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Politics and the Art of Reading in Michael Palmer: General Comments

George Hartley (1989)

Michael Palmer’s concern with recontextualization takes place in what might be called a verse of qualification. In poem after poem, he explores the syntactical and logical conventions built into our language which serve to define a specific context for a topic. Those conventions – such as parenthesis, apposition, and conjunction – are submitted to a disorienting "defamiliarization," as the Russian Formalists called it, a constant positing and subverting of context. Palmer structures "The Village of Reason" (First Figure, pp. 37-38) … around the contextualizing function of conjunction: "This is a glove / or a book from a book club[.]" .. Is "this" the poem itself or some object to be identified with the poem? The conjunction "or" normally would clarify the situation a bit, but here it introduces even more complicating information.

Whatever partial resolution readers might impose upon the first stanza is likely to be challenged by the next: "This is the sun / or a layer of mud[.]" The readers are given no clue as to whether the second "this" further qualifies the same object or refers to a new one, as in a list of objects. The ellipsis of the third stanza ("This is Monday / this an altered word") suggests that the poem presents a list of objects rather than a continuous qualification of one thing. But while the conjunction ‘and" serves to coordinate listed elements, it also serves to qualify the things listed by placing them in conjunction with one another: the "village of reason" is called into question by its association with "an eye torn out," suggesting that the connection between reason and perception is not absolute. In any case, the point is the fact of qualification, not the object qualified. …

from George Hartley, "Praxis and Syntaxis: Ideology and the Economy of Space" (Chapter Five) in Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1989) 93-94. Copyright 1989 by George Hartley.

Linda Reinfeld (1992)

Traditionally, and even today in the most commonly accepted critical idiom, poetry … is likely to be imagined as an immediate spiritual, dematerialized presence, a presence that reaches u slike a voice from the depths. "The voice: real stake of our modernity," says [Roland] Barthes, "special substance of language, which we try to make triumph everywhere" (Empire of Signs, p. 49. Not surprisingly, then, we may read in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, under the department heading "Noted with Pleasure," an item entitled "The Voice in the Well," which the editors introduce as a "fine account of how modern poetry works":

It is as though the voice filters up to the reader like echoes from a very deep well, and yet it strikes his ear with a raw energy – a sustained inner urgency – that is rare even in poetry of the direct and explicit type. It is as though the artist’s spirit, in fighting free of his human personality, layer by layer, has won through to the frontier of great impersonal being, and, in poem after poem, his spirit stands before us and speaks in utter simplicity and naked ness with no loss of personal immediacy. And yet the voice has a strangely disembodied quality [the passage is from Lawrence Lieberman’s contribution to W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1987)] .

To the extent that modern poetry does work this way, Palmer’s poetry refuses to present itself as modern, for the solitary I of which he is always so painfully aware may be no more than a hollow column. Palmer’s language, as distinct from more familiar, voiced forms of well-made verse, tends to operate personally and self-consciously; it builds up, or comes apart, "layer by layer"; it takes on sensible life (not "utter simplicity and nakedness") as it assumes a shape and a voice – even, one might say, a dress, as in "Voice and Address" – where Palmer appropriates the modernist you as readily as he sees through it. Trhe more you and I grow indistinct within the impossible it or id of personal statement, the more the poem is likely to ironize its pretension ("You are the owner of one complete thought / Its sons and daughters / march toward the capitol" [from First Figure, p. 7].

From Linda Reinfeld, "Michael Palmer by Michael Palmer" (Chapter 3) in Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1992), 87-88. Copyright 1992 by Linda Reinfeld.

Steve McCaffery (1984)

Michael Palmer writes a splendid poetry of displacement, of shifts and nomadic drifts of text through zones of page. The operative semantics is copulative, a linking (purely syntagmatically) of isolated units still preserving their molecular independency. He writes a double assault: on page per se and on the vector of reference. There is no place in his work because there largely is no referent incantated. … In Palmer’s poems there is, deliberately, no purpose. This leads to local composition, an investigation of grammatological space per se, of space as deferral, of placement and occurrence as difference. Constant, consecutive invention on the plane of the signifier.

The process of reading becomes a muscular activity of the mind operating in tension through disjunction, aborted vectors, non-purposive contexts. … Page for Palmer is the topography of the disjunctive, supporting the integral violence of transformationality. For the steady, consecutive plod of language, line after line, is at the same time its violent transformation. Such a paradox describes the horizontal identity of Palmer’s signifier: a violent stability of grapheme, being at the same time a violent instability in any molecular aggregate of "thought." The thing it is. Writing. Written. Not that linearity disappears, on the contrary, Palmer strengthens the line but only in order for it to confess more effectively its own duplicities. The worded line identifies the syntagm as a horizontal, moving segment in space possessed of the infinite capacity to absorb all breaks in casuality and consequentiality within its consecutive motions. And thus the transparent guilt of reading. The guilt of witnessing a graphed pattern of place support a huge displacement.

From Steve McCaffrey, "Michael Palmer: A Language of Language," in Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, Eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 257-258. Copyright 1984 by Steve McCaffrey.

Eric Murphy Selinger

Palmer has long been interested in the way politics might inhabit poetry as something more than subject matter, particularly when by "politics" we mean something like "atrocity." In an interview from the mid-eighties, for example, Palmer disdains the "poets’ shuttle down to Nicaragua and so on to get material, everyone acting like La Pasionaria or something – which seems to me ultimately a complete betrayal of what is to be meant by the political," since in such work the poets "appropriate" their material and are "more than anything else, announcing in stale poetic language, ‘Look how much human feeling and fellow-feeling I have,’ self-congratulatory in that regard." We might think of [Michael Palmer’s] Sun as a counterpoint to efforts like Carolyn Forché’s The Country between Us, which however shocking in its subject matter may be said to soothe us in its familiar grammar, forms of reference, and moral compass; enough so, in fact, for the book to appear as a telling allusion in the series Thirtysomething. "There is pleasure and pain and there are marks and signs," Palmer writes. Too easy, too descriptive a movement from the first to the second would seem, for him, to belie them both. …

… Wanting not to "mis-appropriate" the political pain of others, Palmer has said, he tries instead "to allow them a presence that’s more reflective of the way they do occur in our – I don’t know if you’d call it image-bank or simply day to day experience, which is not an experience of those things but which is an experience of the images of those things." …

And the media’s mediation goes yet deeper, if one may use metaphors of psychological depth in this flattened postmodern context. … When we look into our hearts and write, what we see there was broadcast before. Indeed, part of the disdain that Palmer feels for the "Anglo-American empirical tradition" of poetry – that tradition where "a poem is a place in which you tell a little story" that "easily mirrors a shared emotional experience " in "a sort of consumer verse … where the function of the work and the mechanism of the poem do not admit a certain level of mystery" – may stem from the way that such "little stories" construct and constrict our emotional lives by invoking a series of "conventional effective signs" we no longer recognize as, in fact, conventional.

From Eric Murphy Selinger, "Important Pleasures and Others: Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson," Post Modern Culture 4:3 (May 1994). The entire essay may be downloaded from

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