Divesting Social Registers

Ai's Sensational Portraiture of the Renowned and Infamous

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Washington Bothell jheuving@uw.edu
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Within the last decade in the contemporary American poetry scene, a battle line has been drawn between poetry identified as mainstream and as experimental poetry. Indeed, this division has been formed primarily by critics and poets who, advocating for an often ignored experimental poetry, have articulated a set of formal attributes highlighting the accomplishments of experimental poetry, or more specifically language poetry. While this commentary has been various and much debated, a repeated set of formal distinctions linked loosely with larger social agendas has arisen. Taking issue with a mainstream, sometimes called workshop poetry, for its confessional or expressivist emphasis, these critics and poets criticise this poetry’s centring on a unique self and utilisation of a highly referential and often normative language which purports to convey the poet’s experience. This poetry – intending to express true selves and authentic emotions – re-employs existing forms of illusions and contrives epiphanies, which only reconfirm prevailing social orders. In contradistinction to these practices, experimental poetry foregrounds language operations, showing how linguistic orders constitute social orders and how consequently these orders can be reconstituted. Refusing to make unified illusions out of conflicting, heterogeneous cultural languages, this poetry, engaging methods of defamiliarisation, claims to take on social reality far more directly.

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