Nonnarrative and History in Barrett Watten’s Under Erasure

  • Manuel Brito Universidad de La Laguna


This essay analyzes how Barrett Watten’s long poem, Under Erasure (1991), concentrates on erasure and displacement through the nonnarrative forms of the poem, in which diverse narrations of historical events are present to claim for their discontinuity and the author’s self-consciousness. In formulating those nonnarrative forms in relation to a time structure of continual leaps and absences in his The Constructivist Moment (2003), Watten’s vision of both poetry and history requires agency and the transformation of ideology. For him, nonnarrative poetry and history are strikingly similar in their preference for developing episodic remembering beyond periodization or conventional narrative frame. His approach calls for reflection on the connections of both identity and information as global processes of continual re-interpretation and erasure. More synchronic than diachronic, Under Erasure employs a repeated stanzaic structure throughout the whole poem. All this reveals Watten’s essential paradox: regardless of rigid formal structure, writing is continually generating diverse meanings. By means of these conceptual and formal principles, Watten has investigated how to gain access to a new representation through nonrepresentation, simply by radically re-historicizing what was once culturally reduced.Keywords: Barrett Watten; Under Erasure; nonnarrative; history; Language Poetry movement

Author Biography

Manuel Brito, Universidad de La Laguna
Manuel Brito is Associate Professor of American Literature at the Universidad de La Laguna (Spain). He is the editor of Reshaping Publishing in the Twentieth Century and Early Twenty-First Century (La Laguna, 2014) and his essays have appeared in journals such as Aerial, Boundary 2, Jacket Magazine and Talisman.


Aji, Hélène. 2007. “Barrett Watten: Poetry and Historiography.” In Poetry and Public Language, edited by Tony Lopez and Anthony Caleshu, 17-24. Exeter: Shearsman Books.

Anderson, Michael C. 2009. “Retrieval.” In Alan Baddeley, Michael W. Eysenck and Michael C. Anderson, eds., 163-189.

Andrews, Bruce. 1996. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.

Arnold, David. 2007. Poetry & Language Writing: Objective and Surreal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP.

Baddeley, Alan. 2009a. “Autobiographical Memory.” In Alan Baddeley, Michael W. Eysenck and Michael C. Anderson, eds., 137-162.

—. 2009b. “What Is Memory?” In Alan Baddeley, Michael W. Eysenck and Michael C. Anderson, eds., 1-17.

Baddeley, Alan, Michael W. Eysenck and Michael C. Anderson, eds. 2009. Memory. New York: Psychology Press.

Chatman, Seymour. 1990. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Conte, Joseph. 1995. “Complete Thought: The Language of Postmodern Meditation.” Aerial 8: 209-214.

Day, Ron. 1995. “‘Against’ Public Information: Barrett Watten’s Under Erasure.” Aerial 8: 50-59.

Derrida, Jacques. (1967) 1997. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Edmond, Jacob. 2005. “American Language Poetry and the Definition of the Avant Garde.” In Avant-Garde/Neo-Avant-Garde, edited by Dietrich Schneuman, 173-192. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Eysenck, Michael W. 2009. “Semantic Memory and Stored Knowledge.” In Alan Baddeley, Michael W. Eysenck and Michael C. Anderson, eds., 113-135.

Harris, Kaplan Page. 2009. “New Narrative and the Making of Language Poetry.” American Literature 81 (4): 805-832.

Hartley, George. 1989. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Hejinian, Lyn. 1978. Writing Is an Aid to Memory. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures.

—. 1980. My Life. Providence, RI: Burning Deck.

—. 2000. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley, CA: U of California P.

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Lazer, Hank. 1996. Opposing Poetries. Part Two: Readings. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.

McGann, Jerome. 1987. “Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes.” Critical Inquiry 13 (3): 624-647.

—. 2007. The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present. Tuscaloosa, AL: The U of Alabama P.

Metres, Phil. 2000. “A Review on Barrett Watten’s Bad History.” Indiana Review 22 (1): 178-179.

Perelman, Bob. 1996. The Marginalization of Poetry. Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Perloff, Marjorie. 1985. The Dance of the Intellect. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

—. 1990. “‘The Sweetness Aftertaste of Artichokes’: The Lobes of Autobiography. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.” Fragmente 2: 49-56.

Quartermain, Peter. 1992. “Syllable as Music: Lyn Hejinian’s Writing Is an Aid to Memory.” Sagetrieb 11 (3): 17-32.

Reddy, Srinkath. 2009. “Changing the Sjuzet: Lyn Hejinian’s Digressive Narratologies.” Contemporary Literature 50 (1): 54-93.

Reinfeld, Linda. 1992. Language Poetry: Poetry as Rescue. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP.

Robinson, Kit. 1995. “Barrett Watten’s Under Erasure: ‘An Image of Nontotality in Indeterminate Frames.’” Aerial 8: 60-64.

Schacter, Daniel L. and Endel Tulving. 1982. “Amnesia and Memory Research.” In Human Memory and Amnesia, edited by Laird S. Cermak, 1-32. Hillsdale, MI: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Silliman, Ron. 1981. Tjanting. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures.

—. 1987. The New Sentence. New York: Roof.

—. 2008. The Alphabet. Tuscaloosa, AL: The U of Alabama P.

Smith, Rod. 1995. “‘And the Words Are Everywhere a Democratic Police…’” Aerial 8: ix-xii.

Toulmin, Stephen. 1958. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Vickery, Ann. 2000. Leaving the Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing. Hanover, CT: Wesleyan UP.

Watten, Barrett. 1975. Opera—Works. Bolinas, CA: Big Sky.

—. 1982. Complete Thought. Berkeley, CA: Tuumba Press.

—. 1985. Progress. New York: Roof Books.

—. 1991a. Letter addressed to the author, Manuel Brito, and in his possession, June 8.

—. 1991b. Under Erasure. La Laguna: Zasterle Press.

—. 1993. “Barrett Watten: Blurb.” In Live at the Ear. First Audio-Anthology of PostModern L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E=P=O=E=T=R=Y, edited by Charles Bernstein. [Accessed online on October 20, 2017].

—. 1995. “The Conduit of Communication in Everyday Life.” Aerial 8: 32-38.

—. 1998. Bad History. Berkeley, CA: Atelos.

—. 2003. The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP.

—. 2004. “Introduction” to Progress/Under Erasure. Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer.

—. 2006. “Poetics in the Expanded Field: Textual, Visual, Digital...” In New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories, edited by Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, 335-370. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

—. 2007. “Reverse Maps.” In The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. San Francisco, 1975-1980. Part 4, edited by Carla Harryman, Kit Robinson, Tom Mandel, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman and Steve Benson, 63-85. Detroit, MI: Mode A.

—. 2008. “The Turn to Language.” In The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography. San Francisco, 1975-1980. Part 6, edited by Ron Silliman, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson and Tom Mandel, 58-83. Detroit, MI: Mode A.

—. 2011. “Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art, and Conceptual Writing.” Journal of Narrative Theory 41 (1): 125-161.

—. 2012. “I’m interested in ideas…” Twitter message to author, Manuel Brito, December 19.

—. 2013. “After Literary Community: The Grand Piano and the Politics of Friendship.” In Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry, edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin, 106-129. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P.

—. 2016. Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P.