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Also see the round-table discussion of The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History in Jacket 2.
Bob Perelman’s book The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (1996) was published by a major academic press, Princeton University Press, rather than one of the so-called small presses such as This, Roof, and Figures, who published his poetry before the appearance of his Selected Poems from Wesleyan. His title turns out to be a metonymic allusion to this very division. It refers to the consequences for poetry of the production by academic insitutions of critical studies of poetry, and also to the title of a poem by Perelman which was written for an academic conference panel entitled ‘The Marginalization of Poetry.’ The poem explicitly disowns its apparent poeticality (visually its five words per line, couplets and spacing, are all strong markers of a poem) saying disarmingly, with a touch of Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, that ‘this may or may not be // a poem’. Well, is it or is not a poem? What is this problem of genre?
Perelman’s immediate object of critique in this opening tour de force is the academic literary criticism that treats poetry as marginal to its own practices of theorising and curating literature, the ‘common gripe poets have about the hegemony of criticism and the marginalization of poetry within the academy’ (79). In actuality, ‘poetry is far / / from marginal: widely published and taught, / it has established substantial means of / reproducing itself.’ (9) The whole idea of margins needs to be abandoned because such ‘antinomies of marginality’ are behind the very real socioeconomic consequences of neglect that destroyed a brilliant poet such as Jack Spicer. By the end of chapter one, any idea that ‘the marginalization of poetry’ might justify a book has apparently been dispatched, and in fact the concept of ‘marginalization’ is only mentioned once more in the book. That’s that issue dealt with. Now what?
Most obviously the subtitle comes into play. The book will be about ‘language writing and literary history’, or rather ‘the formerly marginalized language movement’ (79) and questions about its politics as a movement, and its interest in the politics of poetic form.
Or is the book still about marginalization, but in a different and less recognisable form? The picture that marginalization projects is one of ineffectiveness and neglect, seen from the standpoint of academic literary studies. Might there be other standpoints?
Chapter two introduces a contrast between ‘the mainstream poet’ and their antithesis, ‘the poet as engaged, oppositional intellectual’ for whom ‘poetic form and syntax’ can be ‘sites of experiment for political and social purposes’(12). Although I think this antithesis does not apply very well to poets who have been oppositional intellectuals yet relatively conservative in their poetics, such as Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, or June Jordan, for instance, the description of the role of the poet who adds to the position of ‘oppositional intellectual’ a willingness to commit poetry to inquiry and experiment, points back to this whole issue of the ‘marginalization’ of poetry. For poetry in the twentieth century has been marginalized as a mode of inquiry by the new, basically scientific, discourses of knowledge and truth that have become central to intellectual commitments of all kinds, especially public policy and political activism. This is a new situation.
Thinkers since Plato have attempted to marginalize poetry, but as in Plato’s case, the attempt is usually a symptom of poetry’s local ascendancy. This language art has been important in most cultures where public rituals required suitably auratic verbal paeans and elegies, courts and aristocratic houses required dramatic entertainment, religious institutions demanded elevated, inspiring and memorable forms of language, or where younger men and women had sufficient leisure time to indulge artifices of verbal courtship. Most poetry before the seventeenth century is deeply embedded in some specific larger cultural institution, and the modern idea of the poet as a practitioner who could be both a poet and marginalized would have appeared to be a paradox. Poetry was written in and through an existing social activity.
As poetry became increasingly secularized and a literate public culture emerged capable of providing a readership and potentially at least an independent living for a poet, poetry gradually moved away from a specialised mode of communication within an institution, to becoming what we still think of as poetry today, an autonomous art. In the eighteenth century for instance, the writing of medical poetry by Jesuit doctors waned, and the writing of poems for the new magazines grew in popularity. Throughout the nineteenth century poetry played an important role as a marker of refinement; most educated young people learned elocution by speaking poetry, and many looked to poetry for a sentimental education as well.
Even as late as 1900 there is abundant evidence that poetry was a pervasive ordinary part of the leisure activity of most literate people. Poems were read alongside the singing of songs and the playing of music in collective entertainments, and domestic privacy still afforded space for the silent and vocal reading of poetry. Many public events included poems amongst the speeches and rituals. Our canonized poets could assume this intensive activity as a foundation for their composition and its reception of poems in which they could therefore address major issues of the time and expect to be noticed by the main shapers of opinion. The impact of new forms of leisure made possible by the combination of cheap mechanical transport, the bicycle and the automobile, and new modes of communciations entertainment, the cinema and the radio, rapidly dispersed this entertainment culture of poetry. Aspiring poets faced a new dilemma to avoid marginalization.
One solution was to align poetry with the aesthetic revolutions in the visual arts which were themselves responding to the disappearance of their role as the sole provider of accurate or persuasively mimetic images of the world. Just as visual art reinvented itself as an avant-garde able to make tangible the new concepts and sensations generated by rapid technological and political change, so might poetry also participate. Political opportunities also beckoned. The political turmoil of the 1930s afforded poetry an opportunity to turn to a concern with more social revolutions and offer its services to left wing political movements generated by sentiment as well as political calculation, and poetry has repeated this move in relation to new political movements ever since.
In the 1950s poetry made an autobiographical turn that is with us still today, because of its success at justifying amateur poetry, and its consonance with the cultures of celebrity and self-help. New cultural theories of the supposed core substance of poetry, emotion, also helped. Emotivist philosophical theories treated emotion as the actual basis of morality, and emotion itself became the measure of authenticity. Poems could signal the authenticity of what was affirmed in the poem by presenting unique details of authorial autobiography as self-attributions. This new norm was felt to be part of a resistance to a uniformitising culture of work and advertising, based on the irreducibility of individual experience, especially in familial dimensions.
Throughout the twentieth century poetry also found a fourth way. Poets noticed the increasing influence of the sciences and began to foreground their own modes of intellectual inquiry and experiment, ransacking the intellectual warehouses for justification. What had once been a taken for granted feature of poetry, its component of intellectual curiosity that might take the form of conceptual argument, introspective examination of affects and motives, or result from close observation of people and landscapes, had been marshalled into the discourses of the sciences, particularly the social sciences (philosophy has undergone a similar even more drastic fate). The Marginalization of Poetry explores the politics of this fourth way.
It does this in a modest, understated manner, providing, in the words of its own judgement on Bernstein’s essay Artifice of Absorption, ‘information on writing not yet well known to the academy, performing … a useful service’ (86). Perelman describes his historicizing as ‘a somewhat anecdotal account of how things worked in practice,’ (15) as if he does not want to scare his readers with scholarship. Hey guys, I’m a poet too, this is just a few memories I have, plus a few reflections on them, despite appearances I’m not one of those academicians full of poststructuralist jargon. He immediately admits that this doesn’t mean that the poetry movement is not deserving of more academic research: ‘there is now a specific history that could be chronicled: books, magazines, venues, individual careers.” (16) I will come back to this disavowal of academic authority later. Now I want to concentrate on the book’s important achievements as a critical study of contemporary poetry.
For the book does considerably more than provide information, it also demonstrates that the poetry of Language Writers is accessible to rational analysis of its semantic opacities. Most significant of all in my view is the tone of the book. It speaks in a calm, generous, thoughtful manner that tacitly counters the often overheated discourses of criticism and defense that encircle avant-garde poetry and poetics.
Listen for instance to the wit in this judgement of Creeley’s originality in a sentence that starts out as a familiar type of literary critical assessment and then changes perspective half way abruptly enough to startle us: ‘While Creeley can be read as occuping a literary space where personal narratives interact with elemental demonstrations of deconstruction [one can imagine scholarly readers of Boundary 2 nodding in agreement] all occurring in an elegantly compressed diction [one can imagine readers of poetry nodding], his work could also be read as a troubling warning to all subsequent poets who might not be Creeley [one can imagine poets offering uneasy dissent from the suggestion that they might ever have thought that they ever over-identified with the poet].’(46) Here in one sentence are the tensions the book deliberately stretches in order to explore poetry’s uneasy academic career. This is a book of poetry and literary criticism aimed at poets and critics, and asks for more dialogue between them.
In fact its final act is a wonderful dialogue of the dead between a poet and an academic, Frank O’Hara and Roland Barthes, cast in the form of a dream vision. At the end of their amiable conversation in a kitsch television heaven the two deified literary authorities turn their attention outward to the dreamer, and O’Hara diagnoses a literary aspiration forming: ‘He wants to conjure up the birth of language writing from personism and the heroic decodings of taste — god knows why.’(165)
It’s a reasonable question. Why might the author want ‘to conjure up the birth of language writing’ from these, or indeed any sources? What is at stake in doing so? Who wants to know the source? Is this a reasonable hypothesis?
Personism and the immanent critiques of Barthes seem worlds apart; poetry as a manifestation of personal relations is very different to the analytical rigour of semiotics of advertising or fiction. Or is this Perelman’s point? He tells us that Ron Silliman’s long poem What ‘resolves into a present-tense autobiography of a politically engaged writer,’ (28) a resolution that sounds like a poetic version of the dialogue between the poet responsible for an expanded idea of autobiographical poetry, and the scholar responsible for literary structuralism. Language writing, we might simplify further, emerges from an attempt to create texts that take the intellectual investigation of both the personal and the political as far as contemporary thought enables them, a description that could fit much of the more autobiographical writing of the Bay Area poets, such as Tjanting, My Life, a.k.a., and Progress.
Before the book can reach this concluding dialogue it has to establish just what justifies talk of ‘language writing’ at all. Is it shared form, a common politics, locality, a common cultural moment? Perelman refers to the ‘Manifesto’ that appeared in Social Text as further authority for his belief that language writing deserves some such collective identification because it was explicitly a ‘group phenomenon’ and those who identified with the group wanted to avoid ‘norms of voice and self’, and believed that Theory could help them write poems that would reach new ‘political and epistemological spaces’(35) not accessible to the poems voicing personal wisdom and anecdotes. New epistemological spaces? I think this is a key insight, and one that will repay future research. In practice the book has very little to say about what these poetic forms of knowledge might be; attention is concentrated on the issue of whether there can be an ‘automatic linkage on the formal level between poetry and politics’ (110).
The character, structures, and historical significance of this group phenomenon, remain controversial. Language writers arguably made one of their primary innovations the strategic adaptation of theories of literature, textuality, and language, to their poetics and to their polemics and intellectual allegiances. They cleverly anticipated critical moves before they happened, and at best created pathways for reviewers and later for scholars to follow, and at the minimum they made sure that their poetry was well defended against detractors. Their lingualism created gateways into the poetry that were to some extent under their control.
Perelman’s various close readings of specific poems are a reminder of what a remarkable era in the history of modern poetry this was: the freeing up of poetry from the requirement that the poet speak as authentically as possible about her or his own experience, from the expectation of verbal originality at all costs, from the necessity for poems to speak propositionally, and from the tacit abandonment of norms of sonic beauty, all allowed an enormous range of poetic forms to flower at once. Certainly these freedoms had been assayed by earlier, mainly prewar poets, but their achievements needed rediscovery. Nevertheless language writers displayed an unprecedented heterogeneity of form, and rightly complained that this innovative diversity was routinely underestimated by critics fixated on the absence of a unified speaking voice to guarantee the poem’s affirmations, and on the frequently diminished referentiality that gave the poems the misleading appearance of being random abstract assemblages of phrase.
‘One of the projects of this book is to unravel recent received ideas of language writing as a uniform practice.’ (11), although ‘defining language writing formally and as a literary movement is not easy’ (19). For language writing “there was a loose set of goals, procedures, habits, and verbal textures: breaking the automatism of the poetic ‘I’ and its naturalized voice; foregrounding textuality and formal devices; using or alluding to Marxist or poststructuralist theory in order to open the present to critique and change.”(13)
An unease about politics in poetry runs through the book. Questions are directed towards Charles Bernstein, for his belief in the ‘political power of poetry’ (81; cited from A Poetics (226)). Perelman suggests that the brilliant clarity of Bernstein’s polemic against existing political and institutional structures is not entirely matched by positive proposals for reform.
One of the great virtues of Perelman’s book is the degree to which it opens itself to further, difficult questions. Why is the first person in poetry considered a form of ‘automatism’ rather than stemming from deliberate choices and felt necessities? What is meant by textuality: do all texts have it by virtue of being texts or is it a quality of resistance to reading? And how is it that citing theory can itself be a form of active critique capable of social change? Is it the citation that is the activist move, or is Theory supposed to be already an active form of social critique (as surely many academics persuaded themselves during the left-wing political stalemates of the 1980s).
Perelman rolls all these features of language writing into one larger aim: ‘to do away with the reader as a separable category,’ (31) and this leads to an anecdote about experiments in collective writing with Steve Benson and Kit Robinson. This is Perelman the anecdotalist and demystifier of language writing — in the process he perhaps reveals more than intended of the tacit guiding assumptions made by these writers about reading and writing.
One or two of the three collaborators would read aloud and one or two of them would type what he heard. The readers would pick up books and read aloud at random while the typist would try to write down what he heard, inevitably selecting from an excessive torrent of vocalised writing, producing a sampling that would then be shared and worked over again. Perelman wittily calls this the “brat guts regime” because one of the more memorable lines it produced, written (or should we say typed?) by Kit Robinson, was ‘instead of ant wort I saw brat guts’, a line that became the first line in a poem of Bob Perelman’s (one’s irresistible desire to decode this phrase begins with the opposition of a tiny, ant-size vegetation to the young, bold males with plenty of brattish guts, and then adds a possible allusion to Oppen’s poem ‘The Occurrences’) . An emblematic phrase.
Barrett Watten’s discussion in The Constructivist Moment of what he calls ‘multiauthored’ language texts takes the analysis a stage further: ‘The line itself is crucial for the values of this textual practice; in what I am going to call the Brat Guts aesthetic, a certain masculine regression (a “brat” is an Oedipal subject position defined by its relation to the phallic mother of castration anxiety) spills its “guts” (the body, however, is still in pieces, fragmented, before the advent of the Mirror Stage and the ego’s imaginary limits) in a form of Kristevan textual “productivity.”’ (83) Such collaboration reinscribed a homosocial hegemony, and far from resisting Theory demonstrated its analytic relevance. The Marginalization of Poetry is itself progenitive of literary criticism.
Perelman finds this whole amusing scene of young writers hunting for inspiration emblematic of the compositional and reception processes of language writing: ‘instead of the writer being powerful and the reader struggling to catch up… the reader — or, to avoid confusion, the pronouncer — is the active one and the writer… is reactive.’ (33) Yet this is a curious interpretation: the so-called reader is actually a vocaliser of already written texts, and in this sense also ‘reactive’ because by uttering the words from existing printed pages he provides textual material for the language writer to select from, for another, as yet unidentified reader to read later. The reader’s role is in one sense dispensible since it is easy to imagine other ways in which the typist/writer could be provided with text from which to select, although the oral reader is perhaps meant to be considered as a selector too.
The really interesting feature of this scene of language writing is that it is a moment of reworking, when texts are minced and incorporated into new recipes. One clue we have to what motivated this process is the indicative list of raw texts (it is not clear whether Bob remembers these sources exactly or they are meant to be indicative of the sort of thing that they used, not least because a footnote tells us that ‘none of us had many academic papers lying around at the time’(169)): a passage from Foucault and a passage from a report by David Bromige of an Objectivist conference in Paris.
This jubilant team work may do away with the reader as a separable category in the process of composition, but the category of reader as point of reception remains untouched. ‘Instead of ant wort I saw brat guts’ will be ‘read’, whatever that means, by others who were not participants in the dictation game. What the scene does reveal is a desire to subtract the authority of the Foucaults of the academic world by recontextualising their phrases, and a fascination with aleatory experiment.
Judicious, fertile with future possibilities, moderate, and always interesting: The Marginalization of Poetry makes an important intervention into recent literary history. At one moment however, it goes much further. Perelman emulates Roland Barthes with shocking results.
Chapter six opens the chapter with what in 1996 would have seemed an amusing discussion of the semiotics of the World Trade Center based around speculation about the possibility of destroying the building with an explosion more carefully calculated than the 1993 bombing. Perelman is admittedly taking his lead from a New York Times article: ‘It turns out not to be easy: apparently, each tower is built to withstand the impact of a fully loaded jet liner taking off.’ That informal ‘apparently’ used to allude to the authority of the newspaper article also signals mild amusement at the seeming incongruity of this measure of the building’s strength. With historical hindsight this diagnosis of the New York Times article as an invitation to readers ‘participate in transgressive calculations of how the Trade Center towers might be brought down’ is uncanny and even unpleasant, for after all, some readers of the New York Times apparently took the invitation too far, demonstrating the potential for textual speculation to become political action, that much of the rest of chapter six will treat with scepticism. ‘Literary revolutions,’ says Perelman, ‘may be hard to pull off on the page, but it is much harder to translate any of their energy from the page to the outside world.’ Stop! Don’t dig yourself in any further one wants to shout, look into the future!
If nothing else, the historical scale of this solecism (that could not have been imagined then), introduces a readerly dissonance into the critique of the aestheticized politics of Bruce Andrews’ book I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). The political unconscious that led Perelman to approach Andrews’ poetry from this fantasy of attacking one of the great symbols of Western capitalism demonstrates its power, almost as if in revenge for Perelman’s scepticism about the force of that primary political process.
Chapter six is also the one section where Perelman ventures on criticism of his own movement. Whether this critique is a brave attempt at fraternal correctives to a fellow poet, mellow west coast poetics suspicious of east coast sophistication, or a strategic means of addressing issues current in the poetics of his own Bay Area network of poets, the chapter is fascinating not only because of its unheimlich speculations, but because it faces head on some very difficult questions about the politics of avant-garde poetry. In doing so it pushes hard against the limits of both poetic theory and the dominant, largely structuralist critical terminology of the time (how rapidly poststructuralist certitudes have turned sere).
Perelman perceptively sets up an opposition between an aspiration to ‘social activism’ and a concern that this may be smothered by ‘inherited possibilities of identity.’(99) To justify this interpretation Perelman cites from Andrews’ concluding essay in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Volume Four, capaciously entitled ‘Constitution / Writing, Politics, Language, the Body’, where his typography deliberately mingles plain with italic and bold (italic phrases are quotations from Andrews’ previous work, and bold words are chosen to give heightened visual impact to the section where they occur), along with frequent virgules and isolated periods with at least two em spacing on one side.
The passage that Perelman cites from is this: ‘Invention might be considered an exemplary constitutive practice. I mean made new . in praxis petrifies heart imagine . rebellion or revolution? At least enhance the participatory quality of writing as a constitutive act (and not only a blandly “communicative” or “expressive” act, for too often what is “expressed” and “communicated” is not the doer position but a previous social construction, of more and more dubious value. i.e. . it’s our turn to take part in this! / wonder at our forebearance . We want to be hammers / not anvils . Swim word / Zigzag . [...] Extensions are necessary. who takes them off the page . How to obtain foliation . disbelief in possible regimental gratefulness . introduction to reception aesthetics . with a fan-like . And reception is by bodies.’ (162–163) And Perelman comments: ‘He calls for a writing whose “reception is by bodies” (163); but this is not a writing which is a “blandly “communicative” or “expressive” act, for too often what is “expressed” and “communicated” is not the doer position but a previous social construction, of more and more dubious value’ (162). So many scare quotes.
This is a plausible attribution to Andrews of an intended statement that he wants poets to recognise that ‘reception is by bodies’, and that this entails recognising their own agency within language, but the plausibility depends on overlooking the propositional indeterminacy of Andrews’ passage. Everything from the visual appearance to the use of verb-free phrases, parataxis, and uncertainty about the integration of sentential logic and syntactic relations, collectively undermines the usual bibliographic conventions that enable readers to attribute beliefs to the author of propositions in a prose passage. Saying that Andrews’ ‘calls for’ anything is a stretch.
Suspended affirmation is central to Andrews’ poetics. Perelman discusses how difficult it is to be confident about the political ironies at work in I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up because the pervasive obscenity, abuse, slang, and other abjected types of utterance are all crushed together in short percussive phrases that rarely integrate upwards into sentences, let alone paragraphs, narratives, or arguments. Perelman asks of an especially provocative passage, ‘what are his politics here, apart from critique?’(102).
The problem for Perelman is that the author’s relation to such inflammatory utterances is elusive: ‘Not that we are supposed to treat any one sentence as the site of Andrews’ position’. This surely is widely true of literary works in general; they offer all sorts of propositions, beliefs, attitudes, and even facts, in modal or hypothetical terms, trying them out just as actors in a drama offer the semblance of real actions for audiences to better imagine their implications. I’m also not sure what it means to say that a writer has a (political?) position within a literary work, although many writers take up political positions as public intellectuals.
These are vital questions for poetry, and Perelman bravely presses hard on this difficult issue raised by Andrews’ poetry. Where does the author stand in relation to statements made in a paratactic series that in Andrews’ case includes such inflammatory material (and where does the author stand in relation to the usually much less affectively explosive statements made in the form of the ‘new sentence’ by Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, or Perelman himself)? It is a question that could be put much more widely, to poets from Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky to Michael Palmer and Susan Howe. They all offer phrases without the verbs (and sometimes other syntactic essentials) that would make them propositional, or like the writers of the new sentence they offer word sequences that can be treated as sentences, though they lack immediate connections to preceding or succeeding sentences.
The difference in Andrews’ case is that so many of his utterances echo the hate speech, obscenities, and vernacular verbal abuse that amount to a significant dark noise in everyday conversation. Citing this material is notoriously risky because even citation can appear to entail some endorsement as Judith Butler points out in her study of hate speech.
This is how Perelman sees the problem: ‘given the book’s opposition to narrative and its insistent phrasal pulse, any one sentence or phrase becomes by default the recursive site of agency, whether political or literary. The passage retreats to a safe (pronounless) haven of exciting active sound, a kind of klangfarbenmelodie: “clean soot from punt”.’ (102) Partial endorsement of these deeply unpleasant attitudes by the poet author, Perelman believes, is almost unavoidable. They are contaminating. Is it the case however that the absence of narrative and what is neatly called the ‘insistent phrasal pulse’ (the metric) results in a moving spotlight that elicits agency from whatever pulse we are reading? Why should we attribute any agency to an incomplete sentence, or a sentence without context?
Perelman cites this sentence from I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up — ‘Where’s a battered woman — I want to beat her up?’ — and is understandably troubled by it. He says, ‘It’s hard to imagine Andrews is condoning abusive men, but what, besides triggering a conflicted response, does such a sentence do?’ This is the crucial question, and it is one that the resources of structuralist and poststructuralist theory are ill-equipped to deal with. What do sentences in poems do when some of the usual structures that signal their propositional intent have been removed? For if we believe that agency is embedded in sentences, doesn’t this mean that we can assume that the author is affirming them? Perelman knows this is unlikely to be the case. Andrews is not creating some patchwork of his own cranky beliefs. Is this the ‘political unconscious’ speaking, a spewing forth of the American Id in search of a poetic analyst to free it of its neuroses through catharsis of art? But this interpretation, according to Perelman, would result in the work having no political reach, only an aesthetic ‘separated liberal sense’.
Why can’t we treat this sentence from the poem as an egregious example of the twisted political logic that is unfortunately current in the world, with implications for our understanding of mass emotions, and the danger of such informal political logics, that I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up implicitly asks us to reflect upon? Perelman’s answer would be that the poem makes this very difficult for the reader because ‘the constant insults, exclamations, and twists of common phrase, while they attack all images of subjectivity, are finally repeated assertions that the ‘doer position’ is a vocal subject, that the doer is supposed to exist on the street, not the page.’
I think this interpretation misses the way that sentences work in poetic texts that suspend their propositionality, or so foreground its workings that no direct endorsement by a putative speaker can be attributed to it. Although I think it is reasonable to say that the author of I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up would verbally attack someone who actually spoke, and therefore implicitly endorsed, the sentence offering to beat up the woman victim, the poem does not avail itself of this mode of intentionality. Does the poem assume that the doer does exist?
This claim goes to the heart of the whole difficult issue of referentiality and diminished or non-referentiality that Language Writing became entangled with, and I don’t have space to deal with further here. The Marginalization of Poetry remains important because it makes these questions that remain largely unanswered so visible.
Perelman concludes that Andrews’ project condemns itself to aesthetic isolation because its fragmentation relies on what it attacks, the ‘malefic magnet’ as Perelman brilliantly and prophetically calls the World Trade Centre, that represents the energies of capitalism that generate the sparks in I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up. A work that appears to be strenuously political is actually aesthetic.
A possible answer to Perelman would be to explore the pertinence of the work of commentators on Adorno, such as J. M. Bernstein, who in several studies, notably The Fate of Art, shows how it is possible to see the aesthetic as a placeholder for a future, imagined but absent, politics. Another approach might be to unpack what we mean by this nebulous and yet crucial term politics when we are discussing poetry. Whatever we conclude we have to take full account of the range of activities included in politics, and the difference between the modality of poetic texts compared to the range of actions that politics also comprises.
Realizing that this might seem merely dismissive, Perelman then praises the work for its unflinching acknowledgement that ‘the political impossibilities of the present are impossible to escape’. This I think is a fair description of a very widespread conviction amongst radical poets during the 1980s and early 1990s in America (and Britain). What does it mean then to say that these impossibilities ‘constitute the kindest sonnets, the most coherent reminiscences, the most spontaneous bop prosodies, the deepest metacritiques of signification, the most admirable ethical lessons’? (108) Is all contemporary poetry an act of mourning for an absent politics and for the suffering of the present?
I must draw to a close even though I have not mentioned Perelman’s other valuable discussions of recent poets, notably of Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout and Carla Harryman. Nor have I discussed its relation to his other critical book, The Trouble With Genius, and his poetry, although both are significant. Others will do this I am sure.
Before I do conclude I want to return to the point that there is something especially challenging, not to say strange, about writing about your own poetic community. From one angle there is nothing odd about this at all, because Perelman’s book is also a valuable reminder of how much the flourishing of poetry does depend on the active support of many different roles. Without the curation of poetry through small press publishing, magazine editing, website provision, criticism, historicising, reviewing, scholarly editing, and above all active reading by readers who indeed are not a separable category, poetry will go further and further out to the margins.
At the heart of the book is a tacit history of moving from autonomy as a poet to being an academic who writes poetry. Poems (counting the O’Hara/Barthes dialogue as a poem) bookend the study, for this is written from both inside and outside the movement. It is in one sense marginal to Bob Perelman’s own profile as a poet, and yet it insists on not being excluded, it wants to be read alongside a. k. a., The First World, or Virtual Reality, and if I may contradict my earlier point about not attributing propositions where they don’t occur, I would add that The Marginalization of Poetry is a plea for a hybrid form of writing that doesn’t marginalize either poetry or academic study.
Bob Perelman delights in the claim that many language poems ‘trespass, in various seemly to unseemly ways, on the territory conventionally reserved for criticism’ (33). The Marginalization of Poetry trespasses on the territories of criticism and poetry with both seemly and unseemly results, and all the better for it. It deserves to stand alongside his achievements in poetry.
Peter Middleton is the author of Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Alabama U.P.), and Aftermath (Salt), and is currently writing a book on science and poetry. He teaches at the University of Southampton, UK.