The Wrong Language in/as Poetry Dr. Roi Tartakovsky
Is there a difference between language in the poem and language outside of the poem? And if there is, what can we learn from poetry about language, about how we use language, and about how language uses us? From different angles the argument has been made that poetry is unique in terms of its attitude towards language. Along those lines we may say that poetry is a site in which linguistic givens are brought to the fore and questioned. In other words, and borrowing a term from Roman Jakobson, poets are those people who commit “organized violence” against everyday language.
In this class we will be reading a wide selection of poets both old and new writing in and attacking the English language. Moving from the more blatant to the more subtle poetic strategies, we will read poetry that makes grammatical and orthographic “mistakes,” invents new words, distorts existing words, uses punctuation in unconventional ways, questions pronunciation, blends registers and mixes languages. In class we will work with individual poems, always with a dual purpose: to understand (and inevitably misunderstand) the ways the “ungrammaticality” serves the particular poem in terms of its message, theme, figures of speech and aesthetics, and to think together about the broader implications of this misuse of language. By the end of the course we will have gone through different rhetorical and poetic devices like punning, literalization, double negation, neologism, iconicity and dead metaphors, but also considered the political and even personal implications of such texts that, as Roland Barthes has said, “attack the canonical structures of the language itself.”
Readings: Twentieth-century poets whose work focuses on language will be widely but meticulously surveyed, in particular E. E. Cummings, Robert Creeley, and poets associated with Language Poetry (with an emphasis on Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian), but we will also go back to earlier “language poets” as Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. Our readings of poems will be interspersed with theoretical readings by some of the poets we are reading as well as by other thinkers.