The contemporary of our grandchildren

A view from the eighties

Marjorie Perloff at the University of Alabama's "What is a Poet?" symposium in 1984.

My friendship with Marjorie dates back to the early eighties — and, more specifically, to two Ezra Pound conferences, the first held at the University of Maine–Orono (where we sat together listening to Basil Bunting recite his “Briggflats”), and the second at Sheffield University (William Empson’s old redoubt and home that year of the World Snooker Championship). We immediately hit it off, especially upon discovering that we shared a mentor in common in the person of Craig La Driere. The latter had been my professor at Harvard — an elderly, chain-smoking figure of impeccable attire and academic etiquette, one of Pound’s “I Vechii” (“They will come no more, / The old men with beautiful manners”). Although his health was already seriously in decline, over the course of the required proseminar in comparative literature he had still managed to transmit his encyclopedic knowledge of the Russian formalists, the Prague School, and the latest (still-vanguard in 1970) work in structuralist poetics to a small cohort of first-year grad students. Legend had it that he was also one of the world’s greatest authorities on prosody: his twenty-one columns of dense, learned analysis of “Prosodic Notation” and “Prosody” in the 1965 Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics still make for daunting reading. The author of a notable essay on “Structure, Sound, and Meaning” published in Northrup Frye’s Sound and Poetry (1957), La Driere, it turned out, had in the mid-sixties also directed Marjorie’s doctoral dissertation on Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970) at the Catholic University in Washington, DC, instructing her in the art of listening to the page — still her finest skill as a critic. From Marjorie’s earliest prosodic mappings of “free verse” and “free prose” (using her trusty Trager-Smith system of notation) to her recent edited volume with Craig Dworkin, The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (University of Chicago, 2009), I sense the tutelary presence of this old-school formalist behind all her work.

The other primary advisor of Marjorie’s Yeats thesis was Giovanni Giovannini, a more dyed-in-the wool Poundista who schooled her in the Imagist Do’s and Don’ts and the Ideogrammic Method. Together, these two Catholic University scholars provided il miglior fabbro with a crucial academic lifeline (i.e. access to library books or native Chinese speakers) during the latter’s thirteen years of internment at what was then locally known as “St. E’s” (the Federal Hospital for the Criminally Insane, now converted — such is the genius of place — into the new headquarters of Homeland Security). Marjorie, however, never accompanied her two mentors on their regular visits to EP in the “bughouse” (as he called it); she has written in a recent memoir that she was put off by his politics and his anti-Semitism — two topics (it occurs to me now) that we have never really seriously broached over the course of our thirty years of intellectual exchange. In fact, it would take her another decade before she began to seriously address Pound’s work: her early critical writing deals largely with those “post-symbolist” and “confessional” poets she would later so polemically reject — Yeats, Stevens, Lowell, and Plath. Having made a crucial (and clearly career-changing) transit through the work and (visual) world of Frank O’Hara — one that led to her lifelong friendship with John Ashbery, and via him, to the discovery of that “Other Tradition” represented by such figures as John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Merce Cunningham — Marjorie returned to her Catholic University Pound beginnings in a pathbreaking essay, “Pound and Rimbaud: The Retreat from Symbolism,” published in the Iowa Review in 1975, a piece that would provide the core of her The Poetics of Interderminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton, 1981).

This was the Marjorie whom I had been reading and admiring when we met at the Sheffield conference — where she delivered her memorable “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era” and I presented my “Dada Pound.” We immediately recognized that we were both working the same side of the aisle: to resituate, in the wake of Kenner and Davenport, Pound’s work within the broader comparative (and Continental) contexts of early twentieth-century modernism and the avant-garde. While Marjorie was committed to what in retrospect looks like a slightly over-Manichean division of modernism into a post-symbolist strain (Yeats, Eliot, Stevens) and a Rimbaud-inspired constructivist, antilyrical “poetics of indeterminacy” (Stein, Williams, Beckett, Ashbery, Cage), I had in my monograph on Pound and Remy de Gourmont (Instigations, 1978) instead wanted to explore the complex continuities between the French fin-de-siècle and the emergence of what Apollinaire called l’Esprit Nouveau — a kind of dialectical persistence of the past within the erasures of the present that appears far more evidently in Marjorie’s brilliant The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture of 1986 (where she returns to Pound in a chapter on “The Prose Tradition in Verse”).

Among Marjorie’s remarkable spate of books from the eighties, however, the one I return to most frequently is The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Pound Tradition (University of Chicago, 1985). I still read with pleasure the sideswipes at Bloom-Vendler-Kermode in her “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” — an influential foray into prose de combat that did much to fuel the great Poetry Wars of the eighties, though now that we all live the Ashbery Era (i.e. at once post-Stevens and post–avant-garde), its dichotomies perhaps play out less saliently today. I still assign my students her reading of Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska as a “collage manifesto” (which well describes her own best work as critic as well — the ideogrammic display of illustrative texts in the service of a passionate argument for the New). Her minute readings of the linebreaks of Williams and Oppen remain models of sheer inspective energy and should be required reading for young poets. And her final chapter on “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties” reminds us all just how unfailingly generous she has been to les jeunes over her entire career. 

Pound observed that criticism has two functions: 1) “Theoretically it tries to forerun composition, to serve as a gunsight,” and 2) “Excernement. The ordering of knowledge so that the next man (or generation) can most readily find the live part of it, and waste the least possible time among obsolete issues.” For these reasons as a critic Marjorie remains (as Kenner said of Pound) “The Contemporary of our Grandchildren.”

On 'The Poetics of Indeterminacy'

In the early 1980s I was asked to review Marjorie Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminacy (Princeton, 1981) for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I had not yet met Perloff, though I knew her Frank O’Hara book and had seen her in action as the only female panelist at an intensely intimate NEH sponsored conference at the Folger Library in Washington, DC. It was 1979 and my memory of the event, “After the Flood: Directions in Contemporary Poetry,” is one of jousting egos and strategic accord among the other five: Harold Bloom, Donald Davie, John Hollander, Richard Howard, and Stanley Plumly. A contentious affair, it was surprising to later read an account that called it a scene of critical unanimity. Perhaps that would have been more or less true had Marjorie Perloff not been there. She, in fact, took on the old boys — present and spectral — in her insistence that there was more of interest in the varied field of contemporary poetry than they were considering, or that was apparent in “mainstream” poetry venues. She lambasted, with detailed descriptive analysis, the empty predictability of the workshop-honed, weakly Symbolist poem — arguing for the importance of the kind of complexity and indeterminacy she would foreground and defend in her landmark volume two years later. The old boys (impossible to see the smugness, irascibility, and condescension they variously exhibited any other way) were hard on her — at times, scornful. Perloff, who happened to be on the right side of a history she would increasingly help to illuminate, did not back off in the least. Amusingly, she and Bloom did agree on the importance of the fresh, contentious work of John Ashbery, but for quite different reasons.

The Poetics of Indeterminacy
was a clarifying, critically revolutionary, model-changing intervention into tired prejudices and oversimplifications (one being the image of “mainstream” itself) that fueled disputes like the one at the Folger. The assumption of a single set of criteria identifying a single canonical trajectory was and still is, for anyone who reads this book, convincingly dispensed with. In its place is not only a richly complicated genealogy but an argument for still emerging values and principles of composition that would radically transform the sense of what a poem could be over the next four decades. From Perloff’s preface:

What we loosely call “Modernism” in Anglo-American poetry is really made up of two separate though often interwoven strands: the Symbolist mode that Lowell inherited from Eliot and Baudelaire and, beyond them, from the great Romantic poets, and the “anti-Symbolist” mode of indeterminacy or “undecidability,” of literalness and free play, whose first real exemplar was the Rimbaud of the Illuminations. While some of the ideas that went into this study were crystallizing, I accepted an assignment to write a book on the poetry of Frank O’Hara. This particular project, completed in 1977, reenforced my conviction that we cannot really come to terms with the major poetic experiments occurring in our own time without some understanding of what we might call “the French connection” — the line that goes from Rimbaud to Stein, Pound, and Williams by way of Cubist, Dada, and early Surrealist art, a line that also includes the great French/English verbal compositions of Beckett. It is this “other tradition” (I take the phrase from the title of a poem by John Ashbery) in twentieth-century poetry that is the subject of my book.[1]

The book proceeds to give lively accounts of the anti- and non-Symbolist poetics of all of the above as well as, in the final chapter, John Cage and David Antin, even providing a refreshing view of The Waste Land — while contrasting its Symbolist preoccupations with Ashbery’s “Lacustrine” indeterminacy — as too complexly composed to merit reductive one-to-one parsing of references and images. This observation, early in the book, importantly signals the absence of any bid for a new orthodoxy. The rising understanding of indeterminacy (including its everyday significance in our lives: see complexity/chaos theory) could be taken as just replacement for the oppressive Symbolist hegemony that refused to grant its significance, but Perloff — with all her fervor for the new — began as a Yeats scholar. She’s not out to vanquish tradition but to show its multiplicity. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy Perloff'’s animated scholarly erudition and love of the literature she has championed takes her far beyond polemics. Her 1986 The Futurist Moment is another historically brilliant case in point.

Perloff’s many titles subsequent to the still essential Poetics of Indeterminacy represent a widening investigation of its central claims, most recently attending to other emerging poetics. What I’ve found in my decades of teaching since first reading this book is that the conviction that there is an entity called “poem” with a discrete essence one should be able to discern and evaluate according to universal aesthetic principles continues to be widespread. Most students enter college with it. What’s needed is thoughtfully inventive pedagogy. With that, The Poetics of Indeterminacy remains the best introduction I know to the roots of Euro-Anglo (and vice versa) Modernism, Postmodernism, and the yet unclassified happening before our eyes in only partial visibility. 


[1] Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), vii.

Sound bytes and computer blips

Marjorie Perloff's electronic world

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media pivots on a seven-word manifesto: “The poet’s arena,” Perloff declares, “is the electronic world.”[1] A key move in a long career, what backs this claim? What leads forward from it? How does it fare in the thoroughly mediated, digitized, networked, and programmable world we currently inhabit?

Although by no means an obvious pair even now, two decades ago poetry and the electronic world were as odd a combination as Lautréamont’s sewing machine and umbrella. In 1991, poetry retained an aura of sanctity sufficient to prompt US poet laureate Joseph Brodsky to propose that a poetry anthology be placed beside the Bible and phonebook in every hotel room in the country.[2] In the same year, in what seems a far-off galaxy of greenscreen prompt lines, the University of Minnesota introduced the Gopher browser plugin that allowed users to send, search, and retrieve documents over a pre-World-Wide-Web Internet. Scholars — even new media scholars like Friedrich Kittler, whose Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford University Press) appeared in English in 1991 — had barely begun to link the worlds of poetry and electronics. No one had yet declared that one was the arena of the other.

Although the components and circuits that populate Radical Artifice — among them, dial-up modems, CompuServe information services, the control-G button, and a newly-identified disorder called “computer anxiety” — now seem as retro as big yellow phonebooks, Perloff’s point has not only held but grown increasingly pressing as its emphasis has turned from mediated “sound bytes” (xiii) to the digital logics of writing in an age of information.[3]

Most manifestoes start with a slap and end with an endorsement. In 1991, Perloff’s slap was for the speech-based, image-driven, late-Romantic lyric that maintains an “authentic self” for postindustrial consumer culture. The poetized “sound bytes” of this expressivist enterprise hawk, Perloff continues, are the very same TV talk show, electronic billboard, “real life,” “natural language” confessions and pontifications it pretends to scorn.

This boisterous polemic is not, for Perloff, a skirmish but a protracted battle in which she has consistently backed, with exegetical brilliance, the complex and varied forces of “radical artifice.” Poetry as making, as praxis — the work of urban, technological, multilinguistic Futurists, Concretists, Oulipeans, and Language writers — contests the slackness of mediated enterprises. Its arena is a site of combat; its tenor, resistance; its lineage, a century of artificers at work both on and off the page.

Blinking steadily in the background of Radical Artifice, however, was a second, more productive sector of the electronic world: the “computer blips” that signal the digital substructure of contemporary global culture, economics, and politics, and, as Perloff argues in Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago, 2010), instigate its most compelling poetics. Although computers are central to both books, Radical Artifice focuses on the graphic interface of the screen while Unoriginal Genius descends toward the operating system’s algorithmic imagination and database logic.[4] “The revolution that … occurred [soon after 1990],” Unoriginal Genius begins, “was not in writing for the computer screen but in [learning to navigate] an environment of hyperinformation” (xi).

Midway between Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius, Perloff’s brief but astute review of Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2002) emphasizes his principles of digital cognition: numerical coding, modularity, automation, variability, and cultural transcoding.[5] These ideas propel Perloff not, as one might expect, toward contemporary new media poetics or even media theory but rather toward the buoyantly differential poetics of the post-desktop, information-rich, networked, multimedial, and polylinguistic world of ubiquitous computing.[6] Cutting and pasting, appropriating, sampling, framing, and recycling, this poetics of procedure and citation drives the work of such writers as Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place. Linear thinking dies hard, but the strength of Perloff’s engagement with the meaning-making procedures of these successors to Cage, Duchamp, and Warhol is its turn toward the arts and techniques of non-linear thinking in an age of information.



[1] Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xiii.

[2] Joseph Brodsky, “An Immodest Proposal,” The New Republic, November 11, 1991, 31–36.

[3] To determine your score on 1989’s Computer Anxiety Scale, click here.

[4] “Perhaps,” Perloff speculates in Radical Artifice, “it would be more useful to work the other way around and to consider, more closely than we usually do, what really happens … at the computer terminal” (15).

[5] Originally published in Common Knowledge 9, no. 1 (2003): 157–58. Perloff’s review is available here.

[6] For an example of Perloff’s attention to new media poems such as Brian Kim Stefans’s Dreamlife of Letters, see Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Morris and Swiss (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2006), 143–64.

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.