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Writing style that's all the talk : TOTAL SYNTAX by Barrett Watten (Southern Illinois University: $13.95; 241 pp., paperback) : WRITING/TALKS, edited by Bob Perelman (Southern Illinois University: $14.95; 296 pp., paperback)

May 12, 1985|KEN FUNSTON | Funsten is a free-lance editor. and

For better or worse, it's been labeled "language-centered" writing, though that tendency, which various poets and creative verbalists share today, might be better understood if we called it "writing-centered." An attitude toward constructing writing is what unites the current practitioners, and that descends from certain modernist grandparents, the Russian Formalists, an active movement of literary critics between 1915 and 1930.

In the first of seven essays contained in "Total Syntax," Barrett Watten defines that earlier group's aesthetic: "There is an identity between technique and its effects; for the Formalists, everything in the work exists in order that it be perceived."

So, too, the contemporary poets and prose writers, whom Watten "represents," believe that no part of speech, no rhetorical trope, no sound should be taken for granted on the page. Even "statement causes a change of state."

But who are these new "language" legislators? Names you've mostly never heard of. What are they? A better question. They are the latest and perhaps last phase of 20th-Century modern poetry: fractured, autobiographical without being personal, or maybe it's the other way around, certainly idiosyncratic and difficult, more like a puzzle than a front page and--this turns out to be their redemption--they are the most calculated movement toward a new consciousness yet.

As a group, "language-centered" writers walk a line between being camp impersonations of academic intellectuals and just another instance of a stuffy, isolated neo-modernism. As the former, they can be a comedic troupe, like that on "Saturday Night Live," only reaching for deeper humors. As the latter, they can be tedious.

Watten is obviously one of the group's most serious and brilliant exponents. And, like the group itself, his book of essays has its strengths and weaknesses. But it is remarkable that after more than half a dozen years of notoriety, neither he nor "language-centered" writing has become passe; rather, the poets and their poetics are being busily co-opted by the very institution they seek to mock: the academic avant-garde.

The subjects that this book undertakes are often complex--analysis of contemporary social trends, the poetry of John Ashbery, Clark Coolidge, Charles Olson, Hart Crane and Larry Eigner, linguistic arguments of Roman Jakobson, the philosophy of Wittgenstein or Viktor Shklovsky, the sculpture of Robert Smithson--but Watten's explanations, while to some degree reflecting that complexity, are themselves often characterized by empathy and understanding. For instance: "No one writing in 1960 could have anticipated the fundamental realities of daily life in 1980--the culture has been irrevocably changed, largely by virtue of a sequence of viscerally understood social defeats."

In discussing the cut-up and collagelike texts of Steve Benson's poem, "The Busses," in which portions of writing are skewed and mixed across each page, Watten points to the humane motivation behind this "writing-centered" new writing:

"The physical layout of (Benson's) text makes demands on the reader, who must decide to begin with which way to read the text. The question of the author's intentions immediately comes up--does the author want the reader to proceed horizontally first and vertically second? Or the other way around, both or neither? The quandary is successfully built into the work due to its reorientation of the most basic pattern of interpretation, the left-right scan of the eye. The reader can only acknowledge an intention toward the indeterminate, apart from any 'compositional' order in the text. The author stands back; the reader's interpretation is very much his or her own."

Watten's essays all originated in a common situation, the literary talk , the opportunity for writer to say something in public. "Writing/Talks," presents transcribed "talks" from 15 other "language" writers.

Something in them all is sometimes too self-conscious, too serious, even downright tiresome. That is the obvious criticism. And yet, regardless of any small disagreements or reservations about their ability to attract and please a crowd, I'd welcome such a weekly "language" gathering in my neighborhood. These "talkers" stir my admiration. While most of America's poets sit back today and simply use language to accommodate their "own voice," these poet-critics, "writing-centered" writers, dig under those easy assumptions about communication to ask, "If not this, what then?"

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