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Gnoetry and the New Perloff Book, Unoriginal Genius

December 13, 2010
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I just saw Marjorie Perloff has a new book of poetics out this month — Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century — which focuses on the poetics of textual “recycling” (reframing and citation of existing texts) in the late 20th century to the present in relation to its Oulipean and Concrete predecessors. Here’s the blurb:

What is the place of individual genius in a global world of hyper-information— a world in which, as Walter Benjamin predicted more than seventy years ago, everyone is potentially an author? For poets in such a climate, “originality” begins to take a back seat to what can be done with other people’s words—framing, citing, recycling, and otherwise mediating available words and sentences, and sometimes entire texts. Marjorie Perloff here explores this intriguing development in contemporary poetry: the embrace of “unoriginal” writing. Paradoxically, she argues, such citational and often constraint-based poetry is more accessible and, in a sense, “personal” than was the hermetic poetry of the 1980s and 90s.

Perloff traces this poetics of “unoriginal genius” from its paradigmatic work, Benjamin’s encyclopedic Arcades Project, a book largely made up of citations. She discusses the processes of choice, framing, and reconfiguration in the work of Brazilian Concretism and Oulipo, both movements now understood as precursors of such hybrid citational texts as Charles Bernstein’s opera libretto Shadowtime and Susan Howe’s documentary lyric sequence The Midnight. Perloff also finds that the new syncretism extends to language: for example, to the French-Norwegian Caroline Bergvall writing in English and the Japanese Yoko Tawada, in German. Unoriginal Genius concludes with a discussion of Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptualist book Traffic—a seemingly “pure’” radio transcript of one holiday weekend’s worth of traffic reports. In these instances and many others, Perloff shows us “poetry by other means” of great ingenuity, wit, and complexity.

The subtitle reminds me of Mac Low’s term “otherwise” to describe those poets and writers (such as himself) who work to be truly surprised by their textual creations. His idea of surprise was not tied to the idea of originality, and his use of deterministic procedures to compose texts from existing works (by Pound and Stein, for example) certainly made him a poet of exceeding “unoriginality.” Although I think I would rather be titillated, aroused, disturbed or otherwise bothered by my Gnoetry works than surprised, the idea of “otherwise” still applies–“other” than myself, “other” than my words, “other” than my ego’s need for perpetual reinforcement.

Gnoetry isn’t mentioned in this blurb (and probably isn’t mentioned in the book, although I can’t be certain until I see it), but it is very likely one of any dozen or so other projects in digital composition that have been overlooked here. When I first read the blurb for the book, I assumed it would deal extensively with the use of computer programs to engage variously with the reconstruction/reconfiguration/reframing of existing texts. I’m a little less hopeful now upon closer reading. I think the use of programs like Gnoetry have allowed me personally to find a place “in a global world of hyper-information” that I think is relevant, meaningful and engaged with living and being in these present social, cultural and political conditions.

Regardless, it is somewhat validating to see such a large figure in the poetics of the “otherwise” for whom I hold much respect taking on this subject which is so central to the Gnoetry project.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. eddeaddad permalink*
    December 14, 2010 12:59 am

    > When I first read the blurb for the book, I assumed it would deal
    > extensively with the use of computer programs to engage variously with
    > the reconstruction/reconfiguration/reframing of existing texts.

    no, bro, that’s the book YOU got to write!

  2. eRoGK7 permalink*
    December 14, 2010 6:44 pm

    Maybe I will if I ever seek out a PhD. And if I don’t get too distracted by other projects.

    • eddeaddad permalink*
      December 15, 2010 4:28 am

      ya know, the more I think about it… why do humanities scholars try to make their work as inaccessible as possible? I mean, if I want to read Perloff’s opinions (which, as you point out, are likely to be incomplete) I gotta order a $35 BOOK? Without even a free preview?!? same goes for poetry… I was reading the web page of some dude who does oulipo poems, but if I want to read his poems… I got to pay $16 for a physical anthology? wtf?

      Don’t get me wrong, man, I love books, I have a pile of them next to me as I type this, and when I got a Kindle as a present I returned it and used the credit to order lovely physical huggable books! But for scholarship… well, something like the ACL Anthology is a better way of doing things; thousands of language research papers immediately available for FREE! And that’s for the sort of research that’s been used to create startups and multimillion-dollar companies! In large part because we share information as much as possible even to people who at first might not realize they need it.

      I guess my points are: 1) I’m really glad I got my PhD in computer science rather than English. 2) if the humanities hopes to stay relevant in an era where most language is delivered over the internet, it has to, you know, deliver language over the internet, and 3) books are by definition a suboptimal way of doing this. luckily folks in the digital humanities are starting to figure this out.

      ok end of rant sorry bout that… I guess I’m just worried that as NLP and CL start taking on the tasks that humanists have traditionally done, we’ll mess it up, and ironically it’ll be because of communication problems!

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