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  • The Marginalization of Poetry
  • Bob Perelman

If poems are eternal occasions, then the pre-eternal context for the following

was a panel on “The Marginalization of Poetry” at the American Comp.

Lit. Conference in San Diego, on February 8, 1991, at 2:30 P.M.:

“The Marginalization of Poetry”—it almost goes without saying. Jack Spicer wrote,

“No one listens to poetry,” but the question then becomes, who is

Jack Spicer? Poets for whom he matters would know, and their poems

would be written in a world in which that line was heard,

though they’d scarcely refer to it. Quoting or imitating another poet’s line

is not benign, though at times the practice can look like flattery.

In the regions of academic discourse, the patterns of production and circulation

are different. There, it—again—goes without saying that words, names, terms

are repeatable: citation is the prime index of power. Strikingly original language

is not the point; the degree to which a phrase or sentence

fits into a multiplicity of contexts determines how influential it will be.

“The Marginalization of Poetry”: the words themselves display the dominant lingua franca

of the academic disciplines and, conversely, the abject object status of poetry:

it’s hard to think of any poem where the word “marginalization” occurs.

It is being used here, but this may or may not be

a poem: the couplets of six word lines don’t establish an audible rhythm; perhaps they haven’t, to use the Calvinist mercantile metaphor, “earned” their

right to exist in their present form—is this a line break

or am I simply chopping up ineradicable prose? But to defend this

(poem) from its own attack, I’ll say that both the flush left

and irregular right margins constantly loom as significant events, often interrupting what

I thought I was about to write and making me write something

else entirely. Even though I’m going back and rewriting, the problem still

reappears every six words. So this, and every poem, is a marginal

work in a quite literal sense. Prose poems are another matter: but

since they identify themselves as poems through style and publication context, they

become a marginal subset of poetry, in other words, doubly marginal. Now

of course I’m slipping back into the metaphorical sense of marginal which,

however, in an academic context is the standard sense. The growing mass

of writing on “marginalization” is not concerned with margins, left or right

—and certainly not with its own. Yet doesn’t the word “marginalization” assume

the existence of some master page beyond whose justified (and hence invisible)

margins the panoplies of themes, authors, movements, general objects of study exist

in all their colorful, handlettered marginality? This master page reflects the functioning

of the profession, where the units of currency are variously denominated prose:

the paper, the article, the book. All critical prose can be seen

as elongated, smooth-edged rectangles of writing, the sequences of words chopped into

arbitrary lines by typesetters (Ruth in tears amid the alien corn), and

into pages by commercial bookmaking processes. This violent smoothness is the visible

sign of the writer’s submission to norms of technological reproduction. “Submission” is

not quite the right word, though: the finesse of the printing indicates

that the author has shares in the power of the technocratic grid;

just as the citations and footnotes in articles and university press books

are emblems of professional inclusion. But hasn’t the picture become a bit

binary? Aren’t there some distinctions to be drawn? Do I really want

to invoke Lukacs’s antinomies of bourgeois thought where rather than a conceptually

pure science that purchases its purity at the cost of an irrational

and hence foul subject matter we have the analogous odd couple of

a centralized, professionalized, cross-referenced criticism studying marginalized, inspired (i.e., amateur), singular poetries?

Do I really want to lump The Closing of the American Mind,

Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats, and Anti-Oedipus together and oppose them

to any poem which happens to be written in lines? Doesn’t this

essentialize poetry in a big way? Certainly some poetry is thoroughly opposed...

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