Contamination (p 6): Perloff, Decadence, Kitsch

by on Jun.08, 2011

This is sequel post to last week’s Big Other discussion about Poetry defining itself in opposition to mass culture and kitsch (the two are related but not identical), and to the discussion about Steve Burt’s post about there being “too much” in poetry.

The feeling of “too much” has of course everything to do with Taste; Taste is supposed to help us deal with the “too-much-ness” of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Great Art is is High, mass culture is low, as the paradigm goes. If we have Taste we don’t need to wade through the plague grounds of “too-much-ness.”

One thing that interests me about anti-kitsch rhetoric is that it is now deployed against Poetry and its Poetic Devices, devices that used to convey High Art, but which now are often derided in terms of kitsch in Experimental Poetry Discussions. So for example, in Kenny Goldsmith’s blog posts and articles, “creative writing” is dismissed as kitsch, pretty much because it is not “creative” to be “creative” (it’s become “too much” of it thanks in part to MFA program etc, there are too many copies of it). Ie the reason he’s advocating “uncreative writing” is because it’s more creative than the tasteless pile of “too much” creative writing out there that is causing Burt to faint.

Marjorie Perloff, the most unabashed taste-maker in American poetry this side of Tony Hoagland, is on the same page, making Goldsmith the centerpiece of her new book Unoriginal Genius. However, she never seems to fully deal with the paradox of that title. Perloff wants Goldsmith to play the part of the oldfashioned Genius *by* being “uncreative.” That is to say, by eschewing the hallmarks of traditional Poesy. But what she is still interested in is the genius; what she wants to dismiss is what we might call “the poetic” because *it is tasteless.* (Anybody can tell you that – just watch any movie where a poet is included. They tend to be fops and ridiculous). In Perloff’s book, there is always a great emphasis on the genuine as opposed to the counterfeit.

In the book Perloff quotes Craig Dworkin:

What would a non-expressive poetry look like?… One in which substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself. So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”

This quote reads like a how-to of anti-kitsch rhetoric: “expressive” poetry is associated with narcisicism, old-fashioned Romanticism, Decadence and, yes, fakeness: expressive poetry is based on “substitutions” while conceptual writing is “language itself.” In a book on “unoriginal” writing, Perloff is incredibly invested in the authentic, the rigorous.

Perloff follows this logic when for example she denounces Eliot’s use of foreign language as exoticism (ie kitsch), quoting Craig Raine’s remarks: “the range of registers here introduces us to the auditory equivalent of the Silk Road and the spice trail. The exotic is in our mouths and in our ears.” (125)

In difference to Eliot, Perloff holds up Pound because “… If Eliot carefully embeds the foreign…. Pound produces a multiform text whose langauge layers intersect so as to create the meaning of a given passage…” Eliot’s use of the foreign is decorative, ornamental, orientalist, while Pounds’ is meaningful, authentic. High Art. (The idea that Pound is not orientalist is also of course totally mind-blowing!).

Perloff sees Eliot as chidish/stunted lover of 19th-century French decadence – and thus un-modern, regressive, and, most importantly, not truly “avant-garde,” by which she means something very close to Clement Greenberg: a purist, austere antidote to the seductive images of mass culture.

In so doing Perloff’s argument runs counter to a lot of recent Montevidayo posts. With her futurity-focused thinking, she views literature as a linear evolution (see our posts on “anachronism” and how the positivist language of evolution has been used to dismiss gay people and minorities), she searches for a kind of purity of form a la Greenberg (Pound’s meaning vs Eliot’s ambience and ornamentality); Dworkin’s statement about “language as such” is straight out of the Greenberg catalog of Good Taste.

It should be noted also the way she treats Surrealism much like she treats Eliot: it’s retro, it’s not true avant-gardism (Surrealism of course embraced a kind of anachronism to begin with, as Benjamin makes a big deal of in his essay on the movement – the embrace of trash and the out-of-date, an element that Cornell and Jack Smith would pick up on), it uses images, it’s Art. Decadent.

In these typical anti-kitsch pieces of rhetoric, Perloff and Co. bring something essential about decadence and kitsch to the surface: they are connected. Often people think of Taste as “arfulness” and the lack of taste as “artlessness.” And in some cases this may be true, but in contemporary poetry, it seems that “too much” art, “over-art-fulness” is much more of a problem, is much more taste-less than artlessness. Maybe we can call it (with Susan Sontag) too much “style.”

The paradox again is that Goldsmith, who for Perloff is the beacon of tastefulness, uses what is conventionally “kitsch” found texts (or at least, as Michael pointed out, “middlebrow”), for example weather reports or baseball games commentary. What is kitschy to Perloff is not conventional kitsch as much as the artsy – images, metaphors, similes. In another word: the gestural. (As a feature in the newest Artforum points out, there’s been a similar kitsching of the gesturality of Abstract Expressionism.)

At its root, I think, Perloff is anti-decadent. It’s remarkable how thoroughly Perloff’s binary mode of taste-making lines up with Eve Sedgwick’s list of binaries from Epistemology of the Closet:



Culminating of course in the overarching: Wholeness vs Decadence. Perloff’s poets are always the healthy, authentic alternative, the “avant-garde” of the “future”, while her “opponents” are traffickers of images, counterfeits, fakery, illness, Decadence.


A text that puts a really interesting spin on these matters is Daniel TIffany’s book Radio Corpse about Pound. The thesis there is that Pounds starts out very much a Decadent fetishist and necrophiliac (random quote: “He becomes the dead girl he adores.”), but then spends the rest of his career trying to counter the decadent impulse.

At first it’s with Imagism. His imagist critical texts are the perhaps the key texts for understanding this dominant strain of anti-decadent rhetoric in American poetry: the “direct treatment of the thing,” a poetry where where energy is not lost (which would be decadent), where there is nothing excessive. Of course he soon realizes that Imagism is really “amygism” – a kitschy, decadent, sentimental poetics for rich women. Then he has to move on to Vortexes, machines etc.

[You also get this no-energy lost in Charles Olson’s manifestoes with their emphasis that no energy must be lost, that one perception must follow the next etc. Nothing must be allowed to languish, to become decadent.]

I’ll wrap this up with an obvious counterargument, George Bataille and his love of expenditure: “… unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity […]—all these represent the activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves.”

No I’ll wrap this up with a couple of more points:

It’s interesting to see the extent of the Montevidayo “canon” that seems to fall into that Decadent part of the binary: Bolano, Jack Smith, Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, Chelsey Minnis.

Marjorie Perloff has done a lot of great work (The Futurist Moment etc), and unlike say Helen Vendler (for whom all Great poets are dead) she remains engaged with poetry, reading even the poetry of younger writers. I have read Perloffs work since I went to college, about 15 years ago, so obviously I like her work on some level. But at the same time, this disciplinary rhetoric has always been part of her work, and I have always objected to that about her. There is way too much of this going around in poetry (you see it in Hoagland, in Poetry Magazine, even in the Brian Evenson article I linked to a while back etc) – people treating poetry as something that must be defended against bad taste, against “too much”.

31 comments for this entry:
  1. Spencer

    Perloff has been misreading Eliot since 1980 (when she published Poetics of Indeterminacy). Back then, she was squaring Eliot off against Ashbery, and doing it ham-handedly. I enjoy Perloff for many of the same reasons you do, but it’s absolutely the case that she is trapped by her need to make hierarchies of value.

  2. Spencer

    (It may be 1981.)

  3. kducey

    After the wars, somebody’s got to come along and sweep up, salvage the girders still amidst the rubble. On Bataille, I don’t know that such expenditure doesn’t have an end beyond itself, necessarily. Wasn’t his discussion of Aztec human sacrifice that by such a waste of life, or of value (potlatch ceremony), the actor demonstrated his or her superiority over material world? I waste therefore I am. U.S. culture now all waste (the production of waste is the purpose of a consumer-industrial complex) and as you say, a plague ground.

  4. Johannes

    Actually it’s common to see mass culture as a waste ground, but it’s full of hierarchizing and Taste. Witness the way Kurt Cobain was turned into a genius, thus removed from all kinds of contexts. Part of poetry becoming a plague ground is that it doesn’t have the money to create geniuses. Perloff doesn’t convince, people attack the MFA programs, the quietist establishment’s efforts to turn the Dickman brothers into the Next Geniuses looks desperate (though I am a person who actually think they are good writers). Etc. I don’t think we should salvage this into a hierarchy; I think we should allow for proliferations and movements.


  5. David

    Re: “…we should allow for proliferations and movements.”

    I’ve been reading Paul Mann’s essay “Stupid Undergrounds” lately and he has an interesting strategy for avoiding the recuperation of the ‘waste ground’ into a new hierarchy or hierarchies:

    “What is most ‘subversive’ now is neither critical intelligence nor romantic madness (the commonplace is that they are two sides of the same Enlightenment coin) but the dull weight of stupidity, spectacularly elaborated, and subversive only by means of evacuating the significance of everything it touches–including the romance of subversion itself. To abandon intelligence because it has been duplicitous or built such grandly inane intellectual systems might seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but if rejecting intelligence is rejecting too much, never underestimate the stupid exhilaration of too much…”

    This evacuation of both the critical ‘tasteful’ and romantic ‘decadent’ faculty leaves an open field (“plague ground”?) where further activity can take place.

  6. Johannes

    Interesting ideas. I’ll have to check it out. yes, I’m not for a return to decadence. I’m more interested in the way that decadence is the threat that has to be warned against all the time. it’s also true of the “quietists.” Hoagland’s warning against “skittery poetry” replicates Perloff’s argument against Eliot pretty much with the added effect of the fact that he doesn’t attack “famous poets” (he like Lynn Hejinian for example), but grad students and young poets, ie participants in the plaguing up of poetry.

    I’ll have to check out some of your music too.


  7. Johannes

    I also want to note that this isn’t an anti-conceptualism post. It’s against the rhetoric that has surrounded conceptualism. I can think of a million more interesting ways of treating this writing. I would start out in Los Angeles for starters (where Perloff lives), not with Tradition.


  8. David

    I’ve read (or misread) your descriptions of poetry becoming a plague ground as positive. Mann’s essay highlights the possibility of a practice which eliminates the critical distance required to make judgments of the kind you see in Perloff / Hoagland. His stupidity (which is a technical term) can be seen as a defense which allows for continued action (the creation & proliferation of poetry / poetries) in the face of accusations of ‘plaguing up’ / decadence / kitsch, etc. As a grad student in poetry myself, it’s an attractive idea since it allows for a potential field of activity where the judgments of taste-makers are rendered moot because it does not or cannot depend on the axis of taste / tastelessness. “In this zone, criticism is stupid, hence only stupidity can be critical.”

  9. Johannes

    Yes, I’m totally in favor of the plague ground.


  10. Johannes

    I take the term “plague ground” from a talk Joyelle Mcsweeney gave a while back:

    Steve Burt was incidentally on the same panel.


  11. Steve

    Assuming it actually comes out (it’s stuck in a queue, but the editors seem to like it) I’ve got a take on the new Perloff that’s close to yours; and I like decadence, sometimes, though I prefer the kind without rotting corpses (Pater, not Huysmans; also Angie Estes). You’re right to bring up EKS’s binarisms here.

    It’s good for poetry that there’s “too much.” Though, or because, it creates a dilemma for me. (And here I am commenting on your blog post instead of reading more new books today.)

    I am restraining myself from offering in this small space a long defense of HV, because I’ve already done it elsewhere; but I do not think you’re being fair to her.

  12. many cartola

    did u say perloff is “anti-decadent?” what critic of art or poetry or otherwise is “pro-decadent?” i don’t understand your terms. you write “i think perloff is anti-decadent?” that doesn’t say a whole lot.

    what artists, other than perhaps pop and kitsch types can be said to be “pro-decadence?”

    you cite bataille but really what you also imply is kant’s disinterestedness too. things good for their own sake rather than as means to something else.

    kenneth goldsmith is a hype-man who doesn’t understand language. quote me on that if you want.


  13. Johannes


    Let me know when your post is published, I’d like to read it.

    As for HV, maybe I exaggerate (she likes Jorie G and Ashbery) but she does strike me as a very conservative critic who seems to object pretty much to everyting “too much.”


  14. Johannes


    I mean that she establishes her taste based on anti-decadent rhetoric: whereby her favorites are genuine, authentic, while those she oppose are decadent, counterfeit, kitsch. This is not a matter of Perloff vs the Decadents, but rather that there’s all kinds of issues tied up in this emphasis of the true vs the false. Many writers that we have talked about on this blog adventure in the counterfeit (see any number of posts below).


  15. Spencer

    How are you defining “too much,” Johannes? I mean, Vendler has championed obvious canonical traffickers in over-abundance – Stevens, Plath, Merrill.

    That said, I agree re: Perloff, and it’s clear in how she’s pinned herself to Pound’s essentialism. I also wonder about “decadence” and Pound – and the relationship of over-abundance to Pound’s critique of credit economies. As early as 1912, Pound was calling for a brand of poetry “harder and saner,” and “nearer
    the bone'” – “It will be as much like granite as it can be … It will not try
    to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer
    painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it…. I want it
    austere, direct, free from emotional slither.”

    In other words, no excess emotion (no sentimentality), none of the endless deferral that marks the credit economy – where credit is “the future tense of money” and that future never (actually) arrives….

    This article/paper ties your post here, Danielle’s post on sentimentality, Pound and Bataille together:

    It’s old, but you might find it relevant.

  16. Johannes Göransson

    Good quote from Pound. That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric I’m talking about, though as Tiffany points out, Pound himself was early on (and in fact later, The Cantos are full of Greek-y kitsch) a great trafficker of this kind of stuff.

    As for Vendler: Art is fundamentally decadent, but the way it’s written about can be reigned in using various means. Stevens might be one of the most interesting cases. As Lee Edelman shows in an essay from the 90s, early on Stevens was indeed criticized as sentimental and un-masculine, but now he’s been thoroughly domesticated as a philosophical poet etc. Plath is still pretty scandalous, but in the 80s she began to be tamed for her “craft,” at the expense of all the interesting stuff that goes on with decadence, film, gender costumes, death, tasteless atrocity kitsch and, most importantly, her challenge to the separation of poet and poem.

    I haven’t read so much Vendler that I can talk about her specifically. I haven’t been exactly invited into her scholarship b/c whenever I come across her she’s so defensive – particularly against the “too much” of younger poets. That’s mainly what I was talking about there.


  17. Bill Knott

    a recent anthol (ed. Lisa Rodensky)— “Decadent Poetry” (Penguin 2007) can be got at amazon not too expensive—

    Imagism/Dingedicht strives to disentangle itself from the terrifyingly-androgynous embrace of Symbolism (synonymous with Decadence for many)—

    “The Nineties tried your game,” Mauberly is scolded—

    Dowson, Wilde, Gray et al are suicided by society (as Artaud describes Van Gogh’s fate)—

    yes, it’s all “too much”—

  18. Bill Knott

    “nearer the bone’” – “It will be as much like granite as it can be … It will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it…. I want it austere, direct, free from emotional slither.”

    —in other words: no more Verlaine, no more Samain, no more Wilde, no more Nineties painted pouf verse etc

  19. Bill Knott

    as I imagine the Nineties poets Olive Custance and Alfred Douglas discussing it (from my play “Playing Chicken with Van Gogh”):

    —I mean or else because let’s face it Bosiebosh it’s 1910 and Ezra Pound is busy uninventing us

    —Since time is the ripening of inversions

    —Time for us is doom and thus our breakfast presents its daily drollery of dawdledom

    —Its dalliance doles out the facile vomit time will omit as the century comes to matter and we don’t

    —Will I have to omit the O’s the Oscar-Olive I love

    —Don’t worry they’ll do it for you their anti-androgeny will murder millions in order to kill the oneness we share

    —Hard that’s what they want the priapic the image fixed in its seig-heil salute

    —All us meltwork Symbolistes had better slither back behind the wall of One Nine Oh Oh or else face the worst and what is the worst an apropos disposal by the retro-tigers abhoring us exclusively as if no other verse exercised their reign or thrust their wrath-and-wrought high enough

    —Exiled lest we spoil their gird word its rigid referent its rightness its Imagist lust to be least

  20. Johannes

    I would say that anybody interested in what “decadence” might look like today should read Joyelle McSweeney’s book Necropastoral from Spork Press:


  21. manny cartola

    i’m curious how “counterfeit=decadence” which is what i seem to be unable to disinfer from your statements.

    certainly, to my knowledge, the counterfeits (and/or readymades) of the early 20th century avant-garde weren’t considered “Decadent” even by greenberg. greenberg was more hostile just to postmodernism and conceptual art in general, in my reading.

    much of the poetry perloff praised in my reading has been a tad decadent to my tastes. yet in my tastes decadence (depending on the definition) is ok. i mean say pynchon or a barth relishes in decadence and probably most postmod stuff. in fact all postmodernism is, to some critics really, just the decadent after-period of modernism. i don’t see it that way by any means nor would i imagine that perloff sees it that way.

    also you seem to imply that anything retro is kitsch. i think you are stretching the defintion of kitsch beyond critical currency- inflating it. kitsch is not that, nor is it anything retro. the neoclasicists weren’t “kitsch” to greenberg just because they weren’t his long-stretch avant-garde which is roughly modernism itself from mallarme or flaubert onwards.

    i supose there are critics who do embrace a kind of “pro-decadent” or pro-kitsch rhetoric, but very few in literature/poetry compared to art. yet even these types are dying out. personally i was at a few galleries a week ago and i can’t tell you how relieved i was to see a masterful oldschool oil painting of a meadow. it was such a relief!

  22. Johannes Göransson


    I think the key reason you’re having trouble with my definitions is that you are insisting on a more conventional/stable definition of kitsch and decadence. For me these terms are more mobile – so that just about anythin *can* be construed as kitsch or decadence. So that for example in the most recent issue of Artforum Amy Sillman talks about Abstract Expressionism (the very movement Greenberg advocated as the opposite of kitsch) as kitsch, and in fact using camp/kitsch to find more of interest in abex.


  23. Spencer


    Does this changeability render “kitsch” both valid and highly problematic?

    Is kitsch defined by context? Is that context temporal? And if it is temporal, is it at the point of creation or the point of consumption?

    Is there good kitsch and bad kitsch? For some reason, I’m reminded of M. Robbins’ take-down of Hass:

    “…Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery.”

    I have a number of issues with Robbins’ reading (for instance, to assert that Hass “thinks that merely intoning the names of things can replace the hard work of description” is both ridiculous and condescending, whether you like him or not), but in the end Robbins’ issues seem to be issues of Taste. It could be any number of critics’ take on Keats’ “happy, happy love.”

    Now, as with most writers, I think there’s both good and bad in Hass. That aside, the moments that Robbins’ rails against he treats very much as “kitsch.” So, where does a text beholden to the pathos (bathos?) of 1970s suburban California reside on your spectrum of kitsch?

  24. Spencer

    *Obviously, I get that what you’re trying to do here is get out from behind ideas of good and bad that you think are unnecessarily restrictive and self-defeating. Just curious about how we deal with kitsch-y aspects of things we dislike.

    Also, I note that the Robbins’ review echoes Perloff’s rejection of workshop-y poems you mention in an earlier post.

  25. manny cartola

    well from an art historical perspective de-stabilizing terms like kitsch and decadence really render these terms useless and to my view point towards decadent criticism, rather than useful criticism.

    i mean you can’t just lable something kitsch because you don’t like it. i know many artists despise greenberg, rightfully so in some cases. but to call abstract expressionism kitsch is pushing it. and kitsch is not decadence. i can imagine that abstract expresionism as decadent maybe, but certainly not “kitsch” as it has been historically defined. i am trying to avoid blogolalia and use the terms as i find them, not to be ecadent in my own critical understanding.

  26. Johannes

    What im saying is that those conventional terms are too rigid and cant account for the way these rhetirics are used. Whether u like it or not a lot of folks portray pollock as kitsch. And kitsch and decadencemost certainlygo together. Thats not a new idea. It seems you want these terms to be more stable than they are, you want art to be more taxonomizable than it is.

  27. Johannes

    Hope that didnt sound snooty but im on my iphone, will respond in greater length when i get chance

  28. Spencer

    I think I can answer my own question about “kitsch” by recognizing that there is “taste” and there is “Taste.” One is a sort-of heuristic through which we funnel things that interest us. The other pretends these preferences have some essential foundation.

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