I wonder why we listen to poets
When nobody gives a fuck
—Wilco, “Ashes of American Flags”
In “Ashes of American Flags,” Wilco engages in a project akin to that of the language poets from the 1960s and 70s: the juxtaposition of artistic sentiment with capitalist ideology as a means of critiquing a prevailing social order that appears to serve only the latter. Through multiple references to “cash machines,” “filling up shopping bags,” and wanting “a good life with a nose for things,” the band calls into question what it is we Americans want out of our lives, and though no definitive answer is provided in the song, its implications are clear: we’ve allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with material pursuits that the only way to escape would be to “die” and “come back new.” For Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and others in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E book, an altogether different response—the dissociation of language from its capitalist moorings via radical play with grammatical structures—allows poets to reincarnate the word, rather than themselves, in order to take language back for more authentic forms of expression.
In Silliman’s “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” the poet becomes a prophet of dissonance, one who utilizes the freedoms of poetic form to explore “deformed counter-tendencies” (130) that violate the “specific ‘reality’” of capitalism “which is passed through the language and is thereby imposed on its speakers” (123). If even our words have become so transparent that they permit us only to focus on objects of consumption, then the poet’s task is to alter language so drastically that we are forced to notice, to recognize our complete and total ignorance of “the commoditized tongue of capitalism” (127). As Bernstein argues in “Semblance,” we can use writing to better understand our experience of the world precisely because writing has the power to “make experience palpable not by simply pointing to it but by (re)creating its conditions” (115). The poet who recreates our experience in struggling to master the dominant cultural language (as in Chris Mason’s “Learning Reading As A Second Language”) or who recreates our experience in the highly politicized fight for language (Steve McCaffery’s “From the Notebooks”) provides us new ways of interpreting experiences we tend to take for granted—the very experiences that work to permanently situate us within a capitalist, materialist culture concerned with people as consumers, not as people.
But how, in the end, does this achieve political goals? The key is for individuals to feel they have possession of language rather than feel they are possessed by language. And since linguistic practices within our capitalist culture threaten to possess us, the language poets argue that we must disrupt those practices in order to take language back. “A language centered writing,” claims McCaffery, “dispossesses us of language in order that we might repossess it again” (162). In a sense, we must kill off our current linguistic selves so that we can “come back new” into a world of freer expression, one in which language, as “the center, the primary material, the sacred corpus” (Andrews 31), no longer carries with it the constraints of capitalist ideology. If we believe that “WORDS being what poems are then SENTENCES being what POLITICS is” (McCaffery 176), then the fight for words through poetry is, in fact, one of the only ways to make a truly political statement. The language poets remind us that, though we write in order to be heard, sometimes we must write in radically new ways if we want our writing to do anything other than reflect the dominant cultural norms of our time.