I've been reading Bob Perelman's The Trouble With Genius, a study of Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukovsky's writing, them main thesis of which seems to be that you can be too smart for your own good, at least by creating "masterworks" so dense that they cannot be understood by the common man intended to benefit from them. Perelman himself is a fairly well-known poet, some of whose works can be found in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, wherein he is described as a language poet with an overtly political sense of the consumer economy. Perelman's topic in Genius, dovetails nicely with his politics, if somewhat ironically (at least from his position). After all, the language movement was and is intended in part to expose the common man to the hegemonies and oppression that have become secretly encoded in everday life: all the way from the rigors of grammar and syntax up to undemocratic governments. But language poetry at its most pure is also its least comprehensible--by assailing such basic structures as grammar and the idea of poetry as a spoken medium, the poetry becomes a conceptual plaything which must be patiently explained to its audience rather than understood.
Which may be why I've just been leafing through Genius. I'm not the most academic of readers, and my knowledge of his four subjects is limited to a few concrete examples found in anthologies, or to less overtly complex works like Dubliners. Being explained to at length grows quickly dull. Instead of reading all the way through, I found myself lured to the laudatory quotes on the back of the book, one of which hails from New York School poet John Ashbery.
John Ashbery is one of the only three poets who have more than one book on my shelf. The New York School, as opposed to the language movement, seems more concerned with being immediate to the public, whether, as in Kenneth Koch's work, by creating funny post-modern pastiches, or in Ashbery's work, by creating wry, incomprehensible post-modern pastiches, including things like a sestina about Popeye. Perhaps it is better explained this way: the New York School consciously engages pop culture, while the language movement seeks to expose it. And while Perelman certainly isn't the most extreme practitioner of the language movement (his sentences do have a recognizable grammar, even if they don't directly connect with each other), I have to wonder whether Ashbery's comment on Perelman's book is a somewhat backhanded, or at least multilayered, compliment.
"Most poets define poetry by creating it. Bob Perelman creates it by defining it, and is thus one step ahead of all the other poets under the sun, one step closer to colliding with Zeno's vanishing point, to merging coyote with roadrunner, to winning the hand."
To create through definition seems to imply an academic, rather than an artistic task, to collide with Zeno's vanishing point it to reach stagnation, and merging coyote with roadrunner? This is a typically Ashberian statement, but is just so in its consious engagement and unstated approval of pop culture.
Welcome to the very first post! VersAtile is a blog of criticism and musings on poetry and writing, all carefully crafted by someone immensely unqualified to offer her views. The blog will feature one post per weekday. The first substantive post goes up tomorrow. If you have links or ideas to share, please email me.