. . . Bob Perelman

. . .

Modernist Class

You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.

But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.

But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.

After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.

The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.

At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?

What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.

. . .

Only 17 Shopping Days Till Bloomsday

A couple of years ago I wrote, to a guy much smarter than me, about Bob Perelman's The Trouble with Genius:

Perelman's insistence that only English department martinets are interested in difficult work is a blatantly received notion, unworthy of him: as late as the mid-'70s, Joyce and Stein were still the happy huntingground of eccentric amateurs, despised by New Criticism and dismissed by most academics I met. (I suppose the last manifestation of that era would be professional entomologist and amateur Finnegans Wake expert Roland McHugh.) I have yet to meet an English professor who's interested in Zukofsky. Really, that whole line of attack felt uncomfortably like the "Well, I read for entertainment" argument that anyone with eccentric ideas of entertainment gets hit by much too often.
Well, just like garage rock and gross-out right-wing comics, Joycean amateurs keep coming back. Witness your inspiration and mine, Jorn Bargers.

Obsessive, cranky, isolationist, down-at-heels, and prickly as all hell in (mercifully, only) one of the great traditions of the amateur scholar, Barger proves that Joyce studies, web browsing, and flame wars can all still and simultaneously serve as happy huntingground.

--Ten years, he said, chewing and laughing. He is going to write something in ten years.

--Seems a long way off, Haines said, thoughtfully lifting his spoon. Still, I shouldn't wonder if he did after all.

. . .

I've written before (and will again) about the urge to substitute narrative for lyric.

Poetic diction is one manifestation. For most contemporary poets and readers, what defines and justifies poetry is a rhetorical tone: the sound of someone being a poet, rather than the sound of a poem. Instead of listening to a work, we enact a poetry listener and set our afflatus adrift with the imagined author.

People really cling to those chicken-wire-and-terrycloth mothers, too. How often do John Cage or Jackson Mac Low get talked about without bringing their Eastern (Long Island, anyway) wisdom into it? What the literary reader finds difficult to handle isn't incoherence but distance.

Thus Eliot Weinberger attacked Language Poetry's reliance on "the non-sequitur (which is quite different... from Cubist simultaneity, Surrealist collage, or the Poundian ideogrammatic method)."

Yes, the non-sequitur is quite different: It doesn't reek of pomposity. Patchouli-soaked shamans don't always make sense either, but with them you can tell it's A Poet talking. From a block away.

Me, I no more like everything called "Language Poetry" than I like everything called "Hong Kong movies." It's just where I find a part I like.

And the part I like has little enough in common. In fact, only nothing. Where do Susan Howe and Bob Perelman and Stephen Ratcliffe and Hannah Weiner overlap? Only in what's missing. From a writerly standpoint, Zukofsky's late-night amateur watchmaking, tweezers in shaking hand and jeweler's in blearing eye, and Mac Low's crank-handle sausage machine are opposed. But in their mutual discarding of the poetic voice, their works appeal to the same reader.

Or, more accurately, they put off one class of readers and make room for another. That doesn't mean we always enjoy ourselves once we get in. The obscure redolence of a dive bar welcomes without guarantee. Barrett Watten and Bruce Andrews prove that when taken as an assignment, "depersonalization" becomes as dull as any other assignment.

It's just a beneficial side-effect. An assurance of sorts. Of "sincerity," as Zukofsky put it: the baggage of personality discarded because one's truly intent on some other goal, some point outside oneself.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 7

It's not true that only poets read poetry. It is true that keeping up with poetry comes close to a full time job, like keeping up with international cinema or popular music or genre fiction.

Job markets vary by geography even avocational job markets. Taking similar land routes, I and Joshua Corey traced similar reading histories, and the ten years between us made comparatively little difference. Although a quirk of publishing history had led to Zukofsky being stocked by the Chillecothe, Missouri, library, and although the Black Mountain lost-leaders were widely available, there was no collected Niedecker or Spicer in my youth, and what I could find in Philadelphia and NYC led me, like Corey, to posit a post-1940 decline into the poetics of lithium. (Things are better in Brooklyn now.)

When I moved to Cambridge, Mass., I lost access to international cinema but gained access to WordsWorth Books and the Grolier. (I also gained a three-hour daily commute, and I also lost my lover and my mind.) At one of those shops, I bought Sal Salasin's first book because it reminded me of Ed Bluestone in the National Lampoon. And I bought Bloomsday by Jackson Mac Low because it was Bloomsday. And then I bought Sulfur 24 because Jackson Mac Low was in it.

I can't find that issue must've lent it to someone and never gotten it back. The web tells me it included one of my favorite Ron Padgett poems, and something by the incomparable David Bromige. But what struck hardest was a long excerpt from Ron Silliman's Toner.

"It spoke to me."

Diction is about shared assumptions, and diction varies because what's "universal" varies. For example, pace Berryman and Hacker, not all of us have had the universal experience of sleeping with our students. So it's possible that you just need to have been a commuter to really get Silliman's poetry. But I got it, and got it bad: here was someone who'd experienced this previously unsung, astonishingly stupid side of life, and found redemptive lyric possibilities in its suspended-yet-mobile state of consciousness. A suspension so extended that it became epic: Kinda-Ron kinda-Endures.

One Age of Huts later, I walked away with the ugly mossy block of In the American Tree. I wouldn't say it changed my life I haven't led that sort of life but it certainly changed my buying habits.

What the anthologized pieces shared was an absence of recognizable names (other than the dedicatee, Larry Eigner) and anything resembling well-established subjective lyric stances. The range of alternatives seemed even wider than what Donald Allen had come up with. And yet Silliman didn't present himself as an outside arbiter or professional event organizer; apparently this range belonged to something he thought of as one group, his own.

The nearest thing to a new norm here was parataxis, which seemed to account for many of the precursors paid tribute in the essays at the back of the book: Ashbery (although not Allen's Ashbery), Stein, Spicer.... Still, there wasn't a "standard Language Poet poem" as far as I could see at least not among the ones I liked. Lyn Hejinian's My Life and Bob Perelman's a.k.a. were both beautiful little books of paratactic prose paragraphs, but you couldn't mistake Hejinian's VistaVision montages of Northern California for Perelman's grim resignation to "cleverness", young Beckett pressed into an old Beckett role:

He heard the music and stood up. Played at appropriate speed, incurable motion out the window. The names are maintained to prevent the accumulations of self-esteem from crashing too harmlessly into private abysses. As if hearing were a perfection of air perpetrated among rivals, sets of teeth, synonyms, sentence structure, ruptured blood vessels. He held on, in advance. Night fell, and I lived through that, too, expressing the expressible in terms of the expressed. On good terms with neighbors, dependable, daily, there, smiles, and is currently writing and reading this sentence.

Susan Howe suffered megalomania of the archive in a way I found much more congenial than Charles Olson's: high on dust mites and the glare of wide margins, the texture of the paper, the impress of the type, a whited-out thought balloon of imminent immanent insight tugging gently at our scalps....

And sure, lots of us have words appearing on our foreheads, but Hannah Weiner was the first to accurately transcribe them.

Depersonalized? No, just respecified: new specs in front of the eyes, less heavily tinted, and, in some cases, less smudged.

I moved to San Francisco in 1991, when Small Press Distribution and Small Press Traffic both had storefronts, and my binging intensified. Like Corey, I learned to browse bookshelves by publisher name. Some of Silliman's also-rans were as good as he'd implied: Rosemarie Waldrop, Robert Glück (who turned out to be a very different sort of writer indeed), Beverley Dahlen, Alice "Notely", Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Some of the included gained importance: speaking of Campion, Stephen Ratcliffe's spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from is subvocalized MDMA. Some seemed to drop out: Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures were primo, and his Villon translation was a pungent pinch of Spiceresquerie, but then what happened?

Most were uneven. There was such a thing as The Charles Bernstein Poem, and I didn't think much of it, but just often enough he'd come up with something unexpected like "Artifice of Absorption" or "I and The", and even The Charles Bernstein Poems had their place. On the other hand, Susan Howe, always worth reading, was worth surprisingly less in dowdy paperbacks than in her expansive expensive smaller press editions. Silliman's Tjanting played to his weaknesses, despite the conceptual catchiness of its form.

But they continued to be more uneven sometimes than others, and they led other places, like Jackson Mac Low had, and so the binging goes.

Here ends my happy consumer conversion narrative. "Or like stout whosits when with eagle eyes," "Nirvana made me a better student," "I can't believe it's not butter," and so on.

Happily, I wasn't a participant.

Next: I finally get back to where I was more than a year ago!


Joseph Duemer has some questions.

. . .

The Diddly Bow of Ulysses

While following three different strands of research, I've recently tripped over three different frustrated academics grappling with the use of "fugue" (meaning, roughly, some contrapuntal form which we don't fully follow) to describe texts by Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, &c., none of them noting the most fruitful interpretation: Written language, like a violin but more so, is not a polyphonic instrument, and therefore it can only imply complex harmonies and simultaneous lines through anticipatory or reflective aberrations which the mind weaves across paragraphs and pages, as when weaving the implied melodies of Bach's works for solo strings. The term "fugue" appeals by emphasizing the mental effort without which intended polyphony remains apparent disorder.

(Kenner or Senn or someone must've sounded off about this sometime, but I can't find the reference. Can you?)


I agree, Ray, some academics should learn to play a few fugues before they play around with the term.

A serious issue, and not confined to the campus: for example, I myself can barely fake a power chord and yet listen to me chatter. However, these particular three academics are likely expert fuguers, capable of fuguing round the clock. Their fugues of choice, though, were keyboard works which (as they pointed out) were not closely imitated by the solo vocals of the poet or novelist. I don't dispute that; I merely wanted to counterpoint that word-sorters and bow-scrapers must rely on more skeletal or subliminal or fragmented approaches.

Fugue and counterpoint in Ulysses have of necessity to be in linear form as we are trapped in a narrative - so Joyce uses various methods to build in the semblance of parallel occurrences. But then he moved on: Thelonious Monk used to play two adjacent piano notes to imply the quarter-tone between; could it be that in Finnegan's Wake, Joyce was hoping to spark the mind to run all possible meanings of his portmanteau words simultaneously?

Yes, I agree, although again he couldn't quite sustain the feel of simultaneous voices we tend to search for a "base" meaning to provide the rhythm of the prose, with the other meanings connecting in a more staccato and less linear way, forming (as we remain immersed) sequences of characteristic mists or fogs whose effect may not be so far removed from the free-indirect-discourse with which Joyce began. Cage's "Roaratorio" does a splendid job of conveying this musically, but it couldn't be described as fugal.

Fiction-writer and songwriter Paul Kerschen writes:

Auguste Bailly registered this as a complaint back in 1928:

"The necessity of recording the flow of consciousness by means of words and phrases compels the writer to depict it as a continuous horizontal line, like a line of melody. But even a casual examination of our inner consciousness shows us that this presentation is essentially false. We do not think on one plane, but on many planes at once... At every instant of conscious life we are aware of such simultaneity and multiplicity of thought-streams.

The life of the mind is a symphony. It is a mistake or, at best, an arbitrary method, to dissect the chords and set out their components on a single line, on one plane only. Such a method gives an entirely false idea of the complexity of our mental make-up."

That's quoted in Stuart Gilbert, who made the very sensible response that perhaps giving a verisimilar picture of "the life of the mind" wasn't actually Joyce's first priority... and then everyone forgot that point for fifty years. My own view is that Henry James has sympathies much closer to Bailly's, and that his various experiments with time-loops and periphrasis are an attempt to get at something like Bailly's symphonic mind (though then again, this has nothing to do with polyphony in Bakhtin's reigning sense). This is all done to death in chapters one and four of "The Modernist Novel Speaks Its Mind" (PhD dissertation, UC-Berkeley, 2010), which I think might be up on ProQuest now.

Fiction-writer and composer Carter Scholz writes:

Though I revere them and their works, I have faint respect for Joyce's, Pound's, or Zukofsky's practical knowledge of fugue, or of musical composition in general. All had matchless ears for sonority and rhythm. But what they knew about "fugue" as a practice could be put on a postcard. It got waved around as an impressive magic word; hence the confusion and frustration.

You can legitimately try to get something remotely like that effect in prose or poetry, but it looks as much like antiphony as "fugue" or "counterpoint". It's like trying to dance architecture; only annoys the pigeons. Maybe I'm one.

It seems to me that the Bach solo string works imply harmony rather than melody, but that's a more interesting discussion. Do the voices dictate or follow? Cage's Roaratorio doesn't care -- it's heterophony.

Update: I picked it up from Basil Bunting! (Not a bad T-shirt slogan, that.) Bunting mentioned the analogy in interviews, letters, and lectures; viz., from Basil Bunting on Poetry, lecture 12:

Pound, however, and Zukofsky after him, was fascinated by the close texture of the fugue and by its somewhat spurious air of logicality. They wanted to know whether the design of the fugue could be transferred to poetry. A short but incomplete answer is that it can't. A fugue is essentially contrapuntal, several voices imitating each other, yet free of each other, all talking simultaneously, whereas poetry is written for one voice at a time or, at most, for voices in unison. But Bach had set an example. He wrote at least two fugues for unaccompanied violin. Of course they are not really fugues. No amount of double stopping can get three or more voices to sing simultaneously on the violin. The entries in Bach's unaccompanied violin fugues wait till the last entiry is done or nearly done before they start. Yet he manages to convey a rather teasing sensation of a fugue, never really satisfied. Similar sequences of notes are thrown up time and again, but they never mesh together as those of a true fugue do. Zukofsky wrote a fugue of this sort for unaccompanied voice. It's Part 7 of his long poem "A". It is not a fugue, but it does suggest one, suggests it very strongly.

Jeet Heer adds:

You might want to listen to the Bob Perelman lecture here -- he stars with a critique of the modernist poetics that draws facile parallels between poetry and music.


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