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Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions

Marjorie Perloff

Northwestern University Press, $79.95, $19.95 (paper)

by Michael Davidson

For more than twenty years, Marjorie Perloff has mapped the modernist landscape through a series of synoptic studies of authors, movements, and issues. She argues for the vitality of an avant-garde impulse within modernism which, despite elegies from left and right, remains alive today. Beginning with early books on Robert Lowell and Frank O'Hara, and continuing through her most recent collections ( Poetic License, Radical Artifice, and Wittgenstein's Ladder) , Perloff has deployed close, textual reading with a comparatist focus to read innovation back into a modernism which increasingly is reified by set definitions and categories. Her two great strengths-an extraordinary prosodic intelligence and a capacious knowledge of international modernism-differentiate her from almost every other commentator. Helen Vendler might be her closest parallel. But Perloff's interests are more varied, ranging from Cendrars or Rimbaud to the Brazilian noigandres group; from activist poets of the 1930s to confessionalists; from the Futurists to the French Oulipo movement; from language-poets to sound and visual poets. She covers this map as someone fluent in several languages-French and German particularly-and literatures. Hence when she wants to make a point about the uniqueness of Mina Loy or William Carlos Williams, she may find parallels well beyond an anglophone tradition. And whereas Vendler, to continue the contrast, is resolutely literary, Perloff's essays expand into the visual arts (Pollock, Jasper Johns), video art (Paul Viola), music (Cage, Laurie Anderson), prose (Beckett, Joyce), photography (Robert Frank, Berenice Abbot), and book art (Johanna Drucker, Steve McCaffery). By drawing on such a wide spectrum of writers and tendencies, Perloff is able to test claims about individual movements, authors, or period styles against counterparts in several national literatures.

Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions gathers a decade's worth of articles written for specific conferences and publications. The book is divided into two sections, the first devoted to theoretical issues in modernist poetics and the second to individual "cases." If there is a theme to this collection, it is the place of poetry within competing discourses of multiculturalism and neoconservative retrenchment. She attempts to rescue poetry from the sort of historicism that reduces it to an elitist practice of bourgeois white males at the same time that she attacks an equally reductive tendency among mainstream critics to domesticate, or ignore, more experimental writing. Against both schools, Perloff argues for distinctions and discriminations that situate the unstable features of verbal art within its cultural milieu. She studies the conflicted ethnic and national background of Mina Loy (British/American, Hungarian/Jewish) and notes the oddity of Erskine Caldwell's southern realism appearing among the Objectivists in Richard Johns's 1930s magazine, Pagany. She notes the absence in Allen Ginsberg's early writing of references to political events in Eastern Europe or the Civil Rights movement while such references do occur in otherwise apolitical poets like John Ashbery or Frank O'Hara. She criticizes Mariana Torgovnick's book, Gone Primitive, for dismissing Michel Leiris's ethnographic writing. Torgovnick sees Leiris as a colonial who views African culture from the endistanced, even pornographic, "gaze" of a white male. Perloff objects that such a reading ignores the author's conflicted sexual experiences and his childhood insecurities over his own body in an attempt to establish a politically correct critique of modernist primitivism. She argues with Fredric Jameson's influential definition of postmodernism by pointing out how U.S.-centered he is, deriving examples from Warhol and Portman but not from international artists like Marcel Broodthaers. If, as Perloff observes, postmodernism represents a cultural dominant brought about by international capital, isn't it a paradox for Jameson to rely only on American examples to illustrate globalization?

This strong critique of the term "postmodernism" occurs in her first essay, "Postmodernism/Fin de Siècle," which studies the trajectory of the term, beginning with early discussions in the journal boundary 2 linking it to specifically literary practices. By the mid 1970s the term begins to be applied, via Derrida and Lyotard, to a more theoretical debate over semantic indeterminacy. When postmodernism goes through a "third stage" in the work of Fredric Jameson or Craig Owens, the term loses reference to indeterminacy in favor of rules and prescriptions about what is "in" and "out." Whereas early accounts of postmodernism like those of Ihab Hassan or David Antin stressed textual openness and indecidability, more recent accounts tend toward the prescriptive-Portman's Bonaventure Hotel but not the architecture of Frank Gehry, Warhol but not Jasper Johns. What Perloff finds disconcerting about this trend is how much it apes the moralizing tenor of New Critical or Leavisite traditions it otherwise disparages.

For Perloff, the closing off of postmodernism to the possibilities of openness and diversity is also happening in multicultural arguments for canon revision. Perloff notices that legitimate demands for the addition of new ethnic minorities to the canon become diminished when those additions depend on the representative status of the author and not the novelty of the work. In such cases, the addition of new artists to the canon simply reinforces the ideology of canon-formation itself. Perloff shows how a poem by a Chicano author, Benjamin Saenz, repeats a familiar romantic topos of nature reflection, demonstrating less an understanding of Chicano perspective than the influence of creative writing pedagogy. She then reads a poem from Arthur Arteaga's Cantos that delivers a post-colonial critique of imperialism, based on the poet's interlingual, paragrammatic linguistic play. Arteaga, she concludes, "has written a complex meditative poem that interrogates and extends the current theorizing on the 'subaltern' question." To validate it in cultural nationalist or essentialist terms would deny Arteaga's ability to work in multiple idiolects and aesthetic arenas.

Perloff's attack on aspects of cultural theory is occasionally muted by her use of that same theory to buttress her arguments against weak critics. Despite her worry that postmodern theorists are colonized by certain "fathers" (Lacan, Derrida, Foucault), she often invokes that same French theoretical tradition when she wants to point out that a given reading is reductive. Hence in speaking of the abysmal state of poetry reviewing in the United States, she notes reviewers' unreflective use of terms like "identity" or "distinct world" when such concepts are outmoded in our current theoretical climate. Since she criticizes the use of such demythologizing tendencies in Jameson or Craig Owens, it seems odd to invoke them positively when arguing for more thoughtful reviewing.

Poetry On and Off the Page, although a miscellaneous collection, demonstrates a sustained, at times passionate, plea for difference and distinction. This necessitates debunking certain well-used formulations about a given period (the "darkness" of the 1950s, the stylistic unity of "adversarial literature" in the 1930s) or formalisms (the disorder of Rimbaud's syntax, the unity of Black Mountain poetics). And despite her skepticism about socio-political readings of poetry, she often comes close-but not close enough-to ideological analysis. She invokes the work of Marxist critics-such as Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Henri Meschonnic, and Anthony Easthorpe-who have written about the ideology of formal operations, but she never develops her own ideological analysis. She refers to the "interesting subtext" that could be gleaned from the activist poet Edwin Rolfe's use of iambic pentameter couplets, observing that the choice of formal means is always overdetermined by historical and ideological considerations. Perhaps in a future book she will tell us more what those considerations might be and what forces do overdetermine formal operations. Given her substantial talents as a close reader, her thoughts on what social inequities aesthetic form displaces would be welcome. For the time being, though, Perloff has given us a considerably revised modernism with which readers of modern and postmodern literature will have to contend. n

Originally published in the April/May 1999 issue of Boston Review


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