Book Review: Reading Error

reading error

Reading Error: The lyric and contemporary poetry.
Nerys Williams.
Modern Poetry Vol. 1.
Peter Lang, 2007. 265 pp.

First, a quiz:
Poetry and theory are different. Yes or No.
Language Writing attempted to enact the considerations of theory within the writing of poetry and poetics. Yes or No.
Language Writing dispensed with any notions of the Lyric ‘I’. Yes or No.

In this challenging and richly written book Nerys Williams argues that the poetry of Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, and Lyn Hejinian demonstrate that the lyric retains an important focus to writers affiliated with early Language Writing.

Nerys Williams lectures in American Literature at the English Department in University College Dublin. She is the recipient of an Irish Fullbright Award.

In this apparently counterintuitive take, Reading Error illustrates how the reader can approach Language Writing as a form of wandering, or errancy. Throughout Reading Error, Williams shows that the lens of an ‘erring poetics’ enables readers to revise the role that lyricism establishes in the work of the three poets.

Their poetry illustrates how “an initial dissatisfaction with the ‘workshop model’ has evolved into a compendium of complex strategies for refiguring the lyric within an experimental praxis,” Williams says. She provides different strategies for understanding the ways error may surface, for example, via humor, mistakes, malapropisms, polyphony.

Charles Bernstein’s work, Williams argues, promotes error as a context of instruction, or even education. The aesthetic premises of Bernstein’s early poetry can be aligned to Language Writing’s interest in strategies of defamiliarization. Retracing Bernstein’s early poetics reveals how his aesthetic of error must be read not only as a challenge to the conventions of grammar and syntax, but as an ambitious claim for the practice of what he calls a ‘socious’ language.

The subject in Palmer’s poetry is often evoked through an aphasic stuttering, Williams says. Broaching his poetry through accounts of schizophrenic language “guides us in an understanding of the violent rupturing of the single speaking voice in Palmer’s work.”

The often violent rupture of the lyric in Palmer’s poetry can be read in tandem with Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of schizophrenic writing, bringing to a focus the problematized subject-object dichotomy of Palmer’s lyric.

An understanding of erring focuses on the intentional inconsistencies and the aphoristic texture of Lyn Hejinian’s poetry, Williams argues. Aphorisms in Hejinian’s poetry are often sabotaged by the substitution of a word or phrase. Hejinian’s aesthetic of erring avoids a central locus of authority, with the aim of opening the text to broader implications of political responsibility and a devolution of mastery.

Jennifer Moxley’s poetry renegotiates central issues raised in Bernstein, Hejinian and Palmer’s relationship to lyricism, Williams argues. Moxley “has been given the somewhat dubious honor of reinventing, rereading, or reconfiguring lyric practices in recent american poetry.” She places a focus on lyricism as a dissenting practice with a social conscience. Moxley makes a claim for the ‘social lyric’ as a voice that ‘has been excluded from the political power of dominant narratives.’

In Reading Error, Williams aims to indicate how a configuraion of error allows readers to consider the broader relationship between aesthetics, ethics, and politics in poetry. “The most viable and important possibility that this poetry work offers the reader,” she says, “is the necessity of seeing those structures of power deemed to represent us, as necessarily provisional and ultimately answerable to our criticisms.”


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