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A Review of Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius Asks for a More Explicit Criticism

By Harriet Staff

For the May/June issue of PN Review, Mark Dow writes about Marjorie Perloff’s new book, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which addresses the critic’s interest in conceptually derived poetries as related in her recent Boston Review piece. “Marjorie Perloff is concerned with how we read,” Dow writes. He goes on to refer to Walter Benjamin’s essay, “One-Way Street,” and Perloff’s take on it as it relates to current modes of appropriation:

In ‘One-Way Street’, Walter Benjamin writes: ‘The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out… Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text.’ Intent on building her case for ‘a new poetry, more conceptual than directly expressive’, Perloff writes that Benjamin’s comment is ‘uncanny’ in its anticipation of the new writing, ‘now that the Internet has made copyists … of us all’.

This is absurd. Benjamin is interested in the analogue experience of what he knew as ‘copying’. That’s why he makes the analogy to walking. Perloff’s Internet copyists (select/copy/paste) would not even qualify as Benjamin’s ‘mere readers’. Writing longhand, and even typing letter by letter, are very different from cutting-and-pasting with mouse or keyboard. A consideration of the physicality of these processes might have been interesting.

Dow doesn’t really improve his opinion, writing further in that Perloff doesn’t take herself to task in regard to Kenny Goldsmith’s Traffic: “But rather than reconsider [what it means to write], she insists on reading Traffic the way she reads everything else”; and noting that she misses an opportunity to deepen the conversation around Pound’s politics:

Perloff has minimised ‘Pound’s “fascism”’ (she puts it in quotation marks), dismissing it as standard for its time, as ‘juvenile’, and as less dangerous than Heidegger’s or de Man’s (their version is without quotation marks). I still find Pound’s words chilling, not least because they make use of the same linguistic dexterity recognisable in the poems, especially in the Cantos. But Perloff, always finding connections, not to mention ironies, seems determined to compartmentalise. Without comment, she even makes anti-Semite and Jew into parallel antecedents of the new ‘poetry by other means’: in addition to the chapter on Benjamin himself, there’s one called ‘Writing through Walter Benjamin’ in which she discusses Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime, a libretto or ‘thought-opera’ on Benjamin. Bernstein writes that Shadowtime ‘projects an alternative course for what happened on that fateful night’ of Benjamin’s death; Perloff briefly recounts the context of Hitler’s consolidation of power, and Benjamin’s escape to France. Bernstein’s work interests Perloff because of ‘its improbable fusion of Oulipo constraint, concretism, and citationality in its application of … what Pound called with reference to his Cantos … “a poem including history”’. (Bernstein has also written a thoughtful and provocative essay on the counter-intuitive connections between Pound’s politics and the Cantos; see ‘Pounding Fascism’ in his A Poetics.) In her own memoir, The Vienna Paradox, Perloff writes unequivocally that Pound’s political views ‘cannot in any sense be divorced from the poetry itself’. How does this square with her comment that Pound’s views are ‘juvenile’? She doesn’t elaborate in that book or in this one. What could be a more appropriate place to do so than here, where she has brought together Pound, Hitler, Benjamin, and Bernstein?

Dow agrees with Perloff in the “disdain” she recounts for a Rita Dove poem, but not in much else. He writes also about Perloff’s attention to Caroline Bergvall: “She obviously prefers Bergvall’s edgier ‘data piece’ to Dove’s ‘lyric’, but the two works share a self-congratulatory liberalism and a willingness to exploit other people’s suffering for their own aesthetic ends. Perloff herself joins in with a close reading that moves easily from the massacre of Haitians to the poetics of Stein and Cage.” The closer:

Before leaving Bergvall, Perloff returns to Eliot and Pound, this time to draw a line between them and the new century. Despite his own multilingual talent, Pound remains linked to Eliot’s view that the aim of the poet is ‘“to purify the language of the tribe,”’ Perloff writes. ‘But in the twenty-first century, purity can hardly be the norm, given the polyglot speech of our “tribe” of citizens.’ For Eliot and Pound, she concludes, ‘efficiency and renewal went hand in hand with a cleaning-up operation’. Are these terms (‘purity’, ‘efficiency’, ‘cleaning-up operation’) meant to connect the Pound aesthetic to fascism, after all? Does Perloff have in mind a deeper criticism she prefers to make obliquely? I don’t know, but I think she could teach us something if she were more explicit about it.

Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.