Post 34: 5/11/07

Further on The Grand Piano:
Recent Comments and Links

How The Grand Piano Is Being Written

There has been recent speculation on how The Grand Piano project is being written, along with a conclusion drawn somewhat hastily that it must have been scripted in advance, and that its serial publication reveals a "closed shop" mentality. This response intersects with debates on the avant-garde that have been going on for some time: in the optimistic, "progressive" account, the avant-garde's commitment to new form could never be a matter of prediction or closure, and "the refusal of closure" has been a signal mark of formal innovation in the avant-garde. But, as theorists from Peter Bürger to Pierre Bourdieu have maintained, a merely formalist refusal is but a feint in an overall process of institutionalization, canonization, taste formation, standardization. What's worse, the aesthetic values of a small coterie and its "restricted production" are in the process generalized as value per se, opening the avant-garde to charges of complicity with institutional interests of all sorts. On this view, the avant-garde is an original example of bad faith, in that its purported openness leads rapidly to closed circles of interest and social affiliation.

This debate is perennial and perhaps will never go away—it's inscribed within the avant-garde in its mode of production. But there is an entailment for writing at the stylistic or procedural level that bears comment. I've been on record for criticizing the Language school for, at times, proposing itself as a new kind of norm—a "nonidentical" norm, where only a certain stylized or codified register of "difference" counts as innovative or progressive. In contestation with (usually very generally described) norms of communication (either literary or social), the Language school questions literary form and normative communication through refusing standards of poetic form and linguistic coherence. This is a position that could characterize the Language school in its "heroic" phase from the late 1970s into the 1980s (the formative period of The Grand Piano): the notion that conventional poetry and more broadly communication itself could be questioned, contested, and even overthrown by linguistic means. The reductio ad absurdum of this claim is that any writing that employs linguistic structures above the level of the phrase—such as writing in complete sentences, paragraphs, narratives, or larger discourses—must fail automatically the test of the avant-garde: which is to refute the "norm" of the propositional sentence and remain open to the flux of ungoverned accumulations of noun phrases.

A kind of political allegory adheres to this view: the noun phrases become the "citizens" of a radical democracy that cannot be totalized or subordinated through formal or political means; sentences, on the other hand, would be moments of Foucauldian discipline wrought on the phrases, hard task masters of coherence and sense. Paragraphs would be akin to forced labor camps, and a complete narrative something like the totalizing teleologies of progress and millennial utopias of all sorts. Discourse would be the final horizon of coercion and control: the top-down muscling together of all those discrepant noun phrases, a poetics of sheer force, fascism in the making. While this allegory partakes of the absurd, it is felt by many as a limit of acceptable expression in the avant-garde. It's a contradictory prohibition where the "freedom" to be free of higher-level constraints is a constraint in its own right, leading to a widespread and internalized prohibition. I am not talking only about my own generation of poets; the recent emergence of Flarf poetries—with their very different social perspectives, gender and identity politics, and performance strategies—still seems policed to a degree by the "noun phrase": all one-liners must be atomized phrases, and discourse itself can only be discontinuous and accretive (if generally subordinated within a very loosely and arbitrarily controlling, often absurdist, "thread" such as "Chicks dig war"). It is precisely, however, to the degree that Flarf does something new performatively and with its use of the detritus of popular cultural and the internet, treading the high/low distinction until it breaks under the weight, that it reinvents the avant-garde. In a larger aesthetic economy, it seems, "the truth will out." Flarf's recent productivity shows how the injunction against the sentence, paragraph, narrative, and even discourse from some sectors of the Language school intersects with actual conditions of language use. Any such thing as stylistic norms in the avant-garde must inevitably intersect with "life."

How is The Grand Piano being written? First of all, it is largely being written in sentences, paragraphs, narratives, and discourses, even while each of these is informed by radical linguistic critique and backed up by many examples of "poésie pure" written by its authors. Most interesting, for me, are the intersections between radical language and standard usage, and the critical spin put on coherence and argument in the process, such that norms of communication are opened up and criticized from within the very forms they utilize. This has been, in any case, a matter of some debate in its pages, and the forthcoming volume (part 3, due this month) continues the discussion in the form of the work, even as it is clear the prohibition against "higher order" synthetic statements is no longer being observed. Therein lies the crux (and solution) of a political problem, the source of my little allegory.

But this was not the question that was asked, which concerned more whether the work itself is a "closed form," already written and decided on, being released in a well-prepared sequence of crafted memoirs at three-month intervals, much like some sort of advertising campaign. The answer to the question of how The Grand Piano is being written is to begin with entirely complex, but a first response is whether an answer should be given at all. As often in life, no comment might be best comment: the truth, in the end, will be disclosed, and whether the work was entirely pre-scripted or contingently constructed, what the relation is between text and hors-texte, how the complexity of a moment of literary history is represented, will be made known at some future time. More importantly, the reader's interpretive projections onto the work as it unfolds are all to the point; the tensional state the work maintains is how it is doing its work. You wouldn't ask Bob Dylan to reveal his methods; why The Grand Piano?

In any case, if I were to perform a thought experiment in which I asked the members of The Grand Piano collective their views on how much of the mechanics of writing the work should be revealed at this point, I'm sure they would agree (or not) that at least this much should be said (by me, in this case) about how the work is being written, the degree of its open form, its relation to readers' comments, whether it is entirely written in advance or responds to events in the present, and the like: __________.


There have now been a number of interesting reviews of and comments on The Grand Piano, in print and on the internet. For readers' interest as well as for the authors' use, I am posting those I have seen so far here. (Information about links not listed would be appreciated; I plan to post substantial comments, even if unfavorable or even, to a degree, unfriendly. But I also see no need to link to comments that are personally hostile or repeatedly distorted—who wants to deal with that?)

è  Chirot, David Baptiste. "Parole in Liberace: The Grand Piano & Its Accessories-Necessaries Considered from a Fluxus Street Theater Persepective." Site—Sight—Cite ******* Visual—Sonic—Visceral Poetries. (25 July 2007).

è  Damon, Maria. Review of The Grand Piano. Rain Taxi 12, no.1 (print edition; Spring 2007).

è  ———. "Three Ladies, Three Bodies, Three Poets: A Retro-Neo/phytic Semi-yessay." EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts 4 (2007).

è  Filreis, Al. “He's Plainly and Simply Thankful for Friends.” Al Filreis (24 November 2007).

è  ———. “Playing the Grand Piano.” Al Filreis (18 August 2007).

è  Gardner, Drew. "The Grand Piano 1." Overlap (15 April 2007).

è  Gricevich, Andy. "On The Grand Piano, part 4." Otherwise (14 November 2007).

è  Gordon, Nada. "Questions that occurred to me on a first reading of The Grand Piano" and other posts. Ululations (March 2007).

è  LibraryThing, review by "jbushnell" (17 August 2007).

è  Nicoloff, Michael. Posts on The Grand Piano. I am yer grammar. (January 2007, December 2006).

è  Scroggins, Mark. "The Grand Piano, part 1" and "The Toy Piano." (5 April, 11 April 2007).

è  Sherry, James. "The Ten-Tone Scale." Jacket 32 (April 2007).

è  ———. "How Events Really Work." Jacket 32 (April 2007).

è  ———. "Language Poetry by the Bay." Jacket 34 (October 2007).

è  Silliman, Daniel. "Grand Piano and Other Phrases." 20 June 2003.

è  Silliman, Ron. All posts on The Grand Piano. Silliman's Blog (from 20 October 2006).

è  Spahr, Juliana. Posts on The Grand Piano. Swoonrocket (March 2007; November-December 2006; November 2004).

è  Sullivan, Gary. "The Grand Piano, part 1" and other posts. Elsewhere (16 March 2007).

è  Watten, Barrett. "First Response: The Grand Piano." Posts (November 2006).

è  Young, Stephanie. Post on The Grand Piano, part 2. The Well Nourished Moon (6 March 2007).

Of related interest:

è  "An Interview with David Bromige." Electronic Poetry Review 2 (June-July 2001).

è  Cunningham, Brent. "Recent Bay Area Writing." Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture 6 (2000).

è  Fink, Thomas. "Interview with Geoffrey Young. E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E V-A-L-U-E-S (17 September 2006).

[Copyright © Barrett Watten 2007. Links welcome; not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]

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