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May 29, 2012

Stanford professor and poetry critic Marjorie Perloff makes a striking defense of avant-garde poetry—attacking in the effort strains of mainstream lyricing—in the current Boston Review. The magazine has made the entire fluid essay available on-line.

In “Poetry on the Brink,” Perloff begins by framing contemporary poetry as a career move and lays down the formula for the poem anyone who wants to advance up the lyrical ladder must master:

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.

She then levels her aesthetic disappointment at some of the most influential career poets of our era, presumably the leaders of the mundane:

Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert HassLouise 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.

In the current climate, with thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules.

Others implicated include Rita Dove—who has received a slew of opinioned reviews for her new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011) as any editor predictably would—and David St. John and Cole Swensen for similar reasons for their American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2009). One might sense a professional jealousy at not being asked to create one of these immediately canonical editions, were it not for the proper defense the cultural critic, which Perloff succeeds at–that is defending the new, the strange, the in-need-of-defense.

On Perloff’s plus side stand Caroline BergvallChristian BökJohn Cage Craig DworkinKenneth GoldsmithFannie HoweVanessa PlaceSrikanth Reddy. Some names more recognizable than others, a symptom of leading: you may be so far ahead as to be invisible to most. And the work of these poets is too diverse and current to classify simply.

But—paradoxically, diabolically, union of oppositesy—both sides of Perloff’s aisle—Bök & Swenson—are represented in May 2008 at The University of Arizona Poetry Center’s “Conceptual Poetry and Its Others.” Recordings of this event, and many similar, are available at the virtual treasure cove of poetry jewels, including the recent group read of Spiral Orb’s newest direction: a poetic inventory of Saguaro National Park. Incidentally, Spiral Orb contributor and cohort Wendy Burke will have work featured in the upcoming issue of dirtcakes, “Oh Baby!” slated for release later this year. 

While deferring to Perloff’s scholarship and sympathizing with her boredom at parlor poetry—though vacillatingly convinced of the editorial conspiracy—her critique poses the conundrum: Advocating for a more experimental poetry creates a smaller—Perloff would undoubtedly argue more quality—audience for poetry, while the mild-mannered “establishment” appears to be broadening poetry’s base; is a more poetry-influenced population in the best interests of culture or should it remain over there? As a completely non-terminal answer, I recall Louise Gluck’s youthful realization that not everyone is into poetry to begin with—and how strange for them. What Perloff is dissecting, I suppose, is the negotiations that then ensue between the two, between the unacknowledged legislators of the world and the world.


“Ten Maps of Sardonic Wit” –Christian Bök


atoms in space now drift

on a swift and epic storm


soft wind can stir a poem


snow fits an optic dream

into a scant prism of dew


words spin a faint comet


some words in fact paint

two stars of an epic mind


manic words spit on fate


“Samurai Song” –Robert Pinsky


When I had no roof I made

Audacity my roof. When I had

No supper my eyes dined.


When I had no eyes I listened.

When I had no ears I thought.

When I had no thought I waited.


When I had no father I made

Care my father. When I had

No mother I embraced order.


When I had no friend I made

Quiet my friend. When I had no

Enemy I opposed my body.


When I had no temple I made

My voice my temple. I have

No priest, my tongue is my choir.


When I have no means fortune

Is my means. When I have

Nothing, death will be my fortune.


Need is my tactic, detachment

Is my strategy. When I had

No lover I courted my sleep.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Drew Krewer permalink
    May 31, 2012 8:36 pm

    “Advocating for a more experimental poetry creates a smaller—Perloff would undoubtedly argue more quality—audience for poetry, while the mild-mannered ‘establishment’ appears to be broadening poetry’s base; is a more poetry-influenced population in the best interests of culture or should it remain over there?”

    I disagree that “establishment” poetry is widening poetry’s base; it might *not limit* poetry’s base in the way more “experimental” (I hate using that term) poetry might, though. Poetry’s audience has been fairly small in general, and poetry’s not going to die… why must we continually “widen the audience?” Also, if poetry’s audience IS declining or stagnating, why aren’t we looking more closely at the dominant poetry of the time and its ability (or inability) to be relevant as the attitudes and predilections of our society shift?

    Perloff, however, I think fails to fully address that there are many out there challenging the “establishment” who are not necessarily Conceptual poets (or their others). This discussion shouldn’t be reduced to binaries— “establishment” vs. “experimental.” This is more about “establishment” vs. a wide variety of poets who are tired of the dominant/uniform lyric.

    • June 2, 2012 4:54 am

      Drew–Your comment is insightful and well-received. Thanks. I agree the duality of Perloff’s argument is limiting. And the idea of today’s poets not reaching a broader audience (while competing with a vibrant distracting electrified media) is relevant and part of the entire reason for the thoughts to begin with.

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