Misunderstanding "Unoriginal Genius"

To the Editor:

In her opinion piece “In Someone Else’s Words”  (Sept. 26, 2011), Isabel Kaplan dismissively claims that in my book Unoriginal Genius I am advocating a poetry that involves no more than copying the words of others—indeed, plagiarism.  But ironically it is Kaplan who is the copyist: in describing what my book is “about,” she merely copies, without any acknowledgement, the first two sentences of the advertising copy on p. 41 of the University of Chicago Press catalogue (2011). Such copy, Kaplan should know, is written, not by the author, but by a staff member in the Promotion Department.  Had she bothered to look at the book itself, she would have seen that Walter Benjamin’s prediction that soon everyone would be an author is made in sorrow: he believes, as do I, that such “democracy” means real poets need to work all the harder to create something that may transcend the discourse of the daily paper, the Internet and Facebook.  It is in this spirit that I examine citationality in poetry from The Waste Land and Benjamin’s own great Arcades Project to the present, and there are some pretty remarkable poets discussed.  Susan Howe, for example, to whom I devote a whole chapter, has just won the Bollingen Prize.

But Kaplan gets Goldsmith all wrong as well. Had she read his book, rather than the extract printed in The Chronicle Review, she might have understood that he is talking about a form of appropriative writing in which context is central, and that his defense of “plagiarism” is of course tongue-in-cheek: his own literary texts exhibit just how subtle “copying” can be.  In its resort to sound-bytes, recycled and distorted, and its seeming ignorance of the role appropriation has played in the visual arts for at least the past century, it is Kaplan’s article, not Goldsmith’s book, that is “offensive.”

As the grandmother of Alexandra Perloff-Giles, Harvard ‘11 and a former member of The Crimson staff, I am dismayed at the sheer laziness of this vituperative essay.  Which is worse: typing a copy of someone else’s words or writing “originally” about books one hasn’t read?  I thought The Crimson had a much higher standard.


Marjorie Perloff

Professor Emerita of English

Stanford University