Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I have this desire to read each poem of Bob Perelman’s IFLIFE closely, to worry over it and poke at it. Andy Gricevich’s comment to yesterday’s note – he calls IFLIFE “one of those "Oh –THIS is why I love poetry" experiences – strikes me as exactly correct. It’s definitely one of those books where the more you look, the more closely you read, the more you will find. That’s an issue, or question, that Perelman himself raises in “A Guide to Homage to Sextius Propertius,” another poem from the section People that I looked at yesterday.

Before I read the poem, I went back to my (still relatively new) Library of America Pound & reread “Homage to Sextius Propertius,” indeed even went to Wikipedia & read up on the real Propertius & his fellow Augustans there. And I went back & reread Pound’s interview in the Paris Review, perhaps because that was the last Pound I’d read, and I thought about the Pound panel I’d sat in on at the MLA, with Perelman chairing no less, Ben Friedlander focusing on Pound’s broadcasts, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Jennifer Scappetone discussing Pound as influence, then Barrett Watten on Pound as symptom, reading Pound through Adorno (and, to a lesser degree, reading Adorno’s work on the authoritarian personality through Pound as well).

More than any other modernist, even Gertrude Stein, Pound’s role – indeed, Pound himself – has changed during my lifetime. When I was first coming up as a poet in the 1960s, one sensed a great unease with any reference to Pound’s “suburban prejudice” of anti-Semitism or his propaganda for the fascists during WW2, not so much out of deference to Pound per se but rather simply (and simultaneously) to keep the work available – people like Robert Silliman Hillyer had not so very long ago suggested that this was not a good thing & Hillyer (unlike Pound) had won a Pulitzer Prize – and also from deference to certain elderly wizards of the then-neonatal Pound industry, particularly Hugh Kenner, about whom one sensed that part of the attraction to Pound was, if not political per se, at least economic. That was a hornet’s nest best avoided.

Now, however, anyone who sidestepped “the problem” would look like a doofus. Indeed, as virtually everyone at the Pound panel appeared to suggest, the way, possibly the only way, to recover what matters in Pound is to go directly at the problem, to ask what in Pound’s politics is in harmony with his aesthetics & particularly the practice of The Cantos. One of the books that helped create this reversal was Perelman’s own The Trouble with Genius some twelve years ago.

Perelman’s “Guide” rhymes with Pound’s largely to the degree that each is composed of ten parts (in both cases using Roman numerals, a distinction that is not incidental). But Perelman’s “Guide” is less of a Cliff Notes tour of Ez, then it is a look at the issues Pound’s work raises for Perelman the poet & Perelman the Jew. To say problematic doesn’t really touch it. One might say of Perelman’s “Guide” “this time it’s personal.” Consider, for example, the predicate to the sentence that is the first section:

Now if ever it is time to translate modernism into a contemporary idiom

into “something to read in normal circumstances”

to quote Homage to Sextus Propertius, one of the few moments when Pound’s poetry

was fully contemporary, when he felt the distentions of writing time most generously

and thus most accurately.

Where you expect the predicate, at the sentence’s end, it’s missing. This throws the reader back on what at first seemed to the sort of architectural phrasing needed to set up a more complex syntactic structure – indeed, the “true” predicate here is it is time. And if ever sets up a sense of urgency – this is a crisis.

Much of the poem that follows deals with the same questions of address we find everywhere in this book. Pound after all is the epitome of the problem, constantly trying to raise the level of discourse by reminding you just how little you know, ideograms poised like a weapon (or, to use a more exact parallel, for the same reasons that gangsta slang choose terminology that shuts the outsiders out), trying to make a living – Friedlander suggests that Pound was not unsuccessful, consider that he had two households to support (three if one considers that his parents had retired to Rapallo by 1940) – through “popular” radio broadcasts ostensibly on economics that are the most overt racist ravings conceivable, cryptic to the point of comedy, but who would then write some of the finest poetry of the century, some of literally on toilet paper, in a cage at war’s end.

Perelman’s concluding questions are ones to which he has returned, in both his poetry & prose, his entire life. Here is the opening of section X, which borrows from Basil Bunting’s famous characterization of The Cantos as The Alps:

Will The Cantos outlast the Pound industry?

Or have they made it so that any poetry, to be read outside its group

must manufacture its own industry?


Do the scholiasts’ clarifications

do more than add to the rubbish at the base camps?


Heat-soured milk

overburdened verbal habits

the cold peak beckoning.

Scholiasts is an interesting word choice here, deriving as it does from a diminutive. What is the relation of the commentator to a reader – clearly Perelman doesn’t agree with Hilton Kramer’s hysterical lament that our times went to hell because people stopped letting the likes of him serve as our gatekeepers to Kulchur. Or Bloom. Or Vendler.

Yet if poetry is language being used to the fullest, how can it exist if it self-censors in order to communicate broadly? This is a problem that has bedeviled poetry since the days when the troubadours developed one literature for external consumption & another (trobar clus) just for themselves. Not unlike Pound, Perelman would love to have it both ways, to write fully & be read widely. That cleavage, that gap, is precisely the distance that is always being negotiated in IFLIFE. Pound, Perelman suggests, did not solve the problem. The poem ends by quoting “Homage to Sextus Propertius” not at its finest moment:

“Though my house is not propped up by Taenarian columns from Laconia

(associated with Neptune and Cerebus)”

that is not something someone “in the throes of some particular emotion”

would actually say. It’s something you


wrote. For pleasure


in flimsy exception

to general war.