Articles - November 2012

On the art of Susan Stewart

In the summer of 2007, I had occasion to be in London for Blind Light, the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of British sculptor Antony Gormley. The work from which the exhibition took its title — a rectangular glass-walled “room” with doorlike openings at either end and a ceiling fitted with vapor generators and uniform sources of high-intensity white light — involved visitors in an uncanny perceptual exploration.

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.

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]

Marjorie Perloff's twenty-first-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]

'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!