Beyond the Manifesto: Language Poetry and Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry
While the texts, practices, and persons most often identified with the term "Language Poetry" continue to shape our understanding of radical literary experimentalism, it may be useful to consider how Language writing has itself secured an institutional foothold which brokers against our usual notion of the avant-garde. With members of the original movement now on faculty at major research universities ranging geographically from Berkeley to Buffalo, and with a growing openness to Language writing in publications such as The Best American Poetry, it is no longer accurate to describe these texts, practices, and persons as true "outsiders" in relation to the world of contemporary poetics. In fact, Language writing lies at the heart of many conversations about poetry in the United States today.
This ascendancy has been accompanied by a tectonic shift in the forms and genres which frame the Language writers’ conception of their own literary practice. In particular, the cultural advancement of Language writing entails a turn away from the genres of polemic and manifesto. While what might be called the "militant phase" of a literary movement is often characterized by the production of manifestoes, the later transition into an "institutional phase" may be identified by a turn toward other, more meditative forms of literary inquiry such as the ars poetica. The publication of Lyn Hejinian’s collection of essays, The Language of Inquiry, in 2000, illustrates this arc in the unfolding history of Language writing within postwar American poetics.
Hejinian’s prose has shifted from an early militancy of the 1970s to a more reflective order in later articles with titles like "Reason" and "A Common Sense." This transition in no way signifies a relaxation of this probing and deeply ethical writer’s political project; rather, the rejection of polemic is accompanied by a philosophical turn toward more provisional and difficult claims for poetic writing. The very phrase "the language of inquiry" denotes a rejection of the heretical pieties and unorthodox orthodoxies which characterize the manifesto as a genre. Even at its most urgent, Hejinian’s writing refuses the seductions of rhetorical authority.
For instance, a late essay called "Barbarism" appears at first to be framed within the rhetoric of the manifesto; written in response to Theodor Adorno’s statement that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarism," Hejinian’s essay suggests that "poetry after Auschwitz must indeed be barbarian; it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities." Yet Hejinian’s theoretical "barbarism" can never be solidified into the social form of a new literary movement. (It is difficult to imagine a more pretentious rubric for a literary school than "The New Barbarians"). For Hejinian, barbarism is, rather, a way of thinking about poetic practice which embraces difficulty, strangeness, and a wayward skepticism regarding the language of power. If the manifesto is a form of aesthetic propoganda, Hejinian’s essay encourages a deep distrust of the propogandistic certainties which underwrite the manifesto genre itself.
The Language of Inquiry may be read as an ongoing search for the language its title describes. It is worth noting that Hejinian seems to discover this language within the intellectual practices of late twentieth-century academic discourse. Literary theory, cultural studies, and even New Historicism inform the poet’s investigations into the relations between power and language in this collection. Yet the employment of these institutionalized academic methods in the search for a language of inquiry does not constitute a retreat from the experimental method which has defined Language writing from the outset. Rather, it signifies a relocation of literary experiment from outside the university to within its precincts, or at the very least, its outskirts. As more and more scholars and students develop an interest in Language writing, this relocation will inevitably continue; and it will become the Language writer’s task to uncover new ground within this institutional context for the necessary work of poetry. Refusing any easy nostalgia for an idealized radical past, Hejinian’s essays point the way to a productive future for students of the movement in this respect.