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This review is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

THE OTHER TRADITION Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton University Press) n.p.

The central thrust of Marjorie Perloff's book may be simply and schematically stated: that two traditions, both deriving from French poetry, are evident in twentieth-century American poetry and poetics. In the ascendent has been the post-symbolist tradition which found its most persuasive voice in T. S. Eliot. 'The Other Tradition' (currently packaged as 'post-modernism') derives not from Baudelaire, but from Rimbaud. These two traditions are convincingly lined up with Jakobson's generally unconvincing dichotomy between the paradigmatic or metaphoric axis of language (which corresponds to 'symbolism') and the contiguous or metonymic axis (which corresponds to indeterminacy or 'the mode of undecidability'). On one hand we have the symbolic patterning of Eliot's The Waste Land; on the other the 'open field of narrative possibilities') of Stein or Ashbery. Somewhere in between lies a writer like Stevens, capable of incorporating indeterminacy as a 'thematic motif' but unable to adopt this 'irreducible ambiguity' into his formal concerns. Simple 'ambiguity', so reified by Anglo-American criticism, has been eclipsed it would seem.

Despite its title this book is chiefly about the poetry and prose - rather than the poetics - of indeterminacy. Structural indeterminacy is exemplified time and again but few strict definitions are offered. It is obvious that the featured writers incorporate various forms of referential rupture but, at times, it is difficult to see what unites their very different procedures. In the face of such diversity Rimbaud becomes a unifying principle as well as a progenitor. One of the pleasant surprises ...


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