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Marjorie Perloff Looks to Contemporary Appropriators for Salvation from Tepid Writing

By Harriet Staff

If you haven’t yet noticed, the Boston Review has a new piece up by Marjorie Perloff, author of the very recent Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which boils similar potatoes. The article, called “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” responds to a question posed by Jed Rasula in a recent lecture. “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”

Perloff notes that “The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the ‘good jobs’ advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced extraordinary uniformity.” She goes on to discuss, essentially, why most poems are boring, referring to extended metaphor, variations in identity politics, lack of attention to a rigorous line, and workshop staples/lyric formulae–sufficient graphic imagery, that well-formed epiphany, and so on. Also discussed is the easy diminishment of the work of those, say, writing their fourth book, by the excitement surrounding poets more youthful–a fairly recent turn of attention compared to discourse about the poems themselves in the poetry wars of the 1960s and 1980s. “The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight is now on them. Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it New’ has come to refer not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.”

Perloff’s eventual point, that the “dominant poetry culture of our time—the culture of prizes, professorships, and political correctness” could actually be dislodged by those working in conceptual modes, follows a thorough look at well-meaning anthologizers like Cole Swensen and David St. John, who edited American Hybrid. As for Rita Dove’s recent much-discussed Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry:

As I was reading…it occurred to me that perhaps this Penguin anthology was designed for Junior High School students—kids forced to study something called poetry, who would find those references to “crawling out of the wreckage of the Civil War” or to the “take-no-prisoners approach” of the Beats both accessible and colorful.

Perloff also happens to look at the charges of aesthetic exclusion (recently put forth by Jonas Mekas, for instance):

One surmises from the table of contents of this chronological survey that Dove, from her perspective as a woman of color, has included many more minority poets than is usually the case. But her choices are oddly arbitrary: Harryette Mullen, widely considered one of the finest African American poets writing today, gets less than a page; experimental black poets such as Will Alexander and C. S. Giscombe are not included, and, more surprisingly, neither is the prominent Asian American poet John Yau. The Objectivists—Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker—poets increasingly written about and studied both here and abroad, are simply written out the canon, as are such significant West Coast poets of the mid-century as Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.

If we grant Dove her donnée—“a reflection of my sensibilities”—we need not quarrel with these omissions, but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention) and Sylvia Plath, but the reproduction costs were prohibitive. The publisher “who insisted on unaffordable fees” is obviously HarperCollins; the paperback edition of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, a Harper Perennial Classic, is an Amazon bestseller, as are Plath’s Collected Poems and autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library.”

But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat is unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s….

Interestingly, Perloff writes, “there has never been a fixed American poetry canon,” noting that Dove, in her choices, reasserts what is already well worn. And so: “At this point, the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology…”, leading to a current climate in which “thousands of poets [are] jostling for their place in the sun, [and] a tepid tolerance rules.”

And so we return to Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” and Conceptualism as possible maneuvers for change.

The main charge against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the essence of lyric poetry. Appropriation, its detractors insist, produces at best a bloodless poetry that, however interesting at the intellectual level, allows for no unique emotional input. If the words used are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?

This is hardly a new complaint: it was lodged as early as the 1970s against John Cage’s writings-through—texts, usually lineated, composed entirely of citations, with source texts ranging from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to the notebooks of Jasper Johns.

Here Perloff as Cage expert comes to the fore. She also discusses Ginsberg at length, and Susan Howe’s recent That This (2010)–it might just be for us, but Howe often comes to mind during the conceptual/lyric debate; hasn’t she been experimental with compositional technique, other sources, and visual forms for decades now? Yes: “Howe would not call herself a Conceptualist poet, and she regularly combines cited material with her own prose and verse. Still, she has always avoided the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation—triggering memory—insight) ubiquitous in the Dove anthology in which, incidentally, she is not included.” Another distinction is also welcome:

The verbivocovisual—we might call it Joycean—mode of That This is one of the directions appropriation has taken in contemporary poetry. From the work of Steve McCaffery and Christian Bök, to Christian Hawkey and Uljana Wolf, such poems are designed to exceed their dimensions as print blocks, moving outward both aurally and visually to encompass the larger field.

The opposite move—found in the work of leading Conceptual poets such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, Caroline Bergvall and Craig Dworkin—is to foreground the choice of source text itself, the very selection of that text and its context generating the methods that determine its “copy.”

Perloff also investigates the work of Srikanth Reddy, Charles Bernstein, and, surprisingly, Peter Gizzi, noting that the latter makes inventive use of echo, “a model of Oulipean ingenuity,” as Craig Dworkin calls it. (May we also point you to Vanessa Place’s ECHO for more on this. Place has also presented this as a talk in various places–check out the videoed roundtable at the University of Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival.) In all, the claim is that “in recent years we have witnessed a lively reaction from a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo.”

The commenters have responded in droves, posting their own uncreative writing, recalling Helen Vendler’s original attack on Dove’s editing and Penguin’s response to the situation about rights and permissions; and so on.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 by Harriet Staff.