The Tennis Court Oath
a literary movement which emerged in the USA in the early 1970s. It began in a series of small magazines and poetry presses outside the mainstream which was then dominated by the first-person autobiographical poem. It was probably more of a reaction to the waning power of the existential dramas of projective verse, Beat poetry, and the New York School, than a direct hit at what had become the default style for academic and popular verse. Charles Olson died in 1970, Robert Duncan stopped publishing poetry, Robert Creeley published little for several years, and some of the most influential poets of the avant-garde, notably Frank O'Hara and Jack Spicer, had died several years earlier. This vacuum was matched by another significant social change, the end of the Vietnam War and the consequent loss of direction for the political culture of opposition it had engendered. Women's Liberation and Black Power movements then became the most active forms of alternative political organization, developing a strong cultural practice, including poetry, for constituencies that largely excluded white male writers. Such libertarian activism appeared to require the immediacy of expression provided by linguistically recognizable, and therefore already known, modes of poetry, which in practice were similar to those of the mainstream. Radical formal and linguistic experiment was sidelined. A few poets with a radical political agenda became convinced that language itself was a political and ethical arena, and began experimenting with forms of writing which might also be political actions in themselves. They drew on diverse precedents, including Dada and Surrealism, Russian Zaum poetry, Constructivism, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Louis Zukofsky, and John Ashbery's book The Tennis Court Oath, and produced writing which, like abstract painting, made its own processes its subject, keeping ‘the reader's attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level, or below’ (Ron Silliman). The aim was to avoid external validation either by an authentic authorial voice as in so much poetry of the time, or by an objective reality to which the poem pointed. These poets also took for granted the abandonment of metrical forms by their immediate free verse precursors. The result was an explosion of innovative writing whose structures ranged from patterns of complete sentences to sequences of broken syllables, experimenting with epigrammatic phrases, evocative and unfinished lines, startlingly conjoined words, staccato implosive phrases, and vocabularies hitherto unknown in poetry. Much of the poetry therefore read as if it were non-communicative and non-referential, its words arranged in abstract patterns for their own sake. Some Language Poets subsequently justified this abstraction of the communicative utility of language as a direct political challenge to a society in which the productive processes of language had become reified into falsely objective realities of hierarchy, inequality, and exploitation. By halting the reader's rush into meaning the text could help a rebirth of the reader's anaesthetized capacity for taking responsibility for cultural meaning.
Language Poetry has been largely an urban phenomenon, closely tied to about six major cities, especially San Francisco and New York, amongst poets who had few academic affiliations until the late 1980s, but did have a fascination with the various linguistic turns in recent philosophy, literary theory, and the social sciences, especially post-structuralism. However, it would be a mistake to read Language Poetry as an application of post-structuralist ideas rather than a contribution to the wider debate of which French semiotic philosophy was part. Nor did Language Poetry ever operate in the fashion of André Breton's surrealist movement. There was no formula for Language Poetry, no one defining politics or aesthetics of the heterogeneous groups of poets included in the anthologies or magazines. The name, which many of the poets find discomfiting, was thrown at them by critics who read the key magazine L-A-N-G- U-A-G-E, edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, as if it were a manifesto instead of a discussion forum for poets. Nevertheless Language Poetry has definitely had a collective character, so that even a brief history needs to list a substantial number of writers: Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, James Sherry, P. Inman, Peter Seaton, Ray Di Palma, and Ted Greenwald in New York; Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, David Melnick, Alan Davies, Leslie Scalapino, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, Michael Davidson, Tom Mandel, David Bromige, and Stephen Rodefer in California; and a few others such as Steve McCaffery and Diane Ward, based elsewhere. Alongside these poets a few others who were already working in this mode, or whose work, although appearing alongside the Language Poets, is quite distinct, must also be mentioned: Clark Coolidge, Jackson Maclow, Susan Howe, Fanny Howe, Michael Palmer, Marjorie Welish, and Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop.
Critical reception has been at least as volatile as that which greeted earlier avant-garde movements. The poetry has been dismissed as ‘word salad’, ‘too easy to write’, randomly and therefore meaninglessly polysemic, or as an unresisting mirror of the fragmented space-time of post-modernism. Defenders argue that the poetry is rarely, if ever, non-referential, that it demonstrates many traditional virtues in new ways, and represents a complex, insightful engagement with the media age. Language Poetry has certainly intensified attention to many traditional dimensions of poetry, especially sound, structure, and lexis, and made visible the assumptions behind the dominant poetic paradigm's validating trinity of voice, narrative, and realist diegesis.
The most representative anthology of Language Poetry, In the American Tree (1986), edited by Ron Silliman, gives a good picture of its radical experimentation. The most comprehensive is the excellent From the Other Side of the Century (1994), edited by Douglas Messerli, which places the poetry in a wider historical context showing affinities with earlier generations of post-war poets. Postmodern American Poetry (1994), edited by Paul Hoover, contains useful brief biographical and critical comment, as well as some poets' essays. Writing on poetics by the poets can be found in Code of Signals (1983), edited by Michael Palmer; The L-A-N-G-U- A-G-E Book (1984), edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein; Writing/Talks (1985), edited by Bob Perelman; The Politics of Poetic Form (1990), edited by Charles Bernstein; and in journals such as Poetics Journal (1982– ), edited by Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian, Jimmy and Lucy's House of K (1984–9), edited by Andrew Schelling and Benjamin Friedlander, as well as L-A-N-G-U- A-G-E. Like most poetry, it is dependent on magazines for its circulation, and it is in the magazines that its energies can be best understood. Of those not already mentioned, This (1972–82), Temblor (1985–9), and o blek (1987– ) provide a good sense of the range of activity.