Book review: 21st century modernism: the “new” poetics

Marjorie Perloff. 21st century modernism: the “new” poetics. Blackwell Manifestoes. Blackwell, 2002. 222 pp.

It’s too early to refer to contepmorary poetry as post-modern because we’re still working with what we’ve inherited from T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, and Velimir Khlebnikov.

Marjorie Perloff laments the “unfulfilled promise of the revolutionary poetic impulse” in most contemporary poetry. In her book, “21st Century Modernism: The ‘New’ Poetics,” (Blackwell, 2002) she argues that contemporary mainstream poetry is “singularly unambitious in its attitude to the materiality of the text” and that it’s the “particular legacy of early modernism that the new poetics has sought to recover.”

Her study examines the question: Despite the predominance of a ‘tepid and unambitious’ Establishment poetry, what if there were a powerful avant-garde to take up once again the experimentation of the early twentieth century?

She explores this question across five chapters: Avant-Garde Eliot; Gertrude Stein’s Differential Syntax; The Conceptual Poetics of Marcel Duchamp; Khlebnikov’s Soundscapes: Letter, Number, and the Poetics of Zaum; and “Modernism” at the Millennium.

The innovations of early modernists, or avant-gardists, changed the course of poetry as we now know it, she argues. “The key concept for each of these poets is that of constructivism—an understanding of poetry in its classical Greek meaning as ‘poesis’ or ‘making,’ with the specific understanding that language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts and feelings outside and prior to it, is itself the site of meaning-making.”

Experimental poetry, she says, is unimaginable without the example of Marcel Duchamp, whose conceptualism is best understood “as the drive to render unto art the things that are art – which is to say, the realm of the mind as well as the eye, the realm of ideas and intellect as well as visual image.” The resulting revolution transformed both visual and verbal language and is therefore central to poetics in the twentieth century, Perloff says.

As codified by Roman Jakobson and other Russian formalists, she says, the ‘word as such’ or self-sufficient word came to mean that literary language is strictly opposed to practical language, that poetry is language in its aesthetic function and cannot be understood as a form of representation, self-expression, or direct communication.

“The avant-garde momentum of the early decades of the 20th century has found new channels – channels mediated by a succession of avant-gardes from the Objectivists of the 1930s to the John Cage circle and its intersection with New York poetry/painting and Black Mountain in the 1950s and 1960s, to the performance poetries and ethnopoetics of the 1970s,” she says. These movements have positioned themselves as postmodern, but as we move into the 21st century, she says, the modern/postmodern divide has emerged as more apparent than real, and the modernist challenge remains open.

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