The Great Debate: Progress vs. Pluralism
Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, by Marjorie Perloff. University of Chicago Press.$32.50.
A Martian Muse: Further Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, by Reginald Shepherd. Ed. by Robert Philen.University of Michigan Press.$21.95.
Imagine yourself settling into a seat at the back of a crowded auditorium to attend a debate between two speakers, each known for his wit, intellect, and the striking novelty of his argumentation. They will debate the nature of poetic history. On the stage stand two lecterns, and behind them hangs a banner with the title of the evening’s events: “Poetic History: Progress or Pluralism?” The first speaker takes up his position behind the lectern to the right, taps the microphone, and makes his opening salvo:
Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building. Subjectivity, emotion, the body, and desire, as expressed in whole units of plain English with normative syntax, has returned. But not in ways you would imagine. This new poetry wears its sincerity on its sleeve . . . yet no one means a word of it. Come to think of it, no one’s really written a word of it. It’s been grabbed, cut, pasted, processed, machined, honed, flattened, repurposed, regurgitated, and reframed from the great mass of free-floating language out there just begging to be turned into poetry.
This, you think, must be the “progress” side of the debate. The speaker has boldly dismissed the disjunctive kind of poetry we’ve come to think of as cutting edge, declaring it passé. It has waddled out of the forum of relevance like a jump-suited, late-period Elvis, and the next phase of poetry is upon us, in the form of a new kind of intertextualism. This all seems very exciting, but you make a mental note to sell your copies of In the American Tree and American Hybrid on eBay before the price drops too far. The next new thing has already arrived. Or has it? The other speaker has stepped to his lectern and has already begun to speak. You’ve missed the speaker’s opening sentences, but you catch this:
Compared to the art world where, after Duchamp, anything can be art, there’s a sense that in poetry world—even within more innovative camps—that certain things are poetry and that certain things are not [sic]. Coming from the art world, this strikes me as an untenable & unsustainable stance, both aesthetically and historically and one that is bound to implode any moment.
He makes a good point, this art world refugee. The notion that some things (like disjunction) can stop counting as poetry when something else (intertextualism, say) starts counting does seem unsustainable, both aesthetically and historically. Maybe it’s not the price of your anthologies of disjunctive poetry that’s about to implode, but the notion of poetic history as a kind of progression, with new forms rendering old forms obsolete.
At this point, you notice something funny. The two speakers look like identical twins. And they both seem remarkably familiar to you, longtime reader of Poetry that you are. And then it hits you: they’re both Kenneth Goldsmith. The first Kenneth Goldsmith in this little drama is the author of “Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Poetry is Apollo,” an essay that appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of this magazine. The second Goldsmith is the author of “The End of History,” an essay posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog in April 2007. Marjorie Perloff quotes the first passage in Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, her latest book of criticism, while Reginald Shepherd quotes the second passage in A Martian Muse: Further Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, the posthumous collection of his essays edited by his partner Robert Philen.
Perloff, of course, has long been the best and most prominent critical spokesperson for a whole range of poetries associated with experimentalism and the avant-garde, and implicit in her book is a view of poetic history as, at bottom, progressive. Unsurprisingly, the version of poetic progress she presents valorizes the types of poetry for which she has been such a passionate and effective advocate. In contrast, Shepherd consistently refused to be the poetic spokesperson for anyone but himself despite (or perhaps because of) how, as a gay black man from the Bronx, he seemed to fit neatly into the identity politics paradigm of race, gender, and class. Perhaps it is because of this refusal to affiliate with any group that Shepherd takes a very different view of poetic history, seeing it as a perpetual state of muddled pluralism, in which multiple kinds of poetry flourish at all times. In the end, Perloff’s version of literary history is the greatest flaw in a book that has many virtues, while Shepherd’s version of history is among the strongest points in a necessarily uneven gathering of the prose he left uncollected at the time of his death from cancer at the age of forty-five.
Perloff begins her book with the premise that things have changed for poets in the last few years due to a revolution in information technology. It’s not just that almost everyone now writes with a computer—as Perloff points out, she put the finishing touches on her book Radical Artifice on an old Kaypro two decades ago. Rather, it’s that we’ve had a revolution in electronic communications. When she was writing Radical Artifice, says Perloff, “surfing the Web, googling, blogging, viewing or making videos on You Tube [sic], writing on Facebook walls, or Twittering: these were still in the future.” These new things matter for poetry because they change the question from how one should express oneself to “how already existing words and sentences are framed, recycled, appropriated, cited, submitted to rules, visualized, or sounded.” In Perloff’s view, new poetry will increasingly concern itself with forms of writing amenable to the capabilities of the new online environment (sound poetry, concretism), with the ease of international communication (exophonic writing—that is, writing in languages other than one’s mother tongue), and above all with intertextuality.
Here one might pause and consider the long history of intertextual allusion in poetry. Hadn’t Eliot composed much of The Waste Land by assembling fragments of other old texts? Hadn’t Ezra Pound so larded The Cantos with quotation that it spawned a minor academic industry of annotation? Hadn’t Roland Barthes theorized that, after the death of the hallowed idea of the author, writers could only really assemble their works by mingling pre-existing pieces of writing? Perloff doesn’t deny any of this, but she does think there’s something new in the way poets have started to feel about intertextual borrowings and transformations. From the modernists right up through the heyday of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, says Perloff, poets believed in originality, even when they were looting other people’s writing for fragments to shore against their ruins. The imperatives of originality are being replaced by what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreativity, unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft.”
One might argue that the purported new emphasis on unoriginality and theft is not, itself, particularly original: T.S. Eliot’s famous claim—“immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”—comes to mind as an antecedent. Fortunately, though, the bulk of Perloff’s book is not spent trying to support this slightly shaky argument. Rather, it consists of a series of examinations of texts that can be seen as anticipations of emerging poetic trends. These chapters exhibit Perloff’s characteristic strengths: immense erudition, attentiveness to international movements in poetry, and care in describing fine distinctions between varieties of experimental poetry.
Plenty of Perloffian erudition is on display in a chapter devoted to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, that thousand-page collage of quotations. Benjamin claimed that the method of his project was literary montage, and therefore he “needn’t say anything”—and this, says Perloff, marks his project as a precursor to later experiments in textual appropriation and the assembly of found sources. But Perloff takes the argument further, arguing that the marginal markings in Benjamin’s manuscript—a system of more than thirty different symbols such as squares, triangles, and crosses in various colors—indicate alternate routes through the immense text, linking part to part in the manner of online hypertext.
Surely Perloff is right in saying there is much about The Arcades Project that points forward toward methods of composition more common in the age of the Internet, and one is inclined to agree with her when she says:
The repeated juxtapositions, cuts, links, shifts in register, framing devices, and visual markings conspire to produce a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics.
There’s at least one moment in Perloff’s reading of Benjamin, though, when she seems too willing to kidnap Benjamin and drag him from his own time into ours. Consider the following passage from Benjamin’s essay “One-Way Street,” which Perloff reads as a commentary on the laborious copying-out of passages that constituted so much of Benjamin’s method of composition:
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 text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. . . . Only the copied text 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.
For Perloff, these words anticipate the way “the Internet has made copyists, recyclers, transcribers, collators, and reframers of us all.” But there’s something very different about the process Benjamin’s describing and the kind of electronic copying we do now, with a quick flick of the wrist on a mouse or the twitch of a finger on a laptop’s touch pad capturing as many pages of text as one pleases. Benjamin thinks of the closeness of the scribe to his text, and of how that slow-moving attentiveness can transform the copyist. While there are certainly moments when the Benjamin of The Arcades Project looks forward to our time, the Benjamin of “One-Way Street” looks the other way, back to an earlier era before Gutenberg and the dawn of print culture.
Perloff’s chapter on concrete poetry makes the point that it is only now, in the twilight of print culture, that concrete poetry can truly come into its own: online publication offers a more flexible and less expensive environment for the distribution of visual texts than we had under the old dispensation. But the real value of the chapter lies in the fine distinction it draws between different movements within concrete poetry, separating the work of poets like Eugen Gomringer—who wanted concrete poetry to be a mode of immediate communication across language barriers like the signs one sees in airports—from the work of poets like Augusto de Campos or Öyvind Fahlström, who wanted concrete poetry to follow Italian Futurism’s destruction of syntax and Russian Zaum’s notion of setting words free from ordinary constraints of meaning. Concrete poetry is rarely discussed in Anglo-American literary criticism, and still more rarely is it taken seriously. Not only does Perloff provide fine, sensitive readings of individual poems, she charts the different shadings within a much-misunderstood realm of poetry.
It is one thing to be an advocate for neglected types of poetry, but it is another to see the history of poetry as a kind of progress, in which old forms become obsolete when new ones come along. While there is no sustained argument for the progressive view of poetic history in Unoriginal Genius, the view persists as a kind of background noise throughout the book, occasionally coming to the fore in Perloff’s comments and assertions. When, for example, she examines a poem in which Susan Howe erases most of a Yeats poem, leaving only a few columns of syllables, Perloff concludes by saying:
Howe’s “writing-through” of “The Folly of Being Comforted” implies that however “cold” the emotion of Yeats’s 1903 poem, a century later its rhetoric inevitably demands revision: love poetry can no longer be so direct and passionate.
Nothing in Perloff’s reading of the poem shows that Howe makes this incredibly broad implication. The interpretation seems imposed, the sense of the impossibility of passionate directness more Perloff’s than Howe’s. It is also, one hastens to add, a false sense of impossibility. One would indeed be hard-pressed to find someone writing love poetry as well as Yeats did, since Yeats was one of the greatest love poets of any era. But as for passion in poetry about love—well, one hastens to assure Perloff that it still exists. Ten minutes searching in the online archives of the Poetry Foundation will provide the requisite evidence.
Again and again in Unoriginal Genius we encounter the notion that poetry is a matter of generational erasure, with the last generation of poetic techniques rendered obsolete. When Perloff says that Ron Silliman’s New Sentence replaced the free verse lyric, and that “the New Sentence has been in its turn replaced by citational or documentary [writing],” one gets the sense of a narrowly progressive kind of history, a history like that of record companies giving up on the cassette for the compact disc, then giving up on the compact disc for the mp3, whereas the actual history of poetry is far less clear-cut. Perloff yields the progressive notion of history with great confidence, though, making sweeping statements such as “It was in the next or Conceptual generation, however, that constraint, visual as well as verbal, became central.” It’s not that there aren’t conceptual poets, or that their work has nothing to say: Perloff’s comments on Caroline Bergvall alone prove otherwise. It’s just that Perloff writes carelessly, claiming a whole generation for conceptualism when the majority of poets from that generation write more traditional kinds of work.
I’m sure Perloff is right to think there’s something new stirring in poetry, that it has to do with the Internet, and that citation and intertextuality play a role in it. It’s a shame that a sustained argument never fully emerges from the deeply informative, often insightful chapters of Unoriginal Genius. It’s a shame, too, that a narrowly progressive version of literary history creeps into the book. The implicit notion—that now that we have poetry type y, poetry type x is no longer valid—is, as the second speaker in our imaginary forum on literary history might say, unsustainable, both aesthetically and historically.
Reginald Shepherd’s A Martian Muse takes its title from Jack Spicer’s essay “Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse,” in which Spicer meditated on the sources of poetry, but it would be wrong to assume that this is a collection of essays on the sources of poetry. Rather, it is a somewhat miscellaneous collection, including essays on topics as diverse as poetic ambition, the teaching of creative writing, the social position of the poet, the significance of names, the definition of post-avant poetry, The Tempest, Wilfred Owen, and the meaning of illness—the essays on this last topic coming from the period leading up to Shepherd’s death. Most of the essays are short, and some are adapted from entries on Shepherd’s blog. Many, in fact, bear the marks of the emerging world of constant electronic communication that so interests Perloff:
Shepherd’s is a reactive intelligence, always building off of a remark on someone else’s blog, a citation to a text in critical theory or gender studies, or a conversation from the comment stream of a poetry website.
As miscellaneous as the collection is, though, its center of gravity coalesces around a couple of big questions: what is the nature of poetry, and how do different kinds of poetry relate to one another? The first question, says Shepherd, can never have a single answer, and we should be suspicious of those who provide one:
When we say, “This is what poetry is” or “This is what poetry does,” we almost always mean, “This is what the kind of poetry that interests me is” or “This is what the kind of poetry that I like does.” I know what I value in poems, what I want poems to do. But I also know that what I value isn’t the definition of poetry, if only because there are so many poems that do other things, that aim at other goals.
Perhaps it is because of Shepherd’s deeply felt sense of social, economic, racial, and sexual otherness (one of his books of poetry is called Otherhood) that he finds himself so predisposed to pluralism and tolerance in poetry. Pluralism is a matter of principle with him, even when faced with works he cannot make himself enjoy. “The vast majority of poetry out there doesn’t interest me,” he says. “Much of it I actively dislike.” But, he adds, “except in my grumpier moods, I don’t begrudge it its right to exist. . . . I don’t even mind if Jewel and Ashanti and T-Boz want to write poetry, though it would be nice if Jewel knew what the word ‘casualty’ meant.” Shepherd has his preferences, as do we all. But he doesn’t mistake those preferences for the whole truth about poetry, which has always been many things to many people.
This pluralistic attitude toward poetry is necessarily opposed to the idea of poetry as something that progresses, shutting down old possibilities as it opens up newer, more up-to-date ones. However, while Shepherd doesn’t embrace the progressive idea, he does understand it. In a remarkable essay called “What Is Progressive Art?” Shepherd sets out to explore the origins of the progressive idea of aesthetic history, finding its roots in Hegel. Hegel saw art as an ages-long struggle between spirit and material, culminating in the triumph of Romantic poetry, in which the pure spirit of imagination left all material constraints behind. For Hegel, this was the terminus of all art, which would henceforth cede its territory to philosophy, the discipline of pure concepts. We can see the parallels with Perloff’s implicit view of poetic history in Unoriginal Genius. For his part, though, Shepherd is more inclined to agree with the great Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, whose words he quotes: “the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production.” For Shepherd, the history of poetry isn’t a series of erasures. Rather, it is an accretion of styles, many of which persist long after newer styles have risen. As he puts it in the essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry,” “the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of poetry is a sign of its historical evolution.”
The short essays of A Martian Muse offer fascinating insights into many subjects besides poetic pluralism. One expands on Adorno’s idea of art as necessarily standing outside the realm of usefulness and propaganda; another reflects on the fate of the long poem in our time; several argue on behalf of difficulty in art, which Shepherd refuses to see as elitist or oppressive (“Growing up in the Bronx ghettoes,” he says, “I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by art”). It is a pleasure to have these essays gathered together, and we owe Robert Philen our thanks for completing an editorial task that was clearly a labor of love.
Both Unorginal Genius and A Martian Muse have wonderful moments, and at their best each shows us a remarkable critical mind at work. In the end, though, each book leaves one with a bit of regret. In Perloff’s case, the regret comes from a sense that Unoriginal Genius was written less carefully than her strongest work. In Shepherd’s case, the regret comes from knowing that the writer will never have the chance to follow up, on a more ambitious scale, the most promising moments in an intermittently brilliant collection of essays.
The Great Debate: Progress vs. Pluralism