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Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century

Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century

by Marjorie Perloff

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What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise


What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words and sentences, and sometimes entire texts. Marjorie Perloff here explores this intriguing development in contemporary poetry: the embrace of "unoriginal" writing. Paradoxically, she argues, such citational and often constraint-based poetry is more accessible and, in a sense, "personal" than was the hermetic poetry of the 1980s and 90s.

Perloff traces this poetics of "unoriginal genius" from its paradigmatic work, Benjamin’s encyclopedic Arcades Project, a book largely made up of citations. She discusses the processes of choice, framing, and reconfiguration in the work of Brazilian Concretism and Oulipo, both movements now understood as precursors of such hybrid citational texts as Charles Bernstein’s opera libretto Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s documentary lyric sequence The Midnight. Perloff also finds that the new syncretism extends to language: for example, to the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall writing in English and the Japanese Yoko Tawada, in German. Unoriginal Genius concludes with a discussion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptualist book Traffic—a seemingly "pure’" radio transcript of one holiday weekend’s worth of traffic reports. In these instances and many others, Perloff shows us "poetry by other means" of great ingenuity, wit, and complexity.

Editorial Reviews

Christian Bok
"Unoriginal Genius showcases, yet again, why Marjorie Perloff is the most respected expositor for the avant-garde in poetry. She demonstrates why lauded, modern poets (many of whom have questioned the values of both 'the original' and 'the creative') might prefer instead to 'cheat' on their assignments by handing in poems that steal words and remix lines, verbatim, from the databases of the déja dit. I recommend that every genius read this omnibus—then copy its poetics."—Christian Bök, author of Eunoia


“Perloff is savvy to the workings and influence of electronic or media-driven innovations. . . . She is equally astute in her analyses of modernist texts such as T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and poems by Stephen Crane, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats. . . . Highly recommended.”

National Post
“Perloff is an erudite and enthusiastic guide through some beautiful (and often beguiling) work.”
Peter Nicholls
Unoriginal Genius is primarily concerned with ‘what can be done with other people’s words’ and shows  how increasingly writers have used forms of citation and transcription to produce poetry ‘by other means’ in a culture dominated by modes of rapid communication and data transmission. Perloff’s writing is as dazzling and exciting as ever, challenging us to read these experimental texts with a perspicacity and pleasure that might approximate her own.”

Roland Greene
“One of our most original critics, Marjorie Perloff, turns her attention to something profoundly unoriginal: the contemporary poetics of citation, collation, and compilation. Will we look at originality the same way again? As she has done so often, Perloff makes central what might have seemed marginal, and argues a compelling case for poets, practices, and works that test the limits of unoriginality. Unoriginal Genius is a delight.”
Brian Reed
“In this book Marjorie Perloff launches the study of poetry into the era of streaming video, blogging, text messaging, Internet search engines, and social network sites. She recounts the many creative techniques—from elegant theft to multilingual multichannel noise—that authors have employed while exploring twenty-first-century technologies for storing, generating, and distributing the written and spoken word. She also provides a backstory for this exciting new phase in world literature that includes Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Brazilian concrete poetry. Unoriginal Genius is news that will stay news.”

Sandra Bermann
“A brilliant and timely commentary on contemporary poetics.  Joining a close reading of individual texts to wide-ranging interpretations of a variety of twentieth- and twenty-first century poets and movements, Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius charts the poetics of an age of digital, mobile, and endlessly quotable texts.  This book will intrigue all who want to know how contemporary poetry has morphed from previous ideals of ‘originality’ to the dialogical ‘re-make’ without losing its mysterious appeal—or its ‘genius.’”

Rub�n Gallo

“Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius takes the reader on a dazzling tour through Walter Benjamin’s Paris arcades, Kenny Goldsmith’s New York traffic broadcasts, Haroldo de Campos’ Concrete poetry, and Yoko Tawada’s Japanese-inflected German prose. This most original journey is full of surprises and highlights the centrality of quotation, transcription, and copying as some of the most innovative strategies in twentieth-century culture.”

Antonio Sergio Bessa
“For over a decade Marjorie Perloff has been carefully approaching the concrete poetry movement from different angles and in Unoriginal Genius she finally tackles its central role in the post-war literary scene. A keen strategist, Perloff's reading of concretism as playing a part in the arriere-garde is an instant classic.”

Haun Saussy
"Living up to its Clausewitzian subtitle, Unoriginal Genius makes sense of the sparring with the reader that has occupied poets since Baudelaire. It recounts the expansion of poetry's empire, carried by shifts in media and failures of belief in language. Here poetry is shown fully turning the corner from discourse to function."

Rubén Gallo
“Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius takes the reader on a dazzling tour through Walter Benjamin’s Paris arcades, Kenny Goldsmith’s New York traffic broadcasts, Haroldo de Campos’ Concrete poetry, and Yoko Tawada’s Japanese-inflected German prose. This most original journey is full of surprises and highlights the centrality of quotation, transcription, and copying as some of the most innovative strategies in twentieth-century culture.”

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Unoriginal Genius

Poetry by Other Means in the New Century
By Marjorie Perloff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-66061-5

Chapter One

Unoriginal Genius: An Introduction We are in the midst of a mighty recasting of literary forms, a melting down in which many of the opposites in which we have been used to think may lose their force. Walter Benjamin I love originality so much I keep copying it. Charles Bernstein


The publication in 1922 of The Waste Land—surely the most famous poem in English of the twentieth century—met with a largely negative reception, even on the part of admirers of T. S. Eliot's earlier poetry like Edgell Rickword, who reviewed The Waste Land for the Times Literary Supplement. A World War I poet, student of French poetry (he published one of the first critical studies in English of Rimbaud), and founding editor of the Calendar of Modern Letters (1925–27), which took a strong stand against the Edwardians in the name of Modernism, Rickword expressed admiration for Eliot's "sophistication" but could not condone The Waste Land's extensive use of citation:

[Mr. Eliot's] emotions hardly ever reach us without traversing a zig-zag of allusion. In the course of his four hundred lines he quotes from a score of authors and in three foreign languages, though his artistry has reached that point at which it knows the wisdom of sometimes concealing itself. There is in general in his work a disinclination to awake in us a direct emotional response.... He conducts a magic-lantern show; but being too reserved to expose in public the impressions stamped on his own soul by the journey through the Waste Land, he employs the slides made by others, indicating with a touch the difference between his reaction and theirs.

As for the vegetation myths that Eliot cites as his key source in the infamous notes, this "cultural or middle layer" of the poem "is of no poetic value in itself. We desire to touch the inspiration itself, and the apparatus of reserve is too strongly constructed." True, there are a few direct expressions of feeling, like the "concluding confession 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins,'" but on the whole, the poet's method is "reticence itself":

Here is a writer to whom originality is almost an inspiration borrowing the greater number of his best lines, creating hardly any himself. It seems to us as if "The Waste Land" exists in the greater part in the state of notes. This quotation is a particularly obvious instance:

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow Le Prince d'Acquitaine à la tour abolie

This collage of nursery rhyme, Dante's Purgatorio, the Pervigilum Veneris, and Gerard de Nerval prompts the following assessment:

Perhaps if the reader were sufficiently sophisticated he would find these echoes suggestive hints, as rich in significance as the sonorous amplifications of the romantic poets. None the less, we do not derive from this poem as a whole the satisfaction we ask from poetry. Numerous passages are finely written; there is an amusing monologue in the vernacular [the Lil passage in "The Game of Chess"] and the fifth part is nearly wholly admirable. The section beginning "What is that sound high in the air ..." has a nervous strength which perfectly suits the theme; but he declines to a mere notation, the result of an indolence of imagination. Mr. Eliot, always evasive in the grand manner, has reached a stage at which he can no longer refuse to recognize the limitations of his medium; he is sometimes walking very near the limits of coherency.

And Rickword concludes with the hope that the poet will soon "recover" from this "ambitious experiment."

This TLS review is an important document for anyone who wants to understand the poetry emerging in the twenty-first century. Rickword's basic charge is quite clear: citation, especially citation that draws on other languages, undermines and destroys the very essence of poetry, which is (or should be) the expression of personal emotion—emotion conveyed, of course, in the poet's own words, invented for this express purpose. The "zigzag of allusion" thus bodes ill; one's "magic-lantern show"—a term Rickword no doubt derived from Proust—should not consist of "slides made by others." A poem as a "set of notes," most of them "borrowed" from other texts: such "mere notation" can only be "the result of an indolence of the imagination."

It is one of the nice ironies of literary history that Eliot himself, having produced his "ambitious experiment," never used its citational mode again. Was he listening to his critics? The Waste Land was, after all, partly the product of Ezra Pound's extensive cuts: did Eliot come to think better of Pound's collagist method? Whatever the reason, his most important later poems, "Ash Wednesday" and the Four Quartets, are lyric meditations, oblique and dense in their communication of emotion but certainly reliant almost wholly on the poet's own words. "We do sometimes wish to hear the poet's full voice," says Rickword, and in Ash Wednesday and the Quartets we hear it, however carefully Eliot avoids the particulars of his actual life.

It is The Waste Land, however, that, almost a century after it was written, remains Eliot's most celebrated poem—the poem that has given most readers "the satisfaction we ask from poetry." The immediacy of the pub scene, for example, with its "borrowed" lines—

HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight—

where the refrain, a crossing of the barman's nightly last call with the warning of Isaiah ("A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation: I the Lord will hurry it in its time," 61:22), modulates into the routine words of the pub crawlers (which will in turn modulate into the "mad" Ophelia's "Goodnight sweet ladies"), has itself become an appropriated text, cited by many later writers for its suggestibility and ironic potential.

In his important study La seconde main ou le travail de la citation (The Second Hand or the Work of Citation), Antoine Compagnon writes:

Blessed citation! Among all the words in our vocabulary, it has the privilege of simultaneously representing two operations, one of removal, the other of graft, as well as the object of these operations—the object removed and the object grafted on, as if the word remained the same in these two different states. Is there known elsewhere, in whatever other field of human activity, a similar reconciliation, in one and the same word, of the incompatible fundamentals which are disjunction and conjunction, mutilation and wholeness, the less and the more, export and import, decoupage and collage? The dialectic of citation is all-powerful: one of the vigorous mechanisms of displacement, it is even stronger than surgery.

The "doubling" function of citation is characterized even more dramatically by Walter Benjamin, himself a great citational writer, in this instance talking about a fellow appropriationist, Karl Kraus:

In the quotation that both saves and punishes, language proves the matrix of justice. It summons the word by its name, wrenches it destructively from its context, but precisely calls it back to its origin. It appears, now with rhyme and reason, sonorously, congruously, in the structure of a new text. As rhyme, it gathers the similar into its aura; as name, it stands alone and expressionless. In citation the two realms—of origin and destruction—justify themselves before language. And conversely, only where they interpenetrate—in citation—is language consummated.

The language of citation—Compagnon appropriately calls it récriture—has found a new lease on life in our own information age. It is a commonplace that in the world of digital discourse, of the Internet, e-mail, cell phone, and Facebook, communication has been radically transformed both temporally and spatially. The speed whereby the sender's message reaches its destination has obviously created a new sense of simultaneity even as space has become increasingly indeterminate. Neither telephone area codes nor e-mail addresses tell us where caller and recipient are actually located at the moment of communication, nor do most e-mail addresses (e.g., AOL or Gmail) provide vital statistics about their possessors: they reveal neither nationality nor ethnicity, race nor religion, age nor even gender. And even when, as on Facebook, such information is given, how do we know it is accurate? Then, too, forwarded e-mails can be altered without the recipient's knowledge so that the sender's identity actually merges with that of the writer whose text is being forwarded. And poets' blogs, heavily dependent as most are on recycled material, are further framed by viewer responses, producing a curious amalgam of voices that begins to take on a life of its own.

Under these circumstances, communication is likely to shift from a specific geographic location (for example, the New York of Frank O'Hara) or one's particular local circle (e.g., the Beats) to those, wherever and whoever they are, who share a particular set of interests and allegiances. The word community thus takes on an entirely new meaning: the community now exists on particular websites or in the blogosphere—a situation whose far-reaching implications we have not even begun to understand.

Consider the following message sent to me on Facebook (June 6, 2009):

Dear MP, My name is Ina Serdarevic and I'm a poet, artist and student at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. I just finished reading Soliloquy by Kenny G (the whole thing, well, sort of ). I'm working on an article about Contemporary Literature and Conceptual Poetry in USA, and it hit me that Soliloquy is even funnier and more groundbreaking today than it was in the 90's when it was first published. Because of the new technology; I mean, yes there was internet back then but things—such as myspace, blogspot, twitter, flickr, youtube and most importantly FACEBOOK are casting a new kind of light on Goldsmith's book that reveal new layers of importance and new possibilities. Like for instance, look at this very message I'm sending you: you are one among many CHARACTERS in the book, I call you characters because Kenny G earlier described Soliloquy as POETRY, and a lot of these characters that I'm reading about in my book are directly available and accessible to me on Facebook. I type your name and Voilà!—a second later I've established contact. How many writers can actually take credit for building up a secret network between his readers and book characters?? I mean, this is truly amazing, and by taking advantage of the various search engines on the net, along with Facebook contacting, it's in fact possible to create a map of the world within Soliloquy. I can look up people and talk to them about their personal experience beyond the frame that Goldsmith is creating, I can disprove and invalidate certain situations in the book and get multiple angles on them by addressing the different characters. People like John Post Lee, Karin Bravin, Carter Kustera, Alix Pearlstein, Steve Clay, Charles Bernstein and yourself, are all presented in the book and connected to their own proper equivalents of flesh and blood, they are all to be found on Facebook by anyone who wishes to find them. This awareness gives an odd feeling while reading the book but is also creating a cool and interesting fuzz about it. It's almost like reading Finnegans Wake and having access to all its characters and a key to all the allusions and covert indications. With this message, I'm simply trying to establish contact with a prominent figure from the book.

What to make of this ingenious and engaging e-mail from a total stranger? Its address (MP) and reference to Kenneth Goldsmith by his disc jockey name (Kenny G) is nothing if not casual and certainly irreverent. And Serdarevic's recipients (of whom I am one) could easily take umbrage at the idea that an overseas student is using a poetic text along with Facebook as a way to make contact with the American artists or critics she wants to know. But her letter does argue persuasively that Soliloquy (1997) curiously anticipates our own moment. A conceptualist text that transcribes every word its author spoke during an entire week in New York City (while omitting all the words of those he spoke to), Soliloquy blurs the distinction between "real" people—people with Internet profiles and publications—and fictional characters. In doing so, it prompts the reader to investigate more fully to what extent Goldsmith's portraits, of himself as well as of others, are reliable, the poet's "actual" speech notwithstanding. On the one hand, Soliloquy has the air of a urban documentary; on the other, its submission to a rigid set of constraints—the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, as well as its governing rule that only the narrator is to be heard—gives the book an aura of hyperreality. Reading such a text, one must negotiate between inside and outside in ways that are still unfamiliar. As in the case of Finnegans Wake, each reading yields new connections. The mirrors, as Serdarevic understands, keep multiplying.

But how did this student happen to hear about Goldsmith's work in the first place? Copenhagen, like Stockholm or Helsinki or Olso—for that matter, like São Paulo, Brazil, and Wuhan, China—has become in recent years a center for avant-garde poetics, hosting festivals at which poets from the United States have joined others from around the world. Partly this shift in literary venues has been brought about by the changing relationship between majority and minority literatures. As recently as the 1980s, US anthologies had titles like In the American Tree, Ron Silliman's important compendium of Language poetry, which divided its contributors into two sections, West and East—eighteen West Coast poets (mostly from San Francisco) and twenty from the East (mostly from New York). In the American Tree excluded such leading Language poets as Steve McCaffery (Canadian) and Tom Raworth (British) and made no attempt to bring poets from other regions of the United States into the Language fold. Two decades later, the notion of a "new American poetry" restricted to those who dwell and work in the United States seems increasingly anachronistic. Where poets actually live is much less important than what they do, and mobility—whether of texts, now eminently movable, or of their authors—is the status quo. In the Scandinavian countries, where English is a strong second language and where Modernist avant-gardes have found a receptive audience, Internet sites now have a broadly global reach.

Consider the electronic journal of international contemporary poetry and poetics nypoesi (New Poetry), which is edited from Norway by Paal Bjelke Andersen. nypoesi regularly features poetry, both in the original and in translation, from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as from Scandinavia. It also publishes intriguing theoretical essays like Alexandr Skidan's "Poetry in the Age of Total Communication" (November 2007), translated from Russian into both Norwegian and English. In the same vein, the Brazilian journal Sibila, founded and edited by Régis Bonvicino in São Paulo, carried in issue 11 an exciting roundtable on "poésia em tempo de guerra e banalidade" (poetry in a time of war and banality), in which the Finnish poet-translator Leevi Lehto has an essay, also reproduced on the Sibila in English website, called, with a nod to T. S. Eliot, "Plurifying the Languages of the Trite," with its partly tongue-in-cheek "central claim ... for an absolute and global pluralism of forms, contents, and languages." When I was searching for Lehto's essay on Google, I got the prompt "Did you mean: 'Purifying the Languages of the Tort'?" Clarifying the language of torts: a poet like Lehto could have a marvelous time making connections between the trite and the tort, the relation of the pure to the plural.


Excerpted from Unoriginal Genius by Marjorie Perloff Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Marjorie Perloff is professor of English emerita at Stanford University and the author or editor of many books, including Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary and The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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