Bob Perelman

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Bob Perelman Feature

Al Filreis

The President of This Sentence:

Bob Perelman’s History

At its premiere, history was received poorly.

History is not a sentence, / but this is.


Bob Perelman a few years ago announced that he suffers from HAD (Historical Affective Disorder). He was joking, but not entirely. His history is sometimes a bit off, yet as for his historiography, especially in the verse, it is almost always perfectly pitched. Perelman disclosed his HAD in a disarming prefatory riff launching a long rejoinder to criticisms of The Marginalization of Poetry, a book of essays he published in 1996. His advocacy of a particular tracing of an avant-garde in that collection had been defended by, he had to admit, a “defiant army of defiantly non-avant-garde sentences hurled at the four coigns of the balkanized master page.” The historical disaffection here, the worst effect of the malady, was to have forgotten in his capacity as a critic the main form/content lesson of the very same modernist prose literary-historiography — learned from Williams in Spring & All and In the American Grain; and from Pound in his most dissociative essays — that was and still is Perelman’s own modernist ground zero. Or, as Ron Silliman forcefully noted, Perelman’s chief impairment derived from a move into the ivied academy, whereupon the book-length display of super-coherent strings of such “nonavant-garde sentences” (among other issuances of normative critical behavior) rendered unruly heterodoxy unlikely or impossible. Thus had our HAD sufferer tellingly — indeed, happily — placed himself at a distinct disadvantage. In the poetry, over the years, both pre- and post-Ivy League, such symptoms as issuing forth from Perelman’s special expression of historical disorder — (1) a keen and specific sense of how the American past operates in the present, mixed with (2) deliberate socio-idiomatic fuzziness and (3) a comic mania for anachronism — have always been the source of his finest and most remarkable writing. The greatest Perelmanian ur-anachronism of all — that there might not be a future of memory — produced verse in the 1980s and ‘90s that offers the most perspicacious understanding of the end of the first Cold War (the early 1960s) I have yet read in any genre. This work presents an analysis-in-verse that convincingly links crazy characterizations of anticommunist conspiracies to a generationally earlier history of the rise and later demise of the modernist revolution.


The poet of special interest here, then, is the one who in Face Value (1988) asked us to imagine a “committee of my words” — we readers being the committee’s members — convening to argue out the matter of taste during a world situation in which “the names of countries” were changing weekly and “figures on casualties” were unavailable from a war not yet described except perhaps as a battle waged by a “mushroom-like military sump-pump” with its strategic flow charts springing up nightly. The result might have been an Ashberyian world — certainly it would have been good enough, poetically — in which chance and shifting pronouns (pronominal polyptoton) and the uses of the non-sequitur were primary and the significance of geo-political reference distantly secondary. But Face Value does not set up its priorities thus, for Perelman’s “Politics” (the title of a poem but also its theme — another piece in Face Value) is everywhere local to the line; emphatically, “Chance is a modern idea.” [1] Bob Perelman is trying to “manipulate reality” in the act of writing, a ambition made more obvious the more adamantly he claims otherwise:


I’m not trying to manipulate reality, please put that grain of sand
           back where you got it, thank you,
but above all — way high up, above cities, clouds, classes —
to make you see, and me write
putting one word in front of another.
The fact that I’m president of this sentence
should just be an anecdote among friends. [2]


The unreachable Olympian subject position precludes the act of the writer longing for writer-reader transparency or connection, dreaming of word-world concurrence, of linguistic order, one metered foot put down in front of the other, a walking of the political walk. He is president of the sentence, surely, but he is also always in the act of campaigning unavailingly for the whole poem. We sense that there have already been innumerable inefficacious interventions, poems making nothing happen. We know as we read the verse that our poet knows there is no returning to the world that occurred before such writing was added to it. Yes, it’s an intentionally weak case for poetry’s social or pedagogical impact, but the irony does theoretically put the poems’ speaker “way high up” after all, president at least of the sentence one is reading at present — although indeed just that one, since in Perelman there’s rarely any predicting the sentence to follow. There is no future of presidential memory, only, gorgeously, the words put not “one in front of another” but every which way.


The writing I am just now discussing is titled “Back to the Present,” and it is one of those poems that is at all points too late in going where it goes. “There’s no history in the past,” we learn similarly in “Streets” of The First World (1986), because “Nothing happens there anymore” and also because history as a method of comprehension tends not to put on a good performance. (“At its premiere, history was received poorly.”) [3] By the time, a dozen eventful years later, in The Future of Memory (1998), the future of American memory was bleakest, the twin histories most crucial to Perelman are in danger of being misremembered and — worse, actually — of having their histories separated or severed: (1) the “crazily, signifying America” of his beloved William Carlos Williams who in the end was — on top of having been already sufficiently silenced — “making music / in a gender / desert,” [4] a reference not so much to Elsie (“To Elsie”: “the pure products of America go crazy”) of the 1920s as to The Desert Music of the arid antipathetic American 1950s; and (2) “Modernism’s big adventure” now grievously memorialized in giant abstract wall hangings and blonde-wood biomorphic furniture in “corporate towers.” [5]


If the beneficiaries of word-world concurrence, that often satirically imagined captive audience, were to understand the poet truly, they would need as they read him to be absolutely in the present of the poem. In Captive Audience (1988) such a readership, by virtue of being in the flow of news that does not stay new, can fully understand “Clippings” (section 4 of the book-length poem), for it is composed in the way all of us by then were beginning to read: one not-quite-connected piece at a time, parts of a news-cycle world. And as it happened, Perelman noted with delight, this was the way the postmodern collagist assembled, the new poets having learned from just the right modernists. The mesmerizing Burgoyne Diller collage on board of 1944 reproduced on the book’s jacket aptly reinforces the point that the poems’ mode must be discerned as a specifically modern, not just contemporary, strategy. In Captive Audience the quasi-utopian solution to the problem of the future of selective failed memory is the presence of the poem as written.


Not just anybody can
be here now, only those
for whom location and time
coincide in a goodnatured
systematic cultivation of perception
and will. The credit terms
are oceanic like you wouldn’t believe
unless you were already there
seeing them, surrounded
by the unbroken linguistic surface
that guarantees certainty while perhaps
foreclosing your future… [6]


The clippings that comprise the parts of “Clippings,” both the poem of that title and the overall method, operate on the hopeful temporal assumption — satirized often here but still a cause for hope — that readers will visually reckon


R = restaurant
E = equipment
D = distribution [7]       (CA30)


and understand acronymically that “If you know what they mean, / things make sense.” (This leads him to remind us that Soweto, a home base of apartheid’s horrors, derives from the SOuth WEst TOwnship — as politically constructed a place-name as there could ever be.) The Trouble with Genius, Perelman’s critical history of his key modernist forebears, Pound, Joyce, Stein and especially Zukofsky, might be said to be about one issue: how to make a counterintuitively populist claim for a poetics whose bad reputation was built upon a super-density of historical reference and verbal opaqueness. To the extent that the The Trouble with Genius is really about the trouble with Perelman — which is to say, a little more neutrally, the modernist background of his and his Language Writing colleagues’ postmodern poetics — it is, as he put it in that book, the “problem… of addressing the public in language more real than it could read.” [8] Perelman’s main goal as a poet has been to overcome this problem; he can be downright sullen when he seems to be failing in this. Success, though, is delightful. In the readerly present of “Clippings,” everything is perfectly readable. The difficulty is that the poem’s future (for instance, the relation of one clipping to the next) is obscure; and, as for the poem’s past, it is Perelman’s special obsession to be almost constantly laying out modernist antecedents and holding himself to their standards while attempting to avoid the misdirections of their geniuses. So he looks back in order to remind himself that the present, both required and sufficient, is only right there in the writing. “History is not a sentence,” the poem “Movie” begins, “but this is.” [9] And history is made, produced, filmic in quality, as the long poem “Movie” is written on successive July days in 1987, in a present (“it’s July 19, 1987, and / 75 degrees”) that is filled with history: Nixon, Vietnam, Nicaragua, 1848, the Bastille, Celine’s anti-Semitism, Reagan, and (starring in the blockbuster movie that was television news coverage that summer) Oliver North. The connections connecting all these difficult-to-follow parts are in the poem, are the poem. The poem’s writing is what is left of the exercise of making all those political connections, a surreal counter-intuitive arms-for-hostage-style set of unlikely convergences — a thing made because otherwise “there can be no straight lines / in this mass of air / representing itself / visually as broken into pieces, / and temporally as a single car ride with / a unified driver.” If “there’s only so much anyone / can put up with in any given sentence,” laden as it is with all the obscure historical parts Perelman holds at once in his head, it is still the case that “History is not a sentence, / but this is.” [10] At the very end of the long poem-film, Perelman reaches out in his most earnest democratic tone. Downright Whitmanian, he escorts us “beyond / the evening’s blocky conspiracy theories”: “My hand in yours,” he says in an echo of Song of Myself, “if you read me.” [11]


We cheated a little just above, merging two different poems. The tender grasp of the reader does not in fact come at the end of Perelman’s 1987 Iran-Contra poem. It is in the final lines of “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake,” a seventeen-page tour de force at the heart of The Future of Memory. Ron Silliman has called this poem an “extraordinary expository engine,” [12] a phrase conveying, at least, a sense of Perelman’s urge to report a particular cultural history. The long poem is divided into “shots.” The speaker of the “17th shot,” at once its director and its critic, presents himself as an authoritative “voiceover.” Its first dozen couplets are mere plot summary, Silliman’s “expository engine” at extreme. But these give way slowly to plot recitation mixed with production directions (“Slow modern harpsichord jangles the soundtrack” [13]) and bits of socio-formal filmic analysis (“The film is // racially progressive: when the onscreen American / soldier is black, his hallucinated matrons // are uppermiddleclass black; there’s no plantation / subtext.”). In the end, section 17 returns to a poem’s lines of the sort we had come to expect from Bob Perelman, but with a special historicized twist — that is to say, with a difference that the poet has for years been working up to: language typifying worries over the marginalization of poetry as the one domain reserved for expressions of agony about fractured, unwhole, or drifting identity is here made strikingly less personal by a precise ideological fidelity to John Frankenheimer’s 1962 anti-anticommunist Cold War movie:


        You can’t believe

what you see. But you have
to look. Finally, the poem is

beginning to focus. We know you
know what we’re saying to you. [14]


What had been the playful New American Poet’s first-person plural — “we” in “We know you / know what we’re saying to you” as a reader’s friendly and comedic guide/collaborator, a figure of dubious trustworthiness generally yet the provider of great insight — is now an historical figure with an urgent sense of the conspiracy of transparence. Yes, poetry, the realm of the imagination, has been the site where a Camel cigarette can be mesmerized into yak dung. But for the generation born in the late forties and early fifties, these second-generation New Americans, poetic maturity comes when mere surrealist tomfoolery can finally be read historically backwards onto the time of an alleged thaw in xenophobia of the late 1950s and early 1960s (the future of memory of emergent political adolescence) as a sharp weapon against doubt and dissent. “Finally, the poem is / beginning to focus,” by which, I think, Perelman refers to “the poem” in the sense Wallace Stevens meant: the entire poetic project. The result is not so good as sociological film criticism (full of obvious cultural history: “On screen, nations personify the pursuit of happiness”), nor as critique of ordinary postmodern life (there are easy frames: “Then I woke up. I was watching television”). But it is terrifyingly brilliant in the way in which the collapse of binaristic imperial politics is applied to the radical contentions of Language Poetry, especially in the troubled but beautiful languaged selves of Silliman’s “Albany” or Hejinian’s My Life or Perelman’s Face Value: that American stories are basically incomprehensible, and are best so; that each of us is fundamentally a “geo-toy,” a frightening state of being reckoned most devastatingly when we find ourselves to be the family men and women we warned others about becoming, dozing over Cold War re-runs while the family is abed.


            Narrative homeruns
over the abyss of incoherence

are America’s
ice cream —

I saw leaden geo-toy Raymond Shaw
murder mother and father
in the snap of the plot;

            10th shot

while I was waiting for the kids to go to sleep
so you could nicely slip your underwear off.

Oops you went to sleep.
I never meant any of this.

I have not done these things. Any of these things.
I write for you and strangers. [15]


“I have not done these things”: a very affecting sentence. It is the weak expression uttered by a Prufrockian burgher whose spouse has fallen asleep just when he’s feeling aroused, and whose late-night TV watching has drawn him into old anticommunist-era nightmares of mistaken identity, implanted false memories. At the same time, this pathetic insistence on obliviousness and dubious claim of open-hearted Whitmanian transparency (“I write for you and strangers”) is the cry of political innocence that ironically only reinforces the murderous American unconsciousness of Frank Sinatra’s dispirited Ben Marco. “Wherever he [Sinatra as Marco] looks: / locked American lives. // No writing the great book. / Might as well read the ashtray.” [16]


For this poet “writing the great book” requires active undoing of the “invisible reified atemporal empire, the sense of decorum that’s backed by political power,” as he once put it in a talk. [17] Thus temporality must be part of the anti-imperial response. By the time “communism is dead” — the time of the poems of Virtual Reality (1993) — we get in Perelman’s poems scenes of standard postmodern malaise: burning freeways, permanent Christmastime economies, cartoon Arabs with big noses, the moment when capitalism (“capitalism, the word, the / movie”) now has “nowhere to go, nothing / to mean.” [18] In such writing he slips into broad satire: it’s not just “the free world” that “belongs in a language museum,” for “Free love and free verse” are already there! So much for modernism’s social and aesthetic separation from the American empire in the period from the 1920s through the 1980s. The introspective burgher mesmerized in 1998 by Frankenheimer’s 1962 film also has “nowhere to go, nothing / to mean,” but the difference between a work like “From the Front” of Virtual Reality and “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake” of The Future of Memory is a growing commitment to temporality — to history as a series of discerned movements and cultural modes. Writing provides perspective on both modernism’s legacy and the impact of the Cold War on contemporary experimental poetics, the result of the merge of the two historical analyses being, in this view, a version of postmodernism associated with radical ambitions. As Perelman put it in a poem from Face Value: “State of mind enter history naked.” This statement summons the most intrepid start-from-scratch calls to Make It New, William Carlos Williams’s sense, in Spring & All, that newness means “enter[ing] the new world naked” [19] and, at the same time, the historiographical battle cry of the brash young New Left historians of the early 1960s, such as William Appleman Williams, at a time when they put forward an anti-anticommunist reading of American cultural and economic power in the 1950s.


“State of mind enter history naked”: it’s a line from Perelman’s poem called “Psycho.” While the super-psychotic Norman Bates preserves his murdered mother, whose subjectivity he now embodies, the poem’s speaker, somewhat in parallel, “carr[ies] around dead in my basement… the greatest most inward movie of all time.” Of course he is referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Whereas Ben Marco is to the Chinese brainwashers as the speaker of “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake” is to the late-night movie he watches at home (it is in part a poem about the brainwashing of everyday American life), here Bates is to his mother as the speaker-consumer in Perelman’s “Psycho” is to Psycho. Immediately after the aphoristic assertion about the newness of the new history (“State of mind enter history naked”), the speaker of “Psycho” creates a comic capsule autobiography of a poet’s psychosis, having already warned us this was coming (“I’m about to lay bare the soul of my device”):


It started as a play on words, a casual dalliance with memory,
but ended with a private mind fantastically deciphering messages from the environment, racing past in an ambulance with mother’s ghost solemnly reminding you to put up your sword and use words. [20]


Use your words, intones the voice of the negotiation-minded American mother of a certain Freudian generation — an act (a speech act) preferred to the settling of the problem of our desires violently. In any resistance to such maternal capitulation to the decorum of acceptable problem-solving language, using words is tantamount to mature psychic adjustment, getting along and also getting things done — the version of language’s psychic negotiation with capitalism Perelman has been decrying all along, a critique that culminates in several poems of The Future of Memory, including, movingly, “Ohio Urn.” That post-Keatsian poem associates normative socialization through McGuffey readers and the “Grecian Urn-like audience” for anthologized poetic chestnuts, with the heyday of the mother (“You built my pronouns”) and then her death, which the poem seems to memorialize, in an urn of Ohio (Perelman’s home state) rather than Greece. [21] The Batesean trouble for the poet started when he felt forced to shift modes, from the verse of mere “play[s] on words,” the point at which the poetics began, to the elaborate inwardness of mental decipherment: a poetics that is a version of life with mother at the Bates Motel, life lived as if mother and son were the only two left alive in the world — a weird Hitchcockian version of the extremest criticism of Language Writing, which Perelman seems momentarily to have taken to heart. If this association is indeed at play, it is no wonder that Perelman renders Bates as sensitively as can be done, offering historical context and ending with comparison to the heroic but violently jealous Odysseus, who is last seen returning home to vanquish suitors, “leaving a lot of blood to wash off the floors and walls.”


That’s at the end of “Psycho.” In the middle of the poem is a remarkably succinct cultural and economic history of modern America, leading up to the very moment being considered in the poem — 1960:


In the 20s telephone and cars were adjuncts to the self.
In the 30s they were taken away in sufficient number to revive fears of commodity-castration
In the 40s they were used for war.
In the 50s they were given back again, but only to Cary Grant [22] (FV 41)


This is a light psychoanalysis of modern technologies — luxuries becoming necessities — as the cyborg’s extensions. First they were embodied (the modern era of life-easing contraptions), then the body suffered loss, reviving fears of castration (the Depression; radicalism); then fear waned as the reason for castration shifted to necessary response to dire external threat (the Greatest Generation’s good fight); finally peace, prosperity, know-nothingism, and empire. The last era is prime time for a return of the modern appendages, but re-attachment of the commodity body, as it turns out, inhabits only the big screen, remaining a fantasy, and a vestigial sexuality, for the rest of us. Cue “Psycho,” this poem of 1960: “Now we change the world,” says Bates-Perelman, making it new. If in the end swords are used rather than words, this was an error of degree not of kind. The poem, in Perelman’s work, marks the beginning of the end of the poetics of the “private mind.” Now the poem is historical, is history. History begins to include the poem (as distinct, moreover, from explanations of the poem). In the poem “you get this single sequence of words,” Perelman once asserted to a gathering a Language Writing colleagues, “which may have all this meaning behind it, but you also have simply . . . the irreducible brute historical fact of all that this poem has said… . All that the poem has said has been itself, the words that have been pronounced. You can explain everything but that. I mean, political theory can explain everything but history.” [23] Given this view of poetry’s efficacy, the paradox, in “Psycho” and in much of Perelman’s verse, is that “it’s too late” to “put up your sword / and use words.” Why? Because “Cary Grant is dead. / So put away your notepad and hang up your private mind.”


“Political theory can explain everything but history.” The statement was offered jokingly, in part. And, according to transcripts of this and other such talks, Writing/Talks, the audience laughed in response. Yet as the laughter abated Perelman proceeded to read the final lines of a poem from Primer, “The Classics”:


If the box is too heavy
Tell it to move. [24]


— whereupon the poet referred to Bruce Andrews’ classic L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E formulation, the essay titled “Constitution/ Writing, Politics, Language, the Body,” [25] and then added this: “[I]t’s optimistic to say that writing changes the world. Well, I also share that optimism.” [26] Both Perelman’s and Hitchcock’s “Psycho” are about pens and swords — about which one is mightier; and about the sexuality of the writing mechanism, the “device,” the bodily extension, like the consumer-fantasized cars and phones the modern economy created the desire for in the modern era, then confiscated, and only returned in the postmodern era in ghostly forms, prostheses of modernism.


In Writing/Talks, which Perelman himself edited, the talk featuring such “optimism” is puckishly called “Sense.” It begins with a transcript of Perelman’s reading of a poem, also from Primer, called “Mature Ejaculation.” [27] He recites the poem aloud and, after every few lines, permits himself improvisational commentary — a line-by-line explication here, the identification of sourcework there, always antic associative digressions. Once again there is a “movie behind this” poem, in this instance “the ultimate D-minus movie,” as Perelman informs us: the horrible teen pic, Horror at Party Beach (1964). The ostensible reason for his attraction to this movie is that “it’s so poorly made, it dissolves the referent” [28] — a concern in fact discussed, one way or another, in every one of the Writing/Talks talk-performances, staged by Alan Davies, Carla Harryman, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian (it’s her famous “Rejection of Closure”), Robert Grenier, and others. As Perelman loosens up, as his reading of “Mature Ejaculation” proceeds and evokes a delighted, resonant response from the audience, it seems that his fascination with what might be called the politically charged hypersexuality of Cold War culture becomes clear, his ideological analysis becomes forceful, and, as a result — marking a turning point, I think — his discernment of the predicament of the contemporary avant-garde becomes quite keen.


Horror at Party Beach is in one sense utterly formulaic, drawing uninventively from various conventions of Cold War sci fi, biker gang/JV flicks, teen beach movies (and film musicals), and noir. In another sense this movie is completely unique, since, bizarrely, it brings these four modes together without any sense of irony embedded into the telling. The immature girlfriend of Hank Green, Tina, strays from him (bad idea), flirts openly with nomadic beach-bound biker deviants; thus she is the first to be slashed by plant-like monsters who have been brought to life by radioactive waste dumped into the ocean. Elaine, the daughter of the scientist whose job in this movie is to stop the monsters (and not apparently to worry much about the culture of nuclear annihilation generally), befriends Hank because he knows to give up on girls like Tina. The monsters, who (the poem begins) like “metaphors arise / From human necessity,” seem only interested in bloodying teenaged women, which they do by the dozens. The poem is obviously self-conscious of its self-consciousness — historical and linguistic — in comparison with the flick. “The period / Ends the sentence by force”: does it refer to a line in the film’s script? Yes, but also of course to itself, for it is a poetic sentence that reminds the speaker of radical linguists’ belief that meaning is enforced in the manner of “an army and a navy,” a point John Cage also made often: syntax is the army; to make no sense is to demilitarize language. [29] Already the problem seems specifically gendered in a way that permits the movie its expression of conventional Cold War values (in spite of its satirical tone and its relatively late post-Fifties date, 1964). The languaged gendering and us/them anticommunist binarisms merge in Elaine’s role:


Elaine went a little too near the lake,
And her geiger counter went crazy. (“Mature Ejaculation”)


The monsters are standard-fare alien Others: in dozens of liberal Cold War sci fi films, they are our come-uppance — for fooling around with nuclear fission, for our postwar imperial presumptions. In conservative Cold War sci fi, they are a natural consequence of the larger necessary defense and thus can and should be destroyed, restoring communal (read: American) order, if only egghead doctors and scientists would put their ideologically susceptible minds on the problem. [30] But because Horror at Party Beach is so insistent on its mix of genres — because it is, as Perelman tells us, “really about highschool sex” — being on the right side in the Cold War becomes less important than knowing how to respond when Elaine’s “geiger counter goes crazy.” Elaine’s wild alert reminds Perelman of Colette’s Gigi insisting that her skirts be made “longer because I think about my what-do-you-call-it.” Perelman wisecracks: “Maybe she [Gigi] should have said ‘geiger counter,’” although he hastens to remind us that the poem’s reproduction of the movie’s plot and broad metaphors is meant to be literal. “In the movie she did have a Geiger counter and the monsters were radioactive.” [31] If one follows this figurative narrative literality faithfully, it’s the monstrous atomic Other who stimulates Elaine’s sexuality, and Hank is just there — although on the scientist-father’s side (as his assistant) — to take some modest advantage of the awakening, once, of course, the monsters can be destroyed, as the movie veers from left to right. Meantime, in the beach town


Social life bogs down completely.
A pajama party is an orgy
Of inefficient appetite… .


(Every teenage girl attending a sleepover is murdered one night by the monsters, while Elaine for both obscure and obvious reasons shuns the party and is spared. Then:)


            We look
In the book, but get let off
With a slap on the wrist. A dot
In the center of the map
Speaks for us and hangs useless signs
On trees, rocks, and water. (“Mature Ejaculation,” Primer)


With suddenness, the poem begins again, belatedly, to worry about the problem of a cultural expression so poorly constructed that it dissolves the referent. An earlier line — “What’s that sound?” — Perelman notes is “a quote from the movie” but is also a question the poem’s speaker permits about the poem: What in the world is going on here? “What is this stuff saying?” Now, toward the end “Mature Ejaculation,” the failure even of a map to refer properly, and of signposts reliably to indexically point to parts of the landscape (post-atomic nature, like post-atomic film genres, having gone elementally awry), what can the poem about all this itself do? And this is just where, in his talk, Perelman in “Sense” reminded his Language Writing colleagues of his certainty that the postwar United States is an “invisible reified atemporal empire,” creating a “sense of decorum that’s backed by political power,” and that this power — embodied in films from the pre-radical early 1960s — “tries to define all language and to make the sticks, the surrounding countryside and people, useless.” If a truly new poetics — its formula being: (1) modernism plus (2) latter-day anti-anticommunism achieved at (3) the level of the sentence’s language — cannot disclose such a force, then its power to inspire or to move will abate, as it merely reproduces the “sense of decorum” of exactly the sort that induces Elaine’s father to expend his psychic energy discovering that sodium (eureka! a form of salt!) will beat back nuke-age monsters made of uranium and seaweed, and to preserve his daughter for the right guy — rather than doubting the whole atomic enterprise. If the box is too heavy, the poem avers, tell it to move. Its final four lines are a quotation, not easily identified without the poet’s disclosure of the source:


“We have paid our tuition
And have suffered a little,
But what counts is we are
Accumulating knowledge and results.” (“Mature Ejaculation”)


Perelman, he reports in “Sense,” had lifted this statement from an article in Scientific American written by the vice-president in charge of economic affairs in the People’s Republic of China. The man’s metaphor is stiff, perhaps a result of bad translation; perhaps from dull Chinese communist “progressive” rhetoric: China is putting itself through school; the Chinese people will eventually catch up; real knowledge is acquired through some suffering. Or, as Perelman paraphrases in his talk: “It’s painful, but we’ll get there finally.” [32]


Here, as elsewhere in Primer (1981), Bob Perelman seems to take very seriously the slowness of acquiring knowledge. The goal, as in “Clippings,” as we have seen, and also in the non-realist poem “Socialist Realism,” is to reckon with news that stays news (“the front page look” that is “denatured” and “strewn all over / The storied horizon”) and in the end to “Grasp a few simple positions.” [33] Early poems like “Socialist Realism,” “Mature Ejaculation,” and “History” (“Having survived the history of ideas / For x number of days does not / Make us ideal readers” [34]) Perelman puts forward as modest counterattacks against the large atemporal empire: an affirmation of, together, the modernist notion of entering history naked and the psycho-linguistic centrality of adhering to mother’s dictum to use your words; the conception of a poem that it can move the heavy box; a substitution of useless signs with new ones at least a little more useful in a different way; a refusal to become a geo-toy. Each inroad is made at the risk of engaging “necessity” in the Marxist (albeit post-Maoist “Chinese capitalist”) sense, of too simply ratifying the notion jokingly promulgated in the first lines of “Mature Ejaculation” — that “monsters and metaphors arise from necessity.” From that antic start we move to a sincere final position. “The poem ends on a sober physical, ‘real’ note,” Perelman told his Writing/Talks audience, “after struggling through this cartoon-like dreck.” When, earlier, he had asserted that “I want to really ‘tie this together in a very unified way,’” his knowing hearers laughed at the absurdity of such an explicative aim, but I take it that, at least here, such an intention was sincere. If “Mature Ejaculation” — Hank withstands the allure of slutty Tina and goes to school, as it were, on Elaine (finally “Hank and Elaine,” near poem’s end, “Begin to screw”) — is “really about highschool sex”; if the turning point in “The Manchurian Candidate: A Remake” is the aroused speaker’s sexual-political error of re-running Cold War dystopianism while his all-grown-up wife falls asleep beside him; if in “Psycho” “there’s no plot, no description, no significant tension of grammar, no sex” [35] — then Bob Perelman’s reading of this historical moment derives from some very fortunate side-effect of his Historical Affective Disorder. For in none of these poems, written roughly about the time of Perelman’s own adolescence (he was 17 the year of the movie he believes is “really about highschool sex”), is political theory ever once presented as a mode that explains history. Indeed, a main tenet of this comic political avant-gardist is that “political theory can explain everything but history.” What remains, at bottom, is conscious temporality, having paid its tuition and become ready, more patiently than before, to suffer a little. The analysis-in-verse of the early 1960s reminded this writer in the ‘80s and ‘90s to “hang up your private mind,” and that is the point on which the poetry turns.


[1] Face Value (New York: Roof, 1988), p. 63; emphasis added.

[2] Face Value, p. 9.

[3] The First World ([Berkeley, Calif.:] Tuumba, 1984), p. 18.

[4] The Future of Memory (New York: Roof, 1998), p. 63.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Captive Audience (Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1988), p. 30.

[7] Captive Audience, p. 30.

[8] The Trouble with Genius, Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 23.

[9] Captive Audience, p. 37.

[10] Captive Audience, p. 37; emphasis added.

[11] The Future of Memory, p. 37.

[12] Ron Silliman, “The Marginalization of Poetry by Bob Perelman,” Jacket 2 (January 1998):

[13] The Future of Memory, p. 28.

[14] Ibid, p. 29.

[15] Ibid, p. 24.

[16] Ibid, p. 25.

[17] Writing/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 66.

[18] Virtual Reality (New York: Roof, 1993), pp. 22-23.

[19] William Carlos Williams, “By the road to the contagion hospital,” Spring and All (The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1, eds. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan [New York: New Directions Press, 1986], p. 183).

[20] Face Value, p. 41.

[21] The Future of Memory, pp. 80-1.

[22] Face Value, p. 41.

[23] Writing/Talks, p. 70.

[24] Bob Perelman, “The Classics,” Primer:

[25] In Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 20-32.

[26] Writing/Talks, p. 70.

[27] For pagination from Primer, see

[28] Writing/Talks, p. 63.

[29] See John Cage, Empty Words: writings ’73-’78, p. 11: “Syntax: arrangement of the army (Norman Brown). Language free of syntax: demilitarization of language”; and p. 133, from “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegan’s Wake”: “Due to Norman O. Brown’s remark that syntax is the arrangement of the army, and Thoreau’s that when he heard a sentence he heard feet marching, I became devoted to nonsyntactical ‘demilitarized’ language.” See also a recording of a radio interview dated August 8, 1974:

[30] See Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing : How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).

[31] Writing/Talks, p. 64; emphasis added.

[32] Writing/Talks, p. 66.

[33] Primer, p. 63.

[34] Primer, p. 65.

[35] Face Value, p. 41.

Alan Filreis

Alan Filreis

Alan Filreis has been professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania since 1995, where he is also Director of the Kelly Writers House and the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, and a Co-Director of PennSound, an Archive of Poetry & Poetics Recordings. Filreis is a specialist in modern and contemporary American poetry and the literary politics of the American 1930s and 1950s. He has published an edition of Wallace Stevens’s correspondence with Jose Rodriguez Feo (Secretaries of the Moon, 1986), and three books on American poetry: Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton University Press 1991) Modernism from Right to Left, (Cambridge University Press 1994) and Counter Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945–1960 (University of North Carolina Press 2007). His edition of Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People has been published by Illinois. Aside from teaching modern American poetry, he has offered a series of courses on twentieth-century American decades, and another on the literature of the Holocaust. Also a passionate advocate of technology as a means for teaching and deepening intellectual community, Filreis appeared on NPR’s “The Best of Our Knowledge” in 2001 to speak about his work in online learning. He has received several awards for his teaching, including the Lindback Award and the Ira Abrams Award, and was chosen as the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation.

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