The Threat of the Foreign: The Role of Other Nations in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry

by on Sep.05, 2013

A while back, Kent Johnson sent a link in one of the comment section to a review of Marjorie Perloff’s entry on “Avant-Garde Poetry” in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. So I picked up the encyclopedia and read through it. I think that the encyclopedia brings up questions that are essential in thinking about the relationship of American poetry to the poetries of the rest of the world, but also to my recent discussion of the role of scholarship in contemporary poetry, and the definition of poetry as a “field” that we as academics can “master.”

While Johnson commends the overall encyclopedia for included entries on other national literatures, he argues that Perloff’s entry for the term “the avant-garde” is too American-centric, that it excludes not just individual poets (such as the great poets Cesar Vallejo, Raul Zurita and Alejandra Pizarnik) but that the definition, the conceptualization of the term “avant-garde” does not account for writers that are not American or European (by which he means French, German, Russian basically, she doesn’t draw on examples from less central European countries either).

I actually think Perloff’s essay is very good in that it does what it sets out to do: it gives a short, very canonical overview of the term. It doesn’t trouble the term with movements from foreign countries because the entry is not supposed to be a theoretical re-consideration of the term “avant-garde,” but an encyclopedia entry that defines “the Field” of “the avant-garde” in a manageable way. She didn’t have too much space and she crammed it with stuff.

However, it’s exactly this “manageability” of the encyclopedia that I have a problem with, based on what I wrote a couple of days ago. The encyclopedia in itself is based on the idea of knowledge as a field you can master.

Based on this element of encyclopedic mastery, you can perhaps see why I disagree with Johnson about the inclusion of other national literatures in this encyclopedia. Of course you can’t say anything worthwhile about a whole national literature in just a little encyclopedia entry. We find out for example, that the hugely important Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund combines rhythm and image. And that the hugely influential Kim Hyesoon is a woman’s writer in the confessional mode. We don’t in other words find out anything at all about the rest of the world. Other nations are just reduced to some pointless summarizing.

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In an academic context, foreign poetries are enormously troubling: Inherently suspicious of translation, academic discussions are anxious about including translated texts because the translations may lead them astray, may be based on mis-interpretation, or some kind of ambiguity that inherently undermines the kind of “authority” and “mastery” that is at the core of the academic enterprise. More importantly perhaps: translation generates excess. Talk about “too much.” If you think there’s “too much” US poetry, wait until you include all the poetry of Chile, Bangladesh, Vietnam etc. It would be absolutely impossible to master such a plague ground of internationalism!

It’s here that we can see the problem with the “internationalism” of not just the Princeton encyclopedia but also most efforts of internationalism in US academy: This is not a book that is interested in engaging in foreign literatures, it’s a project to incorporate some bits of knowledge of foreign literature into American literature and an American narrative about literary history. Foreign literature will also be master-able. In part through phrases like “avant-garde,” which suggest an internationalism (if only an internationalism of the past – we study Dada but only Americans in the literature of the present avant-garde.)

In other words: The Princeton Encyclopedia deals with the threat of the foreign very nicely: makes a little entry for every country. There! We have mastered a whole nation in just a few paragraphs! We can have our field and eat it too!

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And here I think Kent makes an incredibly insightful observation: Why, he asks, is the term “avant-garde” allotted as much space in the encyclopedia as the various national literatures? And I might add, why is “Conceptual poetry” and “flarf” granted individual entries, but not – to come back to Johnson’s point – not CADA, the Surrealist Group of Stockholm, Japanese Dada? These are hugely influential groups! From my Swedish perspective, why is Ann Jäderlund – a poet whose work completely altered the course of Swedish poetry in the late 80s and who has sold more books than all the conceptual and flarf poets put together and done so in a country one thirtieth the size of the US – reduced to a half sentence (apparently rhythm and imagery is important to her work…) and there is no mention of the controversial “Ann Jäderlund Debates”, a discussion that erupted on the pages of all the daily newspapers in Sweden in the late 80s in response to her Celan-like hermeticism? This would afterall draw a whole new take on “avant-garde”! Likewise, why is Kim Hyesoon’s absolutely groundbreaking, incredibly influential work reduced to one sentence? Where is Bei Dao’s “misty poets” in the discussion of avant-gardes?

The avant-garde – with its supposed internationalism – becomes term that can “master” all these foreign countries. It can be a term that stands above cultural differences. A kind of cosmopolitanism untroubled by translation and migration. And in the Field of Contemporary Poetry, the avant-garde stands as the latest. It is granted such a fine spot in the encyclopedia because it both absorbs cultural difference and asserts that the American academic take on the avant-garde is the avant-garde of the world. America leads the way, according to our academic avant-gardists. Foreign poets become judged according to how well they fit in with our, very American-centric, idea of the “avant-garde.”

That’s troubling to me.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Dan Hoy

    I picked up Asimov’s first Foundation book the other day, curious. I read the series more than once as a kid so I’m sure it’s a formative text for me but all I really remember are impressions, images. Anyway what’s interesting apropos this discussion is the central premise (of the first book). The galactic empire is overextended and crumbling, set to enter a dark age lasting however many eons (30,000 years?) — so genius “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon via political machinations convinces the empire to exile him to a remote part of the galaxy so he can work with a team to build an encyclopedia of all human knowledge called “The Foundation” — a project that will take several lifetimes, but will reduce the coming dark age to a mere 1000 years. But later we learn that the encyclopedia is a front, and Seldon doesn’t care if it’s ever finished. It turns out the real purpose of the Foundation is the foundation of a new empire.

    [It’s clear Asimov looks at a new empire as a net positive since it will mitigate suffering on a galactic and multi-millennial scale — what’s less clear is his understanding of how empire itself establishes these conditions of suffering in the first place with its centralized mechanisms of control and hostility to derivations from it.]

    In reading this post, I’m wondering if this is implicitly the purpose of all encyclopedias. Not to illuminate human life, but to darken it with the organizing structures and principles of empire until there are no more questions, only categories of approval.

    Personally I like Perloff but an encyclopedia of the avant-garde is necessarily an enemy of the avant-garde. This is not to say it has no use or “value” to contribute to human life, but liberation of the human mind is not one of its goals or effects.

  2. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, some good stuff here. I especially like the idea, very provocative, that the “foreign entries” in the PEPP function as “a project to incorporate some bits of knowledge of foreign literature into American literature and an American narrative about literary history.” That is a notion worth some exploration. Also, amazing the stuff on the “Ann Jaderlund Debates,” which I admit I knew nothing about.

    I do disagree with one part of your post. It’s this, when you refer specifically to MP’s “Avant-Garde” entry in the PEPP:

    >>I actually think Perloff’s essay is very good in that it does what it sets out to do: it gives a short, very canonical overview of the term. It doesn’t trouble the term with movements from foreign countries because the entry is not supposed to be a theoretical re-consideration of the term “avant-garde,” but an encyclopedia entry that defines “the Field” of “the avant-garde” in a manageable way. She didn’t have too much space and she crammed it with stuff.

    The problem, as I see it, and the main reason I wrote what I did, is that the entry does NOT AT ALL give a “canonical overview” of the topic and history. At the very heart of avant-garde praxis, and from the start, has been a vibrant spirit of cosmopolitan *internationalism* (even among its minority right wing!)–you can’t even begin to conceptualize the avant-garde in any kind of meaningful sense without account of that centripetal fact. And the problem with MP’s entry is not that she leaves out this or that poet, as if it were a matter of “name-checking”; the problem is that her discussion *erases whole languages and continents* (all of Latin America, for chrissakes, just for starters) that have been fundamental, going back more than century, to the history of the whole unfolding process. That’s the problem. The “overview” is not just lamentable in its quasi-imperial blindness, it’s a flat-out insulting distortion. You know, I got back a few weeks ago from Chile. While I was there, I showed the piece to a number of leading poets from Latin America, including the great Brazilian critic Silviano Santiago, and most of them just laughed…

  3. Johannes

    Kent,
    I agree with you to a certain extent. What I meant was that Perloff was asked by an encyclopedia to write an encyclopedic entry for “avant-garde” as it is defined in American PhD studies. And I think she did that. She functioned within the framework of the encyclopedia and within the framework of American PhD studies of poetry. Which is encyclopedic. And which is very centralizing (on American poetics, so that you may start out with Romanian/German Dada but you’ll end up with American Kenny Goldsmith all the same). The term avant-garde has an explosive dimension to it, and part of that explosivity is that it’s highly international, and comes largely not out of the centers but the peripheries (ie not the US!). But that explosivity is a real threat to academic writing about poetry. So I guess what I’m saying is that she did what she was supposed to do. But a more interesting project would be not only to displace the US center with notions of avant-garde, but to create a conflictive, volatile zone of different uses of the term (rather than as a homogenizing american taste.

    Johannes