous and should be attacked” (323). According to Hejinian, these societal issues are within the realm of language because “language is preeminently a social medium” (323). Disturbing the linguistic structures of a culture that allows for “racism, sexism, and classism,” is therefore necessary in order to end those problems.

As Holly explained in a post, a phrase in quotations in Bernstein’s poem, “Daddy, what did you do to stop the war?” (117) recalls a propaganda poster from World War I in which a child asks, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” I think that this phrase in the poem serves two purposes. First, Bernstein uses it as an example of how a statement can (and should) be altered with only a few word changes from a statement promoting and glorifying war to one that encourages peace. Second, by claiming that “Daddy” did not successfully stop “the war,” it also implies that a previous generation could not have prevented war because they were using language from a tradition that historically caused many wars.

How important do you think a social justice/cultural change agenda is to Bernstein? Where else in “Lives of the Toll Takers” is it visible? How “social” is the writing of the other Language Poets that we read over the past few weeks?

A Monument of Human Experience

Lorine Niedecker’s poem “Thomas Jefferson,” humanizes Jefferson by emphasizing his private life, especially through his personal connections with his family. Niedecker also returns to Jefferson’s physical vulnerability throughout, for example informing the reader that, “he could be trimmed by a two-month migraine” (73-4). However, Niedecker does not isolate this rare perspective on Jefferson’s life, but instead often places Jefferson’s private life directly beside his public life. In the first stanza, the tension between the two is established: “My wife is ill! And I sit waiting for a quorum” (1-4). “Latin and Greek” (20) become not only the education of a “great” man in American history, but his “tools to understand humanity,” (21-23) making him a truly complex individual. Niedecker creates one of the most powerful of these parallels by describing Montecello, known in American history as one of Jefferson’s great architectural achievements, as chiefly Jefferson’s home, and the location of some of his most personal experiences.

While Montecello’s name brings to mind a somewhat stationary monument, which is now a museum, Niedecker’s poem describes it as much more than one of Jefferson’s accomplishments. During its construction Jefferson, “passed on to carpenters, bricklayers, what I knew,” (181) so the experience of the workers become part of the estate’s story. Its creation was a long term project for Jefferson, and the daily work of many other individuals who he personally interacted with.

Important personal events in Jefferson’s life occur at Montecello, for example, the death of his daughter, Polly. However, it seems possibly more emotionally resonant that Jefferson’s connection with Polly is powerfully connected to the same place, “Dear Polly: I said No—no frost in Virginia—the strawberries were safe” (77-80). When Niedecker’s Jefferson plans on going to Monetcello, he thinks of his grandchildren, and contributing to the conflict between his private and public lives, and wonders, “will they know me?” (93) Jefferson’s grandchildren are obviously essential figures in this poem, because they appear again at its conclusion: “stay youth—Anne and Ellen” (282). In same passage describing what is important to Jefferson on his deathbed (his daughter, granddaughters and a message for the “Committee of Safety” (150)), the line, “let dome live, spherical dome, and columnade,” (148-9), is included. While this description could represent many government buildings built during Jefferson’s time, which often imitated classical architecture, it also might refer to Montecello, which fits the physical description as well. If Montecello is the architecture described here, then the line may represent both an accomplishment that Jefferson feels proud of, and his family and home life, to which Niedecker’s Jefferson has a deep personal connection.

Ultimately, Montecello, like Jefferson, is vulnerable: “Ah soon must Montecello be lost to debts” (143-4). Both the estate and the man who designed it have lost their personal significance through their fame and through time. By restoring the familial intimacy of experience in her poem, Niedecker seems to strive to create an American history that can be easily related to through universal experiences of family, home, and vulnerability.

O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter, and Goldberg’s “Sardines”

Although the title of Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter,” suggests that poetry and painting are somehow inherently different, the poem itself seems to structurally focus more on similarities between the two art forms and what they can accomplish than their differences. Within the poem, a poet’s creative process and “Mike Goldberg’s” painting process are established as parallel through their mirroring in the second and third stanzas. Where Goldberg’s painting, titled “Sardines,” loses its concrete subject matter as a compositional choice, the poet’s work, which begins with the concept of the color “orange” ends up “finished,” (26) with no mention of orange. Both are named after concrete subject matter that their content lacks, presented in parallel block lettering. The poem ends without describing the actual content of either, and in both artists’ processes vague quantities of time pass before they are finished. Because of these clear parallels, I decided to compare “Why I Am Not a Painter” directly to Michael Goldberg’s painting “sardines, which Professor Phillips recently uploaded on Moodle. By imitating the painting in structure and blurring descriptions of the creative process, O’Hara seems to assert that painting and poetry can achieve similar goals.

The structure of “Why I Am Not a Painter” seems similar to the composition of Goldberg’s painting “Sardines,” because both are circular. Just as the colors in Goldberg’s paintings seem to travel in roughly circular patterns through the image, “Why I Am Not a Painter” creates a kind of circle from beginning to end through its return to the title, “SARDINES,” (29). Although the word “sardines does not begin the poem, it opens the description of Goldberg’s painting process (8) and returns to it in the final word. Smaller circles also characterize O’Hara’s experience of Goldberg’s painting process as “I drop in” at beginning of Goldberg’s process (5), and as the painting progresses and changes (11,13). The poet finally returns to Goldberg’s painting at the end, completing the cycle.

Statements that blur distinctions of what defines poetry also might imitate, or at least relate to the lack of concrete or recognizable subject matter in Goldberg’s painting.
Time in particular becomes blurred throughout the poem. While the painting progresses, “I go, and the days go by,” (11-12), and an unmeasured number of “days go by” (24) again while the poet writes “Oranges.” Time, therefore is an abstract concept instead of a concrete factor in the poem’s narrative.

When O’Hara describes the poem “Oranges,” the poet says, “It is even of prose, I am a real poet” (24-25). Here, the reader cannot be sure even of whether poem that O’Hara is describing is actually poetry or prose. With different forms of writing confused, even the reader’s perception of what a “poem” is becomes blurred and abstracted. Similarly, in O’Hara’s description of Goldberg’s painting process, in the place of the “sardines” in the painting, “all that’s left is just letters,” (15-16). Since the reader would likely expect “letters” in a poem, but not in a painting, this statement blurs the line between writing and painting as art forms also becomes blurry. Through such mixed descriptions, O’Hara challenges the expectation that familiar art forms will appear how they are traditionally expected to look; this achieves a similar effect to that created by abstract paintings such as “Sardines,” which also challenge traditional conceptions of what a painting should look like and what art should accomplish.