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Ron Silliman

The Marginalization of Poetry by Bob Perelman

This paper is taken from the Vol. 1 No. 4 May 1997 pamphlet in The Impercipient Lecture Series, edited and published by Steve Evans and Jennifer Moxley in Providence, Rhode Island. This piece is 5,000 words or about 15 printed pages long.

While my title alludes to the book by Bob Perelman, it does not quote it. There are no italics here. Instead, what I want to look at tonight is the strategy manifested through the project of the book itself. It’s the strategy that I want to challenge.

I take Bob’s book to be a landmark. The Marginalization of Poetry presents a sweeping, yet detailed and specific, portrait of a literary tendency that may stand as a model for critical writing about complex literary entities for some time to come. It manages to accomplish this from within the very tendency it proposes to be "about" and yet proceeds with the sort of balanced hand that enables it to demonstrate the many important ways in which so-called language writers do not, and never intended to, "say the same thing." The Marginalization of Poetry never reduces the category of language poetry to the status of an example, whether one of liberation in the arts or Marxian theory at play in the genres or reaction formation to either the McPoets of the writing workshops or the bad old formalisms of the bad New Formalists, or French Theory goes to Buffalo, or the Sons and Daughters of the New American poets, or, or, or.... The project is impeccably designed, meticulously executed, a rich source book for any future writers who might want to further extend the examination of this field. The Marginalization of Poetry is an extended process of thinking from beginning to end: it is literally a complete thought.

The Politics of Cartography

As critical writing, The Marginalization of Poetry is also an important political act. By being so thorough in its approach, and so careful in its calculations, Perelman has staked out both boundaries and high points of topography for any future discussion of this terrain. Of particular value, I believe, is the position he accords the work of Bob Grenier, to which I will soon return, as well as the discussions of Barrett Watten, Bev Dahlen and the role of violence in the work of Bruce Andrews.

This does not mean that I concur with Bob’s conclusions, or with the omission of (or mere passing reference to) writers whose work seems to me equally foundational for even the most minimal understanding of what language writing might have been, for instance the writings of Steve Benson, Hannah Weiner, Fanny Howe and Tina Darragh. I for one would have opened the Lincoln Bedroom of these pages up to a broader range of guests.

Indeed, had I taken on this project, I might have attempted a periodization of language writing, separating out three distinct phases:

  • first, the 10 year period I have called "a moment, not a movement," bounded by Grenier’s declaration against speech in This 1 and the decision a decade later by the editors of Poetics Journal to rescind the initial stapled and photocopied first edition and release instead a perfect bound magazine directed to a wider and necessarily more diffuse audience - this is the heroic period of self-definition, language poetry as community building;

  • second, another period of roughly equal length in which the tension impacting language writing was primarily one of reception, first by other writers, then critics, public intellectuals, journalists, members of Congress, NPR commentators, cartoonists and others (for myself, that period ended with the publication of the collaborative poem, Leningrad);

  • third, the current period, in which the original participants have become more scattered and generally have less contact with one another, but a period also in which there are several hundred interesting younger writers publishing works that openly reflect some influence, hostile as well as friendly as well as ambivalent, that can be traced in some fashion to language writing - that these writers will change our understanding of what we thought we meant 20 years ago seems undeniable, yet not one of them is mentioned by name in The Marginalization of Poetry.

These are quibbles. Page by page, phrase by phrase, Perelman’s book is so marvelously alive with his mind that it calls forth the sort of reader response I suspect he wants most - each page raises dozens of interesting, fruitful questions, discussions, arguments, extensions, counter-examples and corroborations. The Marginalization of Poetry is a carnival of the best in critical thinking.


And that does seem to be the inescapable word here.


The Long March

The Marginalization of Poetry is a critical project. That is, it is a project within and of academic critical thinking. The book is literally a step in the long march toward tenure and an eventual full professorship. Perelman’s choice of genre, the academic monograph, from the initial moment of his participation on a panel with that title at an American Comparative Literature Conference in 1991 to the journals in which seven of its nine chapters first appeared, to its issuance as a Princeton Paperback, identifying the author as "Bob Perelman, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania," is not neutral.

I want to examine the implications, constraints and ultimately distortions that this choice forces upon Perelman’s argument. I want to imagine what this book might have looked like had it been written instead for poets.

Caged Poet

It seems odd to think that The Marginalization of Poetry was written for anyone else. Almost certainly the majority of its readers will be poets, including both those involved in the phenomenon under discussion, such as myself; those who see themselves as interested, if not directly implicated, in the poetry and poetics of the boomer generation that makes up language poetry, so-called; and most importantly younger poets, some of whom may already be 30 years younger than its author and for whom no direct access can exist to the issues about which Perelman has written - for them, this book may well be the clearest view of language poetry they will ever have other than the direct evidence of the poems. Many of these last readers, as the book itself assumes, will never have seen Bob Grenier’s mythic "Chinese box" entitled Sentences, published nearly a quarter century ago in an edition of a few hundred copies.

Party Line Poetics

Perelman is not not writing for these readers - he cares about them a lot. But in The Marginalization of Poetry, he is not writing to them, and it’s an important distinction. It’s the textual equivalence of the distinction between a person with whom someone is speaking and a person who, for whatever reason, is instead permitted to overhear that discussion. In this sense, poets can’t read this book so much as overread it. And this creates a chain of unintended and unfortunate effects.

Consider the structure of the book itself - nine chapters, bracketed by three that are quite visibly transgressive. The book begins with what might be a poem and ends with what is purported to be a dream, following on the heels of "An Alphabet of Literary History," a genre with which I can only be sympathetic. In the poem, "The Marginalization of Poetry," Perelman identifies a problem that he calls "a binary" -

What I am proposing in these
anti-generic, over-genred couplets is not some
genreless, authorless writing, but a physically
and socially located writing where margins
are not metaphors, and where readers
are not simply there, waiting to
be liberated. (10)

Part of what makes this poem so fascinating is that, in contrast with some of Perelman’s recent poetry, such as the extraordinary expository engine that is "The Manchurian Candidate," "TheMarginalization of Poetry" jumps around. The manifestations of this binary are not one, but many, and by no means all of the same order: Derrida’s Glas, a critical edition of Ulysses, the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, our sense of intruding into the erotic lives of Stein and Toklas when we read Stein’s love poems, Pound’s use of graphic supplementations, all are cited as examples against which

the unfathomable
particularity of the author’s mind, body,
and writing situation is the illegible
icon of reading. But it’s time
to dissolve this binary. (8)

Perelman’s declared project has the tactical feature, which may or may not be an advantage, of naming no single set of "bad guys,’ against which a narrative of contestation might be written. Yet the project as written in the form of this book reinforces rather than dissolves this binary.

Perelman proposes in part an end to the distinction between critical and poetic genres, or at least a challenge to any clearly identifiable border. Yet the three "art" chapters amount to less than 18 per cent of the book. Treated as brackets, they never intrude on the 134 pages that come between them. Derrida’s name, for example, will occur just one other time in the entire book and then only as adjective.

The Six Normative Chapters

The six chapters that compose not so much the book within the book as the book of the book itself are straightforward critical prose. There’s the chapter on naming, with its obligatory passage on the question of equal signs, the chapter on Sentences and the chapter on language writing and politics, all predictable moments in any work on this tendency. A secondary function of the naming chapter, the first of the inner book, is that it enables Perelman to include short passages on "exemplary" poets who are otherwise largely omitted from the book, including David Melnick, Steve Benson and Kit Robinson. Perelman follows with a chapter on Grenier, to which I will return in moment. The chapter on Sentences uses my work and that of Lyn Hejinian as the major prototypes. The fourth chapter, although it is called "Write the Power: Orthography and Community," and contains subsections on "Poetry and the Academy," "Poetry as a Counter-State," "Liberated Textuality," "Textuality and Group Voice," and "Writing and Power," counterintuitively turns out to be an extended consideration of Charles Bemstein. The next chapter, on Bruce Andrews, is perhaps Perelman’s most original in that the persistent moral concerns that are the focus of Perelman’s own poems conflict directly with the in-your-face bomb and dick waving vocabulary that is so recognizably Andrews’s "voice." Finally, Perelman uses an omnibus chapter to consider language poetry and its relation to a broader range of poetries than the "identitarian" implications of his wonderful title, "This Page is My Page,’ may suggest: Frost, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Watten, Dahlen, Howe, Armantrout and Harryman are all discussed in turn.

Within the "inner book," only Perelman’s autobiographical account of the collaborative composition of the line "instead of ant wort I saw brat guts" strays from normative academic discursive practice. Elsewhere, Perelman differs from the work of George Hartley, Linda Reinfeld, Jerome McGann or Marjorie Perloff primarily in degree, although we are never very far from the recognition that, unlike these other writers, Bob’s text carries the curious stigma of authenticity - he was there.

Note: Or at least a Bob Perelman was there. As the initial curator and host of the San Francisco talk series, Perelman was essential to the evolution of the critical dimension of this collective project. Yet, as several (male) language writers began to produce enough critical writing to generate books - Watten, Bernstein, myself and Steve McCaffery - Perelman was largely silent, preferring instead to edit his magazine Hills, curate the talk series, co-curate a poetry series at the Tassajara Bakery, write plays and of course his poetry. (Perelman also became a parent during this period.)

In editing the 1980 volume Talks (Hills 6/7), the first collection from the series, Perelman presented only the shortest of introductions. Beyond listing other participants not included in the volume, thanking the providers of space for the events and noting that the talks presented were edited "in the interest of concision and clarity," all Perelman provides as a frame for the book is:

I began the Talk Series in the spring of 1977. Since then there have been 37 talks. A "talk" is a broad designation - was the situation educational, creational, dramatic? Was information to be presented or were values to be embodied? Was the focus on the speaker or the community of speakers and audience? The answers varied. All speakers were presented with a common problem: to say something in public. In various cases this meant talking spontaneously, referring to notes and texts, reading written out essays, or abandoning written essays in midstream.

Perelman makes no attempt to further characterize what was easily the most radical departure in practice by American poets in twenty years. He is nearly as taciturn a few years later in his introduction to a second volume, Writing/Talks (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), where he at least describes the overall process as a "conversation." Perelman’s contribution to these volumes, two talks - one on "The First Person" which declares "That words are circuits. They involve the person in the transpersonal..." and one on "Sense," a reading of his book of poems, Primer - were his most visible critical acts prior to the publication of his doctoral dissertation, The Trouble with Genius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 17 years after the first talks. Thus the editorial/curatorial player of the early phases of language writing must be reconciled with the authoritative (in every sense of that word) later voice.

The constraints of this approach are most evident in what may be the finest section of the book.

The role of Grenier

The chapter on Bob Grenier is the first to acknowledge the degree to which this poet was simultaneously an initiator of the process and a mentor to many of the practitioners who shaped what became known quite a bit later as language writing. Structurally, the chapter is a pastiche in two movements, the first on the role of Grenier’s critical writing and the historic origins of language writing, the second on some of Grenier’s more intractable pieces of writing. Given that Perelman raised in the opening poem of the book the idea that

the unfathomable
particularity of the author’s mind, body,
and writing situation is the illegible
icon of reading

the misadventures of his readings through Grenier’s poetry is telling.

Misadventure is, I think, a more accurate term than misreading. Perelman himself uses the term "improper," precisely at the moment when he might have sketched out what an appropriate strategy might entail. The term occurs immediately prior to Perelman’s quotation of one of the more stunning works that constitute Grenier’s book/box Sentences:



Perelman’s comment follows:

Here, particularly, I can read the formation of my own reading procedures. I remember being quite boggled by this one. The underlying question when I spoke with Grenier about these cards was, ‘Is this one good enough? What’s so “good” about this one?’ (52)

This is an extraordinary response, placing the anxiety of judgment in front of, if not in place of, the process of reading. But it’s characteristic of Perelman’s practice in The Marginalization of Poetry, the shadow side of his worry over the politics of Andrews’s vocabulary. The poem "JOE" throws Perelman. Recounting a discussion with Grenier, Perelman seeks a narrative framework in which to read the work and is frustrated not to find one that, to his mind, is adequate. The most he gets is a sense of a person calling out for a response, not once but twice: "Fled is that signification... It is," Perelman concludes, "dumb - both in a fifth-grade and a Heideggerian sense. Perhaps the feeling of the futility of such calling out would drive someone to write "I HATE SPEECH."

Note: It is possible to read Perelman’s narrative of his own process and Grenier’s acted out version as a satire of critical reading. But to do so only calls up the absent space left by such satire that would then have been filled by a demonstration of alternative methods of proceeding. In this book at least, none are forthcoming.

But whose feeling of futility is Perelman describing here?

The Parsimony Principle

In a talk that I gave years ago (in Perelman’s own talk series), I described at length a process that, following linguistic convention, I called the Parsimony Principle, the act of harvesting meaning from a text by contextually framing it. A inescapable corollary of that principle is that readings are strongest that import the least extraneous material.

Note: This is nothing less than the method once advocated by New Criticism. The "problem" of New Criticism is not the practice of this method, but rather that its practitioners did not follow it honestly: the reach from close reading, in the most literal sense, to the reactionary aesthetic and political worldyiew they drew from it represents one of the greater leaps of logic in the history of ideas.

By this index, Perelman’s readings of Grenier are weak to the point of collapse.

It is not only not evident that this text entails the figure of a call that is reiterated after a lack of response, a figure that might then be blown up into any number of different potential narratives, it is not by any textual means decidable that there even is a repetition here at all. Perelman inadvertently demonstrates the case against such a reading four pages earlier, when he quotes another work from Sentences,

the sky flurries

in which the only way one can arrive at the obligatory twelve vowels is by including those of the capitalized letters, which Perelman calls a "title." Yet, as Perelman himself seems to note, those caps stand ambiguously at precisely the intersection between a title, which might be said to name the text that appears beneath it, and a caption, which penetrates the text, highlighting a particular aspect. There is no reason in the text for a reader to presume that the initial JOE is anything other than a title, not unlike the many pieces in Sentences labeled AMY, which Perelman interprets as naming a quoted speaker. It is not so much that one cannot "hear" the possibility of, say, the text ironically presented as an echo of its own title, nor that Perelman’s own imported contexts (or even Grenier’s "acted out... comic forlorn Romantic scenario" as Perelman calls it) would or should not occur to a reader. But the minute you choose between any, the work’s polysemy instantly deflates. Here is where I am prepared to argue that "JOE," like many of the works in Sentences (as well as many of Grenier’s works elsewhere), is "about" that nanosecond before choice itself occurs. Perelman quotes Grenier saying as much in the opening sentence of the essay "On Speech," the focus of the first half of Perelman’s chapter:

It isn’t the spoken any more than the written, now, that’s the progression from Williams, what now I want, at least, is the word way back in the head that is the thought or feeling forming out of the "vast" silence/noise of consciousness experiencing world all the time.... (np, bold face in the original)

Note: Perelman himself quotes this sentence right up to this same spot nine pages earlier.

The very smallest unit of time, well below the expanse of a single phoneme, nonetheless always has a beginning, middle and end.

Grenier’s prescient point

It is in this moment, during which recognition occurs but has not yet become choice that words are - Grenier is absolutely right about this - most themselves because they have not yet in any real way become our own.

Note: One might find that the whole of the Derridean project is inscribed here.

Grenier’s obsession with the physicality of language, whether orally or as script or as typography, can be traced right back to the opacity of language, an opacity that is lost the instant that language crosses over into discourse.

How should one hope to approach that moment in a work of writing? To discuss it endlessly, as Derrida might be said to do everywhere, ultimately circumambulates the problem without ever giving it life in the mind and body of a specific, and social, reader. The ability to do just this is precisely the genius of Grenier’s work. To ask of such a text, "Is this one good enough?" simply refuses to read what is at hand. Perelman’s reading is a litcrit variation on the politician’s rope-a-dope to a tough question - if you don’t want to answer the question, discuss something else. Poets should know better: if I put your hand on the burner of a hot stove, the appropriate response is not the number "4".

Overlooking Immanence

But that kind of response is the only one Perelman seems to permit himself. He performs the same kind of digressive free associations confronting Grenier’s more recent scrawled texts and, in so doing, misses an opportunity to explore the question of Grenier’s use of immanence to that of the Romantic poets.

Here, the process of academic (as distinct from purely critical) articulation overwhelms the sensuous act of reading. And all its implications and consequences. Perelman is forced to destroy the text in order to read it and so ends up not reading it at all. He characterizes Grenier’s Sentences as an "answer to the question of [Creeley’s] Pieces." In what metacritical narrative of literary history as a reified object is such an assertion even possible? Is Zukofsky’s "A" "an answer to the question of" Pound’s Cantos? Well, yes, but... It is within that "but" that the whole of the writing (Grenier’s or Zukofsky’s or anyone’s, including Bob’s) takes place.

Bob must know this. If we characterize his reading of Grenier as a misadventure in theory, there’s a double irony in that, in Perelman’s telling of the story, Grenier himself is the victim of the exact same pratfall. In his critical works at the rear of This 1, Grenier announces the end of criticism. Perelman accurately notes:

The aim may have been a self-presence of poems such that criticism would become obsolete, but the most influential moments in This 1 were criticism.... (42)

The Marginalization of Poetry presents us something of an inverse of this situation. It gives a reasoned, thoughtful and balanced reading of language writing, but in doing so leaves us further from its subject at the end of the book than at the beginning. Some variation on the problem with Grenier can be found in Perelman’s reading of Andrews, Watten, Howe, Melnick, Armantrout and others.

I don’t think that this is a fait accompli or that the problem lies simply in the process of critical thinking’s cleavage from the presentness and presence of its subject.

The Issue at the Heart

Instead, I think that an issue that continually lurks near the surface (and also near the heart) of almost all language writing is an ambivalence of intention, of intentionality as such. Almost by definition, normative academic discourse, that complex, plural, fragmented social process, is completely unable to verbalize that this might be a possibility, or that it is an important dimension to all writing, not simply Grenier’s.

The alternatives proposed to date are not many: the invocation of a discourse of the spiritual and the sublime, such as Stephen-Paul Martin and Rob Wilson have attempted, or the circularity of deconstruction or a positioning within the history of literature. But what none of these strategies seems ready to address is how to talk outside of a decidedly Judeo-Christian vocabulary of value of any work that is not, in any serious fashion, about.

The Doorway to Meaning

Not simply that it is not about something, but rather that it functions on an altogether different level. All of these academic strategies, Perelman’s included, strive to resolve the problem by situating the work into a metanarrative about. But an actual discussion of language writing cannot occur until the topic of aboutness is itself simply set aside and we get beyond its twisted sister, value, so that we might then begin to read what actually is present.

The Maintains, as someone once ironically termed it. It is revealing that Perelman discusses the work of Clark Coolidge only in the context of his and Larry Fagin’s parody of Maya Angelou. Or that in order to read David Melnick’s work, he must situate it within the context of zaum, a literature that to this day I do not believe Melnick has ever read.

A Test of Poetry

Or that the writer whose poetry is, to my mind, the necessary test of any method of reading language writing, Hannah Weiner [note 6], is not once mentioned in The Marginalization of Poetry.

Note: Weiner’s work differs from Grenier in that her writing proposes intention and aboutness while insisting that these lie outside of the mind of the author. In the Spicerian tradition of the poet as radio, Weiner names the channels into which she believes she’s tuned. The question of "How good is it?" is closely related to that of "To whom does this belong?" Weiner constantly undermines both questions.

What might this book have become had it been written for poets instead of as a strategy for professional advancement? Almost certainly it would have turned the present text inside out. It would embrace - rather than attempt to contain and explain away - the question of meaninglessness.


This would lead it to cover, among other things, different poets and different topics. The problem of the lyric for example. The meaning of meaninglessness and its distinctness from "nonsense"! - immediately apparent whenever we turn to art forms such as jazz or nonobjective painting, but functionally invisible within the history of English literature.

Note: This necessarily suggests that we might look to both music and art criticism as alternative discourses in our search for a discursive strategy that might be adapted for contemporary writing. Each field, however, has a set of dynamics - in music it’s the role given to performance and thus to the concept of virtuosity; in art it’s the omnipresence of capital as the determining index of value - that renders them problematic. But they at least have struggled with the problems of non-hypotactic modes of meaning.

Meaninglessness, occasionally known as opacity, is the category through which the functional illiteracy we might name, following Spicer, the English Department becomes visible.

It’s not that Perelman doesn’t know all this,

Note: It is, after all, precisely the pornographic element in genius, the topic of Perelman’s doctoral dissertation in which he attempts to discuss it under the category of difficulty. As Grenier demonstrates, the problem isn’t difficulty but rather quite the opposite. One might, however, write a history of opacity beginning with its origins in the difficult, the alien, the other in writing.

although he writes as if he feels guilty about it.

Note: As well he might. To be calculatedly hyperbolic about it, if the critical process that underpins the English Department makes it difficult, bordering on impossible, for people to ever understand how to read (let alone write) - the domains of the meaningless, the unintended, the opaque repeatedly demonstrate this - then the very best poet-teachers are all put into an untenable position not radically different in its structure from that confronted by Oscar Schindler - the most they can hope to do is to help a few bright students escape and to minimize the damage. Virtually without exception, this is the stance every decent poet in the academy I have ever known has taken. What far too few of them admit is that the process itself is designed to make graduates illiterate. And that to the degree that they are not functionally disruptive of the process (which, as Grenier demonstrated, first at Berkeley and then later at Tufts and Franconia, is professional suicide), they actively participate in a process that will make it harder for people to ever read or write poetry in any intelligent fashion. There is no way out of this double-bind from within the confines of the English Department.

Or wants to keep it a secret from his colleagues at Penn. Of "JOE," he writes, "I have included this particular poem and my interpretation as a reminder of how personal and contingent anyone’s entry into the literary field is." Yet in the very next sentence, he continues,

the literary here and now has to remain open enough to contain all meaning - old and new - or it withers rapidly.... (52)

That is the secret topic sentence around which a true critique and history of language writing still remains to be written.

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman

Photograph copyright © Erika McConnell, 1995

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