“When I wrote it only God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.” Robert Browning on “Sordello.”
Michael Palmer is a West Coast poet originally from New York City. After taking degrees in comparative literature from Harvard, he moved to San Francisco where he has lived since 1969. Palmer, who began publishing in the early seventies, is often classified with the so-called Language Movement in poetry. Palmer was not necessarily a part of the LM, but rather a precursor and seemingly influential on poets such as Bernstein, Watten, Hejinian, and Harryman.
Of his ties to the LM Palmer said in an interview with Jubliat,
“It goes back to an organic period when I had a closer association with some of those writers than I do now, when we were a generation in San Francisco with lots of poetic and theoretical energy and desperately trying to escape from the assumptions of poetic production that were largely dominant in our culture. My own hesitancy comes when you try to create, let's say, a fixed theoretical matrix and begin to work from an ideology of prohibitions about expressivity and the self—there I depart quite dramatically from a few of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets."
What Palmer describes as having in common with the LP is an attempt “to bring into question surfaces of language, normative syntax, and so on.” Opening up the possibility of experimentation with what Palmer calls “a necessary naming (for everyday language) but is arbitrary in terms of the thing itself.” Palmer goes on to say, “ If I were to ask you if a particular chair where free and you started wondering about the meaning of the term free, we’d never get anywhere. But, in the poem, when one has the possibility of multiple layers of meaning, that is when you have something that will open up unique areas of function.” (To my knowledge, these ideas derive from Wittgenstein, a favorite of the LP.) Interestingly, similar ideas were developed by Yoko Ono through visual arts when she wrote the words “This wall is blue.” on a white wall.
Of personality in poetry, Palmer says, “I’m not interested in myself- that’s just some guy sitting here drinking coffee and making a fool of himself. A self that’s transformed through language interests me, though….It seems reductive to me exactly at that point where you focus on the self alone and thus end up with a poetry of personality, and that exhausts itself as soon as the personality exhausts itself.”