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Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century

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What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words a What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words and sentences, and sometimes entire texts. Marjorie Perloff here explores this intriguing development in contemporary poetry: the embrace of "unoriginal" writing. Paradoxically, she argues, such citational and often constraint-based poetry is more accessible and, in a sense, "personal" than was the hermetic poetry of the 1980s and 90s. Perloff traces this poetics of "unoriginal genius" from its paradigmatic work, Benjamin’s encyclopedic Arcades Project, a book largely made up of citations. She discusses the processes of choice, framing, and reconfiguration in the work of Brazilian Concretism and Oulipo, both movements now understood as precursors of such hybrid citational texts as Charles Bernstein’s opera libretto Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s documentary lyric sequence The Midnight. Perloff also finds that the new syncretism extends to language: for example, to the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall writing in English and the Japanese Yoko Tawada, in German. Unoriginal Genius concludes with a discussion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptualist book Traffic—a seemingly "pure’" radio transcript of one holiday weekend’s worth of traffic reports. In these instances and many others, Perloff shows us "poetry by other means" of great ingenuity, wit, and complexity.


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What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words a What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, "originality" begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words and sentences, and sometimes entire texts. Marjorie Perloff here explores this intriguing development in contemporary poetry: the embrace of "unoriginal" writing. Paradoxically, she argues, such citational and often constraint-based poetry is more accessible and, in a sense, "personal" than was the hermetic poetry of the 1980s and 90s. Perloff traces this poetics of "unoriginal genius" from its paradigmatic work, Benjamin’s encyclopedic Arcades Project, a book largely made up of citations. She discusses the processes of choice, framing, and reconfiguration in the work of Brazilian Concretism and Oulipo, both movements now understood as precursors of such hybrid citational texts as Charles Bernstein’s opera libretto Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s documentary lyric sequence The Midnight. Perloff also finds that the new syncretism extends to language: for example, to the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall writing in English and the Japanese Yoko Tawada, in German. Unoriginal Genius concludes with a discussion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptualist book Traffic—a seemingly "pure’" radio transcript of one holiday weekend’s worth of traffic reports. In these instances and many others, Perloff shows us "poetry by other means" of great ingenuity, wit, and complexity.

30 review for Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century

  1. 5 out of 5

    Chris Schaeffer

    Read in a frenzy in the living room finishing at, like, three in the morning! Really interesting reading of Goldsmith's 'Traffic,' great pokes into translation theory. Read in a frenzy in the living room finishing at, like, three in the morning! Really interesting reading of Goldsmith's 'Traffic,' great pokes into translation theory.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jee Koh

    From the point of view of this skeptical non-reader of avant-garde poetry, Perloff's book is an excellent introduction to the New Poetics of the twenty-first century. The new poetry, according to Perloff, is the poetry of citation and appropriation, a poetry that confronts the present-day challenge of managing, presenting and reframing the information so readily and abundantly available through the new technologies such as the Internet. Older poetry cited and appropriated too, but, Perloff argue From the point of view of this skeptical non-reader of avant-garde poetry, Perloff's book is an excellent introduction to the New Poetics of the twenty-first century. The new poetry, according to Perloff, is the poetry of citation and appropriation, a poetry that confronts the present-day challenge of managing, presenting and reframing the information so readily and abundantly available through the new technologies such as the Internet. Older poetry cited and appropriated too, but, Perloff argues, the new poetry does so to such an extent that it becomes a different kind. The inspiration for it is not so much Eliot's "The Waste Land" as Pound's Cantos, where citation becomes structural. Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, which Perloff discusses in her first chapter, is also a source of inspiration. In its organization into folders, its juxtaposition of quotations, its non-linear index, and its use of symbols to link one quotation to another on a different page, it resembles the contemporary website. Her second chapter examines the legacy of Brazilian concrete poetry. To defend it against the charge of the "iconic fallacy," or Cratylism--the belief that the sound and visual properties of a word have mimetic value--Perloff distinguishes between two types of concrete poetry. The father of concrete poetry, the Swiss Eugen Gomringer, strove to simplify a poem into a sign or an object that is easily comprehensible. The Brazilian concretists, who started out with Gomringer but soon diverged, and who called themselves Noigandres, were as concerned with the semantics of a word/poem as with its look and sound. The group, which includes the brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari, sees itself as recovering the discoveries of the earlier avant-garde (Pound and Mallarme), discoveries which never integrated into the mainstream due to the disruption of the world wars. It also discovers in the Internet the right medium for their concrete poetry. In Chapter Three Perloff approaches Charles Bernstein's libretto Shadowtime through the lens of the Oulipo. Founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau, the Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle invents important poetic constraints for the generation of literature. Its exemplar is Georges Perec's novel La disparition, where the disappearance of the vowel e points to the elimination of eux (them) by the Nazis in World War II. Though Bernstein's Shadowtime is too eclectic to be considered strictly an Oulipo work, its eclecticism is rule-bound and so dramatizes the obsession of its protagonist, Walter Benjamin, with ordering a very disorderly life. It exemplifies the Oulipo axiom "A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint." The next chapter, on Susan Howe's The Midnight, I find the least interesting. The juxtaposition of original poetry, documents, photos and pictures of objects in Howe's elegy for her mother already feels dated and conventional as a method. The method is too consumable, too pretty. Like Anne Carson's Nox. More resistant to market relations are the exophonic and multilingual writing discussed in the following chapter, but the works of Caroline Bergvall and Yoko Tawada analyzed here strike me as trite. Most stimulating is Perloff's interpretation, in the last chapter, of Kenneth Goldsmith's book-length poem Traffic, the second part of his New York trilogy. The work is a result of the application of the ideas of Conceptual art to poetry. In his appropriation of Sol LeWitt, Goldsmith writes in his "Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing" that "the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the text." Traffic comprises the twenty-four-hour WINS traffic reports that take place on a big holiday weekend. But what seems literal transcription Perloff shows to be carefully selected and shaped. It conforms to the Aristotelian unities; it moves from exposition to complication(s) to resolution. Its hyperreality becomes surreal: it becomes metaphoric. But would anyone, beside a literary critic, read it? Perloff quotes John Cage who quotes a Zen koan: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting." In her Afterword, Perloff points out that, even in a poetry of appropriation, poetic choice is necessary, and so personal taste is involved. To my mind, that does not make genius unoriginal; it locates originality in a different place, in the idea, perhaps, instead of the execution. Some people will see this as unnecessarily limiting: why not be original in both idea and execution, instead of choosing one or the other? But such a limitation has produced a very different kind of poetry. The fact remains that every kind of poetry is produced by a certain set of limitations. Limits are necessary to art. The fun now appears to be exchanging one set of limitations for another. The difficulty is in choosing a set of limitations that resonate now and for a very long time.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Joe Milazzo

    Perloff's "readings" of Bernstein and Howe especially can come off as rather specious; they depend far too much on paratextual considerations... but, then again, such readings may be a demonstration of how procedural / citational / conceptual aesthetics must be "handled"... but, once more again, as Perloff notes in her reading of Goldsmith's various projects, reading against the grain of his clearly stated authorial intent yields both pleasures and notions otherwise precluded by the constraints Perloff's "readings" of Bernstein and Howe especially can come off as rather specious; they depend far too much on paratextual considerations... but, then again, such readings may be a demonstration of how procedural / citational / conceptual aesthetics must be "handled"... but, once more again, as Perloff notes in her reading of Goldsmith's various projects, reading against the grain of his clearly stated authorial intent yields both pleasures and notions otherwise precluded by the constraints thus offered. However, her discussion of various concrete poetics (Gomringer, De Campos et al.) is quite valuable. A book most worth reading through the old foggy lens of deconstruction, then. That is, for what its texts implicate, adumbrate via passing mentions, malaprop, and hyperbolize.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alejandro Morales

    This is an essential book to understand the contemporary state of poetry, in which there is no such thing as innovation or new or original, but writing as such, taking count of a whole past of writings and ideas. So, it's true that "there's nothing new under the sun". A recommended essay with a bunch of solid quotes about the analyzed subject. This is an essential book to understand the contemporary state of poetry, in which there is no such thing as innovation or new or original, but writing as such, taking count of a whole past of writings and ideas. So, it's true that "there's nothing new under the sun". A recommended essay with a bunch of solid quotes about the analyzed subject.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Joe Shaw

    Insightful critique of the world of experimental poetry. I enjoy Perloff's writing style as it makes reading academic work engaging Insightful critique of the world of experimental poetry. I enjoy Perloff's writing style as it makes reading academic work engaging

  6. 4 out of 5

    Dean Kritikos

    This is, above all else, a disarticulation of the pairing "Original genius." While those two words meant the same thing, to many people and for many years, the (or perhaps A) New Poetry of our new century has no place for "originality," but plenty of room for "genius" and "geniuses." An absolutely exhilarating read, I would have finished this in one sitting had I not (foolishly) begun it at midnight, having to wake up at 6 AM. I split it in two, sacrificing some sleep but gaining in dreams noneth This is, above all else, a disarticulation of the pairing "Original genius." While those two words meant the same thing, to many people and for many years, the (or perhaps A) New Poetry of our new century has no place for "originality," but plenty of room for "genius" and "geniuses." An absolutely exhilarating read, I would have finished this in one sitting had I not (foolishly) begun it at midnight, having to wake up at 6 AM. I split it in two, sacrificing some sleep but gaining in dreams nonetheless; Perloff's writing is so lucid, so refreshing. It's confident and authoritative without being elitist or condescending; it speaks to the veteran's deep, deep understanding of not only where poetry is now, but also how it got there. Where it's been. Where it's going? This last part is left open, but not without traces or the makings of a projection. Read this book if you care about the state and history of contemporary poetry/poetics, as well as the discourses surrounding it. Read this book if you're un-informedly skeptical (as I was) of Kenneth Goldsmith's and others' plagiary practices. If none of that interests you, read this book, finally, if you enjoy fun scholarship on odd topics written in inviting prose and from a place of intense, immersive love for the subject matter at hand.

  7. 4 out of 5

    pozharvgolovu

    Perloff explains the phenomena of appropriation and (un)originality in American English literature. As always she enlightens the path towards contemporary poets. However, being a Latin American Literature researcher, I am not so sure that her approach towards Brazilian Concretismo achieves the same high quality and standards as her texts on Goldsmith and Bernstein do. Anyhow this book is a must for anyone into poetry, particularly contemporary poetry.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mikael

    stealing stuff has always been okay thanks to wilde and eliot but i guess i need more affirmation and marjorie is a great shrink for literary thieves! the chapters on ken goldsmith's traffic and walter benjamin's arcade project are great, certainly give you all the ammunition you need to blow off those stupid amazon reviewers who still hanker for 'the original voice of the author'! blah gimme colonel sanders' original recipe instead! stealing stuff has always been okay thanks to wilde and eliot but i guess i need more affirmation and marjorie is a great shrink for literary thieves! the chapters on ken goldsmith's traffic and walter benjamin's arcade project are great, certainly give you all the ammunition you need to blow off those stupid amazon reviewers who still hanker for 'the original voice of the author'! blah gimme colonel sanders' original recipe instead!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    Whether you agree with her or not, Perloff is always thought-provoking. This is the most enjoyable book of literary criticism that I have read in quite a while.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Charles Kell

  11. 4 out of 5

    Camila Zacharko

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Streeby

  13. 5 out of 5

    Penny

  14. 4 out of 5

    Greg

  15. 5 out of 5

    Natasha Borton

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pattee

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dawn McCance

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Rushford

  19. 5 out of 5

    Anya

  20. 5 out of 5

    Steven Critelli

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lizabel

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy McInnes

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lester Robles

  27. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Tallent

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nfornovember

  29. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  30. 4 out of 5

    Micah

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