The argument of Unoriginal Genius is whole and sufficient. It hardly requires the assistance of — nor should its beloved author have to tolerate the prospect of reduction by — my quasi-psychoanalytic reading of the book’s stirring culmination in its chapter on exophonic writing. So attracted am I to the refugee’s story of discontinuity and yet nonalienation, and its possible effect on all subsequent forays into language, I can’t help myself. To be sure, the final section on Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic (chapter 7) is really the argument’s conclusion, but “Language in Migration” (chapter 6) is the capstone of its poetics, standing at the limit of its emotive (if I may) trajectory, Perloff’s strongest ever embrace, via Susan Howe and Caroline Bergvall, of a poetry she intensely admires for its exploration of “speaking patterns,” including “slips of the tongue or of the culture” (131; emphasis added). In her many talks, lectures, interviews, and reviews — through her willingness generally to speak freely on almost any topic — Marjorie Perloff has had a great deal to say about “slips … of the culture.” But here, in Unoriginal Genius, that interest, which accumulated through the years of culture wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and developed further through the 1990s and 2000s, has found its proper place within a poetics positioned against the “culturally pluralistic, yet divided, and markedly monolingual society” — a society that “harass[es]” and “discriminat[es]” against such mis-spokenness rather than appreciating and indeed celebrating, as I believe Perloff does, art that arises from the special trauma induced by the linguistic politics of such monoculture (131, 132).
Most poetry criticism seeking engagement with broad social reality starts with slips of the tongue and moves on to slips of the culture. Tongue --> culture: as if that were the apt hierarchy of our attention. Perloff moves in exactly the opposite direction — a much more difficult approach, for it requires the sort of skills with prosody and rhetoric that she first intensely studied and then famously mastered over decades. For years she’s been thinking — unconsciously at first, then half-consciously (according to her own account), then finally superconsciously — about the effects of that monolingual culture. Sometimes this focus has emerged in advocacy for language study and on behalf of universities’ comparative literature programs, and sometimes generally in her support of comparativist scholarly modes. Sometimes it has expressed itself in criticism of American writers who conveniently suppress or neglect the global experience of World War II. Often it appears in withering critiques of tunnel-visioned academia. For years her move into American poetry criticism constituted for her a swerve from the avid faith in big-C Culture she observed and (although not without internal struggle) inherited from her family’s assimilated Viennese (later exiled) community. But with a memoir, The Vienna Paradox, a great critic returned headlong back into that original source material, and told of its associated personal traumas; and then in Unoriginal Genius, with its striking defense of the artist whose language does not pass “a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district” (131), she finally applies her knowledge of political culture in a thoroughgoing way to the realm of her lifework as a critic and literary historian of poetry. Intended as such or not, it provides a striking synthesis of a lifework. The title of one chapter in the memoir is “Losing Everything But One’s Accent.” This is a phrase that first conjures the image of the smart European girl desperate to Americanize herself. The “accent” in this deep phrase is easy on the intellect, but, as we learn, was quite difficult to live: an experience of exile requiring focused linguistic effort for a Jewish, non-German, native German speaker at an anti-German moment. Yet more difficult for us to understand is the horrifying experience of the first part of the phrase: “Losing Everything.”
What do we know about this loss? The Vienna Paradox repeatedly describes ongoing phobias and traumatic responses, although, because so much else of historical interest is being narrated and because the memoirist’s aim is furthest from confessional, these scenes of conscious and unconscious loss (how intentionally, after all, can one feel that one has “los[t] everything”?) are not so much understated as kept largely disconnected from the main story. Which is to say: the emigration narrative has great force without the need of detailed scenes of dislocation and deterritorialization. And yet Perloff opens her tale of the Anschluss not in Austria but at Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, and in other dim, heavy-aired contemporary train terminals. When in such spaces, to this day, she confesses to feeling “unaccountably sad.” Even in Tokyo’s clean, well-lit bullet train depot, she feels “the same familiar twinge of anxiety.” Quickly she intervenes her own analysis to note that she shares Wittgenstein’s doubts about Freud and will not go in for “psychological explanation.” “[B]ut” she goes on to describe “my train phobia” (33). The repeated unabated fear has a precise origin: the night of March 13, 1938 (34), the key moment in the family’s flight from fascist anti-Semitism. Later in the memoir we learn of her border anxiety. It comes after a passage about her intensely positive “feeling for America,” most keenly realized whenever she passes through the border at US Passport Control and Customs. She feels she is “home” then, far from “a threatening or threatened national border.” On the other hand, when traveling in Germany in the 1980s, seeing signs reading Die Grenze, she becomes again “acutely anxious” and “panicked and clutched [her] passport” (68–69). She calls these experiences — in a phrasing quasi-Freudian, a two-noun phrase that feels translated: “stress reactions.” Despite her “fear of frontiers,” in order to attend a conference (about her mother’s work as an economist), she finally returns to Austria, the scene of the crime against her family, and feels strangely ostracized, pushed into an uncharacteristic silence made worse when she describes herself to her hosts as a “refugee” after being asked why she pronounced such perfect German (70). This is very much not a slip of the mother tongue.
As a student of holocaust self-representation (especially in survivor testimonies, which I have taught in a course for thirty years), I have read and heard many witness accounts of those who were children at the moment of intra-European or external deportation. Those who were already adults at the time have remembered traumatic memories — the said unsayable X of their witnessing — and when they struggle to speak or write it’s because X is so difficult to convey in words that both successfully communicate loss and convey the unspeakable agony of the sort that defies persuasive telling. But for children, now adults who do not quite remember frightening scenes of childhood, the problem is not primarily telling of an X clearly recalled; X is itself vague, so bearing witness is doubly subject to the problems of representation. Those then between the ages of five and eight typically have a few clear recollections but look back at their own misinterpretations of events and behavioral patterns at the time. They don’t forget all that they saw or overheard, but they don’t remember or don’t trust the memory of their feelings and reactions. The scenes they present now are cotemporal: now with layerings of more authoritative perspective, and then without perspective but putative authority. Faced with her own writing in extant letters (originally mailed to her father) — in which she celebrates the “huge strawberries” to be found at the family’s temporary location — she now asks, “Was I really this unaware?” (65). Why had the sudden exile seemed so pleasurable? Was denial all around her so successful? Or was there intense suffering around her then being successfully repressed by the young girl? Later, on a train, she remembers a friend of her father, thrown off the transport immediately after it was discovered he didn’t hold the right passport. She remembers this only because she can still conjure the horrified look on her father’s face (66). She overheard talk of a girl who had contracted polio, had then become paralyzed during the course of the train trip, and was carried off — and “for years [thereafter] I had an irrational fear of polio” (66). She underreacted at the time and carries forward fears that manifest themselves later. She “still cringe[s]” at the memory of the quick unexplained loss of all the books in her parents’ library, always theretofore an assumed legacy (115) — easily explained now with knowledge of the Nazi decree on limits of refugees’ suitcases. Did the parents’ protection of their children from much of the horror actually “save […] us from a great deal of fear and trauma”?
Perloff argues that such safeguarding was “the right thing to do,” but concedes that she and others who shared her experience “were curiously unprepared for the future.” Becoming an exile at six years old, she was uprooted from home, from the family’s bookish culture, and then from her language. Her brother, at eight and a half then, might have been “more aware” of what their mother meant when she uttered the devastating instruction that they could “no longer be Austrians.” But our author recalls finding this incomprehensible. Throughout the memoir, she distinctly remembers not quite remembering, but that, of course, itself constitutes a crucial memory of the experience. The Vienna Paradox is not so much an effort to make such a challenge to identity comprehensible now so much as it is an exploration of why memoir as a “collage” (xv) of pieces of historical context and personal memory is the apt medium for representing this loss by a person whose professional work advocates an art accessible to us in spite of its apparent incomprehensibility — in spite of the ubiquitous “dangers of nonengagement” (xv) and of “amnesia” (7) and “the aporias of diaspora” (220). I believe that this embrace of antimemoiristic collage as a mode, first in the work of others (think O’Hara’s antinarratives such as “A Step Away from Them,” Cage’s nonintentional rewriting of Ginsberg’s supposed confession in “Howl,” and then the personal impersonality of My Life and “Albany,” and later works like Soliloquy as, for her, arising out of the modernist structure she has come to prefer) and finally in her own writing (in The Vienna Paradox), has been Marjorie Perloff’s way of preparing herself for a future for which her parents’ safeguarding did not prepare her: the “future” of the then critically marginalized and unpopular version of modernism she didn’t ask permission to study, and then mastered, and then masterfully described and advocated starting in the 1970s, after a digressive and unrewarded journey through American academia; and the “future” of the truly new, in the always energetic championing of fresh modes and untried forms, a project managed without regard to linguistic or disciplinary border.
Dining at the Café Sebarsky in Manhattan, the too-perfect reproduction of a romantic café culture that never quite existed in Austria, Perloff felt it to be yet another “inevitable by-product of exile.” The experience of the pea soup “triggered a Proustian recollection” of taste and smell from the “first six and a half years of my life” (21). It’s not clear if she was there in order to stimulate the writing of her memoir or whether, indeed, the visit was one of the catalysts of the project. But one has the sense that she is reporting on location from Café Sebarsky, as John McPhee might from the middle of the Concord River or Susan Sontag from Sarajevo. In any case, it enables the book’s first evocation of the heinous appropriation of Viennese Jewish property, so much now there before her eyes in the style of the furnishings and artwork of the alluring Austro-urbanism surrounding her. Finally, however, this is not really Perloff’s aesthetic terrain, but precedes it; it is early modern Vienna, with strong hints of earlier imperial styles too, and Perloff’s tastes, when in New York especially, run more to the starker and bolder concrete, glass, and steel late-modernist-style Austrian Cultural Forum, designed by Austrian-born architect Raimund Abraham. This structure is more congenial, ironically, to the memoirist’s memory-probing motives. The encounter provokes what is for me the key passage in the entire work. Its outward friendliness to our critic-turned-autobiographer is bitterly deceptive. The Forum’s website presents writings of Ernst Jandl, John Cagean sounds, an abstract geometric design, and a calendar of avant-garde events. Perfect. Now here is an exilic Austria for the twenty-first century. But all is not well. The scene and analysis Perloff provides here, with typical associative brilliance, reminds me of the post-Holocaust novel How German Is It by Walter Abish. Architecture builds an assertive positive space atop traumatic holes in the ground dug during the preceding era. Monumentality fakes the impossibility of memorialization. Architect Abraham, just a little younger than Perloff, remembers the “iron sky” of planes raining down bombs, and just before his Forum opened quoted Adolf Loos as follows (as quoted by Perloff): “When you walk through the woods and come upon a hole two feet wide, six feet long, and six feet deep, you know that is architecture” (23–24). Abraham went on to say that his Austrian youth taught him that death is part of life. The Loosian conception of architecture is that it spatially fills, or more accurately cannot aptly fill, the body-sized grave one encounters in what was for Abraham a childhood trauma of encountering burials in the Austrian wood. “No building,” he continued, “can match the terrifying empty spaces of these original sites.” What sites does he mean? “[N]o Holocaust memorial,” he went on, “ever succeeds in the end because no monument can ever be more monumental than a concentration camp” (qtd. 24). Perloff then reports that the resurgence of fascism in Austrian politics caused Abraham, creator of the official New York cultural center of his homeland, to renounce his Austrian citizenship. This apparently great work, with its modernist allusions and postmodern gesturing, stands for the modernist memoirist in the shadow of the specter of “a dark politics that never seems to quite go away.” And then, with only the slightest transition (“Or at least I would like to see it that way,” she announces at the start of a new paragraph), we come to the central story of her name change: from “Gabriele” to “Marjorie,” to the girl who “yearned only to be as American as possible.” Nothing unusual, in itself, about this sentiment. She joins many immigrants for whom name change makes fresh identity, a turn back toward life, and a certain original forgetting enabled by a full shift in language. Yet in the same spirit as a hole and a darkness that “never seems to quite go away,” she still experiences the self-consciousness of seeing her name in print (and rather feels the absence of “Gabriele Mintz”) and is sometimes left “wonder[ing] who Marjorie Perloff is.” The Forum’s architectural masking unmasks “dishonest decades”; she had quoted the Auden poem to help interpret the building’s design. It is vain to make monuments to such a past that will do it justice. We fill the iron sky with acclaimed experimental work, moving aesthetically upward and forward. But only as a dreamt-of alternative to the death that rained down. To this day, the critic sometimes sees her own name and recognizes it as a mask. And note that she’s not looking in the mirror — this memoir bears no such cliché — but rather at “the name in print,” her byline, not quite permitting herself an unambiguous pride of authorship, even that which routinely marks her astonishing critical achievement.
She wants to move forward. The Vienna Paradox evinces not an iota of self-pity, and is, as I’ve said, remarkably resistant to the psychological reading of the phobias and the traumas it freely concedes. “Margie” moved forward from the moment she could get her feet on the ground, perhaps six months after arriving in New York, and hasn’t stopped since. She has little patience not just for the dour exile byunskys — who complain how much better everything had been bei uns back home — but also for their American leftist descendants, those who “criticiz[e] all facets of US capitalism, technologism, and media culture” (136). Her case in point is Theodor Adorno. Citing Francois Furet’s research, she notes and laments in Frankfurt School exilic sociology the “paucity of reflections and research on American democracy” (137). In a critique she has sometimes extended to theory-minded poetry critics who write about poetry but don’t seem to know the poems of actual contemporary American poets, she wonders why such an intelligent person could live in the US for a decade and know so little, really, about how American culture works — and would write about it anyway. The Vienna Paradox takes several pages to offer a devastating reconsideration of Adorno.
Before writing her memoir, Perloff had frequently taught Minima Moralia, which was written in New York in 1944 and 1945. She admires it as an instance of literary hybridity, and for its subtle fragments expressing the “damaged life.” But for The Vienna Paradox, where all her reading, and her developing interest in American poetry, gets interpreted through the lens of traumatic dislocation and the desperate embrace of a new home, the experience of “reread[ing]” Adorno was a belated shock. Adorno, who might easily have suffered the fate of millions, just as she might have, complains instead in Minima Moralia of the way in which, in America, doors are made so as to be slammed rudely, “sliding frames to shove.” This puts him in mind of “the violent, hard-hitting, unresting jerkiness of Fascist maltreatment.” Perloff finds this analysis infuriating. The slamming of a door is not a random gesture when one is reading literarily. In her own family’s modest new home in the Bronx, just when Adorno was writing, life was constrained by room size — and indeed doors slammed. That the reading of this Americanness as fascist could ever have struck her and her students as “persuasive and appealing” seems irksome here indeed, and casts doubt at least momentarily on the literary analysis of culture. Thus one of the paradoxes meant by the memoir’s title lies in the fate of rereading. The ultimate context here was life. “[U]nlike the less fortunate (and less affluent) German Jews of his time, [Adorno], at least, was alive — alive in a nation that, whatever its deficiencies, was not a Nazi dictatorship that practiced genocide” (178).
Sharp as this passage is, it seems doubtful that Perloff would have included Adorno in her book if her main problem was his sensitivity to Americans’ tolerance of “unresting jerkiness.” There’s much more at stake for her in the cultural citizenship of the radically displaced. Adorno’s general understanding of cultural life in exile Perloff deems terribly mistaken. “Every intellectual in emigration,” Adorno wrote, “is, without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself.” And further: “He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him” (qtd. 177). It’s clear that Perloff sought for herself to read right past such alienation and mutilation — to make the exile’s adopted culture not just basically comprehensible, for indeed she would seek out exactly what others consider the least comprehensible products of American culture and claim that even these are never beyond comprehension.
I have observed here that the convergence of her critique of the critique of American crass commercialism and her sensitivity to matters of emigration and fascism — a difficult combination because in the US it confuses typical lefts and rights — finally comes together in the memoir of 2004 and subtly shapes Unoriginal Genius of 2010. But the convergence was no catharsis. It is latent in works as early as her book on O’Hara and finds overt expression in her essay on Wallace Stevens during wartime. But let us find it, too, in her reconsideration of Robert Lowell in 2004, a review-essay written in response to the publication of Lowell’s Collected Poems in 2003, and coincides with the writing of her memoir. She begins the review with a personal recollection. Life Studies shook the poetry world with its smart frankness, and Perloff confesses to a strong memory of the moment she herself felt the shock.
1959 was the year my second daughter was born and I was having a hard time of it. Two children under the age of three, very little help, a physician husband who was rarely home, endless Gerber meals to serve, piles of baby clothes to take down to the building’s laundry room, and — perhaps worst of all — the conversations with Other Mothers in the playground that revolved around things like the parsley sale at the Giant supermarket.
Like so many others, she felt this poetry to be “authentically” depicting a real American husband and wife. Modern poetry would be her thing, once the babies were older. Was Lowell’s verse a gateway — a connector to life as she lived it in the “tranquillized Fifties” and to her drive to make complex expressions of the American language comprehensible? The Perloff who now recalls her own early misreading (overpraising) of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” for instance, works with memory in the same way as the memoirist who recalls young Gabriele Mintz in Italy awaiting emigration as she misreads placidity and relative safety in huge strawberries and the warm Mediterranean water. The long review of Lowell, years after her own book on the poet, still finds “distinct pleasure” in Lowell’s pre-Confession lines. But when she turns to a public poem in the confessional mode such as “For the Union Dead,” she finds Lowell’s complaint about “crass commercialism” in present-day Boston presented in “a metaphor that won’t withstand much scrutiny.”
Lowell sees that they are digging ditches downtown. The monument to Colonel Shaw, the epitome of what Perloff sincerely calls “bygone New England heroism,” must stand among what Lowell sees as acquisitive contemporary chaos. Clever figures of fish in the city’s acquarium are likened to Shaw’s monumental forgotten bravery as it “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.” And cars, “giant finned,” move through construction-clogged traffic “like fish” themselves. Perloff concedes that she continues to be impressed, as the young housewife in 1959 was when confronted with Life Studies, by the “masterly … interweaving” of these images as an “indictment of the debased present.” But now, in 2004, she wonders how well Lowell understood the history he presupposed in this public poem — whether the indictment was warranted. She quotes the poem’s climax:
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boyston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast.
Our “Rock of Ages” is a safe made by Mosler, guaranteed to outlast any Cold War–era blast, here accidentally juxtaposed against a photograph of the devastation of a Japanese city after the dropping of an atomic bomb. The big Boston dig, prompt for this cleverly and densely ironic meditation – Perloff calls it “a perfect New Critical poem” — is “nearer,” moving toward the space where World War II (“the last war”) is not eulogized. The commercial crudity of the present, crowding out proper memorializing gestures such as that which gave rise to Colonel Shaw’s statue, is connected to the dig (for a parking garage) and to the gaudy fishy cars. Perloff finds all this criticism too easy, and her response should remind us of her critique of Adorno’s complaints about American culture. The touchstone, once again is the genocide of the Jews. Here are the two key paragraphs in the review of Lowell:
In California, where I have been teaching since the late seventies, “For the Union Dead” never quite caught on. Here, after all, the automobile is a simple necessity of life. Innocent students are likely to ask, “Why does Lowell disapprove of those who drive cars? Why is theirs a “savage servility”? And this inevitably leads to such further questions as “Why is it a sign of moral decay to build an underground garage beneath the Boston Common? How were the members of the then growing work force, many of whom faced a long commute, to get to work downtown?”
Such questions, naïve as they may sound, raise important issues. “The ditch is nearer” is one of those lines that sounds profound, but what does it really mean? Was the ditch really nearer for the millions freed from the Nazis at the end of World War II? Or was their future just beginning? Again, the declaration that “There are no statues for the last war here” is questionable. The monuments for the last war, most people would now say, are the concentration camps themselves — Dachau and Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Belsen. Or the Holocaust museums around the world like Daniel Libeskind’s new Jewish Museum in Berlin. Or the Holocaust narratives like Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved and Marcel Ophuls’s great film The Sorrow and the Pity. It turns out, moreover, that there were many “heroes” of World War II at least as notable as Colonel Shaw: for example, Samuel Beckett, who could have easily sat out the war in his native neutral Ireland but instead risked his life every day, fighting in the French Resistance.
And so Lowell’s is not really a political poem at all. Perloff goes so far as to say that its mindless complaint against “the very notion of industrial and technological progress” indicates that what passes for “public truth” here is “its author’s private phantasmagoria.” That “unforgivable landscape” in the poem is not Boston’s; it is that of Lowell’s facile American imagination. When one loses everything except one’s accent, the remnant language constitutes a resilient yet precious selfhood. The memoirist in The Vienna Paradox is wary of public truths. It may be that her train phobias, her border traumas, her later sense of repressed horror disguised by huge strawberries, her irrational fear of paralysis, her horror over the territorial solution applied to the idea of the personal library, her relentless assault on incomprehensibility, all form an elaborate “private phantasmagoria” passing as criticism, and so the memoir is perhaps surprisingly unpretentiousness in its general claims, especially given the pugnacity of its author and willingness otherwise to engage in polemic. There’s a beautifully earned modesty here. But immodest and strident is its thinking about the “culturally pluralistic, yet divided, and markedly monolingual society” commended by those who forget or at least are not haunted by the European holocaust, and this attitude makes possible the brilliant boldness of “Language in Migration” in Unoriginal Genius. There she admires Bergvall’s Say: ‘Parsley,’ for instance, which takes a limited array of words in English and uses them primarily to understand their potential for translation and a fresh reckoning of politico-linguistic genocide. Exophonic writing is essentially about translation, but crucially it never leaves behind the first language in the re-languaging of the second. Perloff aptly notes that for Bergvall the term “shibboleth” is fundamental. The critic runs through its definitions and, in a striking bid for originary credence, actually presents the term on her page in the Hebrew alphabet; a psychoaesthetic triangulation is being made. The important connotation of shibboleth, as noted earlier, is this: “a word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.” Perloff praises Bergvall’s commentary on shibboleth, in which the young poet grappled with the genocide of Creole Haitians under Trujillo in 1937. (1937: that epochal year.) The massacred were first identified by their failing to roll the ‘r’ in the Spanish word for parsley. When Marjorie Perloff writes so gloriously about these poets and their multi-linguistic political concerns — Bergvall, Yoko Towada, and others — readers of The Vienna Paradox will recognize the critic herself as an exophonic writer. “In a world of relentless global communication, poetry has begun to concern itself with the processing and absorption of the ‘foreign’ itself.” In such an approach to this latest iteration of modernity, we must ask “what happens when there is no more commanding voice to assess those fragments” — those fragments begotten by the crossing of borders and resulting from life in detention camps. But in this brilliant passage — essentially an antifascist reading of the postmodern poem — the longed-for commanding voice, now speaking, might herself be just the one to provide such an inflection.
When does a literary critic reach maturity? Looking back over Marjorie Perloff’s career, one could point to “Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71” (1972), an omnibus review of more than thirty recently published books, as a possible candidate. Perhaps for the first time, instead of building on others’ insights, she actively sought to reshape literary opinion based on her own, independent observation and judgment.
“Poetry Chronicle” opens with a provocative quotation from Peter Schjeldahl — “Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive” (97) — and goes on to declare the emergence of a new literary star, Frank O’Hara. Perloff marvels that a formerly “underground” writer’s “Collected Poems should now have appeared in an expensive glossy edition, brought out … by the venerable Alfred A. Knopf, and that [his] poetry, largely ignored by the Establishment during his lifetime, should win the National Book Award” (97–98). Moreover, while the “autobiographical elegiac mode inaugurated by Lowell’s Life Studies” (1959) might still have adherents — she mentions Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971) and John Berryman’s Love and Fame (1970) — “the real action now seems to be elsewhere,” namely, among O’Hara’s New York School imitators, whose works, like his, are typified by “improvisation, immediacy … catalogues of concrete images[,] … racy, purposely outrageous diction, and a very loose free verse line” (98).
When “Poetry Chronicle” appeared in Contemporary Literature, Perloff also happened to be in the later stages of working on her second book, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973). Lowell, too, was still actively publishing, and such major, award-winning collections as The Dolphin (1973) and Day by Day (1977) still lay in the future. Why would she publicly declare the Age of Lowell over — in the midst of preparing her definitive statement on the subject?
The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell incorporates two previously published essays. One of them, “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell” (1967), contrasts the failure of the water imagery in his early poetry to “resolve” satisfactorily to the “new and delicate balance between … lament and consolation” that his water symbolism attains in Life Studies (140). Her interlocutors include Randall Jarrell and R. P. Blackmur, and she repeatedly cites the Kenyon Review. The other reprinted piece, “Realism and the Confessional Mode of Robert Lowell” (1970), pursues an entirely different tack. It opens by invoking the Russian Formalist critic Boris Tomashevsky, and it relies heavily on Roman Jakobson’s definition of metonymy to explain Life Studies’s inventive use of syntax. The remainder of the book displays similarly divided loyalties, moving back and forth between American and European models. For instance, its preface credits the French phenomenologist Jean-Pierre Richard’s Poésie et profondeur (1955) with inspiring the first chapter, and then proceeds to declare the fourth chapter indebted to Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (1969, x–xi).
By any usual standard, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell represents first-rate practical criticism. It attends to the specifics of a poet’s craft, from prosody to tone, and it accounts well for the variations in quality of his verse over the decades. Perloff, however, seems to have been dissatisfied with the eclectic mix of approaches that she employed. A year later, she followed up Robert Lowell with a manifesto, “New Thresholds, Old Anatomies: Contemporary Poetry and the Limits of Exegesis” (1974), built around a reading of O’Hara’s lyric “Essay on Style” (1961). She argues that New Critical interpretive methods, intent on “the construction of meaning,” are ill-matched to poetry such as O’Hara’s “which deliberately avoids symbolic density in favor of literalness” (99). Critics, she asserts, need an updated formalism that takes on board “the increasing sophistication of American literary theory, its growing assimilation of European critical concepts, whether Phenomenologist, Structuralist, or Marxist” (83).
What is the lesson here? During the summer of 1972, Perloff read a very large amount of recently published verse, and while the resulting “Poetry Chronicle” singles out several different writers for praise, including Galway Kinnell and A. R. Ammons, what truly captured her imagination were “twenty-two pages of poems by O’Hara” reproduced in Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s Anthology of New York Poets (1970) (Frank, xxxii). Hence, although O’Hara had died in 1966 and Lowell still lived, from her point of view O’Hara represented true news, and, significantly, his work came to her in the context of a “new literary movement” in which “what the poem says is much less interesting than the process whereby the poet responds to the items in his environment” (“New Thresholds,” 99). Moreover, she intuited that “the increasing sophistication of American literary theory” (83) had enabled academic readers “[b]rought up on Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature, and trained to define the musical structure of Four Quartets” to begin to read O’Hara and his followers with appreciation (99). While not yet a proponent of the avant-garde, she does assert a correlation between two narratives of supersession (densely symbolic poetry giving way to a poetry of process, New Criticism ceding ground to High Theory), and she sets the stage for further inquiry into what it means for a poem to be fully, unreservedly of its moment. Her next book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977),  would require her to reassess Abstract Expressionism, French Dada and Surrealism, and Cagean aleatory composition through O’Hara’s eyes, which would in turn encourage her to think more deeply about avant-garde innovation transnationally and across media. As a consequence, in the book’s preface she finally begins to sound like the author of The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), Radical Artifice (1992), and Unoriginal Genius (2010). Prefiguring many similar declarations, she celebrates O’Hara for producing “a body of exciting experimental poetry, quite unlike the established neo-Symbolist verse of the fifties” (xxxii).
By “established neo-Symbolist verse of the fifties,” of course, she had in mind Life Studies, which in Robert Lowell she lauds as his “central achievement” (xi). In the summer of 1972, disenchanted with Lowell’s poetry since For the Union Dead (1964) and increasingly intrigued by Continental theory in general and Russian Formalism in particular, Perloff was intellectually primed for a new departure. A chance encounter with an anthology put her on a new path. And helped change the course of American poetry criticism for the next forty years.
Perloff’s writing in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton University Press, 1981) is first and foremost addressed to resistant, uncomprehending, or skeptical readers. For a generation schooled in seeking and interpreting symbols in poetry, she proposes to delineate the pleasures of an Other Tradition that favors surfaces over depth and linguistic indeterminacy over symbolic coherence. One of the ways she wins over the reluctant reader is to show that the Other Tradition operates much more like a modern art than it does like a symbolist poetry. Speaking of Stein’s Susie Asado, for instance, she offers a comparison: “Just as Picasso’s structure of dismembered planes has no vanishing point, so Susie Asado has no fixed center; it becomes, in John Ashbery’s words, a ‘hymn to possibility’” (77). She follows this up with a statement that reveals her rhetorical designs: “Skeptical readers will object at this point, arguing that texts like Susie Asado are unnecessarily obscure, unreadable, and boring, and that Stein fails to communicate a coherent meaning to the reader.” To these readers — her own professors, reigning critics, or curious general readers — she offers a deliberate invitation and reasonable points of access to poetry that might seem to exclude them. This will remain her generous rhetorical stance throughout her career.
In certain ways, The Poetics of Indeterminacy moves in two opposite directions, from two fixed points of comparison a century apart: Rimbaud and Ashbery. Perloff nominates these two poets to exemplify the tradition of “indeterminacy” she is sketching out; they provide consistent points for comparison in the chapters devoted to other poets. This fundamental insight that Rimbaud and Ashbery share an indeterminate poetics serves to inaugurate a working method Perloff employs in many of her other books: she finds among poets separated in time or space analogous poetic innovations; these analogies then counter a normalizing literary history based on chronology or nation by substituting the formal dialogue she constructs among seemingly disconnected poets. To present Ashbery as the best critic of Stein, for instance, is to suggest that the Other Tradition is built by formal affinities and by the inspiration later poets find in earlier ones, rather than by national projects or by epochal determinants.
The Poetics of Indeterminacy is also an originary text in Perloff’s oeuvre in that it offers initial readings of her major touchstones: Stein, Williams, Duchamp, Pound, Beckett, Cage, and Antin. Throughout the corpus of her criticism, she returns to these figures as inaugurating or conceptualizing the parameters of poetry as a modern art. Over the years, as her restless attention shifts from art or philosophy to writers outside of English or to younger American, Canadian, and British poets, Perloff recurs to her touchstones to provide analogies for other innovative work. At the same time, she has become the foremost interpreter — interlocutor, really — of the poets loosely associated with Language writing and the digital, performance-based, conceptual, and constraint-bound writing that accompanies and extends it. By looking both to her touchstones and to the latest work, she extends the bidirectional method pioneered in The Poetics of Indeterminacy.
My first encounter with her prodigious and omnivorous intellect was at a lecture Perloff (then at University of Southern California) gave at Stanford University while she was writing The Poetics of Indeterminacy. I was beginning a dissertation on American prose poetry, seeking to show the ways in which the poet’s prose of Stein, Williams, Creeley, and Ashbery makes possible such outcomes as the New Sentence of Language poetry. I remember so clearly the look of recognition that passed like a lightning bolt between my director, Albert Gelpi, and me as Perloff began to explain what she had in mind as a poetics of indeterminacy. Gelpi and I both knew instantly that here was a kindred spirit for the discoveries I sought to articulate. And with characteristic graciousness, Perloff suggested during our excited interchange following her lecture that I send her chapters as they were written. That welcoming gesture inaugurated a career-long critical dialogue that is one of the most generative conversations I have known.
During a season of two-word movie titles with hard consonantal punch — Home Alone, Total Recall, Die Hard, Naked Gun — I listened to Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff pair other words to communicate the essence of her forthcoming book. Old terms — avant-garde, experimental, innovative — seemed worn out. So did the academically toned nuances of “studies,” “approaches,” or “investigations.” More tired were the residuals of the plague of postmodern “signs” of the “hetero-hegemonic” “(un)conscious” and other neo- and pseudologisms. How better to signal the wind change of 1980s poetics than by imitating the language styles abroad in media culture.
Radical Artifice (University of Chicago Press, 1994) took up the challenge of coming to terms with how, why, and to what effect the uses of media culture were changing the ground from which poetry emerged. Perloff addressed the syntactic and structural elements of these texts, not just thematics or linguistic motifs, to understand the role and place of poetry in a world where language was reinvented, recycled, banalized, produced, extruded, put into lights, taken down off the screen, put on display, flaunted, tarted up, and toned down in rapid refresh cycles of commerce and entertainment. The internet did not exist. The graphical user interface was still a pixilated screen space on a desktop computer. The beginnings of electronic literature as experiments in hyper-this-and-that circulated only on disks and CDs, whose production had a geeky technical character that put it all just out of reach of any but the dedicated codesters. My point? The megaburst of mass media from which the work studied in Radical Artifice had burgeoned forth was a post-WWII electronic and commercial wave of television, advertisement, large circulation glossy magazines, billboards, and film. Fueled by a feverish economic expansion, the language of media overtook all other forms of cultural expression. Nineteenth-century writers and early twentieth-century poets may have recognized the exhaustion that their own overstimulated psyches experienced in the face of posters layered onto hoardings, radio transmissions, and photographic images, films, and newspapers. But with each passing decade the increase in the sheer scale of visual-verbal-musical media culture was unprecedented. The question was not simply how the individual voice was to take shape in such a heteroglot linguistic field, but how, if it did, it might register and be heard at all.
In the 1970s, theoretically inclined poets in Canada, New York, the Bay Area, and elsewhere in the Anglophone world had embraced and embodied the tenets of Roland Barthes’s death of the author, constituting themselves as produced subjects and their texts as expressions of cultural processes. Conceptual work abounded, procedural in its methods of production, antilyrical, combinatoric, and methodologically formal, concerned with external structure rather than interior life. The techniques of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, the new sentence announced by Ron Silliman, poems made as lists or from restricted vocabularies, or improvised in performance to an unstructured line of associations and sounds — all were infused with a conceptual premise, that to make a contemporary work one went as far from emotional, perceptual, epiphanic experience as possible. Conceptual, minimalist, and procedural works had another feature in common — they eschewed the terms and terminology of mass media culture. Unlike pop art, and then hip hop, the edgy art and poetry of 1970s and 1980s was still committed to the notion of difficulty, of explorations esoteric and arcane that necessarily distinguished their zones of operation and methods of expression from the consumable pulp and pablum of mass media.
Modernism had engaged the vernacular, the individual voice freed from the constraints of literary formulations and prescriptive forms. But by the late twentieth century, the forces conspiring against poetic expression were not those of tradition and its conventions, but the tidal wave of consumable discourses let loose in the massive production machines of entertainment, commerce, and media. What was the role of poetry in such a world? Its identifiable features? Its methods and reasons for being? How to explain the many unreadable works of contemporary literature? Why write works so difficult they were almost illegible to a wide number of readers? Explanation and critical description are the critic’s task, but it took courage to champion the cause of the works examined in this volume when few academics ventured beyond the well-mapped territories of modernism, the Beats, and the New York school. Radical Artifice called attention to modes of expression at work in living poetic discourse, to show the method in their peculiar made-ness.
Form is resistant. In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in one of her more influential books, Radical Artifice: Poetry in the Age of Media (University of Chicago, 1994), “form exists only insofar as it is resistant.” This insistence on the materiality of textual form is one of Marjorie Perloff’s methodological and ideological constancies, one of her main critical vantage points. Form as cognate structure, context carrier, unfixed play, semantic regeneration. Thinking beyond the transcendent poet’s “voice” through to the complex sonorous ghosts of its inscriptions. Articulation of textual decipherabilities and mediated performance.
Bypassing genres and refusing the divisive separation between prose and poetry, Perloff’s unwavering restlessness towards what defines, and holds (back), writing today, “given the particular options (and nonoptions) of writing at the turn of the twenty-first century,” and more specifically her concern with the “formations and transformations of literary and artistic discourses today,” has made and kept her work vibrant and singular for more than two writing generations. The dreadful and morbid polarizations that have encamped and fossilized poetry scenes between lyric and nonlyric for most of the twentieth century are displaced by the way she defines the working parameters of poetry itself as “an alternate language system,” a thinking through of poetry’s application to language as a “cognate art.”
She envisages rule-based structures as values that extend and transpose the line, the verse, as poetic measure altogether. These also assist the analysis of nonverbal units as part of a textual frame. Through meticulous close readings, from Rimbaud to Bernstein, from O’Hara to Language Poets and on to Goldsmith, she examines and promotes the profound nature of “interferences in the reading process.” What could seem contradictory, she makes complementary. Her examinations of the graphic poetics of Cubist collage cohabit with her work on Brazilian Concrete poets, the textual compositions of John Cage, the “residuae” of Beckett, the archival poetics of Susan Howe, Christian Boltanski’s fictional documents, as well as commercial advertising and performative modes that operate beyond the page.
The main allies and travelling companions we find throughout her vast work are four iconic and indexical figures: “Duchamp,” “Stein,” “Klebnikov,” and “Cage,” nonreferential art, ordinary language and poetic literalism, verbivocovisual space, rule-based structures. They are the four wheels that in her work absorb the incoming methodologies of contemporary writing practices. Four wheels across the text’s broken glass. These have turned over her close readings and reflections, and have allowed for the critical inclusion of examples drawn from painting, collages, documentary photography, advertising, architecture, video installation, and sound composition, along with graphic and visual works. The aspects that make a text interdisciplinary are not only its intertextual criss-crossings but also the media and techniques used and its openness to knowledges explored.
More recently, the effect of externalized multilingual practices, which move radically away from the multilingual eruditions of “Pound-Eliot,” has teased her interest in new poetic practices and reverberates back to her suspicion of unified identity. This last point however is the one that in a final count remains where her argument is the least open, where her suspicion of historical identitarian impositions leads to a lack of interest in some of the performatively more radical and conducively “blind” (Brathwaite) poetics that have emerged as an investigation of colonialist and postcolonialist ideologies. Yet the sympathetic nature of her methodological concerns could easily favor the examination of poetic works that uses “identity” structurally while recognizing its ideological adhesions.
In Stein’s essay “What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them,” discussed by Perloff in her 21st Century Modernism: The New Poetics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), artforms must at crucial intervals start “doing something else.” The need arises when an artform’s habitat and social and symbolic conventions are radically upended by new social engines. In Stein’s piece, it is the very displacement of painting by mass communication (radio, newspapers, televisions, and advertising) and especially by the art of photography that robs the painter of their hold on description and realism. “There have been too many photographs,” hence the painter has to find another purpose for his work, “he has to say that he does something else.” Whether he does it, or says that he does it, or does that he says it, is a difference of variables familiar to Steinian equations. Marjorie Perloff insists and shows how poetry has long been doing something else, and crystallizes it with this marvelous statement: “poetry now being the discourse that defers reading.” Her commitment to elucidating this fascinating conundrum confirms that in an epoch of intense technological melee and the increased viability of audiovisual literacies, poetry finds itself treating the transformations and apperceptions of reading habits as its something else. Saying so, saying that it does so, it turns and plows vast new existential terrains for its mysterious mediations.
Her work has inspired my practice.