Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061



Charting Ironic Progress:

The Reflexive and the Romantic in Barrett Watten's Progress


Language poetries exist on the chronological and theoretical border between structuralist and post-structuralist thought, between romantic and postmodern thought. Poetically, its writers strive to express their souls, and as such they not only believe in but utilize the language as a practical means to a representative end. At the same time, however, theoretically, its advocates concern themselves with exposing the gap between language and meaning, and exploring (exploiting) the friction among the multifarious discourses the subject inhabits in the postmodern world. Thus, these poetries constitute a tense hybrid of express and critique therein, a tense process which is not necessarily dialectical and which leaves the poet-critic doubly at odds with herself. From this starting point, I explore Barrett Watten's book-length poem Progress (1985). I argue that although it attempts to be a song of the poet's self, such a poetic process is always subverted—paralyzed and distanced—by the inner theoretist's 1) linguistic-cum-psycho- analysis and 2) the recognition that a conflict of divergent discourses (communities and thus selves) rages inside of him. Ironically, however, it is high theory's very subversion of self-expression that engenders the poet's "truth." Watten realizes through his self-consciously fragmentary stanzas that his soul has become, in Lacan's terminology, a subject position. The author believes on the intellectual level that he is dead, but on the emotional level cannot help but write. On the one hand, the process doesn't seem very progressive at all, but rather alienating. On the other, as the poem builds, the alienation seems to accumulate the pluralism of discourses into a unified "soul," albeit tense and tentative. My examination asks whether such an ironic and distanced self-definition can be deemed romantic, and conversely, whether soulful self-expression can ironize itself with post-structuralist theory. In other words, how do the poet and the critic coexist in this fraughtly wrought hybrid writer?


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Charting Ironic Progress: The Reflexive and the Romantic in Barrett Watten’s Progress." Student Association of Graduate English Studies, Norman, OK, October 15, 1999, subsequently revised and published in Moria Poetry Journal 2.3 (2000): <http://www.moriapoetry.com/blazer.htm>.