Wasatch-Cache National Forest, Utah. Photograph by Craig Dworkin
To argue that Craig Dworkin’s poetry may be situated between the language writing of Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, and others, and the conceptual poetry of authors such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Robert Fitterman, might seem futile: Dworkin has belonged to the latter camp, for quite some time, while producing criticism on the former (and the latter). He even coined the term “conceptual writing,” in the first place. Arguably, too, conceptualism is one of the key aspects of language writing itself, and so, the latter might be regarded as “simply” supervening on the former; or, rather, language writing might be said to be supervening on the modernist conceptualisms that came before it.
In any event, the argument that Dworkin writes in the wake of both language and concept—producing a significant suturing of poetry and/as prose—hones in on an idiosyncratic care for the concept of materiality on his part. Moreover, as this short essay will demonstrate, there is in Dworkin’s work an understudied and underappreciated care for the material ecologies of literature: the seemingly non-literary surroundings of poetry, which give rise, literally, to poiesis. It is this aspect which accounts for Dworkin’s surprisingly odd place as it pertains to both language poetry and conceptual writing.
In these notes on the poet-scholar’s remarkable tracing of “desiring-production”1 in the surfaces of woodland ecosystems in The Pine-Woods Notebook (2019), I will cross-read the latter with the poet’s critical work, particularly his Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (2020). In my examination of Dworkin’s longstanding interest in the (il)legibility of textual machines, material media, and visual prosody,2 I argue for the ecopoetic character of Dworkin’s poetry and poetics, normally monikered “radically formalist” by himself and by others. An ecopoetic formalism? What is clear is the idiosyncratically “new” materialist stance Dworkin demonstrates by not simply discarding the legacy of “the materiality of the signifier,”3 and the heritage of textualist criticism—as has been done regularly in recent times—but by elevating the signifying chains of poetry and fiction, of grammatics and paragrammatics, and, in turn, of semantics and parasemantics, to the level of … the pine-tree.
If there is a “pleasure of the text,”4 Dworkin seems to posit tacitly, yet unmistakably, it is grounded in the desires produced by sounds made in, and by, the woods: “the pitch of the pines.”5 In turn, the demarcation of such production has consequences for the poet-scholar’s position concerning the opposition between concept and expression, or intellect and sentiment. In other words, in The Pine-Woods Notebook, against all odds, expression creeps into conception, by lending poetic voice to the woods.
Type and Text
Craig Dworkin introduces The Ubuweb Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2003) thus: “Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song. Or at least that’s the story we’ve inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos.”6 After pointing to William Wordsworth as one of the representatives of this “story” he then ponders: “But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself […]?”7 Yet, the “intellect” mentioned here is not exactly identical with high modernism’s “dance of the intellect.” Rather, it resonates with a certain understanding of conceptuality that transcends the boundaries of literature to begin with. What Dworkin gestures toward “is not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself”—hence the strong relationship of this ostensibly non-expressive and anti-lyrical poetry to conceptual music, art, and film.8 In his retrospective essay “The Fate of Echo,” one of the two editors’ introductions to the formative anthology Against Expression (2011), Dworkin states that “I coined the phrase ‘conceptual writing’ as a way both to signal literary writing that could function comfortably as conceptual art and to indicate the use of text in conceptual art practices.”9
Perhaps it is fair to say that in terms of periodization, his phrase fosters a specific stance toward literary practice and form that circumvents the opposition between representation and expression, or modernism and postmodernism. Instead, Dworkin engages the imbrication of text and type, that is, the chiasm of textual matter and material text. This reading, despite Dworkin’s anti-Romanticist polemic in 2003, already foregrounds my view that one of the chief characteristics that permeate Dworkin’s entire poetic and scholarly oeuvre is an interest that is actually shared by many Romantic writers from the nineteenth century and their heirs in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: namely, an ecological ethos of care for literary and non-literary environments. And it is in this sense that his work harbors a different take on what has been called conceptualism, compared to Goldsmith’s embracing of digitality, both in his poetry and in his own introduction to their co-edited 2011 anthology, which likens the emergence of the internet to the arrival of what William Henry Fox Talbot had called “the pencil of nature”: “With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean that writing has encountered a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do that, to survive, the field had to alter its course radically.”10
While this media-technological historicization of the demands on writing in the face of surplus text seems to mirror Dworkin’s assessment of the obsolescence of lyric subjectivity and its poetics of emotion, the approach taken in books like Reading the Illegible (2003), No Medium (2013), and Radium of the Word (2020) is not primarily invested in this newly accelerated digital age. Rather, he emphasizes the political significations of literature adjacent to, and sometimes in contradiction with, its semantics. That is, instead of reading poetry’s political dimensions as “the politics in the poem,” Dworkin foregrounds “the politics of the poem: what is signified by its form, enacted by its structures, implicit in its philosophy of language, how it positions its reader, and a range of questions relating to the poem as a material object”—an approach which leads him to claim “a radical formalism” which “refuses to consider the poem as a realm separate from politics, even as it focuses on ‘the poem itself.’”11 Politics, for Dworkin meaning “all relations of power, however local or miniscule, and the ethics of their distribution,”12 then, transgress not only the boundaries of metaphor and metonymy, of the right and the left, but literally include all media related and unrelated to literary practice. The plural is important here, since, as we read in Dworkin’s second monograph, “no single medium can be apprehended in isolation”; instead, “media (always necessarily multiple) only become legible in social contexts because they are not things, but rather activities: commercial, communicative, and, always, interpretive.”13
Radium of the Word, published shortly after The Pine-Woods Notebook, presents some of the most refined definitions of Dworkin’s decades-long project of radical formalism. He aims to “demonstrate that attending to the material forms of language can reveal significations not accessible through conventional reading strategies.”14 What is more, he states:
Linguistic materiality—the specific forms and configurations taken by the signifier—generates its own nonsymbolic associations; the physical substance of writing highlights similarities between signifiers, establishes connections that cut across grammatic and rhetorical units, and creates patterns that can be significant without communicating any set or preordained message.15
In this view, the notion of the politics of the poem, already foregrounded in Reading the Illegible, is more precisely demarcated as that which “can be located in what literature proposes by its particular ways of being, situated in the networks that connect writers and readers. Literature, under such circumstances […] intervenes in politics not through the particular messages communicated but by a material reconfiguration of the very grounds for discourse.”16 The latter—discourse—is formed by its “linguistic materiality” and, therefore, it is this materiality which determines the significatory proliferation of individual poems, regardless of genre. This “linguistic materiality” is not necessarily intentional, but, like the work of reading, which proclaims “to take the texts on their own terms,”17 poiesis signifies insofar as its material environments, its literary and non-literary media, render such signification possible.
Into the Woods
The attention the scholar gives to the material and medial dimensions of literary politics is reflected in his poetry, too. Surely, Dworkin has championed the thought of uncreativity and non-expressionism—made possible, in part, by technologies of information and the digital cutting and pasting of literary and non-literary texts, so that conceptual writing does not, in the end, need to be read to be successful.18 However, the reader of The Pine-Woods Notebook will find a rather expressive, almost lyrical, voice at work. However indulgently the text cites ecological, literary, and philosophical sources, it fully actualizes a feature of Dworkin’s work that had up until that point only existed in rudimentary form in his earlier texts. This is the awareness of the ecological circumstance of literary practice.19
In his short author’s bio-note at the bookend of Notebook, Dworkin claims that starting from his 2013 chapbook Chapter XXIV his poetic writings “all attempt to probe the limits of language by working from the linguistic—the impersonal, asemantic, chance motivations of material signifiers in structural relations—toward the literary; language in lush and enthused rhetorical flush.”20 One could argue that this seemingly unilateral movement from the paragrammatic to the grammatic, or from the non-symbolic to the symbolic, marks a departure for a poet whose earlier works typically included lines such as: “Noun parenthesis abbreviation of an / appositive noun parenthesis comma,”21 or, in a self-ascribed nod to Bruce Andrews’s 1970s language writings: “celanese • negligent maloney butternut • impractical weyerhauser cod-piece • dickcissel sure • quiescent cassette ostracism • insincere canister.”22 Yet the description of literature’s “enthused rhetorical flush” comes across as ironic, given the conceptualist affiliations of the poet’s work as a whole.
Two things should be remembered when considering this movement from the linguistic to the literary (which already point to the ecological investment of Dworkin as scholar): first, his understanding of “linguistic materiality” in Radium as “the physical substance of writing,”23 suggesting that the movement toward the literary from the former substantial realm is neither necessarily temporal nor solely methodological. Second, Dworkin’s understanding of what counts as “linguistic” can be traced back to Paul de Man, who he has cited numerously, and for whom it signifies an indifference concerning human intent and semantic order. Hence, it is the “inhumanness of language”24 that cannot be bound by the meaning-making of metaphor and metonymy, and, in turn, “the material aspects of language […] acquire a fully generative agency,”25 outside of the realm of semantics. These two aspects of linguistic materiality—the substantial and the in- or non-human aspect of language—may be viewed as properly ecological, given the conceptual similarity to key terms in the contemporary environmental humanities.
Dworkin has clearly, albeit inconsistently, included considerations of the ecological not just in this scholarly but also in his poetic work. Take, for example, his contribution to the 2011 Special Issue of Qui Parle on ecocriticism called “Normal Fauna and Ambient Microfauna,” which opens thus: “The journal you are holding is alive. It has been coated with / an animate patina of arachnids, bacteria, fungi, microalgae, / protozoa, and viruses. The species between your fingertips / and the cover most likely include: Acinetobacter baumannii; Acremonium strictum […]”; and he goes on to list the biochemical ingredients that are part of a printed special issue such as the given one.26 On the second page, Dworkin’s speaker cautions: “Please respect this environment: do not expose to sodium hypochlorite, benzalkonium chloride, propylene or triethylene glycols, aldehydes (including o-phthalaldehydes) […]. Handle frequently.”27 This is an unmistakably ecocentric approach to what poetic practice is or should be, and it recalls passages from his early reading of Susan Howe’s work that, I argue, has affinities with what Dworkin has achieved in Notebook, specifically her “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” and “Melville’s Marginalia,” which point to the “graphemic and phonemic proximity” of the words “word,” “wood,” and “food,” according to what he calls the “trope of the ‘word’ forest,” on the level of semantics, and, on the level of parasemantics, according to a logic of scarcity that demonstrates how “the ‘wood’ on which ‘the word’ physically, typographically, comes to rest”28 in printed literature, is a finite resource.
This is the backdrop against which Notebook may be read, the most initially striking character of which is the declarative nature of these sentences in verse, sentences which demarcate, according to a multiplicity of senses, a site- and time-specific “distribution of the sensible.”29 Consider the very beginning: “The pitch of the pines on the ridgeline thickens, bewitching. // A needle drop announces with a bounce the delay in patience it anticipates. // Surface hiss risks rescinding its promise of prominence.” And then, “From pine to sigh a sound propounds the ingrained impulse to perpetuate; the needling breeze yields, fecund and promiscuous,” so that, consequently, the “Sap from the wavering sutures of bark, balsamic, darkens and brittles, black as shellac.”30
Several things to note at once: the poetic voice—and yes, it is a voice that takes note of sense impressions—emotively registers the resonances between the wind that flows through the ecologies of pine forests, resulting indeed in The Pine-Woods Notebook. This voice displays an auditory panorama of the links between non-human desire and non-semantic communication, as the assonances of “announces” and “bounce,” of “pine,” “sigh,” and “sound,” of “bark, balsamic,” “black as shellac” demonstrate; “as the needling breeze yields, fecund and promiscuous.”31 The phrase “the pitch of the pines” occurs multiple times throughout the poem and figures as a key phrase among idiosyncratic phrases in a continuous process during which the pines’ “Limbs braid from their slumber at a gust,” and “The scored bark records the pitch” and “Pine boughs pitch in the blistering wind, even when their / trunks maintain a distanced indifference.”32
These lines, albeit arranged in the form of sentences, perform on the level of both the linguistic and the literary what the general relationship between linguistic materiality and literary sense signifies. Also, the poetic performance in the form of a Notebook enacts the poetics of Dworkin’s radical formalism, which is, however, partially contradicted by the inclusion of a poetic voice, a speaker, that self-identifies at some point as “the pitch,” which “sets the tone of the pine, the particular inflexion of its voice expressing some feeling or emotion,”33 in terms of both sound and substance. Nonetheless, Dworkin’s long poem “disturbs our notions of textual and material boundaries,”34 as well as our concept of poetic voice itself, its signs and sighs. “The sigh, as pure affect, respires the sign,”35 we learn in Dworkin’s not merely materialist, but material ecopoetics, which belongs to that of which it speaks, as words that rest on wood, as pitch that rests on pine.36 Finally: “To recognize the sign’s desire for expression is to prize the / regression from pitch to rhythm to resonance.”37 And it is via this recognition across human and non-human demarcations that expression creeps into conception, a process whose ecologies spiral on in Dworkin’s most recent Helicography38—from tree to stone, toward the helix.
This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (1972; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 30.
- Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2003); Dworkin, No Medium(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 20013); Dworkin, Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2020).
- Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, 43.
- See Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).
- Craig Dworkin, The Pine-Woods Notebook (Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2019), 31.
- Craig Dworkin, “Introduction.” The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing. UbuWeb, 2003. N. pag. Accessed May 27, 2025. https://www.ubu.com/concept/index.html.
- Dworkin, “The Fate of Echo,” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), xxiii.
- Kenneth Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?”, in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), xvii. See, in the present context, Susan Sontag’s comment on William Henry Fox Talbot and his inaugural book of photography The Pencil of Nature (1844-46) that “the camera suggested itself to Fox Talbot as a new form of notation whose allure was precisely that it was impersonal.” Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 2008), 88.
- Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, 4-5.
- Ibid., 3.
- Dworkin, No Medium, 28.
- Dworkin, Radium of the Word, 1. Importantly, this is a paraphrase of Leon Roudiez’s notion of the “paragrammatic” (Reading the Illegible, xx).
- Ibid., 17. At this point of his introduction to Radium, Dworkin acknowledges the vicinity of his approach to literary theory to Jacques Rancière’s work, which he deems “analogous to my focus on the literal rather than the figurative,” on “performative rather than symbolic politics” (Ibid.).
- Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, xix.
- See David Mandl, “An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith.” The Believer. Oct. 1, 2011, accessed May 31, 2023. https://www.thebeliever.net/an-interview-with-kenneth-goldsmith/.
- For a reading that detects lyrical tendencies in recent conceptual poetry, see Brian Reed, “Idea Eater: The Conceptual Lyric as an Emergent Literary Form,” Mosaic: an interdisciplinary critical journal 49, no. 2 (2016): 3-4. See, for an interpretation of Dworkin’s poem “Dure” as a “a return to expressive autobiography, somewhat paradoxically by way of a poetics of citationality,” Paul Stephens’s “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin,” Postmodern Culture 19, no. 3 (2009): n. pag. doi:10.1353/pmc.2009.0004.
- Dworkin, The Pine-Woods Notebook, 56.
- Dworkin, Index (Housepress, 2002), n. pag. http://eclipsearchive.org/Editor/DworkinIndex.pdf
- Dworkin, Maps (Editions Ubu, 2007), 3, 6. https://www.ubu.com/ubu/unpub/Unpub_009_Dworkin_Maps.pdf
- Dworkin, Radium of the Word, 1.
- Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, 77.
- Dworkin, Radium of the Word, 11.
- Craig Dworkin, “Normal Fauna and Ambient Microfauna,” Qui Parle 19, no. 2 (2011): 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, 43.
- The notion of “the distribution of the sensible” is Rancière’s; the specific site and time I refer to here is noted by Dworkin at the end of his long poem: “Cascades/ Wasatch / 14 November, 2014” (The Pine-Woods Notebook, 38) in a manner reminiscent of the third volume of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems.
- Dworkin, The Pine-Woods Notebook, 13.
- Ibid., 15, 26.
- Ibid., 33. Regarding the allegorical dimension of conceptual writing, see chapter 5 of Michael Golston’s Poetic Machinations: Allegory, Surrealism, and Postmodern Poetic Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
- Dodson, “Introduction: Eco/Critical Entanglements,” Qui Parle 19, no. 2 (2011): 19.
- Dworkin, The Pine-Woods Notebook, 37.
- While the wording here is coextensive with that of The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter(New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) by Susan Signe Morrison, the understanding of the terminology is not. Neither waste nor Western tradition are at stake in Notebook’s expansive poetics of the non-humanity of language.
- Dworkin, The Pine-Woods Notebook, 37.
- Craig Dworkin, Helicography (Santa Barabara, CA: Punctum Books, 2021).