Rachel Blau DuPlessisExcerpt from: Comment on Marjorie Perloff, "After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents"

by Rachel Blau DuPlessis


Barnard College Conference; "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women," April 10, 1999

The rubric under or thru which we are temporarily organized (the title of this conference) uses a few words on which I should like to linger. Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women. Some of these words are "women," "where" and "meets." I will also pass through "lyric" and "tradition," "literary history" and "innovation."


To call for, to notice, to notate, to comment upon the productive presence of women artists and writers in this era is to be indebted to feminist cultural criticism and related modes of cultural poetics, such as ethnic criticisms. I would like therefore to peel back the word "women" and see what happens to some of the narrative of literary history Perloff proposes if we openly declare our collective debt to feminism. As Woolf said in A Room of One's Own, certain material differences between men and women are constructed and perpetuated in our societies. It is the task of feminist politics to resist these, to try to dismantle them, and the task of feminist inspired gender critique to understand the impact of these material differences on the production, dissemination, reception and continuance of artists and texts.

Feminist cultural poetics has primarily engaged itself with female subjectivity and female agency, but the self-conscious critique of male subjectivities in and as poetry is of increasing and necessary importance, since gender is not only woman, and not necessarily one, nor attributable to a particular body. Thinking about the gendered subjectivity, performative genderings, styles of femaleness or maleness or sexualities in artworks, thinking about ideological attitudes to gender of any individual author is not the only use of feminist criticism. Nor does critical work interested in gender have to valorize any specific position, theme, rhetoric, or finding. What does this mean? To maintain feminist (or gender-alert) RECEPTION is crucial, not to insist that certain forms, styles, strategies, subjectivitities, themes are more female, feminine, male, masculine, gay, straight on the level of production. The feminism of reception means a high level of analysis making legible gender materials and the materials of other social matrices, and showing a subtle alertness to the play of gender (etc.) and its deep structures, in culture, everywhere. Gender-alert, materialist-inflected reception is interested in the discussion of social location not only of artists, but of genres, discourses, images, textualities, ideologies, communities.

It is clear–and Perloff's paper makes this clear again, that gender is hardly "the only" social factor to analyze in any discussion of culture. Rhetorics do not "follow" in any easily traceable way, from social location, but, via praxis, they do get conventionally linked to social location, and set in debate and contestation there. This is fascinating to trace: what rhetoric seems to "go" with what group is a convention. Why a community might choose specific rhetorics or genres for certain functions is something criticially to examine. Discourses, rhetorics, and conventions are forms of social learning, sometimes involving will, choice, intention of the artist, sometimes involving a consideration of stakes and social matrices already established. For an example of engaged social learning, we have the testimony of Harryette Mullen that she had to assimilate–that is, to investigate and learn, the identification she chose with African American folk, blues, rock'n'roll, and popular, vernacular materials, in the sound mixage she produces so elegantly, so intelligently in Muse and Drudge. One chooses or enacts rhetorics as forms of social relationship, social declaration and identification.The important question is how these rhetorics are USED by writers as agents of choice and of discursive channelling (with what ideology and intention surrounding the rhetorics) and how they are PERCEIVED by critics (with what ideology and intention surrounding the reception), not whether certain rhetorics are ipso facto more female, or more innovative, which they are not...

....I confess still to being baffled that both "Lyric Tradition and Language Poetry" are, in the title of the conference, set syntactically under the rubric of "innovation." It is still hard for me to empty out the word "innovation" so that any recursive poetries are taken under that rubric; this is because for me, to win the name of "innovation," a work has to be critical, oppositional, in itself structured against a hegemony that it self-consciously names. No rhetoric is separable from its uses.

(back to top)

BIO: Rachel Blau DuPlessis's chapbook, Renga: Draft 32 , (Beautiful Swimmer Press) is recently published, in company with The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation, edited by DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, (Crown) and The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics , edited by DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, (University of Alabama Press, 1999). Entitled New: Modern Subjectivities, Modern American Poetries, her newest critical book, is forthoming from Cambridge University Press in 1999 or 2000.

(back to Alerts)

table of contents