Segue Intro 2: Barrett Watten

Have you ever had a Barrett Watten moment? The first one I remember, although I didn’t know to name it as such, was looking out the back window of a car at night on a northern California freeway when I was about nine years old. I saw a huge power station isolated among dry rolling hills, illuminated by hundreds of tiny orange lights, its form complex, interconnected, functional, necessary, deliberately constructed, and utterably, ineluctably modern. It was also dreadful, awesome, and beautiful.

Later, when I encountered Barry and his work – and, full disclosure – studied with him as an impressionable undergrad — I better understood my response to that power station. He helped me to see that a “form” is never merely a shape, but a set of both internal relations among its components and also a significant statement of external relations; that is, it exists – like the power station– meaningfully and historically in a field of forms.

Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the contemporary literary field without the meaningful and historical influence of Barrett Watten. Editor of This magazine and This Press, and co-editor, with Lyn Hejinian, of Poetics Journal, he has worked continuously to raise the bar for standards of critical and poetic inquiry. His books include Progress, Bad History, Total Syntax, The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, and most recently, he has participated in the delightful, self-searching experiment in collective autobiography, The Grand Piano. In The Grand Piano, we see a side of Barry that is perhaps not so evident in his other works: we see Barry the seditionist, the revolutionary, if you will, punk whose hyperactive young brain was already perceiving the world in terms of its material relations, which he was –and, differently, still is — gung-ho to transform.

And truly, Barrett Watten’s brain is an extraordinary instrument – indefatigable, exact in focus and sweeping in scope, capable of switching in a moment between the views of The Large Binocular Telescope and a fractal microscope. Like a four-dimensional scanner in Sensurround it registers and engages with everything in its environment, processing and analyzing information in stunning outputs of fully formed units of thought in crystalline paragraphs and stanzas that accrete into monumental books. The sharp, cogent power of Barry’s brain shines like a stubborn beacon onto a landscape ever more apocalyptic, and no matter what the object of its attention – the Gulf Wars, Russian formalists, Ana Mendieta, Anthony Braxton, William Carlos Williams, the entire 20th Century, James Bond, or Barry’s own bildung, — the writing invigorates and astonishes.

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