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Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius

By Kenneth Goldsmith

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Marjorie Perloff’s keynote for the Conceptual Poetry Conference in Tucson set forth a clear agenda: making a distinction between the poetics of thirty years ago and now: Language Poetry vs. Conceptual Poetry. She claimed that the poetics of, for example, Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree – with its play on William Carlos Williams’s Modernist classic In the American Grain — is being superceded by the new transnational and global culture of the internet.
Perloff went on to ask how has the digital dissemination of new poetry and poetics — whether in journals, or on sites such as Ubuweb, Pennsound, Ron Silliman’s blog or here on Harriet — affected the writing of poetry itself?
She also questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age — and often not even gender. We are moving away, she claimed, from a geographical, from identity politics to shifting identities and communities, all this being reflected in the new poetry.
She gave numerous examples of Language Poetry, which she termed the “period style of the 1980s”: a poetry of programmatic non-referentiality, words and phrases refusing to “add up” to any sort of coherent, much less transparent statement. The defeat of reader expectation — a kind of cognitive dissonance– is central to these poems.


Perloff then went on to say that conceptual or “uncreative” writing is by no means without precedent, looking back to a number of movements and paradigms that antedate Language poetics by decades. One such was the Concretism of the 1950s and 60s (itself a bridge to the great avant-garde projects of the early twentieth-century). A second precursor of twenty-first century poetics was the Oulipo. This history includes the use of appropriated text, including archival material, documentary, informational manual, and, most recently, the discourse of the internet from hypertext to blog to database, the citational text, reframed in one form or another for particular effect, is central to twenty-first century poetics.
Next was a deeper exploration into the identity: the fabled Death of the Author has finally become a fait accompli. She then asked, “But what would Barthes or the Foucault who declared that ‘the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of ‘expression’ . . . . the confines of interiority’ have made of the conceptual poems and fictions of our own time?” Perloff responded with the idea that in the age of the simulacrum, genius theory is simply passé and made a case for “unoriginal genius,” claiming that once we grant that current art practices have their own particular momentum we can dissociate the word original from its partner genius. A long discourse on genius and originality followed: whether in the arts or the sciences, is synonymous with novelty, invention, creativity, and independence of mind. And if masterpieces were produced in the mid-nineteenth-century, is it really plausible to believe that it is no longer possible to produce a “fascinating and mysterious work” today? Or is just that our own “masterpieces” no longer make the claim to be “original”?
A key point was made regarding appropriation, citation, copying, reproduction, which have been central to the visual arts for decades. In the poetry world, however, the demand for original expression dies hard: we expect our poets to produce words, phrases, images and ironic locutions that we have never heard before. Not words, but My Word.
Her denouement was putting forth Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project as the precursor to Conceptual Poetics; a book, made up in large part of the words of others with its juxtaposition of poetic citation, anecdote, aphorism, parable, documentary prose, personal essay, photograph, diagram—indeed every genre– makes Benjamin’s assemblage a paradigm for the poetry of “unoriginal genius” to come. Its formal structure — with it small black squares around certain words — functions as a sort of ur-hypertext. The book is full of instances of sampling — mimimg the flâneur’s own movement through the world of the Arcades themselves: one moves at will from toyshop to skating rink to pub to Oriental carpet merchant, from cited poem to photograph to travel-guide documentation without bounded map or master plan; in short, Perloff sees the Arcades as a precursor to the internet and to Conceptual Poetry.

Comments (23)

  • On May 30, 2008 at 11:01 am Henry Gould wrote:

    This is fascinating, Kenneth, thank you. But I believe the era of Conceptual/Appropriation/Grab-&-Run Poetry is also already behind us. The new movements in the arts point very pointedly toward something I would like to call the Pay For Noise Period. Ten years from now, we will all be familiar with new art in a variety of media which consists entirely of packaged noise; in fact, the packaging will be part of the noise. Only the small payment by the audience (in time &/or money) will be distinguishable from the noise/art product itself, and I can actually forsee a time when the payment too will devolve into ablah blah noise zzz blah blah $$$$$ caching drone blah….

  • On May 30, 2008 at 11:56 am bill knott wrote:

    … as Paul Valery put it,
    everything changes but the avantgarde . . .

    1980s period style is Langpo? .. . not my 1980s,
    in my 1980s the predominant influential style
    was Sharon Olds’ postconfessional mode. . .

    once again i protest against the Poetry Foundation
    allowing its site to be used for this avantpropgit—
    a thousand blogsites already transmit this blatherblah—
    Christian Wiman, get down off your highhorse and
    put a stop to this horseshit . . .
    take a stand, Wiman . . .

  • On May 30, 2008 at 2:15 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I’m an admirer of Ms. Perloff and am a little reluctant to criticize her based on Kenneth’s summary, but if his characterization is accurate, I have to take issue with her logic.
    According to Kenneth, “She also questioned the values of a poetics based on identity in a time when neither phone numbers nor email addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located, nor does an email address provide vital statistics about its possessor; when an AOL or Yahoo address, for example, reveals neither nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, age — and often not even gender.”
    It’s absurd to claim a connection between contact codes (phone numbers and email addresses) and identity. The assumption seems to be that because the codes don’t point to “vital statistics,” identity itself must be similarly free-floating. I recognize that the notion of a non-existent identity (or a shifting miasmic identity like some blowing cloud of pixels) is the philosophical flavor of the moment, but it’s a silly idea and only serves to undermine her argument. When I first encountered T. S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), I had no idea whether he was a man or a woman, an American or a Brit or a Canadian, a Catholic or a snake-handling pentacostal, or whether he was alive or dead. The more I learned about Eliot, to be sure, the better I understood the sources, resources, context, and aims of his work … oh, that’s right: all the aspects of a writer’s work that spring from his or her identity!
    This confusion that theorists like Kenneth—and Ms. Perloff, evidently—persist in propounding is between the procedures of technology and their impacts on our way of being in the world. Certainly they affect the way we live, think, and feel—but they don’t reshape our essential being to match their (after all) transitory forms. When Gary Snyder writes that “as a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth,” he doesn’t speak just for a faction: he speaks for every poet and every reader. Our forms of expression may change in response to technology, but the core of our nature persists through them all.

  • On May 30, 2008 at 5:12 pm Harriet Nilssen wrote:

    Its nice to read this summation of Marjorie Perloff’s opening remarks. I think this conference and the topic in general is fascinating and also important. As would be anticipated, there is of course the pitting of “experimental” practice against “conservative” practice, which sadly but truly, is still the now age-old conflict point that unconventional writing practices must contend with, attack, defend against. That tension seems so unique to poetry. In contemporary art or contemporary music there is sufficient audience and support that there does not remain this constant need to fundamentally defend an “experimental” position. I find this base-level conflict so specific for poetry. Then there is the issue now of how to ‘go on’ after the hermetic, chance and process based works labeled “language” practice. Here it seems like poetry really has itself more in a marketing problem than in an aesthetic problem. As art markets boom what about art-poetry? So in a way it feels very shrewd to repackage these sorts of practices not with a confusing and insular name like “language” but with the nearly meaningless but signifying “art” speak of “conceptual.” I somehow wish there were more signs of other possibilities here. Do musicians need to say they are doing “conceptual” music” to get their point across? It feels like the foundations are being laid for a development project to update poetry by rehearsing/performing the now 2 decade old practices of “appropriation” and related visual art innovations in the name of “catching poetry up.” Somehow this retro activity of annexing not only the practices but the vague terminology of “conceptual” “appropriative” art to writing seems a deeply conservative and un-eccentric route which at the same time, loses grasp of poetry’s “own particular momentum” waging a stake that to act parallel to visual art might gain headways into the economy of art culture and admitting without saying it that poetry has “nothing to lose” in this exchange. The fact too that this marketing seems to begin at the level of a university conference with the imminent but very senior scholar Ms. Perloff laying out the territory does not really endorse this as very vanguard. It feels more like canon formation in a top-down manner. But I don’t want to be critical here. And I see any attempt like this as a sign of deep desires unfulfilled. So what’s going on? And what else can be offered?
    -harriet

  • On May 31, 2008 at 1:51 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    I think Marjorie Perloff’s question is timely–how is this new technology altering the art form? Yet the notion that the “new transnational and global culture of the internet” is superceding either the poetics of thirty years ago or identity poetry simplifies the reality (or virtual-reality) of the Internet as a complex dynamic system. It contain multitudes of communities exchanging their poems and poetics, and those exchanges often cross the boundaries from one community to another. These boundary crossings are often where new forms emerge. So to discount either L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E or identity poetry seems reductive and so counter-productive.
    Yet there is also a term for a complex system called “heterarchy” that organizes itself both hierarchically–”canon formation in a top-down manner” (in Harriet N.’s words)–and also in an overlapping, more fluid and continually branching way. I think the poetry world is a heterarchy and within it, many critics compete to originate the ranking.
    Thanks for the concise summary of Perloff’s talk. I look forward to reading more dispatches, Emily

  • On May 31, 2008 at 3:30 pm Frances Sjoberg wrote:

    Dear Harriet N.,
    I appreciate your comment and want to respond to your assertion that the symposium is a “university conference” exacting “canon formation in a top-down manner.” The symposium is taking place at the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. We’re not an academic department, we don’t produce an academic journal, and we have yet to produce an event sufficiently academic to entice our UA lit faculty in any comprehensive way. I’m flattered that you think we might have any influence on canon-formation, but must admit it’s quite unlikely. It’s also not our aim. Our aim is to develop audiences for poetry (through community fora and k-12 outreach among other things) and to represent what’s going on in contemporary poetry (in our comprehensive poetry library and through symposia, among other things).
    The works of our featured artists–vanguard or not–are just plain fun to spend a week-end with and stimulating enough to talk about. We invited Marjorie Perloff to participate in developing this symposium because a.) she uses the poem as a primary text, and b.) she is one of very few widely-recognized scholars who is in active conversation with poets in general and emerging poets in particular. And, lets face it, there aren’t that many individuals for whom both scholars and artists would make a summer trek to the desert.
    Thanks,
    Frances
    Literary Director for the UA Poetry Center (for another couple of weeks)
    p.s. Bill Knott! We love you! We have all of your books in our collection, including the wonderful photocopied chapbooks. Please start sending them to us again. And I concur, Sharon Olds’ post-confessional mode was a predominant influential style. No doubt about it.

  • On May 31, 2008 at 9:50 pm Reginald Shepherd wrote:

    Dear Joseph,
    This is somewhat tangential to the substance of this piece, but is instead a direct response to your assertions about poetic identity. When you write that “When I first encountered T. S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), I had no idea whether he was a man or a woman, an American or a Brit or a Canadian, a Catholic or a snake-handling pentacostal, or whether he was alive or dead,” it sounds frankly disingenuous and deliberately slippery.
    By “he” do you mean the author or the speaker,? As the title indicates, the speaker is clearly “J. Alfrred Prufrock,” and by the same turn is also clearly not the author, not in any direct sense–he’s Mr. Prufrock. From the poem we know that he’s male both from his physical and sartorial attributes (his hair is growing thin, he wears trousers that he may daringly roll up one day, his necktie is rich and modest) and from the fact that he constantly discusses women (one woman in particular, to whom he can’t express his feelings) as desired, longed-for, yet frightening others. The toast and tea, the cups, the marmalade, the tea, tell us that he’s either English or a very WASP Anglophone. There’s not only nothing to indicate that he’s a pentecostal (pentecostals and snake-handlers aren’t the same, by the way) and everyhing to indicate that he’s not–he leads much too genteel an upper-middle class life for that.
    So again, I feel that you are being (deliberately? humorously?) disingenuous as a means to insist on your point about the importance of identity. What we need to know about the identity of the speaker of the poem, one Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, we learn from the poem. The identity of the poem’s speaker and the identity of the poem’s author are not the same. To repeat, the author is the not the speaker, the speaker is not the author. Even in the most ostensibly, transparently “confessional” poem, the speaker is still a construct, a verbal creation–and “Prufrock” is far from straightforwardly confessional.
    It’s late and I’m exhausted (I tire very easily these days), so I will sign off. But I wanted to toss my two cents.
    peace and poetry,
    Reginald, on the way back from the dead
    Reginald

  • On May 31, 2008 at 11:47 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Hi Frances / Kenneth,
    Is there anyway to get hold of the entire paper / recording?
    Cheers
    Vivek

  • On June 1, 2008 at 12:01 pm Jasper wrote:

    Coincidentally, I gave a talk yesterday that critiques positions like Perloff’s (or at least Perlofff as recounted here). The text can be found here:
    http://jasperbernes.blogspot.com/2008/05/liberalizing-ideology-of-internet.html
    And there will probably be audio files of the all the panels that you can listen to here:
    http://andrewkenower.typepad.com/
    –JB

  • On June 1, 2008 at 1:07 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Reginald! Good to have you back not only blogging but commenting (worth more than two cents, surely—at least two bits). May your health keep improving…
    As for my post, I victimized myself with an untethered pronoun. My “he” was meant to refer to Eliot, not the fictive speaker of his poem. I suppose I assumed that because Ms. Perloff’s “vital statistics” analysis dealt with poets and not their invented characters, my “he” would be understood as referring to Eliot. Mea culpa!

  • On June 2, 2008 at 4:43 pm Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    Vivek — Marjorie’s talk is the introduction to her forthcoming book, “Unoriginal Genius” hopefully to be published some time next year.

  • On June 2, 2008 at 5:58 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I realize the pun in KG’s title is intentional [sic], but I’d just like to second it. My God, let us by all means continue to have this same conversation for another eighty years.

  • On June 2, 2008 at 7:53 pm Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    Michael — That is actually the title of Perloff’s forthcoming book, which deals with the sort of conceptual and procedural poetics that were presented at this conference.

  • On June 2, 2008 at 9:18 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Kenneth — I know, that’s why I referred to it as a pun (her book is called “Unoriginal Genius,” but her genius is also unoriginal). But if you didn’t intend the pun, then I hereby intend it.

  • On June 2, 2008 at 10:53 pm Frances Sjoberg wrote:

    Vivek – An audio file of the keynote address should be posted on the Poetry Center website by the end of the week. http://www.poetrycenter.arizona.edu

  • On June 2, 2008 at 11:49 pm Hugh Seidman wrote:

    The 20th century, especially, saw the appropriation by art of the scientific method–big time by practitioners. And so on into the current millennium.
    Whether or not one wishes to pursue such an attack no doubt devolves on many things, from one’s state in the womb to the state of one’s bank account, etc.
    We all start somewhere. We all imitate. We all fall in love, at least once, for the first time. And after first love, we all find a mode/modes that allows/allow us to live, or die, in some way or other.
    Therefore, the critic illuminates and categorizes the procedures and transformations employed by love. To suggest that such an endeavor can ever enforce valuation is a contradiction in terms.

  • On June 3, 2008 at 12:51 am Bobby wrote:

    She then asked, “But what would Barthes or the Foucault who declared that ‘the writing of our day has freed itself from the necessity of ‘expression’ . . . . the confines of interiority’ have made of the conceptual poems and fictions of our own time?”

    Okay, I’ll bite (somewhat late to the game as usual).
    The Foucault essay that Perloff cites ends with these lines (apologies for length):

    The author—or what I have called the “author-function”—is undoubtedly only one of the possible specifications of the subject and…it appears that the form, the complexity, and even the existence of this function are far from immutable. We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity. No longer the tiresome repetitions:
    “Who is the real author?”

    New questions will be heard:
    “What are the modes of existence of this discourse?”

    Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:
    “What matter who’s speaking?”

    And it’s that last question–conspicuous by its absence here as in most everything I’ve read by Kenneth Goldsmith or Christian Bök–that makes me deeply suspicious of the program that’s helped itself to the name of Conceptual Poetics. The promise of the death of the author–Foucault’s version of it, anyway–was that “discourses…would unfold in a pervasive anonymity.” So much for that pervasive anonymity, huh? After reading Goldsmith’s summary of Perloff I had to go back and make sure there wasn’t a colon separating “Kenneth Goldsmith” and “Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius.”
    But wait! you say. There’s nothing in Conceptual Poetics itself that promises anonymity. All we want to do is to decouple genius and originality, to let a little air in and formally recognize practices that have been kicking around for decades.
    So let’s take a look at what the Conceptualists do claim for themselves:

    Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.

    And so here’s my question: who gets to be an uncreative genius? And more importantly: on what grounds? If I recreate Day–an achievement, one must admit, that would be even more uncreative than the “original”–am I a genius? Will The Figures publish it under my name? Will Publisher’s Weekly review it? Will I be invited to speak at the next Conceptual Poetics conference on the basis of it?
    Of course not, and the reason is not because of any residual traditionalism infecting the publishing industry or academia. It’s because the “perfectly valueless space” is as much a myth here as it is in the utopian fantasies of Chicago School economists. The “valueless works” are describable as such only insofar as one willfully forgets the roles they play in building careers and organizing conferences, and forgets as well that they’re built on the backs of RISD BFAs and tenured professorships. I don’t hold any special grudge against any of these things, but I think it’s disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst to go around touting one’s freedom from the world of vulgar values–values that all the rest of the world mucks around in day after day–at the same time that that very freedom (or at least the feeling of it) is a *direct secretion* of that value-laden muck.
    And so to end where I began, I’d expect Foucault to say that Kenneth Goldsmith’s real genius is intimately bound up with his originality. And Goldsmith’s originality lies not in destroying the author-function but in raising it to its purely formal apotheosis: he’s demonstrated that the most radical refinement of the author-function so far is the author who doesn’t have to write. And allow me to repeat: securing that apotheosis is an achievement, it is an act of genius, but it is both of these things because it’s original. (Hell, Foucault might even grant him his highest honor, that he is an “initiator of a discursive practice.”)
    And now that I’m at the end of this I fear I’m just saying something that everyone already knows. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time…

  • On June 3, 2008 at 9:39 am Doodle wrote:

    Lamentably, I’m reminded of old F.R. Leavis saying of Auden et al. in the thirties that they’re all talking like schoolboys pretending to be workers.
    In the end, though, it could be that these people are true poets of the Devil’s party without knowing it!

  • On June 3, 2008 at 9:44 am Palazzo Athena wrote:

    Her denouement was putting forth Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project as the precursor to Conceptual Poetics; a book, made up in large part of the words of others with its juxtaposition of poetic citation, anecdote, aphorism, parable, documentary prose, personal essay, photograph, diagram—indeed every genre– makes Benjamin’s assemblage a paradigm for the poetry of “unoriginal genius” to come. Its formal structure — with it small black squares around certain words — functions as a sort of ur-hypertext. The book is full of instances of sampling — mimimg the flâneur’s own movement through the world of the Arcades themselves: one moves at will from toyshop to skating rink to pub to Oriental carpet merchant, from cited poem to photograph to travel-guide documentation without bounded map or master plan; in short, Perloff sees the Arcades as a precursor to the internet and to Conceptual Poetry.

    …so lovely you’d almost forget that Benjamin has a specific politics; that the Arcades Project had a specific political analysis based around what was to be found in the 19th century commodity culture of Paris; and was part of a larger project which conceived not of freeing people from the author function and originality but the domination of capital. But, well, I guess we have to forget some things to recall others.

  • On June 3, 2008 at 9:49 am Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Of course not, and the reason is not because of any residual traditionalism infecting the publishing industry or academia. It’s because the “perfectly valueless space” is as much a myth here as it is in the utopian fantasies of Chicago School economists.
    You can say that again, Bobby. And you might even say that it’s not only as much a myth as the Chicago School utopian fantasies but that it is also, surprisingly, the same myth. For these valueless works can achieve their true idealized value, “[freedom] from market constraints,” only by recreating the ideal conditions that make possible the absence of coercion in Friedman’s laissez-faire fantasies.

  • On June 3, 2008 at 10:11 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Is it possible these critics & ideologues take the “status of the author” so seriously because they are not actually authors themselves? The poets I know (including myself) take the poetry seriously. The identity of the poet is neither here nor there; the poet is engaged in a kind of work.
    Marjorie Perloff is an expert at creating marketable academic ideas, which tend to fascinate multitudes of graduate students & semi-busy intellectuals; the next “new thing” etc.

  • On June 3, 2008 at 11:55 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    3 cheers for Bobby, Boyd, & Bourdieu.

  • On June 4, 2008 at 9:42 am Jasper wrote:

    Bobby, Boyd–
    The homology between the theory behind some of the variants of conceptual-processual writing and liberal economic theory is actually the main point off the essay I point to further up in the comment stream, as the title might indicate. Anyway, there’s been some comment/argument over at my blog, if you’re interested:
    http://jasperbernes.blogspot.com/2008/05/liberalizing-ideology-of-internet.html
    Jasper


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, May 30th, 2008 by Kenneth Goldsmith.