Must poets write?

Stephen Burt

  • Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century by Marjorie Perloff
    Chicago, 232 pp, £11.50, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 66061 5
  • BuyUncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age by Kenneth Goldsmith
    Columbia, 272 pp, £15.95, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 231 14991 4
  • Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith
    Northwestern, 593 pp, £40.50, December 2010, ISBN 978 0 8101 2711 1
  • Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, The Joy of Cooking: [Airport Novel Musical Poem Painting Film Photo Hallucination Landscape] by Tan Lin
    Wesleyan, 224 pp, £20.50, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 8195 6929 5

Traffic right now on the Connecticut Turnpike is doing quite well. The southbound side does see construction through Stamford. Watch for lanes being closed between exits 9 and 7. It’s blocking at least one lane ’til six a.m. Once you make it down to the city line you’re OK here. The Westchester County portion of the New England Thruway right on down through the Bronx on through the, uh, Bruckner Expressway are looking good right to the Triboro Bridge.

For listeners to 1010 WINS, a New York City radio station, this is a traffic report. But for the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, such sentences are the makings of a book: Goldsmith – who calls his practice ‘uncreative writing’ – transcribed, or says he transcribed, a full day of reports, which he then published as Traffic, which was the middle part of a trilogy with Sports (a transcription of the radio broadcast of a baseball game) and the self-explanatory The Weather. Traffic, and texts like it, represent a new frontier in poetic art. The most influential claims for the work of Goldsmith and his allies have come from Marjorie Perloff, a former president of the Modern Language Association and professor of English at Stanford. Perloff has trained at least two generations of scholars and written many books on writers and artists – tracing a line from Rimbaud through Futurism to Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, Frank O’Hara, John Cage and beyond – who have advanced what she sees as modernist goals: above all, the up-to-date, sceptical investigation of the materials and ideas from which a work of art gets made.

Though much of Perloff’s writing concerns the great dead, she became known in the 1980s as a champion of the language poets: Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Steve McCaffery, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Bruce Andrews and perhaps a dozen others, who first published during the 1970s in a brace of little magazines, one of which bore the all too catchy name L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Often – too often – seen as a uniform group, language writers soon became the subject of philippics and dissertations. What held their work together (besides personal acquaintance) was its apparent opacity, its resistance to the usual ways in which we make sense of poems. In Unoriginal Genius, her latest book, Perloff explains that language writers wanted to oppose ‘individual voicing and accessible syntax’ but that they still ‘accepted their predecessors’ trust in invention’. Now, she claims, ‘inventio is giving way to appropriation, elaborate constraint, visual and sound composition, and reliance on intertextuality.’ These are the virtues she recommends.

Appropriation involves the extensive or (as in Goldsmith) exclusive use of existing texts. Constraint depends on mathematical or rule-bound procedures, as practised by the Oulipo. (US and Canadian writers seem to be on an Oulipo kick: Google ‘noulipo’, i.e. new Oulipo, for proof.) These methods let writers treat words and letters not as means to expression but as things to be rearranged. They lead, Perloff argues, to ‘the elimination of ego’. Concrete poetry, too, treats words and letters as things. Haroldo de Campos, a Brazilian concrete poet, called such art ‘verbivocovisual’ because ‘the materiality of the poem … and its visual appearance’ can’t be separated from what it means. (You could say the same about The Very Hungry Caterpillar, if it weren’t for the word ‘poem’.) Unoriginal Genius also recommends ‘exophony’ (work outside the writer’s native tongue) and ‘polyglottism’ (work in more than one language), mentioning the German Japanese writer Yoko Tawada and the French Norwegian (based in London) Caroline Bergvall alongside that earlier, more self-confident polyglottist, Ezra Pound.

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[*] T.J. Clark wrote about the Arcades Project in the LRB of 22 June 2000.