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Bob Perelman Feature

Two nibs


Bob Perelman in conversation with Peter Nicholls
London, UK, April 1998

The following conversation was held in a seminar on ‘Contemporary Senses of the Avant-Garde’ at King’s College, London in April 1998 and first appeared in Textual Practice, 12, 3 (1998).



Peter Nicholls: It’s an odd possibility that the majority of readers of Textual Practice who know of your work may have first encountered it via Fredric Jameson’s essay on postmodernism. This raises an interesting question about readership: given that Language writing, with which you’ve been closely associated, has been so much concerned with forms of critical theory, it’s surprising that people who are interested in those areas don’t seem to be much drawn to reading this poetry. People are keen to read fiction in terms of post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and so on, but that doesn’t generally extend to contemporary poetry where the writers’ engagement with theory has actually been much more systematic. Why do you think that split exists?


Bob Perelman: Many people who do theory have not made the slightest move towards poetry. There’s something about the situation of contemporary poetry that would make it hard for someone who didn’t already have some sense of what they already thought about it to know where to start. On one hand, there’s the institutionalization of theory, so people can begin to judge books and articles with an initial scan: they can have a good sense of new developments they need to pay attention to. Whereas with poetry, the disposition is much harder to discover initially. The field seems quite difficult to map, full of sui generis examples.


PN: There’s an anxiety about the whole question of poetic value: where you make that judgment that something’s important, that something’s good. This is somewhat paradoxical in view of the critical discourse that has already built up around Language poetry, discourse that would propose a kind of opening to what’s going on in the work. And the poets themselves also offer some kind of critical context through which they can be read, critical books, essays, and so on. Yet it still seems that there’s a break between that and a theoretically informed readership.


BP: How would anyone from the outside know that Language writing is any “good”? This is a thorny, extensive question. Ron Silliman, when he edited the first large anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, sidestepped it very emphatically. He wrote in his Introduction that an anthology of “absolutely equal value” could have been assembled from the work of seventy non-included poets. Then twenty years later when a later anthology was assembled that actually referred to this list and used work from many of those poets, in an Afterword Silliman listed another fifty or so poets, who might have been included in the new anthology. He’s insistent about not ascribing comparative value and hierarchy.


PN: He’s still choosing, not good poems or bad poems but representative poems…


BP: It’s problematic: the notion of value goes against the aspiration to community, the ideology of community, however you want to say it. The traditional sense of value — it’s scarce, there’re only a few great composers, painters, etc. — is a problematic model for an art community to constitute itself around.


PN: You can see why In the American Tree, although it’s a relatively “old” anthology, might still be off-putting to new readers in this assumption of equal value, in its assumption more significantly that there are some shared but concealed protocols of reading. Silliman seems to have thought that by presenting them in that egalitarian way the reader would somehow absorb the protocols of reading — by which phrase I mean that there are certain habits of reading you might adopt, certain intellectual manoeuvres you go through to “manage” a text.


BP: Well, those “protocols” could be described as facets of the organization of the work that can be made more public by criticism. In fact, In the American Tree is unusual as an anthology in that it contains criticism. It’s trying to avoid mystification and fetishization of the poem, to openly educate its readership. But there’s a more subterranean sense which is not talked about much but which is present in Language writing as in other communities. It’s present in the long-range changing of literary landscapes — in the general sense of how certain poets become important and need to be looked at. It’s hard to specify those protocols; they range from how poetry impinges on important critical paradigms — certainly those of race and gender these days — to how certain sounds, certain social noises, are made, and what seems to sound new to which audience. There’s a level of style and gossip: who comes to what readings, what poems impress. This isn’t talked about much. Given how complex the developments of value turn out to be, it’s not surprising that value isn’t discussed much in the innovative and small press poetry worlds. Absolute value is assumed, proclaimed, all across the spectrum, of course. I’ve tried to begin to deal with this elsewhere in an essay urging poets to rethink the automatic equation where fragmentation equals breaking up of interpellation, etc. But there’s also a kind of felicity in writing, organization, comedy, lack of ponderousness, presence of seriousness, a whole range of things.


PN: And this also raises important questions about critical judgements. In Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption,” for example, he stages an encounter with Helen Vendler where she makes that point about poetry as a register of what is familiar — poetry gives you a sense of re-cognition, if you like (“Heavens, I recognize the place. I know it!”). And you can see why he objects to that. But at the same time it makes you reflect that Vendler isn’t like a bad poet, a weak poet, she’s actually a very sensitive reader of poems, as is Bernstein. And yet you know that their bookcases at home must be incredibly different. It’s not the case, presumably, that Vendler cannot read Language poets, but that she will not… .


BP: Well, she would find their vision of past, present, and future, dreary and repellent, as would a Language writer find her canon rather stale and puffy… overblown. It’s a matter of class and history, but manifested at the micro-level of tone that’s hard to talk about with the medium-sized thematic tools that are usually used to discuss poetry. You have these cumbersome pincers that just can’t pick up what’s going on. So the various readerships go their own alienated ways, not reading one another, with the occasional poet like Ashbery able to travel between the camps.


PN: Do you think the question of value and its relation to what we were calling protocols of reading suggests an analogy between Language writing and something like surrealism? Where surrealism was shocking initially, exceeding people’s sense of what representable reality was, it very quickly became commonplace or recuperated, as they say. With Language poetry I think that often people feel that there are tricks to be learned, that, say the “wordness” or opacity is something that can be grasped . ..


BP: That can be added as an ingredient…


PN: There’s a twisting, if you like, a torque on reality which can be learned, as a medium of perception…


BP: Yes, I think these things can dissolve into tricks and tics. Innovation is still crucial; but the received idea of the avant-garde astonishing or disgusting the bourgeoisie seems very old hat. Formal innovations have to be made at the more social level of rhetoric. So that you might end up using declarative sentences like the most mainstream poet, but the point is, are you writing in a world that’s simply the way it seems to be now or are you writing in one in which various class divisions are less unjust? Avant-garde shock won’t get there without some sense of multiple social address.


PN: This question of the difficulty of an avant-garde position seems central to much of your recent work, both in criticism and poetry. It’s particularly important in The Future of Memory. The opening poem, “Confession,” for example.


BP: Which we’ve arranged that I’ll read. One thing first I’d like to mention: the form. I’ve been using a six-word couplet, which is, at least to me, has a charge that is anti-vatic, anti-shamanistic, anti-projective-verse, anti-sonic-authenticity, anti-iambic-pentameter-RSC-British-heritage, etc. It’s seeing what counting to six does to sound.




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 falling 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 workboot 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, salacious? And these abductions always

seem to take place in some
provincial setting: isn’t that more than

slightly suspicious? Why don’t they ever
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 not

much help, since I’m an abductee,
at least in theory, though, like

I say, I don’t remember much.
But this writing seems pretty normal:

complete sentences; semicolons; yadda yadda. 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!


PN: The concerns here seem to connect very clearly with those of The Marginalization of Poetry. Does that title comment directly on the notion of the avant-garde?


BP: Indirectly, in complicated ways. The Marginalization of Poetry, as has been pointed out, is far from marginal because it’s been published by Princeton University Press, and I’m a professor at a university, and so like Paul Mann says in The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, the margins don’t have any claim to being opened up to any heroic vantage or harsh weather. They’re quite comfortably embedded in the cultural pedagogic machinery, perhaps.


The Marginalization of Poetry is a consideration of the history of Language writing, which has now been in process for almost thirty years. I look at the movement as a whole and at various people’s work, as well as some of the claims that have been made by Language writers about Language writing, which are similar in some ways to avant-garde claims of engagement, breakthrough, politics carried out by radical poetics. In all cases, I try to present things fairly but I also critique these claims. I discuss Robert Grenier’s practice of radically decontextualized writing, with his box of 500 cards (Sentences) with minimal texts in the centre of each card, or his more recent work which are handwritten scrawls. I explore his attempt at permanent newness.


Then I discuss “The New Sentence,” Ron Silliman’s term for a paratactic mode of writing one sentence in disconnected apposition to the next sentence, continually switching context. Jameson calls this, in his essay “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, symptomatic of late capitalist schizophrenic ahistorical depthlessness. I say that in fact you can see in Silliman’s work a serious leftist politics as well as the return of the repressed, the return of narrative, the return of autobiography. I discuss Lyn Hejinian’s work there as well and discuss how she tries to write narrative using the New Sentence.


I then talk about Charles Bernstein’s work, his comedy of errors, his sense of anti-normative writing as being politically engaged. I compare it to Kamau Brathwaite’s “Nation Language,” a non-standard dialect that is meant to call into being a coherent sense of nation and people with its own history and its own sense of historical momentum. I then discuss Bruce Andrews’s very transgressive, fragmented work and some of his critical statements where he sees such writing basically throwing monkey wrenches into the textual or rhetorical machinery of capitalism and blowing up the managerial normative surfaces of capitalist prose. It seems to me that the effects that Andrews is claiming for such work are always predicated upon the prior existence of that bureaucratic norm.


In another chapter I discuss Rae Armantrout, Beverly Dahlen, Susan Howe, and Carla Harryman and look at the way women’s innovative writing is demonstrably different in its approach to the surrounding space that the writer physically finds herself in; that there is less confident naming of states, geopolitical entities, historical moments. It’s as if the language has to be much more thoroughly reinvented, that in the maps constructed by women innovative writers there are no secure place names. I contrast this to a range of male writers from Robert Frost, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Barrett Watten.


So, in a nutshell, I’m very much identified with the Language writing movement, and I’m arguing with its claims for political transformation through writing. This poem, “Confession,” is a send up of my own aesthetic history, my own coming into being as a writer. It’s transgressing against the transgressors in a way. Confessional poetry was the object of great scorn to the Language writers in the 1970s; it was the empowered model of writing. So here I’m somehow dancing with the devil. But the question of the avant-garde is always there, provoking the humour. Though it may turn out that the avant-garde is not the most meaningful category in which to place some contemporary innovative writing. The poem itself will at times completely throw away the idea of the avant-garde and conflate it with fashion design of the most nugatory order. It will, on the other hand, confer a transcendental gloss on the avant-garde by saying that it’s otherworldly, heavenly, in this case, alien.


I say near the end that I seem to have lost my avant-garde card in the laundry. And if I did have an avant-garde card I would want it to go through the laundry. The laundry is exactly what the historical avant-garde didn’t deal with. Man Ray photographing those naked violin-body women. The domestic and the female was always the blind spot of the avant-garde. Who did Duchamp’s laundry?


PN: You say “this writing seems pretty normal,” but it’s also full of irony and paradox. You’ve lost your avant-garde card, but you still come out as avant-garde.


BP: Yes, by being able to quote Seinfeld and use semicolons, that’s even more alien than breaking syntactic structures… Comparing poetry to items in a Jay Peterman catalogue.


PN: This seems close to Jameson’s idea of postmodernism as an array of different styles, where style can no longer detach itself from forms of commodification…


BP:… that there’s only choice, that one can be nothing but a consumer. I don’t “buy” that as a final horizon, however. Though there are styles in contemporary writing, and they can be compared to consumer goods. At the end of The Marginalization of Poetry, I stage a faux conversation between Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes which I claim to see while falling asleep in front of the TV having just seen an ad for Roy Rogers’ flame-broiled burgers. Near the end of their conversation Barthes compares Language writing to those burgers, just one more named commodity.


It’s a notion that a lot of people have attacked: “Language Writing! You guys have just named and marketed yourselves.” The spectre of being commodified hangs over every artist these days. Some embrace it eagerly, some with disgust, chastity is highly prized, especially in others. . .


PN: The poem, as I understand it, seems to say, of course ironically and humorously, that the avant-garde is now suddenly a move beyond the historical avant-garde. I’m thinking of Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, where he tries to distinguish between a “modernism” which is locked into a linear and historical narrative and an “authentic” avant-garde — dada and to some extent surrealism — which “liquidated the possibility of a period style when they raised to a principle the availability of the artistic means of past periods”. This repertoire of styles is somehow thrown clear of history.


What puzzles me about your poem is that there’s a point of transcendence at the end, a transcendence which is connected with some kind of claim — ironized though it may be — to the persistence of an avant-garde dimension to writing. But there’s also an element of anxiety about making this claim, perhaps because of the sort of “liquidation” of history which Bürger’s argument might suggest.


BP: The listing of poem-fashions is actually in the service of a historically specific critique — “since the early 70s”, as the poem says (“the sturdy workboot poem = Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, etc.). Now I don’t want to find all answers to all questions about the avant-garde in this poem. But one of the things that I would hope could be found in my writing is a tradition, no, a history of innovative writing that to me remains, not eternally useful, but useful over time. Arguments like Bürger’s about authenticity ultimately seem a kind of sad problem. From who is a Jew in Israel to ethnic cleansing, who is a language writer, what is the real Northumberland dialect, and who is only a Basil Bunting pretender… etc.


Well, I’ll put it this way. I make no distinction, in what I’m interested in reading, between the surrealists, Stein, Eliot, Langston Hughes, Stephen Crane, Hart Crane, Dreiser. Now I know that these are very different writers, some of whom have more useful tropes and ideas and forms than others. But there’s no one lineage of avant-garde moments — Dalai Lamas or Popes — immaculate transmission of the single-pointed arrow of history. Any kind of linear notion like that seems wrong. And that does not put me in some Jameson ahistorical anti-gravity playpen of postmodernism.


What I want in my writing is a wide address to people who are really interested, my peers — and that address is not without competition (maybe that’s more a specifically American quirk, maybe it’s endemic to poetry these days); it’s also a communal gesture as well. But in addition my work is also consciously addressed to — and I identify with this other addressee all the time — to the neophyte, the philistine, the person who doesn’t know much about poetry, or is scared of it. That figure could also be a student; and is very important.


So the history that I’m saying is useful can’t be alluded to à la Eliot; it continually has to be produced in the present; it has to be made manifest. You have to do the work of bringing it into the present, not just alluding (although I do often), but also… What if somebody doesn’t know anything about surrealism and you believe in parts of the surrealist project? How do you write a poem that makes those parts present? You have to enact the knowledge.


So in “Confession” I use and misuse fashion, which everyone knows, to comment on poetic styles. It’s not ahistorical; it’s multi-historical. To some people it’s old hat to watch you manufacture these small packages of initial knowledge, or these simulacra of knowledge; it’s tedious because they already know. But to other people those elementary openings of that historical knowledge are ways into the work. So the audience is multiplex and that does not immediately have to go into Jameson’s sense of ahistorical pastiche.


PN: In The Marginalization of Poetry, you say of the Language writers that “For us, the avant-garde was a ‘tradition’ in which we situated ‘our work’; we also placed that writing in or near to the same field as postmodern theory.” This conjunction of the historical avant-garde and the postmodern seems to me central to the whole Language project. But the abstractness of the discussion that revolves around these terms is partly a product of a way of thinking literary history in terms of massive categories or blocks. We’re constantly worrying at the transition between modernism and postmodernism, as if these were two corralled areas. I think we’d agree that it’s actually more important to try to understand the area of overlap if we’re to see where Language writing came from and actually where it’s going.


BP: Yes, a clear distinction between the categories of modernism and postmodernism, from a poetocentric point of view, is pretty dicey. For instance it’s really not a distortion to say that the objectivists were coeval with the Language writers. It’s not perfectly accurate. But it’s definitely not the case that the objectivists simply began in 1931 with the publication of the “objectivist’s” issue of Poetry magazine. Some of their careers hit brick walls and resurfaced or restarted in the 1950s and 1960s. The work was really beginning to circulate a bit more widely in the 1960s and 1970s. So that when I was a young poet, George Oppen had books coming out. Now he was obviously an older poet; it’s not like we were fully contemporary. But his work was coming out as I was starting to write.


For me, the complete version of Williams’s Spring and All, with the fractured dada-like prose, came out in 1970, not in 1922. And for most people it came out that way. Yes, there were the experts who knew about it. But there were many serious writers, wannabe writers, hopeful writers who didn’t know, who, if they knew Williams, they knew the poems from Spring and All as they were placed together in The Collected Early Poems without any intervening prose. So any purely chronological categorization is, like I say, a very dicey affair. Work surfaces and circulates, often, quite a bit after it was written.


PN: So what were the main influences? In a sense Oppen and Zukofsky, to take those two, at that point in their careers, were moving away from the idea that poetry was actually some sort of political medium. It seems that they both redefined the aims of poetry. And when you think of the opening phase of Language writing, which was so self-consciously political — was there a tension there?


BP: Oppen’s Of Being Numerous seemed very political. It is very political, and it felt that way at the time. And having read that first, Oppen struck me as very useful, nuanced, passionate and not subject to boilerplate. Zukofsky was a writer who had a rather inspiringly full career of different kinds of writing. He showed you could do work like Catullus, Bottom: On Shakespeare, “A”-23; “A”-12; “A”-9, highly specific translation projects, critical collages, very different types of highly wrought formal organization. That became an example: you could write quite a variety of types of work. That was an engaging prospect.


About the conjunction of avant-garde / modernism and postmodernism. It’s shorthand for saying we were reading Zukofsky, Barthes, Derrida, etc. alongside each other.


PN: The usual categories are too tight, then. What you just said about reading Oppen and Zukofsky makes Bürger’s notion of the historicity of the avant-garde seem rather simplistic. These writers were read and re-read and re-discussed and re-shaped over a long period of time. And similarly I would have thought with a notion of postmodernism: it hasn’t so simply resolved itself into an aimless play of prior styles.


What I’m looking for is some way of articulating these two together, since to some degree that double articulation does seem to define the conditions under which you initiated the whole Language project. Hence, perhaps, the ambiguity of referring to the avant-garde in The Marginalization of Poetry as “what was, for us, a tradition.” Ambiguous, that is, in the context of arguments like Bürger’s for which the avant-garde moment is always constituted as finished, as behind us. Whereas you seem to be thinking of it as a tradition which is continually available and open to reformulation.


BP: Again, I don’t care about the distinction between who was authentically avant-garde and who wasn’t. I’m interested in a tradition of ambition in writing, ambition to change forms, to come to terms with wider social vistas than poetry had come to terms with before. Now some of these goals are distinctly opposed to those of the “classic” avant-garde. That can be seen in Pound as well as Tzara, in Stein as well as Hughes. And yet of course The Cantos as a whole is in many dimensions a reactionary enterprise. One has to pick and choose what’s useful.


I imagine for many others that there was some sense of being part of an ongoing concern for innovative writing. Our perspective was primarily American, though some of us had read more widely. There was Rothenberg and his anthologies. “World writing” was coming into our horizons as well. But there was an ongoing innovative enterprise that started with the modernists and the avant-gardists, the objectivists, the Black Mountain people, Creeley and Duncan were certainly immediately around, etc. It did not mean any kind of purist heritage. There was no sense of piety, at least I had no sense of piety at all.


You know that photograph in Olson magazine of Charles Olson’s desk at his death heaped with books and papers. I didn’t want to sit at that desk and take up his reading at the moment he left off. To me, piety always involves relics, preservation, immaculateness. For me, writing involves use. So not “tradition” but a usable history that comes into the present and actually means that there is a future. So that this might be part of a project that was going to change; who knew where it was going to go, etc. The sense of there being a usable past and a viable future made the present be writerly and social at the same time.


PN: We can perhaps salvage something of this notion of the avant-garde, at least as a worthwhile exercise in the face of a postmodernism which denies those things, that denies any kind of continuity, any kind of history. And I wonder whether it’s worth holding on to the term from that point of view, actually not being quite so anxious about it, not being so worried about claiming this impossible status. And a particularly important question, it seems to me, is what happens to what Jameson calls “critical distance.” The art work is sealed into a kind of enclosed space that has no potential for connection. It’s premised on the idea that the system with which the art work engages has no outside. There is no position from which a critique can be mounted.


BP: Yes, physically and socially, there’s no outside, no critical distance, no safe haven of nature, or revolutionary practice, or some scientifically exact praxis. There’s no place from which to live a different life. So critical distance in that sense doesn’t seem possible. But what about provisional contingent critical distance within that world? It seems like we do that all the time. It doesn’t have to be outside that there’s a place for a fulcrum, it can be inside. The shifting ironies in my writing also shift over into seriousness: “Judgment, that’s your job.” That’s our job. One is asked to judge, evaluate, reinterpret writing; and perhaps produce new writing in turn.


It’s not a strict avant-garde anymore. The anti-social connotations of it seem more and more a cul-de-sac. Whereas writing with a future, for me anyway, is towards wider social applicability, wider social intersection, interaction. It does not mean normative.


[A parenthesis here. I gave a paper in New Hampshire where I groused about boilerplate fragmentation. A number of innovative writers got upset by that because they thought I was calling for normative, status quo writing. I didn’t mean that at all. My call was for a more social writing, a kind of writing that hasn’t been written yet, will involve bending genres, producing tones that have not yet been heard.]


So that the avant-garde I was critiquing, instead of being ahead of society, involves a fantasy of being ahead, a fantasy of critical distance.


PN: What interests me about this debate in terms of your own work is the possibility of a different kind of criticism; and in the poem that opens The Marginalization of Poetry you call for “a physically and socially locatable writing” and for “a self-critical poetry, minus the / shortcircuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege”. I’m wondering if this proposes a redefinition of the critical function in terms of self-criticism rather than critical distance — actually internalizing the critical function within the poem and opening a perspective on the possibility of reformulating the notion of the avant-garde?


BP: The position of poet as Delphic, shamanistic, auratic, head-in-the-clouds, transcendental, irrelevant — both positive and negative spins — needs critique in poetry. Also the position that wants to read only textual play. As opposed to play among social bonds - loosening, refiguring: that’s a different notion of play and is more what I want. There’s an inescapable social and rhetoric dimension.


PN: I wondered about your various references to “rhetoric”. If early Language writing comes out of an extreme modernism, the original attention seems to have been to a concept of foregrounding the medium, as they used to say. In a way it inherited a modernist distrust of rhetoric; as if rhetoric were to be so severely blacklisted that it would simply be one among many exhibits. And it’s interesting that in a recent interview with you and Charles Bernstein, Bernstein said, for example, that poetry is a form of rhetoric, not a form of subjectivity. That amounts to reclaiming rhetoric in some peculiar sense. But not, of course, rhetoric as a kind of mastery.


So you say in The Marginalization of Poetry that Bernstein’s work is open to forms of rhetoric but that at the same time it insists on anti-mastery in a self-contaminating way. What seems to result, then, is a hybrid notion of rhetoric as something purged of its traditional functions of persuasion and so on, and which actually undermines itself in curious ways. It’s an impure kind of rhetoric which, in Bernstein’s case, is constantly shown to fail and break down. He uses all these tricks of mistyping and so on, occluding the force of the rhetorical proposition by simple graphic tricks.


BP: And tonal shifts…


PN: But what does rhetoric really mean in this context? What kind of social force does it have if it’s a rhetoric that’s constantly and deliberately tripping over its own feet?


BP: For me, the word “rhetoric” acknowledges the fact that language is always socially, multiply, situated. It makes you aware of social exchange as opposed to some kind of master display. I don’t mean high rhetoric. I was struck reading Terry Eagleton’s book on Walter Benjamin some years back where he speaks of the phonocentric rhetoric of the Greeks and the graphocentric rhetoric of the Romans. In The First World, one of the poems is called “Speeches to a City No Larger Than the Reach of a Single Voice” — invoking phonocentric rhetoric. A single voice can physically speak to an entire city, as opposed to Roman rhetoric which is written, bureaucratic. That idea seemed exciting. I wasn’t thinking of the traditional discipline, the old rhetorical exercises, the weird frozen ballet of gestures and divisions that was taught for a thousand years afterwards. That’s a kind of “bad” rhetoric, the frothing up of language into specific pre-set patterns.


So this is rhetoric in a Bahktinian sense: speech genres, writing in a social situation. It’s not exactly persuasion. What about a rhetoric that reveals its persuasive, identificatory powers to the addressee? And invites the addressee to notice these powers of language to interpellate and to stir up emotion? That’s what I’m aiming for: an in-front-of-the-scenes mutually pedagogic rhetoric. Language does affect groups and it is crucial to all politics; it does cause ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is not somatically dictated, it’s linguistically fomented, isn’t it? So that one could perhaps make livelier, less destructive circumstances by mutually contemplating the rhetorical force of — not words, but of historical sentences, phrases, genres. That’s what I’m intending by “rhetoric”. It goes counter to half the usages of “rhetoric” which mean empty or duplicitous playing with words.


PN: And the notion of rhetoric is important because it raises fundamental questions about reader identification… ?


BP: Identificatory group structures in language are crucial. Communities, micro-communities, cenacles, up through nations and religions. If too many identificatory moments are offered, it’s coercive. On the other hand, if you break with recognizable structures that more than one person can respond to, there are no public, political dimensions any more. So there’s a funny kind of homeopathy necessary: you need to use identificatory structures in ways that cause people to question and make allowances for difference. That seems to be a crucial task for poetry now, the need for comic or capacious translation between groups. Everybody does have behavioural bands between habits: self-fluidity, avant-garde; everybody does have a desire for their own phantasmal horizon of newness, whether in reading or in personal relationships.


PN: It does seem to me that there’s a shift we can observe here between the early phase of Language writing where language is claimed to be revealed as a medium, to be revealed as primarily an ideological medium in which subjectivity is framed and constituted. But then there’s a change in the way in which some Language writers tend to talk about that. You have Bernstein, for example, saying that language is “the place of our connection.” We move from the idea that language — and this is an offshoot of the Vietnam period — is a medium in which we are duped, a place of mystification, to the idea that somehow — and I stress somehow because it’s not absolutely clear — language can be refigured as this place of social connection. Again, forms of identification seem to be at issue…


BP: There are not that many ways poetry can work — there aren’t an infinite variety of tools in the toolbox, to use a dreaded instrumental metaphor. You can’t keep pushing in any one direction indefinitely; you have to take cognizance of the historical audiences you might be addressing. The demand for innovation involves a mix of identification and dis-identification in a way that can’t be pre-defined, but that’s really what it’s about. There has to be some identification, people have to want to read it, and there has to be a felicitous use of dis-identification so that something happens beyond confirmation of self.


PN: This all seems to be bound up with an interesting feature of your own writing as it has evolved away from the idea of that difficulty as generated as a kind of performance within the poem, which always runs the risk that every poem turns out the same. You moved quite quickly away from that and as you did humour became increasingly important as a mode. And it’s not just irony, it’s comedy — or comic encounter, as in the one you stage between Roland Barthes and Frank O’Hara. Comedy becomes the main means of articulation, and that must have something to do with how you’re trying to define and reach an audience.


BP: For me, comedy is a site of realization of the impermanence of temporary arrangements — the absurdity of them, the contingent quality of them, the reified contours of social arrangements. It lets in an alternative universe, a future that’s significantly different. Humour occurs when an alternative future suddenly looms up in the present… it’s a kind of faux or proleptic revolution without power or violence…


PN: What kind of revolution is that?


BP: That’s clearly a contradictory term, isn’t it? Humour is a kind of stored up set of explosions in deep connivance with the current social regime but also in great rebellion against it. But it strikes me that humour tends to hit you before you know the joke; you feel the fissure in the social structures. And you gravitate towards both the structures and the fissures. But it also has to do with a very quick registration of the social whole, and a perception of why a given subjectivity doesn’t fit in that social whole.


PN: Would you say that your move toward forms of comedy has also led to the work becoming more immediately accessible? Bernstein, for example, remarks in that interview that beginning with your collection called To the Reader there’s an increasingly strong set towards dialogue. There’s a shift away from that very opaque, impacted type of writing you think of when you think of the first Language writing, the model that a lot of people in this country still seem to think is being endlessly produced. But there has been a shift in your work and Bernstein’s work…


BP: Well, in the work of a number of people. Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman…


PN: It’s an openness towards the discursive which previously was felt to contaminate the project with normative, prosaic, “ideological” language. Now, it seems, contamination is something which is often deliberately sought, suggesting that the perfect poem isn’t a possibility and that we wouldn’t like it if it were. I’m thinking also of a completely different kind of writer like Montale who after his death caused controversy because his last volume, called Posthumous Diary, was so unlike his previous sculpted, immaculate work that it seemed little more than diary jottings. It’s also a very American procedure, this, using absolute contingency instead of any kind of subjective temporality or lyric or epic temporality. There’s a sense in your work and in that of other Language writers of a new openness towards that, an embrace of what had been thought to damage poetry or to compromise it or transform it in non-poetic ways.


BP: Well, the idea of the anti-poetic, the prosaic, is one that is always very interesting for me to try to work with. I could say that it’s because I have such interest in poetry, that I’m so poetocentric, that I want to see what happens. Poetry doesn’t have to be Rilke-esque; I’m concerned to avoid earnestnesses that can pass for poetic seriousness. I feel some personal, contingent pressure of history, and a need for innovation in my own thinking about poetry. Yes, thinking about the 6-word couplets, using prose in “The Marginalization of Poetry”, making a poem be the opening chapter of a critical book and also publishing it as a poem. I’m constantly de-lineating poetry, lineating prose, going back and forth.


PN: All this bears on the kind of arguments about the avant-garde that are expressed in Paul Mann’s Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, where he sees any avant-garde work as “recuperated” by the critical discourse that frames it and grows up around it and which in some sense precedes it, is the condition of its possibility. “Every transgression,” he says, “is an entry into another containment”. In contrast to that, in The Marginalization of Poetry you seem to envision the kind of poem that, as you say, might redraw and undo generic boundaries between poetry and criticism. So where Mann is saying that criticism as a context in some sense actually recuperates the avant-garde work, situates it…


BP: Digests it…


PN:… what you’re staging here is a kind of equal, two-handed contest between poetry and criticism in which criticism doesn’t have the capacity completely to recuperate the poem. Indeed, we don’t actually know what the poem is because, as you say there, is this a poem or not? And it’s interesting, too, that you use the example of Derrida’s Glas as another work which approximates that desire to fuse genres. Derrida has said that “it’s something like philosophic parody where all genres — poetry, philosophy, theatre, etc. — are summoned at once… it’s a graft of different genres’. Mann suggests that Derrida’s thinking proposes a move away from the dialectical organization of the avant-garde as “anti” towards an idea of différance, and perhaps this gestures towards a way of articulating together the two genres of poetry and criticism so as to get rid of the problem that haunts Mann’s and other people’s accounts of the avant-garde?


BP: Instead of Mann’s sense of recuperation as a bitter defeat (where Tzara thought he was breaking through, dada artefacts are being auctioned off sixty years later), how about substituting some other word for that dread word “recuperation” he keeps using as a curse? Couldn’t one use a different verb — read? If “to recuperate” means “to read” I would certainly like my poems to be recuperated, quite a bit, by many people. So why can’t criticism read poetry? Oh, Textual Practice, I’m speaking to you here!


Reading is in a way a very impure act. You don’t have the pristine mind of the writer, you don’t have Joyce’s endlessly virtuoso, accurate, architectonic imagination, you have someone saying “I don’t quite get this; the Telemachus chapter seems really boring.” I don’t mean you should simply give in to each empirical reading, but reading does involve immature reception, imperfect reception, alternative reception, incomplete reception, and these are important. The problem with Mann’s book is that recuperation means mastering: yes, I see all your tricks, Tzara, and I know what you’re about, and I will bid sixty thousand dollars for your notebook, says the critic / connoisseur / entrepreneur; and therefore Tzara is defeated.


PN: In the title poem of The Marginalization of Poetry there’s a lot of play with the idea of margins. You emphasize the idea that the literal placing of the words on the page, and your discourse about that — “marginalization,” “margins,” “justification”, and so on — relates to a much larger set of questions about behaviour within certain social and legal constraints. The suggestion would seem to be, with all this punning on marginalization, that the margin is a valorized position. And I wonder whether given the bracketing of the notion of avant-garde in that poem the margin isn’t some kind of intermediary space that can still be occupied without the requirement of absolute newness, the absolute strangeness, the absolute displacement of the old historic avant-garde.


BP: People might read that title as a whinge about the fate of poetry, but in fact I’m after a notion of marginalization that is counter to that usual sense of absolute displacement. I want to show that you can make poetry by attending to the medium itself, by (in a more literal sense of the verb) marginalizing it, making margins, by attending to both social and formal emplacements and opportunities for motion.


PN: Is that avant-garde or not?


BP: It’s not. It’s “post-avant-garde,” so to speak, in that it’s gesturing towards an acknowledgment that the social is all margins these days. Poetry — innovative poetry — explores this condition.

Coda (June 2009)


BP: Ten years later, I remain as interested in the practice of contemporary writing as during the above conversation. But this increase in temporal perspective has not been matched by a comparable clarity about the current condition, location, ontology of the avant-garde nor its relation to what I most value in writing. I notice that the conversation starts with Pete proposing a question about postmodernism (sans quotes) and me ending my last answer with a scare-quoted “post-avant-garde.” Looking back, those two “post”s were quite different. In 1998, postmodernism had a clear provenance and a wide salience — it didn’t need quotes. To discern the postmodern with authority was a sought-after role, with academic prestige involved and vistas of wide circulation beckoning. To deny the existence of the postmodern was a badge of dullness. On the other hand, in 1998 the doubly hyphenated “post-avant-garde” was very much in need of quotes. As I now remember I had never heard it before I said it. (That may reflect my own lack of information: I’m not making any claim for priority of coinage.) It was a spur of the moment parrying maneuver in response to Pete trying to get a straight answer out of me as to whether “The Marginalization of Poetry” (the poem, not the book) was avant-garde or not. Extended passages of time are rarely kind to cutting-edge terms.


Post-avant is now a loose synonym for a set of loose terms such as innovative, experimental, post-Language writing of the present and recent past; or it’s the conditions in which such writing is written. And with postmodernism, too, the bloom is off the rose. It’s an exaggeration to say the term is outmoded, but it doesn’t seem like arguments over the boundaries of the postmodern are going to get more interesting. It’s dusty work with few payoffs. The distinctions don’t match the writing to any interesting degree. Just as trying to pin down a usable (portable) distinction between avant-garde and modernist quickly becomes scholastic — a bit like determining how much phlogiston is in the log before it burns — when particulars are proposed: “Lifting Belly”? Zukofsky’s “Mantis” dyad: avant-garde or modernist? While it makes sense to call a book like Words nd Ends from Ez postmodern, where Mac Low is writing through The Cantos, but, really, besides the fact that Olson first wrote “post-modern” in English, why avoid calling The Maximus Poems modernist? Hang it all, Tristan Tzara, there can be but the one avant-garde.


Kit Robinson’s Train I Ride (Book Thug, Toronto, 2009), came in the mail recently. Robinson has been a favorite writer for three decades, so my experience of reading his new work is a mix of recognition and surprise. At times, the compositional rubric seems to equate writing with playing old standards, best done in a version never heard before:


I take spontaneous bop prosody to be self-evident. In that sense, this writing is not about but is itself a kind of music, with semantics for harmony, the scales and changes of our collective dictionary, and for rhythm, syntax. Thus, horizontal (time) and vertical (mind) dimensions create a space in which to stretch out. Narrative is the melody, choice over pulse. Let me tell you the story of… in the campfire embers’ glow.

[18. ellipses in original]


Or, for the over-eager binarist, there’s this elegant object lesson, straight from real life, it sounds like:


There is everything you say, and then there is everything else. Okay? That’s all I’m saying [36].


This is Language writing? postmodern? post-avant? Whatever the label this is exemplary of what makes writing interesting. Many of its obvious qualities would, by the lights of some doxa, deny it the designation of avant-garde or of postmodern: there’s self, voice, sentences, reference. Perhaps, post-avant is a more forgiving term.

Peter Nicholls

Peter Nicholls

Peter Nicholls is Professor of English at New York University. His publications include Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing, Modernisms: A Literary Guide, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism, and many articles and essays on literature and theory. He has co-edited with Giovanni Cianci Ruskin and Modernism and with Laura Marcus The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature.

Bob Perelman: see the bio note in this issue of Jacket.

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