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Thomas Bell reviews:

Imagining Language: An Anthology

Imagining Language: An Anthology, Edited by Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery. Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998. xx+618 pp. ISBN: 026218186X. USD$50


hand 01McCaffery and Rasula have put together a touchstone for poets who are seeking the imaginative and who have interests in the materiality of language. It's from the materials they have assembled here that the next poetic wave (school, pedantically) will arise, post post-language, post postmodern, etc. There is a growing body of criticism (e.g. Drucker, Davidson, Perloff, Bernstein) heralding the next step, the material step, and it is through what they have placed in the hands of poets that this wave will be realized.

hand 02The resources found here open up the visual elements and the materiality of language and in doing this loosen reins on the imaginative dimension of language, a dimension that has always been there, lying in wait, seeping through cracks over the years. While visual and post-language poets will be the most obviously interested, "verbal" poets (as a subset of the class "poets') can also find fuel for the imagination. What is there before poetry happens? I am talking here about poetry, not "Poetry." Out here in the world - as evidenced in this book - language and poetry are alive and well! As they always have been, even if not always noticed


hand 03As the book is inclusive (to the tune of over 600 pages) more than exclusive, and directed more to poets more than critics, teachers, and students, it is not part of the recent anthology wars. This book transcends those wars. In many ways these other anthologies have served to exclude. This book, this mammoth anthology, or - depending on how you slice it, five big anthologies - brings to our attention the vast resources available.


Thomas More's Utopian alphabet
Thomas More [Sir Thomas, 14781535, English humanist, statesman, and author: canonized in 1935] is credited with the invention in Utopia of the first imaginary language. This example (by More) has a Latin translation: "My ruler Utopos [Greek for "no place"] made me into an island from a not-island. Unique among lands, and without philosophy, I signifiy for mortals the philosophical city. I freely share my gifts, and accept without complaint what is better."


hand 04The editors open vistas which lay for the most part fallow and abandoned outside the "canon." Here we find Bob Brown's Gems confronting Tom Phillips' A Humument juxtaposed to Cage "Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake." We meet again or, too often for the first time, such fields for the imagination as Ernst Jandl's visual lip-poems; R. Murray Schafer's pataphysical philological notebook; Lodwick's Forms of Distinctual Marks ; and on through a wonderland of inventions, poems, imaginations, sounds, visuals, and creations (150 authors at rough estimate). I (we) could spend days, months, years, roaming and romping with these "transitional objects," in my mind (our minds), and throughout these pages. What we are given here are works that tap the wellspring of semiotic materiality that lies under and behind canonical literature ("the institutional custodianship of literature [which] serves mainly to protect the literary work from language, shielding it from the disruptive force of linguistic slippage").

hand 05The disruptive force that is living language is all-too-often neglected when the canon is tolled, rolled out for students and the general public. I found myself feasting on the materials here again and again and wondering at what I had not known. There is an abundance of material here, but it is far short of an overabundance. In addition to providing these materials, Rasula and McCaffery provide some insightful orienting comments and guideposts. The materials are divided into five parts.


Cover of <i>Imagining Language: An Anthology</i>, detail
      Cover of Imagining Language: An Anthology, detail


hand 06In Part One, "Revolution of the Word," the basic issue is one of freedom of letters versus their "subservience to correct speech and proper spelling" and proper placement on a page. It moves from Mallarmé through the futurisms, Stein's rhythmic free associations to William's "As birds' wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight." Also included here is work from contributors to Eugene Jolas' transition, such as Finnegans Wake and Bob Brown's "The Readies".

hand 07Part Two, "Oralities, Rituals, and Colloquies," addresses the "in-group" and the richness of out-group languages, sound dimensions, conversations with divinities and aliens, and fictive encounters. It includes languages of communities which range from Canting to Whitman's "Slang in America" to finger alphabets and chirologia. Sound effects contains items such as a piece of The Birds, a part of Schwitters' Sonata in Urlauten, Charles Callet on Hissing and Bellowing and Oulipo's alphabetic sound exercise. Divinities and Aliens has angels, Martians, glossolalia, and The Lord's Prayer in Formosan. In Fictive Encounters we meet Gargantua, Carroll's Stanza of English Poetry, a tablet from Schwerner and from Schafer, and Riddell's "H" trapped in his own prose.

hand 08Part Three, "Lost and Found in Translation," covers translation in an extended sense, as in translation of lip poems, schizophrenic language, and "Writing by Invented Characters". Here we find universal languages, cryptography, and transpositions of spoken languages into visual and musical units.

hand 09Part Four, "Letters to Words," includes the names of Gods as well as alphabets leading to God in cosmologies where "it is as if a textual potential, and ability to organize the sky as a script, recovers the extraterrestrial for human comprehension." We find here Kamensky's "Lecture on Word creation" and Khlebnikov's "Checklist: The Alphabet of the Mind" rather than just a the usual passing reference to zaum. Alphabetic Dimensions includes, among other exemplars, Hugo's hieroglyphic alphabet, Benjamin Paul Blood's practical alphabet, and bp Nichol's "Probable Systems 14: Re-discovery of the 22 Letter Alphabet: An Archaeological Report." Spelling, Saving, Spending covers writer-reformers from Lucian to George Bernard Shaw, with stops along the way at such creations as Alexander Mellville Bell's Visible Language and John Wilkins' Somatic Production of Sounds where "words are what the mouth molds, not what the mind conceives."

hand 10

Part Five, "Matter and Atom," takes on, among other things, the potential autonomous action of language and language as organic and/or technological growth.


several hand signs

This piece is anonymous, though it is probably by Georges Bataille. The standard finger-signing alphabet popularized in the nineteenth century by T.H.Gallaudet is gratuitiously seized upon as a signal catalogue of sexual innuendo and proposition. In this detail from the piece, 16. Pedicate. 17. Quench. 18. Ream. 19. Syphilize. 20. Tup. 21. Urticate. 22. Violate. 23. Waggle. 24. Xiphoidify. 25. Yonirise. 26. Recommence.


hand 11As can be seen from the above, the materials lead to each other as pieces or as whole parts. Dichotomies, statements, and arguments are not resolved but rather left for the reader to explore. This intertextuality of the book and the focus on the process of interacting with the reader gives the book as a whole the character of a long and involved poem.

hand 12As they note, the anthology could have been expanded indefinitely, and I'm sure everyone will have some other candidates for inclusion. There might be quibbles with some of their decisions, such as: lack of ready availability as a criterion for inclusion; stress on defamiliarization of the canon (e.g., inclusion of Fraenkel's "stylizations" of a Mallarmé poem but not the poem); not including visual poetry as they feel it is readily available elsewhere; and little material from beyond the Euro-American colonial axis? However these are minor points in a monumental compilation such as this that is "circus more than [merely] an inventory."

hand 13While I obviously can't be versed in the material as a whole, I did find that where I am somewhat familiar with the material, those areas were generally covered well in a challenging fashion. I would have emphasized visual and gestural semiotics more, but that is my predilection. They (as well as many others) are not aware of material from contemporary Russia that indicates the possibility that Russian futurism didn't die but was transmuted and is still alive. Their psychological and psychoanalytic comments tend to be based on third and fourth hand work, but that is often true of contemporary literary and philosophical writings in this area (Nick Piombino is a notable exception) and their concerns are linguistic rather than clinical.

hand 14In reading Imagining Language I once again discover the wonderful imagination of the human carnival, and then I'm left to wonder why I found none of this in the schools I attended. Is poetry what they taught us, or is it that vast imaginative sea of language that is and that is too seldom tapped?


Imagining Language: An Anthology, Edited by Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery. Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998. xx+618 pp. ISBN: 026218186X. USD$50

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