Monday, August 15, 2011

Marjorie Perloff's "Unoriginal Genius"

From the point of view of this skeptical non-reader of avant-garde poetry, Perloff's book is an excellent introduction to the New Poetics of the twenty-first century. The new poetry, according to Perloff, is the poetry of citation and appropriation, a poetry that confronts the present-day challenge of managing, presenting and reframing the information so readily and abundantly available through the new technologies such as the Internet. Older poetry cited and appropriated too, but, Perloff argues, the new poetry does so to such an extent that it becomes a different kind. The inspiration for it is not so much Eliot's "The Waste Land" as Pound's Cantos, where citation becomes structural.

Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, which Perloff discusses in her first chapter, is also a source of inspiration. In its organization into folders, its juxtaposition of quotations, its non-linear index, and its use of symbols to link one quotation to another on a different page, it resembles the contemporary website.

Her second chapter examines the legacy of Brazilian concrete poetry. To defend it against the charge of the "iconic fallacy," or Cratylism--the belief that the sound and visual properties of a word have mimetic value--Perloff distinguishes between two types of concrete poetry. The father of concrete poetry, the Swiss Eugen Gomringer, strove to simplify a poem into a sign or an object that is easily comprehensible. The Brazilian concretists, who started out with Gomringer but soon diverged, and who called themselves Noigandres, were as concerned with the semantics of a word/poem as with its look and sound. The group, which includes the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari, sees itself as recovering the discoveries of the earlier avant-garde (Pound and Mallarme), discoveries which never integrated into the mainstream due to the disruption of the world wars. It also discovers in the Internet the  right medium for their concrete poetry.

In Chapter Three Perloff approaches Charles Bernstein's libretto Shadowtime through the lens of the Oulipo. Founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, the Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle invents important poetic constraints for the generation of literature. Its exemplar is Georges Perec's novel La disparition, where the disappearance of the vowel e points to the elimination of eux (them) by the Nazis in World War II. Though Bernstein's Shadowtime is too eclectic to be considered strictly an Oulipo work, its eclecticism is rule-bound and so dramatizes the obsession of its protagonist, Walter Benjamin, with ordering a very disorderly life. It exemplifies the Oulipo axiom "A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint."

The next chapter, on Susan Howe's The Midnight, I find the least interesting. The juxtaposition of original poetry, documents, photos and pictures of objects in Howe's elegy for her mother already feels dated and conventional as a method. The method is too consumable, too pretty. Like Anne Carson's Nox. More resistant to market relations are the exophonic and multilingual writing discussed in the following chapter, but the works of Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada analyzed here strike me as trite.

Most stimulating is Perloff's interpretation, in the last chapter, of Kenneth Goldsmith's book-length poem Traffic, the second part of his New York trilogy. The work is a result of the application of the ideas of Conceptual art to poetry. In his appropriation of Sol LeWitt, Goldsmith writes in his "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing" that "the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the text." Traffic comprises the twenty-four-hour WINS traffic reports that take place on a big holiday weekend. But what seems literal transcription Perloff shows to be carefully selected and shaped. It conforms to the Aristotelian unities; it moves from exposition to complication(s) to resolution. Its hyperreality becomes surreal: it becomes metaphoric. But would anyone, beside a literary critic, read it? Perloff quotes John Cage who quotes a Zen koan: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting."

In her Afterword, Perloff points out that, even in a poetry of appropriation, poetic choice is necessary, and so personal taste is involved. To my mind, that does not make genius unoriginal; it locates originality in a different place, in the idea, perhaps, instead of the execution. Some people will see this as unnecessarily limiting: why not be original in both idea and execution, instead of choosing one or the other? But such a limitation has produced a very different kind of poetry. The fact remains that every kind of poetry is produced by a certain set of limitations. Limits are necessary to art. The fun now appears to be exchanging one set of limitations for another. The difficulty is in choosing a set of limitations that resonate now and for a very long time.

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