Perloff: Keep your status quo away from my avant-garde!
The distinguished professor and critic, Marjorie Perloff, recently published an essay, “Poetry on the Brink,” which has made quite an impression in the poetry world.
In a nutshell: what Perloff essentially did is join Helen Vendler, another academic, non-poet, lady-critic, in attacking the poet (and professor) Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.
Avant-garde empathizer Perloff has merely broadened Vendler’s attack to smite “a certain kind of prize-winning, New Yorker, well-crafted poem,” featuring “irregular lines of free verse,” “prose syntax,” and a “lyric speaker” which uses the following tri-formula: “present time stimulus—memory—epiphany.”
The poetry world used to be so happy: the free verse Iowa Workshop poem united everyone: the Perloffs, the Doves, the Vendlers, the English Departments, the little magazines, the big magazines, the Workshops, the Jorie Grahams, the John Ashberys, the Harold Blooms…they all felt good together!
The Norton Anthology began with Beowulf and strode through Shakespeare and Keats and then…High Modernism—which turned its back on the Victorians—and the canon now consisted of young, clever, prosaic unknowns… the literary canon was just a Iowa Workshop course away…for you—with your immigrant grandmother—and you, homosexual wise ass…and even… you! Excitement was in the air! Anything was possible! Poetry was difficult…oh yes…but not that difficult. Doors were opening…there was a party going on…
But that’s all turned sour, because the Poetry Workshop business has turned out too many poets and as the years party on, the canon has simply eluded too many deserving hopefuls—the party atmosphere of the insular poetry world has been replaced by Malthusian gloom.
So Perloff opens her essay by taking poetry’s universal unease by the horns, asking, “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”
We don’t know if the queen has ever wondered, “what happens when everyone lives in a castle?” Or, “What happens when everyone has a diamond ring as big as mine?” Perhaps these are real concerns. We don’t know.
Perloff, however is thinking a little more in the realm of “If everyone is happily married, what will happen to the thrill and danger of amour?” If everyone is happy, won’t life become boring? For Perloff quotes Jed Rasula opining on the number of creative writing faculty in poetry (20,000) and then remarks, “What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety.”
We suppose one can accept her logic that more human interaction tends to be a force of “moderation” and that popularity naturally creates that swelling middle zone of creatures who adhere to a popular center which is “safe.” Let’s grant her this “safety” observation, for isn’t that how civilization works? Sheer numbers of citizens diligently “plying their craft” does create “safety.” The life of the explorer inevitably features fewer people experiencing more danger.
Perloff is also kind enough to tell us exactly what this “craft” of “safety” looks like today: “free verse” with “prose syntax,” “prepositional and parenthetical phrases,” “graphic imagery,” “extravagant metaphor,” a “lyric speaker,” “epiphany,” a “particular memory,” a “profound thought or insight”, and “large or personal tragedy”.
Perloff also lays out precisely the material history for us.
The current “safe” poem, she says, is found in most prize-winning poetry collections today, in The New Yorker, and in post-1970 poems found in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology—and she gives a couple of examples from Dove’s anthology.
The early 20th century canon of Frost, Stein, Pound, Crane, Eliot, Stevens, L. Hughes, Williams, Moore which is found in the Dove, Perloff is basically happy with. No argument there.
Perloff finds “cheerful pluralism” and “noisy critical debate” existing up through the early 1960’s when “raw v. cooked” was in the air—and she finds this “raw” mostly ignored in Dove’s book—Perloff gives us a list of those left out: “black experimental poets;” “the Objectivists, Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Niedecker;” and “Rexroth and Spicer.”
For Perloff, something went terribly wrong in American poetry after the “raw v. cooked poetry wars” subsided—the marker might be the death of O’Hara in 1966, we’re not sure, but Perloff frankly writes:
Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as O’Hara.
Again, let’s give Perloff the benefit of the doubt and assume O’Hara is “exciting” and Hass is not. O’Hara would probably make a more lively guest on Leno or Letterman; O’Hara was a ‘scenester’ and his poetry conveys that—we suppose this is what Perloff is getting at, but we’re not sure.
Perloff laces into Dove’s introduction to Dove’s Penguin anthology with great vitriol, essentially calling it brain-dead. Perloff calls Dove’s prose in the introduction to that which might be found in a “Victorian children’s book,” the worst thing a member of the avant-garde could possibly say about anything. But in this part of the essay, about a third of the way through, in her white hot attack on Dove (which seems to us was the trigger for Perloff’s essay in the first place, perhaps after a late night conversation with Helen Vendler) hubris catches up with Perloff, and like Icarus flying to close to the sun, Perloff all at once drops like a rock into the sea, her well-meaning and well-supported argument collapsing with a great whoooosh!
Like some conceptualist poems she admires, Perloff keeps talking in the rest of the essay—but to no effect. It’s rather how conceptualist poems turn out: nice idea, but execution therefrom, crap. Such poems, and their poets, are incapable of sustaining real interest. Their wanna-be affectation is merely annoying.
Let’s summarize Perloff’s collapse:
She condemns the late 20th century, New Yorker, Dove Penguin anthology, poetry contest winning, contemporary free verse lyric—but this lyric of memory, epiphany, etc has always existed, in “Since There’s No Help, Come, Let Us Kiss And Part” or “Dover Beach”—but now without rhyme and meter. And here’s a perfect example, from her adored O’Hara:
It is almost three
I sit at the marble top
sorting poems, miserable
the little lamp glows feebly
I don’t glow at all
I have another cognac
and stare at two little paintings
of Jean-Paul’s, so great
I must do so much
or did they just happen
the breeze is cool
barely a sound filters up
through my confused eyes
I am lonely for myself
I can’t find a real poem
if it won’t happen to me
what shall I do
How simple to hoist Perloff with her own petard, quoting from her own admired specimens! It seems O’Hara was sinning, too. There’s that first person, lyric “I,” recollecting/reflecting towards an epiphany. Or Niedecker, whose exclusion from the Dove Perloff mourned:
What horror to awake at night
and in the dimness see the light.
Time is white
I’ve spent my life on nothing.
The thought that stings. How are you, Nothing,
sitting around with Something’s wife.
Buzz and burn
is all I learn
I’ve spent my life on nothing.
I’ve pillowed and padded, pale and puffing
lifting household stuffing—
I’ve spent my life in nothing.
This one even rhymes. And it could have been written in 1822 by John Clare!
The ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument bedevils critics like Perloff—she is always looking for genuine examples of “time and place” in poetry; this is the cudgel highbrows always bring down on the heads of those who have mere “likes and dislikes,” as Dove, quoted by Perloff, admits she has in her Penguin anthology introduction. But the silly modernist avant-garde critics are forever hemmed in by the absurdity of their claims, claims which must be intimately tied to the purity of “time and place.” When it is pointed out, over and over, how their sacred cows are all over the map in terms of “time and place,” they can only meekly reply that O’Hara’s use of a centuries-old, “I” centered, lyric is yet modern on account of it being so trivial. Categories of “time and place” are so important to the Modernist that soon they become everything, even as those categories were dubious to start with. Instead of asking, what are the elements necessary for the realized poem? they seek to create categories out of the poems written in Brooklyn by a Jewish immigrant in 1930. This makes our avant-garde critic a poetry scholar, and makes them naturally and vehemently opposed to the question: what is a good poem? The more scholarly they become, the more naturally opposed they become to even considering what could possibly distinguish a good poem from a bad one. They are too busy delineating the facts of “time and place.” There happen, in this instance, to be two poets—one wrote beautiful poems, the other wrote awful poems—but because the critic was alive to the latter as composed by a Jewish immigrant living in Brooklyn in 1930, the latter Jewish Brooklynite is selected as relevant, and the former Jewish Brooklynite is ignored. Let this error become established scholarly behavior and you see what kind of damage it does to poetry.
Perloff condemns Dove’s selection of Trethewey’s “Hot Combs” because to Perloff it sounds like a poem from the “60s or 70s,” and yet, to Perloff’s horror, it was published in 2000.” What to make of Perloff’s hero, O’Hara, then, who writes poems on the model of “Dover Beach” (just in free verse)? O’Hara is at least a century out of date! In O’Hara’s case, what superficialities of “time and place” (and other considerations) is Perloff surrendering to? The lyric, as essentially described by Perloff, is very, very old. Is Perloff questioning it today because it was written by someone in the 1960s? It was written by Sappho!
Perloff does do us the honor of showing us, in some detail, what she feels is worthy poetry: conceptual poetry, or cut-and-paste poetry. Perloff fails to mention—unbelievably—that T.S. Eliot did this in 1922 with his “Waste Land.” The “appropriation” of 1960s visual arts and music is her focus, but why she ignores Eliot is very odd, indeed.
As for cut-and-paste, one wag (Eugene #25) put it this way on the comments thread to Perloff’s article: “Poetry is too uniform, therefore poets should copy existing material.”
The comments thread (that tool of democracy banned by Blog Harriet and Ron Silliman’s blog) is a feast of witty and sobering reaction.
We took the title of this Scarriet piece from comment #64 by jrand, who goes on to write: “…anybody can cut and paste—why would that have any validity, whether characterizing Waldheim, or making fun of Perloff?”
The “characterizing Waldheim” refers to a work praised by Perloff, in which someone (a poet?) took the memoirs of a nation’s leader and removed words to make that leader look stupid and evil. Maybe Kurt Waldheim was a really bad guy, but is this trickery a virtuous method of “composition?” Perloff is so obsessed with “time and place”—1930s! Austria! Everyone’s a Nazi! that it’s all she sees. Perloff’s hatred of Dove’s anthology resembles her apparent hatred of the Austrians: Perloff explicitly mourns the fact that after 1945, Austria became a “prosperous nation”—as if Perloff believes all Austrians ought to be punished forever. Perloff’s admiration of a meddled-with memoir passed off as poetry is apparently based on irrational, political hatred rather than on any aesthetic (or moral) principles. Why would Perloff see fit to mention that Austria, after 1945, became a “prosperous nation”? When the Vietnam war ended, why would anyone wish that either the U.S. or Vietnam not become “prosperous”? Why should we ever wish for a country—more importantly, its people, its women and its children, not to become “prosperous”? How could we ever be against an entire nation’s prosperity? Because of Hitler, the whole nation of Austria, after 1945, should not be allowed to prosper? Hitler came to power precisely because of a lack of prosperity. What sort of mind would wish for a whole nation during peacetime not to prosper?
But no doubt Perloff felt compelled to drag forth the Waldheim poem because she really had so little to recommend her prized Language Poetry against the Dove lyric.
Perloff manages to come up with only three bullet points in favor of her kind of poetry: “ellipsis,” “indirection” and “political engagement.”
This is weak, since “ellipsis” and “indirection” characterize High Modernism, if not works farther back in time—so how can these be claimed as defining categories by the Language Poets? Neither can “political engagement” ever be seen to belong only to Language Poetry, or the sorts of avant-garde works Perloff admires.
“Political engagement” certainly does not characterize Perloff’s other examples of contemporary, cut-and-paste excellence in her essay: Susan Howe’s collage on her husband’s death; Peter Gizzi’s little poem (“In broad dazed light”) to which Perloff felt compelled to pad her commentary with Victorian-era biographical information on Gizzi; the “Buddhist abnegation” of John Cage’s cutting of “Howl,” a miserable little thing (which she absurdly claims is “musical!”) which nevertheless cannot be transposed into prose, thus passing, in its “abnegation,” the crucial Perloff litmus test for great poetry(??); or, finally, Charles Bernstein’s boring send-up of the ballad form, “All the Whiskey in Heaven.” So Perloff had to come up with one example, at least, of “political engagment,’ and she picked a doozy—one that bespoke Perloff’s hatred of all Austrians (!!).
Perloff is to be congratulated for laying out her avant-garde politics and her avant-garde aesthetics in such detail. She really pulled out all the stops, and this may be her last avant-garde hurrah, and the last hurrah for sickly Language Poetry, who knows? In this essay she throws around terms like “Joycean” and “verbivocovisual.” She cheerfully quotes Kenneth Goldsmith’s urge for “uncreative writing”—all to Seth Abramson’s dismay, no doubt.
Perloff has done a great service to the world of poetry—for the backlash to her article will certainly dwarf its intended effect: to establish, once and for all, the worthiness of that experimental/political avant-garde poem for which no one presently gives a damn—except a few tweedy professors—and to push it out into the glorious mainsteam, where the good, the bad, the mean, the friendly, the evil and the weak, all prosper.