Books for the News, Literature

Our Original Genius

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Marjorie Perloff is the kind of critic who doesn’t require an introduction. From her pathbreaking work on the experimental inheritances of modernist poetics to her championing of outsider approaches, both on and off the page, she has earned her moniker as grand dame of the avant garde. This past month alone saw Perloff reach two additional milestones, which came commingled under festive circumstances: a celebration of her eightieth birthday at the thusly inaugurated First Convention of the Chinese/American Association for Poetry and Poetics in Wuhan, China.
Perloff abroad seems to have much in combine with the stateside prowess we’ve come to admire. Joined by pomo poetry’s jester-magician Charles Bernstein, Perloff lectured on how she became a critic, and engaged with topics ranging from Duchamp’s Readymades to Ginsberg’s Howl. On her return to American shores, Perloff was greeted with an incisive piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books on “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” where Joseph Campana engaged with issues of legacy and cultural visibility for four of our most celebrated (and occasionally, maligned!) literary critics, locating Perloff in the company of Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and Marjorie Garber. As Campana put it:

It’s hard not to get caught up in Perloff’s zeal; I read her writing with real eagerness precisely because she seems certain that literature is alive, well, and constantly changing.

The piece considers Perloff’s most recent offering Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which takes a twenty-first century stance on the practices of appropriation, assemblage, and information channeling that dominate contemporary “unoriginal” works. What’s most compelling about Perloff’s take is how personal she finds these works to be, tracing their lineage of choice back to T. S. Eliot’s vocal citations in The Wasteland and even Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, while extolling the ingenuity and pleasure to be found in this kind of remix.

Need another opinion? Modern Language Review just weighed in, summarizing Unoriginal Genius and its offerings:

Is this continuity or rupture, or perhaps an arriere-garde ‘with a difference’? Perloff does not engage at length with these questions in the conclusion, thus leaving, like the poets she analyses, space for the reader to complete the text by teasing out the implications of the kind of poetry she has introduced and inviting us to think about the next direction for poetry in the new century, whether it be forward, back, or around with a twist.

We couldn’t agree more, and though we’ve come to depend on Perloff’s generous, astute readings of some of our favorite poets over the years, there’s something special about the space on offer in UG. That kind of breathing room is its own sort of legacy, one absolutely overdue, and like the writing Perloff so aptly analyzes, surprisingly personal in its invitation.