Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Marjorie Perloff's 21st Century Modernism - Part 2

This is part 2 of a post on Marjorie Perloff’s book, 21st Century Modernism: The New Poetics. Part 1 is here. From TS Eliot and Gertrude Stein, we now move to Marcel Duchamp and Velimir Khlebnikov.

It’s difficult to do justice to Marcel Duchamp’s conceptualism in the space and time I have here, as the ideas involved are complex and not easily explained. Much better to read Perloff’s chapter on him, as she does an admirable job. I liked the illustrations of Duchamp’s work in the book – really interesting!

Duchamp asked, “Can one make works which are not works of art?” and created pieces (‘readymades’) using found objects. He often made several copies of a work. The original has usually been lost, and the small differences between each surviving work are central to Duchamp’s ideas. The ‘aura’ of an original, the artiness of an artwork, is no longer key. Difference, even tiny differences, the idea of ‘infrathin’, is central to his outlook. In addition, Duchamp pioneered the concept of ‘delay’, a deferment, so that when one looks at one of his creations, what’s important is no longer what’s immediately seen, but how it is processed in the mind. The aspect of self-expression is negated too although, given that he could take months of painstaking work to produce his works, there surely is still an element of self-expression, no matter how hard he tried to expel it. I guess this led later to more populist forms of mass-produced art, such as Andy Warhol’s baked beans etc, but it was also crucial for less populist experimental work, including poetry.

In discussing Duchamp’s work, White Box, and the questions which arise from it, Perloff states:

“...how clearly Duchamp understood what the function of poetry would be in the ‘age of reproduction’ and its seeming loss of aura. From the smallest linguistic difference (p / b), to the key deviation from a given metre or rhyme, to the synonymity which is never complete and the homonymity that produces puns, poetic language is the language that focuses on delay - a delay ordinary discourse is bent on erasing.”

Velimir Khlebnikov was interested in relationships between words, particularly at the level of sound. He wanted to:

“...find the unity of the world’s languages in general, built from units of the alphabet. A path to a universal beyondsense [zaum] language.”

Khlebnikov had, it seems to me, a hermetic approach to this task. It wasn’t so much the etymological roots of words he explored. He formed a system based on syllables. Even words which had no objective etymological connection were connected by Khlebnikov if they shared syllabic sounds. Words had content not on the basis of meaning but on how they looked and, above all, how they sounded. He made up words and related them to other real words on the basis of sound, and also made nouns verbs, adjectives adverbs etc. What a word represented in the real world didn’t matter, simply its place in the “language field” i.e. Khlebnikov’s system of connections.

His contribution to ‘sound poetry’ is clearly immense, and his experiments are fascinating. What I also found fascinating were other poems, written in a period of turmoil and famine (Khlebnikov later died from malnutrition). These poems were much more straightforward. ‘Russia and Me’ is comic satire – here are the first few lines:

Russia has granted freedom to thousands and thousands.
It really was a terrific thing to do,
People will never forget it.

His poems on the suffering during the famine are graphic and chilling, entirely lacking in self-pity (an excerpt from ‘Hunger’):

Women and children wander the woods,
gathering leaves from the birch trees
for soup: birch borscht, birch-bouillon.

He had two sides to him. On the one hand, the concept of zaum, a poetry driven by theory, which has been influential on many experimental poets today. On the other hand, a poetry driven from necessity. Perloff says of it:

“...Khlebnikov’s late poetry, threatened as it was by material and psychological constraints, dispenses with all theories as to what poetry should be.”

Both sides of him are important, I think.

Perloff’s book closes with a chapter on how the four central modernists – Eliot, Stein, Duchamp and Khlebnikov – have influenced poets writing today, an influence that is still playing itself out, of course – consciously or unconsciously – in the work of many interesting poets in the 21st century.

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