Comparative Iterature: Michael Leong reviews Make It the Same

Michael Leong

I am deeply grateful to Michael Leong for his detailed and enthusiastic review of Make It the Same in Contemporary Literature. One of the many things that I love about his review is its prospective outlook. Building on the ideas and examples in Make It the Same, Leong considers, for instance, “what it might look like to study comparatively the chapbook xeno/fremd: copy-book by the Chilean visual poet Guillermo Deisler (1940–1995) alongside ‘Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language’ by African American experimentalist Harryette Mullen (1953– ).” The review begins:

Modern poetry has a complicated relation to both the original and the repetitive. On one hand, as Marjorie Perloff argues, “we expect our poets to produce words, phrases, images, and ironic locutions that we have never heard before.”1 On the other hand, repetition, the “already heard,” is a central feature of poetic language―from the recursivity of rhyme schemes to the patterned reiterations of tropes such as chiasmus, anadiplosis, and epistrophe. Just as intratextual repetition can “set up expectations and guide interpretation” within any given poem, the repetitions of forms, genres, and topoi throughout a diachronic tradition can create a sense of discursive continuity within change.2 From a readerly standpoint, the recognition of repetition can be reassuring, even pleasurable. The danger is that too much repetition, formal or otherwise, risks a deadening predictability. As Williams Carlos Williams polemically stated in 1944, “To me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.” It is no surprise, then, that standard narratives of modernism have tended to highlight a Poundian poetics of making it new, of breaking free from the rote of convention. “There is no poetry of distinction,” said Williams, “without formal invention.”3 Interestingly, some of the most distinctive innovations of modernist poetry have depended on making repetition itself new by employing it in unconventional ways that go well beyond familiar intratextual and intratraditional gestures of anaphora or allusion. For example, Williams extensively repeats nonpoetic language from letters, newspapers, and other historical documents throughout his montagic long poem Paterson. In criticizing the prosaicness of the so-called Cress letters in Paterson, Randall Jarrell complains, “What has been done to them to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”4

Jacob Edmond’s Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media is a compelling study of what he calls “copy poetry” (4) from the 1950s (when Williams’s career was reaching its final chapter) to the present day. Informed by a wealth of meticulous research, Edmond shows how various methods of unorthodox copying―which might represent, to the likes of Jarrell, a scandalous renunciation of creativity―have enabled contemporary poets to creatively muster “an ethical and political response to the crisis in authority engendered by new media technologies and globalization” (7). One of the overall strengths of Make It the Same is its generous augmentation of “the usual, largely Anglo-American and Western European account of the rise of copy poetry” (3). While acknowledging figures and movements often associated with twentieth- and twenty-first-century appropriation―from John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Andy Warhol to the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, Language writing, and North American conceptualism―Edmond “adds alternate lines of development that pass not through New York, Paris, or London but through Kingston, Moscow, and Taipei.”

Make It the Same is, thus, a major contribution to the study of experimental poetry as it stages an intriguing cosmopolitan conversation about iteration and innovation among diverse Anglophone, Russophone, and Sinophone writers such as Kamau Brathwaite, Dmitri Prigov, John Cayley, Yang Lian, Caroline Bergvall, Kenneth Goldsmith, Brandon Som, Jonathan Stalling, and Hsia Yü. Whether through sampling, remixing, transcription, or remediation, all of these poets are invested in repetition and copying, and Edmond is correct in claiming that “in the field of contemporary poetry, scholars and poets alike have tended to treat these various kinds of repetition as largely separate phenomena” (2). In Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, for instance, Craig Dworkin warns that conceptual writing, which emerged in North America in the late 1990s, “should not to be confused with the Kontseptualizme poetry movement that flourished in Moscow in the 1980s (associated most closely with writers such as Prigov and Lev Rubenstein).”5 Though Dworkin’s differentiation is not unwarranted, it is also worth mentioning that critical transnational comparison is not the same as confusion, and Edmond admirably takes up the former.6

Students and scholars of literary conceptualism, experimental translation, cross-cultural collaboration, multilingualism, performance writing, visual poetry, artistic plagiarism, and digital poetics among other nonnormative modes of poiesis are bound to benefit from Edmond’s rich contextualizations and his method of what we might call “comparative iterature.” What can’t be overemphasized is that copying and related forms of poetic mimicry, which some might wrongly perceive as crude unidimensional techniques, can flexibly serve a myriad of cultural functions across a surprising range of sociohistorical contexts.

You can read the full review here or here.

Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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