Dilemmatic boundaries: constructing a poetics of thinking

Emily Critchley

This essay can also be downloaded as an Intercapillary eBook.

To see women's writing as our primary subject forces us to make the leap to a new conceptual vantage point and to redefine the nature of the theoretical problem before us1

Along comes something - launched in context.
     How do we understand this boundary?
     Let's begin by posing it as a dilemma.2

According to Donna Przybylowicz, writing in 1987 "one of the most serious problems facing feminist critics has to do with the division between theory & practice."3 Many feminist critics, particularly Americans,4 have felt for some time that in seeking to undo the hegemony and valorization associated with traditional (traditionally patriarchal) theories and philosophies, that is, normative methodological or linear structures of thinking; in searching out different, plural strategies and modes of expression more fittingly representative of the differences of their experience, in efforts not to be bound and organized,5 they have ended up coming apart amongst themselves. Plurality, boundlessness, asserting the right to speak differently, have resulted in the absence of a united front from which to 'prove' the 'rightness' of their feminist practices over the arguments of their traditional counterparts. In the worst case scenario, non-normative modes of articulation have led to a failure to be understood altogether. As the experimental poet Leslie Scalapino put it:

A syntax that is this dismemberment will be incomprehensible in the framework of conservative thought […] In terms of a conservative framework, 'dis-location' is seen as merely personal aberration or failure to comprehend the whole, rather than strategic and phenomenological.6
Since the Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s, feminist literary criticism has been consistently anxious over the subject of its own theory. For instance, Elaine Showalter's 1979 essay 'Towards a Feminist Poetics'7 identified how feminist criticism had in her view reached a "theoretical impasse," and Seyla Benhabib's claim in 1993 that "[i]n the transition from standpoint feminism to [plural] poststructuralist feminisms, we have lost the female subject."8 The hierarchizing tendencies implicit in binaries such as that between theory and practice, and within most theoretical systems of thought - historically implicated as these are with the binaries of form vs. matter, culture vs. nature, man vs. woman, high vs. low, as proposed by Helene Cixous9 and others - have for a long time been at the heart of the dilemma faced by feminist writers. As Cixous put it:

[Western] thought has always worked by opposition.
Through dual, hierarchized oppositions. Superior / inferior. Myths, legends, books. Philosophical systems. Everywhere (where) ordering intervenes, where a law organizes the thinkable by (dual, irreconcilable; or mitigable, dialectical) oppositions. (264)
Or as Lyn Hejinian wrote in The Language of Inquiry:

Western thinking […] assumes a separation between, for example, form and content, verb and noun, process and condition, progress and stasis. But in fact these pairs and their parts constitute a dynamic, a momentum, a force. ('Comments for Manuel Brito,' Inquiry, 182)10
One of the key problems facing any feminist's attempt to write a theory of poetry is whether or not to accept the dualistic tendencies inherent in the dominant traditional thinking of, for instance, analytical, metaphysical or dialectical theories, in order to seek legitimation - especially where such theories hold sway - or whether to ignore, or even attempt to break the hold of such theoretical modes, by writing differently, perhaps attempting to change the meanings of reasoned / reasonable discourse altogether.11

         I raise the question here, as it concerns feminist literary criticism explicitly, because of how it relates to the complications that confronted the Language writers' attempts to theorize something like a practical (and political) poetics or "poetic-critical 'theory'" as Scalapino put it (The Public World, 22), in the '70s, '80s and '90s, up to today.12 In particular, I see it relating to those women I have chosen to concentrate on: Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino and Rosmarie Waldrop, who were consciously caught up in the extra difficulties raised by questions of gender and feminin-e /-ist subjectivity, in their attempts to negotiate spaces within the Language grouping, dominated as this was - and has since been perceived to be - by "WMH"s (White male heterosexuals) as Ron Silliman put it ('What / Person,' 54), as well as those problems presented by the apparent gap, as it still stands in traditional scholarship, between theory and practice.

Against those who have characterized the Language grouping as having innately feminist tendencies - including, for instance, Hejinian herself - I would point to some of the charged exchanges and critiques that have occurred within this divided scene, such as Kathleen Fraser's 'Partial Local Coherence / Regions with Illustrations / A Personal Account of Encountering'13 in which she highlights tensions that existed between "established and respected male members of the writing community" and those women Language poets who sought to write differently. There was also the 'What / Person' exchange in which Scalapino called Ron Silliman up on his prior claim in Socialist Review that: "women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the 'marginal' - have a manifest political need to have their stories told," so that "their writing […] often appears much more conventional" (51). Scalapino responded to this by pointing to the rejection by Socialist Review of her own letter on the grounds that it was "too poetic and did not qualify as political discourse." She continued: "That is to say, I must speak a language recognized as discourse before it can be regarded as public and germane." (52)

Scalapino's remarkable essay 'The Cannon,' from The Public World, subtly shows consciousness of the gendered aspect of the dichotomy between, as she sees it, artificially structured, and therefore "hierarchical" or "imperialist" expository writing, and that which is multifaceted / inclusive: 'Demonstration / Commentary' (the title of her essay section in the same collection). For instance, 'The Cannon' presents a split internal dialogue:

One feels a sense of despair - trying to unravel a dichotomy that is despair. It's impossible to undo it because it is similar to the conventions that exist.
I have to unravel it as that is (one's) existing at all - interior instruction.
Yet someone else thinks that maintaining the dichotomy hierarchical is
existing - for them.
One of these men later says to oneself "And to think that you noticed this - there at a time" (One had written it in a segment - he hears it being read): as if one did not exist - as if only their existing occurred then. (15-16)
Scalapino's work generally is about attempting to break up the concept of dichotomy and other "aspects of hierarchical categorization" ('The Cannon,' 18) per se. As she writes: "My focus is on non-hierarchical structure in writing" (Public World, 3) and "The dichotomy is impermanence / separation" (17).

         Yet Language poetics - and thus its reception - has been dominated, somewhat ironically, by the comparatively normative essays of Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, who evidently wanted to 'put the word out' and who have consequently come to be viewed as the mouthpieces of the 'movement,' and / or shameless self-advertisers, depending on one's perspective. Eleana Kim writes:

With the proliferation of theoretical / polemical works being produced by the male poets of the group, the women associated with the movement oftentimes seem underrepresented. […] the low frequency of critical work by women, rather than pretending to be a measure of the women's relative "value" in comparison to their male counterparts, may indicate a difference in how and where they chose to express their opinions on writing and politics. ('Theory, What Theory?' 16-17)
Carla Harryman in 'Women's Writing: Hybrid Thoughts on Contingent Hierarchies and Reception,'14 and Kathleen Fraser in 'The tradition of marginality,'15 are just two of the women Language writers who have subsequently explained the decisions they made at the time of the group's emergence to opt out of the loop of critical explanation and / or, as they saw it, self-promotion. Harryman:

If one wants the implication of a vision to develop, then fitting the radical object into the square peg of patriarchal canon-making narratives is not only an inaccurate way of proceeding but one that reinforces values that the art object itself critiques. […T]he withdrawal from public discussion that occurs because it is not possible to meet its terms, its pre-existing categories – those experiences that are either actually silencing or that makes one feel silenced –become identical to the desire for solitude.
[… Yet] Women must be able to speak critically and analytically about each other's and others' (men's, writers' different from "herself," critics', and theorists') works or we will be misrecognized. However, if such writing about is about canon-formation, then the misrecognitions will persist along with an endless series of misnamings.
It's my view that the female Language poets have generally produced a poetics that is more experimental than their male counterparts, choosing, for instance, not to compromise their writing styles by returning to what Scalapino has called a "polemics-based writing" to "instruct what one is to think" (The Public World, 21). That they were perhaps less concerned to secure fame, and more with the meanings and integrity of their writing practices per se, has resulted in "misrecognition" (Harryman) and a dearth of critical attention.

         A third factor I will look at, regarding the decisions these women writers made to theorize 'differently,' that is to say, poetically, is that of the contemporaneous concerns or attempts of poststructuralists and deconstructivists to 'undo' traditional and formalistic philosophies. As Elaine Showalter put it in 'Feminist criticism in the Wilderness': "if, in the 1980s, feminist literary critics are still wandering in the wilderness, we are in good company; for […] all criticism is in the wilderness." Or as Hejinian put it in 'Reason':

[T]he dilemma […] is very much a feature of the poststructuralist postmodernist deconstructionist condition that we - or that I, as a person and writer - experience as exerting pressure on our social and aesthetic situation - which is to say, on our poetics - a pressure which makes palpable the demand that we have a poetics (Inquiry, 339-40)
Three interrelated concerns assert themselves in the poetics of Hejinian, Waldrop and Scalapino: the dilemma of the "apparent but unreal contradiction"16 between theory and practice from poststructuralist and deconstructive perspectives, from Language poetry perspectives, and from feminist perspectives. For it is my view that each of these writers is interested, to varying degrees of explicitness, in all three areas of thinking. Paying particular attention to Hejinian's essay 'Reason,' I aim to show how these writers undertook to break the hold of dualistic and hierarchical structures in their poetics as in their poetry.

         The first concern was perhaps the least explicitly influential. Poststructuralist thought, one of the heirs to phenomenology's questioning of the hegemony and 'naturalness' of analytical philosophy - particularly the transparency of its language - originated in the Continent in the late 1960s. Yet according to some French (and American) thinkers, poststructuralist theories were not properly assimilated or even understood by many Americans at the time.17 It has been framed by Language poets as an important part of the cultural background, even an example of what Hejinian calls "motivated coincidence" (Language of Inquiry, 328), rather than a direct source of inspiration,18 (though the Continental Rosmarie Waldrop was more steeped in this culture than both Scalapino and Hejinian).19 As Silliman put it in his talk 'Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared':

[O]ur two primary goals, deconstructing public canonicity and rejoining theory to practice (and practice to theory) […] could be traced to at least some version of post-structuralism […] This is quite different from suggesting that language poetry […] is either a post-structuralism proper and/or derivative thereof. It is, however, an historical tendency that grew up reacting to and conditioned by many of the same social phenomena as did post-structuralism. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 167-8 and 174)
The distinction between poststructuralist ideas and Language 'theory' which many of the poets claimed, has in large part to do with the contemporaneity of the two intellectual trends - both partly reacting to what Hejinian has called "[t]he pervasive hypocrisy of the 1950s and 1960s" ('Barbarism,' Inquiry, 323).20 It also, of course, had to do with the Language writers' active production of poetry. But perhaps the distinction was most strongly maintained, at least at first,21 because of the division between those within universities and those operating outside them, (a division Silliman's 1988 talk was in part hoping to overcome by encouraging poets to join academic institutions22). Though many poststructuralist ideas were a direct challenge to traditional philosophy and scholarship - resulting in, for example, explicit rejections of those ideas by certain academics, the inability of theorists to get academic appointments, and so on23 - the work of Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and the like, has still emanated, over the years, from within academic settings; from the lecterns, journals and text books of Continental and American universities.

In direct contrast, the Language poets' efforts to produce new kinds of theory, a poetics more closely interwoven with the creative process, began, in effect, as a challenge to the dominance of the academy - particularly the New Critical component of it - precisely over their writing practices. As Hejinian put it:

Customarily in the U.S., literary theory and criticism have been the province of academics and professional critics. Writers create the work but remain silent about what it intends and what or how it means. Barrett and I wanted to create an intervention in this situation. [… W]e wanted to provide a forum in which the theoretical work that was going on in the Language movement could develop further and involve a larger public, and we wanted to provide a site in which the poets and other artists could be the ones to define the terms in which their works could be discussed. (Hejinian, 'Materials,' Inquiry, 174-5)
And Silliman:

[O]ppositional poetics have a vested interest in challenging this gap since it is the precise distinction upon which the English department itself has been founded. The gap between theory and practice, that apparent but unreal contradiction. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 166)
Hence the extra-academic journals: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Poetics Journal, the independent presses: Tuumba, O Books, Burning Deck, and the debates: at Folsom Street at 76 and 80 Langton Arts in 1980 (published in Bob Perelman's Hills 8/9) and Writing/Talks in 1985 respectively, that were the lifeblood of the original Language grouping.24 The Politics of Poetic Form, for instance, started as a set of Friday night talks given at The Wolfson Center for National Affairs at the New School for Social Research in New York according to the first page of editor Charles Bernstein's preface. Hence its subtitle: Poetry and Public Policy, as well as Bernstein's pleased assertion that:

With more than a couple of happy exceptions, the poets presented here are not affiliated with any university and their investigation of poetics and politics continue to be conducted without much institutional support. I find this encouraging; and it shows up the narrow frame of reference of those […] who would insist that there are no longer 'public intellectuals' in America. (viii)
Also that:

there is a fundamental value in the fact that the interrogators [in this series] are artists. (vii)
         Still, the recognition - even to the extent of challenge or rejection - of much poststructuralist, and phenomenological thought in Language writing is salient. That their battles were often so similar, despite varying battlegrounds, is the outstanding reason for this; particularly their attempts to explore a wider range of experiences: poetries, politics, arts and music, as thinking. According to Sylvere Lotringer in French Theory in America, "theory" is an American term, imposed on what was known in France, in poststructuralist circles, simply as "thought, (pensee)" (1), and was far more fluid / creative than the dominant Anglo-American academic views on theory at the time:

We understand the synthetic "point" of this theory / thought as the permanent suspension of representation […]. Most often, to represent means to settle, answer, resolve, and control the represented - the experiences of the world put in their "right" place. Instead, representation as conceived by French theory was […] to make thought experiments. (4)25
This idea is directly comparable to the work of Waldrop, Hejinian and Scalapino, in which the words "thinking" and "thought" outnumber and displace those of "theory" and "criticism." As when, for instance, Hejinian states that she uses the term "theory […] as a synonym for thought" ('Reason,' 338 and 'A Common Sense,' 355). Or when Scalapino makes the observation in 'Footnoting' that:

'Thinking' would be (if it were occurring) trying to see what is there, what's happening. Rather than trying to enshrine by description." (The Public World, 36)
         Hejinian's essay 'Reason' (written in '98, with a preface from 2000) provides, in many ways, a nice overview of the opposing but mutually informing pressures of poststructuralist, Language (as well as Russian Formalist) and implicitly feminist ideas on her attempts to construct a theory that would be a "synonym for thought […] of a particular kind" (338). In it, she identifies the need she felt at the time to counter experimental poetry's "supposed hostility to criticism, theory (thought), and occasional hostility even to examination of its own history" (345), the "anti-intellectualism" about which she also writes in 'Materials' (175). At the same time, 'Reason' is an attempt to produce "not an authoritative and detached poetics but an inherent and working poetics" (175).

Hejinian does this by asserting the limitations, as she sees them, of concepts such as "reason," "theory" and "method" as they are fixed within Western (analytical or humanistic) traditions:

Reason constitutes both the method and the object of Western philosophical investigations. It is philosophy's fundamental concern. But as a foundation it is everywhere fissured; reason is a concept that constantly bifurcates. (Inquiry, 337)
In place of a theory made up of "first principles, immutable truths and authoritarian formulations" (338) invoked, for instance, by Webster's definition of the word, which Hejinian tells us is "an idea accepted or proposed as a demonstrable truth" (338), her essay suggests the importance to poetry of a theory that is self-conscious, self-critical, "ongoing" and "always everywhere mutable" (338); indeed one that is rather poetic than propositional:

[A] matter of vulnerable, inquisitive, worldly living […] very closely bound to the poetic process. (338)
The essay is clearly not of a traditional, expository kind, but, rather, a poetic, shifting, at times even elusive exploration of ideas relating to Hejinian's poetry. In its many leaps and digressions - such as the introduction of a dream narrative as an illustration (341) or when Hejinian lifts a list of comments we are told she made from her teaching notebooks, without attempting to link them or elaborate on them (they are followed simply by the word "Etc.") (344) - we can perhaps site her attempts "[n]ot to totalize, not to pre- or proscribe" (352), as well as her refusal to be bound by the kind of "reason that plows its way to authority" (351). Replacing these strictures, and subverting the binding nature of boundaries, is an almost Steinian series of "beginnings again and again":

Along comes something - launched in context.
     How do we understand this boundary?
     Let's begin by posing it as a dilemma.
and so we begin by proposing that the boundary is not an edge but a conjunction (339)
The dialogical nature of the writing is in some ways reminiscent of Rosmarie Waldrop's talk 'Alarms & Excursions' published in The Politics of Poetic Form, in which she investigates, among other things, the elusive "borderline between private and public" (47). Hejinian's echoing of and rebounding off quotations - by herself and others - followed by expositions or "excursions" and "counter alarms," though not specifically headed as such (as in Waldrop's paper), implicitly make up the form of 'Reason.' For instance, she opens with the phrase or 'thesis': "Along comes something - launched in context" from her long poem Happily (2000), followed by an excursion: "The term [dilemma] comes from the Greek…", followed by a counter alarm: "But perhaps my phrase presents more than a dilemma, perhaps it's a dilemma to excess…" (339). I take both of these poets' and Scalapino's - perhaps the most extreme of the three writers26 - alternative approaches to the form of the theoretical paper to be already a kind of anti-authoritative mode; particularly their embracing, rather than attempted banishing of "doubts, complications and distractions" (Waldrop, 45). In some ways their explorations of heterogeneity, multitudinousness and difference, in the form as well as the content of their papers, are comparable to those feminists' (particularly French feminists') explorations of language's potential to subvert social inequalities through a subversion of received logocentric values. As Hejinian wrote in 'The Person and Description':

boundary problems […] are artistic and literary […] but they get played out in social and economic life, which responds both to the rigidity of boundaries (between, for example, public and private, history and daily life, male and female) and to their breakdown. Much of social violence, from domestic fighting to racism, rape, torture, and terrorism, is in various ways, a response to, and a representation of, boundary probs. Description […] bounds a person's life, whether narrowly or broadly. In another sense it likewise bounds a person, and this is a central (perhaps the classic) issue for feminism, which recognizes that traditionally women are often described but, until recently, they have very seldom been the describers. (206)
Rosmarie Waldrop's response, in 'Alarms & Excursions,' to the fact that poets are no longer the "legislators of the world" (45) is revealing, particularly in its gendering of the issue:

I must say I am not sorry. Or is it a male aspiration? I certainly have no desire to lay down the law. To my mind writing has to do with uncovering possibilities rather than with codification. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 46)
This is comparable to Leslie Scalapino's (rhetorical) "sense of relief that 'poetry has no relation to society'" (Public World, 23), in contrast to those (male) Language poets that, in her view, seek "social power" (18) - her specific example here is Bob Perelman - by offering a "polemics-based writing" (21) that continues to promulgate the divisions between public and private, social (or effective) and personal and experiential, and so in Perelman's opinion, "failed" (18).27 Scalapino's observations critique Perelman's talk, given at the University of New Hampshire in 1996, for being "polemics-based":

polemics-based writing merely imposes point of view and suppresses demonstration.
'Social power' is the formation ('I') am trying to ('must') dispel. (The Public World, 21)
Yet Scalapino's view should not be read as a denial of poetry's social effect. Rather, whatever social effect poetry has is implicit - "poetry is society's secret interior" (21) - and incremental, developing "throughout the minute notations (isn't any of them per se, at any one time)" (Public World, 5). This has to do with the fact that poetry is written by individuals, who are part of society, rather than the degree to which the poetry spells out its political content. Scalapino's work is preoccupied with the nonseparability of the individual, and the individual's writing, and the public world in which s/he lives. As she writes:

One has despair in 'experiencing' that people have no connection to actions (outside, or their own) - even though these actions as if taking place 'secretly' change everything. (23)

My sense is 'subjectivity' […as] separation […] Poetically, this separation itself (delineated as writing[…)] is also a shadow (evocation) of that which is 'exterior,' the public (22).
Throughout Scalapino's work, interiority and exteriority are mutually informing. The implication of the book's title - The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence - is that syntactical impermanence is "the public world," or at least one of its pressured manifestations, though the suggestion is that any symbiosis will not be fixed.

Waldrop's paper 'Alarms & Excursions' argues similarly:

The borderline between private and public is very elusive. On the one hand, there seems to be a fairly high quantitative threshold for something to have effect. On the other hand, I suspect that nearly everything we do has some social effect, simply because we are members of a society. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 47)
These also compare to Hejinian's citation, in 'Reason,' from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition:

[A]ction, though it may proceed from nowhere … acts into a medium where every reaction becomes a chain reaction and where every process is the cause of new processes […] the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness. (Inquiry, 352)
         Against an authoritarian, prescriptive or "polemics-based" writing - even of a radical, socialist kind - the theoretical essays of these women are, as Hejinian puts it in her introduction to Language of Inquiry, provisional, even contradictory (4) and integrally related to their creative work:

[T]hese essays assume poetry as the dynamic process through which poetics, itself a dynamic process, is carried out. The two practices are mutually constitutive and they are reciprocally transformative. (1)
This is certainly apparent in 'Reason,' the focus of which shifts almost from paragraph to paragraph, as thoughts written provoke new associations, tangential ideas or what Hejinian has called "parallelisms" from amongst the "infinite number of sequences" that are "underway."28 For, as Hejinian wrote in 'Continuing Against Closure':

nothing can restrain meaning, nothing can contain all the implications, ramifications, nuances, and connotations that cascade and proliferate from any and every point in any and every instance of what is or is thought to be. And nothing can arrest the ever-changing terrain of ubiquitous contexts perpetually affecting these. This alone must keep one in a condition that is the very contrary of closed.29
         In its shifting, 'open' nature, then, 'Reason' plays out the need its preface claims for a theory that is

always everywhere mutable. It is the interminable process by which we are engaged with the changing world around us and made ready for the changes it requires from us. (Inquiry, 338)30
The essay also highlights poetry's inherently contextual nature, as something always already involved with a poetics, as well as a history. In the case of Language poetry, this context / history includes, as we have seen, the very difficulties of producing a theory that is not classed as separate from its poetry, or a poetry of social, political and philosophical ideas. This produces, in Hejinian's phrase, "a dilemma to excess" (339) which leads, rather than to resolution or conclusion, to the need for constant re-examinations and redefinitions of one's position in relation to one's writing, one's ideas, one's community, and /or society in general.

         Rather than a unifying or unified logic, Hejinian's essay entertains and manipulates numerous "logics" - as set out by her in the introduction to Inquiry:

some of which take shape as grammar, some as sonic chains, some as metaphors, metonyms, ironies, etc. there are also logics of irrationality, impossibility, and a logic of infinite speed. (3)
This is, according to Hejinian elsewhere, because "events […] advance in leaps that leave logicians behind" ('Continuing Against Closure'). Again, we can compare Waldrop's commitment to a poetry that "is an alternate logic":

It is not illogical, but has a different, less linear logic which draws on the more untamed, unpredictable parts of our nature. This is part of what I think my Reproduction of Profiles addresses […] It works with a logical syntax, all those "if-then" and "because," but constantly slides between frames of reference. It especially brings in the female body and sets into play the old gender archetypes of logic and mind being "male," whereas "female" designates the illogical: emotion, body, matter. And I hope that the constant sliding challenges these categories. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 59)
         Hejinian's essay, above all, asserts the poet-theorist's need for perpetual self-questioning: thought that "look[s…] out toward the world as well as self-critically inward" (338).31 Yet she also registers awareness of the sort of vicious hermeneutic circles that can result from a constant rupturing and undoing of one's owns beliefs, which have led, in the case of much poststructuralist thought, to nihilisms. As she writes:

Perhaps these are inevitable effects of the famous (or notorious) postmodern (or postpostmodern) negativity to which so much thought has been given - thought directed toward the unthinkable and reflecting an obsession with the unknown, the meaningless, the unspeakable, the unapproachable, the unbearable, the impasse, or, as here, the dilemma - leaving poetics (and poetry) to be practiced in a gap of meaning […] a gap […] which one could also call reason. (Inquiry, 340)
Subverting, or "out-racing" (Scalapino)32 such negativity, the gap of meaning explored by Hejinian here, becomes an "affirmation" (351) or "moment of incipience" (343), a "border zone" (340) between concepts which, according to Hejinian, is the start of awareness of the multiplicity, complexity and contradiction in all areas of thought. It is at the meeting-place or border between ideas and assumptions (as between different cultures and languages, 339) that meaning, and awareness of meaning, occurs. That is why the theme or topos of the border is so crucial to Hejinian throughout her poetry and poetics.33 In 'Barbarism,' for instance, she explains how the idea of the border is for her, not an edge, but the very condition of consciousness of experience:

the border […] is the milieu of experience. It provides us simultaneously with awareness of limit and limitlessness. As George Oppen said of poetry, "it is an instance of 'being in the world'" at the limits of judgment, the limits of […] reason." (Inquiry, 327-8)
And in A Border Comedy she writes:

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized,
         that from which something begins34
         Hejinian is at pains to point out that the sorts of "coinciding" ('Reason,' 342) of perceptions she espouses in her work lead neither to a "directionless pluralism" (348) - of the kind she implies poststructuralism sometimes falls prey to - nor to a banishment of "doubt" (351),35 as she writes at the end of 'Reason':

We don't - as writers or as persons - go beyond "all limitations" and "all boundaries" - we enter and inhabit them. (Inquiry, 352)
Still, in her attempts, and those of Waldrop and Scalapino, to reject prescriptions and to overcome the "artificial and inaccurate boundary" (Silliman) between poetry and theory, by undertaking "an integrated style" (Hejinian, 'If Written Is Writing,' Inquiry, 26), or "poetic-critical 'theory'" (Scalapino, The Public World, 22), these women Language poets have adopted necessarily different, explorative and creative modes or styles of writing, and as such, risk misapprehension and rejection by critics, institutions and wider audiences. They incur "marginaliz[ation]" (Fraser) and "misrecognition" (Harryman) even by others working within experimental poetic genres. As Susan Howe asks:

Why are there so few women (until just recently) in this tradition? This tradition that I hope I am part of has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It involves a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is an other voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. […] Yet even here when the history of this sub sub group gets written even here women get shut up or out. (The Politics of Poetic Form, 192-3)
Yet these modes of 'difference,' or 'strangeness,'36 even of 'foreignness' (in Hejinian's terms) may be proper to the experiences of these poets and of poetry itself. As when Scalapino writes: "individuals in writing or speaking may create a different syntax to articulate experience, as that is the only way experience occurs" (The Public World, 26), or when in 'Strangeness' Hejinian argues that "a poetics of description" and "scrutiny" is "a poetry of consciousness, which is by its very nature a medium of strangeness" (Inquiry, 159). If the differences in the ways these writers articulate a poetics result in their work being propelled into the same theoretical "wilderness" (Elaine Showalter, 1981), "minefield" (Annette Kolodny, 197937) or "wild zone" (Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, 199338) in which many feminist literary critics feel themselves to be treading, then, this may be at once the result of deliberate oppositional strategies against, as Hejinian puts it, "established power structures, and not just those that would exercise authority over aesthetics" ('Happily,' Inquiry, 384) and at the same time, closer to reality as these writers experience it.

The language that is 'experimentally' based corresponds to people's experience; as the act of 'one's' experiencing; […] Doctrine doesn't reflect 'our' / their experience; is alien to it. (Scalapino, 'The Cannon,' The Public World, 24)



1 Elaine Showalter, 'Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,' Critical Inquiry 8. (University of Chicago, Winter, 1981)

2 Lyn Hejinian, 'Reason,' The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press: California and London, 2000), 339.

3 Donna Przybylowicz, 'Contemporary Issues in Feminist Theory' from Criticism Without Boundaries: Directions and Crosscurrents in Postmodern Critical Theory, ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg (University of Notre Dame Press: Indiana, 1987) 129.

4 French feminists like Cixous, Kristeva, Clement and Irigaray have, for some time, been critical of their American counterparts who, they feel, "attempt to fit into the patriarchal system as equal to men and in the process reinforce the logo-, phallo-centric order." ibid. 135

5 As Erica Hunt put it: "Dominant modes of discourse, the language of ordinary life or of rationality, of moral management, of the science of the state, the hectoring threats of the press and media, use convention and label to bind and organize us." 'Notes for an oppositional poetics,' The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles Bernstein (Roof Books: New York, 1990) 199.

6 'The Cannon,' from The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Wesleyan University Press; Hannover and London, 1999), 20.

7 Showalter, Elaine. 'Toward a Feminist Poetics,' Women’s Writing and Writing About Women. (Croom Helm: London, 1979).

8 Seyla Benhabib 'From Identity Politics to Social Feminism: A Plea for the Nineties,' online, 1993

9 'Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.' The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1986) 63-132.

10 See also Scalapino's 'What /Person: From an Exchange,' Poetics Journal 9, ed. Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian June 1991: "Viewed critically, this struggle of Western dualism may (as a direction of writing melding with criticism) lead to being trapped in and by its convention of analysis." 64.

11 Przybylowicz's essay delineates four different ways in which feminist scholars have responded to this dilemma in recent history. These have been, as she puts it: 'revisionary,' 'gynocritical', 'revolutionary linguistic' and 'Marxist' (129-130).

12 Eleana Kim's 'Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement' (online, 1994) provides a good overview of how "the question of theory came to be the most contested element in the Language poets' emergence."

13 Ironwood 20, no. 10 (1982).

14 How2, Vol. I, No. 2, September, 1999.

15 Where we stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, ed. Sharon Bryan (Norton: New York and London, 1993).

16 Ron Silliman, 'Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared,' The Politics of Poetic Form, 166.

17 See for instance French theory in America, ed. Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen (Routledge: New York and London, 2001).

18 Linda Rheinfield explores this further in Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (Louisiana State University Press: baton Rouge and London, 1992).

19 There have of course been as many different poststructuralisms as there have been feminisms and Language poetries - as the title of Douglas Messerli's 1987 anthology attests; as many, if not more than the number of people writing them. This perhaps explains why some versions of poststructuralism were directly embraced by feminist and Language writers, while others were explicitly rejected. However, Scalapino maintains, regarding her own poetry, that "While taking into account that at every point one sees in terms of and as interpretations (philosophy one learned and accepted), the writing doesn't have a philosophical basis except that of 'experiment' per se -'on itself'" 'thin-space' The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence 39-40.

20 In the same essay Hejinian writes: "Prominent characteristics of Language writing can […] be attributed to its involvement (directly or indirectly) with certain post-Holocaust themes, very much in the way poststructuralist and so-called postmodern theory (as in the writings of Levinas, Lyotard, Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, Blanchot, etc.) is, with its realization, perhaps first noted by Walter Benjamin, that fraud produces atrocity." 325.

21 Many Language writers took on university posts in the '80s and '90s.

22 A younger Ron Silliman was more extreme in his rejection of "the cooption of these [Language] figures into university canons and the defusion of their "original" intent, historical precedence, and specificity." Introduction to In the American Tree (The National Poetry Foundation: Maine and Orono, 1971.

23 For instance the refusal of Cambridge University, England, to give Derrida an honorary degree in 1992, on the grounds that his writing turns "philosophical speculation" to "gibberish" (Peter Lennon, 1992 article for The Guardian).

24 Cf. George Hartley: their "elaborate network of small presses and talk series […] has possibly allowed for a greater degree of cross-fertilization and of independence from the defining process of academic criticism than perhaps any group since the Black Mountain school." 'Textual Politics and the Language Poets' (1989, from American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 Jun., 1990, pp. 361-362).

25 Lotringer explains how as a theorist himself, he had attempted in the '70s and '80s to bridge the gap between theory and praxis or art, as he saw it in America, for example, by founding Semiotext(e) magazine in '74: "[B]ecoming American in America, for French theory, could mean only one thing: becoming imperceptible. […] This is, in a sense, what I tried to so with Semiotext(e) […] each issue was a way of "doing theory" the way artists "do art," by establishing between found material, displaced documents, original essays, interview, photographs, quotes, and so on, what Cage called a "non-relationship" and Deleuze and Guattari a "nondisjunctive synthesis." Things can coexist together, each preserving a life of its own while interpenetrating the other in a richer, more complex way. And this nonsynthesis wasn't restricted to the space inside; it also was meant to hang thought between worlds outside that remained separate - disparate milieus of artists, punks, young academics, activists, and others that existed apart - sliding each along the other without touching." French Theory in America, 128.

26 For instance, the first words on the verso leaf of the The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence's title page are: "As: Nagarjuna's "destruction of all philosophical views" - obviously this would include all modes of articulation, and any definitions or procedures of "discourse." And in 'Experience on Sight,' Scalapino criticises Hejinian's poetics for not being radical enough: "I thought recently you described (at the university) your writing in terms of ideas - that it is "comparing cultures" - which will be accepted as description of the writing (its importance) but which are not the gesture that occurs as the writing (the mind coming up with whatever it is at that moment only). (Acknowledgement that it is perspective only.) Because you know professors will tend not to like the 'idea' of the mind and only its action at the moment, because they don't trust that. It isn't 'any thing'" (42).

27 Perelman was, according to Scalapino, arguing that "'experimentalist' modes have failed because their writing, by being its formal medium […] does not have "social power." 18.

28 My Life in the Nineties (Shark Books: New York, 2001), 69. Cf. Hejinian's introduction to Inquiry on the logics of connections and linkages: "poetry follows pathways of thinking and it is that that creates patterns of coherence. It is at points of linkage - in contexts of encounter […] that one discovers the reality of being in time, of taking one's chance, of becoming another, all with the implicit understanding that this is happening. These notions are central even in the earliest of the essays collected here, though they are most explicit in the later ones." 3.

29 Hejinian, 'Continuing Against Closure,' Jacket #14, July 2001.

30 Scalapino shares this desire for a writing that might be continually moving, out-racing conceptual categorisations. She is influenced in this by the philosophy of the 2nd Century Buddhist, Nagarjuna, because "the content of the world is not an established order or form, but a process of ordering & form-giving, […] every order must make way for another order, every form for another form." Hejinian, 'Figuring Out,' How2, Vol. I, No. 7, Spring 2002. 7.

31 This is also crucial to Waldrop's and Scalapino's work: "Without being a message or polemics, this attention […] is: 'watching the experience of one's mind at once as if 'with' one's physical actions - and watching as being itself action.'" Scalapino, The Public World, 13.

32 "The refusal to be defined, by the action of out-racing 'one being defined' - and not 'being' that action either (of out-racing) […] Writing 'could be' leaping outside the 'round' of being interiorly / culturally defined (at all) (by oneself or outside) - yet the language intrinsically can't do that?" 'Silence and Sound / Text' The Public World, 32. Hejinian also writes about this element of Scalapino's work in 'Figuring Out,' 4.

33 Cf. A Border Comedy, and The Guard. In 'Language and Paradise,' Hejinian describes the figure of the guard "as border guard and as interloper" (59). And in 'Continuing Against Closure' she writes: "I can speak in favor of the border, which I would characterize not as a circumscribing margin but as the middle - the intermediary, even interstitial zone that lies between any one country or culture and another, and between any one thing and another." Jacket #14 - July 2001, 2.

34 A Border Comedy (Granary Books: New York, 2001) 18.

35 Indeed, the dilemma is, for Hejinian, constituted of doubt: "the affirmation which is a feature of the poetics I am describing - one that constantly questions assumptions, especially its own - is lodged in a dilemma, and therefore in that activity of mind which we term doubt […] what is at stake is affirmation of our deepest reason, the one that tells us that things and our experiences of them count." 'Reason,' Inquiry, 351.

36 See Hejinian's essay of the same name in Inquiry, 135-160.

37 Kolodny, 'Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,' Feminist Studies 6: 1 Spring 1980.

38 Candelaria, 'The "Wild Zone" Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study," 1993. From Feminisms, ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (Macmillan Press: Hampshire, 1997) 248-256.


Benhabib, Seyla, 'From Identity Politics to Social Feminism: A Plea for the Nineties' (online, 1993)

Candelaria, Cordelia Chavez, 'The "Wild Zone" Thesis as Gloss in Chicana Literary Study," 1993, in       Feminisms, eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (Macmillan Press: Hampshire, 1997)

Cixous, Helene, 'Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays.' The Newly Born Woman. Trans.       Betsy Wing (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1986) 63-132

------- The Helene Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers (Routledge: London and New York: 1994)

Fraser, Kathleen, 'Partial Local Coherence / Regions with Illustrations / A Personal Account of       Encountering,' Ironwood 20, no. 10 (1982)

------- 'The Tradition of Marginality,' in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, ed.       Sharon Bryan (Norton: New York and London, 1993) 52-67

------- Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (University of       Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa and London, 2000)

Harryman, Carla, 'Women’s Writing: Hybrid Thoughts on Contingent Hierarchies and Reception,'       How2, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September, 1999)

Hartley, George, 'Textual Politics and the Language Poets' 1989, in American Literature, Vol. 62,       No. 2 (June 1990) pp.361-362

Hejinian, Lyn, The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press: California and London,       2000) 339-355

------- My Life in the Nineties (Shark Books: New York, 2001)

------- 'Continuing Against Closure,' Jacket #14 (July 2001)

------- 'Figuring Out,' How2, Vol. I, No. 7 (Spring 2002)

------- A Border Comedy (Granary Books: New York, 2001)

------- 'The Guard,' in The Cold of Poetry (Sun & Moon Press: Los Angeles, 1978) 11-41

Howe, Susan, 'Encloser,' in The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles Bernstein (Roof Books:       New York, 1990) 175-197

Hunt, Erica, 'Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,' in The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles       Bernstein (Roof Books: New York, 1990) 197-213

Irigaray, Luce, 'This Sex which is not One,' 1977, in Feminisms, eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane       Price Herndl (Macmillan Press: Hampshire, 1997)

Kim, Eleana, 'Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement' (online, 1994)

Lotringer, Sylvere and Cohen, Sande, eds. French Theory in America Routledge: New York and       London, 2001)

Kolodny, Annette, 'Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and       Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,' Feminist Studies 6: 1 (Spring 1980)

Messerli, Douglas, ed. Language Poetries (New Directions: New York, 1987)

Przybylowicz, Donna, 'Contemporary Issues in Feminist Theory' from Criticism Without       Boundaries: Directions and Crosscurrents in Postmodern Critical Theory, ed. Joseph A.       Buttigieg (University of Notre Dame Press: Indiana, 1987)

Rheinfield, Linda, Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (Louisiana State University Press: Baton       Rouge and London, 1992)

Scalapino, Leslie, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence (Wesleyan University Press:       Hannover and London, 1999)

Showalter, Elaine, 'Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,' Critical Inquiry 8. (University of Chicago:       Winter, 1981)

------ 'Toward a Feminist Poetics,' Women’s Writing and Writing About Women (Croom Helm:       London, 1979)

Silliman, Ron, ed. In the American Tree (The National Poetry Foundation: Maine and Orono, 1971)

--------'Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared, in The Politics of Poetic Form,       ed. Charles Bernstein (Roof Books: New York, 1990) 149-175

Sosnoski, J., James, 'A Mindless Man-Driven Theory Machine, 1989, in Feminisms, eds. Robyn R.       Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (Macmillan Press: Hampshire, 1997) 33-51

Waldrop, Rosmarie, 'Alarms & Excursions,' in The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. Charles Bernstein       (Roof Books: New York, 1990) 45-73

Watten, Barrett and Hejinian, Lyn, eds. Poetics Journal 9 (June 1991)

© Emily Critchley November 2006

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