Tuesday, February 19, 2008

“A mandala-like criss-crossing wheel of two hundred and sixty-eight microgenealogies”

Sam Lohmann and Chris Piuma are both on top of the Hejinian/Perloff/Retallack event in Portland, a big-tent affair that brought the poetry tribes together in a town I thought too small for tribes. Notebooks are blooming from laps this spring: I hope there’s more surround-sound blogging to come.

Lewis & Clark titled the conference “What's the Use of Poetry?,” a question all the contestants avoided, or answered implicitly in what they did. Perloff zoomed through the intro to her forthcoming book, Unoriginal Genius, which offers a genealogy for an emerging 21st century poetics—conceptual, polyglot, world wide webbed, and rhymes with Kenny Goldsmith—that’s departed from the narrower concerns and “period style” of 1981’s In the American Tree. (It’s a safe bet that Perloff’s the first person to ever project a P. Inman poem on a Lewis & Clark overhead.)

Perloff finds the roots of the most exciting U.S. poetry today in Brazilian concretism, Oulipo, “plurilingual” poetries from ZAUM through Pound to Caroline Bergvall, and, oddly, in Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, which anticipates global shopping malls and the hyperlink. I share a lot of Chris’s doubts about Perloff’s horserace approach to poetry (“I like to pick winners,” she declared in the Q&A), but I also think she’s a good ambassador to the non-specialized, or “avant-curious,” who are used to thinking in that way, and want bullets for a syllabus. (I’m the same with new topics—I look for the illustrated timeline, and the Top Ten, then sort of let that melt away as I get to know the subject more.)

I’m doubtful we’ve moved on as far from In the American Tree as Perloff suggests. Anglophone poetry still seems surprisingly monoglot to me; the ethnic mix in many experimental poetry communities isn’t often a whole lot better than it was in 1981; the Web does as much to balkanize as globalize, and anyway experimental poets as a bunch tend to be more critical of the “global village” narrative than Perloff gives them credit for. But the bigger problem I think is that the logic of genealogies demands an endpoint, and Perloff’s efforts to build one for our particular nanosecond works to close down all these other horizontal alchemies that are going on all the time at any one time, between groups and scenes and genres and schools and political events and institutions and popular arts, Kasey’s “mandala-like criss-crossing wheel of two hundred and sixty-eight microgenealogies” that criticism as it’s currently practiced tends to scrape away in order to fit the poetry into the history. Is there a form of criticism since, what, Hugh Kenner, that’s changed to match the experiments in poetic form it sets out to describe?

(That last question's kind of rhetorical; tomorrow's answer is "Joan Retallack.")


François Luong said...

Johannes Göransson raised some similar points on the insularity and monoglossia of much American poetry on his blog.

rodney k said...

Hi François,

Thanks for pointing me to Johannes’s post. It also prompted me to finally get around to adding his blog to the links list.

It strikes me that the “one world” optimism that drove 19th-century liberalism—that free trade and rapid movements of goods would bring us all closer together—was too rosy, though the dream lives on (esp. in technophilia). Modernity offers several strategies for living cheek-by-jowl with others without picking up anything from them at all. Genocide and the Internet tend to hang out in the same episteme.

I’m skeptical that just reading more poetry from other languages, or even learning more, is the answer, though it’s probably a help. Does that sound too gloomy?

Chris said...

I was defending Perloff along those lines -- as ambassador to outsiders, as someone who might be shoring up our map of the obvious, rather than scouting new territory -- before she gave her lectures.

Now that some time has past, I am sometimes able to think of her in that role again. Certainly when I was young I read one or two of her books and they pointed me towards people who I could get more use from.

Still, if she's a pop critic, I'm not sure she should have been elevated to president of the MLA; and the agenda and politics (and, eep, the ego) I find behind her sense of her role as critic are... well, if that helps a few people who are starting on a journey to a better way of thinking about the world, then she can't be all bad, I guess, but... ugh.

Yay Retallack. I'm slowly reading through The Poethical Wager, at long last, and it does a body good.

konrad said...

For days before this post, perhaps in anticipation of it, i've been trying to remember where i read, on what blog, someone write, "my first language is translation." I think getting one's head around that absurdism is actually a way to lean, not so much toward heteroglossia, but into situated language use. Study pidgins and creoles, instead of genealogies.

You're right: genealogies and taxonomies preceed the syllabus and then canon. They gloss phenomena, horizontality (as you say). Artists are made the leaves of an imagined family tree, created to reinforce strategic theoretic allegiances like European royal marriages.

Funny no one addressed "What is the use of Poetry?" head on. Poetry itself might be the practical study of how language can be useful.

Or would that be "Poeology?"