Perloff: Her Poundian agenda faltering, Yeats comes to the rescue!

The Boston Review’s recent symposium (December 6, 2012) re-visiting Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink” (May/June 2012) is wonderful.  First one reads 18 invited poets (including Ange Mlinko,  Cathy Park Hong, and Desales Harrison) briefly responding to Perloff’s essay in the BR’s stated context of “what is the most significant…set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today…?” Then, in a great punchline to a long, tedious joke, we witness Perloff, the mother hen, in a rage, kicking all 18 of her chicks to the curb. 

Perloff’s avant-garde creds are vast—so you know she has to be cunning (a word that describes Pound and his friends and heirs: not genius, but cunning)—but still it comes as something of a shock to witness the spleen:

1. Perloff mauls Mlinko: I’m a published Yeats scholar, dummy. I also know my Auden and Frost.

Mlinko made the mistake of characterizing Perloff’s judgment thusly:

Who are the heirs of the Modernists? This high bar
seems to include Stein, Zukofsky but not Auden, Frost
or Yeats (it seems Irish, English, and Scots are lost
in the discussion

2. Perloff hauls off on Hong: “I directed Yu’s Stanford dissertaton” and know precisely of which you quote, dummy, so please don’t imply I’m racist.

Hong foolishly dared to proffer:

. . . like all institutions, the avant-garde canon has been as racially homogenous as mainstream poetry. One can rationalize these exclusions. The critic Timothy Yu, in his excellent essay “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” delineates two poles of thought that emerged during the ’70s and ’80s: multicultural poetry and Language poetry. Both groups worked to disrupt the dominant paradigm, but they had radically different aims: “the Language poet’s critique of the personal, lyric voice vs. the minority poet’s desire to lay claim to voice.”

3. Perloff crushes Harrison: You wanna defend Dove’s silly Introduction? “Easy,” huh?  “Verbivocovisual” is Joyce, “Cubo-futurist” comes from Maykovsky, Khlebnikor, and Kruschenyk.  “Ironic neo-avant-garde” is Peter Burger. Dummy.

Harrison fatally erred by writing that it was “easy” for Perloff to go negative (against Dove’s anthology) while dropping names and avant-terms.

4. Perloff demolishes all 18 writers: “Why did none of the eighteen symposiasts dig in and take issue with my specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi—readings that constitute approximately two thirds of the essay?” Dummies!

Perloff attempts to rout her enemies, finally, with, “Constatation of fact—Ezra Pound’s phrase—does, I’m afraid, matter, given that most of the poet-symposiasts are teaching college and university courses on poetry.”  And she ends curtly with a bit of Yeats, from his poem, “A Coat”:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

If we might speak for the Slaughtered Eighteen…

We would maintain it’s Perloff’s problem and not the eighteen that “none took issue with her specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi,” for there has to be, at the minimum, interest (in the sense used by Henry James) for discourse to occur.  While it was admirable for Perloff to present actual examples, they were woeful: avant cut-and-paste goes to snooze town. There was simply no interest—and the vote was, well…18-0.

That leaves Perloff, naturally, with nothing to do but bristle and trot out scholarly creds and anecdotal knowledge: I’ve published papers on Yeats!  “Verbivocovisual” is from Joyce!  an easy way to defend herself against “the eighteen” and Harrison’s “easy” charge—oops!

True, the eighteen responses were all over the place; it wasn’t Perloff’s fault the symposium lacked focus. 

Sandra Lim, using jargon, seemed to us to be faking it. Matthew Zapruder made trite observations on poetry v. song lyrics.  Anthony Madrid was anxious to tell us one can have irony and feeling together. Samuel Amadon pointed out that no group cares for its label. Maureen McLane riffed on James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” in a poem of her own. Annie Finch said she enjoyed meter. Dorothea Lasky praised the “shape-shifter” aspect of the “metaphysical I.” Evie Shockley plied the transcendence of the racial: expression (black) v. conceptual (white). Rebecca Wolff was all “visionary over functionary” and needs a better photo. Lytton Smith was determined to free poetry from the page. Noah Eli Gordon said binaries were teachable, but not profitable for his poetry. Katie Degentesh waded into counter-intuitive feminism. Robert Archambeau quoted David Kellog’s “The Self in the Poetic Field.” Dan Beachy-Quick went back to the Greek chorus to prove the intimacy of the lyric “I” is also social. Stephen Burt quoted Empson: “You must rely on the individual poem to tell you the way in which it is trying to be good.”

This is mostly Creative Writing Program Theory—used by Modernists (the academically astute New Critics  helping out Pound and friends) to crash the Canon party back when the English Professor who teaches Keats was replaced by the Creative Writing professor (and Poet) who teaches himself, and if you are nice to him, You. 

There’s nothing wrong with this impetus; we’d probably all do the same ourselves, but it seems to me, to keep everybody honest, as we cultivate the new writing, we need to keep our eyes on the Poetry Canon that’s being crashed.

This Canon is what makes us able to appreciate Yeats, after all, even if he belongs to it as much as it belongs to him. 

There are canons within canons after all, but there they are.  When we come upon Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” we hear a quality, a canon within a canon.  “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek” shapes the Poetry Canon from all those 16th century writers until…now, obviously, if Canon has any meaning at all.  We think it should have meaning.  Raleigh, Spencer, Munday, Lyly, Greville, Sidney, Lodge, Peele, Tichbourne, Greene, Southwell, Daniel, Drayton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Nashe, Campion, Aytoun, and Donne were born within 20 years of each other in the 16th century.  This group is a sun that still shines.  The Canon is a sun that doesn’t stop shining—unless we decide to put it out.

It isn’t just that the Canon is good; it helps the center to hold.

In this rather nasty exchange between 18 poets and Marjorie Perloff, it doesn’t seem like the center is holding.


  1. Chaty Lorens said,

    December 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Interesting, as usual. But also see:

    Perloff’s Poetry on the Brink (Reinventing the Lyric):

    “The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity. Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject—and here identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian American poetry, queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on—the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.”

    I suspect we all have things (poetic) worthy of complaint.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 15, 2012 at 3:44 am


      Perloff finds fault with all free verse—her “the line itself” or the “word as such” is too vague to have any meaning I can discern; she is essentially attacking all free verse, the 20th century modernist replacement of pre-20th century verse. As I wrote not many posts ago, the Modernist revolution in poetry was not a prose one, because verse is also prose, just prose with a more pronounced rhythm.

      Eliot, the sly Modernist, said prose scans, too—well yes it does: it’s called verse.

      Verse is not ‘not prose.’ Verse is prose—and something more.

      It seems to me it is much better to be for ‘something more’ than to be against something: rhyme, narrative, representation and perspective in painting, etc.

      Perloff is against ‘free verse,’ that which replaced verse, when Modernists were also against something: meter & rhyme. The Modernists belived meter restricted free prose expression, but again, this is false, since all metered verse contains prose. True, it is more difficult to add to prose’s expressiveness (with verse) but nothing is missing—but there is something missing in free verse. The avant-garde is always against something, which is why they are so boring—to me, anyway. Unless they are sly, like the Modernist Eliot. Perloff is sly, too. But she is also against something—which some would say is a natural historical progression, but I don’t think we should assume this to be true. In art, it is always better to be for more than to be against something.


  2. Chaty Lorens said,

    December 13, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Left out the link for the above:


  3. rarchambeau said,

    December 13, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    I think a good part of the reason many people didn’t respond as specifically to Marjorie’s essay as she would have liked was that the symposium itself was less meant to be less about her essay than about the notion of binary thinking in general — or at least that’s how it was presented to contributors. We were asked to write something about the useful, and not so useful, binaries in thinking about poetry.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 15, 2012 at 6:09 pm


      Yes, I’m not sure why Marjorie was so offended that her essay was ignored. I thought the point was: Marjorie has an issue—what are some other issues?


  4. Slopy Bob said,

    December 14, 2012 at 2:44 am

  5. Slopy Bob said,

    December 14, 2012 at 2:45 am

  6. Des said,

    December 14, 2012 at 3:31 am

    Have you read this interview with your old pal, about his forthcoming novel based on his time moderating the comments on Harriet:

    As the designated moderator for the Poetry Foundation’s comments, I felt deeply, deeply bonkers for a few months, largely because I took a lot of the rote online bullying personally. I also wanted to try to figure out how best to maintain a common space for people where not just sanctioned voices got through. Turns out, that’s a tough nut to crack and possibly the Poetry Foundation wasn’t the place for that kind of experimentation. We ended up shutting the comments on the main blog down, which led to a few choice specimens starting their own site on which to, initially, post photos of me and call me a fascist.

  7. Anonymous said,

    December 14, 2012 at 9:42 am

    I know, I know that this is like feeding the dragon that may eventually have you over for dinner, yum!—and I know little about Mr. Nichols’ pre-Scarriet squabbles—but in the interview he does come across as somewhat…grandiloquent? Yes? No? Wow?


    “So, this novel started during all of that, when I was trying to work up some empathy for the disaffected of the world who take en masse to comment sections to vent spleen and crush selves. I honestly wanted to find out where one particular guy from the poetry world was coming from, what made him tick, and so I tried to piece together a narrative based on what I knew about him and write out what he would say to me if given the chance to really tell me off. I thought if I could articulate his needs for him, I might actually be able to solve them. I remain naive about a number of things. But, thankfully, something strange happened in this process. The voice in my head went from a thin whiny squeak to a kind of Bizarro-Whitman roar, and I found myself writing out page after page, longhand, in a kind of fever. We went well beyond articulating minor points of etiquette into articulating a world view and a life, all still within what I saw as a unique and interesting form. Maybe I became possessed? I don’t know. At some lonely estate sale twenty years from now you may find a waxen likeness of me with pins stuck through the forehead alongside an old Dell laptop and a copy of A.E. Houssman’s Shropshire Lad. That would actually explain quite a bit. Anyways, it turned out that the voice I conjured had a lot to say, and that the forever-inward-spiral of self interest made, despite all logic, a world that I felt encompassed a wider swath of humanity than many voices that purport to speak on behalf of others. More and more stories came to me, and I kept expanding and expanding until it became clear that I might be onto something. I showed it to a few close friends whose opinions I trusted, and they told me I might should see a doctor. That’s a kind of encouragement, so I kept at it.”

    • Anonymous said,

      December 14, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Nichols shuts out all voices on Blog Harriet–and then publishes a novel about it. Mmmm… He really wants the last word, doesn’t he?

  8. Des said,

    December 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I think Trav comes across as brilliantly coherent, eloquent and touchingly human. Nothing like the person I had painted in my mind during the short six month sojourn on Harriet in that bonkers time I also experienced on my journey as a person seeking to sing in a speaking voice.

    Looking back now I cringe with embarrassment at 99% of what I wrote, because his description of the bad acid trip that was the comment section of Harriet, is as accurate as the rest of what he wrote about his time there. Like Trav, there was an unconscious process in play on my own part and, like him, it was only several years later I came to fully cognise it. I was merely learning how to string a sentence together by continually failing to. Splurging millions of words of gobbledegook and artless blather, with untold syntactic, spelling and grammatical errors that, eventually, led to a degree of clarity and understanding that makes looking idiotic in print during the learning process, worthwhile.

    Plus, the voice I was speaking in was essentially an act. The vain, pompous, socially disruptive side of me became amplified. I couldn’t help it. It’s like dumping out too much of a raw material so when you do eventually end up with the finished product, though there is a lot of waste, you get there in the end.

    2008 was the peak of it, would you agree? Just as Facebook was taking off and displacing regular blogs. But, in defence of three of Trav’s most prolific head-wreckers during that crazee time, though at the time the experience for him seemed continually unpleasant, a surreal nightmare of incontinent, windy trolls so self-aggrandising and self-fixated as to seriously interfere with his mental wellbeing; is the truth not that we three Harriet trolls, by comparison with the Facebook micro-celebrity culture now in which anything more than a 140 character address is considered loquacious and distasteful; were, for all our faults, pursuing, however ineptly, a loftier poetic goal than the uniform forgetability on show online today by a majority of wannabes networking in such bland homogenous and unoriginal prose that what we did, in comparison, four years later, seems far less at odds with Trav’s own poetic rationale than we previously believed?

    I was eventually moderated off my other main online dumping ground, and though at the time I was deeply unhappy about it, the enforced silence was exactly what I needed to understand and contextualise what it was I’d been doing for the previous 11 years. As you know my own itch was the bardic law, or at least my own attempt at writing about it in order to try and get a handle on this obscure area of poetic study of minimal interest to most contemporary English language poets. I had been on auto-blather for so long it was all I knew. I hadn’t had a dry spell and so what was lacking was self-reflection, which came after I’d ended what, in my own mind, approximated to grade six anruth, that the poet in the bardic order exited at year 12 as they passed into ollamh, or poetry professor territory.

    I went from demanding diva at the centre of my own micro-universe, unread, deluded, all noise and no signal; to where I am now, speaking of Trav as a normal person whose fever has long dissipated and with only positive vibes emanating toward him, a cog, node and mind with whom I briefly interacted; both of us, however minor or uncomfortable at the time, in a productive creative relationship.

    Fair play to him. May the gods of song sing his book a bestseller. I know I’ll be buying it.


  9. Anonymous said,

    December 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    “Splurging millions of words of gobbledegook and artless blather, with untold syntactic, spelling and grammatical errors that, eventually, led to a degree of clarity and understanding that makes looking idiotic in print during the learning process, worthwhile.

    Plus, the voice I was speaking in was essentially an act. The vain, pompous, socially disruptive side of me became amplified. I couldn’t help it. It’s like dumping out too much of a raw material so when you do eventually end up with the finished product, though there is a lot of waste, you get there in the end.”

    Travis now works for Greenpeace.

  10. Des said,

    December 14, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    My previous post was originally addressed to Travis as a comment written in response to the interview and posted onto the coffeehousepress site where it appears. I just changed the pronoun to ‘him’ instead of ‘you’. As yet it hasn’t appeared and it will be interesting to watch if it does. If it doesn’t that, to me at least, will indicate that the interview itself may be more a promotional blurb than an exercise in sharing sincerely with any intended audience this publication is hoping will buy it.

    Regardless of the comment appearing or not, what the interview communicates is that our interior lives can very often be at odds with how we appear to others in print. We wear masks, cloaks of literary concealment and exhibition, can all come across as trolls to silent others responsible for moderating the flow of conversation on lit-blogs, and, as Travis proves, create for them mental challenges from which their own creativity can spark alight into productive literary labour that results in, if the preview blurbs are accurate, groundbreaking genres of fiction.

    It is only recently I have been on the other side of the fence regarding blog commenting; as it is only in the past year since being moderated off my previous online dumping ground that I have read as a silent non-participating reader, and so gauge, for the first time, a more accurate appraisal of where I stood in relation to others in the literary mix of this kind of activity. The truth is most were glad to see the back of me, because, like Harriet, reading back what I wrote, a majority of it is the unthinking and unexamined waffle of a narcissist unable to recognise what was blatantly clear to everyone else. That far from being the cyber-outsider being conspired against by the silent editorial powers that be, I was, in print at least, a weirdo fixated on a very narrow and obscure area of poetry that I was unable to articulate in a readable manner, because in the haste to speak I was tripping over myself and the many thoughts I wanted to express, due to numerous errors of bad punctuation, grammar and syntax, came out very garbled and incoherent.

    Through habit I’d become used to latching onto an interior voice that amplified the hubristic, loud, dull and boorish notes, mistaking, or rather, not having enough experience of silent self-reflection to recognise that these notes were not the witty, urbane and literate ones heard as I acted out my fantasies in the comment boxes of online reality. The nuanced ideas and thoughts I set out to speak were not being communicated effectively because the sentences weren’t being constructed with that appropriate perfection a reader recognises at once, or not at all.

    Anyway, good luck to him.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    December 15, 2012 at 6:04 pm


    Thanks for the info. Amusing that Travis has written a novel out of his Blog Harriet experience. Travis Nichols and Blog Harriet got more than they bargained for when they tangled with the Foetry Four and the free speech issues which played out on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog. What made us too much to handle and got us banned and eventually all comments extinguished on Blog Harriet is this: we brought four elements to the table.

    Des was the earth, a hulk of information they couldn’t contain. Mr. Woodman was water, finding its way into their midst, causing leaks everywhere. Alan Cordle was the air, ubiquitous in his moral quest with his fame, and I, Thomas Brady, was the fire; just look at Scarriet, and compare it, with no money or resources, to Blog Harriet—the latter is milk-and-water cut-and-paste; the former, utterly original and ground-breaking. If I may speak humbly.

    Yes, good luck to his novel.


  12. Des said,

    December 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    My comment addressed to Travis written in response to the Coffee House Press blog interview with him and reproduced here on December 14 with the pronouns changed from ‘you’ to ‘him’, has either not been read by the moderator of the comment stream there, or they have declined to publish it.

    I came across the interview via Don Share’s blog. At the time of writing it was the subject of his last post, December 6; which suggests it is a fairly recent interview. It’s too early to know for sure if Coffee House Press have read my sincere, inoffensive comment and are not going to publish it, so I will not muse on this possibility yet.

    We’ll have to wait to read the book. One possibility (which may be 100% inaccurate) is it could be like Whatsisname Robbins’s Sci-Fi long poem, whatsitcalled, erm, Alien v Predator. Received by critics who view themselves as outsiders and the true inheritors of modernism, exactly as the two preview blurbs suggest: groundbreaking, amazing, a genre-busting must-buy for all discerning taste makers and urban American hipsters connected to the cutting edge. The sort of book minor avant-garde intellectuals like Thom Donovan could analyse for a select audience of radical thinkers who loiter in libraries, art galleries and other places where there’s lots of concrete to concentrate on as they ponder the complexities of contemporary culture.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 16, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      I wonder if Don Share will have a large part in the novel—he was certainly there. I’m also curious—which one of us irked Mr. Nichols the most? Woodman, I’m guessing. But I imagine the creature of his novel is a composite. I do find it amusing that Travis, who found free speech a pollutant, now works for Greenpeace. There will always be those souls who want to scrub the world clean. I don’t envy them.

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