Language Poetry and “We Walked When We Couldn’t Speak”

It is somewhat difficult to discern precisely what the Language poets were all about. On one hand, they seem to have been focused on the notion that language itself represents some form of oppression, whereby writing perpetuates capitalist agendas, conformity, colonialism, social immobility, and even stands in the way of free thinking. The act of writing, however, does not; it is the completed writing disseminated across America that the Language poets were against. They seem to have been anti-authority, anti-conformity, anti-reference, anti-capitalism, anti-war (anti-government?), anti-language, just anti- in general.

In reading about these poets, one can get the sense that they may have found themselves caught in a theoretical feedback loop, within a bubble of essayists, theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, until they could no longer escape the rabbit hole of theoretical hypothesizing. It seems like it was the debate about language that most interested them and less so any productive manner of addressing the (very) multi-faceted criticisms they discovered during such debates. It was language that bothered them but more specifically the way language is used to reference the world around us (making use of theories about how our subconscious mind operates between ourselves, our perceptions, and the outside world and how language comes into play as a tool of representation and communication). Yet these theories and essays and letters were all communicated to each other by the use of the very same language they seemed to want to rebel against. They harped on the notion that language is not primarily used to communicate ideas while using language to do just that.

I agree that language can be problematical in some sense (the implications of its formation, connotations, etc.), and I can appreciate the thought exercise regarding how our experience of the world becomes filtered through language, but I do not understand the goal of these Language poets. If it is to rebel against the form of language, how it is used, then it would seem like the best protest would be to not use it, not to use it in a way that avoids reference (a way that triggers our mental web of associations, which is how most of us make sense of the world/images/words… which they understood by, guess what, reading about it). The idea is that one could trigger these associations and make a reader make their own meaning, thus forcing the reader to become the writer, in a way. The reader becomes the real producer. They want the reader to work. They thought reading created passivity, that readers were essentially passive, unthinking consumers (which was a representation of the evils of capitalism–and I have my own issues with capitalism, for the record–but I bet they sold their anthologies), and I took offense to that notion. Some people read for pleasure, not to consume, but to escape temporarily, not from the ills of society but from the stressors in their lives, for their own mental health, and some people read very critically/analytically.

These writers were also anti-narrative, which somewhat bothers me, too. There is a good chance we exist because of narrative, because we were able to formulate stories, memories, inspirations that helped us avoid dangers, helped us survive. Those narratives may have first been confined to our minds, but once they appeared we began trying to express them. Those narratives taught us how to love and to mourn, which bonded us together and made us much stronger as a species. They led to inventions, advancements, communities, governments, and understanding, of ourselves and of our world (and some bad stuff, too, don’t get me wrong). These things happened because we told the stories, shared the information with each other, not only during a single moment but across time. One idea today, written down, discussed, studied, analyzed, and whatever else, becomes a significant innovation decades or even centuries down the line. This is because of language. We tell stories so that we can make sense of the world, so that someone can feel less alone, so problems can be exposed, so people can appreciate the experience of someone else or imagine an experience they may never have, so that a reader/hearer can realize that the things that vex, pain, confuse, dishearten or bring joy to them also does the same for others. It is how we have psychology and philosophy, the very things the Language poets used to protest the function of narrative. We use language, narrative, so that we are not alone inside our web of associations, so that we can connect with people like the social beings that we are, and though it may not be perfect and there may be some negative implications regarding language, for now at least, it’s all we have.

Well, you may say, that’s why the Language poets sought to dismantle and redevelop the use of language, to which I would respond, sure, but they meant to do so without narrative, one of the very elements of our existence that makes us human. Lots of other animals communicate with each other, some very effectively, and I’d be willing to venture a guess they do so in a way that is similar to what the Language poets seemed to be after (sort of a system of sounds that trigger a response in the hearer/reader with which the hearer/reader decides what is meant in their own mind). In this way, it almost seems as though the Language poets sought a de-evolution of a sort (and maybe, to their credit, we could use some form of de-evolution), almost as if, at the heart of it, they sought a return to the period in our existence that we communicated with sounds and gestures alone. Perhaps, this thought (though I just had it consciously) led to my conceptualization of the imitation poem that I have written for this week’s post.

I promised myself I would work within the apparent structuring of the Language poets. And I tried. But, if it isn’t obvious by now, narrative is something I think is very valuable and very important. So, despite my best efforts, I think my imitation is probably a bit too conscious, resembling a narrative a bit too much. My design for this poem came about when I read Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings.” His poem uses lines of five words each that seem to be sentences that drop off whenever five words is reached. It is rather clever in that the way these sentences begin, with the connotations/inferences they generate, sometimes allow us to feel the sort of ghost of the missing part the sentence (we could fill in the gap in any number of ways). As I read the poem, I thought, “I wonder if Perelman wrote a long, heartfelt, deeply personal letter or paragraph or something and then wrote the poem by simply cutting each sentence of it off after the first five words.” So, I decided that’s how I would find my way into a Language poem. It didn’t really work.

I decided, like lots of these poets, I should write about language. So, I wrote a long paragraph about language (and about its development and why narrative matters) and then started chopping it up into lines. However, I couldn’t bring myself to stop mid-sentence in my line construction. Instead, I tried to make use of sound and word association (paying close attention to the end of each line, how it linked to its own line and the following line), and I wrote a poem with six-word lines (like Perelman’s five-word lines). I don’t know if I accomplished a real imitation, but I do know that I tried.


We Walked When We Couldn’t Speak


We walked when we couldn’t speak

in tree gutters and green rooftops

flying and fleeing from fearful tears

guttural sounds meant to express meaning

infants or injured or dying body

languaged grunts and gesture making meaning

throaty commands we survived. We walked


secure growth in mountain numbers free

intellect generating generations generative functions generally

we wanted to honor the dead

we scraped and pigmented pictured dreams

crumbling stone gods familiar and legends

procreative lenses primordial promiscuity and prowess

and we drew pictures. We walked


entertainment memorialized morality feeding memorized killing

images imaginary real us to see

look to remain when we’re gone

for us for others to communicate

for our lives and we grew

wanting stories fireside families our worldwide

food-born families enriching and we walked


storied spirits and gods guiding ghosts

guttural gestures going wherever we imagined

we wanted sense each to each

time abiding tales of triumph defeats

feats, fears, fires, frets, floods, food

dreams, demons, deities, dilemmas, delectables, delineations

talking and talking walking and walking


desirous of illuminating leeward legacies lifelong

warnings our survival we drew pictures

new meanings, of gods of us,

habitual lives symbolic and our heroes

communicable stories set down in time

pictures reimagined into conscious reality signified

fears our feats and we walked.


And our pictures became our stories.

And our stories became our words.

And our pictures became our writing.

And our writing became our language.

And our language became our stories.

And our memories became reproducible past

And our future and our poetry

And our songs and our thoughts

And our history and our gods

But our dreams remain in pictures

A survival reliquary we still walk

One Response to Language Poetry and “We Walked When We Couldn’t Speak”

  1. Prof VZ October 12, 2022 at 8:06 pm #

    Lots of excellent insight here. I appreciate the way you frame your post as a defense of narrative, a defense of communally shared meanings. As you say, it’s easy to read this group as isolated and isolating in their theoretical obsessions. You write: “In reading about these poets, one can get the sense that they may have found themselves caught in a theoretical feedback loop, within a bubble of essayists, theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, until they could no longer escape the rabbit hole of theoretical hypothesizing.” It’s also interesting that you note the sort of pre-literate gestures that to you signals a sort of regression when it comes to language and meaning. And in face, as we read in one of our critical overviews, Language poetry does share important roots with ethnopoetics, though this position was later abandoned. For you, it seems their fetishization of a certain primitivism was never fully shed, and I think that’s a really viable critique.

    The way that your poem clings to narrative reminds me of how Palmer’s work slings to apparently outmoded ideals of lyric. It’s not anti-lyric, but attenuated lyric. In the same way, your work figures a sort of attenuated narrative, one that seems almost elegiac in its disposition towards narrative and connections, so easily lost, that it fosters.

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