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This is Jacket # 2  |   # 2  Contents   |   Homepage   |     “Marginalization”

Bob Perelman

A Counter-Response

This paper is taken from the Vol. 1 No. 4 May 1997 pamphlet in The Impercipient Lecture Series, edited and published by Steve Evans and Jennifer Moxley in Providence, Rhode Island. It is about ten printed pages long.

I can’t remember when I’ve felt more frenetic, frozen, triple-knotted, twice-told, embattled, ignored as now when, after many attempts, I’m still trying to finish starting to reply to the responses.

Here’s one start among many, resurrected from emphatic dismissal (and of course rewritten: second thought better thought):

The book is the child of my forehead and fingertips; pursuing monster I stitched together while pursuing alienated chemical studies in northern Germany and suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) not to mention HAD (Historical Affective Disorder); loveletter to my friends; defiant army of defiantly nonavant-garde sentences hurled at the four coigns of the balkanized master page; poem; prose-ist career move that I trust will get me into the Lincoln Bedroom, not as a guest or a current president, but as Lincoln - I mean, Lacan. There - I mean, here - after night has fallen I will open the window for the owl of Minerva to return, featherless, biped, and ready to tell all, or at least some, in verse at last, a poetry that even critics and philosophers can read, and poets too.

"Ignored" is the word in the opening paragraph that will strike readers as the oddest. A panel about one’s book is a very nice thing, especially with four such readers on it. But the tone of the individual acts of sentence-writing and the architecture of doubt and testing that structures the chapters and book as a whole create a specific critical stance that I’ll try to clarify here. I think I’ve written some new forms of criticism - not just "creative" chapters; and that I’ve juxtaposed readings of poetry in new ways - not just a weak pluralist gesture of seeing what Bruce Andrews has to say and then seeing what Maya Angelou has to say. In the response before this one, in an attempt to insist that the book as a whole be kept in mind, I wrote a synopsis. But that wasn’t the right gesture. The book "as a whole" treats reading and writing as conjoined activities that keep their object in flux - productively, I’d like to think. A synopsis is too fixed. This is true of the individual chapters as well: I am not giving a finalized evaluation.

I wrote the book for a number of audiences; I wanted readers unfamiliar with language writing to read work that I found of extreme interest, for itself and for the political and literary claims involved (and for the desirability and difficulty of some of those claims); I wanted to continue decades-long discussions with close friends that were and are crucial to my own writing practice; I wanted to point out sunken or not-so-sunken reefs that lie in wait for our drunken or stolen or merely rented boats. I wanted to write criticism that was poetry and poetry that was criticism: provocative form that was legible from a variety of vantage points. I wanted that variety of angles to be a primary content.

The book is set in the seventies and eighties as much as in the nineties: I take up the old arguments first. Not that it’s a complete account of those regions: as Ron, Juliana, and Ann point out, there are omissions, the younger generation is not in it, although generational conflicts and interactions are modeled throughout. The struggle over ownership of the new is all over the place, large scale, and in many details as well, from the repeated WCW epigraph in Chapters 3 and 4 ("I’m new ... "), to the battle between me and O’Hara near the end over who is actually quoting "The Last Words of My English Grandmother," to the quoting-rewriting of old chestnuts in Chapter 8. Besides being a priceless literary heirloom, the new is also a (valueless?) flaw in a circuit, a joke: O’Hara: "hum-colored cabs"; Barthes: "ham-colored?" But while it focuses on the new of the near-past the book was written in the present in order to imagine and help create a viable future.

The future comes from partial, conflicted poems, literary movements, presents. The conflict between poetry and academia is one of the structuring concerns of the book. Ron presents it in absolute terms; Steve questions whether poetry can make anything happen in the university. At the panel evening itself, a number of people from the audience used the word "academic" as a putdown of the proceedings. But such responses short-circuit a tension that can be productive. I don’t want to be misunderstood here: much of the best current writing and some of the most interesting critical venues are situated outside the university. The Impercipient Lecture Series, for instance; the gathering in the Segue space. But how far outside is one question. Many people who attended the original panel had their desire for poetry at least partially piqued in school. To dismiss academia as irremediable comes pretty close to perpetuating the old anti-intellectual stereotypes that made the notion of "creative writing" such a provincial totality a few decades back.

1. The Marginalization of Poetry

The Comparative Literature conference in San Diego at 2:30, February 8, 1991 was the site of both the eternity of poetry and the dowdy hierarchies of academia; and to look out the plateglass of the second floor conference room at the sundrenched tied-up yachts bobbing at the docks was to experience myself and all my desires for words as merely one résumé among others.

The gesture of the six-word couplets foregrounds this clash between poetry and prose, academia and poetry.


The poem is an elegy for Jack Spicer, beginning with "No one listens to poetry" and ending with the wish to "dissolve the antinomies of marginality that / broke Jack Spicer into broken lines."

But Spicer, with his refusal of circulation and of intention, his phobia toward "the English Department," is not an uncontestable object of desire (though I do honor his wish to stay in his own circle by giving no references, saying you have to already know about him). Unlike him, I’m interested in the clash between autonomy and circulation. Academia is circulating, repeated, pedagogic language which always tends, as it builds up authority, to become boilerplate. The term “Marginalization” marks crucial and obvious facts of history; but it also has become boilerplate obliterating the actual processes of writing.

All critical prose can be seen
as elongated, smooth-edged rectangles of writing,
the sequences of words chopped into
arbitrary lines by the typesetter (Ruth
in tears amid the alien corn),
and into pages by publishing processes.
This violent smoothness ...

Ron has made the workings of the "violent smoothness" of bureaucratized criticism quite clear; here the alien corn of academic career prose results from the alienated labor of typesetters, copy editors, etc. But how to create autonomy and fullness? Is there more than an antithetical answer in this situation? Pushing the "enter" key once every six words, twice every twelve, may make clear the fact that writing is a material practice, but does it dry Ruth’s tears? Does she get to eat, feed her family, plant her own crop?

Does it make "poetry"? Ann, were your couplets "poetry"? In my case, I’d like the question to remain open. Both reading and writing make form contingent (I’ll say more about this when I discuss Ron’s "Parsimony Principle"). The couplets are very unSpicerian - I wasn’t taking dictation, although I was reacting to the vicissitudes of six. Spicer’s poems, especially when he writes letters and appends commentary, seem rather unSpicerian, too .... But beyond these matters involving tone, intention, reception, is poetry, in whatever sense, "marginalized"? Juliana says no; Steve says it’s always "here," beneath academic neglect. And there’s the issue of publication - how can any shadow of a claim of neglect be justified in a university press book? Princeton University Press = anti-marginalization.

There is a very unnegotiable fear in Ron’s comments about the university as destroyer of the book’s form, and his "hyperbolic" comparison of me to Oscar Schindler. Behind that hyperbole is a demonization that is crucial to contest.

Can the university create nothing but hierarchized, grade-washed readers? The more specific charge was exceptionalism: that it can only create a few alienated readers with true taste who drag their battered canoes out of a sea of philistines. Can real poetry only exist in autonomous margins? If your answer is an unqualified yes then my book will be a complicitous, not to say a fallen, act.

Fetish City!

But, come on, if you’re going to demonize universities - where are these other, valid workplaces? Is the page utopia upon which the true and beautiful opacity of the autonomous untranslatable poem lies, forever young, forever other, forever here? Fetish City!

Where did our passion for poetry come from? The page? Created by purely visual epiphany in a kind of unpedagogic, virgin birth?

I am very very far from being in love with normative, gatekeeping academic criticism; but pedagogy, repetition and circulation are very widespread structuring conditions against which to act - both as writer and as imaginer of receivers. We all started somewhere well behind the starting line.

2. Language Writing and Literary History

Which side are you on?

Ann writes that she "had // some difficulty figuring out / what [my] current view is // toward language writing"; Juliana has "trouble sorting out who gets the okay and why"; Marjorie Perloff, in her forthcoming review in Contemporary Literature, writes that I

want, by and large, to defend the politically charged, formally radical poetry of the 1980s, but, as it works out, I would guess that few of the enemies of language poetry, few, even, of the more or less neutral members of the poetry community, would rush out to buy Bruce Andrews’ I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up or Barrett Watten’s Progress after reading Perelman’s discussion.

It’s easy enough to identify me as a participant, but difficult to identify me as a partisan. I think this is one key to the surprising amount of discomfort the book has caused - surprising to me, anyway. So, in answer to all such questions, let me say that I neither want to defend nor to dismiss the politically charged, formally radical work of the 80s. These linkages between "politically charged" and "formally radical" are one of the main things I want to talk about. Why defend the various history of the linkages? They’re not wrong, not right, they’re not misguided projects. But clearly they are neither immutable truths nor historical facts firmly in place.

Bruce Andrews

Bruce Andrews, New York City, Saturday 15 November 1997
Photograph copyright © John Tranter, 1997

The work intended by Bruce Andrews’s taste-smashing, Charles Bernstein’s liberatory comedy, Beverly Dahlen’s undoing of names, Carla Harryman’s undoing of gender, etc. will be furthered by serious discussion of the social obstacles encountered. No such linkage can be an autonomous fact. There are quite a variety of readers and non-readers out there.

The discussion of Autonomy

The book is consistent in its questioning of all dimensions of autonomy from specific poems, to theorizations, to the autonomy of language writing itself. I discuss the communal interactions, as well as discussing the commodification of language writing ("flame broiled burgers" as Barthes puts it in the last chapter).

To deny autonomy is not to deny facts of history: poems, what happened. The coalescence of language writing is obviously crucial. I think the work I discuss - and quite a bit of the work I don’t discuss - is the most important poetry of the recent past. But no defense of a text, or of a literary movement, should avoid giving consideration to the extrinsic or hostile reception, the neophyte, the philistine. I tried to deal with a range of dimensions in the history of the formation of language writing: group interaction, individual differences, individual interactions, outside reception. I am not so much a partisan of the achieved history of language writing, as I am a partisan of what might happen next, if enough writers go beyond a merely antithetical relation to what’s outside the pages they’re writing on.

3. Here and Now on Paper: The Avant-garde Particulars of Robert Grenier

I won’t be going through the book chapter by chapter. But I want to answer a few of Ron’s points, and make a few comments about what I intended at the end of this chapter.

One thing I’ve come to realize in the welter of my reactions is that I have a basic disagreement with Ron’s Parsimony Principle: "readings are strongest that import the least material."

A disagreement

Juliana’s sense of an active reader, Steve’s citation of Adorno ("the soundness of a conception can he judged by whether it causes one quotation to summon another") seem more useful. The Parsimony Principle won’t serve to read the history, values and future of language writing. Not that some readings aren’t better than others of course.

But written words and readings change. The most focused, aware, delicately responsive and flexible writing acts cannot take an unchanging world along them through days, years, and (sometimes) though a variety of pages. Meaning is not single or immutable.

The dispute over "JOE"

Funny that Ron is so insistent about judging reading (my getting "Joe//Joe" wrong, my getting language writing wrong) while at the same time he is so phobic about judging writing (his remark that an anthology of "absolutely equal value" to In the American Tree could be made from other writing; his remark in this pamphlet about "value" as a "twisted sister").

In his original discussion, Ron quotes a definition of the ideal reader posited by this principle: "Someone who knows ... everything that the text presupposes at that point, and who does not know, but is prepared to receive and understand, what the text introduces at that point" (New Sentence 115). This is a perfect temporal moment, no missing past, no extracurricular present, no extraneous expectations or false visions of a future. Ron’s lines from What assert this as the primary ethic of reading: "the point at which you read these words, (the / only point there is), two minds share a larger whole" (27). My version of literary history in the book is different.

The Grenier chapter begins with the basic problem of writing as birth, activity, breakthrough vs. writing as finished product, monument, residue. Is there "progress" in art? Adorno says "yes"; de Man says "aporia"; but the problem confronts every writer at each keystroke, penstroke.


I sketch the "originary" language moment: This 1. In my view it’s not so much "I HATE SPEECH" as the rest of Grenier’s criticism there: essays on Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Olson that treated them as equals - inspiring equals with techniques and stances anyone could use.

But on closer examination, things are not so fetish-free. "The new" is a paradox. Manifestos - Pound, Zukofsky, Olson - have to denigrate most of the present in the name of a more legitimate future writing based on the ignored values of the past: Pound damning Housman with Cavalcanti; Zukofsky damning his contemporaries with Pound; Olson damning Wilbur with Pound.

But this creates a problem: any literary avant-garde gazing into a self-created future is also projecting onto the mirror of an idealized past. The narrative of literary history becomes both enabling and blocking. Grenier claims Pieces is the next step from "Projective Verse." But Creeley’s "here," the self-autonomy of each word, each separate piece becomes - from the vantage not of the writing but of the already-written word - "there," other.

I cite Hegel’s story of writing down "here" and "now,’ which then lose real-world provenance when read later, elsewhere. The page is both the originary-future of writing and the later-elsewhere of the written.

Sentences "goes beyond" the formal impulse of Pieces - the cards are more separate, autonomous, more "here" than Creeley’s paginated, sequential pieces. I discuss various cards, describing their formal features and their distance from experience - though in some cases the separation is not absolute. My comments become more elaborate as the examples become more minimal. The attempt is to simultaneously model possibilities of formal reading attention and to narrate the formation of this attention (how Bob showed me how to read his work).

Both Inside & Out

I am both "myself" and a neophyte learner; that is one of the foci of the book. The stance of being inside and outside a given moment of writing is socially and poetically useful.


The reading of the last example, "JOE" separated by 7 blank lines from "JOE," takes off from that neophyte’s question - "Is this one any good?" Grenier gives his "explanation" of a forlorn bellowing of "Joooe’ and I- "myself" - extend it till it mirrors, fun-house style, the prime Romantic trope of poet calling out to world.

I then discuss Grenier’s recent work in holograph, where the desire to write presence, to be specific to the page, to write "here," makes Grenier abandon printed letters, which are, after all, institutional, repetitive shapes.

I compare lines from one poem, "No, please, / not out in the Boat / again, tonight, please" to the stolen boat episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude, where as the boy rows, his motion causes his perspective to change in small jerks, so that a mountain appears to be pursuing him. I suggest that this mountain be thought of as the entirety of poetic history, an Oedipal sublime, pursuing every writer with every keystroke or penstroke. This goes back to the original discussion at the beginning of the chapter - it’s not "free association" or a "rope-a-dope" strategy.

I conclude by quoting a single "s" from another passage of Wordsworth concerning sublimity and eternity. It fills an entire page. I suggest that there is more motion and otherness in print than in handwriting.

That "s" is a joke; it’s the s of Ulysses and very clearly, not that. It’s literary-historical - Wordsworth wrote it, after all - and it’s the desublimation of our heroic writing desires. In my desire to demonstrate the historical qotion of all dimensions of writing, it’s a gesture that I hope will be usefully legible.

My time is more than up: I’ve kept the editors waiting too long already. I want to close with the poem I read on the evening of the panel. Like the Lincoln Bedroom piece, it’s a comic questioning of agency; but, again, I’m serious about its concluding appeal to the complexities of reading.

Aliens have inhabited my aesthetics for
decades. Really since the early 70s.
Before that I pretty much wrote
as myself, though young. But something
has happened to my memory, my
judgment: apparently, my will has been
affected. That old stuff, the fork
in my head, first home run,
Dad failing out of the car -
I remember the words, but I
just can’t get back there. I
think they must be screening my
sensations. I’m sure my categories have
been messed with. I look at
the anthologies in the big chains
and campus bookstores, even the small
press opium dens, all those stanzas
against that white space - they just
look like the models in the
catalogs. The models have arms and
legs and a head, the poems
mostly don’t, but other than that
it’s hard - for me anyway - to
tell them apart. There’s the sexy
underwear poem, the sturdy workhoot poem
you could wear to a party
in a pinch, the little blaspheming
dress poem. There’s variety, you say:
the button-down oxford with offrhymed cuffs.
The epic toga, showing some ancient
ankle, the behold! The world is
changed and finally I’m normal flowing
robe and shorts, the full nude,
the scatter - Yes, I suppose there’s
variety, but the looks, those come
on and read me for the
inner you I’ve locked onto with
my cultural capital sensing device looks!
No thanks, Jay Peterman! No thanks,
"Ordinary Evening in New Haven"! I’m
just waiting for my return ticket
to have any meaning, for those
saucer-shaped clouds to lower! The authorities
deny any visitations - hardly a surprise.
And I myself deny them - think
about it. What could motivate a
group of egg-headed, tentacled, slimier-than-thou aestheticians
with techniques far beyond ours to
visit earth, abduct naive poets, and
inculcate them with otherworldly forms that
are also, if you believe the
tabloids, rather salacious? And these abductions
always seem to take place in
some provincial setting: isn’t that slightly
suspicious? Why don’t they
reveal themselves hovering over some New
York publishing venue? It would be
nice to get some answers here -
we might learn something, about poetry
if nothing else, but I’m no
help, since I’m an abductee, at
least in theory, though, like I
say, I remember little. But this
writing seems pretty normal: complete sentences;
semicolons; yada yada. I seem to
have lost my avant garde card
in the laundry. They say that’s
typical. Well, you’ll just have to
use your judgment, earthlings! Judgment, that’s
your job! Back to work! As
if you could leave! And you
thought gravity was a problem!

Bob Perelman has written 9 books of poetry, including Virtual Reality; 2 critical books, The Trouble with Genius and The Marginalization of Poetry; has edited two books of talks, Hills 6/7 and Writing/Talks. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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