21st-Century Modernism

From a review of Marjorie Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism, part of Jacket 2’s Marjorie Perloff celebration.

21st-Century Modernism is, we recall, a “manifesto.” As such, it was designed to provoke and it continues to do just that. Some readers, certainly, will still be piqued by Perloff’s rather offhand dismissal of the writers associated with The New American Poetry (Grove Press, 1960): “from the hindsight of the twenty-first century, their fabled ‘opening of the field’ was less revolution than restoration: a carrying-on, in somewhat diluted form, of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism” (2–3).[4] That dismissal (curiously reminiscent in tone of Hugh Kenner’s mis-description of the Objectivists as “men who have inherited a formed tradition”) is at first sight puzzling, given that Perloff has herself produced seminal accounts of many of those poets (O’Hara, Olson, Ashbery, to name only three).[5] But again, this is argument by manifesto and what drives it is Perloff’s conviction that some contemporary writers are reactivating an avant-gardism that was extinguished by the disaster of the Great War and whose initially dazzling potential is only now coming to be realized in modernism’s “second wave.” As she puts it in her chapter on Khlebnikov, “at the turn of the twenty-first century, the possibilities of chant and charm, zaum and word magic, largely dormant in the ‘rationalist’ and personalist years of mid-century, are once again invoked” (153). Perloff’s fascinating and ingenious readings are powerful inducements to accept this claim — indeed, perhaps only she is sufficiently gifted to convince the Russianless reader that Klebnikov’s tacky etymologies and bizarre numerical schemas are capable of producing a truly exciting poetry — though the force of the manifesto format makes us ask at the same time whether this kind of “word magic” can provide an adequate response to the multiple dilemmas of late modernity (or, indeed, to those that the luckless Klebnikov found himself confronting in an earlier time). 21st-Century Modernism reverberates with difficult questions of this kind; in doing so, it offers a wager on the literary future that no committed reader of contemporary writing can afford to ignore.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. 21st Century Lit It’s obviously a little early for this, but fun nonetheless: The Millions speculates about a 21st-century literature syllabus. They’re doing it on behalf of an...
  2. Whatever Happened to Modernism? The title of this post is a means for acknowledging the title of Gabriel Josipovici’s newest book of criticism, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, which touched...
  3. More Calls for Modernism I am glad to be reading Duncan’s text as we head into 2011—the second decade of the century after the modern century. There is no...
  4. Modernism's Comeback I would have to seriously question the placement of Coetzee there. But anyway, I'm all for modernism's comeback, given that in our era we're seeing...
  5. The Case for Modernism The Wall Street Journal has a great review of What Ever Happened to Modernism?, the new critical work out by Gabriel Josipovici. The review makes...

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