- Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century by Marjorie Perloff
Appropriately, Marjorie Perloff begins her new book on citational poetics by citing the poet Edgell Rickword’s objections to Eliot’s use of citation in The Waste Land. The basis of Rickword’s critique: citation is not poetry. Citation, however, helped Eliot express the historical sense that is simultaneously “what makes a writer traditional” and “what makes a writer most acutely conscious [End Page 710] of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” Such informed contemporaneity was crucial; after all, Eliot asserts, “novelty is better than repetition.”1 But what if novelty is constituted by repetition, by the re-presentation of language from some source other than the writer him- or herself? Conversely, what if repetition—not in the Eliotic sense of “imitation” but, rather, the literal repetition of already produced text—is used to question novelty, or originality, as a literary value?
Perloff’s project is to explore the relationship between novelty and repetition or, in her own terms, to disarticulate the concepts “original” and “genius.” If “citationality, with its dialectic of removal and graft, disjunction and conjunction, its interpenetration of origin and destruction, is central to twenty-first century poetics” (17), Perloff analyzes some of its contemporary forms and constructs at least a partial lineage for it. She works through a range of writers rethinking “originality” as she also considers why contemporary cultural conditions especially invite such rethinking: the citational poetics of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Brazilian concretism’s visual rereading of certain modernisms and its anticipation of the digital, Charles Bernstein’s “reading” of Benjamin through Oulipian constraints in Shadowtime, modes of documentary in Susan Howe’s The Midnight, the multilingualism and translational poetics of Yoko Tawada and Caroline Bergvall, Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing.”
The precursors are Benjamin’s great assemblage in The Arcades Project, concrete poetry, and, implicitly, Oulipo. If one approaches Benjamin as a poet, as Perloff comes close to doing, and reads The Arcades Project (75 percent of which is citation) for “its literary appeal” (28), it emerges as “a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics” (43). What is to me one limitation of The Arcades Project—it strikes me as more interesting at the methodological than at the phrasal level—is perhaps precisely the point: it models the possible literary uses of unoriginal language. Meanwhile, if The Arcades Project prefigures a contemporary citational poetics, Brazilian concrete poetry at last finds its appropriate medium in the digital environment, so that “this particular poetic movement is only now, half a century after its inception, coming into its own” (75). Perloff’s fascinating and instructive mini-history of concrete poetry usefully distinguishes kinds of concretism internationally and presents the movement, especially in its Brazilian manifestation in the work of the de Campos brothers, as an arrière-garde less engaged in discovery than in recovery or “transcreation,” the reading in concretist terms of underacknowledged experimental modernist texts. At the same time, concrete poetry can be credited with a discovery in emphasizing “the transformation [End Page 711] of materiality itself” (68). It is concretism’s prophetic emphasis on visual materiality as anticipating the digital—something adumbrated similarly in work such as Brian Kim Stefans’s Fashionable Noise and Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetics—that gives this chapter, which otherwise attends relatively little to the book’s dominant themes of citation and constraint, its place in the argument.
An arrière-garde embraces its downplaying of originality, and the term enables a fruitful comparison and contrast between Brazilian concrete poetry and French Oulipo. Oulipo rejects received definitions of creativity through its use of the (often mathematical) constraint and the dissolving of authorship: products “are attributed to the group” (80). Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime, his libretto for Brian Ferneyhough’s opera on Benjamin, represents an “improbable fusion of Oulipo constraint, concretism, and citationality” (84) that speaks to some of the fissures in Benjamin’s thinking about history and language, and...