The argument of Marjorie Perloff’s new book holds in one sentence, admittedly a long one: “From the Eliot of The Waste Land, the Pound of the Cantos, or the Marcel Duchamp who reproduced his early ready-mades and notecards in The Green Box, to Charles Bernstein’s ‘writing-through’ Walter Benjamin in the opera-libretto Shadowtime, and the use of appropriated text, including archival material, documentary, informational manual, and, most recently, the discourse of the Internet from hypertext to blog to database, citationality, with its dialectic of removal and graft, disjunction and conjunction, its interpenetration of origin and destruction, is central to twenty-first century poetics” (17). But the statement is no substitute for the book, whose examples and connections instruct, surprise, and delight.  “Language as junk, language as detritus . . . everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition”—such are the bases of poetry in the new century, according to Kenneth Goldsmith (cited, 147), and that’s not a critique. Perloff examines constrained writing, concrete poetry, flarf, citation, montage, conceptual poetry, databases, scrapbooks—in short, the materiality of book culture, now recycled into something less than new and not quite strange. The dynamic of cut-and-paste flows over the line between print and digital, between word and image, between mother tongue and acquired language, between avant-garde and arrière-garde; it short-circuits oppositions that were essential to futurists, high modernists, middle modernists, and even some post-modernists. As in earlier books, Perloff sees the different modernisms in a spatially and linguistically large frame. She gives Russian and Brazilian poets and theorists their due; redraws lines of descent; discovers beauty in what for others is mere accident. The investigation is naturally comparative, for if the poet’s voice is not primordial, the mother tongue cannot be either, and so the writers discussed here find their way into multiple languages, translating both in and out, patching and matching terms, carrying out the Oulipian mission with foreign vocabula. Walter Benjamin, so well known as the theorist of “mechanical reproducibility,” takes a leading role, but not exactly as an author; rather as the “scrivener” of the Arcades Project. This vast manuscript database of quoted material, sorted into folders and loosely cross-referenced, abandoned at Benjamin’s death in 1940 and printed only in 1983, Perloff chooses to see not as the ruin of a life’s work but as the work itself, a work unrecognizable in its own time and only now eligible for our collective literary awareness. An arcade, in nineteenth-century Paris, was both a shopping zone and a shortcut. Perloff opens just such magic passageways in literary history, making it possible to get from Prufrock to Warhol in less than a single step. Benjamin, “the ultimate citational writer” (89), leads, across multiple ideological trenches, an improbable squad including Pound, Eliot, Duchamp, Haroldo de Campos, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Yoko Tawada, and Kenny Goldsmith. These form the posse for “unoriginal” writing, writing that does not seek to hide the fact that it copies and reshuffles other people’s previous writing. Perloff shows this not just through identification of similar devices, which would be a mere feat of typology, but by reading each work against the historical contingency of its application of devices to pre-existing verbal matter (see p. 48 for a precise formulation of this ethic). But there is something irreversible about the reading. What Perloff does with twentieth- and twenty-first century poetry has its model in what Susan Howe does with Dickinson and Yeats: reframing, reduplication, stenciling, permutation, parody, leaving behind a differently structured archive. The temptation is to condense her message even more radically, thus: “All current poetry is concrete poetry.” By other means? By all means. The measure of its success: this investigation of “unoriginal,” “uncreative” writing changes what we mean by those terms, and their contraries.


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