March 20, 2022

"The Rhythms of the 'Language' Poets" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on works by Charles Bernstein and Ted Greenwald)

Beginning with my 1980 essay on Charles Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (see My Year 2004: Under Our Skin), I focused a number of essays and reviews on what was then referred to as “Language” poetry—poetry and poetics written by a community of friends and acquaintances on both sides of the country—that, taking its lead from various comments in Bernstein’s and Bruce Andrews’s New York-based magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Lyn Hejinian’s and Barrett Watten’s San Francisco-based Poetics Journal, centered on issues, formal, social, and political, surrounding the use of language in poetry.

    In retrospect, I now perceive these “Language” poets, in the context of this volume, as not so much being “without a voice,” as they were “without a singular voice.” And, in that sense, like so many of the artists and others figures upon whom I focus in this volume, they often went unheard and were sometimes even silenced.   

by Douglas Messerli

There is a recurring and near-prevailing attitude in contemporary poetics—especially in the academy—that a harmful disjuncture between prosody and American poetry has occurred. Writing in a recent issue of Paideuma on Ezra Pound’s metrics, Sally M. Gall exemplifies this attitude when she claims:

Over the course of a few generations we have arrived at a dis-
embodied realm where students, professors, scholars, critics, and,
I fear, some “poets” seem unable to hear the rhythms of the spoken
word. Part of the blame must be laid on an educational system that
has forgotten how to teach poetry as an art. And part must be laid
on the proliferation of poets who are completely uninterested in
musical values, and…practice a fundamentally non-musical free
verse. (Paideuma, VII [Spring 1979])

As early as 1961 John Crowe Ransom took a position very similar to Gall’s when he wrote, “It is strange that a generation of critics so sensitive and ingenious as ours should have turned out very backward, indeed phlegmatic, when it comes to hearing the music of poetry, or at least, to avoid misunderstanding, to hearing its meters. The only way to escape the sense of a public scandal is to assume that the authority of the meters is passing, or is passed, because we have become jaded by the meters…. (“The Strange Music of English Verse,” in Hemphill, ed., Discussions of Poetry: Rhythm and Sound, 1969). And more recently, Donald Hall has argued that “It is a characteristic flaw among young Americans, however accomplished and innovative, to lack resourceful sound. Tin ears make bad alloy with golden metaphors” (“Reading the English: The Continental Drift of the Poetics,” in Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1979). John Hollander has gone so far as to describe our age, in terms of metrics, as being so stylistically anarchic that “one almost feels that a poem need be defined as any utterance that purports to be one” (“The Metrical Frame,” in Gross, ed., The Structure of Modern Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, 1979).

     Whether or not one agrees with these attitudes—and I should imagine that any reader of contemporary (or, for that matter, of modern) poetry can point to one or more examples of poets who have little sense of whatever one defines as rhythm—what underlies statements such as these is the idea that prosody is a dying art, and that critics interested in it have little choice but to turn their attentions upon those few poets still writing in traditional metrics or upon poets of the past.

     This sense of contemporary American poetry having abandoned prosody is reinforced, it seems to me, by the fact that when there have been attempts to bridge the perceived “gap,” the tendency, as Michael Davidson has observed, has been “to read contemporary verse in terms of what can be counted” (“Advancing Measures: Conceptual Quantities and Open Forms,” a manuscript read at the Modern Language Annual Convention, 1979). Paul Fussell, for instance, argues that the best of contemporary American and British poets “have returned to a more or less stable sort of Yeatsian accentual-syllabism,” which makes “the metrical radicalism of the 1920s” look “every day more naïve aesthetically….” (“The Historical Dimension,” in Gross, 1979). In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco even defines English-language free verse as “more often than not…iambic, or iambic-anapestic.” However, while such notions of metrics may be applicable to a number of contemporary American poets working in a kind of vaguely conceived free verse, these statements shed no light upon the works of a large number of poets writing since 1950 who, taking their cue from Pound, have sought not only to “break the pentameter,’’ but to break other metical patterns as well. In fact, an “extreme” of this poetic tendency, represented by the “Language” group (a broad gathering of poets such as Charles Bernstein, Ted Greenwald, Bruce Andrews, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, James Sherry, and myself), has struggled in its poetry against the whole notion of counting, against any fixed metrical measure or structure. Bernstein, one of the most vocal advocates of “Language” concerns, explained recently in a telephone conversation of October 7, 1980: “I am not interested in counting, but losing count. I want to so involve the reader in the reading experience that he or she will lose all count.”

     As an alternative to “counting,” Davidson argues that in contemporary poetry one must look at prosody not as a concept of measure, but as a concept of “number,” “A play of ratios which occurs not at the level of the counted foot or even line, but, as Donald Wesling points out, at the level of the ‘whole poem!” I think Davidson’s thinking here is basically correct; but in arguing this, he really moves away from Melopoeia—the traditional focus of prosody—into broader issues of genre and Logopoeia (what Pound described as the “dance of the intellect among the words,” akin to Aristotle’s lexis), and through these concerns into issues of meaning. Davidson admits that such elements “may fall more properly within the domain of the linguist or literary theorist than that of the prosodist….”

     Poets of the “Language” group, in fact, do take poetry in a direction away from melos into logos. Bernstein even describes “the music of poetry” as “the music of meaning” (“Semblance,” later collected in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, 1986), a music of content. For Bernstein, as Don Byrd has said of the poetry of Louis Zukofsky, “the music of the poetry is just the experience of sound coming to mean something” (“Getting Ready to Read ‘A,’” a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, 1979). Accordingly, issues of prosody are seen as being inseparable from the overall structure of the poems. This is not to suggest, however, that writers such as Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are disinterested in prosodic values. It is only that, because no one prosodic device is given primacy, it is impossible in some “Language’ poems to isolate any one or series as such. To speak of prosodic “devices” belies an attitude contrary to that of such “Language” works. Prosody in a typical Bernstein or Greenwald poem does not support or even contribute to the meaning, but makes up the meaning, is meaning itself; it is less a device than the very process by which the poem comes into being.

     The following selections from Bernstein’s first book Parsing (1976), and from Greenwald’s influential volume Licorice Chronicles (1979) may better help one to understand how prosody functions in such works.

   the snow,


     this parsing of the world

               to make worlds & worlds

        like atmospheres

                         a substance, of gravity

                                             that pulls apart

                                  or back on

      i slept then, i bathed on wednesdays also

                                                  the feta cheese

                                                  the mozzarella marzipan

                                                  the seedless eye brow pencils

                        was waiting for the bust &

                                     was on the telephone

                                                         gyroscope, sleeping binge

                                        was hiding in a rock,

                                                                             crystal, postcard

                                                                was a blue flame,

                                                                  a grammar booklet, an azure



coordinating cities gulls still gull, and, arms binged with wine, as wine

pin roars in galeforce over lines,

horizon on gum letting loose a brack

of crickets by the door

near lowering eyes of a schooled quench

begging for a glass of water, and I sit watching

a jar of water with grass

in it watching amoebas swimming around and, I conclude

everything far as jar or jars is concerned is

plain dough        staring to be known      by a bad smell

heading bearing out conclusion         airy as seams

that where there’s smoke there’s          and, whichever way you burn

one, both, or one foot is still

flat on the ground

and, sunrising further in the east             wherever that is, each day

leading to conclusions   :


                 (from Licorice Chronicles)

One perceives almost immediately that this poetry does not really benefit from scansion.* Certainly several of the lines might be scanned; as evidenced in the series of imabs in the three lines in the middle of the first selection (“the feta cheese / the mozzarella marzipan / the seedless eye brow pencils”), the Bernstein work might even be characterized as being dominated by the iamb. Nearly every iambic grouping, however, is broken by radical shifts in metrical patterns. The iambic “was on the telephone” is interrupted by the anapestic “gyroscope, sleeping binge”; and the following iambic trimester gives way to two dactyls (“crystal, postcard”). This irregularity of rhythm is even more apparent in the Greenwald selection, where one observes a breakdown of the iamb even at the level of the line. The first five words of line one, for example, set up expectations for an iambic line, which are immediately thwarted by a kind of caesura (indicated by the commas surrounding “,and,”) and by the following spondee (“arms binged”). Although this first line returns to an iambic meter that is carried into the second line, it is soon broken again in line three by the shift from the iamb to the trochee; and the poem rarely returns to the iamb for more than a half-line at a time. In other words, even though one can find groupings of standard metrical patterns throughout both of these selections, they are so irregular—they are so continually interrupted—that it seems almost pointless to speak of measure or rhythm in these works in the way one might discuss it in a poem by Yeats or even by Pound.**

     It is just as obvious that these selections, however, contain a great number of what are generally described as prosodic devices. In fact, it is impossible to miss such obvious patterns at work in these poems like alliteration (“mozzarella marzipan” and “an azure azalea” in the Bernstein poem, and the s and w repetitions in lines 6-8 in the Greenwald selection); assonance (the short e sounds of “seedless eye brow pencils” in Bernstein, and the ä in the “water…watching amoebas…around” sequence in Greenwald); as well as word repetitions (the “world/worlds & Worlds” group and the series of “was” constructions in Bernstein, and the “gulls/gull,” “wine/wine,” and “water/water” repetitions in Greenwald). In the context of such erratic rhythms, the existence of these more basic prosodic devices may be puzzling. If these poets, as they claim, are “attempting to avoid systematic prosody,” then why, one wonders, do they employ so many language patterns that one associates with Melopoeia?

     The answer, perhaps, depends not as much on the rationale of these particular writers as it does on the way in which modern and contemporary critics and theorists have defined Melopoeia and, in particular, rhythm. In his study of the roots of the lyric, Andrew Walsh suggests that in the past couple of centuries there have been basically “two…versions of the roots of poetic meter” (Roots of the Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics, 1978). One approach, rooted in the ideas expressed by Wordsworth and the poets before him, and argued in this century by critics such as John Thompson, “traces meter back to the rhythms of speech” (Walsh, p. 191); as Thompson observes, “Meter is made by abstracting from speech one of [the] essential features (phonomeic qualities of segmental phonemes, stress, pitch, and juncture) and ordering this into a pattern” (Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, 1961). The other version of poetic meter traces its roots back to the rhythms of song, to the measures of music. M. W. Croll, who represents this viewpoint, argues “Dancing and music are the arts of rhythm; they have nothing to learn about their business from poetry; poetry, on the other hand, has derived all it knows about rhythm from them” (Croll, “The Rhythm of English Verse,” in Patrick and Evans, eds., Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, 1966). The prosodists with whom I began this essay have either implicitly or explicitly aligned themselves with one or the other of these approaches.

      Building on Northrup Frye’s discussion in Anatomy of Criticism of “babble,” Welsh posits the idea that, while both of these approaches are legitimate, there is a third version for the roots of poetic meter:

The third root—less well recognized, perhaps, but no less funda-
mental—lies in the mysterious actions of the closed, internal rhythms
of language, the echoing of sound…called charm-melos. It is the
irregular rhythm of special, hidden powers in language, quite distinct
from the commerce of everyday speech and equally distinct from the
more regular rhythms of music and song. (Welsh, p. 195)

To demonstrate this, Welsh points to examples from Wyatt, Skelton, Shakespeare, Dryden, Blake, Poe, Pound, and other poets.

     What is most pertinent is Walsh’s discussion of the way in which charm-melos or carmen functions. Focusing on primate charms and magic incantations, Walsh, with the help of linguists and anthropologists, characterizes the rhythms of the charm-songs as being highly irregular and depending heavily upon assonances, alliterations, rhymes (internal as opposed to end rhymes), and word repetitions in the language of the poem (Walsh, p. 136). Such devices, Walsh explains, produce an incantatory effect, behind which stands the intention of the charm-song—enchantment. In charm, language does not represent mental concepts, but is a physical action and process. “Charms are meant to make things happen, to cause action”; and, in connection with this, the charm-song consists of a language apart from that of ordinary speech, a language wherein special powers reside. “To produce an effect, the charms must use, along with ritual actions, words capable of acting, words felt to be themselves actions…” (Walsh, p. 151). As W quotes Bronislaw Malinowski (from Coral Gardens and Their Magic): the vocabulary, grammar, and prosody of charm-songs

 fall into line with the deeply ingrained belief that magical speech must be
 cast in another mold, because it is derived from other sources and pro-
 duces different effects from ordinary speech.

     These “different effects” are concerned with power. The language of the charm-song, in its potential to enchant, to cause action, is derived, as Welsh puts it, from “the old powers of sound and rhythm flowing into and shaping the language…. The language of charms is a language of power, and that power comes primarily not from lexical meanings, …but from other meanings hidden deep in the sounds and rhythms” (Walsh, p. 153). The control of such powers, finally, depends “not upon clear vision, but on obscure, esoteric knowledge, traditional or personal, which no amount of vision alone can uncover” (Walsh, p. 160).

     The parallels between the charm-melos that Walsh describes and the contemporary experiments in “Language” poetry are striking. I have already indicated the irregularity of rhythm in the Bernstein and Greenwald selections; and I have pointed to how dependent these works are upon devices such as assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and word repetitions. The effects of such devices in these poems, if properly analyzed through more formal studies of such works, I suggest, would be perceived as very close to what Walsh has described as charm-songs.

     Poets such as Bernstein and Greenwald, more importantly, are less interested in the lexical meanings of their words than in how these words function, in how they act or, as Bernstein has argued again and again, how the words syntactically behave in a series of “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memories” to which they are subjected and/or from which they are themselves generated (see “Thought’s Measure,” in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 4 [1981], collected in Content’s Dream, 1986). Such words are not the medium of some message, but are the message itself.

     To say this is not to completely deny referentiality, is not to ignore the fact that “marzipan” is a confection made from a paste of almond and sugar, or that “gulls” are aquatic birds. After all, both of these selections generate ideas of sorts: the Parsing passage speaks of the notion of “parsing” the world, of creating linguistic relationships of experiences and things, of a “seedless” grape, an “eye,” and an “eye brow pencil,” of a “bus” and a “bust.” Similarly, the selection from Licorice Chronicles suggests the possibility of “coordinating” reality, of shaping reality like “dough” into coordinates such as those implied by the relations of words like “glass” and “grass,” of a “glass of water” and “a jar of water with grass / in it.” The ideological content of these passages, however, is not where the vitality of these poems lies. Rather, it is the process of these works that most matters. That process, in turn, produces meanings that, like the charm-songs, depend less upon the dictionary than upon the rhythms and sounds of the language, and upon the author/reader’s private memories of, experiences, and associations with them.

     Even more compelling is the way these and related poets describe their works. In notes from a series of eleven workshops Bernstein headed at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the winter of 1980, he argues that he and Greenwald are indeed interested in music and rhythm, but less in the music of  the rhythm of speech and song than in the rhythms of the mind, “the music and rhythm of contemplation” which, through the act of writing (or speaking words to paper) becomes the form of the life, “a life as it is being lived in the body” (“Thought’s Measure”). Such a poetry of activism carries with it, Bernstein argues, a language which, in its self-conscious generation of the world—of words as objects—is necessarily opaque, dense, and private because the order of the poem is the order that comes from one’s “private listening, hearing.”

     The very fact that this language is private connects it, in Bernstein’s ideology, with issues of power.

One power of the concept of privacy for writing is that of an address
of intimacy (“truthfulness” rather than “truth,” to use Wittgenstein’s
distinction) that allows the formal requirements of clarity and ex-
position to drop away. “At home, one does not speak so that people
will understand but because they understand” (Fuchs). Confusion,
contradiction, obsessiveness, associative reasoning, etc., are given
free(er) play. A semblance of coherence—of strength or control—
drops away. In contrast to this, or taking the idea further, the private
can also seem to be the incommunicable.

Elsewhere, he speaks of his interest in using words which “cast a spell,” an interest in words which are powerful enough to bring the mind into their grip. Such words, such a language creates an “intense experience of separation that is a part of the continuing power of privacy in writing [which] can make tangible what otherwise seemed invisible.” As Mac Wellman, another poet/playwright connected with “Language” writing, has expressed it, there is behind these kinds of statements almost a “religiosity,” “a religion of the word” (“Some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Outlaws”), which reminds one of the charm-poets who saw their words not as a literary work, but as a verbal act “by which a specific force is let loose.” For the speaker of the charm, Malinowski reminds us, language was believed to exercise “the most powerful influence on the course of nature and on human behavior.” Measure for the ancients, as for Bernstein, is not something to be counted, but something to be “counted on” (Bernstein, letter to Michael Davidson, September 30, 1979), a powerful force which lies in the rhythm and sound of the mind revealing itself in the phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, or sentence.

     Bernstein and others, in short, describe their poetry in terms that are remarkably similar to the way in which Welsh characterizes the charm-song. I am not claiming necessarily that “Language” poets such as Charles Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are consciously (or even unconsciously) writing charm-songs; their work is a complex of many contemporary issues of poetics. I am only speculating that the rhythms of such poets may have prosodic roots in traditions other than speech and song. The notion that most of contemporary poetry has abandoned issues of prosody, accordingly, may be not only mistaken, but fails to recognize the narrow way in which modern and contemporary critics and poets define prosody—a narrowness that often ends in the dismissal of “Language” poetry and other chance-generated works by poets as diverse as John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and David Antin. Robert Bertholf recently found fault with “Language” poets, for example, because “contiguity predominates over image, breath, and music” (“The Polity of the Neutral,” Montemora, no. 5 [1979]). Rather, I argue, breath and music (image we must save for a later discussion) are in fact central to “Language” writers such as Bernstein and Greenwald; it is only that the music and breath they hear is from a source as old as language itself.

Philadephia, 1981
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2008).
*I might add that this poem is a more conservative example of Bernstein’s rhythms. Poems of his more recent volumes, Shade, Poetic Justice, and Controlling Interests, are more difficult or even impossible to scan.
**That is not to say that Pound’s Cantos, for example, can be spoken of in terms of traditional metrics; to do so misses the point of how Pound’s prosody functions. 

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