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  • Poetry, the University, and the Culture of Distraction
  • Jonathan Monroe (bio)

Any discussion of community would do well to start with the idea of institution rather than association. For the rules of our associations, one on one or one with many, are fundamentally an institutional matter. . . .

Poetry is (or can be) an aversion of community in pursuit of new constellations of relationship.

—Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent”

There was the shield of another language transient enclosure/gate       swings open shut shut . . .

—Ann Lauterbach, “In the Museum of the Word (Henri Matisse)”

A Critic came to me and asked, What is language writing? fetching it to me with full hands. I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, sprouting alike in prose and verse, in love-sighs and guerilla acting-out from under administered language deep in a million Broca’s areas as told to any one tongue.

—Bob Perelman, “An Alphabet of Literary Criticism”

Poetry: an alternate, less linear logic.

—Rosmarie Waldrop, Lawn of Excluded Middle

The current issue of Diacritics—the first in the journal’s twenty-five-year history devoted entirely to contemporary poetry—draws on presentations from two events I organized at Cornell in the fall of 1994 and the spring of 1995: the first an afternoon symposium bearing the issue’s title, the second a three-day conference entitled “Past, Present, Future Tense.” 1 The issue’s primary intent is both to engage and enact contemporary poetry’s current relation to theory and the project of learning, in the apt inflection of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s “Manifests,” how to read and write “otherhow” [36]. Such a project is aligned in fundamental ways with what Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman have termed [End Page 3] respectively “anti-absorptive” or “over-genred” writing [AP passim; MP 10], writing that is intimately bound up with the history of what I have called elsewhere the “heteroglossic, hybrid, antigeneric” impulses of the prose poem, that “genreless genre” which announced itself in the writings of Friedrich Schlegel and Charles Baudelaire [PO 334, 31]. 2 As a “critical, self-critical, utopian genre, a genre that tests the limits of genre” [PO 16], the prose poem enacted from the outset in its very self-definition the inseparability of the how and the what of any poem, text, or utterance. In so doing, it announced as well an urgent need for poetry to reach beyond “itself” to a richer engagement with philosophical, social, historical, political, and other concerns. In keeping with this tradition, the antigeneric, antiabsorptive, overgenred kinds of writing that have come into prominence over the past two decades—often though by no means always associated with the names language writing or language poetry—have revitalized important questions concerning contemporary poetry’s relation to questions of community, interdiscursivity, normativity, interdisciplinarity, and the international, multicultural, multilingual forces that have increasingly come to shape the cultural role of the university in the 1990s. In the context of what I am calling the culture of distraction, 3 recent antigeneric texts share an understanding that innovations at the level of formal syntactics may have an antinormative force at least equal to if not greater than that of texts that count on having their effects through even the most polemical contentual stances articulated in more normative, instrumentalized modes.


The poet’s mind when writing poetry is a mass of social individuals all using words at different times.

—Bob Perelman, “Chapters of Verse”

This is my resume. Hire me. I am from January, where the winds are severe. I am an immigrant from evening, hire me. My father was a sweeper of secrets, a silk merchant in Vienna, he had no boots, he had no lotion for his skin. Hire me. This handkerchief is woven from ninety   percent. My daughters are in Mexico on a jaunt. They have not   read of the insurrection, they do not get CNN. This is my black scarf. This is my   painting of a jar. Hire me. This is a photo of my husband [End Page 4] taken when he was a young man in jail. . . . Hire me. I am what you do not know and will not miss. . . . . . . We...