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Book Reviews: 21st-Century Modernism and With Strings

Yunte Huang

21st-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics
Marjorie Perloff
Blackwell, $19.95 (paper)

With Strings
Charles Bernstein
University of Chicago Press, $12 (paper)

8 At a rare moment of rhetorical uncertainty in his now classic Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson acknowledges a source of challenge to the modern/postmodern distinction:

   It may indeed be conceded that all the features of postmodernism I am about to enumerate can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding modernism (including such astonishing genealogical precursors as Gertrude Stein, Raymond Roussel, or Marcel Duchamp, who may be considered outright postmodernists, avant la lettre).

But he quickly dismisses this skepticism:

   Even if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical with and coterminous to those of an older modernism—a position I feel to be demonstrably erroneous but which only an even lengthier analysis of modernism proper could dispel—the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their meaning and social function.

Marjorie Perloff's new book not only provides the "lengthier analysis of modernism" that Jameson here recommends, but more importantly, it challenges his canonical account of modernism.

In an earlier essay collected in her Poetry On & Off the Page, Perloff already suggested that we cannot come to terms with postmodernism until we decide what modernism was, echoing David Antin's quip, "From the modernism that you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve." In this new work, Perloff looks back to the first wave of modernism in the early twentieth century, and then fast-forwards to the present when a new poetics reclaims the impulse of the earlier avant-garde. Drawing on this historical analysis, she presents two central ideas that together promise a radical change in the conventional narrative of twentieth-century literature and call for a reconsideration of the modern/postmodern divide itself:

   [1] [W]hat strikes us when we reread the poetries of the early twentieth century is that the real fate of first-stage modernism was one of deferral, its radical and utopian aspirations being cut off by the catastrophe, first of the Great War, and then of the series of crises produced by the two great totalitarianisms that dominated the first half of the century and culminated in World War II and the subsequent Cold War.

[2] [W]hat if, despite the predominance of a tepid and unambitious Establishment poetry, there were a powerful avant-garde that takes up, once again, the experimentation of the early twentieth century?

One direct implication of the theses suggested in these passages is that what we usually know as "modernism" was already a result of some fundamental changes in aesthetic orientation after World War I. So pitting so-called postmodernism against this modernism has given us a truncated view of literary history.

The case of T. S. Eliot, treated in the first chapter of Perloff's book, is particularly telling. Drawing on a refreshing and insightful reading of "Prufrock" and some key essays by Eliot from the early period, Perloff distinguishes the avant-garde Eliot of 1910–1 from the conservative Eliot of the late 1920s onward. She shows that "the mode of 'Prufrock' is one of instability and dislocation—an instability as notable on the aural and visual as on the semantic level" and suggests that what was to become the "New Critical classic of the 1950s," praised for its psychological depth ("as a searing self-portrait of an over-refined young man, prudish, self-conscious, and impotent in the face of his hidden desires"), was in fact much more radical in its artistic orientation. "For the poem's perspective," Perloff remarks, "like the Cubist paintings Eliot later claimed not to like, is always unstable, repeatedly shifting, giving us multiple and conflicting views of the subject." She makes a surprising yet convincing case for an analogy between Eliot's objective correlative and Charles Bernstein's anti-absorptive, and finds echoes of Eliot's famous dictum that "[t]he poet has not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium" in Bernstein's insistence that "the unreflected reliance on the conceit of the sincerity of the personal voice of the poet" must be rejected. Perloff's Eliot should be read alongside such recognizable avant-gardists as Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp, who, as Jameson has conceded, may be considered outright postmodernists and who are treated in the next two chapters of Perloff's book.

The family resemblance between Stein and the early Eliot, as Perloff shows, also explains why the kind of modernist genealogy established after World War I, in which the conservative Eliot figures prominently, has persistently denied Stein a rightful position. One of Stein's most articulate defenders, Perloff teases out the extraordinary artistry of Stein's poetic experiments. While her discussion begins with the acrimonious first and last meeting between Stein and Eliot in 1924 (by then Eliot, in Perloff's account, had already turned away from the kind of radical experimentalism of his pre-War years), Perloff's reading of Stein's "extreme artifice" and direct rejection of psychologism takes us back once again to Eliot's earlier position on impersonality and suggests that the prevailing view of an irreconcilable difference between Eliot and Stein should be reconsidered. They may, as Perloff puts it, be "two sides of the same coin."

From Stein's "differential syntax" Perloff moves on to Marcel Duchamp's "conceptual poetics," and his obsessive question, "Can one make works which are not works of 'art'?" Duchamp has hitherto been regarded almost exclusively as a visual artist, but Perloff maintains that "in classifying Duchamp as belonging to the visual arts…we overlook, not only the verbal dimension of the readymades themselves (their titles, captions, inscriptions, verbal context), and not only the well-known puns like La Bagarre d'Austerlitz and Ovaire toute la nuit, but also the series of proto-language poems Duchamp was producing in the mid-teens." Here Perloff is at her best as a literary historian: she uncovers and illuminates some remarkable poetic experiments. Whereas the depth of Perloff's research is demonstrated by her examination of a range of Duchamp's works that indeed belong as much to poetry as to the visual arts, the freshness of her interpretation is exemplified by a virtuoso re-staging of Walter Benjamin's encounter with Duchamp's readymades and reproduction. Perloff quotes from Benjamin's 1937 Paris diary: "Saw Duchamp this morning same Café on Blvd. St. Germain….Showed me his painting: Nu descendant un escalier in a reduced format, colored by hand en pochoir, breathtakingly beautiful." The entry is puzzing because Benjamin is well-known for allegedly dismissing reproduction as the denial of aura; so what should we make of his characterization of Duchamp's reproduction as "breathtakingly beautiful"?

The apparent discrepancy touches on a key difficulty in the standard interpretation of Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." That essay, which has been interpreted (mainly by the Frankfurt School thinkers and such followers as Jameson) as expressing Benjamin's romantic nostalgia for aura, turns out to reveal his insight into the liberating effect of reproduction. Perloff's treatment of Duchamp's reproductive poetics dovetails, then, with a long-overdue reconception not only of Benjamin's essay but also of the cultural logic of mechanical reproduction—which, according to Jameson, is a source of postmodernism's characteristic "depthlessness."

In her discussion of the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov, Perloff further expands the geographical scope of Modernism (challenging the commonplace notion that "Modernism = Anglo-American Modernism") and connects Khlebnikov's poetics of etymology to such diverse poetic developments as the Concrete Poetry of Brazil, the Negritude poets of the Black Caribbean and Africa, African-American poets from the Harlem Renaissance to the present, and the Language poets discussed in her final chapter. Perloff's careful reading of Khlebnikov's experiments with alphabetic letters, mathematical numbers, and sounds situates the Russian poet in an international alliance that defies conventional ideas about a sharp distinction between aesthetically- and socially-animated poetry. That distinction provides the basis for Jameson's refusal to reconsider his modern/postmodern divide. Perloff argues strongly for the social function of the writers who belong to this avant-garde genealogy and who resist ideological reduction:

   [W]hat needs to be stressed is that neither Khlebnikov nor his fellow Futurist poets…were making the case for art for art's sake, for a poetry divorced from its larger cultural import. On the contrary: just as Duchamp's objection was not to art as such but to the retinal painting of the nineteenth century, so Khlebnikov's stress on the materiality of the signifier, the graphic and phonic characteristics of language, was a form of resistance to an Establishment "poetry" often indistinguishable from journalistic prose on the one hand and stilted, mannered "high-style" writing on the other. In this sense, Khlebnikov's cause is the cause of Eliot or of Stein….Thus, when [Roman] Jakobson declares…that "Form exists for us only as long as it is difficult to perceive, as long as we sense the resistance of the material," he is making the case for a poetry that defies the accepted pieties and clichés of its dominant culture, that refuses to be part of what the Frankfurt School was to call the consciousness industries.

The difficulty or resistance of the material is exactly the accusation often made against the poets who appear in Perloff's concluding chapter: Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery. Usually jumbled together under the rubric of the "Language school," these poets in Perloff's reading carry on the legacy of the first-wave modernism at a time when Establishment poetry is approaching the condition of journalism—"a form of writing as harmless as it is ephemeral":

   A generic "sensitive" lyric speaker contemplates a facet of his or her world and makes observations about it, compares present to past, divulges some hidden emotion, or comes to a new understanding of the situation. The language is usually concrete and colloquial, the ironies and metaphors multiple, the syntax straightforward, the rhythms muted and low-key. Generic and media boundaries are rigorously observed: no readymades or word sculptures here, no zaum explorations of etymologies, no Steinian syntactic permutations. As for Eliot's objective correlative, it emerges, in the mainstream poetry before us, as little more than a faint echo, an ironic tic.

In this context, Eliot's "Prufrock," Stein's Tender Buttons, Duchamp's readymades, and Khlebnikov's manifestos "oddly strike us as more immediate and 'contemporary' than the fabled postmodern 'breakthrough' of Robert Lowell's Life Studies or Charles Olson's Maximus." And Howe's calligramme, Bernstein's dysraphism, Hejinian's linguistic inquiry, and McCaffery's vortex ataraxia sound much closer to the avant-gardism of their modern precursors than to the work of contemporary self-labeled postmodernists. "[A]s we move into the twenty-first century," Perloff concludes, "the modern/postmodern divide has emerged as more apparent than real….The modernist challenge, perhaps most common-sensically stated by Pound when he warned, 'Do not imagine that a thing will "go" in verse just because it's too dull to go in prose,' remains open."

charles Bernstein does for Pound's challenge what Perloff has done for Jameson's. "Art," he tells us in With Strings, "is made not of essences but of husks." But these husks are not the conventionally postmodern "anything goes" hodge-podge. Instead, they should be construed as outcomes of "The Manufacture of Negative Experience"—the title of one poem in this volume—that are more like the waste products to which children are said to be drawn in Walter Benjamin's One-Way Street:

   Children are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked upon. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products they recognize the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the world of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship.

Benjamin writes this passage under the title "Construction Site," and a construction site—where the remnants of a work process rather than its finished, well-formed product linger—is an apt metaphor for what Bernstein wants his poetic work to become:

   We used to say the artist would drop away and there would just be the work. Can we go further and say the work drops away and in its place there are stations, staging sites, or blank points of radical metamorphosis? Only when we experience this as an emplacement of textuality into material sensory-perceptual fields—turning ever further away from ideality in the pursuit of an ultimate concretion.

The concern with material concretion begins with Bernstein's title, With Strings. "With-strings," like G-strings, are a particular kind of strings. With, a modifier as much as a preposition, describes a relationship, a betweenness, in which there is no absolute subject/object dichotomy and neither side disappears completely into the other. Echoing Stein's use of notwithstanding and Khlebnikov's so (Russian for "with"), Bernstein writes in a poem entitled (what else!) "Poem":

               I tend to use prepositions
to suggest a relationship between
objects, so for example above or
between

The tone of mockery here serves to foreground what we often fail to see: the withness or relationality we have to maintain with anything other than ourselves or even with ourselves. Martin Heidegger has called it "Being-with" or "Dasein-with." To erase this withness by means of abstraction is to collapse the distance with which Bernstein's poetry and poetics have been consistently concerned.

Perloff has described Bernstein's earlier work of dysraphism (which he defines as "a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts," a "mis-seaming") as "an art of adjacency." In this volume, such an ironized, negotiated adjacency is described as exhibiting "contagious proximity."

I've had it with dolorous pre-
Clusions, deliberate delirium,
Miscreant ovation.

Bernstein's famous notion of anti-absorptive—that indirection, resistance, difficulty, and even distraction must be central to poetry—is also about distance, especially the hazard of either collapsing or rigidifying the distance between reader and text; hence now this satire entitled "Why We Ask You Not to Touch":

Human emotions and cognition

leave a projective film over the poems

making them difficult to perceive.

Careful readers maintain a measured

distance from the works in order

to allow distortion-free comprehension

and to avoid damaging the meaning.

In many ways With Strings presents Bernstein's persistent poetic ideas in a philosophically more profound and artistically more ambitious perspective. Here even the poems themselves have also assumed a "with" relation with each other, as Bernstein explains:

a short work might become part of a serial poem or a section of a serial poem might stand on its own. The effect is to make the book as a whole a string of interchangeable parts. Political, social, ethical, and textual investigations intermingle, presenting a linguistic echo chamber in which themes, moods, and perceptions are permuted, modulated, reverberated, and further extended.

Jameson would have called this artistic effect a "schizophrenic disjunction," a term he used in Postmodernism to characterize a collage poem by Bernstein's fellow poet Bob Perelman. But at a time when nonsense like "If you're not with us, you are with the terrorists" can parade through news media, imagining kinds of withness beyond sanctioned boundaries may pick up particular ethical urgency. "Hazard will never be abolished by a declaration of independence from causality," writes Bernstein. "But such a declaration may change how hazard is inscribed in our everyday lives." The wit and weight are both in with.<


Yunte Huang is professor of English at Harvard University. His most recent book is Transpacific Displacement.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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