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Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius
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In the American Tree — with its play on William Carlos Williams’s Modernist classic In the American Grain — is being superceded by the new transnational and global culture of the internet.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.