Marjorie Perloff. American Critic
From The Encyclopedia of Literary Critics and Criticism, Edited by Chris Murray. (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999)
Marjorie Perloff is one of the foremost American critics of contemporary poetry. Her work has been especially concerned with explicating the writing of experimental and avant-garde poets and relating it to the major currents of modernist and, especially, postmodernist activity in the arts, including the visual arts and cultural theory. She took her first degree at Barnard College, New York, followed by an M.A. and Ph.D. (in 1965) at CUA (Catholic University of America) in Washington DC. CUA also provided her first teaching post (as assistant and then associate professor) from 1966 to 1971. She moved to the University of Maryland as full professor in 1971, remaining there five years before moving to California in 1976. She has been a professor at Californian universities since 1976, with ten years at the University of Southern California, till 1986, and since then at Stanford University, becoming Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities in 1990. Her immense energies and enthusiasm as a writer and teacher have been devoted to creating a public for the work of writers whom many others have wanted to dismiss as too difficult, obscure, or marginal. Her own writing is always anything but that; as Frank Kermode has said, Marjorie Perloff is fun to read. She has never been a critic who wraps her insights in a daunting verbal carapace which only the truly intrepid can penetrate. She writes to explain, and always communicates her insights through vivid juxtapositions, formulations, and examples.
While the American mainstream of academic poststructuralist theory in recent years has concentrated its efforts chiefly on such areas as Renaissance drama and modern prose fiction, partly in reaction against the New Critical generation’s stress on poetry, Perloff has never wavered from her commitment to modern and contemporary poetry, a commitment which constantly seeks to extend her generation’s “New Critical” enthusiasm for major modernist poets like William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, taking in the postwar tradition of American poetic innovation which runs through the Black Mountain Poets, the New York Poets, the Beats in the 1950s and 1960s, and through to the Language Poets of the 1980s and 1990s. (Language Poetry, a key interest of Perloff’s, is a radical form of poetry which arose in the 1970s in the United States, especially in San Francisco and New York. In its “pure” form it rejects “reference” out to an objective world beyond the page, so that the poem is not “about” anything — it is simply the “actuality of the words.” It also rejects the “tyranny” of the lyrical “I” whose experience is narrated or explored through poetry. Instead, it focuses attention on sentence, phrase, linguistic register, and verbal patterning. Prominent practitioners are Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Bob Perelman.) Perloff’s strong interest in related “avant-garde” poetry activity in Britain (and, indeed, in Canada and in the rest of Europe) from the 1970s onward marks her out as highly unusual among major American critics. Indeed, it would be true to say that the major academic and commercial success of contemporary avant-garde poetries in the United States is partly due to the succession of lively, lucid, and enlightening critical books and articles which she has produced since the early 1980s. Likewise, the comparative obscurity which remains the fate of the related British “experimental” poetries can be said to be due to the continuing absence from the critical scene of a “British Perloff.”
Perloff’s three earliest books are her only ones devoted entirely to a single poet, but each marks a step closer to the field which she made her métier. They are Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970), The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973), and Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (1977). This sequence of books also suggests a gradual “Americanization” of her interests, and perhaps also hints at her refusal to be bowled over by deconstruction. Her book on the New York poet Frank O’Hara sees his work as part of a matrix of related cultural and artistic activity, rather than isolating it, in the New Critical fashion, as a uniquely supercharged variety known as “literature.” Placing poetry within a cultural continuum in this way quickly becomes the keynote of her approach. Instead of reading the “words on the page” she reads the words (as she has said) off the page and into the immensely active urban and technological cultures from which innovative poetries invariably arise. As she says in the Preface to Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991), “There is today no landscape uncontaminated by sound bytes or computer blips, no mountain peak or lonely valley beyond the reach of the cellular phone and the microcassette player. Increasingly, then, the poet’s arena is the electronic world.”
In 1981 Perloff produced her first book in what became her settled manner of dealing with a broad range of modern and contemporary culture and treating poetry “within the arts,” under the title The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage, a book which sees broad lines of continuity between modernist and postmodernist culture. This project of establishing a network of interconnections between modernism and postmodernism is characteristic of Perloff’s mature project, in sharp contrast to that of her contemporary, and rival, the critic Helen Vendler, whose consistent line has been to elevate the status of classic modernists like T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens while seeming to denigrate that of the present-day avant-garde. Vendler has, it is true, singled out specific contemporary poets as exemplary (such as John Ashbery) but she has never “endorsed” a whole body of varied work by different figures in the way that Perloff, for the past decade and a half, has engaged with the work known as Language Poetry. Where Vendler searches for the individual heirs to the literary heroes of the recent past, Perloff is fascinated by the intense debates about language, poetry, culture, and the self which cluster about the Language Poets. The Poetics of Indeterminacy is also the first of Perloff’s books to emphasize the importance of the musician and cultural theorist John Cage, a figure on whose exemplary centrality she becomes increasingly insistent. The other three books in this “middle” phase of her career are The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985), The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986), and Poetic License: Studies in Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (1989), all, again, establishing deep-level connections and affinities between modernism and postmodernism.
But it should be emphasized that Perloff’s notion of the postmodern takes up early definitions of it by critics such as Ihab Hassan in the 1970s. Hassan’s The Literature of Silence (1967) made a case for a new kind of post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima writing which rejected traditional Western literary-aesthetic norms, resulting in texts which were either violent or obscene, like those of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, or else reticent, randomized, and indeterminate, like those of Samuel Beckett and John Cage. This critical approach responded to the well-known pronouncement of Theodor Adorno that “After Auschwitz . . . to a write a poem is barbaric.” Such notions of silence, randomness, and openness seemed to posit the possibility of a “post-aesthetic” kind of writing which acknowledged the failure of the century’s high culture to prevent a return to barbarism. “Postmodernism” in this sense represented a literature which recognized the failure of “high culture,” even that of the great modernists like Pound, Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Thomas Mann, so that the anti-elitism, anti-authoritarianism, and anarchism of this kind of postmodernism had what Perloff calls a “cutting edge” — it was polemical and political, and had not yet been formulated primarily as “play.” But 1967 was also the year of the three books which brought Jacques Derrida to fame, and marked the beginning of the rise of poststucturalism in the United States. Derrida’s seminal essay “Structure, Sign, and Play” had first appeared in 1966, and very quickly the notion of “semantic instability” became dominant in the humanities, not as the specific quality of the postmodern “open text,” but as the necessary linguistic condition of all texts. Thus, in its later phase, postmodernism becomes “play” rather than “anarchy,” celebrating what Jameson called “a new depthlessness,” and “a waning of affect.” Perloff sees the shift in emphasis from “openness” to “depthlessness,” in discussions of postmodernism between the 1970s and the 1980s, as symptomatic. The “dissolution of the subject,” favored by 1980s postmodernism and poststructuralism, far from being something to celebrate, is actually the state of mind that engendered Stalinist purges, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. Perloff, of course, offers no neat solution to this contradiction, but she points out that many of the classic modernists had already lost faith in those “metanarratives” before their demise was proclaimed in the 1980s. Perloff’s point is that unless we reappraise modernism, we cannot understand postmodernism, or will at best be left with a deracinated version of the phenomenon in which we are compelled to relive the, after all, quite recent past, without being aware that that is what we are doing. Perloff, then, is far from accepting the dominant notions of postmodernism uncritically. She asks of postmodernism what might be called “developmental” questions, such as “How did we ever get ourselves into this mode of critical thinking?” This is not a rhetorical question, and she means to stimulate us into retracing the process step by step, a proceeding which is conspicuously free of the poststructuralist queasiness about considering questions of origin and development.
One of Perloff’s great strengths as a critic and theorist, then, is that while her career reaches its highpoint as deconstruction sweeps the board in America, her work retains its independence and is not swept along with it, whether in the form of extreme partisanship or extreme opposition. Instead of reacting, as so many American critics did, by developing an exaggerated horror for the New Critical “formalism” of the previous generation, she retains many elements of this native American product and refuses to trade it in for the new European model of literary study. Hence, all her essays at some point reproduce a poem, or a substantial proportion of one, and enter into close critical engagement with it. The difference between hers and the typical New Critical essay is that the poem is not isolated as a “verbal icon” detached from every other aspect of life. Rather, she is likely to relate poems to broader (and often interlocking) cultural contexts, such as aspects of business and commercial culture (for example, the way messages are conveyed by iconographic business calling cards, as in Radical Artifice) and the close textual explication is placed within a generously panoramic literary context, with a clear and sharp line of argument which maps a large expanse of literary territory in a memorable way. A classic example of this kind of broad contextualizing is her essay “After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries,” which argues that while free-verse was speech-based, image-based, and individually expressive writing which centered on the line as its unit, there is now a new kind of “post-linear” writing, represented by Language Poetry, which centers on “the word as such,” or on the “aphoristic fragment,” and is designed for the eye (it is “page-specific”) more than the ear. A formulation of this kind seems to empower the reader in a dramatic way with a new and comprehensive way of seeing a major segment of twentieth-century poetry — what more could be asked of a literary critic and theorist? Such mappings and formulations, of course, always prove too rigid once we actually get into the field and begin to encounter the examples in quantity. But the point is that they send us into the field with some confidence, and with a hypothesis to test, and Perloff herself makes the point earlier in the essay about the necessary crudeness of our literary maps by presenting five American poems, without at first naming the poets, and asking us to decide in which of the well-known camps (“Beat,” “Black Mountain,” “Deep Image,” and so on) each poet belongs. The answers, of course, are surprising, but this does not prove the categories to be meaningless: it simply means that the test will often (as it should) modify the hypothesis.
Perloff’s best-known and most influential book is Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, which appeared in 1991 and is very much the best starting point for readers new to her work. The book seeks to situate the flight from “transparency” (that is, language which aims to look and sound “natural,” to sound like “real” talk) to “artifice” (that is, poetic language which foregrounds its own artificiality, for instance, by arranging itself in a series of blocks or clusters on the page). This shift is characteristic of the modernist and postmodernist writers she most admires today, who write within “the discourses of art and the mass media,” for it is naive to suppose that “a ‘poem’ could exist in the United States today that has not been shaped by the electronic culture that has produced it.” The book maps the transition from “free verse” (where the line was the unit) to “post-linear,” “post-subjective” poetry, where the operative unit is “the word as such,” and the page itself as a visual and spacial entity. The notion of “procedural play” is also introduced, whereby the artist works within a grid of strictly regulated randomness (for instance, by allowing word occurrence in the text to be decided by an a priori mathematical sequence). Such procedures bring us full circle, imposing restrictions on “self-expression” which are as fundamental and pervasive as the old iambic metrics abandoned by the modernists. The final chapter in the book is on the musician and theorist John Cage, whose work supplied explicit theoretical formulations of “procedural play.”
Her next book, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1996), takes another major cultural figure from the mid-century period who is not himself a poet, but whose work provides ways of understanding and situating poetry, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As she writes, “I am less interested in ‘influence,’ always a nebulous quality, than in analogue. It is fascinating to see that Wittgenstein’s stringent and severe interrogation of language has provided an opening for the replacement of the ‘autonomous,’ self-contained, and self-expressive lyric with a more fluid poetic paradigm — a paradigm based on the recognition that the poet’s most secret and profound emotions are expressed in a language that has always already belonged to the poet’s culture, society, and nation, the irony being that this ‘belonging’ need not make the poetry in question — Robert Creeley’s and Rosmarie Waldrop’s, Ron Silliman’s and Lyn Hejinian’s, the Fluxus box or the Joseph Kosuth ‘investigation’ — any less moving.” This encapsulates the rationale for her whole approach to poetry: in spite of the long tradition of rhetorical criticism which has emphasized the separateness of poetic language, Perloff emphasizes that poets do not invent language, but share it with the rest of society, including artists, philosophers, political activists, and business people. As she says in the quotation above, this does not make the poetry any less moving, for avant-garde techniques are not just cerebral — which is always, and only, the way they look at first sight — they are also emotive and humanizing, and this fact counters the “depthlessness” and the “waning of affect” which are so prominent in more dominant accounts of postmodernism. Again, then, Perloff is a theorist whose work has maintained its distinctiveness in the face of the rapid homogenization of literary criticism and theory by such all-embracing concepts as poststructuralism and postcolonialism. We need her distinctive voice more than ever as literary theory (which was instigated by Aristotle) enters its third millennium.