Must poets write?

Stephanie 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
  • Uncreative 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.

Perloff finds a precursor for all this in Walter Benjamin, who during the 1930s collected thousands of quotations (mostly in French) about Paris, its glass and iron shopping arcades, its street fights, its shopgirls, its effects on Baudelaire and Marx. Adding comments (in German), Benjamin sorted the results into folders, or ‘convolutes’, leaving the whole Arcades Project mysterious, unfinished and enormous at his death. The English translation, not published until 1999, exceeds a thousand pages; for Perloff it is ‘best understood as an ur-hypertext’, whose array of incomplete cross-references ‘looks like web-page design’.[*] Goldsmith too holds Benjamin up as a model, writing that ‘it’s what he selects to copy’ that makes the Arcades Project successful. Charles Bernstein’s libretto Shadowtime, which pays homage to Benjamin, is discussed at length by Perloff. It relies on a series of numerical patterns, it takes in source texts (including Benjamin’s) and it should be looked at, as well as sung: one page, a matrix of three-letter words (‘can dew and die can and die can tie his sin tap and’), is a translation of a concrete poem by Ernst Jandl. But if you read Bernstein’s libretto you will find a text more transparent, and much sadder, than the one Perloff describes. With Benjamin stuck at the Spanish border, near death, a chorus of angels sings a quasi-blues: ‘Knew a man once/Had no tongue/Walked in fog/Till the fog was gone.’

Another book Perloff celebrates, Susan Howe’s The Midnight, also gives clearer and sadder rewards than Perloff’s praise implies. Made of prose, verse and interpolated photographs, The Midnight remembers Howe’s mother, an actress who moved in the same Dublin circles as Yeats before emigrating to Massachusetts. Perloff focuses (as Howe’s earlier works insist we should) on representations of representation: a trompe l’oeil photo of a ripped frontispiece over a page of Yeats joins other ‘diverse and contradictory clues’ to create a ‘double portrait of mother and daughter’. What Unoriginal Genius doesn’t tell you is how fragile, and how fierce, that portrait seems; when Howe mère read Yeats’s poetry to Howe fille, ‘waves of sound connected us by associational syllabic magic to an original but imaginary place.’ Such books, Perloff writes, show how ‘in our own information age the lyric self is increasingly created by a complex process of negotiation between private feeling and public evidence.’ The problem here is the word ‘increasingly’: wasn’t Yeats’s ‘lyric self’ created the same way?

Perloff wants to argue that the poets she discusses are doing something wholly new – for literature, at least. ‘Appropriation, citation, copying, reproduction – these have been central to the visual arts for decades,’ she says, from Duchamp to Cindy Sherman. ‘In the poetry world, however, the demand for original expression dies hard: we expect our poets to produce words, phrases, images and ironic locutions that we have never heard before.’ And yet the dialectic between new terms and old, translated or incorporated texts and new creations, is far from being uniquely modernist: medieval and Renaissance writers pretended to be translating when they were inventing (‘mine auctor’, Chaucer says) and vice versa; they mixed languages (Skelton’s half-English, half-Latin); they adopted, as Spenser did, elaborate mathematical patterns and visual and typographical forms. In our own day, you can find tricky quotation, numerical patterns, foreign languages and ‘verbivocovisual’ effects in Paul Muldoon, or in John Hollander, the Yale-based poet and critic who stands about as far as any serious writer in America from neo-modernist or avant-garde programmes. Hollander’s Powers of Thirteen (1983) consists of 169 sonnet-like units with 13 lines of 13 syllables each, and titles (or ‘titles’) printed below each one. The first unit concludes: ‘I do what I am told, and tell what is done to me,/Making but one promise safely hedged in the Poet’s/Paradox: I shall say “what was never said before.”

What distinguishes Perloff’s neo-modernists, as a class, from Yeats or Hollander or Muldoon may have less to do with what her writers put in than with what they appear to leave out: story, persona, scene. Her programme favours what Bernstein calls ‘anti-absorption’: this work will not let you get lost in it, will not let you even pretend that you can see through the words on the page. With Spenser or Powers of Thirteen (or Eric Carle’s caterpillar), meta-critical hypotheses – ideas about how the work sees its own frame or redefines its genre – are optional: you can just read the content, or the story. With Cage, say, we have to pay attention to the ideas if we are to say anything much at all about the work. Sometimes, as Goldsmith says, we might as well ‘throw the book away and carry on with a discussion, a move uncreative writing applauds’.

Perloff insists we read the text. Her impressive analysis of Traffic demonstrates, by the direction of cars and the times of day, that Goldsmith’s transcript can’t match any actual date, and can’t therefore be read as describing a particular scene: reports must have been ‘taken from different calendar dates and spliced’. She then produces a perversely traditional reading: the ‘green light’ that evokes freely flowing traffic on the last page suggests the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby – but with cars rather than boats borne back into the past. Goldsmith himself claims his books are ‘impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly.’ He may or may not be pulling our leg.

Such writing – so transparent (‘Watch for lanes being closed between exits 9 and 7’) that, when presented as art, it becomes opaque – separates itself not only from more traditional poetry, and from other sorts of difficulty in poems, but from parts of popular culture (The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Danger Mouse, the copycat fashions of H&M) that also use appropriation, copying, mixed media and multiple languages. Perloff’s readings maintain a distinction between art and non-art, but not all the writers she champions wish to defend that line. Against Expression, an anthology edited by Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, is more playful and various. All the works in it fit Perloff’s new criteria: Goldsmith writes in his preface that they ‘allow arbitrary rules to determine’ content and ‘replace making with choosing, fabrication with arrangement’. Goldsmith once edited a book of interviews with Andy Warhol, who shows up; so do Duchamp and Cage. There are many entertaining snippets from books that seem impossible to read to the end. ‘The helpless spectacular he get decided for the hair was into the amateur, so he seemed for had looked occurred for a public of Leonard glory distinction’: that’s Michael Klauke’s rearrangement of words from an English translation of Balzac’s Sarrasine. The Bible (alphabetised) by Rory Macbeth is either a concrete poem or an exercise in self-hypnosis. One page (of the eight printed here) begins with nine rows (135 repetitions) of ‘bare’; six pages repeat the word ‘be’.

Walter Abish gets in with Skin Deep, a kind of commonplace book with the quotations left unattributed, much like David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger, though Shields is not here; Ander Monson, David Markson, Ben Friedlander and other recent authors of detourned or bricolaged ‘new essays’ aren’t included either – too popular, perhaps, or too expressive. Samuel Beckett’s set piece from Molloy about how to suck stones is included and described as ‘a testament to how hard it is to actually rid language of metaphor and emotion’. The emotions evoked by Gregory Betts’s anagram-based ‘If Language’ include exhilaration and amusement: ‘A magical, illogical lump of a cartoon authorises artificiality. He laughs at comic falls, gaming up to logic with implicit affirmation.’ Ara Shirinyan’s ‘Your Country Is Great’, made of search results for ‘[name of country] is great,’ has the sour emotion of Swiftian satire: ‘need for food in Afghanistan/is great.’ Several writers repurpose psychology manuals. ‘I am afraid of using a knife or anything very sharp or pointed. My feelings are not easily hurt. I have not lived the right kind of life. Dirt frightens or disgusts me.’ This is Dworkin’s ‘Legion’, constructed from ‘the true-false questions of the 1942 Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory’.

These experiments often try to evacuate subjectivity from literature, to remove or undermine ‘expression’, feeling, voice. But the ‘I’ (if not the ‘lyric I’) comes back when you try to expel it, because the attribution of emotion and personality to a created text is part of what we mean when we call something literature, when we try to make sense of it in those terms. ‘The suppression of self-expression is impossible,’ Goldsmith admits, since ‘even … retyping a few pages’ can represent and generate emotion. Curiosity is an emotion: so are boredom and frustration, and the desire to invent something so new that no category can hold it; so are the desires to confuse, puzzle or delight. If we can’t find personality or emotion, character or plot anywhere within a text we tend to turn to the implied creator, the artist who stands behind it, and we do so more insistently (the last fifty years suggest) if we find only the ‘uncreative’ within the work. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are (among other things) symptoms and representations of the power accrued by the proper noun ‘Andy Warhol’.

Goldsmith’s books seem to seek that sort of celebrity: they aren’t just representations but demonstrations of the way Goldsmith authorises, or publicises, his work. Goldsmith – who also curates the vast and wonderful online archive of text, sound and film at and the Penn Sound project at – anthologises himself in Against Expression with ‘Day’, a retyping of one issue of the New York Times, and ‘Soliloquy’, which claims to present ‘every word Kenneth Goldsmith spoke during a week in April 1996’, including: ‘It’s her, Marjorie Perloff and, uh, I’m meeting her actually at the MoMA Members Dining Room for lunch today. And she’s deeply powerful and I’m going to get her, I hope, to write a blurb for the back of my book and promote it.’ Elimination of ego, my foot.

Though his anthology goes as far back as Mallarmé, Goldsmith presents conceptual writing as a necessary response to new media: ‘Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redefine itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.’ Photography threatened realist painting because it appeared to duplicate realism: can the web threaten ‘writing’ by doing what ‘writing’ did, but better? The internet certainly permits new ways to deploy language, but in its relation to conventionally written texts, the web differs only in degree from printing, which also released ‘an unprecedented amount’ of writing for transmission, quotation, exchange. But though Perloff reminds other academics to teach older forms of writing, she has always reserved her greatest energies for work that defies or exceeds all existing genres: all genres, that is, except for that modernist showpiece, the multimedia, inter-genre thing. She concluded an earlier book by quoting the video artist Bill Viola: ‘At the end of the 20th century … “the artist is not necessarily someone who draws well, but someone who thinks well.”’ Must poets write well, or even write at all? Craig Dworkin describes conceptual writing as ‘a theoretically based art that is independent of genre, so that a particular poem might have more in common with a particular musical score, or film, or sculpture, than with another lyric.’

Other poets and critics with avant-garde pedigrees explore the territory of conceptual poetry on a smaller scale, with nimbler instruments. Tan Lin is included in Goldsmith and Dworkin’s anthology, but his best work isn’t: Seven Controlled Vocabularies is a manifesto for present-day quasi-semi-avant-garde verbal art that is playful or sarcastic where Perloff is serious; generalised and fragmentary where she is specific and clear. Much more subtly than Goldsmith, though with less public effect, Lin makes an art out of statements and gestures that we may think he cannot possibly believe. ‘Poetry = wallpaper,’ Lin suggests. ‘Novel = design object … Dew-champ wanted to create works of art that were non-retinal. It would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats.’ ‘The best books are the ones that read like paintings, and the best paintings are the ones that read like quotation marks,’ reads the start of a page that ends with a reproduction of the back of a Post-It note; there are also barcodes and short bits of Chinese. ‘Today no poem should be written to be read,’ Lin recommends, ‘and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them.’ If he is wrong, he invites us to show how and why.

What is best about Unoriginal Genius, and about Against Expression, is their scope: look, they say, here is some challenging work you might like. Perloff is one of too few American critics who consistently read what is written outside America: Cambridge, Copenhagen, São Paulo affect her taste. What is least plausible about the programme these books represent is the implication (or insistence) that it has replaced, or discredited, all other art forms. More than before, and more easily than before, writers can (to use the name of a fine British conceptualist website) treat ‘information as material’, making new forms from new constraints.

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