Becoming Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff at Dumbarton Oaks, 1957. Image courtesy of Marjorie Perloff.

When does a literary critic reach maturity? Looking back over Marjorie Perloff’s career, one could point to “Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71” (1972),[1] an omnibus review of more than thirty recently published books, as a possible candidate. Perhaps for the first time, instead of building on others’ insights, she actively sought to reshape literary opinion based on her own, independent observation and judgment.

“Poetry Chronicle” opens with a provocative quotation from Peter Schjeldahl — “Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive” (97) — and goes on to declare the emergence of a new literary star, Frank O’Hara. Perloff marvels that a formerly “underground” writer’s “Collected Poems should now have appeared in an expensive glossy edition, brought out … by the venerable Alfred A. Knopf, and that [his] poetry, largely ignored by the Establishment during his lifetime, should win the National Book Award” (97–98). Moreover, while the “autobiographical elegiac mode inaugurated by Lowell’s Life Studies” (1959) might still have adherents — she mentions Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971) and John Berryman’s Love and Fame (1970) — “the real action now seems to be elsewhere,” namely, among O’Hara’s New York School imitators, whose works, like his, are typified by “improvisation, immediacy … catalogues of concrete images[,] … racy, purposely outrageous diction, and a very loose free verse line” (98).

When “Poetry Chronicle” appeared in Contemporary Literature, Perloff also happened to be in the later stages of working on her second book, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973).[2] Lowell, too, was still actively publishing, and such major, award-winning collections as The Dolphin (1973) and Day by Day (1977) still lay in the future. Why would she publicly declare the Age of Lowell over — in the midst of preparing her definitive statement on the subject?  

The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell incorporates two previously published essays. One of them, “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell” (1967),[3] contrasts the failure of the water imagery in his early poetry to “resolve” satisfactorily to the “new and delicate balance between … lament and consolation” that his water symbolism attains in Life Studies (140). Her interlocutors include Randall Jarrell and R. P. Blackmur, and she repeatedly cites the Kenyon Review. The other reprinted piece, “Realism and the Confessional Mode of Robert Lowell” (1970),[4] pursues an entirely different tack. It opens by invoking the Russian Formalist critic Boris Tomashevsky, and it relies heavily on Roman Jakobson’s definition of metonymy to explain Life Studies’s inventive use of syntax. The remainder of the book displays similarly divided loyalties, moving back and forth between American and European models. For instance, its preface credits the French phenomenologist Jean-Pierre Richard’s Poésie et profondeur (1955) with inspiring the first chapter, and then proceeds to declare the fourth chapter indebted to Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems (1969, x–xi).

By any usual standard, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell represents first-rate practical criticism. It attends to the specifics of a poet’s craft, from prosody to tone, and it accounts well for the variations in quality of his verse over the decades. Perloff, however, seems to have been dissatisfied with the eclectic mix of approaches that she employed. A year later, she followed up Robert Lowell with a manifesto, “New Thresholds, Old Anatomies: Contemporary Poetry and the Limits of Exegesis” (1974),[5] built around a reading of O’Hara’s lyric “Essay on Style” (1961). She argues that New Critical interpretive methods, intent on “the construction of meaning,” are ill-matched to poetry such as O’Hara’s “which deliberately avoids symbolic density in favor of literalness” (99). Critics, she asserts, need an updated formalism that takes on board “the increasing sophistication of American literary theory, its growing assimilation of European critical concepts, whether Phenomenologist, Structuralist, or Marxist” (83).

What is the lesson here? During the summer of 1972, Perloff read a very large amount of recently published verse, and while the resulting “Poetry Chronicle” singles out several different writers for praise, including Galway Kinnell and A. R. Ammons, what truly captured her imagination were “twenty-two pages of poems by O’Hara” reproduced in Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s Anthology of New York Poets (1970) (Frank, xxxii). Hence, although O’Hara had died in 1966 and Lowell still lived, from her point of view O’Hara represented true news, and, significantly, his work came to her in the context of a “new literary movement” in which “what the poem says is much less interesting than the process whereby the poet responds to the items in his environment” (“New Thresholds,” 99). Moreover, she intuited that “the increasing sophistication of American literary theory” (83) had enabled academic readers “[b]rought up on Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature, and trained to define the musical structure of Four Quartets” to begin to read O’Hara and his followers with appreciation (99). While not yet a proponent of the avant-garde, she does assert a correlation between two narratives of supersession (densely symbolic poetry giving way to a poetry of process, New Criticism ceding ground to High Theory), and she sets the stage for further inquiry into what it means for a poem to be fully, unreservedly of its moment. Her next book, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977), [6] would require her to reassess Abstract Expressionism, French Dada and Surrealism, and Cagean aleatory composition through O’Hara’s eyes, which would in turn encourage her to think more deeply about avant-garde innovation transnationally and across media. As a consequence, in the book’s preface she finally begins to sound like the author of The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981), Radical Artifice (1992), and Unoriginal Genius (2010). Prefiguring many similar declarations, she celebrates O’Hara for producing “a body of exciting experimental poetry, quite unlike the established neo-Symbolist verse of the fifties” (xxxii). 

By “established neo-Symbolist verse of the fifties,” of course, she had in mind Life Studies, which in Robert Lowell she lauds as his “central achievement” (xi). In the summer of 1972, disenchanted with Lowell’s poetry since For the Union Dead (1964) and increasingly intrigued by Continental theory in general and Russian Formalism in particular, Perloff was intellectually primed for a new departure. A chance encounter with an anthology put her on a new path. And helped change the course of American poetry criticism for the next forty years.


1. Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71,” Contemporary Literature 14, no. 1 (Winter 1973): 97–131.

2. Perloff, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973).

3. Perloff, “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell,” ELH 34, no. 1 (March 1967): 116–40.

4. Perloff, “Realism and the Confessional Mode of Robert Lowell,” Contemporary Literature 11, no. 4 (Fall 1970): 470–87.

5. Perloff, “New Thresholds, Old Anatomies: Contemporary Poetry and the Limits of Exegesis,” Iowa Review 5, no. 1 (Winter 1974): 83–99.

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

'The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage'

Perloff (center) with others at the "What Is a Poet?" symposium at the University of Alabama conference, 1984.

Perloff’s writing in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton University Press, 1981) is first and foremost addressed to resistant, uncomprehending, or skeptical readers. For a generation schooled in seeking and interpreting symbols in poetry, she proposes to delineate the pleasures of an Other Tradition that favors surfaces over depth and linguistic indeterminacy over symbolic coherence. One of the ways she wins over the reluctant reader is to show that the Other Tradition operates much more like a modern art than it does like a symbolist poetry. Speaking of Stein’s Susie Asado, for instance, she offers a comparison: “Just as Picasso’s structure of dismembered planes has no vanishing point, so Susie Asado has no fixed center; it becomes, in John Ashbery’s words, a ‘hymn to possibility’” (77). She follows this up with a statement that reveals her rhetorical designs: “Skeptical readers will object at this point, arguing that texts like Susie Asado are unnecessarily obscure, unreadable, and boring, and that Stein fails to communicate a coherent meaning to the reader.” To these readers — her own professors, reigning critics, or curious general readers — she offers a deliberate invitation and reasonable points of access to poetry that might seem to exclude them. This will remain her generous rhetorical stance throughout her career.

In certain ways, The Poetics of Indeterminacy moves in two opposite directions, from two fixed points of comparison a century apart: Rimbaud and Ashbery. Perloff nominates these two poets to exemplify the tradition of “indeterminacy” she is sketching out; they provide consistent points for comparison in the chapters devoted to other poets. This fundamental insight that Rimbaud and Ashbery share an indeterminate poetics serves to inaugurate a working method Perloff employs in many of her other books: she finds among poets separated in time or space analogous poetic innovations; these analogies then counter a normalizing literary history based on chronology or nation by substituting the formal dialogue she constructs among seemingly disconnected poets. To present Ashbery as the best critic of Stein, for instance, is to suggest that the Other Tradition is built by formal affinities and by the inspiration later poets find in earlier ones, rather than by national projects or by epochal determinants.

The Poetics of Indeterminacy is also an originary text in Perloff’s oeuvre in that it offers initial readings of her major touchstones: Stein, Williams, Duchamp, Pound, Beckett, Cage, and Antin. Throughout the corpus of her criticism, she returns to these figures as inaugurating or conceptualizing the parameters of poetry as a modern art. Over the years, as her restless attention shifts from art or philosophy to writers outside of English or to younger American, Canadian, and British poets, Perloff recurs to her touchstones to provide analogies for other innovative work. At the same time, she has become the foremost interpreter — interlocutor, really — of the poets loosely associated with Language writing and the digital, performance-based, conceptual, and constraint-bound writing that accompanies and extends it. By looking both to her touchstones and to the latest work, she extends the bidirectional method pioneered in The Poetics of Indeterminacy.

My first encounter with her prodigious and omnivorous intellect was at a lecture Perloff (then at University of Southern California) gave at Stanford University while she was writing The Poetics of Indeterminacy. I was beginning a dissertation on American prose poetry, seeking to show the ways in which the poet’s prose of Stein, Williams, Creeley, and Ashbery makes possible such outcomes as the New Sentence of Language poetry. I remember so clearly the look of recognition that passed like a lightning bolt between my director, Albert Gelpi, and me as Perloff began to explain what she had in mind as a poetics of indeterminacy. Gelpi and I both knew instantly that here was a kindred spirit for the discoveries I sought to articulate. And with characteristic graciousness, Perloff suggested during our excited interchange following her lecture that I send her chapters as they were written. That welcoming gesture inaugurated a career-long critical dialogue that is one of the most generative conversations I have known.

'Radical Artifice'

A page of John Cage’s ‘Roaratorio’ in Perloff’s Radical Artifice. Image courtesy of Marjorie Perloff.

During a season of two-word movie titles with hard consonantal punch — Home Alone, Total Recall, Die Hard, Naked Gun — I listened to Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff pair other words to communicate the essence of her forthcoming book. Old terms — avant-garde, experimental, innovative — seemed worn out. So did the academically toned nuances of “studies,” “approaches,” or “investigations.” More tired were the residuals of the plague of postmodern “signs” of the “hetero-hegemonic” “(un)conscious” and other neo- and pseudologisms. How better to signal the wind change of 1980s poetics than by imitating the language styles abroad in media culture.

Radical Artifice (University of Chicago Press, 1994) took up the challenge of coming to terms with how, why, and to what effect the uses of media culture were changing the ground from which poetry emerged. Perloff addressed the syntactic and structural elements of these texts, not just thematics or linguistic motifs, to understand the role and place of poetry in a world where language was reinvented, recycled, banalized, produced, extruded, put into lights, taken down off the screen, put on display, flaunted, tarted up, and toned down in rapid refresh cycles of commerce and entertainment. The internet did not exist. The graphical user interface was still a pixilated screen space on a desktop computer. The beginnings of electronic literature as experiments in hyper-this-and-that circulated only on disks and CDs, whose production had a geeky technical character that put it all just out of reach of any but the dedicated codesters. My point? The megaburst of mass media from which the work studied in Radical Artifice had burgeoned forth was a post-WWII electronic and commercial wave of television, advertisement, large circulation glossy magazines, billboards, and film. Fueled by a feverish economic expansion, the language of media overtook all other forms of cultural expression. Nineteenth-century writers and early twentieth-century poets may have recognized the exhaustion that their own overstimulated psyches experienced in the face of posters layered onto hoardings, radio transmissions, and photographic images, films, and newspapers. But with each passing decade the increase in the sheer scale of visual-verbal-musical media culture was unprecedented. The question was not simply how the individual voice was to take shape in such a heteroglot linguistic field, but how, if it did, it might register and be heard at all.

In the 1970s, theoretically inclined poets in Canada, New York, the Bay Area, and elsewhere in the Anglophone world had embraced and embodied the tenets of Roland Barthes’s death of the author, constituting themselves as produced subjects and their texts as expressions of cultural processes. Conceptual work abounded, procedural in its methods of production, antilyrical, combinatoric, and methodologically formal, concerned with external structure rather than interior life. The techniques of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, the new sentence announced by Ron Silliman, poems made as lists or from restricted vocabularies, or improvised in performance to an unstructured line of associations and sounds — all were infused with a conceptual premise, that to make a contemporary work one went as far from emotional, perceptual, epiphanic experience as possible. Conceptual, minimalist, and procedural works had another feature in common — they eschewed the terms and terminology of mass media culture. Unlike pop art, and then hip hop, the edgy art and poetry of 1970s and 1980s was still committed to the notion of difficulty, of explorations esoteric and arcane that necessarily distinguished their zones of operation and methods of expression from the consumable pulp and pablum of mass media.

Modernism had engaged the vernacular, the individual voice freed from the constraints of literary formulations and prescriptive forms. But by the late twentieth century, the forces conspiring against poetic expression were not those of tradition and its conventions, but the tidal wave of consumable discourses let loose in the massive production machines of entertainment, commerce, and media. What was the role of poetry in such a world? Its identifiable features? Its methods and reasons for being? How to explain the many unreadable works of contemporary literature? Why write works so difficult they were almost illegible to a wide number of readers? Explanation and critical description are the critic’s task, but it took courage to champion the cause of the works examined in this volume when few academics ventured beyond the well-mapped territories of modernism, the Beats, and the New York school. Radical Artifice called attention to modes of expression at work in living poetic discourse, to show the method in their peculiar made-ness.

Four wheels and a broken glass

Form is resistant. In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in one of her more influential books, Radical Artifice: Poetry in the Age of Media (University of Chicago, 1994), “form exists only insofar as it is resistant.” This insistence on the materiality of textual form is one of Marjorie Perloff’s methodological and ideological constancies, one of her main critical vantage points. Form as cognate structure, context carrier, unfixed play, semantic regeneration. Thinking beyond the transcendent poet’s “voice” through to the complex sonorous ghosts of its inscriptions. Articulation of textual decipherabilities and mediated performance.

Bypassing genres and refusing the divisive separation between prose and poetry, Perloff’s unwavering restlessness towards what defines, and holds (back), writing today, “given the particular options (and nonoptions) of writing at the turn of the twenty-first century,” and more specifically her concern with the “formations and transformations of literary and artistic discourses today,” has made and kept her work vibrant and singular for more than two writing generations. The dreadful and morbid polarizations that have encamped and fossilized poetry scenes between lyric and nonlyric for most of the twentieth century are displaced by the way she defines the working parameters of poetry itself as “an alternate language system,” a thinking through of poetry’s application to language as a “cognate art.”

She envisages rule-based structures as values that extend and transpose the line, the verse, as poetic measure altogether. These also assist the analysis of nonverbal units as part of a textual frame. Through meticulous close readings, from Rimbaud to Bernstein, from O’Hara to Language Poets and on to Goldsmith, she examines and promotes the profound nature of “interferences in the reading process.” What could seem contradictory, she makes complementary. Her examinations of the graphic poetics of Cubist collage cohabit with her work on Brazilian Concrete poets, the textual compositions of John Cage, the “residuae” of Beckett, the archival poetics of Susan Howe, Christian Boltanski’s fictional documents, as well as commercial advertising and performative modes that operate beyond the page.

The main allies and travelling companions we find throughout her vast work are four iconic and indexical figures: “Duchamp,” “Stein,” “Klebnikov,” and “Cage,” nonreferential art, ordinary language and poetic literalism, verbivocovisual space, rule-based structures. They are the four wheels that in her work absorb the incoming methodologies of contemporary writing practices. Four wheels across the text’s broken glass. These have turned over her close readings and reflections, and have allowed for the critical inclusion of examples drawn from painting, collages, documentary photography, advertising, architecture, video installation, and sound composition, along with graphic and visual works. The aspects that make a text interdisciplinary are not only its intertextual criss-crossings but also the media and techniques used and its openness to knowledges explored.

More recently, the effect of externalized multilingual practices, which move radically away from the multilingual eruditions of “Pound-Eliot,” has teased her interest in new poetic practices and reverberates back to her suspicion of unified identity. This last point however is the one that in a final count remains where her argument is the least open, where her suspicion of historical identitarian impositions leads to a lack of interest in some of the performatively more radical and conducively “blind” (Brathwaite) poetics that have emerged as an investigation of colonialist and postcolonialist ideologies. Yet the sympathetic nature of her methodological concerns could easily favor the examination of poetic works that uses “identity” structurally while recognizing its ideological adhesions.

In Stein’s essay “What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them,” discussed by Perloff in her 21st Century Modernism: The New Poetics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), artforms must at crucial intervals start “doing something else.” The need arises when an artform’s habitat and social and symbolic conventions are radically upended by new social engines. In Stein’s piece, it is the very displacement of painting by mass communication (radio, newspapers, televisions, and advertising) and especially by the art of photography that robs the painter of their hold on description and realism. “There have been too many photographs,” hence the painter has to find another purpose for his work, “he has to say that he does something else.” Whether he does it, or says that he does it, or does that he says it, is a difference of variables familiar to Steinian equations. Marjorie Perloff insists and shows how poetry has long been doing something else, and crystallizes it with this marvelous statement: “poetry now being the discourse that defers reading.” Her commitment to elucidating this fascinating conundrum confirms that in an epoch of intense technological melee and the increased viability of audiovisual literacies, poetry finds itself treating the transformations and apperceptions of reading habits as its something else. Saying so, saying that it does so, it turns and plows vast new existential terrains for its mysterious mediations.

Her work has inspired my practice.

Marjorie Perloff: Die Dichtung und das Ding (poetry and the thing)

Perloff lecturing on Duchamp at CUNY, 2012. Photo by Matthew Knip.
Perloff lecturing on Duchamp at CUNY, 2012. Photo by Matthew Knip.

According to Wikipedia, a “Wittgenstein’s ladder” is a reductive explanation of complex material, a “lie-to-children” or “tender introduction,” such as falling apples are to Newton’s Second Law.[1] For her part, Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (University of Chicago Press, 1999) supplied an introduction, neither tender nor reductive, to the place where poetry meets the everyday, a place both aesthetic and ethical. For in WL, Perloff set forth what would prove to be the primary concern of the contemporary avant-garde: “To put it more concretely: what role does the interrogation of language that dichten (composing poetry) entails play in the mass culture of the later twentieth century?” Furthermore, to détourne Perloff: “what role does mass culture play in the interrogation of language that dichten (composing poetry) entails in the early twenty-first century?” Bringing us to her Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and what I see as the birth of conceptualist criticism.

Perloff’s ongoing engagement with Wittgenstein, like her involutions with Cage and Duchamp, provides a rough guide to her steady preoccupation with what makes poetry poetry. The touchpoints here involve the readymade, the everyday, and the constant press of context. One of Perloff’s favorite Wittgenstein moments is found in Culture and Value, when the philosopher asks us to imagine a theater: “the curtain goes up and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes — surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.”[2] The predicate problem, of course, is that in imagining a theater, we are already within a context that cannot produce “life itself,” but only an aestheticized object — like a biography, like poetry. Life as we know it is not “life” as we frame it. To wit, Duchamp’s Fountain, Cage’s 4’33”, Goldsmith’s Weather. In emphasizing the way poetry has most recently intersected with “life itself,” Perloff’s work has moved us from considering the readymade as argument (Language poetry) to the readymade as context (Conceptual poetry), in other words, embodied, constructed, contingent on the spectral gaze. In this sense, though Perloff does not make this claim, the poetic readymade becomes an essentially feminist gesture. (Some hot ass! — Duchamp) As does the refusal of the retinal. (No more retinal poetry! — Place) Whether pro- or con-, text remains objectified, situated. And in a brilliant aphoristic moment, Perloff fuses the two: “To put it simply, artworks are always site-specific.”[3]

If the question at the end of the twentieth century was whether poetry matters at all, the question at the start of the twenty-first is what happens if the very stuff of poetry is all matter. The first preoccupied the postmoderns, particularly the Language poets. They used the quotidian to convey the common, and in conveying the common, argued for an ethical commons. The second preoccupies the Conceptualists, who use the ordinary to convey the real, and in conveying the real, stop right there. As Perloff percipiently noted about my own Statement of Facts: “But what is the ‘real’ anyway? What is the difference between fact and the interpretation of fact?” Thus the famous Duchampian aesthetic indifference is equally a Kantian moral indifference — i.e., the state of being without prejudice. In her latest book, Perloff takes the made-ready of Benjamin’s Arcades Project — a book not written by Benjamin, inasmuch as he copied most of it, and a book not written by Benjamin, inasmuch as it was assembled by the editors at Harvard University Press — and treats it as a work of conceptual literature. A genre not written by Benjamin the essayist, nor, at this point, presumably vetted by the editors at Harvard University Press. Perloff’s indifference to all but context, in this case, the context of a literary critique, appears to be the first public performance of a conceptualist criticism. Reading the work outside all forms of authorial or affective intent and right into the site-specificity of the current reading of the work. Content only as context. The ordinary language of Benjamin’s notes on ordinary life in nineteenth-century Paris is conceptual literature because Perloff treats it as such. The man in the theater is performing “life itself” — because the use of the reflexive pronoun is crucial, and absolute. (All games are first played in language.) Aesthetics necessarily involve objects, or reflected experience. “Life,” like “poetry,” exists only as a categorical conceit, as the infra-thin of ordinary being, as poetry is the infra-thin of ordinary language. The theater, after all, is just a room in which we all agree to face forward.

At the end of Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Perloff quotes Wittgenstein: “Aesthetics is descriptive.” In other words, not normative. At the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Perloff quotes Wittgenstein: “Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten.” (“Philosophy ought really to be written as a form of poetry.”) In other words, what?[4] The reciprocal readymade, according to Duchamp, returns art to its fundamental nature as object — use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. So too aesthetics and ethics may now be returned to their fundamental nature as rhetoric and rhetorical. Not as the conveyance of singular sublimity or transcendent collectivism, not as exhortation to right thoughts or narcissistic epiphanous uplift, but as language as such, as how language works. Once climbed, the ladder is thrown over for a new ladder, one that takes the earlier ladder into account. Criticism, like poetry, is a matter of accretion. Accretion, like criticism, is a matter of natural extension.[5] By way of its extended interrogations and descriptions, its casting and recastings, Perloff’s criticism is poetry, because it is a model for a poetry that is no more or less than language itself, that does not tell us how to be but that we be as we be, for what good is poetry if we cannot articulate ourselves with at least the elementary elegance of an ordinary clavicle.[6]

[1] This seems to be a rather louche adaptation of Wittgenstein’s proposition 6.54 in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which states: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.”

[2] What is the probability, between logicians, of Wittgenstein’s having read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, which contains the following scene:

“Did you ever make real life into a drama?” said the Earl. “Now just try. I’ve often amused myself that way. Consider this platform as our stage. Good entrances and exits on both sides, you see. Capital background scene: real engine moving up and down. All this bustle, and people passing to and fro, must have been most carefully rehearsed! How naturally they do it! With never a glance at the audience! And every grouping is quite fresh, you see. No repetition!”

It really was admirable, as soon as I began to enter into it from this point of view. Even a porter passing, with a barrow piled with luggage, seemed so realistic that one was tempted to applaud. He was followed by an angry mother, with hot red face, dragging along two screaming children, and calling, to some one behind, “John! Come on!” Enter John, very meek, very silent, and loaded with parcels. And he was followed, in his turn, by a frightened little nursemaid, carrying a fat baby, also screaming. All the children screamed.

“Capital byplay!” said the old man aside. “Did you notice the nursemaid’s look of terror? It was simply perfect!”

“You have struck quite a new vein,” I said. “To most of us Life and its pleasures seem like a mine that is nearly worked out.”

“Worked out!” exclaimed the Earl. “For any one with true dramatic instincts, it is only the Overture that is ended! The real treat has yet to begin. You go to a theatre, and pay your ten shillings for a stall, and what do you get for your money? Perhaps it’s a dialogue between a couple of farmers — unnatural in their overdone caricature of farmers’ dress — more unnatural in their constrained attitudes and gestures — most unnatural in their attempts at ease and geniality in their talk. Go instead and take a seat in a third-class railway-carriage, and you’ll get the same dialogue done to the life! Front-seats — no orchestra to block the view — and nothing to pay!”

[3] Marjorie Perloff, “‘The Madness of the Unexpected’: Contextualizing Duchamp’s Readymades,” unpublished, courtesy of the author.

[4] Perloff has noted that Wittgenstein was “not interested in connotation, nuance, or in word choice based on considerations of rhythm and sound, but in the uses of the denotative properties of words, phrases, and particular syntactic constructions” (“‘But isn’t the same at least the same?’: Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp and Jacques Roubaud,” Jacket 14, July 2001). However, she begins WL by discussing Wittgenstein the “poet.” In part because of this maxim, in part because his interrogations of grammar are the interrogative moves of poetry (17). To which I would simply note as well the sly rhythms and rhymes of Wittgenstein’s line: dur/nur; phie/ei; lich/dich. Put another way, maybe there are no other words.

[5] As duly noted by Eliot — “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Or, as Wittgenstein put it: “What belongs to a language game is a whole culture” (Lectures on Aesthetics no. 25, 9). Current culture creates (and is created by) a set of language rules; given that the past now exists in the present (as we exist in an age of simultaneity rather than repetition), a rigorous conceptualist criticism can engage in a (duly noted) dehistoricized critique that is nonetheless not ahistorical.

[6] See Hegel, “Der Geist ist ein Knochen.” (Spirit is a bone.)