This book asks why so many American poets from the
mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century have persistently sought "a
perfect language of words univocal in meaning" despite "unanswerable
critiques" by philosophers as well as "extensive empirical evidence
that language is imperfect and polyvocal in meaning" (xiii). They do so,
Billitteri speculates, because of a utopian "social vision." They
dream of "renewing society" through "acts of a natural or
organically conceived language" (6-7). They seek not to restore some
imagined "prelapsarian condition" of simplicity and purity (11) but
rather, by using words exactly and properly, to create a "germinal
site": an example of "linguistic immutability" that others can
imitate when striving to make a "truthful utterance" (8). Once enough
people learn to speak and write correctly, they will generate a "society
founded on the real and true," a society that is necessarily
"democratic," too, since "access to the real and true is not the
privilege of the few, but within the reach of all" (31).
In labelling this general point of view the "American Cratylus" (6),
Billitteri evokes of course Plato's dialogue Cratylus, more specifically the eponymous
character's "belief that language, of divine origin, directly emanates
from nature, intrinsically expressing the inner reality of things" (17).
Plato, though, serves her more as a touchstone than an intertext. The poets
that she discusses--Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Charles Olson, and,
in a coda, the Language Poets Bob Grenier and Lyn Hejinian--do not agree with
Cratylus about, for instance, the existence of a "nomothete": a
"power more than human" who "guarantees that names belongs to
things and express their innermost nature" (21-22). They do not even
aspire to such a role, for, by elevating the figure of the poet above his or
her fellow citizens, it would violate the democratic ethos they cherish. More
often than not, in fact, when closely scrutinized, Billitteri's favored writers
turn out to be intermediate types whose beliefs concerning language fail to
align fully with those expressed by any of Plato's interlocutors. Although
perhaps predominately "Cratylan," they also tend to voice idealist
opinions, as Socrates does, or, like Hermogenes, they sometimes make
conventionalist pronouncements, treating the link between between words and
things as the product of custom and habit.
This inconsistency could be considered a weakness in
Billitteri's thesis. Why invoke the Cratylus at all if none of her writers
straightforwardly subscribe to the positions that the dialogue outlines? She
proves adept, though, at discerning and disentangling the different Platonic
strands in an author's poetics as well as tracking their variations through
time. Indeed, after an introductory chapter titled "The True Form of
Things," she devotes almost all of her attention to this task. There are
none of the extended, virtuosic close readings of individual lyrics that one
might expect in such a study. She explains why in a concise but important
statement about her methodology that opens the book. Her preferred unit of
analysis is not a "set of works" but a "poetic project," a
writer's gradual "articulation of a poetics" over the course of a
career. When elucidating a project, she explains, "poems are not simply
artifacts to be appreciated." They are best approached as "sites of
intellectual and social labor." As such, they do not automatically outrank
any other genres in which a poet might work, including "prose notes,
letters, essays, and monographs" (2). Unpublished manuscripts, too, carry
as much weight as oft-anthologized set pieces. Regardless of their genre or
publication status, what these texts "say is subservient to what they accomplish," even when they fail at the
task they set for themselves. "[I]naccuracies, faulty reasoning, and
fantasies" should not be seen as "weaknesses to be identified,
problems to be critiqued, or contradictions to be resolved" (1-2; her
emphasis). Rather, they are episodes in a larger narrative, and one should
investigate how and why an author made use of them to "support" an
ongoing line of inquiry. In short, the job of the critic is to track how
certain ideas, attitudes, and ambitions "persevere" across a writer's
setbacks, contradictions, and inconsistencies (3).
She does not make a grand show of it, but with these preliminary gestures
Billitteri is laying the groundwork for a responsible
"post-theoretical" study of American poetry. By elevating continuity
over aporia, she is self-consciously moving away from deconstructive and other
poststructuralist modes of critique. She readily acknowledges that if one looks
for it in the three poets whom she discusses, one will find "ambivalence,
conflict, or confusion" over the nature of language. As Jacques Derrida
taught long ago, however, such messiness is commonplace, indeed almost
inevitable whenever an author puts pen to paper. Consequently, she holds that
the inevitable gaffes, breakdowns, and contradictions are ultimately less interesting
than the poets' "dreams of how language might be used and should function" (2; her emphasis).
And their search for a "perfect language" proves to be an
"enabling" activity with political and ethical ramifications worth
close critical attention (5).
Billitteri's stance here is recognizably pragmatist. For
her, the irrationality of Cratylism is largely irrelevant. What deserves
academic attention are the ramifications and corollaries of espousing, in
however qualified or adulterated a fashion, such a perverse philosophical
doctrine. Her account of her method also helps to explain why she has written a
book that can appear, at least in Whitman's case, to revisit well-trod ground.
Nearly two decades ago, James Perrin Warren's Walt Whitman's Language
anatomized the poet's career-long fascination with language and linguistics,
and a few years later Ed Folsom's Walt Whitman's Native Representations (1994) directed attention to his
readings in lexicography, especially Noah Webster and Joseph Emerson Worcester.
Two other studies from the same period, Mark Bauerlein's Whitman and the
American Idiom (1991)
and Tenney Nathanson's Whitman's Presence (1994), subjected his verse to the kind of patient,
exhaustive attention to language-use that characterizes deconstruction at its
best. Over the last fifteen years, however, as densely historicizing studies of
American literature have emerged as the norm, the early 1990s conversation
about Whitman's understanding of language stalled. It was overtaken by a host
of other topics, such as his involvement in the Locofocos faction of the
Democratic party and his celebration of the figure of the Bowery B'Hoy. When
the topic of language has taken center stage, as it memorably does in Andrew
Lawson's Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle (2006), the goal has generally been
to read Leaves of Grass as a document of a particular place and time.
While Billitteri is hardly opposed to placing texts in their historical
contexts, neither does she find such a move an end in itself. She admires
Whitman's vision of a "modern," "post-European," and
"multicultural" United States, a vision, moreover, that she believes
can still inspire progressive political action (7). For that reason, she is
content to reconstruct, not criticize, Whitman's argument that "a proper
American language" could be built on "two quite different linguistic
foundations," "Native American and Anglo-Saxon" (48). Similarly,
she declines to use the word compromise to describe Whitman's oscillation between a Lockean
faith in the ability of "new societies to create new languages" as
they see fit (51) and a Humboldtian "understanding of language as the historically
unfolding expression of a nation" (64). In short, she is unusually
forgiving in her account of Whitman's premises--that "words can have
inherent meanings," that "names can have inherent
characteristics"--because they serve as the logical antecedent to a
conclusion that she respects, namely, that American "poems, institutions,
[and] societies," too, have unshakeable foundations and clear purposes, a
"future-oriented" effort at achieving true "democracy"
(71). So much of the scholarship in contemporary American Studies aims at
demystification or indictment that it is surprising--even refreshing--to
discover a scholar committed to isolating and affirming utopian potential in
nineteenth century nationalist verse.
The later chapters on the modernist Laura (Riding) Jackson and the
postmodernist Charles Olson extend Billitteri's story of the "American
Cratylus" up to the mid-twentieth century. First, she retells the story of
(Riding) Jackson's 1955 announcement that she would no longer write poetry.
Between 1938 and 1948, she loses faith in "the notion of poetry as
rectification," that is, as a means of elevating and purifying
"everyday language." She begins to advocate "a more attentive
listening to the language of the mind," an endeavor that eventually took
the form of a quixotic crusade against post-Saussurean linguistics (79). While
most discussions of (Riding) Jackson's renunciation of poetry characterize it
as a break or rupture, Billitteri wants to present it as simply a chapter in a
longer story, the writer's attempts to fulfill "America's prophetic
task--the renewal of society" by making it explicit that the "fate of
the language" and "its people" are "bound . . .
together" (83). Early in her career, (Riding) Jackson sought to use sound
play, metaphor, and other poetic devices in the service of
"destruction," that is, the creation of a "cleared space"
emptied of the corruptions that mottle and mar quotidian discourse (102). Later
she came to see verse too as so tainted by misdirection and ambiguity that it
could never be relied on to help a thinker achieve clarity and precision. In
prose works such as The Telling (1972) and the posthumously published Rational Meaning (1997) she began to delve deeply
into what she had earlier spurned: everyday language. She wanted to sort out
the difference between "preferred usage"--the way people tend to talk and
write--and the as-yet-unrealized "proper use" that would enable the
"true renewal of society" (113).
This portrait of (Riding) Jackson's career is persuasive but also somewhat
dissatisfying. The book's polemical focus on projects instead of works leads in
this case to a missed opportunity. Although nowadays acknowledged as part of
the modernist canon, (Riding) Jackson's verse remains understudied. Other than
her self-imposed "silence," critics scarcely agree on what were the
milestones in her career-or on the relative merits of her pre-World War II
publications, their characteristic themes and techniques, or their distinctive
achievements. "Rupture v. continuity" is not an antithesis that truly
helps us to place the poet within the already well-populated firmament of early
twentieth-century Anglo-American literature. Moreover, as Billitteri confesses,
(Riding) Jackson pairs oddly with Whitman, since the "Americanness so
prominent in Whitman's project becomes attenuated" in hers. Her theories
are universalist, not particularist, and she would consider anathema his
"belief that language is . . . an expression of national character"
The final chapter, on Olson, restores coherence to the book's overall arc. Like
(Riding) Jackson, he thinks that humanity as a whole has taken a wrong turn.
More specifically, he holds that the "Platonic and Aristotelian
systematization of thought" in the Classical era has gone on to poison
societies around the globe, producing a toxic "culture of . . .
mechanization, industrialization, and capitalist expansion" (121). More in
the vein of Whitman, however, he imagines a salvific mission for the United States.
It is up to "all members of the body politic . . . in their daily
activities" to overcome the dead weight of abstraction and
"redeemistory" (152). Billitteri does an exemplary job tracing the
ins and outs of Olson's many versions of this argument. She handles well his
confusing and shifting "terminology"--his idiosyncratic use, for
example, of such words as "speech, glyph, objectism, etymology, [and] logography" (119; her emphasis)--and she is fully at home with
Olson's more anomalous writings in which "genre distinctions . . . break
down" and it becomes unclear whether one is reading telegraphic verse,
prose jottings, or lecture notes (123). She shows that, whether in his epic The
Maximus Poems (1983),
his correspondence, or his essays, his goal was constant, an exaltation of
"the resistant primes' of speech--syllables, glyphs, any unit of language
that carries meaning prior to its abstraction from the body or experience"
(129). These "primes," he contends, offer an escape route from the
horror of post-Aristotelian "Western thought" (123).
This book might be on the short side, but it is also closely, tightly argued
and rich in its use of archival materials. Billitteri is intimately familiar
with her chosen poets, as even a cursory glance at her bibliography will
reveal. For readers whose primary interest is nineteenth century literature and
culture, her book will likely be most valuable for its unusual approach to
Whitman and his legacy. She takes him seriously as a philosophical thinker,
and, having distinguished his arguments about language from Emerson's, she
endorses his. Then she positions him as the founder of an intellectual, not so
much a poetic, tradition that extends down into (Riding) Jackson's publications
of the 1980s and 90s. This is not the bardic Whitman generally seen as a
forerunner of the Beats and their imitators, nor is it the "adhesive"
Whitman celebrated in gay male poetry from Hart Crane to Mark Doty.
Billitteri's Whitman could be assigned reading in a political science seminar
on the same syllabus as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Michael Oakshott. Would
he hold up well in such company, read not for sound and sentiment but chiefly
for his ideas? Perhaps not, but Billitteri's success is making the scenario
thinkable in the first place.
Brian Reed is an Associate Professor of English and an adjunct associate professor
of Slavic at the University of Washington, Seattle.