Perloff in the Nineties

Perloff in the Nineties

David Zauhar
Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions
Marjorie Perloff
Northwestern University Press, 1998.
Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media
Marjorie Perloff
University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary
Marjorie Perloff
University of Chicago Press, 1996.

David Zauhar reads Marjorie Perloff the way she reads poetry and philosophy: as ways of doing, rather than saying

One possible approach to Perloff’s 1990’s output is suggested in her preface to Wittgenstein’s Ladder. Here, she refers to Charles Bernstein’s lecture, “Living Tissue/Dead Ideas,” characterized as “an eloquent critique of the then-current orthodoxy of using literary texts as ‘so many examples of literary theory.’ A great critic like Walter Benjamin, Bernstein argues, is primarily to be understood as a writer, the contradictions of whose style are not to be explained away.” While trying not to saddle Perloff with the burden of greatness, and while trying to avoid gratuitous comparisons between Perloff’s work and Benjamin’s, there is still much to be gained by considering Perloff’s criticism as writing. Doing so allows one to avoid abstracting those parts of the work which stand as a logical argument (in order to present them later as thinly disguised syllogisms) before proceeding with a critique that reveals yet another deductive argument. Most prose by academics lends itself to such treatment, including, of course, Perloff’s. The writings of a critic such as Perloff, however, are more interesting when treated as extended essays which are trying to do something, rather than just say something. In other words, Perloff’s work can be better understood if it is read the way she reads poetry - as an enactment in language of a particular aesthetic and ideological stance in which the question of how language is employed matters more than “what is being said.”

Thus the kind of poetry Perloff advocates is formally more difficult than the conventional lyric favored by MFA programs and mainstream organs like Poetry and American Poetry Review. Much of her work, in fact, seems directed toward answering a question raised by one of her graduate students in a seminar over a decade ago. Faced with work that is syntactically opaque and quite overt in its resistance to conventional form, a student inquired, “why can’t they write like Kafka?” That is, why can’t writers maintain an adversarial stance in a manner which retains certain conventions of communication? A good question, and one not just pertinent to the seminar table, which is why Perloff has been trying to answer it for the last ten years and more. In fact, each of the three books under consideration is directed toward this question, toward Perloff’s attempt to show why several writers don’t want to “write like Kafka…or at least like Robert Lowell or, in our own time, Seamus Heaney.”

This question is difficult to tackle without occasionally falling into a vulgar historicism or an extreme aestheticism, marked by the assumption at the historicist end of the spectrum that there is only one way to write poetry that matters, and by the assumption at the aestheticist end that it doesn’t matter at all how one writes. Perloff is aware that poetry is always going to consist of conflicting schools advocating, with varying degrees of hostility, contradictory practices. In Radical Artifice she consistently favors a poetry that questions the assumption that certain ways of writing are more “natural” and “authentic” than others. Presuppositions of authentic naturalism or naturalized authenticity lead certain poets to produce a poetry which they assume is not, itself, subject to social and cultural forces that manifest themselves in other, less authentically poetic poems. Perloff’s preferred poetry is adversarial in its stance toward the dominant discursive practices, and this poetry expresses its opposition by constantly disrupting habitual reading patterns and thus calling attention to its constructed, fabricated nature. Such poetry does so, basically, by not being easy to consume. Perloff’s guiding assumption in Radical Artifice is that poetry most suitable in an age dominated by the mass media is the radical artifice of avant-garde poetics, as opposed to the reactionary artifice of neo-formalist poets and the cataleptic artifice of workshop lyricism (neither of which is overtly conscious of itself in relation to a larger social and political world). This radical poetry foregrounds its production on the workings of syntax and diction rather than on the fabrication of the image and creation of the personality of the poet (the “voice” in other words). Such poetry requires its readers to explore the language on the page immediately in front of them, and to contemplate the relation of language in general to the world. Thus, such poetry simultaneously invites the reader’s participation in the construction of meaning, while also alienating readers who are (not unreasonably) put off by the violation of conventional modes of communication.

Offering a reading not of a Robert Bly poem, but of Robert Bly’s appearance on a Bill Moyers documentary wherein Bly reads poems and talks to Moyers much like any other televised persona, Perloff concludes, “much of what goes by the name of poetry today is processed and packaged in this form. Poetry might not be frequently televised, but the ideology and the format is the same.

Distinguished from other forms of writing by the sheer weight of their images as well as by the series of breath pauses that signal lineation, “poems” are embedded in what are alternately weighty and witty anecdotes that serve to keep the audience more or less awake and geared up for the next poetic shots.

In other words, even poetry that proffers radical postures but which remains transparently telegenic is capable of being subsumed to the format of the dominant cultural form. The poets she favors, as I’ve suggested, challenge this centrality of the image, whether in the sense intended by poets or the sense intended by TV producers and consultants. Central to Radical Artifice are a variety of poets and practices that challenge this dominance of the image. Perloff concisely summarizes the various practices by which this challenge takes place, and thus offers one of the briefest summary of the history of Avant Garde American writing available anywhere.

There are three main ways in which this [critique of the image] has occurred: (1) the image, in all its concretion and specificity, continues to be foregrounded, but it is now presented as inherently deceptive, as that which must be bracketed, parodied, and submitted to scrutiny - this is the mode of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, more recently of Michael Palmer and Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman; (2) the Image as referring to something in external reality is replaced by the word as Image, but concern with morphology and the visualization of the word’s constituent parts: this is the mode of Concrete Poetry extending from such pioneers as Eugen Gomringer and Steve McCaffery, Susan Howe, and Johanna Drucker; and (3) Image as the dominant gives way to syntax: in Poundian terms, the turn is from phanopoeia to logopoiea. “Making strange” now occurs at the level of phrasal and sentence structure rather than at the level of the image cluster so that poetic language cannot be absorbed into the discourse of the media: this is the mode of Clark Coolidge…and of Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and Bruce Andrews among others; it comes to us from Gertrude Stein, from whom image was never the central concern, via Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen.

In short, the idea of “the image” has become naturalized by the practices of many contemporary poets, so much so that it is common for poets not to see the connection between the “image” that drives certain kinds of poetry and the “image” created by those who format TV and shape its content. Perloff favors poets who agree with this perception, naturally enough, poets who call attention to the mediated nature of all literary productions, and who suspect those works that pretend not to be mediated at all. Perloff’s most recent two books, Wittgenstein’s Ladder and Poetry On and Off the Page, expand on this point. thREAD to another ebr9 essay on Perloff

Wittgenstein’s Ladder is not, as it would be in the hands of a less able critic, a book that “uses” Wittgenstein the way a critic of the 30’s would use Marx or the 60’s would use Freud: as a master key that unlocks a variety of texts. Perloff instead demonstrates that certain novelists and poets undertake projects that Wittgenstein himself appropriated for philosophy. The writers Perloff discusses - Stein, Marinetti, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachman, and John Cage, among others - all try to take language as far as it can go before language takes us to the point where, as Wittgenstein states near the conclusion of the Tractatus, one must pass into silence. Perloff’s competence with this range of writers alone, by the way, should disqualify Perloff from any consideration as a Language Poetry camp follower. While one could trace ancestry to some of these writers from today’s Avant Garde, there are too many disruptions and discontinuities to establish a clear cut genealogy. However, there is a connection between these figures and the still-developing poetries that Perloff champions. At one point Perloff quotes Wittgenstein’s later aphorism that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry,” and then suggests that “presumably the converse would be equally valid: Poetry ought really to be written only as a form of philosophy.” Poetry, then, becomes a form of critique of everyday life, a conscious examination of that which often remains unexamined (specifically, in Wittgenstein and in much contemporary poetry, language). The project Perloff has in mind is not at all similar to that of the groups typically considered to be Wittgenstein’s colleagues and disciples, namely the Vienna Circle, the Logical Positivists and their contemporary heirs, the analytical philosophers who hold sway in the philosophy departments of most North American universities. In fact, one could credit Perloff for helping to rescue Wittgenstein from the figures with whom he is usually associated in accounts of 20th century philosophy. As she shows at some length, “the curious collision of the ‘mystical’ with the commonsensical study of actual language practices…makes Wittgenstein such a natural ally for the poets and artists of our time.” Wittgenstein, like many avant-gardists, works with the ordinary, but with the intention of illuminating the ordinary by “making it strange.” Needless to say, this contrasts strongly with the logical positivists, who deal with the ordinary by making it dull, and the strange by denying its existence.

This interest in the dialectic between the ordinary and the strange as manifested in language is central to Perloff’s most recent book, Poetry On and Off the Page, a collection of previously scattered, occasional essays. While the oldest piece is a decade old, most date from the last two or three years. These essays confirm Perloff as an astute student of twentieth century writing in general, and, as I will show soon, of the cultural scene in which contemporary poetry takes place. Also present in her work is a concern with extra-literary art, specifically, here, photography and video. Furthermore, a subsidiary concern in her other books with certain contemporary academic critical practices comes to the forefront in a few of these essays. For instance, the essay “Tolerance and Taboo” challenges, from the same perspective one finds in Wittgenstein’s Ladder, certain all-too-typical critiques of modernist primitivism (exemplified in this case by Marianna Torgovnick’s Gone Primitive). Perloff has no problem with the critique of European appropriations of “the primitive” as a means of generating modernist art, but she does object to the careless and absolutist attempts to dismiss all work that can be tarred with the primitivist brush. Perloff writes, “perhaps a more satisfactory critique of primitivism and its analogs [than Torgovnick’s] would begin with the recognition that primitivisms, like the modernisms to which they are related, can only be plural.” Perloff then draws on her knowledge of the early 20th century Russian avant-garde to complicate the question, pointing out that, in this case, a figure like Khlebnikov “descended from Mongolian Buddhists who inhabited the grassy steppes of the west bank of the Caspian sea.” Her point, one which is too often forgotten in critical practice, is simply that “the exotic is, of course, always a contested site,” and consequently will yield a greater variety of readings than most methodologies can account for.

Of course, Perloff is accustomed to working zones of contestation, for contemporary American poetry, which as I hope I’ve demonstrated is but one of her areas of expertise, is nothing if not contested. Unfortunately, one could remain blissfully unaware of that fact simply by limiting one’s reading to the main organs of culture. Perloff’s essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Poetry,” is a recently-published critique of literary journalism (or lack thereof). Here Perloff’s point is not the typical lament about the death of poetry, the one wherein the critic sings a lengthy aria about poetry having lost its audience and then searches for someone to blame (schools, poets themselves, television, etc.). Rather, Perloff demonstrates that the public spaces in which poetry is treated with intelligence and sensitivity may have drastically shrunk, but it is more likely, Perloff suggests, that there probably has never been, in the U.S. at least, a consistent public forum wherein poetry consistently gained the kind of treatment regularly granted to novels, or for that matter (Perloff’s example) architectural theory.

The essay compares two reviews as case studies, both from the Times Literary Supplement. One review is devoted to four fairly complex studies of recent trends in architecture, and the other review covers eight unrelated volumes devoted to contemporary poetry. This comparison allows Perloff to demonstrate an important point about poetry and public spheres. The TLS, a review from a major cultural capital with the word “literary” as its middle name, treats books on architecture more seriously and thoughtfully than it treats poetry. Turning to recent years in the New York Times Book Review, Perloff finds the same state of affairs. In fact, the NYTBR has for years been notable for its lack of attention to poetry. Perloff’s conclusion based on this reading, though, is typically surprising and worthy of note. As I said, rather than lament the truly lamentable state of literary journalism, Perloff humorously suggests that it might be better to call for “a moratorium on the half-hearted attempt to include, for the sake of some residual notion of ‘culture’ the occasional poetry review along with the occasional poem, the latter inevitably presented inside a box as if to cordon it off from more important matters.” While this is no doubt presented with tongue in cheek, her more serious point needs to be noted as well: “The abysmal state of poetry reviewing is not, paradoxically, hurting the cause of poetry itself, which is, to my mind, extraordinarily healthy at the moment. Rather, there seems to be a mechanism at play that is making ‘literary journalism’ irrelevant so far as contemporary literary production is concerned.”

There are other treatments of these mechanisms of public discourse, but they are book length, and basically they tend to confirm Perloff’s inclinations. (The best I think is the widely under-read Addison and Steele Are Dead, by Brian McCrea [Delaware, 1991]). In our own day, Addison and Steele are still dead, while Dana Gioia and David Lehman aren’t doing much better. Unfortunately, the lack of competent examinations of poetry as it emerges is hardly new. Perloff herself demonstrates that the NYTBR has a long history of offering stunningly thought-free reviews of poetry. The point Perloff is making, however, is that poetry in the United States has never really had a consistent, broadly popular and intelligent outlet for discussion. In fact, when poetry is treated in a media forum aimed at the mythical general readership, the result is often comical. A brief aside to re-confirm Perloff’s point: a recent issue of The American Scholar featured an essay by a precocious Harvard senior. The article earnestly insisted that contemporary American poets would be better served if they rejected T.S. Eliot as a model in favor of Matthew Arnold. Seriously: I am not making this up. While exhibiting an accurate if not admirable knowledge of the poems and essays of both Eliot and Arnold, the essay’s author (and the journal’s editors) clearly have no idea how vast, various and contested contemporary American poetry actually is, nor do they possess the least understanding of how most of it is composed, collected, and distributed. Furthermore, regarding The American Scholar as a journal of ideas, I can only conclude that, out of deference to Emerson’s achievement, and in keeping with current truth-in-labeling laws, The American Scholar should rechristen itself The Victorian Dilettante.

Perloff’s point, in short, is well taken: that there is “no good reason that poetry reviewing in the TLS can’t be just as useful as reviews of architecture or gender studies.” Her corollary conclusion, though, strikes me as questionable: that the over-production of poetry leads to conditions which contribute to poetry not receiving serious attention in major outlets. True to an extent: as Perloff says at one point, the reviewer faces a brutal task when assigned an omnibus review of several volumes of new poetry: “the mandate - to say something telling and original about five unlike and generally unexceptional volumes of short personal lyrics - is not easy to fulfill.” This is because as Perloff puts it, “about 90 percent of so-called poetry publication” is at best “dross.” Again, true to an extent. However, one could invoke here “Sturgeon’s Law,” named for science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, based on his alleged statement that “95% of all science fiction is crap.” The applicability of Sturgeon’s law across genres, though, comes into play with Sturgeon’s extension of his hypothesis: “then again, 95% of everything is crap.” I believe that Sturgeon’s law applies to poetry, fiction, scholarship, and even (though I can’t prove this) architectural theory. So while Perloff rightly laments the over-production of dross that goes by the name of poetry, I don’t think that it leads editors and readers to ask “who…is to decide which of the countless poets now plying their trade are worthy of attention? And why is one set of poetic principles any more valid than another?”

Conditions of mechanical overproduction do exist, and perhaps to the detriment of poetry, but Perloff is less than accurate when she says “we never say this about historians or anthropologists - or even architects, perhaps because certification in these fields is a complex process” (PP 183). While there is no small press scene (that I know of) to provide publication outlets for dedicated, uncertified architects and historians, surely the reason for poetry’s exclusion from serious discussion has to do with something more than the rigor of the respective certification processes. My own suspicion is stimulated by Perloff’s suggestion that poetry suffers from a lack of a “middle class poetry public.” Herein, I think, lies the problem. There is no middle class poetry public. But there is a poetry public. My guess is that poetry’s readership is not demographically consistent and therefore harder to reach via mass-mediated techniques like those used to develop TV shows and blockbuster novels. If this description is accurate, then the most valuable skill a teacher of poetry can pass on to students is not the art of scansion nor the habit of performing close readings. Instead, a teacher should devise ways to show their students how to find various kinds of poetry that fly below the radar of market research and mainstream book-reviewing practices.

As with Perloff’s other volumes, the essays in Poetry On and Off the Page are more diverse than can be demonstrated in a brief review, but in all of them Perloff writes brilliantly about specific scenes in American cultural history as manifested in poetry, poetics, and literary scholarship. In short, even a brief encounter with Perloff’s most recent work shows that she is more than the Helen Vendler of Language Poetry and a mere advocate of a trendy kind of poetry and theory. As I said before, she makes no effort to hide her affinities with certain kinds of writing, but she has also written brilliantly about architecture, videography, photography, and some decidedly non-avant garde poets like Robert Lowell. Perloff’s writing in the 1990s shows that her field is not limited to contemporary American poetry. While her knowledge of this field is formidable, she is trained as a scholar of comparative literature. Consequently, her readings of American poetry in general should be understood as an effort to discern the effects of social and cultural changes in the 20th century on the writing of poetry. She favors writing which attempts to grapple with these same concerns. Her reasons are not those of a careerist, but of an intellectual struggling to understand how and why poetry still matters in an age of shopping malls, email, and television, an age which favors convenience and comfort over labor and thought.