Marjorie Perloff's 21st-century modernism

Published in 2002 as part of Blackwell’s “Manifestos” series, Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism is a passionate restatement of her commitment to avant-garde writing and its role in an increasingly mediatized future. At a moment when the notion of the postmodern seems “to have largely lost its momentum,” we need to appreciate, says Perloff, the full potential of modernism’s continuing legacy.[1] 21st-Century Modernism accordingly revisits some old enthusiasms — Stein, Duchamp, Khlebnikov — and also returns to Eliot’s early work to discover there an avant-gardism Perloff now feels she undervalued in her previous books. This review of literary modernism neatly summarizes the qualities of avant-garde writing that Perloff will then rediscover in the “second wave of modernism” that she associates with the contemporary texts of Lyn Hejinian, Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe (5). The features emphasized are by now familiar ones: the collage-text, the “indeterminacy” of meaning that underwrites a determined anti-subjectivism, the repudiation of mainstream “authenticity” or what Bernstein has nicely called “the natural look,” and, above all, the recognition of the text as “verbal artifact.” This latter term consistently governs Perloff’s approach to the avant-garde, compelling her readers to realize that when Williams, for example, declares “No ideas but in things” or Pound calls for “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’”, they are speaking not of material objects but of the poem as “thing,” as conception and as verbal construction (a distinction missed by subsequent generations of critics, but not, of course, by the modernists’ immediate successors: the Objectivists).[2]

It is this sense of the “verbal artifact” that Perloff here discerns in Eliot’s early poems and that saves his work up to and including “The Waste Land” from the “symbolist” mode she had assigned to him in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (Princeton University Press, 1981). The key to Perloff’s reevaluation lies in Eliot’s way with sound in the early writings: moving away from rhyme and blank verse, he “substituted a sound structure that, far from being some sort of container for the matter to be conveyed, actually produces that matter” (19). The intricate play of echo and repeat in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” produces a “paragrammatic language” that we can find more obviously in Perloff’s three other modernists, but which is lost in the “ritualized discourse” of Eliot’s poetry after “The Waste Land” (37). 

In her discussions of Stein, Duchamp, and Khlebnikov, Perloff deepens her sense of a “language field” that is, following Pound, “charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” but that, at the same time (here not following Pound), “defies semantic coherence” (126). We are poised, it seems, to enter the world of Language poetry with (as Bruce Andrews once put it) its cultivation of “semantic atmosphere, or milieu, rather than the possessive individualism of reference.”[3]

21st-Century Modernism is, we recall, a “manifesto.” As such, it was designed to provoke and it continues to do just that. Some readers, certainly, will still be piqued by Perloff’s rather offhand dismissal of the writers associated with The New American Poetry (Grove Press, 1960): “from the hindsight of the twenty-first century, their fabled ‘opening of the field’ was less revolution than restoration: a carrying-on, in somewhat diluted form, of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism” (2–3).[4] That dismissal (curiously reminiscent in tone of Hugh Kenner’s mis-description of the Objectivists as “men who have inherited a formed tradition”) is at first sight puzzling, given that Perloff has herself produced seminal accounts of many of those poets (O’Hara, Olson, Ashbery, to name only three).[5] But again, this is argument by manifesto and what drives it is Perloff’s conviction that some contemporary writers are reactivating an avant-gardism that was extinguished by the disaster of the Great War and whose initially dazzling potential is only now coming to be realized in modernism’s “second wave.” As she puts it in her chapter on Khlebnikov, “at the turn of the twenty-first century, the possibilities of chant and charm, zaum and word magic, largely dormant in the ‘rationalist’ and personalist years of mid-century, are once again invoked” (153). Perloff’s fascinating and ingenious readings are powerful inducements to accept this claim — indeed, perhaps only she is sufficiently gifted to convince the Russianless reader that Klebnikov’s tacky etymologies and bizarre numerical schemas are capable of producing a truly exciting poetry — though the force of the manifesto format makes us ask at the same time whether this kind of “word magic” can provide an adequate response to the multiple dilemmas of late modernity (or, indeed, to those that the luckless Klebnikov found himself confronting in an earlier time). 21st-Century Modernism reverberates with difficult questions of this kind; in doing so, it offers a wager on the literary future that no committed reader of contemporary writing can afford to ignore.



[1] Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 2. Further page references will be given in the text.

[2] See my “The Poetics of Modernism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry, ed. Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 56–7.

[3] Bruce Andrews, “Text and Context,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1984), 36.

[4] For one such critical reaction, see Stephen Fredman’s review in Symplokē 13, no. 1–2 (2005): 340–3.

[5] Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 16.