On holiday, most people I saw were either reading magazines (not of a literary variety) or novels (ditto), if they were reading anything at all. I guess people feel they can relax more with a book that isn’t too demanding but allows time to pass quicker while the tan deepens. I’ve never been able to do this. I get bored by trashy novels and there’s nothing much I can do about it. So I was reading Marjorie Perloff on the beach, her 21st Century Modernism: the New Poetics, and found it quite gripping.
Perloff charts the development of 20th century modernism by analysing four key figures. She concludes by assessing their influence on a small selection of poets today.
The first of the four is TS Eliot. In my ignorance, I hadn’t realised that many experimental poets and critics today can’t stand Eliot, mainly (it seems) because they disagree with his political and religious beliefs. Perloff shows how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was a complete shock to the literary world when it first appeared and reminds us how radical Eliot’s vision must have been. Form and content were perfectly fused (but not in a traditional way) and the poem could never be adequately paraphrased. Every word counted, and words led to ideas rather than being embodiments of preconceived ideas. Its music and its tenuously connected phrases were entirely radical for its time. She then asks what changed after the First World War, why Eliot became a far more conservative figure, and embarks on a fascinating and, I’ve no doubt, controversial journey into TSE’s life, psyche, and work.
She then moves onto Gertrude Stein, whose disrupted syntax and repetition posed awkward questions about conventional expression. Again, though, what struck me was Stein’s vision. Most people just sit down and write a poem based on how poems are normally written, and on how sentences are normally structured (with a little poetic license). Stein’s mind worked in a different and completely uncompromising way. For example, she declared that nouns were the least important of all words and made it her business to rid her work of them as far as possible. Her work increasingly shifted away from any sense of a subject to a language-experiment. Perloff’s analysis of Stein’s poem, ‘Glazed Glitter’, was really interesting. She reads the poem with great intelligence and teases out resonances, allusions and common roots between words, many of which would otherwise have escaped my notice. However, I confess that I enjoyed Perloff’s reading more than the poem itself. Is that a terrible thing to say? I feel this about a good number of mainstream poems too, when people say interesting things about them. Of course, without the words, the analysis couldn’t have been written. Perloff definitely succeeded in giving me ways to look into Gertrude Stein’s work, which can often be baffling even to people who are huge admirers.
Anyway, I’ll move onto Perloff’s third and fourth subjects, Marcel Duchamp, and Velimir Khlebnikov, over the next day or two.