Perloff and/in France

France is a country of translations, but it has taken more than four decades before a book by Marjorie Perloff will have been published in France (a translation of Wittgenstein’s Ladder [University of Chicago, 1996] is to be released in 2012). This situation is not exceptional per se. Other important Anglo-Saxon authors have been ignored in Paris, the most blatant example being the almost Surrealist delay with which the major texts of cultural studies were revealed to Francophone readers. Yet the case of Perloff is different. If the resistance toward cultural studies can be explained by French universalism and the fear of communitarian drifts from the Jacobin center, it would be difficult to find any seeds of incompatibility between Perloff’s lifelong commitment to experimental poetry and the political, cultural, and ethical values that pervade poetical analysis in France. Unlike what has happened in the US, poetry in France is not reduced to the shallow forms of self-expression, self-help, political correctness, and community-building that Perloff has unceasingly denounced in her defense of real contemporary writing. In France, there is still room for experiment, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the avant-garde continues to define what poetry is or ought to be. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the funding policy of a key public player in the field, the Centre National du Livre (CNL), which consistently privileges experimental poetry with its frequent and well-mediatized anthologies of avant-garde writing that appear on the market (e.g. 2000’s Pièces détachées: une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd’hui and 2006’s Caisse à outils: un panorama de la poésie française aujourd’hui, edited by Jean-Michel Espitallier and directly published in cheap pocket editions in Paris), and by continuously emphasizing this type of literature in higher education. Moreover, Perloff has always paid great attention to French poetry, which she reads firsthand and of which she is one of the most lucid analysts outside France.

If none of the reasons mentioned above can explain the delayed reception of Perloff in France (or more precisely, its confinement to the small circles of progressive American studies), there must be something else: and that something is, I would like to argue, threefold.

First of all, Perloff is a fundamentally antiparochial thinker, a truly comparative voice characterized by the blending of close reading, cultural analysis, and literary theory (I do not claim this list to be exhaustive). In principle, such an antiparochialism can be embraced enthusiastically by French scholars (and it should be stressed that I haven’t found anywhere any negative or dismissing remark on Perloff’s work), but contrary to the French variants of what Perloff is defending, her approach is never monodisciplinary, and this is what goes against the grain of the institutionalized study of poetry in France. French poetry scholars remain monolingual when they are doing theory, and become very descriptive (i.e. nontheoretical) when they are doing comparative literature. True, there are exceptions to this rule, but the gap between the theoretical and the comparative is probably the backbone of the lack of curiosity for Perloff in France.

A second aspect can be found in the fact that Perloff’s thinking does not only exceed the barriers between languages (and by the way, this is quite a problem in French academe), but is also, to a certain extent, antiformalist and anti-language-centered. This statement may come as a surprise, if not an absolute misreading of Perloff, who is after all one of the ultimate close readers of the last decades. What I want to say is simply this: in Perloff’s work, literary writing has always a strong procedural and programmatic dimension, which links the materiality of the text to the ideality of a concept, a project, a poetics. Literary writing can never be reduced to just language. Such a stance diverges in the most radical way from the absolute vision of language with a capital L one finds at the core of many avant-garde movements and theory in France, where the work on the signifier is often considered a strategy against the idea.

Last but not least, there is a third reason, which is named John Cage. Although Cage is a mythical figure in France as well, his textual experiments, his poetics, and his philosophy of chance do not match the lastingly rationalist subtext of the French literary avant-garde, where humor, randomness, loss of control, ephemerality, refusal of authorship, etc., remain rather absent.

However, to translate is also a perlocutionary act: it does not only replicate a form and an idea, it also produces a change where it takes place. The translation of Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1996) will undoubtedly trigger a different reading of French literary theory by itself: Perloff discloses gaps, suggests bridges, and performs shortcuts — in other words — offering something new in France that will not go unnoticed. In that sense, the upcoming translation will not only reveal an author outside the inner circle of avant-garde specialists — it will transform the host culture, and this is what matters in the long run.

The contemporary of our grandchildren

A view from the eighties

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 'The Poetics of Indeterminacy'

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sound bytes and computer blips

Marjorie Perloff's electronic world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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