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Review: Marjorie Perloff Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century

Reviewed Work(s): Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century by
Perloff
Review by: John Wilkinson
Source: Modern Philology, Vol. 111, No. 1 (August 2013), pp. E131-E135
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/670317
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BOOK REVIEW

Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Marjorie


Perloff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. ixþ201.

Given the decline in status of the study of poetry within university English
departments in the past few decades, it is remarkable that one of the rare
literary critics whose books command attention beyond the discipline
writes about unpopular contemporary poetry. A new book by Marjorie Perl-
off occasions real anticipation, rapid response on internet and in print,
and animated coffee-room conversation. Such excitement is well-deserved,
given the extraordinary influence of her critical work over several decades
in shaping poets’ reading and hence the writing of poetry as well as its sur-
rounding critical discourse. She makes bold claims, is wonderfully widely
read and adventurously so in the major European languages, and gives
lucid accounts of notoriously difficult writing both poetical and theoretical.
Now professor emerita at Stanford, she continues to press forward with an
undiminished appetite for the new, the newly uncovered, and the contro-
versial. Perloff is a critic whose primary mode is advocacy, which goes some
way to explaining her wide appeal; few words are wasted on scholarly con-
troversy or on writers who fail to provoke her enthusiasm, and the best-
informed reader can expect to be led toward rewarding discoveries.
Some irony attaches to the category of ‘‘the new’’ in Marjorie Perloff’s
new book Unoriginal Genius, as its title might signal; indeed, it is a book that
centrally makes a paradoxical claim for the potential newness of the arrière-
garde and the importance of revisiting work whose fate seems to have been
sealed in avant-gardes passing away with little influence. Such work may not
have been absorbed into a putative mainstream owing to historical disloca-
tion, exemplified in Perloff’s account by the First World War’s effect on
European culture; it therefore stays lost in a blind alley as a curiosity or
interesting failure. Perloff explores how modernist work previously slighted

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E131

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E132 MODERN PHILOLOGY

can exercise a new saliency when resituated in contemporary aesthetic


debates. She recontextualizes canonical modernist works as anticipating
the unoriginal art of the present and advocates for new work that copies
existing materials or recycles them with slight variations. Much concerned
with the intersection of literary and visual arts and theory, the book is gener-
ously illustrated with examples of manuscripts, typography, and documen-
tary photographs, including color plates, and is beautifully designed. When
so many scholarly books arrive infested with misprints and constrained by
standard formats poorly serving the work, it is a pleasure to read a book pro-
duced with real care, and its unnamed designer and editor should be con-
gratulated.
An introductory survey of the themes of the book is followed by chapters
on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project; Brazilian concrete poetry; Charles
Bernstein’s Shadowtime libretto for an opera by Brian Ferneyhough on the
death of Walter Benjamin; Susan Howe’s The Midnight; some examples of
multilingual and exophonic poetry; and finally Kenneth Goldsmith’s work
of transcription, Traffic. Few critics could range so freely while sustaining
an elegantly integrated overall contention. The Arcades Project, a work
whose cultural authority has been established with astonishing speed since
its first publication in German in 1982, presides over Unoriginal Genius as
exemplary of the work of appropriation, citation, copying, and reproduc-
tion and as representing a movement in modernism contrary to writing of
‘‘strong individualistic cast’’ (11). From the start, therefore, the paradox of
the authoritative eschewal of authority in a work that was never authorized
by its not-author and not-originator hovers over Perloff’s book. Strangely,
Ezra Pound’s Cantos are cited as comparable to the Arcades Project in their
use of archival materials, and such a comparison raises questions about the
activities of copying and citation historically. How far can the meditative
and prayerful copying of a missal by a medieval monk be likened to Benja-
min’s handwritten transcriptions of material for a project never brought to
fruition, and how convincingly can Benjamin’s transcriptions be likened to
Pound’s tendentious arrangement of textual fragments to present political
and economic verities? What resemblance can be traced between Pound’s
adducing of evidence and Susan Howe’s meticulous attention to gaps,
dropouts, faults, and erasures? And how far can Goldsmith’s transcriptions
of radio materials be likened to the elaboration of a page in a scriptorium?
The physical activity of copying, the cultural assumptions informing the
practice and the attitude of the recipient reader beg for further historical
distinctions.
A notable feature of Unoriginal Genius is its partiality for an aesthetics of
the self-evident, displayed especially in the chapter on Brazilian concrete
poetry. Such self-evidence is akin to minimalist artwork insistent on its
indexical thereness, closing the rift of representation. In linguistic arts self-

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Book Review E133

evidence depends on the Cratylian argument or ‘‘iconic fallacy’’ that verbal


form equals content, familiar from Pound’s 1918 edition of Ernest Fenollo-
sa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Pound’s ideogram-
matic method is held by Perloff to anticipate the ‘‘concretism’’ of the late
historical Cantos, where materials are deployed on the page in a multilin-
gual concatenation promising a flash of illumination, aiming to abolish
the compromises of semantic mediation. This argument implies a consis-
tency between the most arid stretches of the Cantos and their intense lyric
flashes, the ‘‘barbs of time.’’ Perloff is attracted by the indexical ambition,
not only in Pound but in the Brazilian concrete poetry she discusses and
most remarkably in an account of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar-
den of Verses. ‘‘Neglected for decades as naı̈ve, simple, and singsongy, erased
from all university anthologies (Norton, Oxford), this popular collection
of children’s poetry is surely due for reassessment’’ she declares (110), giv-
ing a close if brief reading of a sample poem, before continuing with a
detailed account of the family importance of a Stevenson poem for Susan
Howe. Here is an interesting knot of contradictions. A Child’s Garden of
Verses has been important for the concrete poet Thomas A. Clark exactly
because it is regarded as a collection of poems approaching self-evidence,
flowers in a garden that permit no interpretation. At the same time Perloff,
who is a superb close reader, cannot resist interpreting her example, com-
plete with metrical analysis that in concluding ‘‘the rhyme cup/up says it
all’’ (110) would make the analysis redundant: the visible rhyme delivers in
a flash. And then she proceeds to illustrate the place of a Stevenson poem
in the intricate pleats of Howe’s book of family memories, all in the interest
of a poetic theory countering work of ‘‘strong individualistic cast.’’
Indeed, Unoriginal Genius is a book driven by contradictions and coun-
terintuitive conjunctions, and this makes it compelling in a way that the
work it seems to want to be could not begin to equal. Who but Perloff could
possibly bring together Pound, the concrete poet Augusto de Campos, and
Robert Louis Stevenson? The contradiction between Perloff’s desire to
assert that ‘‘the Cratylian argument . . . is not a ‘fallacy’ . . . for the whole
point is that poetry is that discourse in which astre and desastre [sic] belong
together’’ (72) and her love of close reading leads at its least persuasive to
some strained accounts of concrete poetry (‘‘Then, too, ‘SOS’ contains a
pun on eso es (that is): that, so to speak, is the human condition’’ [74]) but
also to a final chapter bringing this contradiction to an unexpected and vir-
tuoso bouleversement. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic (Los Angeles: Make
Now, 2007) is a much-written-about transcription of twenty-four hours of
traffic reports on a New York City radio station. Discussion of this book has
taken for granted its status as a conceptualist artwork, that is to say, as a
work that rather than being indexical is but an instantiation of an idea.
This is an important distinction, although often difficult to call for a speci-

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E134 MODERN PHILOLOGY

fic artwork, and Goldsmith insists upon it in his statements and interviews,
asserting in a web posting that Perloff quotes at length (and itself adapted
from the conceptualist artist Sol LeWitt through substituting ‘‘writing’’ for
‘‘Art’’): ‘‘Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the
idea is much more interesting than the resultant texts’’ (147). In a more
calculatedly reckless mood Goldsmith is apt to dismiss his books as thor-
oughly boring to read. Marjorie Perloff will not allow herself to be bored,
and she takes such assertions as a challenge.
Perloff could not be satisfied with contemplating the single idea of a 115-
page book transcribing traffic reports, and therefore she has to find some-
thing more interesting to do with it. First, she situates Traffic against the
dystopian vision of traffic developed in J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1972)
and the ideologically saturated traffic of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend
(1967) with its ‘‘terrifying image of traffic as an embodiment of the evils of
consumerism in a heartless society’’ (155). At the same time, she separates
Traffic from Marinetti’s celebration of the machine and brings it closer to
John Cage’s Zen aesthetic of boredom—not a bad prescription for surviv-
ing New York City traffic psychologically. Most remarkably, she reads the
book diligently despite Goldsmith’s discouragement and discovers that it
cannot be what he claims, but is rather an assemblage that purports to be a
faithful copy. This allows Perloff to launch into a very literary intertextual-
ity, where a broadcast reporting on traffic flow across the city’s bridges that
includes the all-clear ‘‘Looking down to the Williamsburg, Manhattan and
Brooklyn Bridges, it’s one big green light,’’ prompts a reading alongside
the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby (159).
The tension between contemplating the indexical and reading the tex-
tual can be regarded as constitutive of Perloff’s writing, and indeed it goes
to the heart of competing versions of modernism. In her chapter on con-
crete poetry, Perloff slides from indexicality to pseudo-etymology through
her previously cited contention that ‘‘poetry is that discourse in which astre
and desastre belong together’’ (72). But whereas the Cratylian argument
leads to formal self-evidence, the etymological engine (pseudo or not) that
generates constellations of verse describes a characteristic of poetic diction
reaching back to German Romantic poetics and demands precisely a prac-
tice of close reading. When a concrete poet coupled astre and desastre (or
star and steer in a celebrated screenprint by Ian Hamilton Finlay) he may
well have sought to collapse pseudo-etymology into self-evidence, but what
is evoked is a lyric tradition that remains powerfully at work in the Cantos
and in a different late modernist tradition from the one traced in Perloff’s
book. Such etymologically and philologically driven poetry requires think-
ing through a work during the act of reading, rather than thinking around
it contemplatively. Marjorie Perloff cannot eschew the ardors of close read-
ing, to the good fortune of her readers. Sometime she seems to wish to

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Book Review E135

write about design but instead responds to art precisely and enthusiasti-
cally—even finding art in what is advertised as design.
A reader familiar with Perloff’s criticism will know that she is a scholar
entirely conversant with the Romantic tradition and its Modernist recen-
sions: in other words, Unoriginal Genius is evidence of a project, not of a
position, and Perloff is a writer attractively ready to quarrel with her previ-
ously published assertions and to look from a new angle. A short review
cannot hope to describe the resources of this book, and risks imbalance
toward asking questions rather than celebrating achievement. Still, it is hard
to resist pointing to the famed authors of texts aiming for self-evidence. It is
striking that Walter Benjamin and Susan Howe are writers invested with a
cultlike glamour, albeit through no intention of theirs, while no one would
think of Charles Bernstein or Kenneth Goldsmith (or indeed Ezra Pound)
as self-effacing. John Cage, the patron saint of self-effacement, controlled
his works’ performance with an iron hand and the supposed indeterminacy
of many of his works must be set against his iconicity both as the brand
‘‘Cage’’ and as the original photographed and filmed unoriginal genius. It
is a virtue of Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius that it leaves nothing set-
tled. Rather, it provokes new questions that help to unsettle modernism
and its artistic aftermath, and itself performs an important arrière-garde rea-
nimation of neglected or taken-for-granted avant-gardes.
John Wilkinson
University of Chicago

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