Bob Perelman: Canonicity

[Originally a talk at a panel on canonicity (Jessica Pressman, Brian Reed, & Bob Perelman) at University of California, San Diego, organized by Michael Davidson, Feb 2013.]

 Now that I'm 65 I can ride Philly buses free. That's the good news. The more 'interesting' news is that the balance of homeostasis and desire has become a surprisingly touchy question. Keeping things the same is suddenly attractive, quite attractive, impossibly attractive. All my writing life I've learned that semantics are open-ended, but I'm starting to get the feeling that some words will turn out to have only one meaning, which is a novel and not a totally pleasant thought. "Finite" is one of those words. I don't in fact know what its one meaning is, but extraneous hypotheses are getting shorn away daily, even hourly, which I suppose is progress.

In one sense the question of canons in poetry seems decidedly old-school. It brings back memories of the 1980s — Marjorie Perloff's "Can(n)on to the Left of Us, Can(n)on to the Right of Us," Jerome Rothenberg's "Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel," Charles Bernstein's "The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA" — when the battle map was in crisp focus. That was when O'Hara's poetry could be compared to a small electric fan blowing out crepe-paper streamers, when Stein was a hoax, when Language writing was a dismissible fad, when Williams meant wheelbarrows.

The canon was on the other side of the battlefield. Rothenberg's essay tells of "a struggle between new vision & the literalisms of the canon-making mind" (24); "the struggles of . . . poets against repression, authority, & dogma . . . against the total apparatus of canon-formation both as a religious & secular phenomenon" (25). His opening salvo most famously compared Bloom to Josef Mengele, the exterminating angel of Auschwitz, a high pitch of rhetoric you might say, but then you'd also have to say that Bloom started it by declaring, "I am engaging in canon-formation, in trying to help decide a question that is ultimately of a sad importance: 'Which poet shall live?'"(5)i; and by invoking the Holocaust to deny Jewish poets the possibility of being canonized: an outrageous ex cathedra pronouncement harkening back to Wagner's anathema from 1848, The Jew in Music, where Jews can only imitate servilely or parodically; they are incapable of genuine creativity. Who would want to be in that kind of canon?

The battle had a long history, with the interesting side almost never winning in any given present but always with the passage of time having won. There's been a long-running basic conflict in poetics between outlaw and classic (Stein 1925), between iambic pentameter and the variable foot — or, if I may offer a friendly amendment, the speech-pulse — (Williams 1920-60), between closed and open (Olson 1950; Hejinian 1978). Who wouldn't want to be on the interesting side of such choices?

But with the interesting side having repeatedly won — Loy, H.D., Zukofsky, Niedecker, and Tolson are in print, as are the first ten volumes of the Olson-Creeley correspondence, and Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, to name a few signal victories — doesn't this then simply reproduce the dilemma of canon? The anti-innovative canon is dead, long live the . . . is this the right term? . . . innovative canon?

Rothenberg's essay would argue against the proposition, however labeled, using Blake's figures of the Devourer and the Prolific to dramatize the difference between fearful canon-makers, fixated on elimination, and exuberant innovators furthering life in all its variety: "Unlike the Prolific — the producer — who revels in his own & others' excesses, the teacher / Devourer / critic is driven to despair & to canon-formation to relieve the stress" (10).

But faith, a secular faith, in the Prolific does not solve the problem of canon-formation. While one can truly say that — in the poetic field at least — the Prolific has bested the Devourer (what better emblem of which than Rothenberg's many big books?) and that the exterminating angel has been bested by the recording angel, still, the Prolific then runs right into its own canonical, quasi-canonical, para-canonical dilemmas.

Because it turns out that every recording angel — and there are millions of them, ourselves among them — are human. We have access, most of us, to storage and retrieval capabilities of great sophistication, and they often work well, but we are human and our powers of reception have not kept pace with our machines of proliferation. Thus canons are as loaded an issue as ever, dull pun intended, with its blunderbuss of old-modernist-to-postmodernist shrapnel pointed, fuzzily but nonetheless accurately, at the heart of what we do, disparate as our practices are. The question of choice, of carrying anything along or of discarding it, of not just archiving but of de-accessioning, becomes, with time, as ubiquitous as gravity.

The not-funny comedy of inclusion/exclusion. In the introduction to his own big anthology, In the American Tree (1986), which includes thirty-eight poets, Ron Silliman named seventy-nine more (ending the list with "and others") from whose work, he asserted, an anthology of "absolutely comparable value" could have been gathered. Fifteen years later, in his postscript to The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets, eds. Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick, which gathered poets who had been excluded from Silliman's Tree and Douglas Messerli's "Language" Poetries, Silliman listed seventy more poets who could have been included in that anthology.

Canons, sanctioned or prolific, are medium-term machines of reproduction — syllabi with their reading requirements, anthologies with their poets, schools with their fight songs, blogs with their names and blogrolls, gossip with its items — the question extends to finely granulated contexts of judgment. Think of the slider on digital maps, but applied to our human-cultural landscape, stretching from the personal to large institutional and historical effects. The question of what's interesting, the inclusions and non-mentions that indicate what is felt to be of note, what needs to be brought forward — all this (I'm trying to evoke a scale from making a remark in a conversation, to constructing a syllabus, to editing a once-a-decade update of a major anthology that has a strong, fairly stable market share, to going viral), all this depends on judgment.

Has this book been checked out in the last three years? If not, it's bound for high-density storage. But, the optimist says, those are books, a material-bound storage and retrieval device of an older era; in the digital realm there are not these constraints: additional storage is too cheap to meter as they used to say about nuclear power. You could say that digital storage changes everything. That all the drama adhering to the question of canon was an outgrowth of print. All the high-minded questions concerning value, as well as a great deal of lower-minded behavior springs from the facts of print. What gets promoted into permanence is a matter that everyone has to notice with the unalterable objectivity of everyday recognition: when there's only so much space not everyone gets in. But, you could say, the easy expandability of digital space makes such angst anachronistic, something of a costume drama. But proliferation doesn't solve the problems of judgment. Proliferation exacerbates those problems.

Some of my first conscious moments concerning art came when I found Pound's ABC of Reading in a bookstore at music camp: "We live in an age of science and of abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden."ii

In view of the antiquarianism (to phrase it politely) of Pound's later career, one can almost imagine this as read by Maggie Smith: " The care and reverence for books as such . . . . The butler is supremely needed if Downton Abbey is to persist as a great house." But fear of the multitudinous is salient in a presentist like Stein, as the beginning of Geographical History of America (nearly contemporaneous with ABC of Reading) shows: "In the month of February were born Washington Lincoln and I. . . . Let us not talk about disease but about death. If nobody had to die how would there be room for any of us who now live to have lived. We could not have been if all the others had not died. There would have been no room."iii

Act so there is no use in a canon — didn't Stein write that? But didn't she also write that that in English literature in her time she is the only one? And hasn't the Library of America issued a two-volume selection of her work?

Space: I write it uncapitalized because it is a basic constituent of all our choices. The finitude of active possession — what's easily in mind for use; what tools are on the swiss army knife; how much you can carry; what cans of what are on the shelf to cook with — makes for small groups of things.

We may now live in post-canonical times, but more than ever we live in the long century of the example, the trending, the viral.

Typical cruxes of aging (partial list): de-accessioning; frequent urination; making lists, then forgetting them; making lists where the desire to cross the item off and never have to think about it again is greater than the desire that impelled the writing down of the item in the first place. Forgetting what Nietzsche wrote in "On the Use and Abuse of History for Living." Frequent urination.

Critics are crucial to poetic market share. To create the taste by which the poetry is to be enjoyed. True. Jameson is a most noli me tangere critic: The most interesting Baudelaire is this one, which he dismisses at the end. There are many B's, we're told: the dull diabolic B, who Henry James already yawned at; then there's mod and postmod, but in between there's this, which I'll type out: "Then there is the hardest of all Baudelaires to grasp: the Baudelaire contemporary of himself (and of Flaubert), the Baudelaire of the 'break,' of 1857, the Baudelaire the eternal freshness of whose language is bought by reification, by its strange transformation into alien speech. Of this Baudelaire, we will speak no further here."iv

New senses are always needed, at least this has been my experience, as I've grasped it via everyone I've known and heard of. Senses of gender; senses of humor; senses of carbon; senses of the global. New-born senses are not well developed; teaching, modeling, some sort of systematic reinforcement is always needed, as well as generous anti-systematic rupture of continuities (use as needed). Technocratic avant-gardism will not thrive if it does not nourish attentiveness and make frame-switching and mind-reading plausible and energizing.

The religious trappings of canonicity have always creeped me out. It's probably the unsubtle whisper of violence. The pun of cannon comes back insistently. Cannons are old-fashioned weapons: the Civil War, freshly painted cairns of fused cannonballs in city parks. Then, too, the human cannonballs: what a lousy way to make a living, or so I imagine. More than 30 human cannonballs have died, I learn from Wikipedia.

Judging how art feels and what it does is a lifelong activity. Although, at my age, I have to admit it's looking like the ones who said art is longer than life were correct. But trying to get right with the canon is a dull endeavor.

Writing (the practice, the activity) is for the living, as is reading. As a kind of stoic peptalk, I'll close with lines from my quasi-elegy for Derrida:

               We poets
(it must be written) really don’t know,

 are prohibited (structurally) from knowing
what we write before it’s written, and,

 in a back-eddying double-whammy,
can’t really forget what’s come before

 the most recent word.
In that we model both the alert insouciance

 of the newborn (with its millennia of entailments,
but still in-fant, unspeaking) and

 the fully aged fluent inhabitant
of language flowing

 around a life, offering infinite comprehension
all the way out to the sedgy banks

 with fields of goldenrod beyond them
but not the algorithm that would allow for

 moment by moment access to the whole story
which we never get to hold with frankly human concern

 but have to address via the nerved scrimmage
of writing.v

 The moment of desire! The moment of desire! Blake wrote it twice to tell the future that it takes two to tango: read-write is the name of the game, and the game itself changes.


i Jerome Rothenberg, "Harold Bloom: The Critic as Exterminating Angel," in Sulfur 2 (1981).
ii Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (NYC: New Directions, 1960), 17.
iii Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932-1946 (NYC: Library of America, 1998), 367.
iv Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (London: Verso, 2007), 223.
v Bob Perelman, Iflife (NYC: Roof, 2006).