Barrett Watten (1948 -)

Life and Works


Barrett Watten was asked by Peter Davis to select the "most essential" books to him as a poet. His response clarifies the formal theoretical construct viewed in his thoughtful poetic work. These are the works or categories he found "most formative" for him: Modernists, postmoderns, proto-language, language writing, hybrid texts, New York School, word/image, new music/jazz, literary theory, cultural theory, film, and great books. Watten invokes a range of cultural forms to continually generate possibilities. His poetic works show an emphasis on composition rather than trying to show the coherence of the self or seek appraisal for the technique he used. Writing which is centered the author-reader relationship as such is sure to receive multiple evaluations, reactions, and re-formulations. This recurring issue speaks of the enigma of deciphering the public and private aspects of a society which has had to rapidly assimilate new roles and acceptance of historical and class issues; especially in the last few decades. For him, poetry should act as a vehicle of communication of a new status, assimilating diverse forms, which exchange values that mass society finds difficult to assume. Though this kind of avant-garde poetry has been treated as elitist. This open eclectic sense of both form and content is one of its most valuable assets, sustaining the liveliness of its proposals through volumes of essays, lectures, and conferences, whose importance has grown proportionally to the furious diatribes of official media like The New Criterion or Partisan Review.

Photo by Manuel Brito



In all Watten's published works, like for example Progress (1985), Conduit (1988), Under Erasure (1991), Bad History (1998), and his essays of Total Syntax (1985) he has always laid emphasis on the mode of poetic composition that sets off from exploration and gets in touch with the Other, always in search of new experimental forms which draw attention to history. Watten has used fixed stanzaic structures at least since Complete Thought (1982), assimilated to a poetic process that also accounts for the duration of events. From the beginning, especially through the edition of the little magazine This (1971-1982), Watten was involved in the language poets group, representing the public side of these poets. Their dilemma was always whether to break with the notion of a group to give free rein to the latent and not convert Other into one's own double. Seen today in a historical perspective, this group revitalized and reformed certain well-worn habits of 1970s poetic writing. But the common element they shared is Watten's consideration of the poem as an artifact that resists the conventional. This is still observable in the greater part of their poetic productions. In the same way, Watten has pushed for a continued commitment to practice in exploring and questioning the role of ideology within poetry.

We must not forget that Barrett Watten is aware of his being included in a poetic line that starts off with Pound, to whom he responds by trying to supersede Modernism, investing literature and literary language with an autonomous self-referential practice, reducible to specific codes by individuals but constantly open to reinterpretation. Thus, the purpose of poetic language is discovery, but leaving an arduous task to the reader, who feels obliged to decide how and in what direction the elements of language can be combined with the categorizations to which we are accustomed. The response does not include a re-composition of the fragmentation as in Pound, to find the creative self, but rather that language has a long history of premises and consequences that could occupy a central position as true protagonist; establishing a scenario of meanings conceived as options. The most obvious reward and conclusion when faced with this attitude is that it submerges the reader in an open progression of language that reflects one of the most outstanding motifs of poetic experience: to experience words as raw material to be deciphered.

The literary game Barrett Watten offers the reader is full of hidden forces and meta-commentaries between the different statements in his poems. The reconstitution of what is lost into the Derridian differánce has as its objective the liberation inherent to life-experience, not just literature. In this sense we are reminded of what Julia Kristeva points out regarding Joyce's Modernism in Finnegans Wake. He uses language free of "didacticism, rhetoric, dogmatism of any kind" (92). It is evident that this kind of language transcends the mechanical sense of history to lodge itself in a more discursive communication. Although characterized by deliberate opaqueness, the mode of expression itself makes us more aware of its forms and structures. Kristeva applies the concept of redemption to Joycean opaqueness, in that the experimental and radical is a source of new meanings which are sometimes unexpected. In Watten's case, his obscure poetic architecture proceeds from the everyday world and his social concerns, which are capable of altering conventional reality by using a lexical organization that begs for another reading. Such organization is defined by his opposition to what is ordered from the outside, that is, the deterritorialization of signifiers by altering grammar, syntax or spelling in order to reclaim the idiosyncratic and personal, which will stimulate greater attention to language itself and to our awareness of its ideological-political role. For Watten, syntactic order and its servility to convention answers a social order that limits the potential of the human being, whether in the interests of capitalism, "To jump from a 13-story hotel/ and assume a net,/ as proof/ That the way things work is/ Not a projection of syntax..." (120).

Barrett Watten's biographical data are scarce. His web page at the Electronic Poetry Center, a common source for researchers to find bio details of contemporary American poets directly re-sends us to Watten's web page at Wayne State University. Here we can obtain information on his Internet posts, published books, courses taught at this university, his academic articles and other links but with the exception of a few notes related to his education, no signs about his childhood and mature days can be traced. Taking this into account it is easy to understand why his poetic work is also directly proportional to his ability to obliterate his ego. In any case, Barrett Watten was born in Long Beach, California, on October 3rd, 1948. Since his father worked for the U.S. Navy as a research physician he spent his early years in the West Coast, and then in Japan and Taiwan. Watten got graduation from Skyline High School in Oakland in 1965 and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before receiving his A.B. degree in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. With the still-resonant science studies in his head, he felt animated to change his professional life and enrolled in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, through the suggestion of poet Josephine Miles. He received his M.F.A. degree in 1972 with a Thesis entitled White Yellow. Once returned to California, he became involved in the language poets group. In these early 1970s it is especially significant his friendship with Robert Grenier--both co-edited the little magazine This uniting the Atlantic and Pacific American coasts, since Grenier lived in Lanesville, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Watten in San Francisco. Another detail is that Watten's first published book, Opera-Works, is dedicated to Grenier. The late 1970s and 1980s represent a very productive period in Watten's career since he published five books of poetry, Decay (1977), Plasma / Parallels / "X" (1979), 1-10 (1980), Complete Thought (1982), Progress (1985), and Conduit (1988). His book of essays dedicated to Ron Silliman, Total Syntax (1985) placed Watten as an essential theoretician reflecting on the act of writing. Along with this, he was the co-editor --with Lyn Hejinian--of the little magazine, Poetics Journal from 1981 to 1999. Maybe his editorial activity and his participation in diverse literary events throughout the West Coast --noticeably in the Grand Piano series, and as an artist in residence at 80 Langton Street--delayed the writing of his doctoral dissertation on the historical boundaries of American modernism, with particular attention to Gertrude Stein and Laura Riding. Though, finally he got his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1995. He has developed several academic positions at the University of Iowa, San Francisco State University, at the University of Calfornia, San Diego, and is currently teaching topics on American Literature and in Literary and Cultural Studies at Wayne State University. His book of essays, The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics (2003), was awarded the René Wellek Prize in 2004. He is married to poet Carla Harryman and they have a son, Asa.



At the end of the 1970s, Barrett Watten had already published four books of poetry in which the author did not impose anything but rather invited the reader to participate and so involve this reader in an aesthetic, ethical or political experience. He delved into a poetry with a greater emphasis on composition as poetics, sharing the same interests with other American innovative poets involved in the same environment and intentions as Watten. As a consequence of these experiences, many of the resultant poetic forms characterizing his poetry in the 1970s are a license for the reader to reflect on the matter of language, "There is no language but "reconstructed" imaged parentheses back into person "emphasizing constant" explanation "the current to run both ways" (1-10 11). Another example would be a book like Complete Thought, which illustrates a certain political bitterness through multiple single or two-lines stanzas composed of aphoristic statements, "Everyday life retards potential" (3), or "Any person in Egypt is not more permanent than this" (33). However, no centers on the representation of a particular idea or reality in their content.

Faith in individual perception is the starting point for his world-view. As in Charles Bernstein's case we can say that Watten's is non-absorptive poetry. Of course, there is a continuation of similar forms within the American poetry tradition preceding it. From Gertrude Stein to John Cage, such experimental poetry has reconstructed and motivated a new concept of the self, in order to observe its mysterious nature and the changes it has gone through when compared with what is considered rational. On proceeding this way, Watten prolongs the point of the signifier-signified relationship, though deepening in the sense of historical duration. Writing is an act which opens the door to remodel and penetrate any field of human concern. The roles of structure, form and meaning constantly overlap in his essays of Total Syntax. This is one of the main reasons why Watten is a rule-breaker and interpreter, stimulating the reader to re-examine and question human culture from new angles. Ultimately, this approach is not limited to just the exclusively individual, since his texts expand through those of other authors and daily realities of the Iraq War, or the 1994 Los Angeles riots or O.J. Simpson on tv, as he develops in Bad History. Everything requires a resolution to shed light on social definition.



The form used in composition with the aim of putting this poetics into practice is far from being a modernist collage, resembling an assemblage of pieces functioning with a particular linguistic fascination, as in Under Erasure, "two key dimensions of the linguistic architecture of Under Erasure are the words "memory" and "amnesia," which work systematically to cancel each other." This poetic architecture where images are stuck together without any explanation makes us think beyond the literal use of language, for us the reference closest to hand, leading us to perceive first the autotelic-inherently purposeful-nature of the poetic form and then helping us to historicize its materiality. I actually think it urges us to action in comprehending and seeking responses to the crisis of the relationship between signifier and signified. What is more, it will lead irremediably to the inertia of reading to dialectical discourse, aligning itself in Bakhtinian terms with discourses characterized by a plurality of voices, where the dominant voices and others opposed to them can be heard at the same time in a continual dialectic interchange.

Therefore it is not strange that political and ideological questions have so much to do with this attitude to literary activity. This author states in one of his most definitive essays on the topic, "On Explanation: Art & The Language of Art-Language," that "Language is constituted in a poem, and poetry is demonstrably a language; it cannot be generated by a language of exteriors" (Total Syntax 216). I think this means should not be at the service of the cultural social and economic force called capitalism. Watten's links with politics date back to the 1960s when many in his generation were doubting whether to use the means to power as one of their strategies. They were very sensitive to the authoritarian discourse of the system in human communication, science and philosophy. For him, writing implies holding a political position as it inevitably takes place within a culture.

From Walter Benjamin and Julia Kristeva's approaches to Modernism, considering it as an aesthetics with an undoubtedly political and revolutionary projection, to the recent experience of these innovative modern poets, the literary medium has appeared as the most appropriate to realize the importance of the signifier-signified relationship; also to recognize that language is much more than a transparent transmission medium, taking on a discursive function where the individual's social contact begins. Besides this, these features do not exclusively determine the materiality of language but also have a transcendental component that invests it with symbology, diverse relationships and connections with real life, showing it not to be empty but replete with the same qualities as the process of life itself. Lukacs interpreted the power of art as an ideological seduction, art itself as a beautiful appearance that masks the true evils of the industrial age: alienation and reification. Most of his earlier work has been collected in his Frame (1971-1990) (1997) bringing the reader back to breathing the various Watten's attempts of resisting impassiveness. It is from this perspective that the language poets have appreciated art and literature as political activity, whose function is to free us, containing enough ideological awareness to speak of the self in society.


Manuel Brito (Universidad de La Laguna)


1 Should you wish to amplify this point, please visit Ron Silliman's blog: http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2007/07/peter-davis-must-be-in-process-of.html
2 Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1980).
3 Barrett Watten's "Progress" is a 100-page long poem, where politics, geography, machines, and characters collide in a universe of introversion and social consciousness, Progress (New York: Roof, 1985) 120.
4 I would define this book as a surrealistically semiotic book, since experiential references become definitely suspended, "the ten men at the table tipped their hats./ This was not a gesture, but a sign" (7), "the initials, /RHW" (13), Opera-Works (Bolinas: Big Sky, 1975).
5 Watten's letter to Manuel Brito, June 8 1991.