- Modernism Old or New?
The title of Marjorie Perloff’s new book seems, at first, a little confusing. Does she mean 21st-century postmodernism? No. Then perhaps she means the idea of modernism in the twenty-first century—our continuing obsession with the series of artistic and literary revolutions that took place almost a hundred years ago mainly in Europe? But why is the book publicized as a manifesto (specifically, as a part of the Blackwell Manifestos series)? Manifestos usually look toward the future, not the past, so what does modernism have to do with today’s (or tomorrow’s) poetic theory and practice? Apparently a lot, judging by Perloff’s subtitle: The “New” Poetics. The book’s final chapter is entitled “Modernism” at the Millennium—the quotation marks again hinting at something both forward- and backward-looking in Perloff’s provocative reappraisal of modernism and its significance for contemporary writing.
Some of these questions are answered for us in the book’s preface. Here Perloff suggests that we jettison “the tired dichotomy that has governed our discussion of twentieth-century poetics for much too long: that between modernism and postmodernism” (1–2). What we normally think of as postmodern poetry—the Projectivists, Beats, San Francisco poets, confessional poets, New York School, and “deep image” school—now appears less revolutionary than it did in the late fifties and early sixties; these poetic schools and movements were “indeed a breath of fresh air” (2), but only so far as they redefined the terms of opposition to the high modernism of Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Moore, later Eliot, and the New Critical orthodoxy that dominated the American poetry scene in the years immediately after World War II. In Perloff’s view, it is the avant-garde modernism of the early twentieth-century that, following a “curious poetic lag” (10), now emerges as a vital precursor to what she considers the most ambitious and adventurous writing of today. “Indeed,” Perloff observes,
what strikes us when we reread the poetries of the early twentieth century is that the real fate of first-stage modernism was one of deferral, its radical and utopian aspirations being cut off by the catastrophe, first of the Great War, and then of the series of crises produced by the two great totalitarianisms that dominated the first half of the century and culminated in World War II and the subsequent Cold War.(3)
Perloff envisages her book as a sort of paradigm shift, a reconsideration of the standard narrative of modernism with four chapters devoted to the poetic praxis of the early T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Velimir Khlebnikov, and the final chapter discussing the importance of these avant-garde modernists to the work of Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Steve McCaffery. These, and presumably other poets and artists associated with the Language writing movement (broadly conceived), take up the challenge of experimental modernism; it is through their work, rather than the work of, say, Charles Olson or Allen Ginsberg, that the spirit of modernism lives again. As Perloff says in the concluding sentence of the book, “ours may well be the moment when the lessons of early modernism are finally being learned” (200).
Perloff begins her revision of twentieth-century poetics with a fresh look at the early work of T.S. Eliot. In a gesture of critical bravado, she links Eliot’s early poetry (not The Waste Land, it is worth noting, but “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other poems from Prufrock and Other Observations) to the main emphasis of Language writing aesthetic: language as the object, rather than the tool, of representation. Perloff suggests a parallel between Eliot’s idea of “impersonality” (with its implied separation of writing and experience) and Charles Bernstein’s call for indirection, artifice, and impermeability featured in his own manifesto “Artifice of Absorption” (published in A Poetics). Both Eliot in the first decades of the twentieth century and Bernstein in the last ones reject the notion of sincerity and explore the idea of language as the site...