The Linguistic Playground of Poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry and Systemic Functional Linguistics

By | 3 February 2024

As a university student, I ducked and weaved between studying creative writing and studying linguistics, always yearning for one as I submerged myself in the other; abandoning one as I ran back to the caress of the former. But it never felt like a complete betrayal. I infused linguistics into my creative writing and vice versa. I was always thinking about the other while with my current infatuation. The disciplines are not diametrically opposed, despite the divides that still exist between the fields. As applied linguist Donna R. Miller writes of the relationship between the two disciplines, ‘peaceful coexistence, in brief, cannot be said to characterize the state of the art(s)’. 1 She acknowledges that this divide exists not only between disciplines, but within different factions of the two fields themselves, a point reiterated by Thoms Ford in his Cordite Poetry Review article ‘Notes on Bad Poetry’. 2 Yet there is also a beautiful symmetry between the two disciplines, built on a foundation of practitioners who share a love for language. Writers meticulously craft words together to build character, setting, scene, emotion, and, ultimately, a cohesive narrative arc. Poets, specifically, may do all or some of this within any given poem or within a poetry collection, but also pay close attention to the overall cadence and rhythm of how a poem sounds. This process requires an acute sense of language and how to manipulate words into coherent structures that not only make meaning but evoke emotion in the reader. Paying close attention to and analysing language similarly aligns to the work of applied linguists, albeit in very different ways. Where applied linguists analyse coherent strands of discourse in use and situate language in their social and cultural contexts, writers are tasked with creating those strands that applied linguists and literary scholars will later analyse. It requires a practice of analysing language while using it, to ensure the desired meaning is communicated and the desired emotion is evoked in the reader. But more than just communicating meaning, poets are gifted the freedom of playing with language, form and structure, unburdened by the ‘rules’ of academic or other formulaic kinds of writing. As Halliday put it, on one level, it is the act of using language ‘for its own sake’. While forms, genres and structures exist in poetry, they also exist to be subverted. Perfectly grammatical sentences are waiting to be broken into fragments. Words and punctuation to be splintered. Sounds to be explored. The linguistic playground of poetics lies in wait, anticipating when the next poet will come along, jump the playground’s fence, and play.

Canadian poet Christian Bök chose English vowels as his play equipment in composing his Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Eunoia 3 ‘Eunoia’ is the shortest word in the English language to contain all five vowels, and it means ‘beautiful thinking’. Each chapter in the collection consists of a suite of poems, each dedicated solely to exclusively using one of the five English vowel sounds. Below are the first three lines from the one of the poems in Chapter E:

Helen sees the September breezes bend the elm trees/
(the perches where the egrets, then the grebes, perch/ 
themselves); there, the petrels, then the tercels, nest. 4

Through this play and experimentation with language, Bök discovers a different personality for each of the vowel sounds. Eunoia demonstrates not only poetic play, but linguistic play, revealing more about the very nature of language.

Yet language itself is not a limitation of this playground. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement (also referred to as ‘Language poetry’ and ‘Language writing’), which gained traction in the late 1970s, exemplifies this linguistic play in poetry and extending meaning beyond the literal or metaphorical meanings of the language within. In his 2007 book Poetry and Language Writing, David Arnold explores the theoretical and political ideologies underpinning this movement 5 He writes that ‘questions of definition and period are currently unresolved’ and are likely to remain so and that Language writing ‘currently occupies a liminal space between past and present’ 6, where those poets who see themselves as part of this movement are still alive and writing, despite their writing contexts having changed significantly since the movement’s beginnings. In an interview with one of the founding poets of the movement, Charles Berenstein, Penelope Sacks-Galey writes that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry ‘is at once a philosophical questioning of language and an action-oriented engagement with the poetic object, presenting itself to the world as a verbal artefact in performance’.7 The mechanics of language is part of this performance, but so too is engagement with political spheres. While Sacks-Galey asserts that the movement also has ‘no formal position or manifesto type agenda’, in practice it draws the reader’s attention to the linguistic features within a poem and explicitly reveals how those features are used to make meaning in a poem. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith also values L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry for its linguistic play and in his book Uncreative Writing, describes it as part of a shift more broadly where ‘the page becomes a canvas, with the negative spaces between the words taking on as much import as the letters themselves.’ 8. In short, while L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry engages in linguistic play that extends beyond the boundaries of textual language. Analysing poems that use the techniques of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets using linguistics analysis frames demonstrate how poets engage in linguistic work to create meaning in their poetry.

  1. Donna R. Miller. ‘Language and Literature’. in Thompson, G., Bowcher, W., & Fontaine, L. The Cambridge Handbook of Systemic Functional Linguistics. 2019. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 690-714. p. 690
  2. Thomas Ford. ‘Notes on Bad Poetry’. Cordite Poetry Review. 110: POP! 2023
  3. Christian Bök. Eunoia. Coach House Books. 2009. Canada.
  4. Christian Bök. untitled. Eunoia. Coach House Books. 2009. Canada. p. 48
  5. David Arnold. Poetry and Language Writing. Liverpool University Press. 2007. Liverpool.
  6. Ibid, p. 1
  7. Penelope Sacks-Galey. ‘(Charles Bernstein on) Language and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’. Ètudes Anglaises. 2012/2(65). pp. 249-254
  8. Kenneth Goldsmith. Uncreative Writing. Columbia University Press. 2011. USA.
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