Friday, January 19, 2007

 

The title poem of Bob Perelman’s IFLIFE is a long piece, 26 pages in all, that occurs in its own section, the book’s second, entitled “Subject Matter.” The idea of giving the poem one title, the section (which contains no other work) another is something that happens twice in IFLIFE, the second occurrence in the last of the book’s five sections where a poem entitled “Tank Top” occupies a section that goes by the acronym “FUBAR.”

In both cases, the long poem is itself a compilation of titled sections that one wants, at least partly, to read as individual poems, not unlike the way one reads “Voice Play” at the end of People. But with both “IFLIFE” & “Tank Top” the interior poems have their titles centered, which gives the effect of making them appear to be more in the flow of the text, unlike “Voice Play,” ¹ and in “IFLIFE,” Perelman runs a continuing thread through each of its ten subpoems or sections, Laurence Britt’s “14 characteristics common to fascist regimes.” Since the poems also go back & forth between poetry & prose (they have a tendency to start in verse form, then spread out, so to speak, going back & forth, passages in verse as short as a single line or up to just about a page). One consequence, and I’ve thought about this for three days, is that there is no single page I could type up here that would be, in any useful manner, “representative.”

In many respects, tho, “IFLIFE” is deeply representative of Perelman’s interests as a poet – going between the personal & political, the historical & critical, the chronicler of daily life. He names names along the way, tho not so much in the way, say, Ted Berrigan did – there are, I think, just two references where only a first name is given & you’re supposed to recognize the allusion: “George says ‘up is better than down’,” alluding to the linguist Lakoff’s theory of metaphoric frames &, earlier, “One can think of contemporaries here: Ron’s SOQ” – this following a quotation, not from me, to the effect that “’The distinction a critic makes between Modern-self-analytical and Old Master –representational refers less to the works compared than to his own chosen stance – to be analytic about the one and polemically naive about the other.”

Elsewhere, Perelman himself affects naïveté, misspelling the name of Martin Scorsese, ascribing an Allen Ginsberg anecdote from the film No Direction Home about the song “Hard Rain” to “The Time’s (sic) They Are A-Changin" a work with a very different relationship to the literal and the role of language & imagery. The error reduces Ginsberg to a purveyor of political correctness, which wasn't Ginsberg's point at all.

“IFLIFE,” the poem, is Bob Perelman’s love-hate story with the whole of poetry. It’s interesting to see who Perelman goes after just as it is where he pulls his punches. An imaginary Ginsberg is one such target, but language poetry is another, as when Perelman conjures a Greek chorus & puts words into the mouth of one of its speakers:

That the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly says are still radical are actually super-codified now. And that’s my whole point. We need to rethink that equation.

I don’t know of any so-called langpo who either thinks or has ever asserted that the devices of the 1970s are in any sense above or outside of history – if anything, quite the opposite. So it’s interesting to wonder just what perspective Perelman is trying to present here, a position more in keeping with caricatures than the thing itself. And it’s interesting to read the following passage substituting the name Amiri Baraka for Thyrsis:

I think it’s interesting that Thyrsis came into the conversation. Because I think that we don’t observe enough that in darts or in gymnastics it’s possible for someone to be an innovator, who shows you a new way of making the moves, that they themselves might not take very far. And I would say that Thyrsis is an astonishing figure because he makes possible the careers of about ten other poets. Bruce Andrews is only possible because of Thyrsis. And for me that’s not a negative judgment on Bruce Andrews’s work, which I find very powerful. But it comes straight out of some of the Thyrsis work of the late 60s and early 70s. Thyrsis shows you how you can do it, but he usually does it in a limited sphere. He’s very restless. And he’s not an author who goes toward . . . I don’t know what to call it: personal insight”

Now reread that same passage and substitute the name Matthew Arnold for Thyrsis. Thyrsis was a shepherd in Virgil’s Seventh Eclog that Arnold appropriated for the title of an elegy for Arthur Hugh Clough.

If “IFLIFE” is a complex, problematic poem – the two quotations above both come from its next-to-last section or subpoem, entitled “Now Call It A Poem” – it’s because Bob Perelman is a very angry man and Bob Perelman hates, utterly despises, the whole idea of conflict. And because his subject here is not just poetry, but the poetry that is nearest and dearest to him.

Perelman is hardly the first or only self-conflicted poet in the world. It’s a role at least as old as Rimbaud & just possibly goes back all the way to Gilgamesh. And while there any number of poets of all types, from Robert Duncan & Clayton Eshleman to Hart Crane & James Merrill to Franz Wright & Bill Knott who could be said to be writers who have chosen (or been given) to be the conflict & not merely to speak of it, Perelman, like Eshleman, Andrews, Ginsberg & Hannah Weiner, does so consciously. The result here is that “IFLIFE” – and IFLIFE – is an extraordinarily passionate work, one that demonstrates that the poetic & critical thought are not opposing impulses but deeply intertwined, inseparable, hectoring us at every turn.

 

 

¹ Graphically, “Voice Play” is the only poem, or series, whose internal poems have titles at the left margin. One might, therefore, read them as being more subsections than “IFLIFE” perhaps, save that these texts are more distinct one from the next in terms both of content and form – they are distinct, short works, such as the couplet “Ideal Reader” that I quoted on Monday.

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