It is a privilege to see so
—Marianne Moore, “The Steeple-Jack”
This book is about the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. When the dispute involves a claim to critical thinking, the question is usually decided in favor of philosophy. Poets, after all, “are such liars,/And take all colours, like the hands of dyers” (Byron, Don Juan, canto 3, st. 87).
A certain line of versemaking—Byron is part of it—challenges this customary priority. Its most celebrated members include the Greek dramatists, especially Euripides; Ovid and Lucretius; Dante and Pope. This kind of writing was energized in the early twentieth century when philosophy took its “linguistic turn,” which made the scene of writing itself the source and end and test of the art of critical thinking. The result for philosophy was Wittgenstein and Derrida—arguably, with the possible exception of Nietzsche, the greatest poetic philosophers since Plato: truth as an endeavor of thinking rather than as a system of thought.
The most significant poetry after 1848, and certainly much of twentieth-century poetry, has been consciously language oriented (as opposed to content driven). McLuhan’s famous proverb—“The medium is the message”—defines this aesthetic orientation, which began a comprehensive exploration of its resources in the late twentieth century. Nowhere was that self-study more rigorously pursued than in the line of experimental verse known as language writing, where the poetic field is less a vehicle of thought than an environment of thinking. That event is the central focus of this book.
While the book pivots around a localized event in the history of contemporary poetry, datable more or less from 1971, its proper subjects