Glossary Home Movements

Language Poetry

Language poetry is an avant-garde movement that places emphasis on the reader’s role in creating meaning. It began in the 1970s as a response to more traditional poetic forms. 

The poets associated with this movement sought to involve the reader in their text. They believed that language dictated meaning rather than form or other literary devices. By breaking their language up, they require the reader to put in more effort and creativity to figure out what the poem is about or decide for themselves (from their own perspective) what the poem is about. Language poems are usually longer, non-narrative, and often resemble prose more than traditional verse

The movement’s name came from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, a magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews. The Language poets were inspired by modernist writers like William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. The movement is also sometimes related to Objectivism, deconstructionism, and poststructuralism. 

Language Poetry Definition and Examples

Language Poetry Definition

Language poetry is writing that seeks to include the reader in the poet’s creation of meaning. Elements of language poems include fragmented images, a juxtaposition between the familiar and the absurd, and the use of lines of varying lengths.

These poems were all written in free verse with an emphasis on the reader’s experience, even more so than the content of the poems themselves. Language poets wanted readers to explore all possible meanings and feel inspired by the different ways their images could come together. Unlike most writers, Language poets did not want to create one specific experience for a reader. 

Important Language Poets

  • Bernadette Mayer
  • Leslie Scalapino
  • Stephen Rodefer
  • Bruce Andrews
  • Rae Armantrout
  • Alan Davies 
  • Clark Coolidge
  • Charles Bernstein
  • Ron Silliman
  • Barrett Watten
  • Lyn Hejinian
  • Tom Mandel
  • Bob Perelman

Examples of Language Poetry 

Apartment by Rae Armantrout 

Armantrout’s ‘Apartment’ is a great example of a Language poem published in the 21st century. The poem utilizes short lines, some as short as only one word, and pieces together fragmented images that finally merge into the image of someone discovering they have a kidney tumor. The final lines convey this person’s disassociation with their life and the possibility of their future. Here are a few lines: 

I’m trying to imagine   

which friend.

And I’m trying to get

all my robes together,

Armantrout is well-known for her ability to break up what a reader understands about a scene with contrasting images and ideas that might not sit comfortably with one another. 

My/My/My by Charles Bernstein 

Charles Bernstein is one of the best-known poets of the Language poetry movement. This piece was published in 1975 in the middle of the movement and is evocative of many tenants of Language poetry. Here are a few lines from this poem: 

my pillow

my shirt

my house

my supper

my tooth

The poem continues in this way, mentioning everything from “misery” to “penicillin” to, finally, “my word.” Bernstein is also known as one of the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, which played host to many Language poems during the 1970s. Throughout his work, he plays with words, utilizing them in different forms, from casual jargon to political and formal language. 

You, part I by Ron Silliman 

You, part I’ is a Language poem that begins with the line: “Hard dreams. The moment at which you recognize that.” The poem goes on, discussing death through a series of images. For example: 

 A lone ship defines the horizon. The

rain is not safe to drink.

The poem was first published in The Alphabet in 2008. Ron Silliman is known for his 40+ books of poetry that he’s published throughout his career so far. He is also known for his collection of critical essays, The New Sentence. 


What are the elements of Language poetry?

Language poetry is best known for its experimental use of language and various forms and types of language. It is common to find language poems in which authors experiment with formal and informal language, jargon, and more. Often, readers will find poems with contrasting short and long lines and juxtaposing images that might create confusion and force the reader to come to unique conclusions about the text.

What is the language poetry movement?

The Language poetry movement is an avant-garde literary movement that began in the 1970s. The authors associated with this movement sought to emphasize the importance of the reader in understanding the meaning of the poem.

How did Language poetry come about?

Language poetry is a literary movement that came into being as a response to mainstream American poetry, which, in part, was returning to traditional poetic forms and elements. It began within the literary magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews.

What defines modernist poetry?

Modernist poetry can be defined as writing that focuses on individual expression, personal imagination, the poet’s memories, emotions, culture, and broad experimentation with form, style, and literary techniques.

What is Charles Bernstein known for?

Charles Bernstein is best known as one of the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine and as a leading poetry educator. He co-founded the Poetics Program along with Robert Creely. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Confessional Poetry: a style of poetry that is personal, often making use of a first-person narrator. It is a branch of Postmodernism that emerged in the US in the 1950s.
  • Contemporary Period: refers to written works that were created after World War II. Before this, was the modernist period. 
  • Experimentalism: one part of modernism and postmodernist literature. Writers take risks, try strange new techniques, and attempt to create something that’s never been seen before. 
  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
  • New Formalism: also known as neo-formalism, was a movement of late 20th early 21st-century American poetry. It was a reaction to the innovations of Modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. 
  • Postmodernism: a literary movement that began in the late-20th century. It was a reaction to modernism after World War II. 

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