We haven't always put a high premium on originality in writing. Alexander Pope defined "true wit" as "Nature to advantage dress'd, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd"; in other words, the best poet makes memorable lines out of what everybody already knows. It was the Romantics, in the nineteenth century, who made the expression of original personal experience the highest value. They gave us the idea that the poet should say something new, and that the poem should bear the authentic stamp of its maker: (copyright) Shelley, and no one else.
One can still be a poet of Shelleyan stature in the twenty-first century, Marjorie Perloff assures us in her new critical study, Unoriginal Genius. But the whole notion of "originality" has become problematic in our brave new technological world, where the poet finds herself awash in seas of electronic texts, enmeshed in digital networks (Wordsworth used the word "unfriended" in Lyrical Ballads, but he sure didn't mean it in the Facebook sense), and enabled by all sorts of revelatory new cross-media creative platforms. One way of being a "genius" in the new century—or rather a whole bundle of ways—is precisely to turn one's back on the notion of originality: to make poetry out of what's already available, the words of others.
In the first section of Unoriginal Genius Perloff surveys a century of reaction to the cult of authenticity in poetry, a century of experiments in quotation, citation, pastiche, copying, found text, and outright plagiarism. It all begins with the first generation of Modernist poets and artists, of course—T. S. Eliot larding The Waste Land with quotations from his reading, Ezra Pound beginning The Cantos with an extended translation from Homer, Picasso pasting bits of newspapers into his Cubist still lives; or more radically, Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades" (like the urinal turned upside down and titled "Fountain"). Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project in its unfinished state (it's unclear how much commentary Benjamin would have inserted among his vast sea of quotations) becomes an important precursor to contemporary "unoriginal writing," and dovetails nicely with Language Poet Charles Bernstein's libretto to the opera Shadowtime, which recasts Benjamin's own texts into strict forms specified by the composer Brian Ferneyhough.
The real nexus of Perloff's interest in Unoriginal Genius (which largely derives from a 2009 Oxford University lecture series) is in the latest of the successive waves of avant-garde movements in American writing, "Conceptual Writing." The book's final chapter examines that tendency's poster boy Kenneth Goldsmith, whose 2007 book Traffic transcribes twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York radio station WINS (1010 AM). Goldsmith himself describes his own work as frequently "unreadable": The point of conceptual writing is not the final product, which is often produced in a mechanical manner, but the ingenuity of the concept that generates it. Reading Goldsmith, at least from the descriptions, seems a fearsomely dull prospect—Traffic is the second of a radio-transcriptions trilogy that includes Weather (a year's worth of daily weather reports) and Sports (a full-length Red Sox/Yankees game)—but Perloff, by dint of her considerable close-reading skills, some wry contextualization, and a kind of Zen-like equanimity, makes Traffic feel like a rather enticing trip, and she offers some fascinating points about how the author's shaping hand is visible even in the most ostensibly template-generated texts. Perloff's reading reveals that Traffic in effect telescopes a full holiday weekend's traffic reports into a single day: "Goldsmith's 'factual' narrative, plotted so carefully and divided into neat block-paragraph segments, turns out to be wholly implausible, indicating as it does that this holiday weekend is over before it has even begun."
Along the way from The Waste Land to Traffic, Perloff spends time with a number of exemplars of "unoriginal" writing. Oulipo is a major player here: the text-generating procedures of that French group are to contemporary conceptual writing what Marcel Duchamp is to Andy Warhol. Perloff's reading of Susan Howe's The Midnight, which incorporates original prose, found texts, verse, and images into a compelling autobiographical portrait, is a particular highlight, as is her discussionof the "exophonic" poetics of German-Japanese poet Yoko Tawada and Franco-Norwegian poet and multi-media artist Caroline Bergvall. (While Perloff's chapter on Brazilian concrete poetry is fascinating, it feels strangely out of place within the overall conceptual curve of Unoriginal Genius.)
The possibilities for poetry in this new century, just considering new technology alone, seem almost unlimited. While Perloff has given a tantalizing (if occasionally sketchy) account of how some poets have built on the modernist revolution in cannibalizing the already-written, one wonders whether the next generation of critics will even be able to begin to map the exploding fields of web-based, sound- and visual-incorporating poetry in anything as old-fashioned as a lecture series or a bound book.
Mark Scroggins is the author most recently of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007). He lives in south Florida.