Wednesday, May 8, 2019

From “Stalin as Linguist — II”

In 1985, the poet Tom Clark wrote an essay titled “Stalin as Linguist” for the publication Poetry Flash. The essay, about (so-called) language poetry, was thoroughly negative. And it paid particular attention to the work of Barrett Watten. In a follow-up essay, Clark wrote about Watten’s response:

Watten reacted by composing a two-page, single-spaced, indignant, “not-for-publication” communiqué to Poetry Flash. The letter demanded redress of grievances and threatened a boycott by advertisers. Attached was a list of people to receive copies. The list was almost as long as the letter itself. It contained the names of language school sympathizers with influential positions — institutional poetry administrators, reading coordinators, publishers, book distributors, bookstore owners and employees, university teachers, gallery representatives, etc. From these people and from others in the language school’s local rank and file, Poetry Flash received a flood of letters. A selection appeared in subsequent issues of the paper. Several correspondents, such as Robert Gluck of the San Francisco State Poetry Center, charged me with “red-baiting.” Joe McCarthy was evoked more than once, as were the “mau-maus” (by [Ron] Silliman, though that letter never made it to print).

All of this suggests that despite its dedication to the ideal of criticism as equal in importance to creative work, the language school has a very thin skin when it comes to taking criticism.

Tom Clark, “Stalin as Linguist — II.” First published in Partisan Review (1987). In The Poetry Beat: Reviewing the Eighties. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990).
I doubt that 1980s Poetry Wars will be of immediate interest to many OCA readers. I’m sharing this passage as one more bit of the Barrett Watten story, a bit perhaps unknown to present-day faculty and students at Wayne State University, where Watten has filed complaints against two students who have filed complaints against him. The Poetry Flash incident suggests a pattern of retaliation against perceived enemies that goes far back.


May 15: One of the students has been cleared. And, she says, students have been told to keep mum about Barrett Watten.


May 30: The story has made it to The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s behind the paywall, but this link appears to work, at least for now: “‘I Was Sick to My Stomach’: A Scholar’s Bullying Reputation Goes Under the Microscope.” An excerpt:
For decades, faculty members in the English department at Wayne State University knew Barrett Watten had a temper. A tenured professor who specializes in the language school of poetry, Watten is an intense figure with a brooding passion for his work. Standing at over six feet tall, he also possesses an air of natural authority — in classrooms, committee meetings, and personal interactions. When that authority is seemingly questioned, according to current and former colleagues, Watten snaps.
The Chronicle reports that eighteen of Watten’s colleagues in the English department have asked that his graduate faculty status be revoked and that his office be relocated outside the department.


June 5: Wayne State’s Graduate Employees Organizing Committee has issued a statement about the university’s investigation.


November 26: Barrett Watten has been removed from teaching and advising at Wayne State.


December 11: The Chronicle of Higher Education has more. My favorite bit:
Colleagues previously told The Chronicle that [Watten] was known to launch into profanity-laced tirades that were made all the more ominous by his imposing physical stature. Watten sees such critiques as rooted in a misunderstanding of his approach to his discipline. “I teach the avant-garde, and am challenging in class. All supposedly good things,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
Related reading
Barrett Watten Records (Accounts from students, colleagues, poets, scholars)

[The title “Stalin as Linguist” is a phrase borrowed from Watten’s book-length poem Progress.]

comments: 2

The Arthurian said...

> "I doubt that 1980s Poetry Wars will be of immediate interest to many OCA readers."

Yeah, but I read em anyway at OCA because you can even make a #2 pencil interesting and, often, funny.

> "The situation escalated toward this current boiling point after an altercation between Barrett and I in the English Department building."

Barrett and me disagree with that phrasing. At least, me do. Don't mind I, me've been drinkin.

Michael Leddy said...

And imagine the possibilities with a No. 1 pencil. Or a No. 2 3/8 Mongol. (Yes, they really sold 2 3/8 pencils.)

Between . . . and I is that awful hypercorrection. But considering what these students are doing in standing up to BW, I forgive them a hypercorrection here and there.