Marjorie Perloff

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Bernard Duffey (review date November 1974)

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SOURCE: A review of The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell, in American Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, November, 1974, pp. 414–15.

[In the following review of The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell, Duffey objects to Perloff's assertions concerning Lowell's realism.]

Anyone consulting Marjorie Perloff's study of Robert Lowell will profit by paying attention to her title [The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell]. She in fact does largely concentrate on questions pertinent to the means of Lowell's poetic expression and pays only slight attention to other matters. If, however, she largely passes up such important questions as those of development, thematic range, poetical associations and inheritance, and even some aspects of Lowell's complex expressive act in itself, she does provide a useful, perhaps even very useful suggestion about what, most immediately and characteristically, Lowell has sought to get into a poem.

The heart of her contribution would seem to lie in a redefinition of “confessional” poetry insofar as that ad hoc label may be applied to Lowell, the giving to it a double or manifold base rather than any single root in individual heart-baring as such. Whether in his early work, the confessional writing proper, or his later work, Lowell may be described as a poet obsessed with particular themes and particular feelings; and, again from early to late, he has treated his feeling for human and hence historical perversity, failure, and guilt in a set of images themselves hardly less obsessive. His confessionalism, Ms. Perloff argues, is one in fact rooted in a “realistic” feeling for poetry that is more fully attached to conditions of setting and circumstance, themselves centering on the poet's person as may be, than it is to lyrical or other subjective experience in its own right. Lowell's repeated concern is with scenic implication contemporary to and closely felt by himself.

It seems fair to insist on the importance of such a variety of “prospect poem” in Lowell's work, but insistence can be overdone. There is a somewhat extended penumbra to Ms. Perloff's argument which, even though it is rooted in some of Lowell's own critical remarks on his writing, seems less valuable than her central point and, depending on its interpretation, even misleading: her suggestion that Lowell is to be read in parallel vision with a range of the great realists of fiction, including Flaubert, Tolstoi, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky. Lowell's difference from such writers, in fact, seems to raise a question about his poetry that, by dint of her own argument, Ms. Perloff largely misses. I would imagine that the “great” realist achieves his high mark by virtue of his power to make his characters and his scenes complete themselves in event and so attain dramatic fulfillment. Lowell, to the contrary, seems wrapped in largely static feeling and so in states of perceiving event through emotions it governs. The emphasis of his work lies far from the range of human action or even change that we want to associate with perfected realism to reiterate, instead, the author's intensely idiosyncratic self. Consideration of such a habitual bias, one governing so much of Lowell's poetry, seems to be indispensable to its discussion, and I can't help but feel that Ms. Perloff's remarks suffer from underplaying it.

At the same time, her suggestions are certainly useful as far as they go and deserve respectful consideration.

Jerome Mazzard (review date Winter 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. XX, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 96–8.

[In the following review of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, Mazzard praises Perloff's explication of O'Hara's poetry, but finds fault in...

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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her academic perspective.]

When the Musée National d'Art Moderne opened in “The Gas Factory” or “The Refinery,” the new Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou in Paris was the ideal structure for a retrospective on the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. Far less suitable for the spirit of Frank O'Hara is Marjorie Perloff's Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters. The book is neither a biography of the poet, for “versions of specific incidents [do] not always coincide,” nor an analysis of the myths surrounding the poet. “Interest has centered on the man rather than on the work,” and Perloff's intent “is to right the balance” by emphasizing the poetry and O'Hara's importance as “one of the central poets of the postwar period.” Yet, it is precisely in the instruments that she chooses to accomplish her aim that distortions occur and those readers who saw O'Hara as the liberator of art from institutions now see him “institutionalized” and co-opted by “the great burdens of the past” that he was always too smart in life to be too drawn to. Readers are shown time and again the “influences” on his work, the seriousness with which he studied verse forms, including the ode, and the traditional nature of his syntactical experiments. Indeed, except for quotations, the strongest parts of Perloff's argument are her descriptive analyses of O'Hara's techniques and genres in Chapter Four, and one suspects that this is so because Perloff feels most at home discussing grammar and indulging in the comparative method. Her attempt at historical reconstruction in the book's opening chapter is, in contrast, a tangle of mis- and non-information: William Carlos Williams' attacks on T. S. Eliot began with his “Prologue to Kora in Hell” (1919) and not with the appearance of The Waste Land; Salmagundi Nos. 22–23 adds more than the names of Adrienne Rich, A. R. Ammons, and John Ashbery to those of M. L. Rosenthal's The Modern Poets (1967); and the “myth” of a “controversy of poets,” while it allows the deployment of the comparative method, does not explain the real nature of the division.

The Fifties represented a time when, on the one hand, technology was working to expand the ranges of the individual with affluence and advances in travel and communications and, on the other, education was working to restrict the individual to “the great books,” “the great tradition,” and a role of custodian to the past. The directions were brought into accord by the work of academics either through ambiguity, irony, accommodation, Eliot's “mythic method,” or with the discordia concors of the new metaphysicals. On all sides, universities advanced models of conformity and “bad faith,” at the same time that, by leaving the university, people like O'Hara were finding new vistas available. For academics, art was “a criticism of life” and centered in “high seriousness” and a morality attached to character. For non-academics, the very “pseudo-statement” nature of art could allow valuable free play. Robert Lowell's “argument with action painters” over his wanting “to return to a sort of Tolstoyan fulness of representation, and their technical freedom [that] came from doing the opposite” typifies the difference. Lowell's “Tolstoyan fulness” relies upon views like W. H. Auden's on Christian character as the history of the effects of choice on possibility. For O'Hara, something else was at work. Art permitted a playing at roles—much as dancers, actors, and singers perform—which in passing might alter personality and which in the end results in a “characteristic style” rather than character. Thus, O'Hara can advocate “‘a living situation,’ whose ‘free-wheeling accuracy’ ‘keeps you fresh looking’” and suggest to those who “would like to see art dead” a session at “the Cloisters reading Latin.” Although the NDEA and the movement of creative writers into the universities and the universities' greater involvements with society and social issues in the late Sixties did much to bring the two sides together, the basic issues have remained unresolved.

Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters does little to alter the backward look of the university or its emphasis on character. Moreover, if the book does not appreciate sufficiently “characteristic style,” it does offer a fine sense of the poet's early development at Harvard and the University of Michigan and excellent insights into period and individual poems. Perloff is a skilled explicator, as her analyses of “Why I Am Not a Painter” and “Radio” demonstrate. She is also skilled at relating biography to a poem—a necessity, for if no other reason than O'Hara's “personism” gets elements of him and his surroundings into a work. In lieu of a correlation of life style and art, it is important to have such elements shown. Perloff also suspends “moral judgment” regarding O'Hara's personal life, though her rescuing of him from charges of “trivia” into “major” significance suggests that she has not suspended all moral judgments. Indeed, there is an attempt throughout to “redeem” the life in terms of the poetry, to underpin instead of destroy by her analyses the myth of the artist's being “a work of art.” The book does convey, in addition, much of the excitement that Perloff feels at a poetry which looks “like a delightful game” but which also has “an uncanny way” of containing “the perishable fragrance of tradition,” and her genuine appreciation for an expanding rather than narrowing art. Readers may wish at times that her emphasis on what prevents a poem's closure might be better balanced with what opens up a poem, but the reader has no doubt of the appropriateness of the book as an introduction for those who find themselves foundering amid O'Hara's surprising metaphors, images, and logical lapses and wish to go beyond the poems to traditions and facts about the individual who composed them.

Martha George Meek (review date March 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, in American Literature, Vol. 50, No. 1, March, 1978, pp. 134–35.

[In the following review, Meek gives a positive assessment of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters.]

Marjorie Perloff's intention in this first book-length study of Frank O'Hara's poetry [Frank O'Hara] is to shift attention from the celebrity—curator at the Museum of Modern Art and friend and champion of many contemporary artists—to a serious consideration of his poetry, often dismissed as the merely charming trivia of a spare-time poet who wrote hastily and largely without revision on his lunch break or at parties. It is Perloff's conclusion that, to the contrary, O'Hara ranks as “one of the central poets of the postwar period.”

Self-deprecatory, undeniably charming, and impeccable in their comedic timing, O'Hara's poems were nonetheless a serious matter for him. Always behind his words lies the anxiety as of someone afraid to stop talking; he was amazingly prolific. From his occasional comments and practical criticism, Perloff has deduced his aesthetic as one of process, of presence (not transcendence), and above all of attention. His injunction was: “Don't be bored, don't be lazy, don't be trivial, and don't be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.” For him writing was an indispensable aspect of life lived with unremitting intensity. His poetry is a chronicle of “the world of process” as he experienced it, and of the poetic process (which for him were one and the same). In this emphasis on process, Perloff locates his essential tie with motion pictures, action painting, music, French Surrealism, and with New York City as “the very center of his being.”

From O'Hara's assimilation of these and other extraordinarily diverse influences on him, came, in Perloff's view, “the creation of a new kind of lyric poem,” antithetical to the dominant neo-Symbolist mode of the fifties. O'Hara maintained the “surface” of the poems against any suggestion of symbolic “depth”; there was nothing behind the surface for him. He won the brilliant immediacy of his poems, Perloff contends, when he adapted to poetry what Hans Hofmann called the “push and pull” of surface tensions in Cubist and abstract art. In O'Hara's poetry this became the “syntactic energy” of non sequitur, false connectives, dangling clauses, and confusing spatial and temporal relationships. His “signature” style is marked by such syntactic ambiguity and by shifts between mundane literalism and fancy, between the real and the surreal. He was at his best, she argues, when he learned to fuse Surrealist imagery with American idiom, as in the long “In Memory of My Feelings,” which Perloff considers “one of the great poems of our time.”

Perloff also looks at O'Hara's collaborations with painters, his art criticism, and his relationship to two other “New York poets,” John Ashbery and Allen Ginsberg. With its useful notes and bibliography, the book efficiently makes the considerable dimensions of the subject visible for further study.

Charles Altieri (review date April 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 77, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 299–301.

[In the following review of Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters, Altieri commends Perloff's discussion of O'Hara's aesthetics, but cites shortcomings in her analysis of the subjective qualities of O'Hara's work.]

Marjorie Perloff's description of Frank O'Hara's poetic career and its context, the New York art scene of the 1950's, is a pleasure to read. Clearly and energetically written, [Frank O'Hara] is informative without pedantry and subtle without excessive ingenuity.

Professor Perloff's major achievement is making clear and concrete the way O'Hara employs the principles of various modes of nonrepresentational painting in order to break away from the “neo-Symbolist” mode dominating American poetry in the 1950's. O'Hara's aim is “‘to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious’” and to make the poem “‘be the subject, not just about it’” (p. 22). And his strategy for relocating poetic energies from putative depth to dynamic surface is to compose surfaces so that they create a push and pull effect analogous to the interplay of energies in the paintings O'Hara loved. The result is a microcosm of the poet's New York (p. 23). This push and pull effect creates a poetic structure “always changing, shifting and becoming,” thus defamiliarizing objects and commanding for the poem the same intense attention the poet lavishes on his world. As summary description of this poetic, Perloff evokes O'Hara's definition of David Smith's sculptures as an “esthetic of culmination rather than examination”: “Unification is approached by inviting the eye to travel over the complicated surface exhaustively, rather than inviting it to settle on the whole first and then explore details” (p. 24).

After her excellent opening chapter on O'Hara's aesthetic, Professor Perloff turns to tracing O'Hara's poetic development. She explores his understanding of various literary conventions and French and American modernist influences. And she makes a convincing case that O'Hara achieves his distinctive voice only when he integrates the two discrete modes of his earlier work—poems detailing concrete events and those exploring surreal structures of imagery. Eventually he manages to blend concreteness and fantasy, thus both capturing an affective sense of urban life and creating a sense of depth within the play of surface textures. Perloff's narrative, and her extensive and careful research, give us a lively sense of the world O'Hara loved and wrote for, so that we can see the poems as embedded in the realm of concerns and personal relationships informing their energies. Finally, her grasp of O'Hara's aesthetic enables Perloff to isolate the basic aspects of O'Hara's style (where she unfortunately ignores what might be called “the baroque aphorism,” which carries a good deal of the wit and fresh affective stances in both O'Hara and Ashbery) and to give new and engaging descriptions of many of O'Hara's best poems. (She is most useful on “Biotherm,” “In Memory of My Feelings,” “Joe's Jacket,” and O'Hara's collaboration with artists.)

Professor Perloff's identification with O'Hara produces a pleasant, engaged, and unpretentious critical voice. But it also, I suspect, accounts for what I see as the problems in this study. Perloff adapts O'Hara's distrust of psychological speculations, with the unfortunate consequence of leaving us with very little sense of O'Hara as more than a pop figure. We are given his aesthetics and his stylistic methods, but no images of the desires motivating his imaginative world (except his fear of boredom) and no analysis of the tensions revealed in his work. More important, Perloff tends to treat poems as if she were writing about paintings for Artforum. She emphasizes the working of the aesthetic surface without establishing the nature and significance of the attitudes and patterns created by aesthetic relationships. Despite her attacks on New Critical formalism, her critical energies are devoted almost exclusively to how poems are put together. Although some of the readings are quite good, it is often the case that fidelity to O'Hara's distrust of symbolic interpretations leads her to put unneeded constraints on the interpretive skills she demonstrates in her other critical works. One need not be a decoder of symbols in order to pay more attention to the distinct emotive attitude of a poem and the resonance it produces.

Her discussion of “Music” (pp. 120–24), for example, nicely describes the poem's manipulation of time and space, but she is content to observe only that such movement “captures the sense of magic, urgency, and confusion of the modern cityscape” and creates an “impression of total fluidity” modulating to a darkening mood as time freezes. All this, however, is ultimately context for what she does not explore, for the rich emotional precision and inventiveness of the poem's final demonic image of the Christmas season: “But no more fountains and no more rain / And the stores stay open terribly late.” The “terribly” here is a risky echo of Cummings' indulgence in adverbs, but it succeeds in focusing a public and private horror of surface promises that only mock spiritual needs. The poem's freezing of time and its turn to shorter lines are intensified by an ironic invitation that takes on overtones of cannibalistic sterility. What in Lowell becomes “Savage sterility slides by on grease” is here more quiet, more casual, and therefore ultimately more frightening, especially because it casts back upon the poem's rapid movement a sense of frustrated energies seeking to hold off a terror they ultimately make more pressing and more final. In fact, here O'Hara's refusal to explore inwardness leads to a lively movement in which the subject has no recourse but to identify with the very objects which threaten it. It is this sense of constant anxiety, intensified and made real by the casual and therefore inescapable modes in which it appears and invades subjectivity, that Perloff misses in O'Hara's best work.

This lack of precision and of distance from O'Hara's explicit values prevents Perloff from fully exploring the implications of the aesthetic principles she describes so well. It simply does not matter very much that “the aesthetics of attention invites our response so that ultimately the poet's experience becomes ours” (p. 37) unless we have a significant use for the experience offered. The movement of energies in themselves is not, for me at least, a significant use unless the structuring of attention is shown to have emotional and intellectual resonance. Moreover it does not suffice to characterize O'Hara by using concepts of defamiliarization or of being needed by things. These principles apply to most poets since Wordsworth. The crucial critical act is describing how O'Hara adapts these general principles, how, for example, he is concerned less to disclose the properties of things (as an Imagist would be) than to stress the way things satisfy his flight from boredom or how he defamiliarizes our ordinary sense of subject more than he does of objects. As Perloff sees in other contexts, the liberating aspect of O'Hara's poetry is its creation of a space where a subject can celebrate his energies without turning inward on an endlessly frustrating quest for authenticity. Taking defamiliarization as she does, Perloff does not notice the significant differences in the parallels she notes between O'Hara and Williams (pp. 46–47)—in O'Hara, objects are vehicles for at once expressing subjective needs and wittily distancing himself from them—and she does not treat as fully as she could have the nature of O'Hara's influence on other poets.

Perloff's basic case for O'Hara's value depends on the sense his poetry gives of a specific man living in an engaging context. A similar case has been made for Robert Creeley's recent work, and it may be that post-modern poetry requires new aesthetic standards. If poets distrust ideas and stress the immediacy of their psychic or perceptual lives, the one criterion of value may be whether they interest or engage us in their display of imaginative energies. And if this is the case, it is sufficient for criticism to devote itself to the way surfaces unfold. Recent American painting then becomes a crucial critical tool for describing how surface energies interrelate. In this respect Professor Perloff's book is indispensable for those interested in post-modernist poetry. Nonetheless I am not satisfied by this approach. Words are not a medium with the density of texture or immediacy of physical and psychic relations that we find in color, line, and shape, so they are probably, at best, means for ends that must be described by traditional analyses of the attitudes and acts of mind rendered through them. Or, to put the case another way, it is typical of avant-garde twentieth century aesthetic movements to resist mimetic notions of art by ignoring dramatic content and stressing the nature of the creator's aesthetic activity. But this activity, I suspect, will endure as significant only if it can itself be shown to be a humanly important way of responding to experience. In O'Hara's case the play of surfaces is less important than the way the poems interpret their sense of surfaces as a necessary way of reconciling lyric emotion with the ironic stance of the urban sceptic. O'Hara at his best is an important poet not because his poems manifest his energies but because these energies are presented as aspects of modern feeling and experiencing which have been neglected by Romantic poetics and humanist high seriousness. The final test of a poet remains not his creation of an engaging personality but, as Wallace Stevens said, his power to involve the lives of others in his meditations. Professor Perloff has devoted her considerable knowledge and talents to what is finally a prolegomenon to the necessary critical task of establishing O'Hara's claims to be taken seriously in his rejection of seriousness.

Wendy Steiner (review date Winter 1982)

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SOURCE: A review of The Poetics of Indeterminacy, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 64–70.

[In the following review, Steiner criticizes what she considers to be specious arguments and inaccurate semiotic analysis in The Poetics of Indeterminacy.]

It is hard not to admire the courage of Marjorie Perloff's work. She sets out to do nothing less than recast the modernist canon, writing with evident pleasure of poets disdained for their incoherence and exclusively cerebral appeal. Drawn forth from obscurity and isolation, these sports of art become themselves a fecund species, a line fully as productive as the Romanticist-Symbolist dynasty to which they are contrasted. Moreover, once identified, this “Other Tradition” begins to encroach on its High Modernist opposite, claiming Pound, Williams, and Beckett as its own, the heirs or coevals of the likes of Rimbaud, Stein, Apollinaire, Ashbery, Cage, and Antin. Anyone compelled by such writers will feel grateful for Perloff's book, which promises to release us from the need to apologize to the guardians of the Great Tradition for our preoccupation with Minimal Minors.

And yet, though one might applaud Perloff's intent and eagerly await the change in literary values her book calls for, The Poetics of Indeterminacy is not the vehicle to effect this change. Its argument is problematic in almost every respect, threatening a critical indeterminacy that its author does not anticipate. Still, even this indeterminacy is interesting, and in fact instructive about the nature of criticism itself. And so, with sincere respect for Marjorie Perloff's learning, sophistication, and independence of mind, I would like to take issue with her book.

What is an indeterminate text? The answer that Perloff provides varies as the book proceeds. No reference to Heisenberg appears, and Derrida is consigned to a single footnote (of which, more later). Instead, we have Todorov's notion of “undecidability” defined initially on a pragmatic basis: because of the violation of the normal (!) relation between signifiant and signifié found in Symbolism, there are no controls on the associations that arise with texts of the Other Tradition. Thus, “it becomes impossible to decide which of these associations are relevant and which are not. This is the ‘undecidability’ of the text” (pp. 17–18). To illustrate, Perloff juxtaposes texts of one tradition to those of another, finding the High Modernist ones determinate and the undecidable ones indeterminate.

The manifest danger of such a technique, the critic's admission that she is at an interpretive loss, is not just that it is embarrassing, not just that the perverse reader will inevitably find such texts perfectly clear, but that the very status of criticism would require redefinition if texts were allowed to remain opaque, to have this “ambiguity of literalism.” The more normal critical response is not to speak of that whereof one can make no sense. For example, discussing an Ashbery poem similar to one treated by Perloff, Richard Howard quips: “I should say that was beyond critical dispute, or should be, simply because it is largely inaccessible to critical procedure. Fortunately (for my enterprise) not all of Ashbery's work … resists analysis or even interest so successfully.”1 But Perloff not only wants to allow for opaque poems; she wants to talk about their opacity. And the effect of such talk is to make either the text become intelligible or the critic appear obtuse.

In the first case, time after time Perloff's analyses of indeterminate works culminate in summaries that seem perfectly determinate:

[Stein's “Edith Sitwell”] explores the nature of concord and discord, sameness and difference between two friends.

[p. 80]

[And though] poem after poem in [Williams's] Spring and All is characterized by … Cubist mobility and indeterminacy [p. 129]. Spring and All enacts the difficult process whereby this “hell” is “lit” by flashes of the “dark woman,” the Kora who is waiting to be discovered. … Out of the “messy” and unwieldy prose, out of the disorder of language, the bland crowds and “patches of standing water,” “dazed spring approaches.”

[p. 137]

The critical act is unfortunately one of patching and mending, of reconciling words to systems of value, and thus whenever Perloff lets her guard slip she collapses the opposition between determinate and indeterminate art that she is out to establish.

When she keeps her guard up, on the other hand, she is just as likely to strike the reader as obtuse, willfully blind to a pattern of meaning presented. For me, the most glaring example of this blindness is the treatment of Stein's “Melanctha,” one of the most relentlessly plotted and coherently characterized stories in all of literature. Faced with Stein's picture of the self-defeating, contradictory heroine and her contagious effect on her lover, Perloff is stymied: “Melanctha is submissive but wild, graceful but self-destructive, soothing but always getting into trouble, intelligent but never able to get what she wants. A similar indeterminacy is found in the characterization of [her lover] Jeff Campbell” (p. 93).

The idea that realist character is normally without inconsistency is just one of many simplistic tests for indeterminacy applied to literary works. One even suspects at times that Perloff might be talking down to us, enlisting the aid of what she takes to be the naive realist in order to establish the identity of indeterminate art. For example, she assumes that a text that does not directly illustrate its title is indeterminate: “Rimbaud evokes ‘cities’ [in “Villes”] that are, from the start, impossible to locate in ‘real’ space. For although the poem unfolds a metonymic network of urban images … these references to a possible city are consistently canceled out by images of wild nature” (p. 50). The logical response to such a state of affairs would be to decide that the poem was not about cities in “real” space, but about something else, and that the title was to be taken figuratively. But the first breach between text and title is enough to establish its indeterminacy for Perloff, regardless of the potential significance in such a breach. The corollary of this attitude is Perloff's irritating habit of comparing poems on the basis of their titles. Thus, we find “city poems” or “lake poems” or “box poems” ranged against each other like the control group and the subject of an experiment, as if to say, “When Eliot writes a poem about a city, he writes a poem about a city—but Rimbaud—now there's an indeterminate writer.”

The naïveté of Perloff's stance is sometimes extremely jarring. She calls our attention to a line from Beckett's How It Is: “only one thing to do go back or at least only another thrash round where I lie.” Then she comments: “Supplying the missing [syntactic] links is … not the reader's main problem; the real puzzle is semantic. Why is the ‘only thing to do’ to ‘go back’? Why is the inertia of ‘thrash[ing] round where I lie’ ‘at least’ the ‘only other’ thing to do? There is no way of deciding” (p. 232). There is none, indeed, if one fails to consider existentialist philosophy, absurdist literature, and most of the mainstream of twentieth-century culture.

This contextual innocence on Perloff's part is all the more surprising in light of the sophisticated critical concepts that she marshals on behalf of her point of view. The problem here unfortunately is that she often invokes them incorrectly. One repeated error is the confusion of the reference to specific existent objects with reference in general—in semiotic terms, denotation versus designation. For example, “Unlike, say, Gertrude Stein or, for that matter, Rimbaud, [Pound] does not call into question the relationship of signifier to signified. We can readily identify the fresco ‘at Capoquadri … over the doorway,’ Francis Thompson's then modern poem, ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ or T. E. Lawrence's photographs of ‘rock temples in Arabia Petra.’ … But these illusionistic, literal images are consistently ‘interfering’ with one another, so as to remind us that the world of the poem is not, after all, the real world” (p. 196). The relation of signifier to signified does not remain intact just because we can identify the works of art mentioned; that is, denotation does not imply straightforward designation. Moreover, when has one ever assumed that the world of a poem was the “real world”? Even when an artist musters up every gesture and convention of realism, the relation of work to world is always problematic. This careless use of semiotic terms renders Perloff's position tenuous at best.

So much for the pragmatic definition of textual indeterminacy: the presence in a work of conflicting, undecidable interpretations. The possibility that this is more a condition of the reader than the text does not occur to Perloff, but I find it hard to avoid. We are constantly gaining insight into texts that previously seemed indeterminate or incomprehensible, by growing as readers. Moreover, a text's intelligibility and determinacy are also a function of critical and aesthetic history. In the early years of this century, Mallarmé and Eliot were hardly the determinate retrogrades that Perloff paints, nor will her Other Tradition be able to maintain its otherness under the onslaught of critical interpretation—an onslaught, I should add, of which The Poetics of Indeterminacy is a part. Yet Perloff clearly holds that indeterminacy is a property of texts, not readers, and of post-Rimbaldian and only post-Rimbaldian texts at that. “I am aware that here I take issue with Derridean theory. ‘Indeterminacy,’ as I use that term in this book, is taken to be the quality of particular art works in a particular period of history rather than as the central characteristic of all texts at all times” (p. 17, note). The idea that indeterminacy is a property at all seems contradictory, given the pragmatic nature of the term's initial use. Moreover, it is a pity that this interesting dispute with Derrida should run its course in a footnote.

Is it really possible to declare without a blush that The Waste Land is determinate whereas the “poetry of Rimbaud and his heirs” defies determinate interpretation? The idea that allows Perloff to do so is the sloppy notion of aesthetic semiosis that was touched on earlier: in the mainstream poem from Romanticism to Symbolism to High Modernism, however difficult the meaning may be to decode, “the relationship of the word to its referents, of signifier to signified, remains essentially intact,” whereas this relationship is undermined in the Other Tradition (pp. 17–18). In the Symbolist line, the way to meaning is difficult but possible; in indeterminate art there is no meaning but the surface (pp. 27–28). In the first, words have “specific connotations”; in the second they have, rather, a “compositional value” (p. 23). In the first, metaphor is the predominant semantic mode: “Mr. Eugenides is related, along the axis of metaphor or substitution, to all the other sinister charlatans in the poem, just as every other woman in The Waste Land is a version of ‘Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks / the Lady of Situations’” (p. 16). In indeterminate poetry, however, metonymy prevails: “in Kora, drinking tea may be either good or bad depending on what has just happened or is about to happen. When the poet finds himself at nightfall alone at the inn without the desired woman, he naturally concludes: ‘what poor tea it was.’ The axis of contiguity thus replaces the axis of substitution” (p. 119). And, we might add, Pop semiotics thus replaces a thorough examination of the subject. Perhaps this imprecise semiotics is the single most disheartening feature of the book: that theoretical concepts as precise and powerful as these can be so imprecisely and inertly used, that conclusions as suggestive and accurate, I think, as those Perloff intuits could be justified by such fallacious reasoning.

To be specific, what does it mean to say that the signifier-signified relation remains intact? Sometimes Perloff means that terms denote rather than merely designate, as we saw earlier; sometimes that they appear in grammatical sentences; sometimes that they are metaphoric rather than metonymic; sometimes that they are not excessively repeated; sometimes that they are concrete or at least do not appear in indefinite, long sentences. Clearly the terms “signifier” and “signified” are themselves indeterminate here, and the dismissal of fundamental issues such as Derridean slippage begins to look either sinister or unforgivably careless. No matter how troublesome Derrida and the other theoreticians of semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism may be, no matter how quickly one wants to get to the poetry at hand, the category of indeterminacy and the placement of certain writers within it will remain utterly meaningless if the issues are not laid out consistently and logically.

Just to give an idea of how a little Jakobson can be a dangerous thing, we might pursue Perloff's use of “metonymy.” She claims that Stein rejected realism, producing in Tender Buttons purely metonymic texts. Aside from the fact that she is wrong about Stein's understanding of realism, Jakobson specifically identifies metonymy as a technique of realism.2 Moreover, Jakobson elsewhere3 reveals how slippery the term “realism” is, establishing meanings for it that would include any work to be found in the Other Tradition. Indeed most of these indeterminate writers would probably justify their unorthodoxy in the name of realism.

The comparison of indeterminate poetry to Cubist art has the same amateurish quality. Referring continually to one idea by Gombrich—that illusion is suspended in the presence of two conflicting interpretive possibilities—Perloff feels at liberty to pursue the analogy to the visual arts anywhere the inspiration of the moment leads. Thus, one ends up with completely famous comparisons: “Just as the ‘Cubist’ painter recognizes that, in Apollinaire's words, ‘You may paint with whatever material you please, with pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards …,’ so the verbal artist like Gertrude Stein takes words and unlinks them ‘from their former relationships in the sentence’” (pp. 114–15). What that “so” means here is a real mystery to me. But more importantly, the idea lifted out of Gombrich's extensive and complicated writings is terribly misleading. Though it is true that in Cubism conflicting interpretations interfere with illusionism, this conflict is not the only reason for the defeat of illusionism in Cubism. Moreover, it does not necessarily eliminate illusionism outside of Cubism. One thinks of Dali's or Archimbaldo's double images, which are miracles of illusionism. Visual indeterminacy is thus flattened into a single trait, and then it is shifted bodily over to literature. “Image,” however, does not mean the same thing with reference to the two arts; the presence of two—even of two conflicting—interpretations does not necessarily interfere with the “illusionism” of a literary work (whatever that is). As with the semiotic terms, the art-historical component of Perloff's argument is very weak.4

But even acknowledging all this, one feels that in some sense Perloff is right. There are some texts produced during the past hundred years that take particularly troublesome liberties with language. The critic faced with this fact might be led to ask why writers have taken to writing this way, in other words, what the cultural function and value of such art might be. It is just here, however, that Perloff is most irritatingly silent. She insists that some works are simply not open to the kind of interpretive action that critics are so prone to undertake, and then she stops. “The meaning of ‘A Substance in a Cushion,’ like that of the title Tender Buttons, remains latent, impossible to translate into something else [shades of ‘The Heresy of Paraphrase’?—no, that indeterminacy belongs, according to its propounder, to all art]. And indeed the important thing is not to establish a fixed meaning for any one item here …, but to see how carefully Gertrude Stein has structured the whole sequence” (p. 107). We know she was careful, apparently, because it is not easy to create such verbal indeterminacy, and a more careless hand (that of Edith Sitwell is adduced as an example) would have slipped into mere ambiguity. But when Perloff takes the time to describe this structuring, she resorts to the most primitive—and often incorrect—formal analysis. (The treatment of accent on p. 317 is inconsistent with any linguistic or poetic theory that I know; the discovery of consonance on p. 127 equates the /z/ in “ladies” with the /s/ in “socks.”) And we are finally left to wonder why Perloff values indeterminacy at all. I know why I value it, and you no doubt have your reasons, but Perloff's case is minimal: such art reacts against an outdated tradition (a question-begging justification), it is interesting (how? why?), it is hard to produce (isn't all art?), and so on. It is not that one would want her to give in and dig out The Meaning of the Poem and weigh it in The Scales of Contemporary Values. But one is left with a feeling of blank mystery and dogmatic prohibition: “don't try to act like a critic and come to a determinate reading of this text; that would be pure conservative wilfulness, an imposition on what is to be valued as a stream or a concrete shard or any other numinous but indeterminate object.” No serious (or humorous) critic can be satisfied with such a demand for passive assent.

Thus, The Poetics of Indeterminacy seems to be only a first stage in the critical reception of the difficult poets it treats. Still, as such, it is extremely useful in delineating the issues in that reception: the model of the visual arts, the concepts of modernism and postmodernism, the influence of romanticism, the importance of continental, especially French, influences, and the need for (an accurate) semiotics for understanding the complex semantics of such art. Perloff's wonderful sensitivity to French nuance, her command of modern poetry and its criticism, and her style and authority cannot but evoke our admiration. At the same time, they should not blind us to the attitude toward intellectualism implicit in the faults of this book. In an earlier study of Frank O'Hara Perloff commented: “Throughout this book I have tried to keep in mind O'Hara's own strictures on literary criticism, so charmingly put forward in the little poem, ‘The Critic.’ … I hope that if O'Hara were alive today, he would not consider me ‘the assassin of [his] orchards.’ I have tried, on the contrary, to respect his wish: ‘Do not / frighten me more than you / have to! I must live forever.’”5 It may very well be, however, that the orchard cannot bloom unless it is first assassinated, nor immortality come to a poet whom criticism has not affrighted. This fearsomeness is not merely a critic's power to say yes or no, but the unleashing on a text of the full force of his or her knowledge and self-awareness. Anything less cheats the text, protects it where it should need no protection, and thus inevitably enfeebles it. To understand the difficult texts that Perloff considers we need a poetics of indeterminacy and not a religion of it.


  1. Richard Howard, Alone with America, enlarged ed. (New York: Atheneum, 1980), p. 53.

  2. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 90–96.

  3. Roman Jakobson, “On Realism,” in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Kristyna Pomorska (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1971).

  4. I should mention, too, some problems of fact and concept. Perloff claims that Rimbaud is the great source of the indeterminate tradition. Yet Williams frequently denies any French influence in his literature and Stein was directly influenced by the determinate (in Perloff's view) Flaubert. Further, Perloff offers the following potential models for Stein's portraiture: Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915), “Yeats's mythologizing portraits of Maud Gonne in The Green Helmet (1910), Pound's Browningesque ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ (1912), or Eliot's ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’” (both 1910–1911). She then goes on to say that these were not models that Stein used. But not only were they not—they could not have been. Stein began her portraiture in 1908, and had been developing the theory behind it ever since her days as a psychology student before the turn of the century. Influence is such an ambiguous concept that it hardly seems worth pressing this point, but this chronological imprecision is troublesome. Similarly, on p. 111, Perloff writes that “Picasso's painting was considered to be the meeting-ground of these different schools, ranging as it does from the neo-Romanticism of the Blue Period to the severities of Analytic Cubism to Surrealist fantasy. What all these painters [mentioned in Apollinaire's Les Peintres cubistes] had in common—and this is Apollinaire's point about ‘l’esprit nouveau’—was a rejection of an art that is primarily representational.” But Apollinaire's view was enunciated in 1911 when neither Picasso nor anyone else had ventured into “Surrealist fantasy.” This imprecision continues in Perloff's failure to distinguish analytic from synthetic Cubism, her treating the two as consistent or identical. And her claim that Williams's symbolism in Paterson was a mode that he was uncomfortable with, his earlier indeterminacy being instead his native element, is belied by his vehemently symbolist history, In the American Grain, published as early as 1925.

  5. Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters (New York: George Braziller, 1977), pp. xiii–xiv.

George F. Butterick (review date April 1983)

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SOURCE: A review of The Poetics of Indeterminacy, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 82, No. 2, April, 1983, pp. 215–18.

[In the following review, Butterick commends the ambition of The Poetics of Indeterminacy, but criticizes what he sees as Perloff's unconvincing arguments and loose interdisciplinary approach.]

This [The Poetics of Indeterminacy] is a praiseworthy attempt to engage an important development in recent Anglo-American poetry and to find ways to measure it. Perloff believes that there have been buried in Modernism “two separate though often interwoven strands: the Symbolist mode that Lowell inherited from Eliot and Baudelaire and, beyond them, from the great Romantic poets, and the ‘anti-Symbolist’ mode of indeterminacy or ‘undecidability,’ of literalness and free play, whose first real exemplar was the Rimbaud of the Illuminations.” She calls this the “other tradition,” borrowing her term from the title of one of John Ashbery's poems. It is a tradition of writing that, as it has progressed, has grown increasingly away from our expectations of poetry, alienated in part by its own limitations and highly transitional experimental nature. Following an introductory chapter on the Rimbaud inheritance, there are essays on Gertrude Stein, Williams, Pound, Beckett, Ashbery, John Cage, and David Antin. The inclusion of Beckett and Cage as poets will, no doubt, surprise some readers and awaken others, though whether it strengthens the book and creates confidence in the author's perspective is matter for debate.

Perloff begins by contrasting Ashbery with Eliot and then Stevens to make her point that there is this “other tradition” that has survived the Symbolist mode. She makes her way to the kind of poetry she wishes to discuss through Jerome Rothenberg, who has surveyed the Modernist legacy in his Revolution of the Word, and then through Northrop Frye's various definitions of “poetry,” “verse,” “free verse,” and that most overlooked one, “free prose,” settling for poetry as “language art” or “word-system.” In this context, she discusses Stein, Beckett, and the others as “representative” (her italics) poets, though why Beckett, for example, and not Zukofsky or Jackson MacLow is never quite established. Perhaps if she had chosen poets more commonly renowned as central—such as Robert Duncan—we might have more confidence in her history. As it is, a poet such as Duncan, whose devout Romanticism and anti-Symbolist “free play” exist side by side, weakens her identification of the “other tradition.” (In another sense the “other tradition” is an unfortunate choice, suggesting as it does the occult.) There are abundant references throughout, invocations of authority and displays of comprehensiveness, though some of them seem indiscriminate. For example, in mentioning Allen Ginsberg and Keith Abbott among the “followers” of Rimbaud, it remains odd that she does not cite Charles Olson, specifically his “Variations” based on Rimbaud's “Délires,” or the fact that Olson considered Rimbaud among the writers who made what he called the “post-modern” possible.

Early failure to establish convincing terms results in a later uncomfortableness. I am not sure what is gained by the importation of such designations as Tzvetan Todorov's “undecidability” over the more straightforward “ambiguity,” unless it is the aleatory implications particularly favorable to Cage later in the volume. (Its use, along with extensive passages from other critics, notably in the visual arts, establishes a wider cultural context but also raises the question whether the author has a penchant for “authority,” that is, beyond her own powers of mind.) She eventually defines “undecidability” as a form of incoherence, typical of the poetry of Rimbaud and his heirs: “For what happens in Pound's Cantos, as in Stein's Tender Buttons or Williams' Spring and All or Beckett's How It Is or John Cage's Silence, is that the symbolic evocations generated by words on the page are no longer grounded in a coherent discourse, so that it becomes impossible to decide which of these associations are relevant and which are not.” At one point (p. 71) she writes how critics, in discussing Stein's Cubism, “repeatedly speak of ‘non-representational’ or ‘abstract’ art, of ‘flat surface,’ of ‘shifting perspective’ and ‘interacting planes.’ All these are slippery terms,” she contends, and goes on to note the extent. In that light, her own should be judged no less, for is she not guilty of the same “slipperiness” with “indeterminacy,” “undecidability,” “free play,” and the like? In discussing Ashbery's poem “The Other Tradition,” she ascribes to it “a precise tonality of feeling,” but she never says what the feeling is. Attenuated irony? Shifting consciousness? Discontinuity? Disengagement (which Kenneth Rexroth once called “the art of the Beat Generation”)? Parody? “The fact of addressing someone”? She is as evasive as the poem is—although much to her credit, it happens to be one of Ashbery's best.

By the time Perloff gets to Ashbery she feels she has earned her terms and perspective, although there is no attempt to directly correlate Ashbery with anti-Symbolism, the “other tradition” itself (even when discussing the poem entitled “The Other Tradition”). In other words, the argument is not so much developed as developmental. As a procedure, it moves by example and is only loosely deductive, taking little enough trouble to sustain itself or practice consistency and reiteration. It moves instead through a series of readings, some of which are masterful. Comparison remains her method and solution: an Ashbery creation is “rather like a Max Ernst frottage.” Her arguments are retinal “floaters”—always before our eyes but not locked into sight. She is sturdiest in her readings: no frivolity, no wobble. There are excellent comparisons of Stein and Sitwell, Ashbery and Auden. It is only when she tries to supersede the individual and collective readings, advance them into some larger drift of significance—a literary movement—that she trundles, scuffs her own keenness, and causes our enthusiasm to fall away. Moreover, throughout her examination she uses language of negative implication—words and phrases like “anomalies,” “strange,” “ambiguity,” “irreducible ambiguity,” “curiously enigmatic,” “enigma texts,” “we are no nearer to the meaning,” “unsolvable mystery”—to describe the work under view. These not only add up, subliminally, as characteristics of “indeterminacy,” but they suggest that, despite the author's professed acceptance of the phenomenon, there is a longing for coherence that undermines her unwarranted or, really, irrelevant confidence of tone.

The culmination of Perloff's “other tradition” is Cage and Antin, neither of whom is universally recognized as a poet. Her choice of writers is at the very heart of the issue, since hers is an argument by example. She never convinces that Antin's improvised “talk poems” are not mere talk and very little in the way of poetry, no matter how entertaining. His “remembering recording representing” quoted at length is hardly different from Ginsberg's Allen Verbatim or Olson's Muthologos, collections of talks and interviews. Again, comparing her examples to any of the transcribed addresses in the recent Talking Poetics from the Naropa Institute or the Hills magazine “Talks” issue (which include Antin's contemporaries), Antin is just “talk”—informed, enchanting, amusing. But talk is not poetry, even if the latter is defined as a higher form of speech. Perloff contends that form does not matter, but how are Antin's pieces different, if not formally, from typical oral discourse or even oral history as it is now widely practiced? Without punctuation or justified margins, and incorporating redundancies, Antin's “talk poems” are “unfinished” oral history. They are, perhaps, more self-conscious, in terms of language, than the ordinary subject speaking into the recorder for the historian; but the fact that these poems arise in the period of oral history and portable tape recorders and the regular taping of poetry readings further questions another value they might have had—originality.

Was there not always a Cracker-Barrel School of poetry? By insisting that form is not of the matter, Perloff's criteria and definitions remain vague: a “complex elaboration of metonymic threads” that create “a projective or generative stance,” or a “process of discovery enacted by … associative rhythm.” How different are those occasions from a Hairy Ape monologue or Ulysses? They sound, in fact, like a better classroom lecture or an evening with a professional monologuist, or anyone with the gift of the gab, a slice from a filibuster. She herself calls Antin's a “three-ring performance.” Moreover, it is not the mode but the quality of language that counts. Antin on the page, in the examples given, just doesn't dance before the eyes or within the porches of the ear. Perloff's explication of a passage concerning air-travel from his “is this the right place?” is thus ludicrous, like explicating the chatter of a relative just flown in for the holidays. It leads one to doubt, if not her judgment, at least her criteria.

It is not the “poetry” (which is generally intolerable to traditional expectations) but the concept that carries Cage or Antin about on its shoulders, brings them into view. Perloff says as much, referring to Cage's famous composition 4’33” in which the pianist simply sits at his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, hands in lap. She asks, “how many of us would have conceived of the idea in the first place?” She is right, of course, but how, it will be asked, is that different from the student who places the plaster bust of Socrates in his study face to the wall. How more profound? The all-white or all-black canvas, the blank Nothing Book, Warhol's Sleep, the pet rock—once; we will pay our attention once to such a concept or novelty, but hardly a second time. For most readers, the art of Cage and Antin remains a harmless solipsism and metalinguistic exercise.

The author might have been better advised editorially. The book's index is of names only, not such topics as collage, montage, oral poetry, performance, or the like, which would have been useful in this kind of a history of ideas to follow up strands of argument and better test any of the major premises. The volume also needs a summarizing chapter, in the spirit of its present final paragraph on the usefulness of such conceptual art forms. Otherwise the book appears to be several separate, self-contained essays, conveniently bound together. Indeed, the appearance twice of E. H. Gombrich's analysis of Cubism (pp. 56 and 128) with duplicated bibliographical information, or the author's quoting Ashbery's phrase, “hymn to possibility” (as if it had special efficacy) on repeated occasions (three times with redundant footnotes), encourages this impression. Perloff similarly invokes Frye's concept of “associative rhythm”—with which she begins (p. 40) and ends (p. 317) her discussion—without any indication that it has been used earlier. The impression is that the argument is not as rigorous and inevitable as it might otherwise have been.

In sum, Perloff is right to recognize the continuing role of Rimbaud in twentieth-century poetry—his tradition and the phenomenon of “indeterminacy”—but it is not more decisive or total a view than to speak of the Emersonian or nominalist or post-Romantic tradition in recent poetry. In fact, post-Romantic or even the plainer “experimental” makes better sense. Her study, however, does help us to see that what some of these artists are offering is not necessarily pleasure, but ways of creation and of expanding our awareness of language as creators and audience, and for this The Poetics of Indeterminacy can be readily praised. For those for whom a comprehensive view of contemporary Anglo-American poetry is not a chief concern, the book will be highly valuable. It has opened the doors wide to speculation. On the one hand, the most serious limitations remain the author's choice of terms and her method of argument, including her widespread appropriation of extraneous judgment, and, closely related, her specific examples of representative poets, together with a sense that the book is a not-quite-random series of essays, lacking a conclusive chapter. On the other hand, she champions new thinking about new areas of concern and is capable of exemplary readings, while the amount of her labor is notable—and discouraging to future superficial treatments. Any investigation coming after had better be at least as hard-working as this one.

Joseph G. Kronick (review date March 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of The Dance of the Intellect, in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 139–40.

[In the following review, Kronick gives a negative assessment of The Dance of the Intellect.]

Perloff [in The Dance of the Intellect] contends that Post-Modernism is distinguished by the abandonment of genre, particularly that of lyric, in favor of the “art of writing,” which for her is embodied in the fragmentary and heterogeneous character of the Cantos. Her book begins with a group of essays dealing with the relation of Pound's poetics to Joyce's and Stevens'. She then turns to the metric techniques of Williams' and Oppen's free verse and Beckett's “free prose.” She concludes with a look at the contemporary poetry of John Cage, Edward Dorn, and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school.

Perloff's work is a fusion of formalism with literary history. She attempts to build an historical argument about the development of twentieth-century poetics by analyzing works by a relatively limited selection of writers. But her argument is tautological because she only admits a writer into her history if he/she fits her formalist criteria. And though she is concerned with the American avant-garde, her history is quite conventional. In fact, her historical perspective is hardly more sophisticated than that found in textbooks and anthologies. The passage from Romanticism to Post-Modernism is from an emphasis on myth, the imagination, and self-expression to facts, writing, and the “‘dispersal of the speaking subject.’”

The problems emerge in her first chapter, “Pound/Stevens: whose era?” She misrepresents Stevens as a backward-looking Romantic who was too interested in the what of poetry, and she praises Pound as the true modernist because he was concerned with the how. Perloff's distinction between the how and the what reveals her commitment to the new critics' distinction between form and content. She fails to consider what has been widely recognized for at least twenty years by critical theorists—that is, any analysis of prosody or form in general already involves the writer in acts of selection and interpretation.

This formalist distinction between style and content governs the rest of the book. In an analysis of Pound's Gaudier-Brzeska, randomness, ellipses, and heterogeneity are said to break down the division between art and life. She retains new criticism's faith in organic form, although here it has been updated to become what we may call existential form: chaotic texts ultimately represent the chaos of modern life. She writes of Zukofsky's A that its “‘truths’ must be discovered phenomenologically: they remain poised as possibilities revealing the difficulties of human choice” (p. 186). Perloff's weak grasp of theory is demonstrated by the way mimesis is smuggled back into an argument that began by rejecting the notion of imitation. The limitations of formalism are most evident in the inability to account for the role of ideology and history in literature. Perloff's claim that Pound's hybrid texts are the models for Edmond Jabés's Le Livre des questions reveals an insensitivity not only to the profound differences between Pound's and Jabés's poetics (Stevens' concept of writing, however, has close affinities with Jabés's), but to the fate of Jewish culture since the holocaust. Apparently, Perloff believes style can erase history.

Andrew J. McKenna (review date 21 June 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of The Futurist Moment, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Futurist Moment, McKenna finds Perloff's analysis of Futurism and its link to postmodernism informative, but questions postmodernism's relevance and Perloff's view of the post-industrial world.]

“We exclaim that the whole brilliant style of modern times—our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships—is fascinating, is a great epoch, one that has known no equal in the entire history of the world.” Tone down “exclaim,” throw in tape recorder, TV and telephone for outdated trolleys, railways and steamships, and we might think we are reading something from the pages of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. In fact, this comes from a manifesto by Russian Futurists in 1913. Whence the interest of Marjorie Perloff's informative book [The Futurist Moment], which examines the heterogeneous, heterogeneric artistic productions of the period 1909–1914. Her purpose is twofold: to correlate Italian and Russian Futurism with a host of nonaligned but homologous works of the period so as to exemplify a “moment” in which art and letters embraced the violence and energy of the Machine Age: and furthermore to illustrate (quite generously, in fact) its links with artistic sensibilities and theories of the present time.

The first five chapters mostly serve the first purpose. Perloff ably reconnoiters and interrelates the myriad experiments of Delaunay (both Robert and Sonia), of the early Cubists, of Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and the early vorticist Ezra Pound. These are works to which the iconoclastic as well as creative impulses of Futurism are clearly hospitable as suggested by this article from a manifesto of 1910. “That a clean sweep should be made of all stale and threadbare subject matter in order to express the vortex of modern life—a life of steel, fever, pride and headlong speed.” Separate chapters are devoted to the unduly neglected Cendrars and to Pound: they nicely serve to frame intervening chapters on collage, on the manifesto as art form, and on the word play and typographical high jinks of the Russian Futurist book.

We rightly continue to be fascinated by these productions, as they beckon our attention to what Baudelaire was the first to recognize as le fantastique reel de la vie. And Perloff just as ably succeeds in showing, in her final chapter, how they resonate with current preoccupations: Performance art is high on the list, as are the boundaries between art and life, art and theory, art and artifact.

Today we call this Postmodernism, which Perloff cannily dubs “a disillusioned or cool Futurism” for its ironic, not to say parodic revival of similar themes. This is borne out by lengthy comparison-contrast of texts by Cendrars and Malevich and Roland Barthes on the Eiffel Tower—which simply horrified the earlier generation of fin de siecle artists. It is further illustrated by extensive commentary on the “protoconceptual” production of Robert Smithson, whose funky evocations of New Jersey's industrial landscape do not fail to remind us of a Futurist project for the modernization, nay the Hobokenization, of quaint, sleepy, museumized Venice.

Perloff's lucid commentary and scrupulous research offer a good introduction to Futurism in its wider implications. Of course, we may ask whether we need an introduction to the works of the period, which these days strike us as being as archly self-explanatory as the pages of Artforum and the prose of Barthes to which they are judiciously compared: And the author is not always to blame if these works lose in translation and in academic criticism what jokes lose when they are explained to us. Yet Perloff's precise skills as stylistic analyst often seem superfluous when applied to works whose intentions and effects are so sensational and self-conscious, and which are themselves so transparently deliberate and programmatic in their challenge to genre and media boundaries to traditional aesthetic value and modes of representation. In sum, we have to ask, after Duchamp, whether we need more evidence for our already-made-so-much-of crisis of representation, which now perhaps only propels academic careers, where it goes by the name of Postmodernism.

As to what this notion portends, one could quarrel with the author's conception, at least as it concerns a statement like this: “But in the last few decades, this spirit of invention, of rupture, of the conceptual art work as something that can actually change our landscapes has once again become important. The machine in its fantastic and ironic guises once again stimulates the poetic imagination.” Our irony toward the machine is informed, of course, by its massive dedication to destruction through two world wars and possibly a third, definitive one. Perloff's sense of this comes through, but not, irony of ironies, a consequent sense of fin de siecle affecting our “moment.” She accordingly betrays no awareness either of what is post-industrial about our postmodernity; our decrepit machinery, even as glossed by Smithson, evokes the pathos of ruins; of antiquarian nostalgia rather than an ethos of triumphal creativity. As more theoretically ambitious critics like Jean Baudrillard in Paris and Eric Gans at UCLA have noted, our culture is no longer guided by the economy of labor, production and machinery, but of service, simulacra and software. Information, not industry, is our “moment,” as even our author obliquely testifies when she closes her preface with a word of acknowledgement to her word processor and jet laser printer.

Hugh Witemeyer (review date August 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of The Dance of the Intellect, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, August, 1987, pp. 277–78.

[In the following review of The Dance of the Intellect, Witemeyer finds shortcomings in Perloff's assertions and documentation.]

In The Dance of the Intellect Marjorie Perloff gathers ten essays first published between 1981 and 1984 on various aspects of modern and postmodern writing in English. As in The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) Perloff seeks to construct a modernist genealogy for the kind of contemporary American writing she favors: the collage- and performance-texts of John Cage; the deconstructive narrative of Ed Dorn's Slinger; some of the work of New York poets Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery; the talk-poems of David Antin; and the “LANGUAGE” poems of Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Tina Darragh, and Ron Silliman. In her new book Perloff modifies her definition of the heritage somewhat; it is no longer primarily a tradition of “indeterminacy,” and it no longer descends from Rimbaud. It is now a “Pound tradition,” growing out of such collage-texts as The Cantos, Pound's letters, and Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. It reaches contemporary writers through the work of William Carlos Williams, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, W.H. Auden, and Robert Creeley. Although Perloff outlines her Pound tradition with great energy and enthusiasm, her definition of it is not altogether clear or compellingly documented.

The four opening essays emphasize formal innovations in the work of Pound and Williams. Perloff calls special attention to their use of constructionist and collage techniques inspired by the modern visual arts to subvert traditional conceptions of structure, mode, and genre. For example, she offers a compelling reading of Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir in terms of Futurist and Cubist assemblages. In the fifth and sixth essays—on Oppen and Beckett, respectively—the focus begins to change, however. The principle of indeterminacy re-enters the definition of the tradition, and the illustrations begin to lose clear connection with Pound as they take in the work of Auden and the New York poets. The four closing essays, of which the most important is entitled “Postmodernism and the impasse of lyric,” introduce another perspective. They oppose the Pound tradition to the neo-romantic line of descent that Harold Bloom traces through the work of Emerson, Wallace Stevens, A.R. Ammons, and Mark Strand. Now Poundian postmodernism is characterized as the antithesis of a lyric poetry of referentiality, organic forms, and humanistic voice. This part of the argument overlooks Pound's beliefs in the signifying power of poetic language and in the reality of neo-Platonic visionary experience.

As Perloff's definition of the Pound tradition is somewhat elusive, so is her documentation of it. The problem is not one of theory in a void. Here as always Perloff is an energetic and illuminating analyst of particular texts. The problem is rather that the documentation so abundantly offered is frequently erroneous. For example, an incomplete check of the quotations and footnote references in the opening essay, “Pound/Stevens: whose era?,” turns up at least nine misquotations, two inaccurate page citations, and one phantom reference (to an article by Jean-Michel Rabaté). The same essay contains at least four typographical errors and a confusion of Pound's daughter, Mary, with his wife, Dorothy. For a literal-minded reader, such an accumulation of minor flaws ultimately impairs the effect of the overall argument. The essays in The Dance of the Intellect, then, are lively, timely, and eminently readable; but they might have been more carefully coordinated and verified before their republication as a book.

Timothy Materer (review date January 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Futurist Moment, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1988, pp. 153–55.

[In the following review, Materer gives a positive evaluation of The Futurist Moment.]

Marjorie Perloff's new book, The Futurist Moment, which follows The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981) and The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Pound Tradition (1985), confirms her position as one of the few critics who is essential to our understanding of contemporary poetry. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, her distinction of two traditions in modern poetry made possible a wider and more sympathetic reading of both modern and contemporary works than other critics have given us, which is clear from the book's treatment of writers such as Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery, David Antin, and John Cage. The Futurist Moment is not only a brilliant work of criticism but also a formidable piece of scholarship that clarifies the historical development of these traditions.

Two of Perloff's earlier books explore a major contemporary poet in each tradition. She explains in Poetics of Indeterminacy that when she was writing The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973) she saw a profound difference between the Symbolist mode that Lowell inherited from Baudelaire and Eliot and an “‘anti-symbolist’ mode of indeterminacy or ‘undecidability,’ of literalness and free play, whose first real exemplar was the Rimbaud of the Illuminations” (p. vii). In her Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters (1977), she treated a poet whose work was a natural antithesis to Lowell's art because he opposed the “neo-symbolist” tradition of Eliot. Perloff used terms such as “raw” and “cooked,” and “civilized” and “barbarian,” to analyze this opposition; but her terminology soon became more original and precise. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, she analyzed the anti-Symbolist “other tradition” in terms of Rimbaud and Modernist painting as one in which “the free play of possible significations replaces iconic representation.” Significantly, one of her most illuminating citations from an artist in this tradition is from a painter, René Magritte: “‘People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image. … But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things’” (p. 44).

To analyze O'Hara, who was a curator of the New York Museum of Modern Art, it was necessary to analyze the Postmodernist art of New York in the fifties and sixties. Collage is already an important concept in Frank O'Hara, but it becomes a key one in many of the essays collected in Perloff's Dance of the Intellect (1985). To describe the way the “other tradition” works in Pound or Williams, she writes that the mode used “is that of collage, the setting side by side or juxtaposition of disparate materials without commitment to explicit syntactical relations between elements.” Meaning in this tradition is relatively free because the syntax evades unambiguous predication and clear subordinations. As John Gage writes of collage art, “‘The situation must be Yes-and-No not either-or’” (p. 83).

In The Futurist Moment, Perloff explores the relationship of the “other tradition” to the “Futurist” tradition. Perloff believes that the “moment” of Futurism before World War I was crucial to modern art and that its importance has been obscured. Her title comes from Renato Poggioli's The Theory of the Avant-Garde, which gives priority among the prewar isms to Italian Futurism: “‘The futurist moment belongs to all the avant-gardes and not only to the one named for it …’” (p. xvii). Perloff thinks that the seminal importance of Futurism has not been recognized because the Italian Futurists were later associated with Fascism, and so their innovations in collage, manifesto, sound poetry, typography, syntactic dislocation, and poetic form have been neglected by later critics who dislike the tone or politics of their declarations. A still more important reason for this neglect by literary critics is that prior to this book there has been no critic ambitious enough to synthesize material in English, French, Italian, and Russian, and in both verbal and visual genres, in order to assess Futurism's influence. The nationalist barriers of language and politics had to be overcome to assess a moment in history when a genuine international community of art was a reality. For example, Marinetti published his 1909 Futurist Manifesto not in Italy but in the Paris Figaro, and conversely Apollinaire's L’Antitradition futuriste (1913), with its posterlike arrangement of typography and its call for the suppression of “poetic grief … syntax, punctuation, lines and verses, houses, boredom,” was published, not in Paris, but in Milan in a bilingual edition.

Perloff finds in Futurism some of the most crucial innovations in Modernism, such as the breakdown of the prose/poetry distinction and the questioning of the “representability of the sign.” In an age of mechanical inventions that were transforming human experience, the automobile and airplane, typewriter and telegraph, both the space of the canvas and of the book page were reconceived; invention replaced representation even as ordinary and banal images were reintroduced as fragments. Perloff's first chapter captures the excitement of this moment in literary history through a fascinating close reading of La Prose du Transsibérien (1913) by the poet Blaise Cendrars and the painter Sonia Delaunay. This poem-painting demonstrates the Futurists' rupture of artistic norms, and the artists themselves—Cendrars a Swiss who arrived in Paris by way of New York, and Delaunay a Ukrainian Jew married to a Frenchman—exemplify the internationalism of their personnel.

The following chapter addresses the key concept of “The Invention of Collage” and relates visual collage to Marinetti's parole in libertà. This in turn leads to a chapter on the “Manifesto as an Art Form,” which sheds new light on a genre in which the categories of the literary and the theoretical break down in a mode characterized by improvisation, by theatricality, and by extreme self-consciousness. Sections on Ezra Pound's writings in the BLAST period, on the Russian Futurist book, and Roland Barthes's La Tour Eiffel all focus on the “rupture” of literary categories. (A major Futurist icon was the banal and sublime Eiffel Tower, and some reactionary art editor has commented on the “representality of the sign” by turning Jim Dine's horizontal version of the tower on page 199 the “right” way up.) By comparing Blaise Cendrars's prose poem “La Tour Eiffel” with its Postmodern version by Barthes, Perloff measures the distance between the Futurist sensibility and our own. Barthes is as moved by the tower as Cendrars, but also far more ambiguous about it: “‘A look, an object, a symbol, the Tower is all that man puts into it, and that all is infinite. … Through the Tower, men exercise the great function of the imaginary, which is their freedom, since no history, however dark, could ever deprive them of it’” (p. 213).

It is the “dark history” of our age that concerns the late Robert Smithson, the last artist treated in the book. Smithson is a conceptual artist who is known for “monuments,” mysterious but powerful images carved from the earth like the huge Spiral Jetty at the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Broken Circle in Emmen, Holland. His “travel narrative,” a typically Futurist text consisting of photographic collage, essay, and prose poem, is entitled “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” This is a tour of works that are monuments simply because the artist sees them as such: a ramshackle bridge, a pumping derrick, and pipes crossing an industrial wasteland (The Great Pipes Monument). The irony is sardonic, but behind it is an attempt to see the present as it really is and to find within it whatever aesthetic satisfaction one can. As with the Futurists, the attempt is not to decipher the meaning of an object, but to see it in a new way and without detaching it from the flux of reality. In comparing Cendrars and Barthes (or Smithson), Perloff shows how the Futurist moment lives in our own: “Even as Barthes echoes Cendrars's themes, he ironizes and problematizes them. If … the ethos of avant guerre has its counterpart in the contemporary dissolution of the boundaries between art and science, between literature and theory, between the separate genres and media, ours is what we might call a disillusioned or cool Futurism” (p. 195).

Readers with diverse interests in national literatures and artistic genres will enjoy and profit from this book. It contains nearly seventy illustrations, many of them in color, like the beautiful ones from Delaunay's and Cendrars's Prose du Transsibérien. The critical terminology is sophisticated but clearly grounded in a wealth of specific and lively details: titles, names, and phrases in several languages enrich the style; and every page seems to bring up some new facet of a work or author or an unexpected comparison. Futurism lasted for only a moment of prewar experiment and enthusiasm, but The Futurist Moment expands that moment and shows how it permeates our own.

Gregory L. Ulmer (review date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Futurist Moment, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 263–65.

[In the review below, Ulmer offers a positive critique of The Futurist Moment.]

One reason perhaps why the work of Bakhtin is popular with American critics is that it is one of the best statements of the goals of scholarship today—a synthesis of formalist close reading with a socio-historical point of view. Marjorie Perloff's study [The Futurist Moment] does not cite Bakhtin but it does display the virtues of a formalist/historical synthesis. The organizing strategy is to ground the study first in the period just preceding the First World War, the brief utopian moment of Futurism when the artists responded affirmatively to the challenges of the industrialized urban landscape. This grounding allows Perloff to state with some precision the implications for contemporary cultural studies of the revival of interest in Futurism among postmodern artists and theorists such as Laurie Anderson and Jacques Derrida. The Futurist Moment, then, is historiography at its best, focusing our attention on the earlier moment not for its own sake as information but in order to help us understand the contemporary moment as represented in such figures as Roland Barthes and Robert Smithson.

Part of the value of the study, producing an effect at once theoretical and aesthetic, has to do with its synecdochic style of thought. Indeed, the book is worth reading regardless of one's area of specialization in order to learn this organizing strategy, which is to discuss in detail a specific text, such as Blaise Cendrars' La Prose du Transsiberien, and then by a careful association of its formal features with the historical setting to derive explanatory principles extendable to the entire era. As in the case of the reading effect of allegory, in which the more the author insists on the concrete detail the more the reader experiences an appeal to an abstract dimension of meaning, Perloff's style evokes a theoretical understanding out of a series of detailed comparative discussions of just a few well-chosen examples.

Perloff's ability to evoke theoretical generalization more by means of allegory then by allegories is due in part to the aesthetic impact of her arrangement—for example the way the final chapter links up with the first in a comparison of the readings of the Eiffel Tower given by Cendrars and Roland Barthes. Such symmetries take on explanatory power by being the vehicles for a precise definition of “the language of rupture,” as manifested in three different experimental dimensions: the collage form, the genre of the manifesto, and the medium of the “artist's book.”

Part of the unity of the study, joining the present moment with the past, comes from Perloff's attention to the continuing vitality of these innovations. At the same time, the juxtaposition of close readings of representative works from different national movements—Italian, Russian, French, British—allows a full accounting of the particular differences distinguishing the varieties of Futurism that evolved relative to the specific historical circumstances in each case. This juxtaposition also provides a fresh perspective on the continuing debate concerning the relationship of aesthetics to politics. Perloff takes issue with Fredric Jameson (and through him to some extent also with Walter Benjamin) who too readily assumes that an aesthetics of politics is inherently fascist: “For while it is a truism that the Marinetti of the twenties and thirties had become a confirmed if unorthodox fascist, the Futurism of the avant guerre did not, as is often assumed, inevitably point in this direction. Here the example of Russian Futurism is especially instructive” (p. 30). The Russian artists of the “moment,” that is, used the same imagery of “battle, destruction, annihilation” found in the Italian manifestoes to express their belief that a Brave New World could be achieved by means of war. Perloff could have alluded, to further support her case, to the example of the poststructuralist cultural politics of Nomadology: The War Machine (Deleuze and Guattari) or Pure War (Virilio and Lotringer) which continue the experiment with a left political aesthetics based on the rhetoric of war.

The Futurist Moment leads us to think about several open questions—a feature of its theoretical effect—by its insistence on the relevance of its primary object for our own “moment.” The one that I find most interesting has to do with the ironic attitude toward technology that has replaced in postmodernism the initial optimism of Futurism. I am reminded of Hayden White's Metahistory with its cycle of tropes passing from metaphor to irony. White wondered if the cycle would then just repeat itself or if the circle might somehow be broken. Certainly we would not expect or desire the story of technology to be emplotted again as a Romance. Perloff shows that Futurism, in the context of modernist revolutions transforming every dimension of Western Civilisation, initiated a new attitude to the technology of writing by taking the printed page no longer as a transparent medium but as itself the object of art (viz. McLuhan's observation that the old medium becomes the content of the new one). She implies that one of the reasons for the renewed interest in Futurism is the intuition that those experiments marked a new moment in the evolution of writing beyond speech and print in response to the new technologies of communications.

The logic of this study, hinting at Perloff's next project, suggests that video may be seen as a means for the mechanical reproduction of a Futurist poetics in the collage/montage of editing. One of the effects of juxtaposition in collage/montage—its easiest and most natural device—is irony. To see this possibility in its purest state one might view a documentary such as Atomic Café, a compilation film made by editing into one text a large number of American propaganda films from the cold war period. On one hand, we might say that the ironic effects so readily producible in film/video reflect the ironic disillusionment with technology that Perloff describes as characterizing the present moment. On the other hand, there is the implied necessity to think the positive side of this new integration of art and technology.

Jacques Derrida recently has been discussing the lesson of Paul de Man's insight into the structural identity of irony and allegory. Perhaps this work might suggest a way to read the text with which Perloff concludes—Robert Smithson's “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.” The “monuments” consist of the bridges, car lots, sewage pipes, and smokestacks of an industrial environment, ironically presented as a contemporary version of Samuel Morse's painting. “Allegorical Landscape.” Keeping in mind that this text, consisting of photographs and commentary, first appeared in an art journal, we may read it as a work of hybrid theory, using irony as a means to achieve critical distance. It conceptualizes in these ironic monuments the end of monumentality, which is construed not as a loss, but as a celebration of the end of an ideology of mourning that created such landscapes. Smithson's essay acquires this theoretical dimension by presenting an irony that must be read as an allegory.

This is not the place to go into the details of this possibility—a monumental critique of the culture of identity. Suffice it to say that Perloff's account of the Futurist moment indicates one major resource for models teaching us how to write beyond the book, in accord with the needs of a postindustrial inventio. A more immediate lesson for language departments might be the realization that some of the boundaries we still use to select our object of study no longer fit the territory of our culture. A reading of this book, with its color prints and excellent recreations of experimental productions, raises my desire for another syllabus, for a curriculum designed by Marjorie Perloff.

Neil Corcoran (review date October 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Dance of the Intellect, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1988, p. 988–89.

[In the following review of The Dance of the Intellect, Corcoran finds shortcomings in Perloff's thesis and tendency toward polemic.]

The title of this book [The Dance of the Intellect] is liable to suggest a coherence which its form in fact belies. A collection of previously-published essays on a range of writers from Pound himself to Williams, Oppen, Beckett, John Cage, and the recent American ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ poets, it never clearly argues for the kinds of continuity or interrelationship one might expect in a study claiming to consider a ‘tradition’. What Marjorie Perloff means by ‘poetry of the Pound tradition’ is poetry (not necessarily indebted to Pound, or even in any way acknowledging him) which runs counter to the assumptions of the Romantic-Symboliste-Modernist personal lyric which the book's opening essay identifies with Wallace Stevens. In its free-verse form this lyric ‘has become as conventionalized and trivialized as the Elizabethan love sonnet was by the end of the sixteenth century’. Poetry of the Pound tradition can, on the contrary, ‘accommodate verse and prose, narrative and lyric, fiction and nonfiction, the verbal and the visual’; it can use ‘real’, ‘documentary’, or ‘impure’ material rejected by the lyric; it is inventively ‘open’ to ‘the world’; it ‘thickens the plot’. In all these ways Pound is to be regarded as pivotal or exemplary: both in the Cantos and in the exactly comparable discourse of his letters he writes in ‘a mode that provides us with a paradigm of what writing can be (and has more or less turned out to be) in a time when established boundaries are undergoing erasure.’

This is not, perhaps, a particularly original thesis, but it does give Professor Perloff the opportunity for individual critical studies of poets she admires. At its best her criticism is wide ranging, deeply informed, enthusiastic, and illuminating. The work she discusses, however opaque, complex, and unfamiliar, always yields to her patient, busy analyses. On the opposition between Pound and Stevens, which is read as that between critical orientations represented by the names ‘Kenner’ and ‘Bloom’, she is penetrating and magisterially synoptic. She writes excellently about Williams, arguing persuasively that his celebrated and obfuscated ‘prosody’ in fact derives from his interest in the ‘look’ of a poem on its printed page; and she makes this perception a tool of judgment, favouring the earlier quatrains over the later triads, and showing how, in ‘The Young Housewife’, ‘typography … is destiny’. There are also original essays on lesser-known texts considered symptomatic: Pound's Gaudier-Brzeska and the correspondence between Pound and Joyce.

On some of her other enthusiasms, however (David Antin's performance poetry, Charles Bernstein's ‘Language’ poetry), I find Professor Perloff much less than persuasive. In these cases and, indeed, elsewhere in the book, her argument suffers from an unwillingness to articulate or address some obvious objections to the ‘tradition’. She simply asserts, for instance, that Pound's incorporations of documentary material in the Cantos are managed without the work's ‘ceasing to be poetry’, but we are not shown how. Are we to understand that this material is ‘absorbed into the fabric of the poem’ merely by being printed as part of it? More worryingly, its potential moral and political import is elided. As Peter Makin has recently shown in an otherwise sympathetic study, the documentary is the element of the Cantos which most frequently implicates them in a fascist politics. Similarly, it should not be permissible to admire, as Professor Perloff does, Zukofsky's use of private letters in A without citing the adverse criticism Williams has received for comparable appropriations in Paterson.

Reservations of this kind are bound to make the unconvinced reader less impressed by the book's general thesis. Such a reader may wish to insist that among contemporary American poets not discussed here (Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, James McMichael, John Matthias, and Frank Bidart, in their different ways) the personal lyric appears to persist and thrive even while sophisticatedly recognizing and responding to some of Pound's perceptions and invitations. The non-American reader may also wonder where the book's strictures leave the majority of British and Irish poets writing today. I would argue that Seamus Heaney has shown in North how the lyric can accommodate and be extended by the ‘documentary’; and that Paul Muldoon has shown brilliantly in ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ how the lyric can accommodate and be extended by ‘narrative’ (and for ‘lyric’ read ‘sonnet’). Marjorie Perloff has written an always interesting and lively book weakened by its insistence on turning partiality, and a partial view, into polemic. Perhaps what we have after Modernism is a great musée imaginaire of formal possibilities, one of which (and a central one, in my view) this study, for all its openness, excludes.

Steven Connor (review date October 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Futurist Moment, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 84, No. 4, October, 1989, p. 904–08.

[In the following excerpt, Connor commends Perloff's reevaluation of the Futurist movement in The Futurist Moment.]

One of the most interesting consequences of the recent debates about postmodernism. has been a renewed sense of the difficulty of defining the modernism which is apparently both recalled and surpassed in the term. In some writers, this difficulty is resolved by simply collapsing the distinction, so that the postmodern becomes a late revival of modernism's iconoclastic impetus, a modernism raised to a higher power. For others, the consequence is a more difficult, contradictory narrative of continuity and rupture.

Marjorie Perloff's study [The Futurist Moment] aims to show that the ferment of cultural and critical innovation in Europe in the years immediately preceding the First World War has been too hastily assimilated to official histories of the emergence of modernism. Her title, which carefully prefers the inclusive ‘futurist moment’ to the more familiar ‘futurist movement’, aptly suggests the range of the book, which takes in the histrionics of Marinetti and his associates, the dynamist aesthetics of Pound and Vorticism in England, and the more politically accented futurism which flourished in pre-revolutionary Russia. Indeed, despite the restless movements of amalgamation and schism, identification and counter-identification among the pre-War avant-garde, contemporary uses of the word ‘futurist’ do seem to suggest that it was possible to apply it to just about anything. Professor Perloff actually begins her book with an account of Blaise Cendrars's poem La Prose du Transsibérien, produced in collaboration with Sonia Delaunay, even though she disarmingly concedes straight away that neither Cendrars nor Delaunay can be thought of as a futurist in any strict sense. The point is that futurism is both a specific movement and aesthetic and a name for the whole ‘arena of agitation’ which was European culture immediately before the War.

Nevertheless, Professor Perloff does not want to argue for the identity of the futurist movement, or moment. Her book modifies the conventional stress on futurism's celebration of energy, speed, and modernity to find its defining principle in rupture, transgression, and subversion. By now, of course, such terms are the required curriculum of any self-respecting avant-garde, but Professor Perloff substantiates her claim by looking at a number of highly significant ‘ruptures’ in a range of formal and technical contexts. She discusses the use of collage, distinguishing the blending or unifying collage of Picasso and the Cubists from the collages of Carrà, Malevich, and Tatlin, which refuse to suppress the heterogeneity of the elements conjoined on the picture plane. She offers convincing evidence of the various kinds of ‘generic rupture’ in futurism, such as the development of the manifesto as a hybrid form which collapses art practice and theory and the production of art books and magazines in Russian futurism which throw into confusion the stable distinctions between word and image. She discusses and compares various forms of parole in libertà, from Marinetti's booming onomatopoeia to Kruchenykh's transrational zaum language and, in a more modest mode, Pound's dissolution of the distinction between verse and prose. Professor Perloff's claim is that like the dadaism which follows it, futurism is that artistic mode which refuses to stay obediently in the places set aside for art. Sometimes she seems to press a little too hard on her material to make it yield evidence of this obstinate heterogeneity, as, for example, when she argues that the mark of the influence of Ouspensky's ‘mystic geometry’ on Russian futurist painting is to be found in its collection of unrelated elements in a radical incommensurability on the picture plane, when she has been at pains to explain how Ouspensky's Tertium Organum stresses the resolution and transcendence of spatial and temporal incompatibilities at higher level.

Despite this occasional overinsistence, Professor Perloff's book throws important new light on a relatively neglected period of cultural history. However, her book has another agenda. For her, the importance of the futurist moment is that it looks forward to some of the most important forms of contemporary culture. If the official modernism of Clement Greenberg and, more recently, of Michael Fried concentrates neurotically on the finished autonomous ‘work’, then one of the most important challenges posed in the work of such conceptual artists as Joseph Kosuth and Robert Smithson is its candid ‘theatricality’, its awareness of the contexts within which art is produced and circulated. For Professor Perloff, this self-conscious willingness to spill beyond the established boundaries of the artistic is what connects postmodernism to the moment of futurism, even if postmodernism is best seen as a kind of ‘cool’ or disillusioned futurism.

Thomas M. Disch (review date 27 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “Caution: Deconstruction Ahead,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 27, 1990, p. 4.

[In the following review, Disch gives a negative assessment of Poetic License and avant-garde postmodern writing.]

Marjorie Perloff has a relationship toward the “postmodern” poetry she champions as a critic much like the relationship of Donna Elvira to Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera. She has a passionate enthusiasm for its potential that the repeated experience of its unworthiness never dampens. Perloff is a capable critic who sometimes marvels unduly at rudimentary prosodic skills but who has a basically serviceable sense of what is wheat and what is chaff. She is, however, a professional critic, and these days in academia that often entails a fealty to French models of discourse and valuation—that are antithetical to literary common sense.

“Postmodern” is an epithet that can encompass almost anything written since 1950 that might strike admirers of Eliot or Stevens as odd or, ideally, baffling (thus needing professional decoding assistance from a critic). Gertrude Stein is, for Perloff, the wellspring of this aesthetic, the côte postmoderne, as she styles it with a glaze of authenticating French. One of the best essays in Poetic License is an appreciation of the various verbal textures to be found in Stein's work from the smooth to the rebarbative. She is an OK unriddler of a rune like Stein's “portrait” entitled “Jean Cocteau”:

Needs be needs be needs be near.
Needs be needs be needs be.
This is where they have their land
Two say.

Even here she is prone to discover spurious double meanings (she'd have us believe “needs be” a pun on “kneads bee”) and misses obvious ones (she glosses “Two say” as a pun on “to say,” and not on the obvious French verbal tic, tu sais).

This kind of critical filigree work has two serious limitations: (1) It can be applied equally well to a text purposing a meaning as to one generated randomly; (2) it cannot succeed as advocacy (i.e., a sore is a sore is a sore, and festers the same by any other name). These are limitations only as they apply to the text under scrutiny, however. A critic may actually appear to advantage in defending unworthy texts, much as defense lawyers shine brighter in proportion as the defendants' sins are black. The basic myth of the avant-garde (a myth implicit in the “postmodern” label) is that art progresses by historical stages, and each advance is perceived by the uninitiated rabble as sacrilege or nonsense. Painting provides the best paradigm: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Cubism, abstraction, pop and then the babel of the postmodern.

Squeezing poetry's feet into this conceptual slipper is not an easy task, since the formal options open to poets have not changed in the last 40 years or even longer. There are, rather, operational modes and rhetorical strategies that have appealed to roughly the same intellectual strata of readers over the last century or more. One such strand combines high prophetic utterance with demotic speech and populist sentiment—the Whitman-Ginsberg axis. Perloff has a sharp ear for both what is good and what is blague in this vein. Her essay on Ginsberg is a model of how to write a rave. “To read Ginsberg's ‘Collected Poems’ in 1985 is something of a shock—a frisson of pure pleasure. Was our poetry really this energetic, this powerful and immediate just a few short decades ago?” She also does a good job of vivisection on the corpus of Paul Blackburn, a beat of a different (dumber) character. She is withering toward one of W. C. Williams' heirs, W. S. Merwin, and full of applause for another, Lorine Niedecker. The catholicity of her tastes encompasses just (or justifiable) estimates of Sylvia Plath, D. H. Lawrence, John Ashbery and various epigones of Ezra Pound.

However, every critic wants to carve out some new intellectual territory that will thereafter bear a plaque, “Discovered in [year] by [critic's name].” It is here, where she chooses to plant the flag of discovery in the purlieus of “language poetry,” that Perloff will fail to convince any but the converted. Here is a snippet from a poem she particularly extols, Lyn Hejinian's “The Guard”:

Yesterday the sun went West and
the sea from books. My witness
is an exoskeleton. Altruism sug-
gestively fits.
It is true, I like to go to the
hardware store
and browse on detail. So sociable
the influence
of Vuillard, so undying in disor-
der is order … 

Of this, and of poems no better, she claims that they have “less to do with the Romantic conception of poetry as ‘an intensely subjective and personal expression’ (Hegel) … than with the original derivation of lyric as a composition performed on the lyre.” To which my own immediate and unmediated response is: “Lyre, lyre, pants on fire!” Hejinian is dull, and nothing can excuse dullness in a poet, except a critic intent on originality.

Perloff has poets more dire than Lyn Hejinian whom she'd extenuate. She has Steve McCaffery, the author of “Panopticon,” from which she quotes:

Again and again. And so on. And
so forth. And back again.
And once more. And one more
time. Again and again and
through and through. Over and
over again and again.
Moments anticipatory of. Then
cancelled. And then again.
And again and again. And over
and over … 

“And,” Perloff notes, “this prose unit ends with two pages of ‘and on and on and on,’ the two words forming a kind of concrete poem made of successive columns.”

Perloff is not entirely comfortable with McCaffery's Goofy (in the Disney sense) koans. His writing provokes her to address “the question of style”: “Like many of the poets loosely associated with the ‘language’ movement … McCaffery writes a critical prose that seems, on a first reading, irritatingly jargon-ridden—indeed, downright ugly:

“The cipheral text involves the replacement of a traditionally ‘readerly’ function … by a first order experience of graphemes, their material tension and relationships and their sign potentiality as substance, hypo-verbal units simultaneously pushing towards, yet resisting contextual significations.”

In other words, McCaffery is leery of texts possessing an ascertainable significance. Since his own lack any worth decoding, this is a shrewd tactic for him to pursue.

To her credit, it may be said that Perloff herself eschews such pseudo-scientific silliness, and even knows enough to be embarrassed by it. Why then does she praise those who traffic in it? Because, like Everest, it's there. The English departments of the better universities these days are controlled by tailors who design clothes for the same naked emperor. One either salutes their fashion sense or perishes. Increasingly, the emperor's wardrobe is acclaimed. Thousands of English majors who know, as Perloff does, that such piffle is not poetry also know on which side their bread is buttered.

And why is the piffle written at all? Because the myth of the avant-garde still has enough currency to make obscurantism a profitable enterprise. If one can create a jargon sufficiently impenetrable and portentous and then refuse to speak any other language, one will be secure against most criticism. Deconstructive critics and related charlatans have been profiting from this insight for many years. Now poets have realized that there is a similar ecological niche for them in academia. As Perloff points out, in a moment of inspired match-making: “The poems of a Charles Bernstein or a Lyn Hejinian, not to speak of Leiris or Cage, are more consonant with the theories of Derrida and De Man, Lacan and Lyotard, Barthes and Benjamin, than are the canonical texts that are currently being ground through the poststructuralist mill.” She would have such critics forget about Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens and write about poets like themselves.

This is a suggestion that I heartily endorse. If deconstructive critics would only leave real literature alone and devote their entire attention to the likes of the language poets, solipsism will have achieved its masterpiece, an academic ghetto that can do double duty as a quarantine ward.

Charles Altieri (review date Winter 1991)

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SOURCE: “Responsiveness to Lyric and the Critic's Responsibilities,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 580–87.

[In the following review, Altieri praises Poetic License, but takes issue with Perloff's historical perspective and attitude toward subjective expression.]

Marjorie Perloff's Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric offers superb literary criticism—clear, lively, learned, passionate, vigorously opinionated, and stunningly discriminating on what is worth being opinionated about. Perloff's keen observation that Allen Ginsberg's poems have “an extraordinary sense of the moment, of being, so to speak, at the center of the vortex” (215) is for me the perfect emblem for her own criticism.

Perloff's learning is doubly impressive. A true comparatist, Perloff is so broad in her knowledge of poetry and modern cultural history that she demands our viewing our own literature for its place within larger international concerns and movements. Yet she wields her learning deftly and gracefully, without ever showing off or overcomplicating materials or lamenting the death of civilization evidenced in others' lack of that learning. This learning proves most effective in the range of examples she invokes—using Roland Barthes on “corrected banality” to illuminate John Ashbery's ability to “allow experience to happen rather than to make sense” (280), citing romantic and New Critical avatars to demonstrate what is dated about certain contemporary writers (while making clear how much better an R. P. Blackmur would have handled the same issues), and always having at hand a compelling contrast among poets, perhaps most tellingly in her treating Robert Lowell as a foil to indicate the power and originality of Susan Howe's concrete engagement with Mary Rowlandson's life in the wilderness. Yet Perloff is not trapped within her own repertoire of examples. Almost alone among influential critics of poetry, she is willing to do hard scholarly work, which then she makes richly resonant, as in her intriguing analysis of how recent French anthologies make selections from American poets, or in her gripping examination of Sylvia Plath's manuscripts for Ariel, where we see clearly how Ted Hughes altered her plans in order to cast her as suicidal and thus to defend himself from being the cause of her undoing.

Perloff can bear her learning so lightly because her criticism is not simply a mode of performing her own abilities. She has serious ends, seeking both to demonstrate the importance of careful reading and to use such readings to intervene in the formation of our culture's commitments to particular modes of writing. Her criticism is driven by a teacherly urgency that we get the point, that we see as concretely as possible the pleasures and the emotions made available by the poets she admires, especially by those avant-garde writers most of us tend to ignore or to honor for their opinions rather than for their art. For example, Perloff brings to life the textures and compressed feelings in an undervalued minimalist poet like Lorine Niedecker while showing how her “objectivism has a curiously caustic edge” (49). At the other pole her responsiveness to texts enables her to show concretely how much of what is interesting in Paul Blackburn stems from his membership in the second string of sixties poets, or how W. S. Merwin's dark anxieties seem somewhat too elegant and delicately resonant for their own ambitions, so that one must take very seriously their affinities with a New Yorker lyricism in flight from the very history that Merwin wants to summarize. More telling yet is the Perloff who teaches us how to read the best twentieth-century authors—from the shifts in Beckett's tone as he translates himself into English to the intricate workings of Pound's line, to the performative dimension that affords strange affinities between D.H. Lawrence and Ginsberg, to the passionate intricacies of Susan Howe and the workings of six different stylistic modes in Gertrude Stein. The readings of Stein, Plath, and Howe become for me also exemplars of the ethical role criticism can play because Perloff shows in each case how these women achieve identities by taking on for their own purposes the full powers of our experimental traditions (taking on as well the full arrogance of the men who used these traditions as their claims to hegemony).

Perloff is no slouch in taking on the same kind of conflict. Probably the most impressive feature of Poetic License is its ability to cut to the core of fundamental contradictions and easy self-congratulations within the prevailing ideologies, in a fashion that allows Perloff a lively and compelling presentation of her own case. Thus even when one disagrees with her, one finds her anticipating one's moves and forcing individual authors she has the uncanny ability to get beyond academic disputes to engage the fundamental principles informing established evaluations, for example by showing how Lawrence as a poet cannot be reduced to the romantic tradition, or how Merwin can, despite the inflated claims of his academic admirers, or by showing why other poets ought to be given much more central places in contemporary tastes than they now occupy. In other cases she manages either to recuperate significantly undervalued writers, like Steve McCaffery or Howe, or to provide significant frameworks for understanding Ashbery's relation to Barthes or the differences between French and American critical stances on Beckett. Then she is even more impressive in developing what is of general significance in these particular arguments. For Perloff the health of contemporary writing depends on our finding means to resist both the predilections of the theory establishment and the contrasting cult of sensibility that one finds dominant in what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture” (qtd. in Perloff 3), a task that requires the patience and the imaginative flexibility to hear what experimental writers are trying to accomplish.

It is a major accomplishment simply to anatomize the prevailing official verse culture as Perloff does, laying bare its underlying commitments to a fundamentally romantic lyricism, with its “‘I-as-sensitive-register,’ the ‘direct’ colloquial diction that nevertheless moves readily and inevitably in and out of metaphor, the enjambed free-verse line, the ‘flat’ description that yields immanent meaning, and, most important, the Romantic faith in the power of ordinary, everyday experience to yield ‘thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’” (63). Yet Perloff goes considerably further, managing to show that, despite the obvious conflicts between this cult of sensibility and the academy's idealizations of sophisticated theory, these opposing positions agree in dismissing the avant-garde, and hence in refusing literature any significant encounter with distinctively contemporary features of our experience. Both the official theory culture and the official verse culture reduce poetry to its paraphrasable contents, which for theory can then be engaged as cultural materials or as philosophical speculation, but in either case only at the cost of subordinating the signifying activity to a signified about which we can speak as if the poems were simply statements about the world rather than events within it. Verse culture stresses quite different contents, since its emphasis lies in “delicate epiphany” and the contingencies of the individual lyrical ego. But to the degree that the cult of sensibility leads those within this world to read little but poetry, it will not fully engage the pressures on romantic values fundamental to our contemporary discourses and relations to technology.

I cannot spend any more time on her particular observations. But in order to show how Perloff develops her general argument I want to indicate the basic movement of the book's first two essays. The first takes on the theory establishment where it is most vulnerable, that is, where its promising new readings lead to considerably more reductive stances than one finds in the best of the old readings. As her basic example Perloff examines a collection of essays by well-known theorists claiming to develop new approaches to lyric poetry. Rather than argue directly with the theorizing, Perloff takes the shrewd stance of asking what actual understanding of literature seems to underlie the critical performances. Then, despite all the theorizing about undoing the canon, this collection turns out “as resolutely Anglophile as Cleanth Brooks' Well-Wrought Urn,” deviating only by including “the most predictable French poets” (where Blackmur addressed a much broader spectrum). And, despite its emphasis on feminist criticism, this book “does not have a single essay devoted to a woman poet” (23). More significant yet is an almost total omission of twentieth-century materials, with no attention at all to the challenges posed by contemporary literature. For while these theorists can make claims about history, they seem blind to specific historical shifts in the very concept of lyricism that organizes their work. They thus remain insensitive to specific contemporary pressures to locate lyricism in “language not structure,” so that lyric language may become not a refuge from the world but an immanent questioning of dominant social and poetic modes of discourse within it.

The second essay takes on Perloff's other basic antagonist by exposing what is most vulnerable in our official verse culture—its inability to find a language for gender which is responsive to the most ambitious modern and contemporary female poets. Take the question of remaking the canon. When one looks at the handling of avant-garde materials it seems clear that, in the twentieth century at least, the canon is shaped less by gender bias than by bias against certain poetic stances, especially those that derive from Pound and from Stein. Marianne Moore, she points out, was always accepted, and both Plath and Adrienne Rich were from their early years lionized by the male establishment, while Niedecker, Lyn Hejinian, and Howe share the obscurity (measured by looking at anthologies) that also plagues Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. Correlatively the myth of inclusiveness now proposed as an alternative to canonicity turns out “to exclude that which is other,” and hence that which might make gender a more problematic concept because it would show (as Howe does) the degree to which our myths about the nature of sensibility shape also what we claim matters in our woman poets. As Perloff powerfully demonstrates, the prevailing theoretical ways of idealizing difference in fact tend to collapse otherness into sameness because their inattention to signifying practices produces an overall bland tolerance and reliance on first readings incapable of engaging any real challenge.

I wish I could be as sympathetic to Perloff's general program as I am to her critical claims and to most of her specific readings, if only because any limitations I claim about her work will so obviously depend on my own competing commitments. Yet to shy away from our differences would be even more problematic, so I will try to clarify two substantial reservations I have about the overall model for poetry that I see underlying this book. One reservation involves Perloff's use of the idea of history, the other the model of literary value which is necessary for her account of history to have any force.

Clearly Perloff's own commitment to historicism, and to the kind of scholarship on which actual historical claims can be supported, provides a crucial weapon against the abstractions she so effectively opposes. But in order to handle the questions about value that then arise I am afraid she must make claims about history do more work than they actually can. If one could demonstrate that certain beliefs are “historically determined” (17), one could accurately define the pastness of the past, while also showing why certain modes of writing are required for contemporary culture. But Perloff does not make much effort to develop that theoretical case—a shrewd judgment. Not only is the past far too complex for us to fix in any determinist retrospective schemes, but the very need to invoke that determinism in the interest of one's own commitments betrays a present far too divided and contentious to allow a determinist account anything but a tautological generalization that things are as they are. More important, no determinist historicism can hope to mediate change; it can only hope to bear witness to what it seems will happen whatever one does, since whatever one does is fated. So it seems to me the most we can say for any historical claim is that although there seem options at any given time, certain patterns seen retrospectively take on a sense of inevitability that tempts us to invoke determinism. But to move from what seems fixed about the past to what seems desirable in the future requires supplementing historical analysis by directly evaluative arguments assessing the functions different modes of writing perform and comparing possible forms of life entailed by those literary choices.

Consider Perloff's sense that it seems historically necessary now for poetry to engage the discourses and media of a technologized society (28–29). Where does the necessity reside—in history or in Perloff's sense of what she wants to happen within certain historical pressures? It would clearly be good if some poetry engaged that technological discourse, just as it would be very good if poetry explored alternatives to the romantic sensibility Perloff anatomizes. However, the value of the poetry will not reside in what poets engage but in how they do so by rendering certain qualities of consciousness. Moreover, our capacity to read and assess that engagement cannot be separated easily from our ability to locate within historical change certain resources and levels of expectation which are not reducible to period beliefs. Therefore it seems to me important first to recognize how complex and multileveled any historical situation is, then to recognize how our response to such situations involves complex levels of identifying with and differing from the past, a past constituted by similar levels of identifying and differing.

Let me try to be concrete. Just as we need a poetry that addresses technology and the suspicions of inwardness that it inculcates, we need a poetry that can convince us there are arenas of our lives that remain not entirely shaped by such technological frames. Thus Sharon Olds not only develops a domestic lyricism, she also seeks in the domestic a source of values capable of resisting everything that Perloff thinks poets must incorporate into their work. In my view that resistance is at least as important a contemporary stance as are the efforts to develop somewhat less domestic models of intimacy one finds in Robert Hass and the later Ashbery. In order to understand how such traditional work might still make claims upon us we must distinguish between two critical orientations—one based on exposing the rhetorical structure that traps contemporaries in weak versions of romantic lyricism, the other devoted to what the best romantic poems offer to contemporaries, if primarily as challenges. Perloff's critique of official verse then in fact deals only with dangers that arise for a style, so that she never considers the possibility that the best resistance to an enervated romanticism will come not by shifting from structure to the play of language in our writing but by recuperating for our culture the eloquence against neoclassical eloquence that the romantics brought to their reflections. Yet it seems to me clear that the more culture allows technology to shape its languages, the more it needs not experiments in undoing syntax but work like C. K. Williams's that demonstrates what syntax can do to give consciousness access to the contemporary world.

Perloff does offer functional accounts of the values informing her arguments. But she tends not to argue abstractly for those values because she hopes her sense of historical imperatives and her readings will carry the day. In my view, however, the readings cannot suffice, in part because they presuppose a theory that seems to me to require more careful statement, and in part because Perloff's keen sense of academic blindness and pretension leads her to be suspicious of all thematic readings and attempts to attribute specific existential values to literary constructions. Appalled by how often such readings prove blind to the play of language, she goes to the opposite extreme of imagining that attention to the play of language and related performative states will in itself afford a sufficient account of literary value. Here her historicism reinforces her orientation because she can align such attention to poststructural denials that language could be “a conduit that leads directly from the speaking subject to a meaning above and outside the signifier” (223). To stress such meaning is to lose the fundamental readerly passion, which she defines as “a rhetorical and verbal energy that won’t let its subject go, a determination to use every available resource—pun, metaphor, epigraph, pictogram, aphorism, and especially example—to keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat” (291).

But can this view of passion suffice as a model for reading lyric poetry? Can we be content with envisioning readers on the edges of their seats without asking what so positions them and what consequences there might be if they assume those positions? It seems to me that Perloff at her very best, for example in her treatment of subjectivity in Howe, shows that both poetry and criticism seek modes of passion that regard linguistic effects as instruments for self-construction and for testing possible real world scenarios. And if this is correct, it simply will not do to rely as Perloff does on the basic binaries between signifying activity and the signified content. Poets like Ashbery and C.K. Williams make it clear that the mode of signifying can itself become a dimension of extraliterary content, since it defines how certain emotions can be held or verbal attitudes projected beyond the poem. Moreover, it seems to me plausible that the more complex culture gets, and the more it tempts us to distrust the mediations of language, the more important it is to preserve the classical sense of lyrical simplicity, that is, of a passion sustained not by its intricacy but by its capacity to stand as a surrogate for publicly sharable emotions which we might all want to utter. Lyric passion then seems to me no different from those passions we stake ourselves on in life: we want a simplicity that sometimes we gain only by the most elaborate indirectness, yet it would be a severe loss if we confused the means with the end, the workings of mediation with the rewards of expressive activity within and against the histories that work to form us in their image.

Michael Leddy (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Poetic License, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 307–08.

[In the following review, Leddy offers a summary of Perloff's essays and arguments in Poetic License,noting unflattering similarities between Perloff's approach and that of F. R. Leavis.]

Poetic License collects fifteen essays written between 1984 and 1989, all but three previously published. A glance at the acknowledgments suggests Marjorie Perloff's independence of critical camps and jargons: here is a critic at home in the pages of American Poetry Review and Sulfur, New Literary History and Temblor (and, for that matter, World Literature Today; see WLT 59:3, pp. 510–16). The essays undertake, in Perloff's words, “a revisionist history of twentieth-century poetics,” reexamining the canonical and making the case for work often considered marginal: Perloff writes not only about figures one might expect—Yeats, Stein, Beckett, Ashbery—but also about “language poets” such as Susan Howe and Steve McCaffery. The essays are at times less than convincing, as Perloff seems to trade too much upon the reader's trust (e.g., the considerable claim that Beckett's English translations are typically more humorously playful than his French originals is accompanied by a single sentence in each language as evidence), and the moves with which many of the essays begin—surveys of previous criticism, rhetorical questions—become all too familiar. The volume abounds, nevertheless, in provocative observations: a taxonomy of six Stein styles, a devastating examination of Ariel as arranged by Sylvia Plath and as rearranged by Ted Hughes, a discussion of French perspectives on contemporary American poetry, a lucid exposition of some principles informing the work of language poets.

What gives Poetic License coherence is not historical completeness (like Perloff's Dance of the Intellect [1985], this is a survey with no sustained treatment of T.S. Eliot) but the way in which its essays propound a clear sense of poetic value. For Perloff the best poetry is that which excels, in Stein's phrase, in “using everything,” that which foregrounds the play of logopoeia and melopoeia, that which puts the reader to work, that which resists easy absorption. Perloff has little tolerance for the “workshop” poem or poet (“the poet as boy or girl next door”), and she is equally impatient with the notion that poetry is a matter of the “right” subject or attitude; hence her scathing comments on feminist critics that exclude from consideration a poet such as Lorine Niedecker.

Perloff's willingness to argue matters of value makes Poetic License surprisingly reminiscent of the work of F. R. Leavis, of the impulse behind Revaluation and New Bearings in English Poetry. Taking up a critic's lauding of formal and stylistic diversity in women's poetry, Perloff remarks that “such catholicity of taste seems admirable, but there is something about this demand for ‘diversity’ that gives me pause. For what can it mean to be a critic or literary historian if one does not choose between available alternatives?” Like Leavis, Perloff begins with the belief that there are choices to be made, that the purpose of criticism is to make choices and make them persuasively. Though she is a far more subtle reader than Leavis, her strategies often recall his, particularly the passing of something very much like moral judgment: “Clever as this little parable is,” she writes of a poem, “its message is absorbed on first reading and then wears thin.” Even more reminiscent of Leavis is the juxtaposing of poems or passages to establish a contrast in value.

Perloff's juxtapositions are always illuminating and witty: Lorine Niedecker versus Marge Piercy, Clark Coolidge versus Mark Strand, Allen Ginsberg versus various academic poets, Franz Kafka versus W.S. Merwin, William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara versus Paul Blackburn, Susan Howe versus Rodney Jones. The humor inherent in such a listing should not obscure the fact that Perloff, like Leavis, is engaged in the most serious sort of work: the effort to reexamine the past and to chart new bearings. The essays of Poetic License present energetic challenges to familiar understandings of modernist and postmodernist poetry.

Willard Spiegelman (review date June 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Radical Artifice, in American Literature, Vol. 65, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 388–89.

[Below, Spiegelman gives a positive review of Radical Artifice.]

This book [Radical Artifice] eloquently compresses many of its author's longtime interests while also striking out into new territory. Perloff's subject is not just poetry but its connections to many kinds of contemporary mediation. The media turn out to be the stars of the book, since poetry (at least the poetry of the avant-garde and the Language schools which Perloff favors), far from existing at a “pure,” obscure, or high level, has come down to grapple with, and even to imitate, other models of communication in the postmodern age.

Perloff treats such obvious poets as John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, and George Oppen, but the late John Cage emerges as her cultural hero, since Cage worked tirelessly (his opponents would say tiresomely) on behalf of aleatory effects in art and created an oeuvre that is unreadable, or unhearable, by intention rather than by randomness: I—VI, says Perloff, is “a carefully plotted overdetermination designed to overcome our conventional reading habits” (216).

Perloff's title comes from Richard Lanham's proposition that current avant-garde poetics opposes both Wordsworth's fiction of real language and neoformalist elegance. Artifice is mannerist, in other words, and recognizes that a poem or performance text “is a made thing … and that its reading is also a construction on the part of its audience” (27). We have moved beyond a modernist insistence on the primacy of the image and beyond the Romantic belief in a natural language in part because of our current suspicion, which derives from “the actual production and dissemination of images in our culture” (57).

Perloff does beautiful readings, not only of poems by her favorite poets but also of billboards and advertisements, in her aptly titled fourth chapter, “Signs Are Taken for Wonders: The Billboard Field as Poetic Space.” Imagist doctrine has been transferred in the contemporary world to advertising. One problem for a potential skeptic is that Perloff's readings are not only more persuasive but also more interesting than some of the poems she chooses. This might signify the shakiness of her thesis or just the fact that as a close reader of texts she owes a greater debt to Cleanth Brooks than her homage to him might suggest. She defends his emphasis on structure rather than meaning as an antidote “to a current discourse that is extremely sophisticated in appraising and exposing the ideological currents behind particular texts even as it assumes that ‘close reading’ can be dispensed with” (172).

The avant-garde is far from dead; Marjorie Perloff passionately argues on behalf of its continuing vitality. Although she remains blind (or deaf) to the ways in which more mainstream poets (Ammons, Merrill, Wilbur, among others) have moved beyond imagism and modernism, Perloff defends her chosen tribe of poets with intelligent élan.

Reed Way Dasenbrock (review date July 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Radical Artifice, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 92, No. 3, July, 1993, pp. 412–14.

[In the following review, Dasenbrock gives a positive evaluation of Radical Artifice, but disagrees with Perloff's view of the avant-garde.]

Radical Artifice is an interesting, perceptive, rewarding, and important book, easily the best of Marjorie Perloff's many books and one of the most important books yet written on contemporary poetry. Its focus is the effect that the electronic media—particularly advertising and television—have had on contemporary poetry. This effect for Perloff has a negative and positive side. On the one hand, the commodified media of the postmodern age have stripped certain once-dominant poetic modes of their power and authenticity. On the other hand, this does not mean that we have entered a “post-poetic” age, since the contemporary poetry Perloff finds important is largely a response to the way the media have eclipsed and dislodged the older poetry. Thus, the postmodern electronic media have deconstructed or co-opted an older, largely modernist way of making poetry, but a new poetic mode has emerged that in turn deconstructs but does not co-opt the media images that permeate what is generally called popular culture.

Thus baldly stated, Perloff's historical thesis might seem somewhat reductive, but she fleshes her case out with a rich set of details and examples. In Anglo-American writing, two kinds of poetry have dominated in this century: a modernist impulse towards the rendering of an impersonal image and a postwar reaction against that impersonality in the direction of the rendering of personal experience and voice. Perloff shows, masterfully I think, how the characteristic strategy of both kinds of poetry have been taken over by the media: the modernist impersonal image leads straight into a characteristic mode of advertising, found, say, in the initial Infiniti ads, just as the poetry of personal statement and authenticity leads to the Donahue Show and other televised fora of sensational personal revelation. Perloff's point is that to do confessional poetry after television has gone confessional is to be doomed to belated parody of precisely the kind such poetry reacted against and supposed itself to be immune to. Put most directly, the Donahue Show makes continuing in a Robert Lowell mode impossible. The way Perloff can make her case helps make her point, for she draws on anecdotes of her own engagement with the media without having to engage in any detailed exposition of the kind she needs while discussing the poetry. She knows that her readers will have had much the same experiences as she (we all read airplane magazines even if not on the same airline). This is the common culture she can count on—even for an audience of English professors—not the contemporary poetry she discusses. Perloff isn't celebrating this state of affairs, but it is a condition that she argues that poetry must respond to. The old responses—she argues convincingly—are closed off, so some new way of writing must emerge in response.

The other element of Perloff's study is her description of that new mode. A simple label for the poetry Perloff finds adequate to the new reality of the electronic age is language poetry. But a major effort in Radical Artifice is to move beyond such a simplistic label and to show how the work of the language poets isn't isolated or idiosyncratic but is a response to contemporary culture with broad similarities to other work, including that of John Ashbery and George Oppen before them and to that of John Cage, as always one of Perloff's central points of reference. Ashbery's work is compared in a long close reading to the work of Charles Bernstein, and Oppen's poetry of the early 1960s is contrasted to William Carlos Williams's work of the same period in a demonstration of why Oppen's work is a key point of departure for the work Perloff is elucidating. All of this close reading passes my test for good literary criticism in that it is both plausible and makes the strength of the work under discussion more apparent; it is also, one needs to understand, polemical literary history in that Perloff is deliberately not respecting the traditional groupings (New York, beat, objectivist, and so forth) that have congealed rather than explained the literary history of contemporary American poetry.

This is not the only (quietly) polemical aspect of Perloff's work, for latent in Radical Artifice is an implicit critique of the dominant approaches to “postmodern” culture. For Perloff, as for most critics of the postmodern, the old formalism that considered a work of literature largely in isolation from larger social currents doesn't work, above all because it doesn't work for the writers themselves. But neither does an aggressive reduction a la Fredric Jameson of the aesthetic to the sociopolitical. Jameson has argued that postmodern art isn't oppositional in the way High Modernism was, but Perloff sharply dissents from this “omnisubsumptive vision” of Jameson's—as Kwame Anthony Appiah has dubbed it. What Perloff finds important in this body of work is precisely its oppositionality, its critical response to the social and cultural developments it depicts. Moreover, for most theorists of the postmodern, postmodernism liberates us from the cult of the masterpiece and, more broadly, from the notion of high culture itself. Perloff sharply dissents here as well: she isn't fusing the poetry she is studying with the media or finding them equal in value. While arguing that this new poetry must be understood in relation to the electronic media, she wants to distinguish between them and locates the aesthetic and cultural importance of this work in its oppositionality.

I admire Perloff's insistence on aesthetic judgment and her claim that the poets she is discussing are good and important poets for the reasons she discusses. I think the notion that we can do literary history or criticism without evaluation is a delusion, likely to produce the sprawling “omnisubsumptive” mush of Jameson's Postmodernism rather than the sharp analysis on display in Radical Artifice. If we have no criteria of value, then we leave ourselves without viable criteria of selection either. So I commend—on theoretical and methodological grounds—Perloff's commitment to evaluative criticism.

But I would be unresponsive to Perloff's explicit projection of her aesthetic judgments into her analysis if I didn't project my own, and though I find her critique of the continuing poetry of sincerity and the Image quite persuasive, I can't see the tradition Perloff admires in quite as positive terms as she does. The difference between us is, I think, at bottom a difference in opinion over the value of the avant-garde. A major concern of a number of Perloff's books has been the tradition of the literary and artistic avant-garde, and an underlying theme of Radical Artifice is that accounts of the demise of the avant-garde have been greatly exaggerated. She makes a persuasive historical case for this, but in my opinion the aesthetic value of work produced by the avant-garde, from Rimbaud through Duchamp to Cage, has also been exaggerated, as I would distinguish between the avant-garde tradition and the major tradition of modern culture, the High Modernism of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce. Perloff is right in seeing the poets being discussed in Radical Artifice as continuing in an avant-garde, not a modernist, vein, and her analysis helps explain why avant-garde art continues to be produced in America at a time when modernism is in eclipse. I would say, however, that accounts of the demise of modernism have also been exaggerated, as it is alive and well in Wole Soyinka's Nigeria and Nuruddin Farah's Somalia if not in the “metropolitan centers” of the West. As the list Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce should remind us, modernism was always a response of the culturally and politically colonized margins to the implosion of Western culture; it is just that these margins have now shifted outside the gaze of most metropolitan intellectuals. The avant-garde, in contrast, was from the beginning a product of the cultural centers themselves and was perhaps always more involved with—if critical of—the technological developments shaping Western technoscience and culture.

Radical Artifice, thus, is not just an analysis of a few not terribly well-known American poets of an experimental persuasion. It is part of a larger narrative Perloff has been elaborating about the cultural history of the West, a narrative of great interest and value. I don't think the story I would tell would have the same shape as Perloff's, but the world of twentieth-century culture is complex enough that we need to encourage a plurality of complex and complexly overlapping narratives, each with different points of emphasis and different visions of literary value. Radical Artifice tells a complex story of what has happened in American poetry over the past generation, and I find it an exemplary piece of literary history and criticism with important lessons for us all to learn from.

Leon Surette (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Radical Artifice, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 642–43.

[In the following positive review, Surette provides a summary analysis of Perloff's thesis and arguments in Radical Artifice.]

Marjorie Perloff is a distinguished commentator on the literature of this century, best known for her work on Futurism, one of the pre-First World War international and inter-art avant-garde movements. Radical Artifice takes on the avant-garde since 1960, observed from the angle of the institutions of popular culture—in particular television talk shows, and graphic advertisements. The project of the book is to respond to Charles Bernstein's decree: “There is no natural look or sound to a poem. Every element is intended, chosen. That is what makes a thing a poem” (p. 35). “Why,” Perloff asks, “is the natural now regarded with such suspicion?” (p. 35).

Her answer is that the television talk show has irremediably debased the natural by undermining the traditional poetic topoi of personal emotional experiences through their nightly exposure on Geraldo, Donahue, or Oprah and the like in a context that excludes the natural understood in a Wordsworthian way as the authentic and spontaneous. Perloff (somewhat controversially) defines Modernism as articulating the antithesis of word and nature, and as desiring “to establish a direct line between self and spirit” (p. 35). Somewhat surprisingly to this scholar of literary Modernism, she finds these features in Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Alan Ginsberg (pp. 29–35).

Perloff's discussion takes as its point of departure Charles Bernstein's 1987 verse essay, Artifice of Absorption (p. 45), which calls for a turn away from “authenticity” toward “artifice” (p. 45). Perloff describes the turn as a “paradigm shift” first marked by George Oppen's The Materials (1962) (p. 58). She investigates ways in which this shift works itself out in the practice of a list of mostly poets, mostly American, among them Charles Bernstein, John Ashbery, Johanna Drucker, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, John Cage (composer), Marcel Broodthaers (a Belgian graphic artist), and Steve McCaffery (a Canadian).

Although Perloff makes some gestures toward the general postmodern turn away from epistemology with occasional references to Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Derrida, she really does not engage philosophical issues. What she offers is an intelligent and well-informed guide to the “International” aesthetic scene since 1960. For a reader like myself, who has only a casual acquaintance with the work of most of the artists discussed (and none at all of some), the book is a very useful introduction and guide.

Of course, Radical Artifice aims to be more than that. It seeks to explain one set of cultural products by an interaction with another set—in this case television and graphic advertisements (both on television and in print media). Perloff's argument seems to be underpinned by two tacit principles. The first is a deviation theory of art which holds that artworks are those cultural products which deviate from others in the same medium. Hence graphic art must differ from advertising copy, literature must differ from standard discourse, and so forth. The second principle is the Aristotelian one that the function of art is to represent the environment (including human culture) in a transformational way—as opposed to the Platonic principle of representation as copy. I take these two principles to be inscribed in Perloff's title, Radical Artifice.

If artworks are defined by their deviation, alterity—or perhaps even différance—from other cultural artifacts, then as the general culture undergoes change through time—represented in Perloff's case by the ubiquity of mass electronic and print media—then the arts must also change. This is the general theory of the avant-garde: art is “radical” because it instantiates the new alterity in response to a novel general culture (often perceived to be simply the old avant-garde art). As Perloff puts it, “Such powerful images [as those found in magazine ads for cigarettes and automobiles] challenge poetic discourse to deconstruct rather than to duplicate them. They prompt what has become an ongoing, indeed a necessary dialectic between the simulacrum [the media image] and its other, a dialectic no longer between the image and the real, as early Modernism construed it, but between the word and the image” (p. 92). Perloff thus has a very strong thesis to account for the character of post 1960s international art—a new dialectic in which the antithesis of the image (by which she means both actual depictions, and poetic word pictures) and the real (by which she appears to mean nature—human and inhuman) is replaced by a dialectic between the image and the word. While it is a little surprising to find such a strongly paleo-Marxist form to her argument, it does yield interesting results.

The way this new antithesis works out is that language is disposed by poets, graphic artists, and even composers (John Cage) in configurations that frustrate, negate, or simply ignore standard syntactical (or even orthographic) rules of combination. One example is Cage's “mesostic” compositions in which strings of letters are generated from a given text (perhaps a page from Joyce's Finnegans Wake) by arbitrary rules that select words and then arrange them in a vertical row in the middle of the page—hence “mesostic” on the analogy of “acrostic.” Another poet, Ron Silliman, composed a prose poem (Tanting) employing the Fibonacci series of numbers to generate recurrent paragraphs. (In the Fibonacci series each new number is the sum of the preceding two, hence: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13, etc.). Another instance is Louis Zukofsky, who in 1974 drew up an outline for 80 Flowers, which would be a collection of line songs of 5-word lines: “40 words to each poem growing out of and condensing my previous books,” and would refer to “only those flowers I have actually seen and whatever botany I can learn in 10 years” (p. 146). There are many more examples of such “artifice”—all of them discussed with economy, grace, and insight by Perloff, and many of them less remote from the image-word antithesis postulated by her. However, these examples illustrate best, I think, the nature of the “artifice” Perloff finds in post 1960s literature. It involves a play of arbitrariness that some might consider capricious or even whimsical, reminiscent of the hermetic games of the Quattrocento or even of late Medieval Cabbalism. These word constructions are arbitrary in the strong sense that they are neither governed nor generated by Fregean referential functions, by Austinian communicative functions, nor even by a post-Saussurean “play of oppositions.” The compositional frames instantiate an arbitrariness deliberately drained of linguisticality through the frustration of linguistic and logical form.

One might expect Perloff to argue that poetry has taken on these properties because it is now language itself that is the representandum, and in order to be represented (on the Aristotelian principle of transformational mimesis cited above) it must be transformed—as it is by these arbitrary numerological techniques of composition. However, she maintains instead the view that poetry must take the world as its representandum. The special contemporary case in the United States is that the world is first or immediately known in the mass media: “given our media culture, the pretence that this mass culture does not exist, that life goes on as it always has for the sensitive individual—a series of sunsets and love affairs and social disappointments [all “images” in her sense]—just will not work. … If American poets today are unlikely to write passionate love poems or odes to skylarks … it is not because people don't fall in love, … but because the electronic network that governs communication provides us with the sense that others—too many others—are feeling the same way. … Given such ‘events’ … the poet turns, not surprisingly, to a form of artifice that is bound to strike certain readers as hermetic and elitist” (pp. 202–203).

Perloff's survey of post 1960s poetry is better than this rather lame reiteration of the avant-gardiste argument. It will inform and instruct anyone interested in the subject. However, as a former student of Marshall McLuhan, I cannot refrain from objecting to the suppression of his name and work in this study. (He appears only as an adjective, and as cited by Cage.) It also needs to be said that the general ethos of the study is far less up-to-date than it supposes. Cleanth Brooks, for example, explained the need for his version of “artifice”—irony—by reference to “the depletion and corruption of the very language itself, by advertising and by the mass-produced arts of radio, the moving picture, and pulp fiction. The modern poet has the task of rehabilitating a tired and drained language” (“Irony as a Principle of Structure,” 1949). Brooks was echoing T. S. Eliot's characterization of the poet's duty to “purify the dialect of the tribe”; and he, in turn, was echoing Wordsworth's call for poets to write in “a selection of language really used by men.” Of course, repetition does not invalidate a principle, and Perloff applies the Romantic principles of defamiliarization and renovation with verve, grace, and insight to a new and intractable, even rebarbative, set of texts and practices.

Alan Golding (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “Avant-Gardes and American Poetry,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 156–70.

[In the following excerpt, Golding offers a positive critique of Perloff's thesis and central arguments in Radical Artifice.]

Paul Mann, Peter Bürger, Andreas Huyssen, Russell Berman, Fredric Jameson—these are only a few of the most familiar names in that substantial chorus caroling the death of the avant-garde in recent years. Too many theorists of the avant-garde's demise, however, overlook or have no way to explain (beyond the usual arguments about co-option) the continued presence of what looks for all the world like avant-garde practice. Admittedly the paradoxes of “co-option” or “complicity” are almost infinitely regressive. What do we make of Robert Longo selling the image of himself sporting a mock (what else?) turtleneck in the service of Gap sportswear while he is also responsible for the cover of Bruce Andrew's I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up, a savagely satirical book brought out by an “alternative” or “small” press (Sun and Moon) that, in turn, also publishes a “classics” series? No wonder Jameson is puzzled as to how to tell the difference between critique and symptom in postmodern art. Still, as Marjorie Perloff puts it in Radical Artifice, despite the theoretical arguments for its disappearance, or its dilution into a Jamesonian “symptom,” “avant-garde art continues to be a reality. There is no reason to believe … that radical art practices will not continue to manifest themselves (often where and when least expected), even as their gradual assimilation into mainstream culture will not necessarily insure their commodification” (201). The four books under review [Perloff's Radical Artifice, Christopher Beach's ABC of Influence, Peter Quartermain's Disjunctive Poetics, and Linda Reinfeld's Language Poetry,] here attest to the ongoing life not so much of “the” avant-garde as of various intersecting avant-gardes in American poetry, apparently active in practice even if dead in theory. Together these books constitute a valuable history and analysis of those avant-gardes' history and current status.

Perloff's subtitle to Radical Artifice states her subject crisply: “writing poetry in the age of media.” That is, she sets out to examine “what really happens on the video screen, at the computer terminal, or in the advertising media, and then to see how poetic or art discourse positions itself vis-à-vis these powerful new environments” (15). John Cage acts as tutelary spirit; discussed in the first and last chapters as part of the vigorous defense of avant-garde art's continued vitality that frames the book, he is central to Perloff's postmodernism in his perception that “from now [the 1950s] on poetry would have to position itself … in relation to the media” (xiii). Yet unlike some theorists of the postmodern, Perloff does not argue for the collapse of the distinction between art and mass media, even while she admits that their boundaries are permeable. Her goal, rather, is to explore their relation.

Perloff organizes her discussion around the opposition between naturalness/transparency and artifice (James Wright versus Cage, Ezra Pound versus Clark Coolidge, to take two of her examples), and as readers familiar with her work since The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) would expect, this is a book written, as the title of one chapter has it, “against transparency.” Perloff borrows the term “radical artifice” from Richard A. Lanham, who uses it to describe verbal and graphic styles produced by the possibilities for manipulating text provided by the digital revolution.1 Her purpose is to account for the forms in which that artifice has emerged in poetry, to consider why “the demand for a natural or transparent poetry (Pound's famous ‘direct treatment of the thing’), a demand that was the cornerstone of modernism, has given way … to the artifice one associates … with the nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle”—an artifice manifested today in “a significant body of poetry (or what claims to be poetry) … eccentric in its syntax, obscure in its language, and mathematical rather than musical in its form” (xi).

The writing that interests Perloff has reached this condition of artifice through “the transformation of the speech model” (54) that dominated much (not all, she admits) high modernist theory and practice (chapter 2); through a “deconstruction of image” (78) running counter to the modernist preoccupation with luminous detail, precision, and accuracy (chapters 3 and 4); and through a turn from the allegedly organic measures of free verse to number-based, overtly formulaic measures (chapter 5). On this latter point, Perloff convincingly uses the examples of the French Oulipo group, Cage's Roaratorio, Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers, and Lyn Hejinian's My Life to explicate a procedural poetics more generative than constraining, and as “free” in its own way as free verse. Then the subject of Perloff's chapter 6 becomes not what but how such writing means, as she responds to the familiar complaints of its nonreferentiality by reading two Ashbery and Bernstein lyrics against the background of “the formulaic and synthetic rhetoric” that saturates the airwaves and the public domain. In this context, “poetic discourse defines itself as that which can violate the system” (189)—one traditional role of avant-gardes. In a decade when Ronald Reagan could be hailed as the Great Communicator, the poet's job became to stop making sense.

Especially suspect for Perloff are terms like “speech,” “image,” “natural,” “transparent,” “authentic,” “organic,” “unmediated. These are the terms, along with “open,” “raw,” and “naked,” typically used by and about 1950s and 1960s avant-gardes, terms the datedness of which should remind us that the poetic avant-garde is a process, heterogeneous, historically contingent, self-revising. Especially today, such terms should be suspect. When Geraldo, Phil Donahue et al. are the measure of “talk,” “sincerity,” and “authenticity,” the speech-based lucidity of a Philip Levine, Perloff argues looks like another simulacrum. These days Coke, not poetry, is “the real thing,” and ex-heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield (a puffed up light-heavy) is marketed as “the real deal.” In the Age of Donahue (the next step, paradoxically, beyond the Age of Lowell in its media-tion of public confession), a more genuinely critical poetry “is coming to see its role as the production of what we might call an alternate language system,” a “discourse that defers reading” (49, 105).

My reservation here is that this argument for a “discourse that defers reading” seems to rest on the homology (open to debate) between formal and social disruption characteristic of the historical avant-garde. This position forces Perloff to exclude the various poetries occupying a middle ground between the transparent voice-centered lyric and radical artifice and thus somewhat limits her sense of the possibilities for cultural critique available in these other poetries.2 I am more sympathetic to the instrumentalist poetics of, say, an Adrienne Rich or a June Jordan than I suspect Perloff is, even while I agree with her observation that this writing adopts the representational strategies of the culture it is allegedly attacking. This lacuna may be necessary, however, to Perloff's making her case forcefully. One can't cover everything, and these other poetries already have their vocal defenders. For her part, Perloff remains the most articulate and energetic apologist that the poetry of radical artifice could hope for.

Accompanying the deconstruction of speech by radical artifice is that of the image mentioned earlier. This procedure depends on the conviction that media images are now simultaneously so pervasive, powerful, sophisticated, and depthless that the very idea of “image” demands not duplication but a deconstruction enacted in three ways: by the use of image in full awareness of its deceptiveness (Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, Ron Silliman); by a move toward syntax rather than image as poetic dominant (from Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen to a number of Language poets); by focus on the word itself as graphic Image. This third mode, to which Perloff devotes a chapter in itself, has emphasized “experiments with the visualization of poetic text” (129)—Cage's mesostics are one example. The premise that “all writing—and certainly all poetic writing—is inevitably ‘seen’ as well as ‘seen through’ or heard” (120) launches Perloff into an insightful discussion of the relation between the verbal and visual text, of the verbal as visual. This chapter is characteristically compelling and thought-provoking in its moves back and forth among the art world, advertising, and poetry, among Robert Venturi, Marcel Broodthaers, concrete poetry, Steve McCaffery, Johanna Drucker, Barbara Kruger. I say “characteristically” because it exhibits virtues that run throughout Radical Artifice: incisive close readings that guide but do not march one through a text; an informed internationalist focus; the ability to discuss poetry in relation to other arts in a genuinely revealing way; a defense of experimental writing that takes the doubts of the uninitiated or unconvinced seriously; acquaintance with a remarkably wide range of “texts” (broadly defined). Compared with Perloff's earlier work, Radical Artifice also shows a stronger element of cultural criticism and a more pervasive use of the insights (not, blessedly, the jargon) of poststructuralist theory. It is probably her fullest defense to date of Language poetry; at the same time, Language poetry here is only part of the picture, not the whole.


  1. The Lanham essay to which Perloff refers is “The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution” (New Literary History 20 [1989]: 265–90). For an earlier, full discussion of the useful distinction between looking “through” and “at” a text that Lanham invokes in this essay, see chapter 5, “At and Through: The Opaque Style and Its Uses,” of Literacy and the Survival of Humanism (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983). Here Lanham distinguishes, as the two ends of a subtly graded spectrum, between “transparent styles” that “work unnoticed,” that we look through, and “opaque ones, which invite stylistic self-consciousness” (59) and that we look at.

  2. On the question of critical allegiances, see Perloff's essay “From Tolerance to Irrelevance: Talking about Poetry in the Academy” (Sagetrieb 10.3 [1991]: 7–16), where she argues that “‘talk about poetry’” needs “not tolerance, which … goes hand in hand with irrelevance (i.e., if it's all more or less equally OK, who finally cares?) but passion” (16).

John Palatella (review date June 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Radical Artifice, in College Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 165–70.

[In the following review, Palatella analyzes Perloff's revisionist literary history and theoretical positions in Radical Artifice and other previous works. According to Palatella, Perloff's oppositional dichotomy of modern and postmodern literature is unnecessarily reductive and partisan.]

For the past twenty years Marjorie Perloff has indefatigably committed herself to writing what she calls in Poetic License “a revisionist history of twentieth-century poetics” (2). In the mid-1970s, Perloff's essays on Ashbery, Beckett, Pound, and Stein appeared in American Poetry Review,Parnassus, and Iowa Review. Brought together with discussions of Rimbaud, Cage, and Williams, they were incorporated into The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Perloff promoted the value of poetry as “compositional rather than referential … ‘such that’ the focus shifts from signification to the play of signifiers” (23). This meant saying goodbye to the well-wrought urns of Auden, Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats, and hello to the poetics of performance of Williams, Cage, and Antin (“Who? I don't know. Let's look in the index to Brooks and Warren”). During the 1980s Perloff wrote The Dance of the Intellect, The Futurist Moment, and Poetic License, in which her premise about indeterminacy settled into a stable foundation for her attempts to best the New Critics and establish the institutional legitimacy of an up-to-date avant-garde tradition. She inducted into her canon Charles Bernstein, Jacques Derrida, Steve McCaffery, and Ron Silliman, and cast a nonchalant Cage in the lead role played by the ebullient Rimbaud when her revisionist history first hit the academic market in 1981.

The most recent installment of this history is Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, in which she attempts to situate her tradition of radical poetries in an age of information technology. As always, Perloff works in accord with some of the compositional methods of the poets she champions. When she isn't closely reading nuances of line, phrase, or word, Perloff crosses disciplines and mixes together ideas concerning language and communication drawn from post-analytic philosophers, Continental theorists, and talk show hosts. The first of her two main goals in Radical Artifice is to argue that information technologies, because they have transformed the channels through which we receive and create written texts, carry important implications for the study of rhetoric, namely, that “telediscourse” works suspiciously like Imagism because it manufactures speech into a luminous spectacle of transparency. Second, she explains how the poetics of “radical artifice” sustain an opacity that the instrumental channels of telediscourse cannot accommodate. In Radical Artifice Perloff considers poetries often marginalized in academic criticism, and also accommodates her critical method to an attenuated New Historicism. This mix evoked from me bemusement and frustration, primarily because Perloff, while assembling arrays of quotes and establishing tendentious connections between texts, does not interrogate her methodological working assumptions, tethered as they are to the hypotheses she formulated in the late 1970s, which have aged into problematic canonical imperatives.

Perloff began writing a revisionist history because she was disenchanted with academic criticism that looked through poetic language instead of looking at it. That criticism and the Symbolist tradition of High Modernism it favored was unsympathetic to poets like Creeley, Blackburn, or Bromige, who had cut their teeth on Williams, Stein, and Oppen during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, before university presses or New Directions collected these poets' works and tailor-edited them for the academic market. Helen Vendler's assertion in her Introduction to The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry that the “symbolic strength of poetry consists in giving presence, through linguistic signs, to absent realities, while insisting, by the very brilliance of poetic style, on the linguistic nature of its own being and the illusionistic character of its effects” is commensurate with the Romantic tenets of the “Symbolist” tradition as Perloff defines it: poems in which language is the mimetic third term between subject and object, and is an instrument that conveys to the reader the meaning of the poet's interiority (17). Perloff's account of Romanticism loosely parallels Robert Pinsky's argument in The Situation of Poetry that a Romantic tradition persists in the work of contemporary poets like Lowell, Ammons, Bly, and Merwin. But whereas Pinsky conjectured that the “discursive poetry” of American poets Frank Bidart and James McMichael evaded that Romantic epistemology, Perloff instead explained how twentieth-century avant-garde American poets influenced by Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and Char had eschewed Romanticism. That genealogy enabled Perloff to carve out a niche in the academy during the 1970s somewhere between poet-critics like Pinsky and academic critics like J. Hillis Miller and Joseph Riddel, who underwrote their investment in twentieth-century poetry with Continental theory.

The broad oppositional distinction between reference and signification that Perloff constructed as the foundation of her revisionist history in The Poetics of Indeterminacy replicated the distinction between communication and writing that Roland Barthes essayed in Le degre zero de l'ecriture, his riposte to Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la litterature? Pitting themselves against aesthetic attitudes (realism or skepticism) based on positivistic uses of language, Barthes and Perloff stressed that language is a performative process, or what Barthes called “ecriture.” Against Sartre's polemic for politically engaged writing predicated on clear communication purged of a decadent modernist style, Barthes defined a political role for writing without advocating a correct or consistent political style. Freedom is situated within the choices a writer makes between conflicting available forms: “writing ‘ecriture’” is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language” (15). Perloff stressed how indeterminacies of sound and narration explode the premise that language always points to truths beyond itself and so “challenge us, once again, to take up ideas” (338). Both critics promoted an aesthetic that locates ethical responsibility for meaning with the writer's (or in S/Z the reader's) responsiveness to conflicting choices available within language.

Despite this consonance between Perloff's and Barthes' schemata, Perloff shares with the New Critics of the early 1970s (whom she admonishes) a tendency towards ahistorical readings, a tattle not heeded by the Barthes who Perloff inducted into her canon in “Barthes, Ashbery, and the Zero Degree of Genre,” in Poetic License. Perloff forecloses on the first of the two interdependent conditions on which Barthes predicated the assumption that “writing ‘ecriture’ is an ambiguous reality: on the one hand, it unquestionably arises from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time; on the other hand, from this social finality, it refers the writer back, by a sort of tragic reversal, to the sources, that is to say, the instruments of creation” (16). Perloff's idea that undecidability may constitute an aesthetic alternative to Romantic symbolism can't amount to much because her competent structuralist readings of indeterminacy occur in a historical vacuum. Her singular emphasis on style provides no sense of how or why historical exigencies figure into a writer's decision to write against the New Critical organic form. Perloff, for instance, reads Spring and All against The Waste Land, but doesn't attempt to correlate its indeterminacy with the discourses of postwar apocalypse and American exceptionalism that provoked Williams's Dada scorn. Williams opposes the Symbolist tradition by virtue of the fact that Perloff likes his work, which fits into “particular facets of the indeterminacy model” (44).

Also absent from Perloff's account of “openness” is Barthes' signature interest in myth, which deterred him from thinking that language can ever be absolutely open: “It is because there is no thought without language, that Form is the first and last arbiter of literary responsibility, and it is because there is no reconciliation within the present society, that language, necessary and necessarily oriented, creates for the writer a situation fraught with conflict” (83). I sketch these differences between Barthes and Perloff to suggest, in keeping with the Barthes in whose company Perloff places herself, that “History underlines the fortunes of modes of writing: this kind of functional front, which sweeps along events, situations, and ideas in the current of historical time, does not so much produce effects as set limits to choice” (2). Of course, Barthes' notion of history in Le degre zero de l'ecriture is monumental: history is usually Hegelian History. Yet Barthes does gesture towards the critical sensibility of Mythologies: how cultural texts like poems or novels spring from the conflicting ideological beliefs of any definite moment. If history figures at all in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, it is in the guise of the empirical traditions of academic literary criticism, which mysteriously turn a writer back from equivocal images of Romantic alienation or transcendence to the equivocal reality of language itself.

In Radical Artifice Perloff attempts to aver this problem. She argues that radical poetries defy dominant cultural discourses of a technological world in which everything we read and write is always already given. Positing texts as the “cultural formations” of a historical situation, Perloff applies the methodology she outlined in her “Can(n)on to the Right of Us, Can(n)on to the Left of Us: A Plea for Difference,” the opening essay of Poetic License, in which she rightly, I think, criticized certain structuralist and Marxist methodologies for practicing an empirically reductive, ahistorical formalism. She polemically calls for a “new historicist” criticism that she asserts is best represented by Jerome McGann's reading of Tennyson's “Charge of the Light Brigade” in The Beauties of Inflections. Quoting a McGann who reminds us that “we too … intersect with our own age and experience … in certain specific and ideologically determined ways” (27), Perloff faults Cynthia Chase and Fredric Jameson not only for reinforcing methods they want to displace, but also for untimely subjects. Instead of reading Keats or Baudelaire in terms derived from Barthes, de Man, or Lacan, they should read Bernstein or Hejinian, whose work is contemporaneous with the brain trust of Continental literary theory in which Chase and Jameson are invested.

But this is like arguing that eyeglasses better fit the eyes than the ears. Perloff seems to misconstrue some of the methodological consequences of McGann's argument. Her plea for timeliness rests on the reading of a poem (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”) that on her own terms should no longer matter much to us, subjects caught in a web spun by the cultural logic of late capitalism. Such a plea for simultaneity and contemporaneity, as Paul de Man asserted in “Literary History and Literary Modernity,” can succeed only because it must inevitably and paradoxically refer to and “falsify” the past. From de Man's cynical perspective, Perloff's commitment to historical subjectivism jeopardizes historical understanding. Her plea for difference becomes the ideological gulf that keeps her prisoner to the very idea of positivism that she repudiates in her criticism of Chase and Jameson. And that plea not only renders inconsistent Perloff's interest in Barthes (who wrote about Robbe-Grillet as well as Balzac), but also motivates her, I think, to recast poets no longer contemporary, like Pound and Williams (praised in The Poetics of Indeterminacy and The Dance of the Intellect), into the bad guys of Radical Artifice.

The principle of naturalism is the fulcrum of the historical turn from modern to postmodern English language poetry that Perloff defines in Radical Artifice. Modernists like Pound, Eliot, Yeats, and sometimes Williams, she argues, promoted an Imagism of luminous detail, whereby the poem corresponds to the real's authentic presence. Yet within late capitalism, the real is recessed in a world of discourse that empties reference of all particularity. Recapitulating Ron Silliman's theorization of language as commodity fetish in “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” Perloff argues that language, instead of corresponding to the real, simulates a world always already touched by information technology's invisible hand. Perloff asserts that the advertising industry has desiccated Imagism by marketing the authentic to sell the simulacra. Postmodern radical artifice, a polysemantic opacity, is an alternative to a language environment where referential transparency is made the instrument of commodity fetishism and the airwaves are populated with talking heads like Phil Donahue. Perloff hypothesizes that a Donahue show about drunks, for instance, would only permit the speech of recovering drunks. “The reason for this omission is simple: the media mechanism cannot permit the description that might take place if Donahue really permitted the natural words ‘of actual drunks’ to occur in the natural order” (38).

The idea of natural words on the Donahue show is not this simple. The legal department of Donahue's production company would probably bar the naturalistic improvisation Perloff imagines, interviewing drunks rounded up from the street, because the company could be sued for libel. Yet even if that improvisation occurred, it wouldn't necessarily convey the Natural. Once those drunks are in the studio, they'll first be sent to make-up, where cosmetologists will blush or soften their skin tones to fit into the color spectrum most suitable for studio shooting conditions; then they will be wired with mikes, and asked to sit in ugly chairs. They might still be drunk, but are they still the drunks lolling about in the back alley who represent for Perloff the Real? Instead of either considering how the economic conditions in which Donahue is produced, marketed, and consumed figure into its production of language, or discussing the industrial history of the talk show's rhetorical modes (which, as Robert C. Allen explains in Channels of Discourse, date back to radio practice of the 1930s and 1940s), Perloff peremptorily assumes that the Donahue show is the cause of a linguistic phenomenon of which one can argue it is merely an effect: written or visual language is abstract, a net of concepts and patterns that make knowledge conventional. I stress this example to make a claim about an assumption implicit but central to Poetic Artifice: Perloff's radical artifice nostalgically aspires towards the same ideal as the Symbolist tradition it disparages, real Presence. A theory text from a university press or a shopping list scribbled on a post-it would suit Perloff's purposes as much as the Donahue show. If my elaboration of the Donahue show example seems ludicrous, it is perhaps because Perloff's arguments rehearse the terms of her opposition rather than trying to reassess the terms with which we think about signification. Perloff turns her definition of Imagist transparency and naturalism inside out to assert the presence ‘sic’ of a simulacrum, and then draws a conclusion about the Donahue show that smacks of elitism. I dislike the Donahue show as much as Perloff does, yet I think its conditions should be questioned and understood, not just labeled.

The troublesome manner in which Perloff discusses the Donahue show represents a methodological problem persistent in much of Radical Artifice. Perloff tends to mass together large amounts of information under labels like symbolist, Imagist, or postmodern without interrogating the assumptions or consequences of her method. This practice is usually the fundamental argumentative principle of her work, but its shortcomings are most apparent in the Donahue example since her attempt to situate a discourse in a social context quickly settles into a simple causal method, which legitimates labeling the Donahue show. Similarly, instead of serving as hypotheses to be proved, Perloff's categorical distinctions between Imagism and Artifice (which replicate the earlier distinction between Symbolism and Indeterminacy) are themselves the justifications for her arguments. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy Perloff could argue for a difference between the Symbolist Stevens and the Indeterminate Ashbery as a suitable reason for a revisionist history only because she adapted a truncated account of Stevens's work. Perloff accepted, on the basis of part of an argument about one part from the long and complicated late poem “The Auroras of Autumn,” Helen Vendler's account of Stevens as a Romantic poet, which cuts a diminished romantic figure from the same cloth with which Harold Bloom fashioned his High Romantic major man. Instead of questioning how Vendler's interests shape Stevens's work, Perloff accepted that version of Stevens at face value.

Similarly, in Radical Artifice Perloff can reduce a caricature of Imagism into the image of modernism only because she uses definitions of Imagism—“go in fear of abstractions” and “direct treatment of the thing”—which Pound, the movement's propagandist, revised and complicated into a private visionary aesthetic while publicizing the scaled-down, efficiency model of Imagism. Much like readers who found a toehold into the early works of Williams by focusing on that now well-worn maxim “no ideas but in things,” Perloff compromises certain aspects of modernism by neglecting to account for the ways modernists interrogated their own authority. (Of course, in The Poetics of Indeterminacy Perloff convincingly detailed how the precipitate Dada mobility of Spring and All is paralyzed if readers abide by that maxim.) To distinguish modernist from postmodernist poetry by asserting that Pound and Williams could not realize, like Bernstein or McCaffery, that “our words are no longer our own” is to forget that Pound happily incorporated typist's errors into the Cantos and that Williams wrote about the tropological wilderness of the New World and the ethical injustices carried out in the name of ethnocentric naturalism in In the American Grain. T. S. Eliot is in Radical Artifice still the fall guy of modernist naturalism that he was in The Poetics of Indeterminacy because Perloff hasn't tested her earlier hypothesis against the recent arguments of readers like Michael Levenson (A Genealogy of Modernism) or Louis Menand (Discovering Modernism). These critics confounded the New Critical myth of the impersonal and objective Eliot with the portrait of a poet seriously invested in post-Hegelian skepticism. If this version of an Eliot at odds with himself is interpolated into Perloff's argument, then he is no longer the fall guy, and the opposition between Imagism and Artifice collapses on itself because one must grant, according to the terms of Perloff's argument, that the skeptical Eliot is as much a proponent of hermeneutic indeterminacy in the arts as Bernstein, an alliance that further suggests that perhaps Bernstein is as nostalgic for authenticity and objectivity as the New Critical version of Eliot. Indeed, Perloff implies this herself when she suggests that “our Waste Land” (as if I wanted one) is no longer Eliot's but Bernstein's, since Bernstein supplies apocalyptic metaphors most suitable for the simulacra of media discourse (194). We all favor certain works over others, but Perloff's preference for Bernstein over Eliot is a problem because it takes the form of theoretical categories that become the imperative of history.

Perloff is most convincing when writing about John Cage's Lecture on the Weather, a system predicated on unpredictability that defies the kinds of labels Perloff tags on Eliot and Bernstein. Cage's “text” defers the second stage of reading, the reduction of the materiality of the signifier to sense, because Lecture on the Weather only materializes within the atmospheric constraints of any situation, which its performance accounts for but does not attempt to predict. Here Perloff is convincing and moving because she can only focus on her response to the performative text, and thereby comes to terms with what she considers to be the most valuable implication of radical artifice: that knowledge is relational, constituted by the languages of a given situation, and not something beyond language to be possessed. Cage's Lecture entails that we submit our own readerly assumptions and its textual devices to scrutiny, yet unlike a poem by McCaffery, it doesn't make that process of realignment into an unpleasurable battle of wits. Unfortunately, Perloff's partisan interests prevent her from accounting for a text that complements Lecture on the Weather: Robert Pinsky's computer novel Mindwheel. Like Cage's Lecture, Mindwheel provides for a degree of situated freedom in the interaction between text and reader. Perhaps Perloff can't account for Pinsky because he does not tragically assume that telediscourse is inescapably hegemonic.

Perloff's convincing account of Lecture on the Weather is valuable not merely for its methodological implications, but also because it raises an important question about what happens to radical poetry once it enters an academy devoted, no matter how much poststructuralism it reads, to finding the meaning. Can an academic write about such texts and teach them in class without compromising their disjunctive linguistic processes? Or are compromise and reduction concerns only if one asserts that some forms of knowledge are not conventional linguistic abstractions? However one answers that question, one needs to confront the dilemma about the academic legitimation of radical writing defined by Charles Bernstein in “The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA.” About Williams's Embodiment of Knowledge he remarks: “Williams has written persuasively about polarization within American literary culture within the context of his irascible opposition to conventional education and rationalistic scholarship. While these issues are conceptually separable, for Williams they share the common ground of the academy. This fact is particularly important for Williams scholars, who, finding the object of their studies believes ‘the more you learn the less you know’ can choose to ignore the resulting dilemma only at the risk of losing their subject.” (A Williams critic myself, I find these remarks, if somewhat smug, apt.) “A solution,” Bernstein suggests, “might well be what Williams calls the ‘humanization’ of knowledge—where abstraction would give way to ‘emplacement’ as scholarship acknowledges its material base in writing” (249). What does this suggest? Bernstein and Williams, I think, ask us to consider, as Perloff does quite well in her “reading” of Lecture on the Weather, that how we know what we know is always the product, and never the object, of the languages we use to think about any given situation. Both poets ask us to scrutinize our concepts unremittingly to prevent them from settling into intractable ideals like Perloff's untenable opposition between modern naturalism and postmodern radical artifice.

Works Cited

Allen, Robert C. “Reader-Oriented Criticism and Television.” Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Robert C. Allen. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987. 74–112.

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. 1953. New York: Noonday, 1968.

Bernstein, Charles. “The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA.” Content's Dream: Essays, 1975–1984. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1986.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Vendler, Helen. Introduction. The Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

Sean Francis (review date Spring–Summer 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Radical Artifice, in Chicago Review, Vol. 40, Nos. 2–3, Spring–Summer, 1994, pp. 175–77.

[In the following review of Radical Artifice, Francis discusses Perloff's critique of modern culture and the role of avant-garde poetry.]

As its title succinctly announces, Marjorie Perloff's collection of essays [Radical Artifice] attempts to assess the impact of our culture's predominant modes of communication on contemporary poetry: “to understand,” as she writes, “the interplay between lyric poetry, generally regarded as the most conservative, the most intransigent of the ‘high’ arts, and the electronic media.” These media include sound and video tape, faxes and modems, telephones and computers and four-color slick magazine reproductions—the whole panoply of technology by which the sending and receiving of messages has been sped up and expanded and through which instrumental discourses like advertising work their mass effects. Where does charged and cadenced language fit in this scheme, Perloff wonders, and what can words do to resist being merely “processed”?

Writing that foregrounds its materiality and its difficulty, its status outside the “natural” effusions of mediaspeak provides Perloff with an answer, the “radical artifice” of her book's title. Presided over by the late John Cage, who is credited with recognizing in the 1950s that poetry would have to “position itself, not vis-à-vis the landscape or the city or this or that political event, but in relation to the media that, like it or not, occupy an increasingly large part of our verbal, visual, and acoustic space”—Perloff's book is an anatomy of the various ways contemporary poets have handled this thematic. (She also praises three of Cage's own “poetic” multimedia works, describing and interpreting his Lecture on the Weather, written for the Bicentennial; Roaratoria: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1978); and the six Norton Lectures given at Harvard during the 1988/89 academic year.)

One possibility explored by contemporary poets is the articulation of “an alternative language system” whose insistent eschewal of transparency, referentiality, and conventional sense itself can make for a practice that is proof against capitalism's typical commodifications: thus “language poetry” may include in its opaque mishmash sentences from billboards (Joan Retallack's “Liquid Smoke, wine or beer pep up yellow cheese”), but billboards will never return the favor. Meanwhile the ideal of poetry as “common language,” periodically resurrected since Wordsworth and central to early Modernist aesthetics, is shown to be untenable in the age of talk show teleculture, where horrific confessions are conveyed in clichés and made banally available to all. To differentiate their utterance from this, poets like Leslie Scalapino, Clark Coolidge, and Susan Howe practice a non-rational, disjunctive poetics that may yet refer obliquely to the same profound problems “investigated” by Donahue and his ilk. And in responding to the “videation of our culture”—an evolution provocatively mapped by Perloff through comparisons of the proportions of text vs. imagery in advertising from the ’20s, ’40s and ’60s—poetry eschews the imagism of the Modernists or the “deep image” of 1960s poets like Robert Bly and James Wright for a surface defamiliarization: “‘making strange’” she writes, “now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media …”

With experimental or avant-garde writing like this—and the implications of such labels are explored as well in Perloff's book—poetry becomes a practice “that defers reading” and such metaphors as “following” or “seeing through” it are repeatedly problematized. Whether it's a poetry that stresses language's materiality—as in the concrete works of Steve McCaffery and Johanna Drucker—or adheres to a strict preordained procedure for its effects, like the ingenious autobiographical projects of Lyn Hejinian—the work that interests Perloff is often just that which cries out for someone else to assist in its explication. Like many another gifted critic, Perloff is led by her erudition to champion poetry that lay readers might well find impenetrable—poetry, in effect, that requires her. And while her own efforts in this direction are commendable, her readings as lucid as the texts gnomic, one can't help wondering if a poetry which offers a radical accessibility might be more likely to instruct or delight over the media's ubiquitous din.

David R. Jarraway (review date November 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Marjorie Perloff Show: The Critic and Her Others,” in Minnesota Review, Nos. 43–44, November, 1995, pp. 212–22.

[In the following review of Radical Artifice, Jarraway criticizes Perloff's reductive view of modernism and her ideological commitment to postmodernism.]

In the field of twentieth-century letters, Marjorie Perloff might be considered one of our premier critics of literary modernism. She's already written three critical monographs on modern poets (W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Frank O'Hara), two focused studies on general traits in modern poetry (“Futurism” and the modernist/postmodernist “Lyric”), and has produced two collections of essays (The Poetics of Indeterminacy and The Dance of the Intellect), in addition to editing a third (Postmodern Genres). Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media marks her ninth labor in the vineyard of contemporary poetry and poetics. An extended meditation on “The Institution of Literature,” therefore, might give us pause to reflect upon what Marjorie Perloff means most immediately to us by way of her latest book, and how her career as a critic bears on the current construction of modernism.

As it turns out, however, Radical Artifice would appear to mark a transition in Perloff's work to a more complete focus on postmodernism, to the detriment of modernism. In fact, modernism, in her version here, would appear to be somewhat of a liability. In the hands of poets such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, modern discourse had for too long laboured the seemingly naive relation between words and things. With such an emphasis on the “natural look” and “natural speech” (27, 186) of modern poetics over the decades, modernism had run its course by mid-century. Due in part to the extraordinary impact of the media in contemporary culture, modernism was thus badly in need of overhauling—by the “paradigm of the postmodern” apparently (in Andreas Huyssen's words, approvingly cited by Perloff), “which is itself as diverse and multifaceted as modernism had once been before it ossified into dogma” (201). The literary discourse of postmodernism, then, is what interests Perloff most now, whose historical and cultural “shift” into the present (and future) her new book never tires of rehearsing (47, 58, 92). And if contemporary poets such as George Oppen, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery have carried us to this present, just as Language poets like Johanna Drucker, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein are likely to spirit us into that future, undoubtedly it's because the artifice of rhetorical construction rather than the discursive representation of nature—the “radical artifice” of postmodern poetics, in a word—forms so total a preoccupation in all their work.

The foregrounding of “artifice” in contemporary writing has several implications for the postmodern paradigm, each of which Perloff investigates by turns. When she locates the term in the media criticism of Richard Lanham, for instance, it's with a view to problematizing the “native transparency” of an otherwise heavily mediated relation between self and world, for example, in John Cage's Lecture on the Weather (18, 22–23). Elsewhere, in the Language theory of Charles Bernstein, “artifice [and] artifact” draw greatest attention to the word “rather than the object behind it or the vision beyond it,” as for instance, in Creeley's Pieces and A Day Book (47, 47–48). For the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, “there can be no direct connection between art and message … without running the risk of being burned by the artifice,” a risk which Perloff shows we many times over incur in a semantically bankrupt text like that of Steve McCaffery's The Black Debt (102, 104–111). Yet by the same token, “systemic artifice” can disclose tremendous enablement within constraint, according to the Oulipian theory of Georges Perec, and Perloff offers Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers and John Cage's Roaratorio as American cases in point (140, 145–61). Ostensibly, then, radical artifice has it all over recidivist nature in the exceedingly recondite discourses in which Perloff happens to take it up.

What is less clear, however, in the obviously modernist myth of progress Perloff seeks to construct as argument, is precisely when the shift to artifice within the story she tells actually occurred. In one place, according to Perloff, artifice is supposed to have become acceptable “only in the past decade or so” (224n28). Yet in another, it is a preoccupation which apparently has overtaken “the more radical poetries of the past few decades” (45). In the continuation of this passage, these same radical poetries (though unidentified) are distinguished by their “making or praxis” rather than “impassioned speech, as self expression”—in Perloff's words, “as a turn toward artifice” (45, emphasis retained). Earlier, however, we're given the characterization of a similar poetry whose “opposition, not only to ‘the language really spoken by men’ but also to what is loosely called Formalist (whether New or Old) verse” is supposed to have marked some kind of “a return to artifice, but a ‘radical artifice’” (27, initial emphasis added). Return to when? Perhaps to the heyday of Hart Crane, for according to Perloff, Crane in the Roaring Twenties was championing a poetic artifice “inherently different from ordinary speech and ‘natural language’ … by no means typical of modernism” (186). But Crane in the past merely serves to return Perloff herself to “the ‘radical artifice’ in fin-de-siècle poetry like Ashbery's and Bernstein's,” in the present. By playing fast and loose with history in this dizzying way, Perloff leaves us not knowing quite where we are in the general remove from modernism.

A similar confusion seems to surround the impact of electronic media in Perloff's mythic argument, as foregrounded in her subtitle. Perloff's inability consistently to historicize her somewhat incoherent narrative concerning the burgeoning of artifice in modern writing might have been considerably offset had she fulfilled the promise of her project announced at the outset: namely, “to see how poetic or art discourse positions itself vis-à-vis these powerful new environments [TV, computers, advertising],” with the more directed view to clarifying “the role, if any, this technology has in shaping the ostensibly private language of poetry” (15, 2–3). From what we gather from this, Perloff's first full-scale foray into “popular culture,” the message is indeed mixed, and again, incoherently so. At times, our hypnotic obsession with the electronic image that Perloff diagnoses as “the videation of our culture” would merely seem to reinforce the seamless and mystified fit between mind and world, and thus, recycle her more general complaint, noted previously, against canonical modernism as a “preconceived idea of crystalline purity” that she finds echoed in Wittgenstein (74, 133). At other times, however, an excessive preoccupation with the visual—“computer graphics, signposts, and advertising formats,” for example—can help to “lay bare” the device as the Russian formalists would say, and thereby advance the argument for the attenuation of artifice in all postmodern discourse—“ways of foregrounding the materiality of the text,” as Perloff puts it, that home laser printing, for example, might conceivably have inspired in cutting-edge “visual poetics” (120, 215, 120).

Clearly, then, the role of the media does little to correct the insufficiency of context with which Perloff aims to chart the historical advance of postmodernism. On her account, advertising copywriters today arguably can still receive much instruction from Poundian principles like “exact treatment of the thing” and “precise definition,” as much indeed as William Carlos Williams can be said to have suffered from those same principles, in a highly referential work like “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” for perhaps having watched too much television or read too many newspapers (94, 74–76). This kind of reductive relativism, to my mind, borders on the fatuous. Pound loathed modern advertisers: “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap,” he exhorts in his well-known “A Retrospect,” from which Perloff is fond of quoting (Literary Essays 6). And if “copy-writing” was advertising's chief object, Williams could be equally as short: “you do not copy nature, you make something which is an imitation of nature … you no longer copy but make a natural object” (Selected Essays 303).

What Perloff, therefore, is up to in this new study is very much the kind of thing we've seen her attempt before in previous books. Her strategy is ploddingly structuralist and woodenly predictable, invariably setting up a false dichotomy between two mutually exclusive and essentializing terms—in this case, artifice/nature, where before Pound/Stevens, or before that indeterminacy/referentiality, had stood in a similar relation—and inevitably, forcing a totalizing choice for the initial, privileged term within the binarism as its seemingly natural and predestined resolution (Dance 20–21; Poetics 129, 138). As John Timberman Newcomb cogently frames the case, Perloff's reductively ideological approach “may be more usefully seen as a problem of evaluative intolerance and absolutism” (10)—an intolerance and absolutism that Perloff herself has occasion to confront in her own graduate seminar on postmodern poetry at Stanford, when a female Yugoslav student is emboldened to ask why the poets on the syllabus don't write like Kafka: “in what was of course a preliminary and flip answer to her very good question,” Perloff rejoins, “[Kafka] didn't have television” (xi, xiii; see also 46 and 210). But Perloff's methodological approach has even more profound implications beyond the classroom, when we begin to consider it within the much larger context of the institution of literature itself. Before venturing onto that further ground—actually, as a preparation for graduating to it—I would like to take up three further aspects of Perloff's argument: one having to do with modernism, a second with postmodernism, and a third dealing with her view of popular culture, that would appear to be the mediating link between them.

The “natural look” that apparently distinguishes modernist poetics is, as Perloff presents the case shown earlier, the central differentiation from the radical discourse that comes to take modernism's place, a discourse that is at last able to recognize that “a poem or painting or performance text is a made thing—contrived, constructed, chosen—and that its reading is also a construction on the part of its audience” (27–28). That texts are self-referentially contrived or constructed rather than given or declared entities may be a revelation to Perloff. But it's a view that more historically minded critics, philosophers, and social commentators have for a long time thought was crucial to defining modernism, not something that had come to take its place. Carolyn Porter, for instance, following John Berger's study of cubism, significantly reformed our thinking about American literature on this very point well over a decade ago:

Berger concludes that the content of a cubist painting is “the relation between the seer and the seen,” and that the works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger from 1907 to 1914 “do not illustrate a human or social situation, they posit” one. The situation such paintings posit is one which radically redefines the epistemological relationship between perceiving subject and perceived object as interaction rather than confrontation. The detached viewer of an illusionist space in the Renaissance becomes the active participant in a process of vision inaugurated by the cubist painting. … That is, the contemplative stance of the detached observer … is undermined from within, and the observer of an immediately given world is exposed as a participant in the mediated activity of which that world is constituted.

(32, 35)

Porter, it should be noted, is working through a participant or constructivist theory of modernism in an American context, in which notions of self-reliance, self-authority, and self-autonomy had preoccupied writers for over a century. But the idea that reality was something that one could construct or imagine for oneself quite independently from some external source of authentication or legitimation was one of the extraordinary legacies of post-Renaissance Enlightenment, and hence one that Europe could celebrate as well. Thus, in France, observes Michel Foucault, “Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself … [so that modernity] compels him to face the task of producing himself” (42). Julia Kristeva, pursuing a similar line of thought in Mallarmé, refers to this modernist process of imaginative projection as “polymorphism,” and further notes that a reluctance to adhere to any one construction of reality in particular would constitute “the wisdom of artifice,” a phrase of considerable interest to Perloff (156). The implication of all these well-established views, therefore, ought likely to underscore the insight that “modernism” itself was an effect of interpretive construction, and that what one was able to say about it would largely depend upon the historical, social, and cultural context within which it might be taken up and through which it might be mediated.

The aspect of Perloff's view of modernism that one finds extremely problematic here and widespread in all her other work, is that which suggests that there can be one and only one model of modernism—“High” (or “Anglo-American”) as it turns out, that she frequently invokes Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide (1986) to support (xii, 9–10, 201–202, passim). The fact that the history of a particular society's politics or economy or culture could offer an alternative to such a model, as in the case of an American modernism or a French modernism suggested above, or in cases where the supervening rhetoric might be one of race (e.g., Marianna Torgovnick's Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives [1990]), or gender (e.g., Marianne DeKoven's Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism [1991]), or class (e.g., Frank Lentricchia's Ariel and the Police [1988]), or even, most recently, genre (e.g., Suzanne Clark's Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word [1991])—none of this extraordinarily rich and suggestive new work on modernism would appear to have made the slightest impression upon what is presently on show in Radical Artifice. Moreover, one begins to wonder whether Perloff's low tolerance for anything but binary, either/or discourse—a case of “too many others” (203), perhaps?—one wonders whether or not this intolerance verging on absolutism might not be curtailing a more nuanced reading of modernism, conditioned also by Perloff's precipitate haste to get on with postmodernism.

I'm thinking especially here of her reading of Ezra Pound's “the natural object is always the adequate symbol” from his “Retrospect” pieces (Literary Essays 5) as some kind of exhortation for a mimetic and correspondent representation of natural truth (e.g., xi, 27, 79, 94, 197). The fact that Pound, in this passage, is at pains to underscore the word “adequate” perhaps indicates how significantly troubled he was by such a naive epistemology, imbricated as it was with the tradition of Georgian pictorialism he was trying so hard to counter in the England of the prewar years, even though he himself would oftentimes appear to be buying into such a “direct treatment” of experience (see Harper, esp. 102–103). Back home in America, a previous gilded age of realism had caused similar problems for burgeoning modernists, as Ronald E. Martin lately observes:

The ultimate reality of the external world was relatively easy to justify in the context of the nineteenth century's absolute, measurable universe of material atoms and causal forces. But then relativity theory and quantum mechanics, in prohibiting the assumption that our concepts can directly represent absolute external states, made the game a whole lot chancier—not in the sense that realisms were erroneous, but in the sense that they were obsolete in the new realm of hypothetical physics and language-as-artifact.


Artifactual language noted here can perhaps best be explained in terms of the home-grown philosophical tradition of pragmatism within which American modernism—Stevens, Frost, Robinson, for example—began to flourish, as Frank Lentricchia, among several other current theorists, has been steadily and persuasively arguing (“Ideologies of Poetic Modernism”; see also Martin 76–100, Gunn, and most recently, Poirier). Accordingly, if there has been a return to artifice in contemporary poetry, as Perloff argues, it could very well be to its radically pragmatic roots. Without her attending carefully to American history and culture, however, we'll never know. In any case, a current preoccupation with artifice could hardly represent a return in the “radical” sense that Perloff intends. “In our postmodern age,” as Martin remarks further in connection with Gertrude Stein, “that realization [namely, “the intuition that language is an artificial, conventionalized system of arbitrary symbols”] no longer seems so radical, but for a writer at the time of the First World War to challenge the virtually universal assumption that language was purely a medium for the representation of reality was a drastic departure” (182, emphasis added).

If a far too restrictive and monocular approach is the aspect of Perloff's argument that is troubling from the direction of modernism, it's surely the quite ungrounded and totally diffuse character of her postmodernism that troubles even more from the opposite direction. Statements from postmodern writers like Georges Perec to the effect that their radical discourse is the inauguration of “a sort of ‘great vacuum’” whose “violent aspiration” promises the “double virtue of liberation,” or in Perloff's own words on a text of Lyn Hejinian, that the “central” conception of their writing is the “deferral of meaning and denial of plenitude”—such statements hardly seem radical or revolutionary when set beside those of modernists like Stevens and Williams decades ago. For it was the former himself who, in the thirties, once wrote that “Reality is a vacuum,” and the latter who, a decade earlier, denied the plenitude of poetic statement by deferring it, rather, to an “infinity / of combinations,” wherein ultimate meaning might only be able to approximate an “energy in vacuo” (Opus Posthumous 194, Collected Poems 192). “Vacuum” seems a likely trope for reality in both poets since the modernist tradition they helped so much to launch in America would from the beginning insist “that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of [a number of ‘rival formulations’] may from some point of view be useful” (James 48). Stevens's well-known “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from 1923 is no doubt exemplary in this regard. The vacuum that the blackbird inscribes in American modernism, by suggesting any number of rival perspectives by which to frame experience, from early on withholds the prospect of the discourse ever drawing to a close. That is why Williams, in a well-known passage in The Embodiment of Knowledge (1928–30), would argue that realism “as a transcription of events or even facts” could never be susceptible to writing in the manner Perloff suggests. More in line with the ethos of pragmatism that comes to him by way of John Dewey in this text (7), Williams prefers instead to argue that “To transcribe the real creates, by the same act, an unreality, something besides the real, which is its transcription,” that is to say, “a fiction,” and would thus conclude: “The only real in writing is writing itself,” or to circle back again to Stevens, “flying is writing” (13, 86). Amy Lowell, from about the same time and by then a sworn enemy of Pound, has several images for such (un)real writing: “hidden distance,” “whiteness of intolerable beauty,” “edge of possibility”—all quite emphatically opposed to realism, which, not unexpectedly, she chooses to call “the Devil of Verisimilitude” (104, 93, 53, 52).

When Perloff, therefore, enlists Baudrillard to exploit further the difference between modernism and postmodernism, a difference, that is to say, foregrounding the relation “no longer between the image and the real, as early Modernists construed it, but between the word and the image” (92; see also 39, 197–98, 224n47), she takes with Baudrillard a step that neither Stevens nor Williams nor Lowell could responsibly countenance. There is “absence in reality,” not of reality, as Stevens tirelessly maintained (Collected Poems 176, emphasis added). Thus, Baudrillard's metaphysical formulation, to which Perloff attaches her infamous “indeterminacy,” that the simulacrum could only turn back upon itself in the form of yet another image is clearly a retrograde notion that would make American modernism, at any rate, quite uneasy. As Amy Lowell points out in her highly inflected version of feminist modernism, referring to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “because words / Are merely simulacra after deeds / … when they take the place / Of actions they breed a poisonous miasma / Which, though it leave the brain, eats up the body” (Selected Poems 51–52). Alarmed also at a postmodernism that might maintain no connection to existential or empirical experience, Iain Chambers perhaps provides the best gloss on Lowell's remark when he observes:

The ‘real’ dissolves into the simulacrum, into a mutable, historical construct. … It is this world, this construction and its languages, histories and heterogeneous complexity, that is our unique habitat, our only possibility.

(62, emphases retained)

Contrary to Perloff, whose brand of postmodernism, except for a rather vague reference to communism in Cage on her last page (216), seems devoid of any kind of political or social engagement, I would instead argue that it is the above sense of unique possibility that distinguishes the postmodern, the sense of possibility that Giles Gunn eloquently attaches to “the purpose of art as life's continuous revaluation of itself” (74). In these terms, the postmodern is not reckoned as some superannuation of modernism—how else to explain so many of the academy's new readings of modernism of late?—but becomes the reformulation of possibility buried deep within the social and cultural and racial landscape of modernism itself (see Vattimo 166–67), what William James once called “the rich thicket of reality” (55). Like modernism, as Foucault suggests, the postmodern, then, becomes more a question of attitude than anything else (39, 41). And the only reason perhaps for classifying Lowell along with modernism, no doubt, is the fact that she is not quite capable of carrying the richness of its promise far enough, for reasons that only a highly politicized feminism can ever hope to explain: “But Sapho [sic] was dead / And I, and others, not yet peeped above / The edge of possibility” (53). Moreover, the new readings that we are now happy to be receiving of deconstruction as a methodological tool “with its emphasis on responsibility to history” (Cornell 150; also 169, 180)—an emphasis that Derrida himself had known was there all along—such readings are able to articulate the kind of powerful interpretive protocols necessary to unlock the postmodern within the modern, as Marianne DeKoven has demonstrated so admirably. With Perloff, however, deconstruction functions in the present text merely as a veiled synonym for comparison or contrast: Lyn Hejinian “deconstructs” the autobiographies of Nancy Reagan and Shelley Winters, for example, or a question “deconstructs itself” at a seminar given by John Cage because it may represent an opinion contrary to Perloff's own (169, 210; see also 22, 80, 92, 129, 130, and 216). The same sort of critical misprision is at work in her overly simplistic understanding of important terms such as “dialectic,” “hegemony,” and even “Theory” (19 and 92, 237n14, 211).

What perhaps disappoints the reader most about Radical Artifice is that, in the end, Perloff herself doesn't believe it. The view her work presents of popular culture says as much. On this final aspect of what we're shown, take the following example:

The flight attendants are, of course, about to tell us to put our tray tables “in their locked, upright positions” and to keep our “seat belts securely fastened”—“securely” and “locked” not being very conducive to enjoyment—but never mind. After we land, taxi interminably to the gate, and push and shove our way to the exit, the smiling flight attendants will surely tell us, yet again, to “Enjoy.” Or, in a slightly more ambiguous version now in vogue, to “Have a good one.”


This anecdote is offered as one of several by Perloff to demonstrate, if the banal quotations are any indication, that nobody in our society could possibly be listening anymore, that words clearly have no referents, and that communication today is very much a mug's game, with all its real meanings “carefully displaced” (181). It's all a part of the highly overdetermined mediation of our present culture: junk mags, junk mail, junk minds, and the rest. And yet, when we inspect “the overproduction of such instrumental discourses in late-twentieth-century America,” we may be interested to discover that they in fact do have an analogue. And that analogue, curiously, is none other than the “alternate language system” that is Language poetry (49). In other words, present-day culture does have a referent—something to inform it, to explain it, to enlighten and comment upon it. But the recuperation of popular communication within the artifice of language in this quite directed—dare we say, “modernist”?—way should come as no surprise. Minatory direction is something we're given everywhere: “this actually happened!” (37), “what really happens in the external world” (26), “the forced delay … makes us see what is really happening” (111), “these adjectives really mean” (43), and so on. And then, there are all those keys: “the key to Cage's composition” (23; also 211), the “key to Perec's hyper-description” (143), the “key to the behavior of ‘Lyn’” (170), and so forth. For an argument whose postmodernism lays such great store by contriving and constructing and choosing, the elaborate communication game in this text, given such hortatory interventions, would appear to be far from playful. Isn't it a Language poet who is quoted as saying, “There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that … it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know ‘what really happened’” (169)? Maybe so. But in the language game that is being played in Radical Artifice, there is only one storyteller, and the one story she's come to tell turns out, astonishingly, to be the representation of “plain common sense”: “impenetrable as these texts may seem on a first reading, they turn out to be surprisingly mimetic … indeed, confusing reference, functions, I think, to mime the coming to awareness of the mind” (204–205, emphases added). With the mirror at last held up to human nature, Perloff finds herself “coming back to [her] beginning,” once again, and her account quickly ends.

Yet it's not just the beginning of the book presently under review that we sense we're coming back to by the end of Perloff's story. Rather, with the collapsing of artifice back into nature and common sense, we may feel that we're being pulled out of some promising future, and being shown the way back into an all-too-familiar past. What has steadily been moving us beyond this narrative of return in the academy over the last few years is the prospect, to defer to the central tenet of artifice, of constructing radically alternative narratives for ourselves. Often the narratives, as I tried to suggest earlier, have not needed to be entirely reinvented. They've had only to be retold from the point of view of the margin, or repositioned in terms of time and place, or reinterpreted through different rhetorical protocols. Whatever the case, with such a plethora of narratives ready to unfold, human experience, as inflected by gender or race or class or creed, cannot possibly look the same again. Nor should it. Yet experience becomes a far more sinister thing when its institutionalization within the study of English answers to the self-regarding imperatives of control, containment, and absolute mastery—Perloff's several “keys” to the postmodern castle, say—rather than to critical reformulation and reappraisal. The “Consciousness that is aware,” as Emily Dickinson once remarked, traverses the interval between “Experience” and “most profound experiment.” But there can be no revitalization of consciousness within our institution if that profound experiment is hounded, as Dickinson concludes, by “Its own identity” (822). Radical Artifice may suggest something of the order of a radical experiment with consciousness, both inside our institution, in its dealing with modernism and postmodernism, and outside, in its intersection with popular culture and the public sphere. However, by reconfirming the identity of what we've been shown so often before in Marjorie Perloff's criticism, and by reconsolidating her place in an academy no doubt consoled by this particular show of “radicalism,” the book fails—fails, as perhaps Foucault, echoing Dickinson, would conclude, both as an “historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us[,] and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (50).

Works Cited

Clark, Suzanne. Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Chambers, Iain. Border Dialogues: Journeys in Postmodernity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cornell, Drucilla. The Philosophy of the Limit. New York: Routledge, 1992.

DeKoven, Marianne. Rich and Strange: Gender, History, Modernism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 32–50.

Gunn, Giles. Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Harper, Michael F. “The Revolution of the Word.” Ezra Pound & William Carlos Williams: The University of Pennsylvania Conference Papers. Ed. Daniel Hoffman. New York: NAL, 1974, 79–106.

James, William, “What Pragmatism Means.” Pragmatism, and Four Essays from “The Meaning of Truth.” New York: NAL, 1974. 41–62.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1988.

———. “On the Ideologies of Poetic Modernism, 1890–1913: The Example of William James.” Reconstructing American Literary History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 220–49.

Lowell, Amy. Selected Poems of Amy Lowell. Ed. John Livingston Lowes. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1927.

Martin, Ronald E. American Literature and the Destruction of Knowledge: Innovative Writing in the Age of Epistemology. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Newcomb, John Timberman. Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1992.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. New York: Cambridge UP, 1985.

———. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Porter, Carolyn. Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Random House, 1954.

———. Opus Posthumous. Ed. Milton J. Bates. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Vattimo, Gianni. The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture. Trans. Jon R. Snyder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Williams, William Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1: 1909–1939. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986.

———. The Embodiment of Knowledge. Ed. Ron Loewinsohn. New York: New Directions, 1974.

———. Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1969.

David Clippinger (review date Spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567

SOURCE: A review of Wittgenstein's Ladder, in Chicago Review, Vol. 43, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 117–21.

[In the following positive review, Clippinger discusses Perloff's thesis and theoretical position concerning aesthetics and ethics in Wittgenstein's Ladder.]

Ludwig Wittgenstein's place in philosophy is certain, but (for good or bad) he has yet to be embraced by literary theory, which remains firmly under the sway of Continental philosophy. Despite this neglect, Marjorie Perloff demonstrates in Wittgenstein's Ladder that Wittgenstein's proposition, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; his method of inquiry that layers question upon questions; his gravitation towards metaphysics and spirituality; and his concern for ethics, all bear directly upon twentieth-century literature and literary study.

Perloff gleans from Wittgenstein four concepts—the strangeness in the ordinary; the implicit limitations of language and knowledge; the self-as-cultural construct; and the nonexistence of propositions of absolute value—and uses them to argue for his obvious relevance to literary studies. Using these four concepts as a philosophical frame, Wittgenstein's Ladder explores the connections between Wittgenstein's philosophy and the writing of Beckett, Creeley, Bernhard, Silliman, Waldrop, Hejinian, and others. Perloff says her goal is

to examine the relationship of Wittgenstein's mode of investigation, in all of its contradictoriness, its stringent and severe self-revision and critique, its cryptic and aphoristic formulations and epiphanies, to the “ordinary language” poetics so central to our time.


Wittgenstein's Ladder engages in a textual counterpoint that moves effortlessly between Wittgenstein and these writers and reveals a number of intriguing affinities. For example, the third chapter, “‘Grammar in Use’: Wittgenstein/Gertrude Stein/Marinetti,” juxtaposes Wittgenstein's idea that meaning is bound to its context and use—what Wittgenstein calls the “Grammar” of meaning—with prose and poetry by Stein. In doing so, Perloff illuminates the ideas and practices of both Stein and Wittgenstein:

[F]or [Stein], as for Wittgenstein, what mattered was how people actually put words and sentences together and how they understood one another. “We were sure,” we read halfway through Marry Nettie, “that steam was coming out of the water. It makes the noise.” A wonderfully droll pseudoexplanation that may be glossed by the following proposition from the Philosophical Investigations:

Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also he something boiling in the picture of the pot?

Like Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein took ordinary language so seriously that she would have appreciated the absurdity (and yet necessity) of the question about water boiling in the pictured pot.


Perloff further justifies her pairing of these writers with Wittgenstein, and her suggested network of implicit and/or explicit affinities, by emphasizing Wittgenstein's remark that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.” At this level of form, Perloff reveals how she reads Wittgenstein, and to what end:

My own interest is less in what the Tractatus ‘says’ about propositionality, tautology, etc., than in what it is, especially in its later sections, which break abruptly with the ‘clarity’ of its opening and turn to matters of ethics and religion in a series of gnomic utterances. …”


And again, “I am less interested in the central ‘argument’ of the Investigations—a topic on which philosophers have produced a huge library—than in what [Stanley] Cavell calls the ‘spiritual struggle’ dramatized in its pages …” (19). Perloff is interested in how Wittgenstein's philosophy approximates poetry and poetic form as “spiritual struggle” and “gnomic utterance,” and at one point she goes so far as to state that the “Tractatus must be understood as a poetic construct” (45). Therefore, the best way to read Wittgenstein is poetically, with particular attention devoted to how ideas are put together. As Perloff remarks, Wittgenstein's questions and methodology “merely open up new spaces, as ‘poetic’ as they are ‘philosophical’, in which to take a deep breath” (23).

Such a “poetic” approach stands in opposition to most contemporary literary theory that neglects works which defy definitive closure. As Perloff notes,

[l]ike Adorno, Lyotard cannot, in the end, accept the anticlosural bent of Wittgenstein's investigative mode, his refusal to press toward theoretical definition. A similar discomfort may well motivate such Anglo-American Marxist critics as Raymond Williams, David Harvey, and Frederic Jameson—critics who have largely ignored Wittgenstein's existence.


The relative absence of Wittgenstein (and poetry) from most mainstream theoretical debates must be understood within this economy of definition and containment: that which cannot be contained is relegated to the margins, or is effaced entirely. The perceived limitations of literary theory are addressed in more detail in Perloff's second chapter. “The ‘Synopsis of Trivialities’: The Art of the Philosophical Investigations,” which emphasizes the key differences between Wittgenstein and a range of contemporary theorists, including Frederic Jameson, Stanley Fish, and Jacques Derrida. Perloff concludes that “Wittgenstein gets around the problem that has beset deconstruction, the problem of denouncing a metaphysic of presence in a metalanguage in which presence is inevitably reinscribed. …” (71). In other words, Wittgenstein slips outside the binaries that limit and constrict these writers and their ideas. By doing so he eludes the logical double-bind that has plagued deconstruction and most postmodern literary theory that has followed in its wake. In essence, Wittgenstein demonstrates that poetic form (as art) doesn't adhere to the same rules as literary theory and, therefore, it allows for other possibilities, questions, and issues that are usually neglected by postmodern theory.

Perhaps more than any other topic, postmodern theory generally avoids the ideologically loaded issue of aesthetics—an issue that is absolutely vital both to Wittgenstein and Perloff, especially given the fact that the inexplicable relationship of thought, art, and aesthetics resides at the heart of Wittgenstein's (and Perloff's) philosophy. Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein's Ladder argues for the necessary recentering of aesthetics at the core of literary studies. But for Wittgenstein and Perloff aesthetics is more than a commentary upon what constitutes the “beautiful”; rather, aesthetics is an illuminatory mode of inquiry that notes similarities and differences by juxtaposing things in order to recognize certain features—or what Wittgenstein refers to in Philosophical Investigations as “family resemblances.” Aesthetics is, in other words, a way of approaching ideas and forms.

“Aesthetics,” remarked Wittgenstein in a Cambridge lecture of 1932, “is descriptive. What it does is to draw one's attention to certain features, to place things side by side so as to exhibit these features. … Our attention is drawn to a certain feature, and from that point forward we see that feature.” If this sounds insufficiently theorized, as it no doubt will to those of us conditioned to depend on the metalanguage of “theory” as explanatory model, we should bear in mind that our artists have perhaps been more acute, have understood, as [Joseph] Kosuth puts it in “The Play of the Unsayable,” that “philosophy, as a process to be shown, resists the reification of the direct philosophical assertion.”


Such an aesthetic methodology eschews the “explanatory model” and resists closure and totalization by rejecting “direct philosophical assertion.” Such a method indirectly implies the ethical. As Perloff states at the conclusion of the text,

Arranging what we have always known: here is the legacy Wittgenstein has given to artists and poets. Kosuth doesn't say it in so many words, but clearly one important lesson of his particular conceptualism is that “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”


Perloff doesn't explicitly address how “ethics and aesthetics are one,” but this doesn't entirely negate her claim. Perloff's emphasis upon openness and the resistance to totalization suggests a parallel with Emmanuel Levinas, who argues in Totality and Infinity that ethics is the inherent responsibility of the self to remain open to infinity and to the Other. For Levinas, to succumb to totality (totalitarianism) is to admit one's willingness to commit violence, neglect the Other, and act unethically; to resist closure and avoid “direct philosophical assertions” is to be within the circumference of the ethical by always allowing for infinite possibilities. Perloff makes a similar logical leap from openness to ethics.

Even though Perloff side-steps the theoretically complex issue of how aesthetics and ethics are to be re-integrated into the ideologically fractured field of literary studies, Wittgenstein's Ladder is a provocative and thoughtful book that offers an excellent overview of the range of Wittgenstein's philosophical ruminations and addresses many of the central issues of twentieth-century poetry. Yet one shouldn't look to Wittgenstein's Ladder for a “new” critical theory: given Perloff's tendency to skirt definition (which is in keeping with Perloff's over-arching argument), the text doesn't offer a “path” or a critical mode beyond the techniques of juxtaposition, family resemblances, and poetic pastiche. In effect, one might conclude that the supreme form of criticism strives towards the poetic—or is poetry. Given Perloff's obvious passion for these writers and for literature in general, Wittgenstein's Ladder offers significant insights into the current state of poetry, literature, and literary study. Perloff emphasizes the vitality of reading and thinking about poetry, and the absolute necessity of pushing against the boundaries that define and limit our worlds. In essence she follows Wittgenstein's lead in demonstrating why the ladder should be kicked away. As Wittgenstein writes:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

Linda Munk (review date June 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

SOURCE: A review of Wittgenstein's Ladder, in American Literature, Vol. 69, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 435–36.

[In the review below, Munk gives a positive assessment of Wittgenstein's Ladder.]

In Jacob's dream, the landscape shapes itself into a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. In the Elegies, Rilke's lovers, like acrobats, have ladders “just propped by each other” (nur aneinander/lehnenden Leitern). Wittgenstein's ladder “is as equivocal as its destination,” writes Marjorie Perloff, who cites the Tractatus: “‘My propositions are elucidory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)’” (xiv). Perloff is struck by the “dailyness” of Wittgenstein's ladder: it is not Dante's purgatorial staircase, nor is it Yeats's “ancient winding stair”; it is a “mere ladder.”

The “subject” of Perloff's book [Wittgenstein's Ladder] is “the strangeness of the language we actually use—Wittgenstein's own language and that of the poets and artists who have climbed through, on, and over the rungs of his ladder” (xv); “the pursuit of the ordinary may well be the most interesting game in town” (80). By way of a series of essays, we move through and over the language games of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Robert Creeley, and the Viennese writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard, among others who have experimented with the destruction of syntax, the absence of logical connections, and other forms of defamiliarization. The Philosophical Investigations are cited: “‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one's eyes.)’” (106). For Wittgenstein the everydayness (Alltaglickkeit) of things is a disguise.

Wittgenstein's Ladder is part of an ongoing American program founded by Emerson, who in the great essays urges us to embrace the common, the mean, the trivial, the low; in Concord, as in Amherst, the pursuit of the ordinary was the only game in town. Stanley Cavell has uncovered the relation between Wittgenstein's language methods and Emerson's “‘recognition of the power of ordinary words … to be redeemed, to redeem themselves’” (16). But in particular it is the strangeness of those words (their uncanniness, perhaps) that interests Perloff; and a connection should be made between her own position in the world (“as a refugee from Hitler” [xi]) and redemption through language. “Only one who is not fully at home in the world will talk as much as Wittgenstein does about ‘the language-game which is [one's] original home’” (76).

This book has the lucidity and the intelligence we have come to expect from Marjorie Perloff. Any “mere ladder” may slip: Beckett was not provided with “a radical new aesthetic” by Wittgenstein, not even “unconsciously,” as Perloff knows. As for the boring world of Marry Nettie, using the Tractatus as a “point of entry” to Stein is like using the cinders of a volcano to roast eggs (the figure is Emerson's). Wittgenstein's ladder recalls Dickinson's: “Doom is the House without the Door— / ‘Tis entered from the Sun— / And then the Ladder's thrown away, / Because Escape—is done” (Poem 475).

Rebecca Saunders (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Wittgenstein's Ladder, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 297–98.

[In the following review, Saunders praises Wittgenstein's Ladder, but notes occasional lapses of theoretical rigor in the work.]

If books could be cataloged by season, Wittgenstein's Ladder would be a summer: clear, temperate, disencumbered of hibernal rigors, undisturbed by stormy skies. The book explores what Marjorie Perloff terms a “Wittgensteinian poetics” both in works that bear a structural resemblance to Wittgenstein's thought and in texts that explicitly invoke him as an influence. On the one hand, the book offers a lucid introduction to the life and thought of Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as intriguing readings of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, and a series of less canonical writers. On the other hand, it skips over theoretical problems with a frustrating insouciance.

Marjorie Perloff takes her title from the final page of the Tractatus: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way,” writes Wittgenstein: “he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” With the boost of this metaphor, Perloff identifies a Wittgensteinian poetics that is characterized by its use of everyday language, its suspicion of generalizations and totalizing theories and its insistence that one cannot “climb the same ladder twice.” Perloff's first two chapters are dedicated to analyses of Wittgenstein's texts. She convincingly argues that the Tractatus is less a logical treatise than an avant-garde poetics of irresolution and a testimony to the inexpressibility of Wittgenstein's World War I experience. Her discussion of the Philosophical Investigations focuses on the famous concept of “language-games,” which she interprets as prefiguring “post-structural” rejections of an inherent or natural meaning in language.

Subsequently, Perloff argues for a Wittgensteinian poetics in Stein's experimental uses and abuses of ordinary language and in the “context disorder” of Beckett's Watt. In her most interesting chapter she interprets Beckett's resistance to language within the context of the French Resistance: Beckett's “day job” during the years he was writing Watt, was encoding, delivering, and decoding messages for the Resistance. Perloff also investigates experiments with Wittgenstein's thought by Austrian novelists Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard, by poets Robert Creeley, Ron Silliman, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Lyn Hejinian, and by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth.

While Wittgenstein's Ladder sidesteps theorizing the notion of “analogy” on which it largely relies and occasionally achieves accessibility at the price of precision, it is nonetheless filled with rich textual insights set in illuminating contextual surroundings.

Peter Middleton (review date April 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Wittgenstein's Ladder, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, April, 1998, pp. 186–87.

[In the following review, Middleton gives a favorable assessment of Wittgenstein's Ladder.]

For the past twenty five years, one influential movement in American poetry has been practising a linguistic acsesis which has stripped poetry of voice, metre, poetic diction, and theme, completing an earlier avant-garde mission to clear away all vestiges of specialized literary languages. Its usual targets are described as “the formalized first-person mode we call lyric poetry” (and its claim to be what Marjorie Perloff calls “the expression or externalisation of inner feeling,”) and naive realism, but Language Writing has arguably another more elusive target too. Perloff's highly readable new book [Wittgenstein's Ladder] identifies a current in modern writing which runs from Gertrude Stein to poets as diverse as Robert Creeley, Ron Silliman, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Lyn Hejinian, opposing the idea that poetry is a means of improving language by making it more precise, “as though a word, an accuracy were a pincer,” as Charles Olson puts it, “for taking hold of the smallest details of the world.” For many writers, this aspiration of linguistic fidelity misses both the pragmatic, communicative possibilities of language, and what the critic Daniel Cotton has called the distressing but “ultimately familiar condition of anomia” or semantic murkiness of the “avant-garde of our everyday chatter.” Perloff identifies the literary history of this belief that language is a condition to be investigated, by tracing affinities between the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the literary strategies of Stein, Samuel Beckett, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernard, and contemporary poetry. She shows that Wittgenstein's anti-systematic practice of reflexive attention to the ordinary use of language as a means of clarifying complex philosophical problems, which often makes its philosophical arguments by extended play with utterances and their imagined contexts, is a semantic resource in a diverse range of modern texts. Some writers like Beckett and Stein seem to have developed their own methods independently, while others like Bernhard or Waldrop self-consciously play and break the rules of Wittgenstein's language-games. Perloff can play these games too, and the book offers brilliant close readings of texts that at first sight seem enmeshed in banality, in order to show that they can be described as resolute investigations into the signifying implications of the small words that sustain the mesh of everyday life. The lines “If I wanted / to know myself, / I’d look at you,” from Robert Creeley's Away, are meaningful because of the contexts which they imply to an attentive reader.

Perloff ends her book with a review of an exhibition and resulting book by Joseph Kosuth, inspired by texts of Wittgenstein. In an accompanying essay, “The Play of the Unsayable: A Preface and Ten Romans on Art and Wittgenstein,” Kosuth claims that the discourses of contemporary art are limiting because of the “institutionalized paths meaning itself is permitted to take,” which prevent them recognizing many of the means used to generate significance in art works. A similar criticism can be made of contemporary literary criticism's encounters with recent innovative American writing. What is needed, as Kosuth points out, is the recognition that “the description of art—which art itself manifests—consists of a dynamic cluster of uses, shifting from work to work, of elements taken from the very fabric of culture—no different from those which construct reality day to day.” Perloff argues an analogous case for writing. Its reflexive use of everyday phrases makes possible quite subtle meditations on forms of thought and life.

If both Kosuth and Perloff sound as much pragmatist as Wittgensteinian, this is probably no accident, given the apparent revival of pragmatism in America today. The American philosopher, Hilary Putnam, has recently claimed that “Wittgenstein's reflections … parallel a certain strain in pragmatism.” Perloff's fascinating study points in the direction of more investigation of the interdependence of the ethics of poetically specialized language use, and to the lasting impact of pragmatism on American intellectual life, which has consistently given its enthusiastic imports a characteristically pragmatist turn.

Marcel Cornis-Pope (review date Winter 2000)

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SOURCE: A review of Poetry On and Off the Page, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter, 2000, p. 168.

[In the following review, Cornis-Pope analyzes Poetry On and Off the Page.]

Written for specific conferences, symposia, or edited volumes, the fourteen essays collected in Poetry On & Off the Page reexamine from the perspective of the nineties “how much our assumptions about [modernist and postmodernist poeticity] have changed.” As the opening essay, “Postmodernism/Fin de Siecle” suggests, our understanding of postmodernism has shifted from a utopian definition in the early 1970s that “involved a romantic faith in the open-endedness of literary and artistic discourse,” to a more negative-prescriptive definition in the 1980s that hardened art “into a set of norms … that leave very little room for the free play.” Postmodernism's “fabled openness and decenteredness” has been preempted by a theoretical criticism that tells us what postmodernism means as “unequivocally as Brooks and Warren once told us what the word ‘design’ means in a Robert Frost poem by that name.”

While Marjorie Perloff's observation is valid, it ignores the positive role that more recent theoretical criticism has played in refining the definition of postmodernism, moving from often naive, formalistic-playful descriptions to a more considered sociocultural understanding that emphasizes the subversive-liberatory role played by postmodern practices. This theoretical rethinking actually fits Perloff's own desire to foreground postmodernism's differential potential in relation to modernism and the cultural contexts of the postwar decades. Perloff's essays divided between “Histories and Issues” and “Cases” illustrate a similar brand of revisionistic theoretical analysis that disturbs “holistic [literary] paradigms” by focusing on “differences/diversities” within them.

“Tolerance and Taboo: Modernist Primitivism and Postmodernist Pieties” argues—against the complaint of cultural critics that Michel Leiris's primitivism is racist and sexist—that “primitivisms, like the modernisms to which they are related, can only be plural,” a function of the history and geography they represent. “Barbed-Wire Entanglements” finds unexpected resemblances between the 1930s protest literature and Zukofsky's experimental “objectivism,” both questioning the “pieties of an earlier, more innocent modernism, by means of powerful wit, complex parody, contradiction of formal and emotional registers, and especially the dissolution of the coherent ‘lyric voice’ as controlling presence in the poetic text.”

After chiding poststructuralist theory and cultural studies for diluting and rigidifying innovative art, Perloff concedes in “What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” that practical criticism has had even more of a marginalizing effect on postmodernism. Poetry criticism, she argues, often works from theorems that “are put before us as if they were simply a matter of common sense, even though critical theory of the past half century has dismantled, step by step” these notions. Missing from the typical poetry review today is a “sense of history and a sense of theory,” especially of the poetic theory that has emphasized a “constructivist rather than expressivist” approach to poetry. The conclusion of this essay is not entirely pessimistic: while poetry reviewing in the popular literary press remains “largely impressionistic, uninformed and philistine,” new forms of discoursing about poetry developed on the Internet have caught up with this century's body of poetic thinking, demonstrating that “radical poetics” is not an aberration but a living discourse.

Perloff's own subtle understanding of historical-comparative poetics is demonstrated everywhere in her book. One of her major interests is in metrical formation, free verse, and verse/prose relationships. “Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms” focuses on the interactions between poetry and prose, rehistoricizing the question of metrical choice by reexamining Goethe's “natural” metrics, Rimbaud's prose poetry, Williams's version of “free verse,” and Beckett's experimental prose poems. Arguing that there is nothing inherently “free” about “free verse,” “After Free Verse” foregrounds the growing emphasis on the “materiality of the signifier, [and] the coincidence between enunciation and the enounced” in contemporary experimental poetry. Her examples are the “postlinear” and “multi-mentional” poetry of Clark Coolidge, Steve McCaffery, Karen MacCormack, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Bruce Andrews, mentioned repeatedly in the section of “Cases.” Dissociating herself from those who bemoan the influence of the electronic media on traditional discourses, Perloff emphasizes in her essays on McCaffery's concrete poetry (“Inner Tension/In Attention”) and John Cage's “mesostics” (“The Music of Verbal Space”) the new possibilities offered by media crossovers.

Two other essays in the section of “Cases” focus on related arts (photography and experimental video) to problematize further issues of expression, representation, and referentiality. “What Really Happened” uses Christian Boltanski's photographic installations to revise Barthes's philosophy of authentication, calling into question the association of the photographic referent with the real thing. The last essay in the book, “The Morphology of the Amorphous,” focuses on Bill Viola's videoscapes to argue that the digital technologies have offered new possibilities to artists interested in transcending conventional boundaries and capturing the “other, the visionary—the missing piece in the puzzle, the fourth dimension that ‘normal’ television can never convey.” This engagement with the poetic and cultural other raises the issue of the political significance of the new experimental art. Perloff tends to deemphasize this sociocultural function or to conceive it outside traditional concepts of engagement. Thus, in reviewing the controversy between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan concerning the political commitment of the poet, “Poetry in Time of War” sides with Duncan, emphasizing the need to keep a tension between poetic and political discourse. Perloff's discomfort with explicit political agendas is obvious also in “How Russian Is It: Lyn Hejinian's Oxota” where she emphasizes subtle elements of poetic syntax and intertextual referencing but glosses over the more obvious political implications of the poem. This is one more example in a book rich in analytic demonstrations of Perloff's capacity to override traditional oppositions, presenting “an increasingly differentiated and complex space” for postmodern literary and critical practices.


Principal Works


Further Reading