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“If you know what they mean,/things make sense” (Bob Perelman): Language Poetry vs. Conceptualisms

Hélène Aji
p. 197-209


Comment deux mouvements récents de la poésie américaine (les Language Poets depuis les années 1980 et les Conceptual Poets depuis le début des années 1990) prennent-ils position l’un par rapport à l’autre par la médiation d’une tradition moderniste commune ? En reconstruisant aussi bien leur lignée poétique que leur inscription dans le tissu intellectuel et social contemporain, les poètes tentent de se définir et de se différencier pour acquérir indépendance, autonomie et visibilité. En tension entre les enjeux socio-économiques et les débats poétiques, leurs œuvres négocient un tournant d’une lecture formaliste de la poésie d’avant-garde à sa réinscription dans l’histoire collective. Cet article montre dans quelle mesure les déclarations de différence ne font que masquer des dynamiques communes, héritées du modernisme, où le poète tente d’articuler son texte à un monde dont la cohérence et l’intelligibilité font question.

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1“what am i doing here” (3): David Antin’s question to himself is taken up by the Language poets from the late 1970s onward as they experiment with the structures of discourse, and attempt demonstrations of grammar’s intrinsic coercions, and ideological presuppositions. It also resonates, at times urgently, in the reflexive writing of the more recent Conceptual poets, as they try out alternative modes of composition derived from the constraint principle of Oulipians and the versatility offered by writing not just on but with the computer. And yet, this Modernist descent, as both movements claim a common tradition made of High Modernists such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams or Gertrude Stein, of Objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen or Charles Reznikoff, and of experimental Minimalists such as Jackson Mac Low, is also the source of strong antagonism.

The anxiety of influence redux

2The generational overlap is no doubt to be blamed, for the Language Poets appear today as part of the poetic institution as they hold professorial chairs, and belong to many prestigious poets’ academies, whereas the Conceptual poets still seem to struggle, for some of them, in less flashy positions. Even if it is trivial to ascribe this tension to the difficulties of personal stakes in a highly competitive poetic world, one cannot completely overlook how decisive this very pragmatic pressure becomes in defining rupture lines in poetics. In the debate between Language Poets and Conceptual poets, how much is to be seen as the cosmetic rephrasing of similar issues in order to secure the advent of a “new” poetics (a poetics which, paradoxically, purports that “no new news is good news” [Place in Place & Fitterman 62])? To what extent would the younger poets’ effort, in the end, amount to tailoring the already very self-tailored tradition of the American poetic avant-garde?

3Not “to make it new” or rather in the case of Conceptualisms “to make it [not] new”: Ezra Pound’s words from the turn of the 20th century indeed reverberate with a disquieting obstinacy. In a way very similar to the way the early Modernists protested the lyrical emotion of their Romantic predecessors, today’s Conceptual poets rebel “against expression”, a mode of self-assertion which they detect in the increasingly autobiographical statements of their immediate predecessors. The debate around The Grand Piano, the “collective autobiography”, produced by ten of the Language poets to recount and recontextualize the emergence of their respective poetic practices, is however proof more to shared preoccupations than to radical differences. In his article about “presentism” in today’s poetics, Barrett Watten takes on the basic tenets of Conceptual writing as “repurposing”, re-organizing, and recontextualizing pre-existing texts, to assert that they are not exclusive to the Conceptual writers’ practices:

Faced with an overwhelming proliferation of techniques, conceptual writing seems to narrow their range and force to methods of citational or algorithmic “repurposing” or “organization”. But there have been simply any number of avant-garde techniques not defined as conceptual writing that may be understood in this way, from John Cage and Jackson Mac Low’s chance procedures to the New Sentence and OuLiPian constraints. (Watten 146)

4As is the case in most passionate debates, the account on either side is never entirely accurate nor unbiased, and, very often, the debaters on both sides do have a point. One is struck by the way Conceptual writing’s import (Ezra Pound would say “impact”) is somewhat lessened by the very accounts given by its practitioners. As Watten puts it, at the end of his article, the interest does not lie in the fact that Conceptual writing would be uninteresting, boring to the Cagian point of being interesting (a famous, provocative assertion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s in his essay “Being Boring”), but because it lends new life and new energy to debunking processes and strategies that have been at work for a long time:

And this is where my interest in this work begins: not in its self-conscious presentation of a break with the past, but in the reinterpretation and redeployment of the many available and viable procedures in the historical present in which conceptual artists, Language writers, and conceptual writers (plus postavant and Flarf) are working. Given the multiple overlap of these techniques and their motivation toward a common horizon of unmasking the automatized and quotidian for its underlying structures, a new order of theory and practice (and pedagogy) emerges. (Watten 152)

5So it is going to be one of the contentions here that the work of Conceptual poets does not indeed proceed simply from facing or embracing the “information glut”–the mere idea according to which it is today’s “unprecedented onslaught of the sheer quantity of language” which entails the “exploration of strategies of copying and appropriation” (Goldsmith in Dworkin & Goldsmith xviii) is (deliberately?) deceptive. “The computer encourages us to mimic its workings”, says Goldsmith in his introduction to the anthology of Conceptual writing Against Expression (Goldsmith in Dworkin & Goldsmith xviii), but one is tempted to retort: one is encouraged by the computer, but the computer will not choose which texts become the matter of this “working”, it will not decide to have them in print, it will not name these texts poems, nor will it inscribe them in the context of literature. Conceptual writing, not in its practice but in its theorizing, returns itself, perversely (to quote from the very title of Craig Dworkin’s The Perverse Library), to the trivial, anecdotal and technical, maybe to “preserve” itself from the ideology and responsibility inherent to any activity in language. But in thus doing the poets cover up but do not suppress the very political claim that lies in their flamboyant disclaimers.

Grammar and ideology

6Does Craig Dworkin’s 2008 Parse respond in any way to Charles Bernstein’s 1976 Parsing, as both question the ideological import of reading as code deciphering?

It’s an automatic thing. It doesn’t require any
thought. It’s a parade in and out.
It has its ups and downs.
It doesn’t affect me one way or another.
(Bernstein [2000] Parsing 13)

Definite Article Noun adverb of frequency present tense transitive verb definite article Noun alternative disjunctive coordinate conjunction Noun comma conjunction of exception adverb of negation adverb, period. Preposition noun comma colon dash (Dworkin, “Parse” in Dworkin & Goldsmith 194)

7Dworkin does not mention Bernstein’s early book of poems in relation to his own, but it seems highly improbable that he should not know about it: the volume in which the initial collection reappeared, Republics of Reality, is mentioned on page 153 of Dworkin’s Perverse Library. In the short presentation to excerpts of Parse in the Against Expression anthology, the declared reference is however to Edwin A. Abbott’s 1874 How to Parse: An Attempt to Apply the Principles of Scholarship to English Grammar, a much-used textbook in the late 19th century and the center of debates over the pedagogy of English grammar. Dworkin’s Parse is the “translation of Abbott’s book, rendering his text into its own idiosyncratic system of grammatical analysis” (Dworkin & Goldsmith 194): the result is a long succession of grammatical terms, reproducing the structure of sentences, somehow their function and at times their tone, drifting into more expressive utterances toward the end of the volume as the discipline of grammatical transposition seems to slip. By giving out the reference book that he “translated”, but omitting the filiation with Bernstein’s Parsing, what Dworkin does is very close to a Poesque hiding-in-plain-sight: the link with one of the foundational texts of Language poetry might go unnoticed, but it is patent in the quasi identity in titles. Crucially though, it is just a quasi identity, and of course the difference is grammatical, pointing to the rift between the openly ironic subversion attributed to the Language poets, and the aloof “critique” claimed by the Conceptual poets.

8In the gerund of Bernstein’s title, one can indeed see the poet in action, “parsing”, deciphering the world, “groping to understand” (Bernstein [2000] 27), whereas in Dworkin’s “parse”, one cannot but read an injunction to the reader, urging her to in turn perform the translation that will unveil the structures of discourse, the articulation of sentences, the backbone of argumentation in its pure artificiality, emptied of any other content than self-referential. What more would be known of language if we “parsed”? asks Dworkin, leaving the question open but for the idea that this would at long last (around the end of his volume) turn us into alienated loners eager to recover the erratic lexicon of our chaotic, unparsed lives. How radically different is this from the dialectics pointed out by the Language poets, notably Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Ron Silliman as regards the ideological framing inherent to the very structures of language? Starting from the assumption that, as Lyn Hejinian argues in her essay for the Language anthology In the American Tree, “the language itself materializes thought; the writing realizes ideas” (Hejinian in Silliman, In the American Tree, 487), many of the earlier poets indeed work with this notion of ideology as embedded in the very structures of language, and thus enforced upon us constantly and consistently without our recognizing it. If this can be considered as the core of Language poetry’s political commitment, and the context of often disconcerting poetic experiments that more often than not include the use of appropriation and procedure, the modes of Language poetry are not dissimilar from those taken of the Conceptual writers... or vice versa: the lineage can be rejected, but not discarded.

Re-purposing: the example of Goldsmith’s The Weather

9Through the transfer of data from one medium to another, as in from radio talk to the page in Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather, the text which originally happened as part of the normal texture of daily life is indeed turned into a presumably literary text, one to be read and analysed in its form and contents, one that takes on a “new” meaning in terms of narrative, and poetics. Kenneth Goldsmith’s work stems from the permanent assault of the media, whose discourse becomes so central to our lives as to replace self-expression: as the poetic text takes over the mundane text of the weather report, it also puts into question the very medium of the media’s communication. In The Weather, everything is transcribed, including the hesitations of the speaker, his or her more personal comments, the strangeness of segues from considerations about the weather in Brooklyn, to information about sandstorms around Baghdad. Set in a trilogy, The Weather, Traffic and Sports systematize the transfer of the oral, repetitive, and apparently insignificant and transitory data to the format of the book, thus raising the question, among other possible interrogations, over the authority of the book format. The iteration of the process also shifts the focus from its products to the process itself. As Marjorie Perloff points it out in the title of her essay on The Weather: the very gesture of “moving information” is what generates a multi-faceted response in the reader, and performs an “exciting” subversion, and this subversion gathers power in its replications.

10Thus, in The Weather, the title is deceptive: one is not dealing with a generic reflection on the weather (although one is indeed in the Thoreauvian tradition of a philosophical take on the weather), but with the very concrete transcriptions of specific weather reports, although the word “report” has vanished from the title. The reports in The Weather seem untouched by an author that has turned absent or erased himself, while performing the gestures of authorship in the transcription process:

Well, uh, our radar continuing to show light snow scattered around the metropolitan area right now, uh, there are breaks in the snow pattern, but it extends all the way back into, uh, central and western Pennsylvania. So we’ve got several hours yet in which there will be intermittent light snow, certainly not piling up, uh, an inch or probably less in Manhattan and across most of the five boroughs, but there might be a little more than an inch, uh, on, in some areas, uh, west and to the southwest of the city. (The Weather 16)

11Consequently, the project and its achievement bear the mark of an intentionality and a decision that contradict any claim to depersonalization. The elision of the “report” gives import to the text: the missing word is interestingly paradoxical first when applied to the “weather report” since in the proper sense it points at the past, and marginally at the present, when the discourse the word points to when applied to the weather is all about some of the present, and the future––forecasting, predicting, and failing to do so accurately. What are the epistemological “reports” (or explosive consequences) of a discourse which assumes the trappings of science and which often determines our lives when it is fallible and, more importantly still, fails to acknowledge its errors? How can one accept the relevance of a “report” (an account) that could be but a “report” (a rumour)?

12What is thematized in The Weather is in fact outside the text, in its context of a subtle negotiation between prospective and retrospective accounting, both revolving around the before and after traumatic events for the city, the US and the world: The Weather begins during the winter preceding the attack on Iraq. It is no coincidence then that The Weather initially began as a project entitled Year, alluding to the delay before the apocalypse… The comment goes beyond the topoi of postmodern or neo-pop-art recycling or displacement of the ordinary into the world of art. It also somehow goes beyond the Duchampian problematic of the ready-made–or rather reframes it. What is terrifyingly ready-made is the disaster and the potential debacle one inevitably reads into the innocuous booklet of The Weather, which the climatic conditions in Iraq outline:

A mostly cloudy, cool day coming up today, the temperature will get to about fifty, or maybe or maybe in the low fifties, and that’s about it, drops back to about forty with some clouds and patchy fog and drizzle tonight. Then it’ll start to rain tomorrow, probably late in the day, we’ll have rain tomorrow night on into Saturday, with a high Saturday into the fifties. No, uh, genuine prospects of sunshine until Sunday, but even then it’ll be chilly, a high around fifty. Uh, battlefield weather is sunny and hot in, uh, Baghdad, the temperature into the low nineties at this moment, and it’ll be middle-to-upper nineties tomorrow, and over the weekend with one hundred degrees plus, in the southern and eastern deserts. Some gusty winds over the weekend could cause isolated pockets of, uh, blowing sand and reduced visibilities, but nothing near as widespread as last week. Right now it’s forty-four and mostly cloudy in Central Park, temperature today going up to about fifty. (The Weather 43)

13Reports from the war in Iraq might seem to be meshing with local reports as the result of an unexpected turn of events, and it is definitely the interpretation which Goldsmith himself promotes. Nevertheless, it so happens that The Weather bridges the before and the after of a major event affecting the US since the beginning of the new century. In The Weather, the local, despite its share of severe weather, is dwarfed by the consequences of sand storms thousands of miles away, collapsing geographical distance and stressing the delusion that would make one believe that a war waged on foreign soil is less serious than one waged on American soil.

14By being part of the Day–Week–Month–Year series, The Weather is to be read as an attempt to deal with the intersection of personal and collective time, or the time of reading and the time of writing. But as the first volume in a radio-based trilogy, with subsequent volumes entitled Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008), it is also a comment on the reception of the news, and their processing by the public: by accessing news in detail, does one really access information? Doesn’t the format and medium impact the message? Not a follower of McLuhan, Goldsmith will not collapse the message onto the medium, but he is not one to forget that the radio, and the book do not provide the same text, although the words might be identical, or supposedly so.

Writing and reading methods

15Along with Kenneth Goldsmith’s keyword, “appropriation”, recurring terms to define the project of Conceptual writing are in fact “critique”, and “détournement”, which could be read as spinning off the more familiar strategies to uncover the coercion at work in established discourses to be found in many texts by Charles Bernstein, for instance. But where most of the debunking in Bernstein’s work (and also in a number of others like Carla Harryman) lies in a witty play on the preposterous, decontextualizing the text of the banal and trivial, or exaggerating the (secretly) expected to better belie it (as in his Recantorium [2011] 271-282), the process of Conceptual writing is focused on the mechanical and systematic displacement of texts from one form/context to another (literature). As Jessica Pressman argues in her article about Modernist reading machines, the poems that were written for these machines and their technological quirks (as William Carlos Williams’s “Readie Pome”), once read in the collected poems, seem eminently more revolutionary than if understood as conforming to specific practical conditions: “ ‘Readie Pome’ suggests that literary texts can promote media-specific analysis” (Pressman 784). With Conceptual texts, “media-specific analysis” is required in a context of hyper-mediatization, banalization and commodification of the very tools of textual subversion (Place & Fitterman 30), but it does not preclude other analyses such as the historical contextualization proposed by Brian Reed:

After 9/11, many assumptions and practices that defined the late twentieth-century American, British, and Canadian poetic avant-gardes—above all, the rampant use of aberrant or disjunctive syntax—began to appear outmoded, even defanged. With grammar-mangling, fragment-spouting George W. Bush on television every night arguing for war, how could a leftist poet in good conscience continue to advocate anacoluthon, solecism, and other varieties of non-normative English usage as tools to achieve utopian ends? (Reed 5)

16But the media is not so massively digital, as one could be led to believe when reading the more recent self-evaluations of the Conceptual poets. The texts appear in books; the textual parts of Ubu’s web archive get boiled down to an anthology published by Northwestern; the attraction of the library in the conventional sense of the term is indeed “perverse” (Dworkin). Dworkin’s assessment of graffiti as “the most familiar instance of détournement”, using the walls of the factory to support “precisely those voices it would exclude” (Dworkin [2003] 14), may prove less illuminating than the cataloguing of his personal library in alphabetical order of the publishers and in chronological order of their publications.

17The “perverse library”, above all, shows a list of texts as personal (autobiographical), historical (vestigial), social (interconnected), and political (programmatic). To this extent one can understand “Conceptual writing [a]s allegorical writing [insofar as ] allegory differs from symbolism in that symbolism derives from an Idea, while allegory builds to an Idea” (Place & Fitterman 14): in The Perverse Library, it builds towards an idea of the bibliophile behind the books. And in building towards this idea, it builds towards an ideology of writing and reading. Self-expression returns in the classification of the volumes in the alphabetical order of their publishers, generating a corollary discourse about the agendas of publishing companies, their preferences and their policies. While declaring to be constructing himself as the engineer of complex textual machines designed to process expression into non-expression, the Conceptual poet expresses the dismay of an intensely melancholy “Sobject”, caught in the dilemma of being subject and object, in a system out of his control.

The Sobject is the properly melancholic contemporary entity.
The Sobject exists in a perpetual procedural loop: the iconic sobject is Dante’s manturningsnaketurningman.
The Sobject exists in a perpetual substantive eclipse: more s/object by turns and degrees. (Place & Fitterman 38-39)

“But there is something to mean”

18The problematic order of the Perverse Library is personal, as is surreptitiously evidenced by the shift from the definite article of the cover title to the indefinite “a” inscribed on each page of the volume. How can a reader limit her reading to the explicit of a list? How can one take for granted the proclaimed meaninglessness of texts that actually work as decoys? They seem to be riding the wave of a post-post-modern dandyism, with a past of their own choosing, a formal past that would be without content. But far from being “without content”, to take up Giorgio Agamben’s phrase, the abstract, Minimalist, Conceptualist poet mimes emptiness to survive what he sees as a collective debacle.

19However the poet lives on, not in a virtual or digital world but in this world of prescribed words that mean nothing and distract from the truth that comes down from George Oppen’s paralyzing realization of the shortcomings of language, which is formulated at the end of the opening stanza of “The Building of the Skyscraper”:

There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. (Collected Poems 197)

20He persists in a world of programmed meanings that imprison the mind in ways much akin to the univocality of the totalitarian South Africa of Bob Perelman’s poem, which is quoted in the title of this article.

If you know what they mean,
things make sense.
     To=Township. (Captive Audience 21)

21And of course, both these poems can be found in Craig Dworkin’s delusively de-centered auto-bibliography, through the frustrating, self-defeating, tautological quest of what we already know. In the text of auto-bibliography, tradition cannot be but self-made, unintelligible to others, undecipherable but where it is coincidentally shared. The fascination of the intertext is a fascination for the impossible total comprehension of implicit references that neither writer nor reader can ascertain: “If you know what they mean/things make sense”, but you can never access the “thing/Which is”.

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Agamben, Giorgio, L’homme sans contenu, Dijon: Circé, 1996.

Antin, David, Talking at the Boundaries, New York: New Directions, 1976.

Bernstein, Charles, Republics of Reality: 1975–1995, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 2000.

Bernstein, Charles, Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Dworkin, Craig, and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.

Dworkin, Craig, The Perverse Library, York: information as material, 2010.

Goldsmith, Kenneth, The Weather, Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005.

Oppen, George, Collected Poems, New York: New Directions, 1975.

Perelman, Bob, Captive Audience, Great Barrington: The Figures, 1988.

Perloff, Marjorie, “‘Moving Information’: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather”, Open Letter XII 7 (Fall 2005) 75-85.

Place, Vanessa and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2009.

Pressman, Jessica, “Machine Poetics and Reading Machines: William Poundstone’s Electronic Literature and Bob Brown’s Readies”, American Literary History XXIII 4 (Winter 2011), 767-794.

Reed, Brian M. “Textbook Uncreative Writing”, American Book Review XXXII 4 (May-June 2011), 7.

Silliman, Ron, ed., In the American Tree, Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, 10 vols, Detroit: Mode A, 2006-2010.

Watten, Barrett, “Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art, and Conceptual Writing”, JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 41.1 (Spring 2011): 125–161.

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Bibliographical reference

Hélène Aji, « “If you know what they mean,/things make sense” (Bob Perelman): Language Poetry vs. Conceptualisms », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 197-209.

Electronic reference

Hélène Aji, « “If you know what they mean,/things make sense” (Bob Perelman): Language Poetry vs. Conceptualisms », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 16 December 2013, connection on 28 July 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Hélène Aji

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre.

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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