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Marjorie Perloff: A bibliographic essay

Perloff lecturing in 1965. Image courtesy of Marjorie Perloff.

With her work now spanning over four decades of publication, the preeminent critic and scholar Marjorie Perloff has amassed a body of writing on avant-garde/experimental poetics, modernism, postmodernism, pedagogy, and a host of other topics that remains at once complex and accessible, insightful and provocative. She has championed dozens of marginalized writers and artists whose difficult or seemingly indecipherable work has aroused the castigation or neglect of other established literary critics; her essays thus frequently target those very academics, artists, and institutions whose assumptions and structural deficiencies reveal a bias toward aesthetic conservatism. She has also continued a legacy of criticism whose practitioners, Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner among them, utilized their distinct critical voices to investigate and contextualize various literary subjects. Her work, however, brings such methods into a climate distinguished by its post-postmodernism and techno-centricity, whose myriad indeterminacies and conceptualisms have complicated the “mot juste” of modernism (“The Fascination of What’s Difficult: Emily Dickinson and the Theory Canon”). In this way, she has formulated not so much a literary canon as a set of historical and cultural contingencies that — like many of her subjects — feed into and complicate one another. For an apt and comprehensive overview of Perloff’s career, one would do well to start with Peter Barry’s entry in The Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism (1999).

For an experienced reader of Perloff’s work, the intentional interconnectedness of her books, essays, reviews, and interviews at once deepen her pedagogical and polemical inclinations while anticipating the very “digital tunnels” and networked experimentalisms she has elucidated in her most recent book, Unoriginal Genius (2010). However, an uninitiated reader may find such an oeuvre daunting — especially if s/he is researching a specific figure within the scope of Perloff’s bibliography. Indeed, a single essay might touch on Goethe, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery, and many others, as is the case in her essay “Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms: Metrical ‘Choice’ and Historical Formation” (1998). In this bibliographic essay, I will attempt to group Perloff’s writings by their major themes and figures; I will arrange them in loosely chronological order (i.e. romantic/premodern subjects followed by modernist subjects, etc.), ending with a grouping of her works on pedagogy and poetics. Though I will deploy terms such as “modernism” and “postmodernism” to differentiate historical periods, my intent is that they provide flexible frameworks rather than strict delineations.

Because much of Perloff’s work is freely available online, I have provided links when possible. This essay will ideally serve as a sort of “living document” that can be updated with respect to Perloff’s future publications, and/or refined according to the suggestions of other Perloff scholars. To aid readability, I have only included partial information regarding the publication of each essay, book, review, or interview cited. For more information, please refer to the bibliography at the conclusion of this essay.

Modernist inceptions: Goethe/Yeats

Although Marjorie Perloff’s knowledge of literary history is remarkably vast, most of her work, as we shall see, addresses topics related to twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature. There are, however, two major figures to whom she has dedicated a good deal of attention, and who could feasibly be characterized as romantic or premodern: William Butler Yeats and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Indeed, one of her earlier works, “Yeats and Goethe” (1971), explores the Goethe’s influence on the famous Irish poet. Perhaps even more tellingly, Perloff’s first published book, Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970), deals exclusively with Yeats and the formal implications presented by his work; an essay published in 1995, “Teaching Yeats’s Sound Structures,” would echo that text’s themes. Dated even earlier than Rhyme and Meaning, “Yeats and the Occasional Poem: ‘Easter, 1916’” (1968), provides an in-depth reading of that famous war poem, and predates her 2005 contribution to The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, “‘Easter, 1916’: Yeats’s First World War Poem.” An analysis of Yeats’s “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” “‘Another Emblem There’: Theme and Convention in Yeats's ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’” (1970), marks another early exploration of Yeats’s poetics; this interest in Yeats’s individual poems was reiterated yet again in 2007 with “How to Read a Poem: W. B. Yeats’s ‘After Long Silence.’” “‘The Tradition of Myself’: The Autobiographical Mode of Yeats” (1975) explores the connections between Yeats’s personal life and writing, and represents an early inception of Perloff’s interest in personal/cultural histories as filtered through literature and art. In the more recent “‘An Image from a Past Life’: Beckett’s Yeatsian Turn” (2007), Yeats serves as a lens through which to read Beckett’s notion of failure. One might also turn to her booklength study of Pound’s influence, Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985), in which Yeats — one of Pound’s early masters — makes several appearances throughout the essays comprising that collection.

Her major essays on Goethe date from around the same period (late ’60s/early ’70s) as those on Yeats, the most notable of which are “The Autobiographical Mode of Goethe: Dichtung und Wahrheit and the Lyric Poems” (1970) and “The Challenge of the German Lyric: Goethe and Heine in Translation” (1983). Goethe also becomes entangled with a more personal context in the second essay/chapter of Vienna Paradox (2003), “German by the Grace of Goethe” (73–120), in which Germany’s allegiance to its literary hero complicates histories both filial and national.

Modernism (early twentieth century)

Though it is perhaps anachronistic to divide Yeats and Goethe as such from early modernism, they do allow an opening into the broader spectrum of Perloff’s thematic concerns, many of which open with those writers and artists operating in the early twentieth century. Of these figures, one of the most imperative to Perloff’s work is Ezra Pound. An entire book, the aforementioned Dance of the Intellect, is dedicated not only to Pound’s writing, but even more so, to his influence across the century. The essays contained in this volume, including such titles as “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” and “Postmodernism and the Impasse of Lyric,” provide an expansive reading of Pound’s enigmatic poetics, criticism, and correspondence. However, Dance of the Intellect is by no means the end-all of Perloff’s writing on Pound. Like Cage, Duchamp, and many others, he is a frequently recurring character throughout her criticism. One might turn to such essays as “The Search for ‘Prime Words’: Pound, Duchamp, and the Nominalist Ethos” (2001) and “Pound and Rimbaud: The Retreat from Symbolism” (1975). “The Contemporary of our Grandchildren: Pound’s Influence” (1985) further explores the depth and complexity of Pound’s lingering prominence in various poetries old and (made) new.

It is from Pound that we might begin to confront the dilemmas of innovation and community in early modernism/avant-garde culture. Perloff has written a good deal on then-nascent avant movements like Cubism, Dadaism, and, perhaps most pronouncedly, Futurism. Doubtless, the most cohesive booklength study by Perloff on modernism is filtered through Marinetti’s infamous movement in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1985/2003), which contains essays such as “The Invention of Collage” (1983) and “Violence and Precision: The Manifesto as Artform” (1984), both apt introductions to the currents of the early European avant-garde and its machinic impulses. Outside of The Futurist Moment, “Why Futurism Now?” (1988), “‘Grammar in Use’: Wittgenstein/Gertrude Stein/Marinetti” (1996), and “The First Futurist Manifesto Revisited” (2007) all serve to augment her explorations of the Futurists’/early modernists’ artistic practices.

The essays “Cubist Collaboration/Abstract Assemblage: The Avant-Garde Artist’s Book” (2008) and “Collage and Poetry” (1998) further bespeak an interest both in the specific contexts and legacies permeating European and American avant-garde practices. Part of the difficulty in locating a “definitive” Perloff work on modernism lies in the fact that her essays are often quite specific to movements or figures; however, one might turn to “The Aura of Modernism” (2005) or “Epilogue, Modernism Now” in Bradshaw and Dettmar’s A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture (2006) for contemporary takes on the consequences and ongoing problems presented by modernism. One could turn also to “‘The Renaissance of 1910’: Reflections on Guy Davenport’s Poetics” (2006) or “Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism” (2005) for brief historical analyses conducted via these two influential critics. “The Pursuit of Number: Yeats, Khlebnikov, and the Mathematics of the Modern” contained in Poetic License (1990) and “Playing the Numbers: The French Reception of Louis Zukofsky” (2006) touch on mathematics as a syntactical tool in early modernism.

As the title of Perloff’s 1994 book Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media would suggest, many of these takes on early modernism/avant-garde movements are shaped by considerations of technology, a field that rapidly expanded through the twentieth century. Citation, appropriation, assemblage, and other practices are all at least partially indebted to a Benjaminian sense of art and culture being shaped by its media environment. Radical Artifice, The Futurist Moment, and Unoriginal Genius are the exemplary books on this thematic front. As we shall see, Perloff’s investigations of Beckett, Language writing, and Conceptual poetics all involve technology as a formative artistic/literary device; within the purview of early modernism, such an idea might best be apprehended first via Marcel Duchamp.

For Perloff, Duchamp stands as one of the most important figures in twentieth-century art and literature. His mutinous innovations and deceptively playful spirit are both of great importance to Perloff; “Duchamp’s conceptualism is best understood, not as the negation of ‘art’ as such, but as the drive to render unto art the things that are art — which is to say, the realm of the mind as well as the eye, the realm of ideas and intellect as well as visual image,” she writes in “The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp” (2002) — perhaps the best introduction to her writing on him (83). The aforementioned essay “The Search for ‘Prime Words’” on Pound and Duchamp also serves to connect their pioneering art to larger modernist currents. However, because Duchamp posed such a massive problem for the avant-garde artists that follow him, many of these essays focus instead on his relation to specific artists and movements. “A Duchamp Unto Myself: Writing Through Marcel” (1994), which appears in Perloff’s coedited collection of essays, John Cage: Composed in America, explores Cage’s difficult relationship with Duchamp and his work. “Dada Without Duchamp / Duchamp Without Dada: Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1999) finds Perloff investigating Duchamp’s fraught history with the Dadaists in personal, aesthetic, and historical terms. “Avant Garde and Difference: Duchamp and the Russian Avant-Garde” (1991), “But isn’t the same at least the same?: Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and the Infra-Thin” (2001), and “Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp” (1996) bring Duchamp into conversation with a more international avant-garde that stretches across continental boundaries. Finally, “Duchamp’s Eliot: The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of the Individual Talent” (2007), which appears in Canci and Harding’s T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, utilizes the modernist theme of individuality to link the artist and poet.

Like Pound and Duchamp, Eliot casts a broad shadow over both his fellow modernists and future generations of writers. “Avant-Garde Eliot” (2002) explores both the connections and aporias in Eliot’s relationship with his contemporaries; in the introduction to Unoriginal Genius, “The Wasteland” — along with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project — serves as a sort of guiding citational spirit for the other poets and literary works discussed therein. In hindsight, it represents a turn toward the machinic and manifesto-driven art that so distinguishes the early avant-garde.

Two other major literary figures of the early twentieth century play significant roles in Perloff’s work, and will serve as salient benchmarks in her engagement with later writers: Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. Stein in particular seems a substantial touchpoint for Perloff; to be sure, Stein’s influence on the likes of John Cage, Language writing, and Conceptual poetry cannot be overlooked. One might turn to “‘A Fine New Kind of Realism’: Six Stein Styles in Search of a Reader” (1990) in Poetic License, “‘Grammar in Use’: Wittgenstein/Gertrude Stein/Marinetti” (1996) in Wittgenstein’s Ladder, “Poetry as Word-System: The Art of Gertrude Stein” (1979), “Abstraction and Unreadability” (2011), “The Difference is Spreading: Gertrude Stein” (2007), the aforementioned “Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp” (1996), “(Im)personating Gertrude Stein” (1988), and “Gertrude Stein’s Differential Syntax” (2002). William Carlos Williams also makes two notable appearances in Perloff’s books: “‘Lines Converging and Crossing’: The ‘French’ Decade of William Carlos Williams” (1981) in The Poetics of Indeterminacy and “‘To Give a Design’: Williams and the Visualization of Poetry” in Dance of the Intellect. “The Stain of Love and the Fallen Leaf: The Displacements of Desire in Williams’s Early Poetry” (1993) and “The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams” (1980) both focus on specific styles within the broader scope of Williams’s influential work. Like Pound and Stein, he will make many cameos in Perloff’s future essays (“The Radical Poetics of Robert Creeley” [2007], to give one example).

One final figure of great importance to Perloff’s work — and who might represent an apt bridge between the early and mid-twentieth century — is Ludwig Wittgenstein. While Perloff’s engagement with specific philosophers is typically contingent upon the poets they inspired, Wittgenstein remains an exception. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996) examines the philosopher’s influence (conscious or otherwise) on a number of literary innovators, including Stein, Beckett, Cage, and Thomas Bernhard. Elsewhere, numerous essays further explore Wittgenstein’s work with language, and, more generally, his life and legacy. These essays include “But Isn’t the Same at Least the Same?: Wittgenstein and the Question of Poetic Translatability” (2004), “The Poetics of Description: Wittgenstein on the Aesthetic” (2003), “Writing Philosophy as Poetry: Wittgenstein’s Literary Syntax” (2009), “Toward a Wittgensteinian Poetics” (1992), and “From Theory to Grammar: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetic of the Ordinary” (1994), all of which explore the poetics in and about Wittgenstein’s writing and philosophy. A more jocular application of Wittgenstein can be found in the essay “Sex, Lies, and First Ladies: A Modest (Wittgensteinian) Proposal” (1998), which utilizes the philosopher as a means of reading of Bill Clinton’s 1998 testimony regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Modernism (mid-twentieth century)

As the twentieth century unfolded, its various movements sparkling and fading, its various developments dispersed or reified, America began to witness a slew of new poetic sensibilities, from the confessional and imagistic lyricism of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath to the experimental projections of Black Mountain to the playful and exuberant New York School. Writers like Samuel Beckett sustained linguistic paradoxes raised by Wittgenstein and Duchamp; the Beats inherited a surrealism suffused with social consciousness. Perhaps most importantly (at least in the spectrum of Perloff’s writing), John Cage emerged as a powerful and inspiring force for musicians, artists, and writers. His work evolved Duchamp’s concerns, combining them with aspects of eastern philosophy, including chance operation, indeterminacy, and absence. It is through these movements that we might first glimpse something like postmodernism or Conceptualism — artists both fractured and networked, emphasizing context and content.

While many other contemporaneous movements (e.g. New York School, Black Mountain) are remembered as more communal affairs, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath today appear decidedly individualistic, even in the milieu of “confessional poetry.” This is not to suggest that they are isolated; they do, however, appear to carry on a certain legacy of modernism’s respect for the past and romanticism’s proclivity towards introspection. Indeed, one of Perloff’s earliest books is dedicated entirely to Lowell: The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973), which contains both polemic and formal approaches to Lowell’s oeuvre. As a sort of bookend to her Lowell study, a review of his Collected Poems, entitled “The Return of Robert Lowell,” was published in 2004. The book and the review make for a good pairing, with the latter providing significant scholarly and personal reflection on over thirty years spent with Lowell’s writing. Contained within Poetic Art, “The Voice of the Poet: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell” (1967) provides one such example of a specific reading akin to her work with individual Yeats poems. “Fearlessly Holding Back Nothing: Robert Lowell’s Last Poems” (1980) further addresses Lowell’s output, while “Poètes Maudits of the Genteel Tradition (Robert Lowell and John Berryman)” situates Lowell in a longer lineage of poetic practices. For more discussion of specific Lowell poems, see “A Critical Exchange on Selected Poems by Robert Lowell,” conducted between Perloff and David Wojahn and published in 2007.

Similar to her essays on Yeats and Lowell, most of Perloff’s writing on Sylvia Plath either provides a specific reading of one of Plath’s works, or situates her legacy in a broader historical/academic context. “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Sivvy’ Poems: A Portrait of the Poet as Daughter” (1979), “‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice’: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar” (1972), “On the Road to Ariel: The Transitional Poetry of Sylvia Plath” (1973), and “On Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’” (1975) are instances of the former; “The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon” (1984) and “Extremist Poetry: Some Versions of the Sylvia Plath Myth” (1973), the latter. “Angst and Animism in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath” (1970) stands as an exception to these two categories, providing a wider thematic vantage point on Plath’s poetics.

Around the time that poets like Lowell, Plath, and Berryman were writing some of their most well known works, a more directly community-driven group of poets was springing up in North Carolina, centered at the experimental arts school Black Mountain College. Its faculty boasted some of the most progressive artists and writers of its time, including John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and Aaron Siskind. Of the poets operating out of BMC (excluding Cage), Perloff has focused most on Creeley and Olson. The latter of these two poets serves as the subject of a relatively early essay, “Charles Olson and the ‘Inferior Predecessors’: Projective Verse Revisited” (1973). Meanwhile, two more recent essays on Creeley, “The Radical Poetics of Robert Creeley” (2007) and “Robert Creeley Out of School: The Making of a Singular Poetics” (2010), provide more holistic readings of Creeley’s writing career. “Robert Creeley’s Windows (2002) and “Four Times Five: Robert Creeley’s The Island” (1978) focus on specific books.

However, Perloff’s favorite subjects of the mid-twentieth century are by no means confined to America. Samuel Beckett remains a writer of great importance to Perloff’s historical-aesthetic narrative of the avant-garde’s development; his deep language games and exophonic subtleties — “his way of not-saying and yet saying” — at once destabilized the boundaries of prose and poetry while evoking poets, philosophers, and satirists of the past (“In Love With Hiding: Samuel Beckett’s War,” 27). “Witt-Watt: The Language of Resistance/The Resistance of Language” (1996), contained in Wittgenstein’s Ladder, explores the philosopher’s influence on Beckett’s work — and in particular — his novel Watt. Perloff has written several notable essays — “Between Verse and Prose: Beckett and the New Poetry” (1982), “Beckett the Poet” (2010), and “Between the Shingle and the Dune: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett” (1978) — on Beckett’s poetics, disputing in part its frequent relegation to the realm of “fiction” or “drama.” This argument has subsequently produced some of Perloff’s rare essays on music, “The Beckett/Feldman Radio Collaboration: Words and Music as Hörspiel” (2003) and “The Silence that Is Not Silence: Acoustic Art in Beckett’s Embers (1999) being key examples. “Beckett in the Country of the Houyhnhnms: The Inward Turn of Swiftian Satire” (2008) relates Beckett to one of his Irish forebears, while “Light Silence: Dark Speech: Reading Johns’s Images, Seeing Beckett’s Language in Foirades/Fizzles” (2002) scrutinizes connections between Beckett’s writing and the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Jasper Johns.

New York School

While these varied strains of avant-garde practices were occurring in the 1940s and ’50s, another wholly distinct movement, comprised of poets, artists, and dancers, was coalescing in New York. Poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest began working with a new poetic vernacular infused with the bustling images of New York and privileging spontaneity over careful construction. Of the poets involved with the New York School, Frank O’Hara has undoubtedly earned the majority of Perloff’s attention; her early book Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977, reprint 1998) brings together several essays that — as we have seen in dozens of other examples — place O’Hara in the context of his New York milieu, a city rife with ambitious experimental visual artists, while examining the evolution of his writing chronologically. The book contains most of her major essays on O’Hara, though a few others are worth mentioning here: “Alterable Noons: The poèmes élastiques of Blaise Cendrars and Frank O’Hara” (1988) and “‘The Ecstasy of Always Bursting Forth!’: Rereading Frank O’Hara” (2008) provide post-Painters readings of O’Hara’s work, the former in relation to the Swiss-Franco modernist. “Watchman, Spy, and Dead Man: Johns, O’Hara, Cage and the ‘Aesthetic of Indifference’” (2001) and “‘Transparent Selves’: The Poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara” (1978) also serve to further contextualize O’Hara amongst figures in his social circle. Within the purview of that scene, one might also turn to Perloff’s essays on John Ashbery: “Normalizing John Ashbery” (2001) and a review, “Still Time for Surprises: John Ashbery’s Recent Books” (2001), approach the famous American poet’s work across a career that has spanned far more time than O’Hara’s.

Though mostly peripheral to the New York School, the Beat movement is perhaps still more well known today. Perloff’s oeuvre is largely devoid of writing on that movement, with the exception of Allen Ginsberg. For Perloff, “Howl” stands as a tremendously important poem of its time, with “America” playing a more comic counterpart. The aforementioned “A Step Away from Them” provides a glimpse into the social conflicts surrounding these poems, while “‘A Lost Batallion of Platonic Conversationalists’: ‘Howl’ and the Language of Modernism” focuses on Ginsberg’s hugely popular book. “A Lion in Our Living Room: On Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems” (1985) takes a more expansive approach to Ginsberg’s work. An interview with Kurt Kline, entitled “Who’s Wearing the Pants? Marjorie Perloff on Ginsberg and the Beats,” was published in 1994.

John Cage

John Cage endures as a crucial figure to any reading of Perloff’s criticism. His musical, artistic, and literary innovations seem an apt point of convergence between Perloff’s interest in earlier modernists like Duchamp and Wittgenstein and contemporary poets like Kenneth Goldsmith and David Antin. Like several other writers/artists mentioned in this essay, it would be difficult to catalog every instance of Cage in Perloff’s writing; instead, I will provide those sources most apposite and/or readily available to an uninitiated reader.

Perloff and Charles Junkerman coedited a collection of essays on Cage, subtitled Composed in America (1994) [1], and collaborated on its introduction. While Perloff’s only other piece is the aforementioned “A Duchamp Unto Myself,” the book brings together a host of essays on Cage’s various projects. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981) utilizes Cage as a sort of apotheosis of certain trends in modernism; across eight essays Perloff implies a lineage of indeterminate approaches to the production of content and new techniques, ending with “‘No More Margins’: John Cage, David Antin, and the Poetry of Performance” (1981), an affirmation of the performative potential of such practices; in this vein, one might turn to “John Cage’s Living Theater” (2006). “Cage: Chance: Change” (1994), which appears in Radical Artifice, and “Music for Words Perhaps: Reading/Hearing/Seeing John Cage’s Roaratorio” (1987) both read particular Cage works through the wider scope of his nuanced practice(s). “The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage’s ‘What you Say’” (1997) further highlights the overlapping qualities of Cage’s musical and textual works, while “‘Unimpededness and Interpenetration’: The Poetic of John Cage” (1982) more specifically explores his poetic sensibilities. Finally, “The Portrait of the Artist as Collage Text: Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska and the ‘Italic’ Texts of John Cage” (1982) makes a move similar to her essay on Beckett’s Yeats influence; here, older sources of experimentation — in this case, Pound — are unexpectedly brought into conversation with a contemporary mode of creation.

Postmodernism (late twentieth century/early twenty-first century)

Having rounded out the mid-twentieth century with Cage, whose work continues to serve as a touchstone for many artists that have followed, and who — to be sure — continued working until his death in the 1990s, we shall proceed into the murkier waters of “postmodernism,” a term whose deceptive singularity belies a vast number of styles, practices, and polemics, many of which are often in contradiction with one another. The mere title of Perloff’s Postmodern Genres suggests this multiplicity, but her criticism goes further, arguing that the “tired dichotomies” of modernism and postmodernism obscure the more subtle shifts and developments of experimentation and avant-garde styles (21st-Century Modernism, 1). To quote further: “what interests me is the unfulfilled promise of the modernist (as of the classical) poetic impulse in so much of what passes for poetry today — a poetry singularly unambitious in its attitude to the materiality of the text, to what Khlebnikov described as the recognition that ‘the roots of words are only phantoms behind which stand the strings of the alphabet.’ It is this particular legacy of early modernism that the new poetics has sought to recover” (21st-Century Modernism, 5). For her, the poets who seem to best affirm this are largely writers operating in the Language movement of the ’70s and ’80s, and the digital/conceptual poets who followed them in the ’90s on into the twenty-first century. Among the books, Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (2004), Unoriginal Genius (2010), Poetic License (1990), and the aforementioned 21st-Century Modernism are best suited for a reading of Perloff’s take on late-twentieth/early-twenty-first-century literature and art. Postmodern Genres, while also an important reference point, mostly consists of essays by other critics, academics, and poets. Pertinent essays on the postmodern/new poetics conundrum include “Postmodernism / Fin de Siecle” (2004), “Contemporary / Postmodern: The ‘New’ Poetry?” (1980), “From Action to Image: The Return of Story in Postmodern Poetry” (1982), and “Postmodernism and the Impasse of Lyric” (1984).

Language writing

In the 1970s, a heterogeneous group of American and British poets began to coagulate through various small press/DIY publications, most notably Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. Though the Language writers — as they came to be known — did not maintain a unified aesthetic/style, they were all invested in the materiality of language and the political implications such a stance implied. Though they were ignored in mainstream academia for some time, Perloff was an early champion of these writers, celebrating their inventiveness and their abiding knowledge of the literary/art history already discussed in this essay. “The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties” (1985), “New Nouns for Old: Language Poetry, Language Game, and the Pleasure of the Text” (1987), and “Avant Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry” (2006) all provide overarching takes on the movement and encompass numerous readings of writers important to the movement, including Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Tina Darragh, Bruce Andrews, and many others. As further evidence of her support for the Language writers, Perloff’s bibliography is speckled with reviews of individual writers. One might turn to her ‘cases’: “Teaching the ‘New’ Poetries: The Case of Rae Armantrout” (2002) or “The Portrait of the Language Poet as Autobiographer: The Case of Ron Silliman” (1998). Unoriginal Genius contains essays on two Language writers, “Writing through Walter Benjamin: Charles Bernstein’s ‘Poem Including History’” (2010) and “‘The Rattle of Statistical Traffic’: Documentary and Found Text in Susan Howe’s The Midnight (2010). Both of these writers are major figures for Perloff — Bernstein is frequently cited throughout her work, both for his poetic and critical ideas; Howe is also the subject of “‘Collision or Collusion with History’: The Narrative Lyric of Susan Howe” (1989) and — in part — “Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Susan Howe’s Buffalo, Ron Silliman’s Albany” (1999). Other writer-specific works include “Inner Tension/In Attention: Steve McCaffery’s Book Art” (1992), “Happy World: What Lyn Hejinian’s Poetry Tells Us about Chance, Fortune, and Pleasure” (2000), “Triplespace (on Hank Lazer’s Poetry)” (1998), “Sentence Not Sentence” (1996), and “A Syntax of Contrariety (on Bruce Andrews)” (1997).

Conceptual/digital poetics

In the late 1990s, a number of younger writers expanded on the developments of the Language writers and began to explore the possibilities of literature in the context of digital technologies and the Internet. While several of these writers, including Kenneth Goldsmith, Craig Dworkin, Vanessa Place, and Rob Fitterman would group together under the banner of Conceptual poetry (or Conceptual writing), other writers and artists functioned more autonomously. For Perloff, however, they are united by the same virtues that distinguish avant-gardists of the past — they create a literature that is at once well aware of its historical/cultural milieu, but utilize that environment to transcend, complicate, and/or question it.

Unoriginal Genius represents the most definitive statement on Conceptual/digital poetics Perloff has yet produced (the afterword, in particular), though several essays, including “After Language Poetry: Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents” (1999), “Conceptualisms, Old and New” (2007), and “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text” (2006), serve as apt readings of these contemporary movements and trends. Furthermore, Jacket2 has published her essay “Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context” (2011), an analysis of Kenneth Goldsmith’s 2011 performance at the White House, and perhaps her most polemic essay on Conceptual writing to date. Perloff has also discussed Goldsmith’s work in “Conceptual Bridges/Digital Tunnels: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic (2010) and “‘Moving Information’: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather (2005). An interview, “Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith” (2002), was published in Jacket 21. With Craig Dworkin, she coedited The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound (2009) [2], a collection of essays — several of them by writers included in this essay — on the ways in which sound creates and interacts with various poetic fields. 

Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada have also served as contemporary subjects of Perloff’s writing. Both appear in “Language in Migration: Multilingualism and Exophonic Writing in the New Poetics” (2010), which provides readings of Tawada’s Sprachpolizei und Spielpolygotte (2007) [3] and Bergvall’s “Say ‘Parsley’” (2005) [4] through the lens of Pound and Eliot’s multilingual work. Aside from the foreword to Yoko Tawada: Voices from Everywhere, Perloff has translated the Japanese-German poet’s aforementioned work as “Speech Police and Polyglot Play” (2006). Bergvall and the Canadian Conceptual poet Christian Bök are the subject of “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bök” (2004); an interview with Bergvall, entitled “ex/Crème/ental/eaT/ing,” was published in 2002.

Perloff has also written on many other contemporary writers who might not fall within the strict purview of Conceptual, Language, or digital poetics, “Filling the Space with Trace: Tom Raworth’s ‘Letters from Yaddo’” (2003) and “Rosmarie Waldrop’s Auto-graphs” (2002) being prime examples. She has also written more broadly about the conditions of contemporary writing in the essays “Writing Poetry after 9/11” (2002), “Introduction: Young American Poets” (1998), and “Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties” (1996). In “In Search of the Authentic Order: The Poetry of Yasusada” (1997), she investigates Kent Johnson's infamous hoax and its broader implications within contemporary literary culture.

On pedagogy and poetics

Having analyzed Perloff’s writing via a historical narrative, it is now appropriate to turn to the writing that has earned her both the accolades and ire of academics and poets — namely, her writing on the practice(s) of pedagogy and poetry criticism. Indeed, these essays often find Perloff at her fiercest, assailing — as one essay would have it — “Some Aporias of Recent Criticism” (“Contextualizing Contemporary Lyric,” 1991). Her targets are those critics, anthologies, and artists who neglect the alternative histories of experimental/avant-garde literature in favor of a perceived “diversity”; in “Postmodernism/Fin de Siècle: Defining ‘Difference’ in Late Twentieth-Century Poetics” (1998), she quotes Charles Bernstein, who asserts that diversity “‘presupposes a common standard of aesthetic judgment or implicitly aims to erect a new common standard. In this context, diversity can be a way of restoring a highly idealized concept of a unified American culture that effectively quiets dissent” (Poetry On and Off the Page, 21). It is against this idealization that Perloff’s criticism functions.

The titles of these essays alone often bespeak the problems at hand: whether critiquing the integration of cultural studies and literature in “In Defense of Poetry: Put the Literature Back into Literary Studies” (2000) or illuminating the deficiencies of various publications in “What We Don’t Talk about when We Talk about Poetry: Some Aporias of Literary Journalism” (1998). While Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (1998) might represent the definitive source for such polemics, essays abound elsewhere, including the seminal “Ca(n)non to the Right of Us, Ca(n)non to the Left of Us: A Plea for Difference” (1987), “Crisis in the Humanities?: Reconfiguring Literary Study for the Twenty-First Century” (2004), “Tolerance and Taboo: Modernist Primitivisms and Postmodernist Pieties” (1998), and “‘Living in the Same Place’: The Old Mono-Nationalism and the New Comparative Literature” (1995) being just a few examples. Perloff has also criticized certain manifestations of feminism in literary studies; as she writes in “Canon and the Loaded Gun: Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde” (1990) — an important essay on this front — “we must beware of proclamations that herald the New Dispensation” (34). Elsewhere, “The Corn-Porn Lyric: Poetry 1972–73” attacks similar notions of feminine/feminist poetics in the 1970s.

Conclusion

In writing on Wittgenstein in the prologue to her Vienna Paradox, Perloff asks, “Is it a case of continuity or reaction?” (13). As was mentioned at the opening of this essay, Perloff’s oeuvre constitutes not so much a holistic unit of texts as a sort of nuanced evolution that in some ways resembles the experimental/avant literary history she has sought to explicate and defend. Coupling precise technical reading abilities with stimulating challenges to various literary and academic institutions, her writing presents the curious reader with a host of engaging dilemmas. She is already a figure of great influence in literary criticism and contemporary literature itself; one awaits not only the future of Perloff’s complex body of work, but also how it might shape the poetry of the future.

To end with another quote from Vienna Paradox, this time from the preface, that might double as a sort of mission statement: “As a professor of literature, I long for a word where people actually care about the artistic and intellectual life, a world where art and poetry might be regarded as more than Sunday ‘enrichment’ but, on the contrary, central to life itself. At the same time, I am aware of the price High Culture exacts and the dangers of nonengagement in the actual public life of one’s nation” (xv).

 


 

1. John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

2. The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

3. Caroline Bergvall, “Say ‘Parsley,’” in Fig (London: Salt Publishing, 2005).

4. Yoko Tawada, Sprachpolizei und Spielpolygotte (Konkursbuchverlag, 2011).

 

Marjorie Perloff Bibliography

21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).

“‘A duchamp unto my self’: ‘Writing through’ Marcel,” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

“‘A Fine New Kind of Realism’: Six Stein Styles in Search of a Reader,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), 145–160.

“A Lion in Our Living Room: On Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 199–230.

“‘A Lost Batallion of Platonic Conversationalists’: ‘Howl’ and the Language of Modernism,” in The Poem that Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later, ed. Jason Shinder (New York: Farrar Straus, 2006), 24–43.

“‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice’: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar,” Contemporary Literature 13 (Autumn 1972): 507–22.

“‘A Small Perliplus Along an Edge’: Rosmarie Waldrop’s Auto-graphs,” HOW 2 (2002).

“A Step Away from Them: Poetry in 1956,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 83–115.

“A Syntax of Contrariety (on Bruce Andrews),” Aerial 9 (1997): 234–38.

“Abstraction and Unreadability,” Vlak 2 (2011): 156–62.

“After Language Poetry: Innovation and Its Theoretical Discontents,” in Contemporary Poetics, ed. Louis Armand (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 15–38.

“Alterable Noons: The poèmes élastiques of Blaise Cendrars and Frank O’Hara,” in Yearbook of English Studies 15: Anglo-French Literary Relations, ed. C. J. Rawson and Jenny Mezciems (1985), 16–78.

“‘An Image from a Past Life’: Beckett’s Yeatsian Turn,” Fulcrum 6 (2007): 604–615.

“Angst and Animism in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” in Collected Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda Wagner (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), 109–23.

“‘Another Emblem There’: Theme and Convention in Yeats’s ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 69, no. 2 (April 1970): 223–40.

“The Aura of Modernism,” Modernist Cultures 1, no. 1 (April 2005): 1–14.

“The Autobiographical Mode of Goethe: Dichtung und Wahrheit and the Lyric Poems,” Comparative Literature Studies 7, no. 3 (September 1970): 265–96.

“Avant Garde and Difference: Duchamp and the Russian Avant-Garde,” New American Writing (Spring 1991): 81–96.

“Avant Garde Eliot,” in 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics.

“Avant Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry,” Foreign Literature Studies 28, no. 4 (August 2006): 20–37.

“Beckett in the Country of the Houyhnhnms: The Inward Turn of Swiftian Satire,” in Swift’s Travels: Eighteenth-Century British Satire and Its Legacy, ed. Nicholas Hudson and Aaron Santesso (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 280–99.

“Beckett the Poet,” in A Companion to Samuel Beckett, ed. S. E. Gontarski (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

“Between the Shingle and the Dune: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 6 (Fall/Winter 1978): 170–84.

“Between Verse and Prose: Beckett and the New Poetry,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 135–154.

“But isn’t the same at least the same? Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and the Infra-Thin,” in The Literary Wittgenstein, ed, John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer (London: Routledge, 2004), 34–54.

“Cage: Chance: Change,” in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). 

“Canon and the Loaded Gun: Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 31–52.

“Ca(n)non to the Right of Us, Ca(n)non to the Left of Us: A Plea for Difference,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 7–30.

“The Challenge of the German Lyric: Goethe and Heine in Translation,” American Poetry Review 12, no. 5 (September-October 1983): 10–17.

“Charles Olson and the ‘Inferior Predecessors’: Projective Verse Revisited,” English Literary History 40 (Summer 1973): 285–306.

“Collage and Poetry,” in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

“‘Collision or Collusion with History’: The Narrative Lyric of Susan Howe,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 297–310.

“The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp,” in 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics, 77–120.

“Conceptual Bridges, Digital Tunnels: Kenneth Godlsmith’s Traffic,” in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 146–166.

“Conceptualisms, Old and New,” in Parkett 78 (2008).

“The Contemporary of our Grandchildren: Pound’s Influence,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 119–144.

“Contemporary/Postmodern: The ‘New’ Poetry?,” in Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism, ed. Harry T. Garvin (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 171–180.

“Contextualizing Contemporary Lyric: Some Aporias of Recent Criticism,” Review 13 (1991): 203–24.

“Conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith,” Jacket 21 (February 2003).

“The Corn-Porn Lyric: Poetry 1972–73,” Contemporary Literature 16 (Winter 1975): 85–125.

“Crisis in the Humanities?: Reconfiguring Literary Study for the Twenty-First Century,” in Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 1–19.

“A Critical Exchange on Selected Poems by Robert Lowell,” with David Wojahn, New Ohio Review 1 (Spring 2007): 216–25.

“Cubist Collaboration/Abstract Assemblage: The Avant-Garde Artist’s Book,” 2008.

“Dada without Duchamp/Duchamp without Dada: Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Stanford Humanities Review 7, no. 1 (1999): 48–78.

The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

“The Difference Is Spreading: Gertrude Stein,” Poets.org (January 2007).

Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).

“Duchamp’s Eliot: The Detours of Tradition and the Persistence of the Individual Talent,” in T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

“‘Easter, 1916’: Yeats’s First World War Poem,” in The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227–44.

“‘The Ecstasy of Always Bursting Forth!’: Rereading Frank O’Hara,” Lana Turner 1 (Fall 2008), 194–206.

“Eliot and the Avant-Garde,” in T. S. Eliot in Context, ed. Jason Harding (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2011), 252–61.

“Epilogue, Modernism Now,” in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, ed. David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 571–578.

“ex/Crème/ental/eaT/ing: An Interview with Caroline Bergvall,” Revue d’etudes Anglophones 12 (2002): 123–38.

“Extremist Poetry: Some Versions of the Sylvia Plath Myth,” Journal of Modern Literature 2 (1973): 581–88.

“The Fascination of What’s Difficult: Emily Dickinson and the Theory Canon,” Stand 1, no. 3 (June 2000): 33–51.

“‘Fearlessly Holding Back Nothing’: Robert Lowell’s Last Poems,” in The Critical Response to Robert Lowell, ed. Steven Gould Alexrod (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

“Filling the Space with Trace: Tom Raworth’s ‘Letters from Yaddo’,” The Gig 13-14 (May 2003): 130–44.

“The First Futurist Manifesto Revisited,” Rett Kopi: Manifesto Issue: Dokumenterer Fremtiden (2007): 152–56.

“Foreword,” in Yoko Tawada: Voices from Everywhere, ed. Douglas Slaymaker (New York: Lexington Books, 2007).

“Four Times Five: Robert Creeley’s The Island,” boundary 2 6, no. 3 (Spring/Fall 1978): 491–507.

Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

“From Action to Image: The Return of Story in Postmodern Poetry,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 155–172.

“From Theory to Grammar: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetic of the Ordinary,” New Literary History 25, no. 4 (Autumn 1994): 899–923.

The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

“German by the Grace of Goethe,” in The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir (New York: New Directions Press, 2003), 73–120.

“Gertrude Stein’s Differential Syntax,” The Sarah Tryphena Phillips Lecture, Proceedings of the British Academy 117 (2002): 401–27.

“‘Grammar in Use’: Wittgenstein/Gertrude Stein/Marinetti,” in Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 83–114.

“Happy World: What Lyn Hejinian’s Poetry Tells Us about Chance, Fortune, and Pleasure,” Boston Review (February/March 2000).

“How to Read a Poem: W. B. Yeats’s ‘After Long Silence,’” 2007.

“Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 12, no. 3 (September 2005): 465–470.

“(Im)personating Gertrude Stein,” in Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature, ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel (Evanston: Macmillan and Northeastern University Press, 1988), 61–81.

“In Defense of Poetry: Put the literature Back into Literary Studies,” Boston Review 24, no. 6 (December–January 1999–2000): 22–26.

“Inner Tension/In Attention: Steve McCaffery’s Book Art,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 264–289.

“Introduction: Young American Poets,” Yang 182 (Summer 1998): 183–85.

“The Invention of Collage,” in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, 42–79. Originally published in 1983.

“In Search of the Authentic Order: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada,” Boston Review 22, no. 2 (April–May 1997): 26–33.

“John Cage’s Living Theater,” in Against Theatre: Creative Destruction on the Modernist Stage, ed. Martin Puchner and Alan Ackerman (New York: Palgrave, 2006), 133–48.

“Language in Migration: Multilingualism and Exophonic Writing in the New Poetics,” in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, 123–145.

“Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Susan Howe’s Buffalo, Ron Silliman’s Albany,” Critical Inquiry 25 (Spring 1999): 405–434.

“Light Silence: Dark Speech: Reading Johns’s Images, Seeing Beckett’s Language in Foirades/Fizzles,” Fulcrum 1 (2002): 83–105.

“‘Lines Converging and Crossing’: The ‘French’ Decade of William Carlos Williams,” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 109–154.

“‘Living in the Same Place’: The Old Mono-Nationalism and the New Comparative Literature,” World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 249–255.

“Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms: Metrical ‘Choice’ and Historical Formation,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 116–40.

“The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams,” in William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction, ed. Robert Gish (Boston: Twayne, 1989).

“‘Moving Information’: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather,” Open Letter 7 (Fall 2005): 85–95.

“Music for Words Perhaps: Reading/Hearing/Seeing John Cage’s Roaratorio,” Genre 22, nos. 3–4 (Autumn/Winter 1987): 195–230.

“The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage’s ‘What You Say,’” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 290–308.

“New Nouns for Old: Language Poetry, Language Game, and the Pleasure of the Text,” in Exploring Postmodernism, ed. Matei Calinescu and R. Fokkema (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1987), 95–108.

“‘No More Margins’: John Cage, David Antin, and the Poetry of Performance,” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, 288–340.

“Normalizing John Ashbery,” Electronic Poetry Center (1997).

“Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp,” Forum of Modern Language Studies 32, no. 2 (1996): 137–54.

“On Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips,’” Paunch 42–43 (December 1975): 105–110.

“On the Road to Ariel: The Transitional Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” Iowa Review 4 (Spring 1973): 94–110.

“The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bök,” in Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy, 205–226.

“Playing the Numbers: The French Reception of Louis Zukofsky,” Verse 22–23 (2006): 102–20.

“Poètes Maudits of the Genteel Tradition,” in Robert Lowell: Essays on the Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 99–116.

The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (New York: Cornell Press, 1973).

“The Poetics of Description: Wittgenstein on the Aesthetic,” in Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking After Cavell After Wittgenstein, ed. Kenneth Dauber and Walter Jost (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 231–44.

Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990).

The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

“Poetry as Word-System: The Art of Gertrude Stein,” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, 67–108.

Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998).

“The Portrait of the Artist as Collage Text: Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska and the ‘Italic’ Texts of John Cage,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 33–73.

“The Portrait of the Language Poet as Autobiographer: The Case of Ron Silliman,” Qarry West 34, Ron Silliman Issue (1998): 167–81.

Postmodern Genres, ed. Marjorie Perloff (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989). 

“Postmodernism and the Impasse of lyric,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 172–200.

“Postmodernism/Fin de Siecle,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 3–33.

“Pound and Rimbaud: The Retreat from Symbolism,” Iowa Review 6 (Winter 1975): 91–118.

“Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 1–32.

“The Pursuit of Number: Yeats, Khlebnikov, and the Mathematics of the Modern,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 71–98.

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

“The Radical Poetics of Robert Creeley,” Electronic Book Review 10 (2007).

“‘The Rattle of Statistical Traffic’: Documentary and Found Text in Susan Howe’s The Midnight,” in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, 99–122.

“‘The Renaissance of 1910’: Reflections on Guy Davenport’s Poetics,” Fulcrum 4 (2006): 167–173.

“The Return of Robert Lowell,” Parnassus 27, nos. 1 and 2 (Winter 2004): 76–102.

Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (Paris: Mouton), 1970.

“Robert Creeley Out of School: The Making of a Singular Poetics,” in Form, Power, and Person in Robert Creeley’s Life and Work, ed. Stephen Fredman and Steve McCaffery (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 19–35.

“Robert Creeley’s Windows,” Bridge 2, no. 1 (Fall–Winter 2002): 187–94.

“Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 143–64.

“The Search for ‘Prime Words’: Pound as Nominalist,” Paideuma 32, nos. 1–3 (2003): 205–28.

“Sentence Not Sentence,” Sulfur 39 (Fall 1996): 139–51.

“Sex, Lies, and First Ladies: A Modest (Wittgensteinian) Proposal,” Southwest Review 84, no. 1 (1998): 30–42.

“Speech Police and Polyglot Play,” trans. Perloff, Lyric 9 (2006): 55–63.

“Teaching the ‘New’ Poetries: The Case of Rae Armantrout,” Kiosk: A Joural of Poetry, Poetics, and Experimental Prose 1 (2002): 235–60.

“The Silence that Is Not Silence: Acoustic Art in Beckett’s Embers,” in Samuel Beckett and the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media, ed. Lois Oppenheim (New York: Garland, 1999), 247–68.

“The Stain of Love and the Fallen Leaf: The Displacements of Desire in Williams’s Early Poetry,” in The Love Poetry of William Carlos Williams, ed. Cristina Giorcelli and Maria Anita Stefanelli (Roma: Edizione Associate, 1993), 189–212.

“Still Time for Surprises: John Ashbery’s Recent Books,” Thumbscrew 18 (Spring 2001): 46–48.

“Sylvia Plath’s ‘Sivvy’ Poems: A Portrait of the Poet as Daughter,” in Sylvia Plath: A Collection of Essays, ed. Gary Lane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 155–78.

“Teaching Yeats’s Sound Structures,” in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies XIII, ed. Richard J. Finneran (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 81–90.

“‘To Give a Design’: Williams and the Visualization of Poetry,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 88–118.

“Tolerance and Taboo: Modernist Primitivisms and Postmodernist Pieties,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 34–50.

“Toward a Wittgensteinian Poetics,” Contemporary Literature 33, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 191–213.

“Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context,” Jacket2 (2011).

“‘The Tradition of Myself’: The Autobiographical Mode of Yeats,” Journal of Modern Literature 4, no. 3 (February 1975): 529–73.

“‘Transparent Selves’: The Poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara,” Yearbook of English Studies 8, ed. C. J. Rawson and G. K. Hunter (1978), 171–96.

“Triplespace (on Hank Lazer’s Poetry),” Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 1998): 381–90.

“The Two Ariels: The (Re)Making of the Sylvia Plath Canon,” in Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, 175–198.

“‘Unimpededness and Interpenetration’: The Poetic of John Cage,” in A John Cage Reader, ed. Peter Gena and Johnathan Brent (New York: C. F. Peters Corp., 1982), 4–16.

Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir (New York: New Directions Press, 2003).

“The Voice of the Poet: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell,” in The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (New York: Cornell Press, 1973), 131–163.

“Violence and Precision: The Manifesto as Artform,” in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, 80–115. Originally published in 1984.

“Watchman, Spy, and Dead Man: Johns, O’Hara, Cage, and the ‘Aesthetic of Indifference,’” Modernism/Modernity 8, no. 2 (2001): 197–223.

“What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Poetry: Some Aporias of Literary Journalism,” in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions, 168–192.

“Who’s Wearing the Pants? Marjorie Perloff on Ginsberg and the Beats,” interview with Kurt Kline, Poetry Flash 253 (June/July 1994): 1–2.

“Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties,” Diacritics 26, nos. 3–4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 104–23.

“Why Futurism Now?,” Formations 4, no. 3 (Spring 1988): 1–19.

“Witt-Watt: The Language of Resistance/The Resistance of Language,” in Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, 115–144.

Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

“The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties,” in The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition, 215–238.

“Writing Philosophy as Poetry: Wittgenstein’s Literary Syntax,” in Language and World Part Two: Signs, Minds, and Actions: Proceedings of the 32th International Ludwig Wittgenstein-Symposium in Kirchberg 2009 (Rutgers: Transaction Books, 2010), 279–96.

“Writing Poetry after 9/11,” American Letters and Commentary (2002): 18–23.

“Writing through Walter Benjamin: Charles Bernstein’s ‘Poem Including History,’” in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, 76–98.

“Yeats and Goethe,” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 2 (Spring 1971): 125–140.

“Yeats and the Occasional Poem: ‘Easter, 1916,’” Papers on Language and Literature 4 (1968): 308–28.

Close, very close

Marjorie Perloff at the ACLA Forum, 2007.

Marjorie Perloff is one of our best readers of poetry, one of those critics whose interpretive craft is always compelling to follow. She has not only kept practical criticism relevant, she has shown that it can be renewed even in the close reading of the most refractory modernist poems. This commitment to close reading has required nerve. Even critics sympathetic to the modernist avant-garde can be opposed to such a critical strategy: close reading, they say, is mere pedagogy; it views the text through lenses tinted with undeclared ideological commitments; it finds in even a multitudinous text just a few devices and deconstructions; it is ahistorical; or it is too historical, too closely rooted in the historical moment of the reader. 

Despite such pressures to abandon close reading, Perloff has held fast. Close reading enables her to affirm the fundamental intelligibility of poems, and locate this intelligibility in the logical space of reasons, the embodied space of empathy, and in a long and many-sided poetic tradition.

Avant-garde poetry has repeatedly been dismissed as nonsense. Perloff adapted the techniques of practical criticism that she learned from an earlier generation of literary critics (and initially practiced on Robert Lowell’s poetry) to the task of arguing that such dismissals ignore the emergence of new forms of intelligibility. Her incisive reading of Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” (1913) employs prosodic analysis, knowledge of other languages, analysis of syntax as well as semantics, plus biographical information, to demonstrate that such a seemingly abstract, unintelligible text can be rendered lucid. “Skeptical readers will object at this point, arguing that texts like Susie Asado are unnecessarily obscure, unreadable, and boring, that Stein fails to communicate a coherent meaning to the reader. The line between sense and non-sense is, of course, a narrow one. Remove all vestiges of reference and the text collapses into a series of empty sounds.”[1]

It is characteristic of Perloff’s independence as a critic that she rightly talks of reference and not the fashionable concept of a “play of signifiers,” which implies that interpretive rigor would be misplaced.[2] She gives the last word on this issue to another poet: the poem “becomes, in John Ashbery’s words, a ‘hymn to possibility.’” Ashbery’s witty review of Donald Sutherland’s edition of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation calls the poem “a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen,” even though the text “sometimes makes no sense and sometimes makes perfect sense.”[3] The implication is that it takes close reading to discern this realism of reference in Stein’s text. 

No phoneme, no allusion, should go unheeded in a close reading. Writing about the challenge of teaching Rae Armantrout’s poetry in the classroom, Perloff makes explicit the assumptions on which her discussion is founded: “First, that any serious poem, however disjointed and ‘nonsensical,’ is meaningful. Second, that the poem’s meanings are never quite paraphraseable, never univocal […] And third, that the only way to get at the poem is in fact to read it, word for word, line by line […] a close reading — and there is no other way to understand poetry […] has to account for all the elements in a given text, not just the ones that support a particular interpretation. From this perspective, we read Armantrout’s poem as we would any other, whether ‘experimental’ or conventional, contemporary or Renaissance.”[4] The modernist or avant-garde text is part of a much larger history of poetry whose relevance we must not lose sight of.

In her later critical writing, Perloff reflects on the risks inherent in close reading. Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota, Perloff says, “actively engages us in the poet’s own ‘hunt’ for meaning.” A trap awaits the hunter though. “If we read Oxota as a self-enclosed text, its ‘obscure points’ and ‘arbitrary elements’ will look like ‘mere examples of the freedom of expression.”[5] I would add that this raises a doubt. Can these tiny elements of prosody, etymology, and other verbal brushstrokes really be so important?

This is a dilemma eloquently described by Jay Bernstein in a discussion of how — given the demands we make on art that it should be more than simply entertainment — we can possibly assign significant cultural value to features such as brush strokes in an abstract painting: “It must seem an insult to commitments to justice and a travesty of the feelings that support such commitments […] that the intelligibility and validity of those commitments and feelings should be thought to hang on or be found in just ‘this’ painting or ‘this’ urgent brushstroke of red.”[6] Bernstein’s answer is that the apparent “disproportion” between “the unjust ruination of human lives” and “the velleities of some cultural artifacts on the other” can best be understood as an aesthetic struggle to revalue sensuous experience.

Perloff puts her confidence in what I have called the intelligibility of every verbal note and brushstroke. “Once writing is no longer regarded as the vehicle that conveys an already present speech, every word, indeed every morpheme can be seen to carry meaning, to enter relationships with its neighbors […] and syntax is at least as important as the invention of striking images”; and that “it is reference, not representation, that we cannot do without.”[7] Good close readers do not neglect even the smallest brushstrokes in the poem; every part is intelligible, and this intelligibility connects to the world where lives as well as meanings are at stake. Another name for these interconnections is reference. Her extended, thoughtful practice of close reading is one of our richest sources of reflection on just what poetic reference entails.

 


 

[1] Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 77.

[2] Lyn Hejinian for instance writes: “I hate a person’s sentimental / use of the word ‘play’ / as a substitute for subjectivity[.]” in The Cell (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992), 27. 

[3] John Ashbery, “The Impossible (Review of Stanzas in Meditation by Gertrude Stein),” Poetry 90, no. 4 (July 1957), 250–254.

[4] Marjorie Perloff, Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 246–7.

[5] Perloff takes these quotations from Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (Great Barrington: The Figures, 1992). Marjorie Perloff, Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 223, 225.

[6] J. M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 46.

[7] Perloff, Poetry On & Off the Page, 238–39.

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.

'The Futurist Moment'

The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (University of Chicago Press, 2003) has always been my favorite book by Marjorie Perloff. This book has inspired my own 1913 book, less by the choice of its historical focus than by its method. What the Futurist Moment manages to do so well is to be both historical, by bringing into the discussion a wealth of details and facts, and also current, keeping antennae for relevant contemporary issues. Perloff historicizes and problematizes at the same time, without encumbering herself with the trappings of heavy theory. That was to set a durable example for me in 1986. Most chapters begin with discussions of Cendrars, Marinetti, Pound, Delaunay, Malevitch, Tatlin, and end with Cage, Smithson, Antin, Derrida, or Barthes. Perloff bypasses antiquarian history to usher in a Poundian historiography, investigating the past with a view of the new(s) that stays new(s). It is a book written with a purpose, the form of a teleology geared to the Now. This has allowed it to retain its power of seduction and conviction, which is also why it has not aged a bit a quarter of a century later.

She avoids writing another book on Futurism — this has been done and will be done again, with more details and other archives — by giving us a book on the futurist moment, a word that should be understood in German:  “momentum” and “Kraftwirkung,” the calculation of dynamic applications of work — as in physics — to a reality seen as a network of forces. They shape history by making it work, and, at the same time, making it mean. 

Hence the decision to begin with Cendrars, a poet who never identified with futurism as a movement. It would have been different had Marjorie chosen Apollinaire, who, after all, had a “futurist moment.” Why Cendrars? Because of his superb “Prose du Trans-sibérien,” a poem magnificently illustrated by Sonia Delaunay. Its scrolls festoon all the pages of this book. Here is another way for me to relate to this book: it is an extended meditation on the Eiffel Tower. It is because of my great-uncles that I feel a personal connection with the iconic Parisian monument. One of them was in charge of supervising the exact formula for the repeated applications of paint without whose layers of anti-rust cover the edifice would have crumbled (this fact would call up for me the family business of underwater paints inherited by Italo Svevo in Trieste). Another uncle, a lovely man but a bad poet, had published a sonnet that I had memorized in my youth; it ended with an image of the winter sun setting in Paris, seen at the base of the tower by the viewer as it turned into a mass of molten iron beaten into shape by a monstrous anvil!

In an essay by Roland Barthes often quoted in The Futurist Moment, the French critic revisits the Eiffel Tower and makes the extraordinary claim that to meditate on its structure automatically makes people become intelligent — which may be true, but does not for all that make them good poets. Barthes shows that as soon as one examines the Tower, one perceives it as a structure without a function, and he defines “structure” as “a corpus of intelligent forms.”[1] Sooner or later, any tourist visiting Paris will have to see the Tower, both a site to look at and to see from. Its unavoidable mystery forces the visitor’s intelligence to try and understand its rationale, which will lead to new decipherments. Every visitor of the Tower turns into a Structuralist without knowing it! Indeed, once we reduce a city to a panorama, hence to a system of signs, we are seized by intellectual passion, the euphoria of an aerial vision leading to “bliss.”

One will have understood that by paraphrasing Barthes on the Eiffel Tower, I am describing the effect of Marjorie Perloff’s book: indeed, it makes you become intelligent by giving you the ability to see suddenly new connections between texts, objects, and history. What she avoids in her exploration of Futurism is Barthes’s belief that the Tower is unique, a “total monument” to be found only in Paris. Perloff is too cosmopolitan to fall into the trap of such chauvinism. Her Towers are Russian, Italian, German, and American, when finally the Tower spreads out as a spiral in Smithson’s famous jetty. This is how the future becomes the Now, as John Cage suggests in his witty endorsement of The Futurist Moment.

 


 

[1] Roland Barthes, “The Eiffel Tower,” in A Barthes Reader, trans. Richard Howard, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 243.

The unprepared future of an exophonic refugee

Gabriele Mintz and her father, Max; at right, Gabriele's passport photo. Courtesy of Marjorie Perloff.

The argument of Unoriginal Genius[1] 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[2], 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[3], 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.

 


1. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

2. Perloff, The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir (New York: New Directions, 2004).

3. Perloff, “The Return of Robert Lowell,” Parnassus 27, nos. 1 and 2 (Winter 2004): 76–102.