No one has more conclusively shown the dangers of believing their poetry is implicitly political than the “Language” Poets. That would certainly come as a surprise to the Langpo eminences grises. In one of the more careful discussions of the political origins of their work, Lyn Hejinian has suggested that the fractured syntax and wild polysemousness of language writing arose at least in part as a critique of the way standard English was being abused for political ends:

The pervasive hypocrisy of the 1950s and 1960s was operating in several strategic forms: as outright lies (e.g., “Everybody is happy in Alabama”), as deceptive metaphors (as in that depicting Vietnam as an upended domino liable to fall to Communism…) and, finally, in the more subtle form of a complete failure to examine political language and indeed any language at all, thus establishing the pretense that language is “natural” – that we speak this way because there is no other way to speak, because God and the angels speak this way, and so too would the little birds in the forest if they could speak at all.[1]

As much as I enjoy and respect the work of Hejinian and many language writers, I’ve always been spectacularly unconvinced by this type of special pleading. It’s much more plausible to read a work such as Writing Is an Aid to Memory or Tjanting or I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) as largely devoid of any capital-P political edge, existing instead as an aesthetic-intellectual work in which the language, emptied of standard meaning, at least sidles toward the condition of music.

But even if Langpo’s subversion of univocal standard English once constituted a kind of political critique, it’s clear the Trump campaign has actually beaten Hejinian, et al., at their own game, developing a vastly more radical linguistic and intellectual strategy. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, offered this critique of press coverage of his boss:

You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/shouting-match-erupts-between-clinton-and-trump-aides/2016/12/01/7ac4398e-b7ea-11e6-b8df-600bd9d38a02_story.html?utm_term=.fc0a157ccd1c)

Lewandowski argues that the president-elect’s words are metaphorical and associative, and his complaint is that news reporters failed to grant Trump the poetic license he deserved. But Lewandowski is also proposing a kind of dumbed-down reader response theory, like a hungover College Republican reworking Stanley Fish’s claim that “[i]t is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.”[2] Just as a poem such as Yeats’ “The Second Coming” cannot be reduced to a single, fixed meaning, apparently simple imperative sentences such as “Lock her up” and “Build the wall” somehow invite a possibly unlimited number of readings. Bruce Andrews described the Langpo project as “writing as politics, not writing about politics.”[3] Lewandowski responds with politics as writing.

Trump’s representative Scottie Nell Hughes went considerably further on “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR:

And that’s—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And here’s where we see the enormous problem with Langpo’s claims for the political significance of their work.  Hejinian suggests that the lies and misleading metaphors in the political language of the 50’s and 60’s prompted the language writers to highlight the constructed nature of language. That’s a bizarre response: when Southern segregationists pushed the absurd fiction that African-Americans were happy under Jim Crow, Hejinian responded by fracturing syntax and reference. That constitutes less a critique of George Wallace’s lies than a tacit, if unintentional, concession. Her response to flagrant political deceptions was, essentially, to change the subject.

But Scottie Nell Hughes’ claim is that truth is now a question of aesthetics: everyone has a way of interpreting it, so no one way is correct. It would be easy to invoke Walter Benjamin’s claim that fascism is the aestheticization of politics, a claim that is so absurd that I still can’t believe Benjamin ever wrote it: politics has always and will always be aesthetic, as parades, crowns, thrones, inaugurations, ad infinitum, all obviously demonstrate. In any event, what Hughes is proposing here is a much more radical aestheticization of epistemology: just as some people who don’t read poetry think a poem can mean anything you want, Hughes breezily insists objective facts are simply a matter of gut feeling. Her examples enact that dumbass aesthetic: as a five year old would know, a glass half full is a glass half empty, and while we can choose whether to emphasize the empty or full aspect, the halfness is beyond dispute. Similarly, Hughes’ reference to “ratings” resists interpretation as effectively as an early Perelman poem. Is she talking about political polls? Nielsen ratings? Yelp? The NCAA Football Rankings? Regardless, Hughes’ genius here is that she conflates the subjective evaluation of any ratings system with facts that used to be easily verifiable, like whether Donald Trump supported the Iraq War or saw video of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attacks of September 11 – or whether everyone really was happy in segregated Alabama.

Hughes also employs the Langpo strategy of denaturalizing and defamiliarizing American English. She takes the expression “On the one hand… on the other hand” and renders it “on one hand… on the other half.” In a particularly rich line, she suggests “[e]verybody has a way of interpreting [what used to be facts] to be the truth, or not truth.” Why does she use the noun “truth” instead of the adjective “true?” Perhaps she’s echoing the assault on the notion of transcendental Truth that begins with Nietzsche and continues through post-structuralism. A line such as “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts” would be a great opener for a Silliman poem. What epochal event, we might wonder, served to render epistemology obsolete? Is the adverb “unfortunately” ironic, nostalgic, or something else? That line practically begs all manner of metaphysical riffs: “Unfortunately, the fruit has been eaten, and sin and death have entered this world.” “Unfortunately, God has died and someone – maybe us, maybe China, maybe a guy sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds – has killed him.” “Unfortunately, the verb ‘to differ’ no longer seems to differ from itself. On the one hand, it used to indicate difference as distinction, inequality or discernibility; on the other half, it no longer expresses the interposition of delay, the interval of a spacing and temporalizing that doesn’t put off until ‘later’ what was presently denied. Really, difference could mean anything. Who knows? I’ve got an open mind. ”

I’m actually being serious here: there is no aesthetic position that can counter the radical aesthetic/anti-empirical position of Trump and his spokespoets, and I want to emphasize how utterly humiliating this is. It’s one thing when poets settle into our comfortable irrelevance. It’s quite another when quasi-fascists use poetry more effectively than poets do.

[1] . Hejinian, Lyn. “Barbarism,” in The Language of Inquiry, Berkeley: U California Press, 2000 (323-324).

[2] . Fish, Stanley. Is There A Text In This Class? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982 (326).

[3] . Bruce Andrews. “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis,” in Paradise and Method Poetics & Praxis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996 (50).