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The Power of Unpretty Poetry

Bob Perelman’s poetry — 16 books in the past three decades — can be explained by what it does not do. Perelman, who came of age in the late 1960s, has always reacted strongly to what he saw as the reigning aesthetic of the time: a cult of individual voice where the poet was something of an anti-intellectual idiot savant, a vatic presence intuitively in touch with both his or her unconscious, and some timeless though slightly fuzzy and always metaphoric vision of the truth. Perelman’s poems are adamantly not standard narratives of crisis and insight. They are not metaphoric. They are not pretty. They do something else entirely.

Perelman’s poetry is often syntactically irregular and rarely lyrical. It is just as often political and satirical (“We may not have chosen to live in Dick Cheney’s mind, but we do”), as intellectual and somewhat theoretical. Perelman usually writes long poems that build through repetitive disjunctions, through abrupt changes of rhythm or diction. Because of all this, his work is difficult to quote. No single moment or set of moments does his poetry justice. And so, Bob Perelman’s poetry is a real pain to review.

Perhaps the best one-sentence description of Perelman’s poems —actually the best description overall — comes from poet John Ashbery, who has written: “Most poets define poetry by writing it. Bob Perelman writes poetry by defining it.” Perelman worries about what he is writing even as he is writing it: Where should the poem go? How should it go? This approach to writing might sound precious, but his poetry moves too quickly for that. Here is a section from the bluntly titled “The Culture of Barbarism”:

The title of the poem comes from a famous little paradox of Walter Benjamin, who argued that there is no document of culture that is not also a document of barbarism, that the privileges of culture are based on a truly catastrophic history of oppression. The final part of the poem begins with “our” desire to live in certainty, beyond irony. (Who is this “we,” anyway?) Right after 9/11, we were told that we had just witnessed the end of irony. Even the poem itself wants to move into this brave, new and unironic world, where the unmentioned (and unmentionable) torture rooms of Abu Ghraib and the dark reaches of “extraordinary rendition” do not exist. But it seems impossible to live that way, even though (poetically? Really?) we try to pretend we do. And so the poem keeps tripping up until the discomfiting irony (or ironies) of the final three lines. There “we” — the poem, the poet, the reader and everyone else — are put in the position of having to unlearn the language we actually speak, of having to ignore what we actually know.

While the war in Iraq informs a good deal of “Iflife,” it would be a mistake to make the book sound dour or unduly pious. It can be difficult, but it has wit, speed and real pizzazz, as you can see from the beginning of what ultimately might be one of the most deeply cynical political poems of our time, “The Revenge of the Bathwater”:

After the catastrophe, the bathwater dusted itself off,
as best it could, and dried its eyes.
The baby, the baby. Everybody likes the baby, loves the baby,
The baby’s everybody’s everything:
avant-garde, traditional, rhymes, it’s free, improvisational,
great mimic, speak Thai, it learns Thai, French French,
and it’s loving, looks you straight in the eye,
no stranger anxiety, trusting, dimples, that little smile, toothless,
hair just growing in, the whole nine yards,
you like it and it likes that.

That light swiftness of tone carries the narrative for three more pages. No, the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater. In fact, it appears that the bathwater never got thrown out in the first place; everyone was paying too much attention to the baby to notice.

There are basically three kinds of poem in “Iflife”: Some are political and satirical. Some are about people (about Perelman himself, however tangentially and about other writers or philosophers). And some are called “nonsonnets” — tight, shorter poems that usually seem to center on the writing of poetry. The first kind are the funniest. The second, which in places can look like very short, very smart and often very witty essays with line breaks, are interesting and sometimes, however surprisingly, quite moving. The third can be funny and interesting, or sometimes just plain cryptic. The title poem of the book, “Iflife,” weaves together all three of these modes.

“Iflife” is a complex text that juxtaposes different kinds of discourse — political science, literary criticism, literary history, straight reportage, biography, autobiography and journalism — in a complicated meditation on what it means to be a poet; an intellectual; a husband and a moral, responsive person at this moment in the history of our republic. It poses complexity as a responsible reaction to our current dispensation and as a way of cobbling together new possibilities.

The relative difficulty of “Iflife” as a book (as well as a poem) will no doubt turn away some potential readers. This is a pity, though it is understandable. So let me put in this pitch for difficult poetry: Such poetry is a response — both rational and emotional — to the fact that matters of the intellect have been made so suspect, that nuance has become such a dirty word in political discourse. (It is the opposite, it seems, of “principle.”) If there are indeed no easy answers, as we are repeatedly told, then we should not seek them anywhere, least of all in our poetry.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.


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