Caution: Deconstruction Ahead : POETIC LICENSE Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric<i> by Marjorie Perloff(Northwestern University Press: $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper; both 450 pp.) </i>


Marjorie Perloff has a relationship toward the “postmodern” poetry she champions as a critic much like the relationship of Donna Elvira to Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera. She has a passionate enthusiasm for its potential that the repeated experience of its unworthiness never dampens. Perloff is a capable critic who sometimes marvels unduly at rudimentary prosodic skills but who has a basically serviceable sense of what is wheat and what is chaff. She is, however, a professional critic, and these days in academia that often entails a fealty to French models of discourse and valuation that are antithetical to literary common sense.

“Postmodern” is an epithet that can encompass almost anything written since 1950 that might strike admirers of Eliot or Stevens as odd or, ideally, baffling (thus needing professional decoding assistance from a critic). Gertrude Stein is, for Perloff, the wellspring of this aesthetic, the cote postmoderne, as she styles it with a glaze of authenticating French. One of the best essays in “Poetic License” is an appreciation of the various verbal textures to be found in Stein’s work from the smooth to the rebarbative. She is an OK unriddler of a rune like Stein’s “portrait” entitled “Jean Cocteau”:

Needs be needs be needs be near.

Needs be needs be needs be.


This is where they have their land astray

Two say.

Even here she is prone to discover spurious double meanings (she’d have us believe “needs be” a pun on “kneads bee”) and misses obvious ones (she glosses “Two say” as a pun on “to say,” and not on the obvious French verbal tic, tu sais ).

This kind of critical filigree work has two serious limitations: (1) It can be applied equally well to a text purposing a meaning as to one generated randomly; (2) it cannot succeed as advocacy (i.e., a sore is a sore is a sore, and festers the same by any other name). These are limitations only as they apply to the text under scrutiny, however. A critic may actually appear to advantage in defending unworthy texts, much as defense lawyers shine brighter in proportion as the defendantss’ sins are black. The basic myth of the avant-garde (a myth implicit in the “postmodern” label) is that art progresses by historical stages, and each advance is perceived by the uninitiated rabble as sacrilege or nonsense. Painting provides the best paradigm: Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Cubism, abstraction, pop, and then the babel of the postmodern.

Squeezing poetry’s feet into this conceptual slipper is not an easy task, since the formal options open to poets have not changed in the last 40 years or even longer. There are, rather, operational modes and rhetorical strategies that have appealed to roughly the same intellectual strata of readers over the last century or more. One such strand combines high prophetic utterance with demotic speech and populist sentiment--the Whitman-Ginsberg axis. Perloff has a sharp ear for both what is good and what is blague in this vein. Her essay on Ginsberg is a model of how to write a rave: “To read Ginsberg’s ‘Collected Poems’ in 1985 is something of a shock--a frisson of pure pleasure. Was our poetry really this energetic, this powerful and immediate just a few short decades ago?” She also does a good job of vivisection on the corpus of Paul Blackburn, a beat of a different (dumber) character. She is withering toward one of W. C. Williams’ heirs, W. S. Merwin, and full of applause for another, Lorine Niedecker. The catholicity of her tastes encompasses just (or justifiable) estimates of Sylvia Plath, D. H. Lawrence, John Ashbery and various epigones of Ezra Pound.

However, every critic wants to carve out some new intellectual territory that will thereafter bear a plaque, “Discovered in (year) by (critic’s name).” It is here, where she chooses to plant the flag of discovery in the purlieus of “language poetry,” that Perloff will fail to convince any but the converted. Here is a snippet from a poem she particularly extols, Lyn Hejinian’s “The Guard”:

Yesterday the sun went West and sucked

the sea from books. My witness

is an exoskeleton. Altruism suggestively fits.

It is true, I like to go to the hardware store

and browse on detail. So sociable the influence

of Vuillard, so undying in disorder is order ...

Of this, and of poems no better, she claims that they have “less to do with the Romantic conception of poetry as ‘an intensely subjective and personal expression’ (Hegel) . . . than with the original derivation of lyric as a composition performed on the lyre.” To which my own immediate and unmediated response is: “Lyre, lyre, pants on fire!” Hejinian is dull, and nothing can excuse dullness in a poet, except a critic intent on originality.

Perloff has poets more dire than Lyn Hejinian whom she’d extenuate: She has Steve McCaffery, the author of “Panopticon,” from which she quotes:

Again and again. And so on. And so forth. And back again.

And once more. And one more time. Again and again and

through and through. Over and over again and again.

Moments anticipatory of. Then cancelled. And then again.

And again and again. And over and over ...

“And,” Perloff notes, “this prose unit ends with two pages of ‘and on and on and on,’ the two words forming a kind of concrete poem made of successive columns.”

Perloff is not entirely comfortable with McCaffery’s Goofy (in the Disney sense) koans. His writing provokes her to address “the question of style”: “Like many of the poets loosely associated with the ‘language’ movement . . . McCaffery writes a critical prose that seems, on a first reading, irritatingly jargon-ridden--indeed, downright ugly:

“The cipheral text involves the replacement of a traditionally ‘readerly’ function . . . by a first order experience of graphemes, their material tension and relationships and their sign potentiality as substance, hypo-verbal units simultaneously pushing towards, yet resisting contextual significations.”

In other words, McCaffery is leery of texts possessing an ascertainable significance. Since his own lack any worth decoding, this is a shrewd tactic for him to pursue.

To her credit, it may be said that Perloff herself eschews such pseudo-scientific silliness, and even knows enough to be embarrassed by it. Why then does she praise those who traffic in it? Because, like Everest, it’s there. The English departments of the better universities these days are controlled by tailors who design clothes for the same naked emperor. One either salutes their fashion sense or perishes. Increasingly, the emperor’s wardrobe is acclaimed. Thousands of English majors who know, as Perloff does, that such piffle is not poetry also know on which side their bread is buttered.

And why is the piffle written at all? Because the myth of the avant-garde still has enough currency to make obscurantism a profitable enterprise. If one can create a jargon sufficiently impenetrable and portentous and then refuse to speak any other language, one will be secure against most criticism. Deconstructive critics and related charlatans have been profiting from this insight for many years. Now poets have realized that there is a similar ecological niche for them in academia. As Perloff points out, in a moment of inspired match-making: “The poems of a Charles Bernstein or a Lyn Hejinian, not to speak of Leiris or Cage, are more consonant with the theories of Derrida and De Man, Lucan and Lyotard, Barthes and Benjamin, than are the canonical texts that are currently being ground through the poststructuralist mill.” She would have such critics forget about Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens and write about poets like themselves.

This is a suggestion that I heartily endorse. If deconstructive critics would only leave real literature alone and devote their entire attention to the likes of the language poets, solipsism will have achieved its masterpiece, an academic ghetto that can do double duty as a quarantine ward.