On the unoriginal genius of Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff in the Lotus Garden at Huanghzhou University, Wuhan, September 2011.

Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest […] I […] design to render [“The Raven”] manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition — that it proceeded step by step to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem. — E. A. Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”

As the University of Chicago Press approached its publication date for Unoriginal Genius, it asked me to write a promotional comment for the book’s back cover. Thrilling prospect! To write in the same spirit that the author had writ about the unoriginal spirits and writs she had written about. 

And I would have to write under the constraint of that most tedious and inconsequent of textual forms: the book blurb. I burned with the hard gemlike flame of the moth for that star of unoriginal genius. Mixed allusions, like mixed metaphors and unoriginal ideas, are often what one wants: what oft was thought but not exactly so expressed.

The task: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Marjorie Perloff. And “in 150 words.” (And with yet another rule, as it seemed to me — the understanding that her case in this case would be what Swinburne said was his case: “knowing as you do the date and sequence of my published books you know every event of my life” that matters).

Here is what I sent to the press: 

When The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) appeared, our view of twentieth-century poetry was reconceived and reborn. Since then Perloff established herself as the pre-eminent scholar and critic of the Modern/Postmodern epoch, whose continuities she was the first to grasp. Of her work one wants to say, recalling Marianne Moore, it is a privilege to see so much profusion. Another wonderment, Unoriginal Genius circumnavigates the poetic world of the past 75 years, touching at strategic ports of call and eager to mix with many languages, cultures, and aesthetic media. The book starts in the theatre of Benjamin’s Second Empire and finishes with a study of the Edgar Poe des nos jours, Kenny Goldsmith — aptly finishes, since Perloff’s underlying story, though she never says this and though nearly everyone has forgotten it, began — as Baudelaire knew — with Poe, the first of our great poetic theatricians. — Jerome McGann, University of Virginia

That would be 150 words to the letter (check it out in your laptop editor). I think the press never noticed.

As strictly obedient and truthful as I had been, however — after all, I was raised Roman Catholic — my blurb was rejected. Perhaps even despised and rejected. 

But perhaps too, as Christina Rossetti once wrote, there is “A Better Resurrection.” My blurb of brackish truth is back from the dead, like Poe’s Ligeia — “gia la sera sorella” of Augusto de Campos’s Lygia, the dressed-down Beatrician type that is one of the subjects of Perloff’s loving attentions. The organizing center of interest is imaginative writing’s most pervasive discourse form of the past one hundred years — the Array, which Perloff tracks in its many transformations from Benjamin’s Arcades through various types of Concretism, Conceptual, and Procedural Writing, including the translational poetries of Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada.[1] The book pivots on extended readings of two fundamental works of two great American masters of the past forty years: Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s Midnight.

Unoriginal Genius works itself up, with a mischievous calculation equal to all Perloff’s loved unoriginals, to a tour do force reading of Kenny Goldsmith’s notoriously tour de force and “unreadable” works — in particular to an extended and (for this native New Yorker) knowing reading of Traffic. One hundred fifty pages (is that a magic number?) underpin her final dazzling display of aesthetic wit and critical taste. Nobody does it better, this sort of thing, and few have ever done it so well.

Arrived finally at her consummate conceptualist, Perloff asks (as impishly as Poe or Goldsmith — she knows the answer already): “We are given the ostensible rules of the game, but what is the game?” (151) How do you read the unreadable Traffic, how do you play its game? From that point it is show and tell for fifteen (!) pages. The game, we learn to see, is a game of “surprises” and “provocations”: “messy, unbearable, infuriating, debilitating, but also challenging, invigorating, unpredictable” (156). Johanna Drucker has called it the game of delightenment, “This new poetry,” Goldsmith remarks (channeling Poe):

… no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry. (162)

Clearly this is a game anybody can play. As Frank O’Hara, one of Perloff’s early angels, thought: you have to go on your nerve. Or write deliberately. 

“Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” Let’s follow a Shelley Rule.

Peace, peace! They are not dead, they do not sleep,
    They have awaken'd from a dream of verse;
’Tis we, who lost in modern visions, keep
    With phantoms an unprofitably perverse
    Poetics that’s just making matters worse.
Invulnerable nothings, they decay
    Like figures in a carpet. If old beliefs
Consume and eat out our prosodic clay, 
cool hopes swarm like worms around us day by day.

That would be — I think of Stevens — the worms at our poetical heaven’s gates; the “wormy circumstance” of Keats’s Isabella; Poe’s “Conqueror Worm” (the signifier, of course, not the signified).

So there’s the game, played according to rule, and even — if you think about it — with what Poe called an “under-current, however indefinite, of meaning” for Perloff’s unoriginal geniuses. But in this game there must be nothing “ideal,” since “it is the rendering […] the upper instead of the under current of the theme which turns into prose […] the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists” (“The Philosophy of Composition”).

But then we are left with an important — an ethical and a political — question: Why play such games? Why write them, why rewrite them? (Emerson, we want to remember — eminent Transcendentalist — called Poe “the jingle man”). The great (original?) unoriginals — Poe, Carroll, Lautréamont, Swinburne — might usefully be consulted.


[1] See my “Some Forms of Critical Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 2 (March 1985): 399–417.