"Time to Translate Modernism into a Contemporary Idiom": Pedagogy, Poetics, and Bob Perelman's Pound

Article excerpt

Central to the work of avant-garde U.S. American poets from Ezra Pound to the present have been continuing conflicts between didacticism and coterie exclusiveness, and over the poet's relationship to pedagogical institutions. Within the contemporary poet Bob Perelman's ongoing consideration of the relationship between the avant-garde and pedagogy in all its forms, including but not limited to the academic, Pound has been a constant presence. This essay examines how some of the terms and categories surrounding the idea of "pedagogy"-teaching, learning, reading, knowledge, authority, the new-manifest themselves in Perelman's response to an influential predecessor such as Pound, particularly in poems from his latest book, Iflife. Pound is the precursor point at which all these concerns meet and from which they emanate, the central site for a contemporary avant-gardist's exploration of-and perhaps anxiety about-the nature of poetic learning and poetic knowledge, and for the relationship of that knowledge to poetics and to institutions.

As I have argued in a number of other essays and talks, central to the work of pedagogically oriented poets from Ezra Pound to Charles Olson and beyond are continuing conflicts within avant-garde poetics: the conflict between the (public) didactic impulse and the (private) impulse toward preservation of coterie, and the conflict over the poet's relationship to pedagogical institutions.1 Among current poets associated with the idea of an avant-garde, namely Language writing Bob Perelman's career offers particular testimony that such a conflict can be as enabling for subsequent readers and poets as it is confounding. Perelman has persistently tested the uneasy boundaries among avantgarde poetics, pedagogical forms and rhetorics, and academic convention, from mid-1980s poems such as "Institutions and the Individual Application" and "Cliff Notes"2 to hybrid essay-poems Uke "The Marginalization of Poetry,"3 first delivered as a talk at an academic conference in 1991, and the heavily and parodically annotated "A Literal Translation of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue,"4 and the mixed genres of what is nominally a university-press-sponsored book of academic criticism, The Marginalization of Poetry, titled after the poem that makes up its first chapter. The anxiety and hostility reported in the East Village crowd drawn to a 1997 panel discussion of The Marginalization of Poetry stands as testimony to the discomfort the book produced. As Steve Evans puts it, "there were two hundred people trying to come to terms with where the academic world ends and an alternative one begins."5 Formally adventurous as it is in its simultaneous analysis, historicizing critique, and enactment of avant-garde poetics, The Marginalization of Poetry still elicited from Perelman's friend and feUow poet Ron Silliman the remark that "it is a project within and of academic critical thinking" "a step in the long march toward tenure and an eventual full professorship."6

Within Perelman's ongoing consideration of the relationship between the avant-garde and pedagogy in all its forms, including but not limited to the academic, Ezra Pound has been a constant presence: as a critical subject in Tfoe Trouble with Genius (originally Perelman's UC Berkeley dissertation)7 and in talks and essays such as "The First Person," "Good and Bad / Good and Evil: Pound, Celine, and Fascism,""Just / Like / Me" and "Pound's LegibiUty Today," and in a range of poems including recent work such as "My Pound Decoder Ring" and another conference-talk-as-poem, "Guide to Homage to Sextus Propertius."8 Perelman's Pound often appears in ambivalent and bleakly humorous relation to the academy. The Pound of Perelman's essay-poem "An Alphabet of Literary History" "die[s] / in obliquity, haggling in ideograms, his / vertical sunlight shut in yellow guidebooks"9-both his own and those devoted to his work, such as Carroll Terrell's literally yellow Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. …