The Sandburg Variations


Language Poetry still makes nearly everything else in the contemporary scene seem like overplayed, lobotomized Motown compared to its stringent hip-hop. But there’s a dizzying variety of tendencies under the Language Poetry tent, ranging from Zaum-like pure lyricism to the sort of Frankfurt School?meets?John Ashbery tendency found in the work of poets like Carla Harryman.

The Words After Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre is typical Harryman: intelligent, sardonic, and elliptical to the point of delirium. Essentially three long, disjunctive prose poems, this is not a “novel” in any conventional sense. “Variations on a theme” is more like it, since there’s no plot per se, though there are recurrent images and themes. The Words is “after” Sandburg and Sartre not in the sense of homage or loose translation; rather, Harryman turns to the earlier texts as ideological imagebanks whose fever dreams she exposes, then riffs along with and recodes. Here, for instance, she takes up the pitch and syntax of Sandburg’s smarmy children’s book (Rootabaga Stories) and leads it off into a metacritique: “Watch out has never been reported in the newspaper to have been seen dancing on a dancing spool in the sky, but when we read, we imagine the pressperson writing down words ejaculated from the fraught and frozen voices of a world as if they were the observations of a fully neutral interlocutor and we say watch out.”

One pleasure to be had in this sort of writing is the rather ascetic one of remaining awake to the ruses of language and history. This, however, is a kind of tic among Language Poets-the ideology of the critic of ideology. “Resistance opened the newspaper,” she writes. “There was no utopia. You’ve heard that before.” Yes, we have.

But if this is profoundly disenchanted stuff, it’s precisely Harryman’s wised-up relation to the ideological dimension of culture that provides the stage for her hard-won bursts of lyricism: “One can’t see the mirror on the tip of the flower.” In the end, though, one wonders whether there are enough of these inspirations to compensate for the long stretches when the language reaches such a level of abstraction and indirection that one is on the verge of losing interest as well as conventional poetic footing.