Wednesday, July 14, 2010

21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics

Perloff, Marjorie. 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002.

Perloff's study of Modernism and its relation to contemporary poetry is, to her mind, a “manifesto” that focuses on “four early modernists whose specific inventions have changed the course of poetry as we know it: Eliot, Stein, Duchamp, and Khlebnikov” (5). More precisely, Perloff attempts to map a lineage between these select, few poet-artists and today's “powerful avant-garde” (4-5) who produce, think through, and write in a “materialist poetic” (3). Such a poetic's “key,” in that language is not so much a “conduit for thoughts and feelings,” but instead a “site of meaning-make” (9); in other words, constructivist poetry employs language for epistemological ends, as opposed to expressive or communicative ends. The first essay in the collection examines early-Eliot, particularly “Prufrock” and the manner in which the poem's “sound structure, far from being some sort of container for the matter to be conveyed, actually produces that matter” (19), the poet's implementation of Flaubert's mot juste, or “the one word for the one thing, the one thought, amid a multitude of words [and] terms, that might just do” (22), syntax that blurs connections and inhibits the formation of “clear, neat, [and] larger units” (25), as well as an “urbanism” that exhibits “an awareness of proletarian life” (26). In the second section, titled “Gertrude Stein's Differential Syntax,” Perloff explores the concept that a writer “begins, not with an idea to represent in words, words that are then arranged in sentences, but with...sentences themselves” (55). To this extent, the written word, fundamentally, is not representative, but instead a system of inscriptions and corresponding sounds (that are arbitrarily assigned) wherein the relationships between primary, secondary, tertiary elements, etc. are of the most import and what those elements signify or represent are aftereffects. Furthermore, Stein “foregrounds the constructedness of the poetic text” (62) through excessive repetition in which a word or sentence is “repeated with slight variation, each instance making us revise our sense of the one preceding it so that gradually meaning accrues” (57), likewise with her “use of sound play and pun...ellipsis and asyntacticality” (74). Following her investigation of Stein, Perloff studies Duchmap his altering of how one engages art-objects. More precisely, how “art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was said” (83). In other words, artists and consumers of art shifted their attention from technique to the concepts underlying art-objects, or moving from the “retinal” to the “mind” (84). Additionally, many of Duchmap's creations contain a “verbal dimension” so as to produce “proto-language poems” (90), wherein images, via the ideogram, are meant to be read; conversely, words “do not prompt oral recitation,” but instead become inscriptions which are to be viewed (97). Additionally, Duchamp regularly wrote texts predicated upon “rule[s] and grammatical relationship[s]” (93), foretelling the constraint poetry of later artists such as John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. The last modernist that Perloff examines is the Russian poet, Velimir Khlebnikov. The poet's work focuses on “how phonemic and morphemic play can produce a poetic language beyond mind or reason” (123) through an “elaborate” etymological play (125) that necessarily fosters“distinct consonantal sounds...[that] constitute a metonymic network of intricately related signifiers” (126). Other techniques Khlebnikov employs that will, eventually, be co-opted by the contemporary avant-garde are an “emphasis on the graphic...characteristics of language” (127), the development of “algorithmical equations” (130) to manipulate language, as well as “neologism, paranomasia, and glossolalia” (126). 21st-Century Modernism's final essay situates Language poetry as the inheritor of constructivist poetics formed through a nexus of early-Eliot, Stein, Duchamp, and Khlebnikov. While not an all-inclusive study of the movement, Perloff chooses four prominent representatives (i.e. Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery) as examples of how the modernist poetics manifest themselves nearly one-hundred years later, outlining both the similarities and differences within this new temporal and cultural context.

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