'The Heartlessness of Words': Michael Heller and Hugh Seidman, Objectivist poetics and the problem of language

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Comparing the poetry of Michael Heller and Hugh Seidman-two poets who have been in dialogue for almost their entire adult lives and who were mentored respectively by the Objectivist poets George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky-foregrounds an extreme linguistic skepticism, a lack of optimism about the efficacy of verbal expression to bespeak the reality of the world, in the younger poets' writing, and discloses an aspect of the poetics of the late Modernist Objectivist poets having to do with what this essay terms the adequate statement. Heller's and Seidman's skepticism as regards language is embodied in their poems both as theme and aesthetics, both as subject and mechanics. Through close readings of their work, integrated into a discussion of the Objectivists' achievement, what becomes clear is that Heller and Seidman are fully aware of the dynamic both Zukofsky and Oppen involve themselves in-the poet's struggle with, as Oppen writes in 'Route', 'the heartlessness of words', 'their lack of generosity and forgiveness'. And so the two younger poets, like their forbears who took language's intransigence into account, strive to achieve in their poems what Zukofsky called 'a rested totality' in which the poet arrives at a standoff vis-a-vis the language he or she is working with, the language of and that which attests the poet's experience. As well, Heller and Seidman work from the Objectivist premises that the language and the poem must be objectified (Zukofsky wrote that 'no verse should be called a poem if it does not convey the totality of perfect rest'), that words exist on their own and that an intuited world exists beyond the words. Whether or not there is a world in which one can maintain a faith or belief, there is the fact of language and the question of how a person can possibly use words. This understanding is enlarged by the Heller and Seidman as they develop further a linguistic skepticism implicit in the original Objectivist project.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)867-892
Number of pages26
JournalTextual Practice
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


  • George Oppen
  • Hugh Seidman
  • Louis Zukofsky
  • Michael Heller
  • Objectivist
  • adequate
  • clarity
  • language
  • skepticism
  • world


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