- Twenty-First-Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics
Marjorie Perloff is one of the few critics who is essential to our understanding of contemporary American poetry. Without her we could not trace its roots in twentieth-century modernism so clearly or distinguish the innovative from the imitative poets. She describes Twenty-First-Century Modernism as a "manifesto," and many of her early books, such as The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981) and The Futurist Moment (1986), have the same tone. In these works she argues that the poetry of iconic representation has been exhausted and is being replaced by a poetry that features a free play of signifiers (with its resulting indeterminacy). In Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991), the closest in spirit to Twenty-First-Century Modernism, Perloff critiques contemporary poets and readers who believe, even in an age when the media have co-opted poetic imagism, that the image is the essence of poetry. The threat to genuine poetry is that it is confused with the poetry of the "direct" image and with the implication of an authentic self that mass discourse conditions us to accept uncritically.
Perloff argues that the modern period is not over and that modernism is an unfinished project. Twenty-First-Century Modernism addresses a scene in which the universities and mass discourse have fostered an "official verse culture" (Charles Bernstein's phrase; 155). "Establishment poets" (4) such as Anthony Hecht and Ed Hirsch write generic poems in which a "'sensitive' lyric speaker contemplates a facet of his or her world and makes observations about it, compares present to past, divulges some hidden emotion, or comes to a new understanding of the situation. The language is usually concrete and colloquial, the ironies and metaphors multiple, the syntax straightforward, the rhythms mute and low-key" (161-62). Although the irony, urban imagery, and technique of the "objective correlative" in such poetry derive from T. S. Eliot, Perloff observes that Eliot's "Prufrock" is "more immediate and 'contemporary'" than even the "fabled postmodern 'breakthrough' of Lowell's Life Studies" (164). We can now see, as the quotation marks in her subtitle, The "New" Poetics, suggest, that the development of modernism was sidetracked by the world wars and then the Cold War. The challenge of experimental modernism has been taken up by avant-garde poets such as Bernstein, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery rather than by the Establishment poets, who imitate modernist style without its innovative spirit.
As she rethinks modernism, Perloff reevaluates Eliot's key role in its development and the recent critical trends that have discounted it. In 1982 she asked if the modern era in poetry was best characterized as the age of [End Page 628] Wallace Stevens or of Ezra Pound.1 Now she identifies Eliot as the most influential poet of the age, whose innovations are still being explored. The key concept common to Eliot and the avant-garde is "constructivism," which holds that language is not a "conduit for thoughts and feelings outside and prior to it [but] the site of meaning-making" (9). Perloff distinguishes the avant-garde Eliot of the verses now collected in Inventions of the March Hare and "Prufrock" from the later Eliot, which for her, surprisingly, includes the Eliot of The Waste Land. Analyzing the shifting points of view and dislocated syntax of "Prufrock," she relates it to the constructivist technique of involving the reader in the creation of meaning.
Perloff's reading of "Prufrock" helps us understand the bewilderment and excitement that the poem inspired in its first audience. But she exaggerates by claiming that some of Eliot's early poems are more truly avant-garde than The Waste Land. She considers this poem "the brilliant culmination of the poetic revolution" that began with "Prufrock" but not itself a "revolutionary breakthrough" (39). She regards the Eliot of "Prufrock" as the first poet in English who understood "Flaubert's radical doctrine of the mot juste and the Mallarmean precept that poetry is 'language charged with meaning'—a...