Marjorie Perloff on Dominance
Interesting article by Marjorie Perloff riffing off of Jed Rasula in The Boston Review:
It’s another of those “It was not always thus” articles by someone fairly late in their career (it even says at one point “It was not always thus”), which always makes me wary that it’s going to be infected by a false nostalgia of their own youth. So, with that in mind, I find she (and Rasula as well) misses the point as often as she hits it, but even so, it’s an interesting read.
First, the number of people involved in teaching creative writing at all levels in academia, they say, is 20,000. Then they say that research is the most important aspect of the continued employment of these 20,000. Then they say that this is causing a narrowing the aesthetic diversity of poets, which is this:
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.
There is a point to this, but it’s not the point Perloff is making. The point I see is that there is a tendency, or a gravity, around aesthetic positions. It’s a contextual thing that gets reinforced by journals and universities and awards. It’s not the poet’s fault, though. It’s the journals and awards and universities. There are other poets doing other things, they’re just not valued by those journals, etc.
If Tony Hoagland is wrong in saying, using a very similar argument about journals and awards and universities, the dominant poetry of our time is skittery, this does not mean that Perloff is right, that it’s a homogenous totality of neo-autobiographical-light epiphany poetry. If either of them has a point, then both of them are wrong.
These are simplistic arguments that tend to fall apart, as Perloff’s does. First, I agree that it is true that most people who write poetry are involved in academia, but they are involved in various ways, and with various expectations of them. There are many, many poets who have won no awards, nor ever expect that they might. They also have never published in any of the journals Perloff and Rasula mention as the goal of contemporary American poets. Even with these two major strikes against them, they’re getting by just fine. Of course, many of them have academic positions that are at little-known universities off Perloff’s radar, but the fact remains that these poets don’t have to publish in the kinds of places she’s thinking of, and they don’t have to win the kinds of awards she’s thinking of. They can write absolutely however they feel like writing. And they do. I, for one, feel zero pressure from the small regional university I teach at to conform to the career she describes.
My guess, as with most writers, Rasula and Perloff and Hoagland see only what is around them. They see the winners of the big prizes and the people who teach at the most prestigious schools, and they extrapolate from there (though selectively so, as I’ll get to in a minute). The rest of us can see it quite differently.
True, there is a much more narrow aesthetic represented in the major awards than in the whole of contemporary American poetry. I do wish it were different, but awards are political things, not aesthetic things. It’s important to keep that in mind. (And sometimes those political economies end up choosing a poet I admire, as it has with Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, John Ashbery, among others). It will always be so.
Here’s a bit that struck me as especially disconnected:
“It was not always thus. The poetry wars of the 1960s—raw versus cooked, open versus closed, Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960) versus Donald Hall and Robert Pack’s anthology New Poets of England and America (1962)—produced lively and engaging debates about the nature of poetry and poetics. What made a lineated text a poem? Did poems require some sort of closure, a circular structure with beginning, middle, and end? Should the poet speak in his or her own person, divulging intimate autobiographical details? And so on.”
One must be pretty distant from the ground not to think that sort of thing is no longer going on. It doesn’t take much research to find that there are a lot of debates going on about the form, content, and function of poetry, a lot of it in places such as The Boston Review, in which her essay appears.
She has a point when she starts talking about the ageism of art:
“…poets are always being displaced by younger poets. Whenever I sort out the hundreds of poetry books that come across my desk and rearrange my bookcases, I notice a curious phenomenon. Poet X has produced two or three successful books and keeps on writing in the same vein, but somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets much less attention for the simple reason that, in the interim, so many new poets have come on the scene. The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight is now on them. Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” has come to refer not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.”
This is a major problem in contemporary poetry. The young are not reading the older living poets as much as they should, but it’s also obvious to me that the older poets are also not reading the young.
After this, Perloff leaves her point almost entirely as she gets bogged down in a discussion of American Hybrid and Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Even though, she does have a point when she writes that “In the current climate, with thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules.” There are a lot, a powerful lot, of bad poems out there, and there is a large majority of poets who’ve decided to play nice about it. In fact, if I were to accuse academia and prizes for something it would be for this, much more than the work itself that poets produce. So we by and large nod our heads and smile at each other while jabbing ourselves in the leg with a pen to keep from screaming. Call it the Poetry Party Game.
And then, after these universals and generalizations, Perloff takes an unexpected (or maybe an expected) turn:
“So far I have been talking about the dominant poetry culture of our time—the culture of prizes, professorships, and political correctness. To dislodge the dominant paradigm is never easy, but in recent years we have witnessed a lively reaction from a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo.”
What bothers me in such a turn, is that she first says contemporary American poetry is this unified beast of boring, lazy, unmusical, etc, poetry that doesn’t have any productive tension, then she says there’s this rising reaction from a growing group. She wants to have it both ways. To say it’s monolithic and then to say it’s crumbling. And who becomes her model for the possible? John Cage. I like John Cage a lot, but he’s been dead for 25 years. She then introduces another example, Susan Howe, who again, has been around a very long time. If the general poem of our time is under siege from Susan Howe she’s very patient. Perloff does a bit better by bringing in Srikanth Reddy, but bringing him in poses another problem for her. He is a product of, and now teaches at, just the sort of prestigious institution she says ruins innovation in poetry. So, what is she saying the problem is again?
Bah. I give up. It’s a useless argument. We’ve all been here before. The lines are memorized. It’s this little dance we do because we think dancing is what art’s all about.