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.