A response to the conference titled “Poetry Criticism: What is it for?”— speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt,and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, early in 2000.
ACCORDING TO a recent article by Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books, Randell Jarrell's descent into madness, and his speculated suicide, were in part provoked by a negative review in the New York Times accusing him of “doddering infantilism.” Jarrell, who was hailed on the Poetry Society of America's panel “Poetry criticism: What is it For?” as being the model poet-critic, apparently could not take the blow, after having dished out a fair share of them for so many years as “poetry's high-purposed body guard.”
Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:
Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.
Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.
In our digital age, the printed book is often seen as resisting the immateriality and inauthenticity of the digital text through its “aura,” “singularity,” “authenticity,” “materiality,” and “bookness”––to cite some key terms from a conference on the future of the book that I attended last year. Even book versions that sit alongside versions in other media––what Marjorie Perloff terms “differential texts”––seem to stress the differences between the book and digital media and so each medium’s materiality.
Yet in a range of poetic practices developed in response to the age of mechanical reproduction and to our digital age, the book becomes a site for exploring––rather than resisting––reproduction and iteration. In the final posts in my “Iterations” commentary, I want to focus on the dual role of the book as both material object and copy, beginning with the work of modernists such as Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein before turning to some recent iterative texts that challenge the commonplace contrast between the singularity of the print and paper book object and the repeatability and mutability of the digital text.
The rise of new technologies of mechanical reproduction in the modernist period heightened attention to the book as copy, both in terms of the aura and materiality of the individual copy and as a reproduced non-original object. Gertrude Stein played with these two possible ways of looking at the book through her own press, the Plain Edition, which she used to publish a number of her works in the 1930s.
The Boston Review, on its site today, posts the 10 “best and most read” pieces of the year 2012. Among them is Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink.” But the one-line tag that goes along with the piece on their list says Perloff argues that poetry is “in danger of extinction.” That's not at all what she says. Oh well. So much for close reading.
On November 10, 2012, there was a celebration at the Kelly Writers House in honor of Marjorie Perloff's induction into the American Philosophical Society. We timed the publication of a major Jacket2feature on Perloff's life and work to coincide with the induction and the party. Here are a few photos taken that evening.
Ben – Maybe Not: Ben Yarmolinsky Hank Eats the Shell ("The Shrimp is a poem in itself" Marjorie & Joe: Marjorie Perloff Claude's Prepositions: Claude Royet-Journoud Alan's Print Performance: Alan Loney Li: The Snow of Yesteryear: Li Zhimin
I had already started writing my first commentary for Jacket2. But then I had to begin again.
Earlier today I learnt of the passing of a great poet and a friend: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko.
I discovered on the weekend that Arkadii was seriously unwell. As a result, I dedicated the launch party for my book A Common Strangeness that we held in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Monday to him. As part of the launch, the New Zealand poet Cilla McQueen read the first part of his long poem “A Nasturtium as Reality” alongside her own poem “Photon.” It was just the latest in a long line of cross-cultural encounters generated by Arkadii’s work.
Alan Thomas, our University of Chicago editor took this picture at the book launch, in Los Angeles, for Antin's essay collection, Marjoire Perloff's Unoriginal Genius and my Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions.