University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Mentor: Chris Volpe, M.A., UNH Adjunct Faculty; Dr. Robin Hackett, UNH Department of English
Awakening (an) Aesthetic: Russian Formalism in Dialogue with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry
This project explores connections between the theoretical approaches of Russian Formalism and the recent American "Language" poetry movement. Unqualified references to Russian Formalism as an influential ancestor of Language poetry pepper a multitude of essays, outlines, discussions, and introductions within this American avant-garde movement, and yet only one elucidation, by Barrett Watten, himself a Language artist and theorist, explores this profound relationship at any length.
Much of Russian Formalism's linguistic notions sprang from the rift that Ferdinand de Saussure's Structuralism created between the verbal signifier (a word) and the signified (an object). Russian theorists reveled in the semantic value of sounds and other secondary language properties as well as strange metaphors. If a poet's work acknowledges the provisionality of the relationship between signifier and signified, de-familiarizes the word or subject, places emphasis on form over content, and so shakes the reader from the habitual banality of ordinary speech and returns clarity to perception, then it satisfies some main tenets of Russian Formalism. Similarly, the Language poets concern themselves with these same Sausserean linguistics (sound/meaning, signifier/signified) while attempting to alter and sharpen a reader's perception of the world and semantic meanings and, uniquely, they hope to overthrow bourgeois structures which they see embedded in the mechanics of language, and thereby fulfill a Marxist agenda. Tracing the lines between Russian Formalism and Language poetry underscores the essential elements that characterize these movements – their fantastically imaginative and scientifically systematic application of theory onto poetry, and their emphasis on the teleology of poetic form.