A Conversation with Marjorie Perloff

This relatively informal interview was conducted by Hélène Aji and Antoine Cazé in Paris, on May 26, 2007. Marjorie Perloff was then invited to France to be the plenary speaker at the annual conference of the French Association for American Studies that took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and where she delivered a lecture entitled “Constraint and Faux-Constraint: The Fortunes of Oulipo in America.”

Hélène AJI: My first question is about The Vienna Paradox, because to me, although it is a recent book, it returns to the sources of everything that you have done, and as a publication from New Directions, it is presented as a memoir—most interestingly a cultural and critical memoir. So, I’d like to know more about the genesis of this work.

Marjorie PERLOFF: The memoir came about rather fortuitously. When James Laughlin, the founder and publisher of New Directions, who was a good friend, read the Introduction to my Wittgenstein’s Ladder, where I talked a bit about Vienna and about my family, he said, “Why don’t you write a memoir?” I said, “No, I really don’t like the genre that much; I don’t like the idea of writing about myself.” But then I started thinking about it and the idea became more appealing. Meanwhile Charles Bernstein suggested that I didn’t need to tell all, that I could write the book as a kind of collage, and that would be more fun. I agreed and started writing it. As it turned out, it’s more “normal” than the word “collage” suggests, especially in the later sections. But its focus is indeed cultural: specifically, I felt I had a great story to tell. My Viennese Jewish family was, as were so many upper-middle class families, entirely secular, and a number of relatives had been baptized. They were themselves somewhat anti-Semitic. Their true religion was KULTUR; they lived for their humanisitic and artistic interests. My grandfather was a leading diplomat (the only Jew to become Foreign Secretary ever) and so thought of himself as somehow exempt from the Nazi terror. When the Anschluss occurred, he escaped by walking over the Alps—rather like in The Sound of Music. But he was not entirely blameless in that he, like so many of the educated Jews, didn’t see the handwriting on the wall even though, from the late 20s on, the Nazis in Vienna had terrorized university students suspected of being Jewish, and Hitler was very popular. When Chancellor Dolfuss, himself an autocratic leader but not a Nazi, was assassinated right in his office in 1934, it should have been clear to Grandfather Schüller and others that it was only a matter of time before the Nazi takeover occurred.

Then, too, I wanted Americans to understand how different my own Jewish upbringing was from that of most of my American Jewish friends, who were, like my husband Joseph, the children of East European immigrants. In the US, it is standard practice for Jews to observe the high holidays, have their children bar-mitzvahed, and so on. There is, in other words, a a strong Jewish allegiance and a certain Jewish pride. In Austria between the wars, this was quite different—but for good reason. Jews couldn’t get most professional jobs or participate in most social activities and so there was much pressure to “pass.” It was a very problematic period and it’s difficult for American Jews, who have never quite endured comparable difficulties, to understand.

The curious thing is that whenever I’ve given talks based on The Vienna Paradox on various campuses, students of different ethnicity—say, Chicano– have come up to me and said, “That’s just like my story and I can really relate to that,” so that even though it is a very particular story, people seem to relate to it nonetheless.

Hélène AJI: Do you think this type of culture has informed your critical approach to poetry?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Absolutely. On the one hand, I do believe in High Culture; I believe there is “great” art and genius and this is a view that was instilled in me in childhood, where Goethe and Schiller were read out loud to us and we were brought up to believe much of popular culture was mere kitsch to be ignored! At the same time, my own predilection was for Modernist difficulty and especially for the avant-garde, the offbeat, the oppositional. And what I loved in an artist like John Cage was that although he admired and studied with Schoenberg, he wanted to write a truly American music, and his philosophy came out of Dewey and the pragmatists. That appealed to me because I am in many ways a True Blue American.

Antoine CAZE: Coming back to what you said about the narrative of identity that you found yourself doing, you used two words: collage and informal memoir. Collage sounds very much like the Marjorie Perloff I know, with a strong interest in form and formalism, while the informal is a totally different approach to identity. Could you comment on those two ways?

Marjorie PERLOFF: By informal, I suppose you mean l’informe? It’s true that I am at heart something of a formalist, in the sense of Russian Formalism. I like structure although not necessary collage structure. But, yes, collage allows one to avoid dealing with causality, something I’ve always had difficulty doing. In college, I once took a course in Ethics and wrote a paper on free will versus determinism. I got a C+–my only such grade—with the comment that I was a master of the non-sequitur! Well, I made a virtue of necessity and parataxis is a mode of avoiding logical continuity.

But it’s also the case that I am a Modernist at heart. For example, I have little in common with most Americanists because I really don’t want to study 18th and 19th Century American literature, which is too didactic, too overtly moral for my taste. I’m being partly facetious here—of course I love Melville and Dickinson and Whitman—but I have a greater affinity to European modernism, whether German, French, or Eastern European than I do to American Studies. And although I’ve written a great deal on “postmodernism,” I have come to believe that the real revolution in the arts came at the beginning of the 20th Century and that it came in Europe. The World War I period is the period I love. I think I’m a Modernist in the sense that I do believe in art as somehow transcendent and I care about its formal values and admire difficulty. Then, too, I am more at home with irony than, say, with melodama or invective. That taste has a lot to do with Vienna—Its early twentieth-century writers and artists were markedly ironists: Karl Kraus, Schnitzler, Musil, Kafka. I love Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March. And that irony points the way to such later poets as Frank O’Hara, where play is so central.

Hélène AJI: Could you elaborate on this logic, though, given that you’ve created a “Perlovian” canon, almost, or at least a Perlovian corpus? There’s a constellation of writers there…

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, I don’t know that there’s a Perlovian corpus! But let me describe how I became interested in the avant-garde and then in such recent American movements as Language poetry and Conceptual Art. Part of it was fortuitous. In 1973 or so, after I had finished my book on Robert Lowell (not very avant-garde, that one!), the journal Contemporary Literature sent me a vast quantity of books to consider for an omnibus review. In those days, journals featured such reviews. I must have gotten about 100 books, most of them very dull. But one stood out: Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s Anthology of New York Poets. There were John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara and I fell in love with the latter right away. The technique—seeming anarchy and “I do this, I do that” structure appealed to me because I wanted to see how it was really put together. Then, by chance, I came across O’Hara’s Art Chronicles in the Museum of Modern Art bookshop and bought them. I wrote my friend Doris Grumbach, then literary editor for The New Republic, and asked if I could review the Art Chronicles. She said by all means. When the review appeared, I got a call from George Braziller in New York asking me if I wanted to write a book on O’Hara for his publishing house. What serendipity!

In working on the O’Hara book, I came to know a lot of New York poets and artists. At the same time, I was attending the Ezra Pound conferences in Orono, Maine and between these and the New York world, I developed an interest in what Ashbery calls “the other tradition,” which became the subject of The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Modernism, for me, could never mean Robert Frost. I agreed with the epigraph to David Antin’s Talking at the Boundaries: “If Robert Frost is a poet, I don’t want to be a poet.” I reviewed Talking for The New Republic and that’s how I got to know Antin and later Jerry Rothenberg.

Then my former student at the University of Maryland Douglas Messerli[1] introduced me to the work of Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe. I was at first quite skeptical because the poetry made no sense to me whatsoever. But when I heard Charles give a reading for the first time in LA in the early 80s, I was hooked. And I agreed wholly with the oppositionality of the Language Poets, their insistence that poetry be more than a parlor game, an endless lyrical outpouring of what I felt when I found a spider in the refrigerator and so on.

This did not mean, in my case, a rejection of my Modernist favorites: I still love Yeats and keep teaching his poetry and writing about it, and I also adore the earlier Eliot. And although it may be an extra-literary interest, I do still find Sylvia Plath very interesting. But I differ from most of my American colleagues in having little taste for Elizabeth Bishop, considered by many the great postwar American poet. It’s not that I dislike Bishop; I just never think about her. It’s a question of ambition: Bishop’s whole oeuvre is very narrow as are her subjects, which, yes, she handles with great perfection. But I demand more from poetry than this “exquisite” miniature-work in traditional lyric forms. It’s not a challenge. As the Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos said to me when Bishop was living in Brazil: she is a very nice lady, but not very interesting.”

I think here again my Viennese background is showing. The paysage moralisé, in which Bishop’s speaker casts the fish back into the water (“Rainbow rainbow rainbow/ So I let the fish go”) doesn’t speak to me. And I think it also has to do with my tradition not being the Anglo-American one. For the past fifty years or so, the poetry wars in the U.S. have had a lot to do with one’s stance vis-à-vis the Anglo tradition—say, Philip Larkin in relation to Wordsworth. But as the U.S. absorbs more and more minority and ethnic cultures, it is separating itself from the Anglo model, I believe.

Antoine CAZE: Coming back to the topic of exile, you make it sound like exile and literature are formally tied together in some sense, in particular when you insist that literature should be difficult. Could you comment on that connection between exile and literature, their being two conditions that have something in common?

Marjorie PERLOFF: I think you’re right about the commonality. There is no question that Modernist and Postmodernist literature is by definition an exile literature. Think of the Romantics and Victorians in England—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning and the novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens—they were all English writers, with English names and they were all Christian. In the 20th C, this changes. Think of the “French” poets Apollinaire and Cendrars, both of them pseudonymous poets who were not French at all. Think of Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenbaum) or the Czech Jewish Kafka writing in German or in the U.S., the various African-American poets. By the later twentieth century in America, exile has become the aesthetic norm from Black Mountain (founded by Joseph Albers) to the absorption of French poststructuralist theory and the Frankfurt School. The New Critics (John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate) were largely Christian Americans; later critics primarily came from elsewhere –Hugh Kenner, for instance, from Canada—or were, like Harold Bloom, Bronx Jews.

In his academic memoir, the scholar Alvin Kernan, a rather traditional Yale and then Princeton professor, describes the post-World War II moment in the Yale English department when the Jews first appeared on the scene: Bloom, E. D. Hirsch, Geoffrey Hartman (an exile). They challenged many of the traditional values of the academy. But this is not to say that the challenge was all positive and that much wasn’t lost. I continue to be a great admirer of those Yale professors, Maynard Mack and W. K. Wimsatt, who performed such miracles of close reading on Pope or Blake, Shakespeare or Donne.

But it did seem, by the 1980s, that, when it came to contemporary poetry, the work valorized by the New Critics—say, the poetry of Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht—was no longer enough. That, so far as poetry was concerned, we were ready for something else.

Antoine CAZE: Where do you see this something else emerging?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, I tried to lay out some of the terrain in my talk yesterday and also in the essay I did for Hélène on Language poetry. [2] The latter was an important corrective to the “expressivist” lyric of the 1970s but it has also by now run its course. What we are witnessing now, I think, is a return to form—whether concretist form, or the constraint of Oulipo and related movements, or a more conceptual poetry using much appropriation and found text. We are also witnessing a return to emotion—emotion, which was a bugbear for most of the Language poets. I will come back to this point later.

Hélène AJI: As you know, there’s been a lot of debate about the relations between avant-garde poetry and theory. From what I hear now, it seems to me that it’s not the theoretical side you’re interested in, but more the philosophical side of it all.

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, when I now look at some earlier examples of Language Poetry, say, the work featured in Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree, some of it does look like versified Derrida. The theory was very useful originally, especially the whole issue of referentiality and the construction of self, but it became programmatic. And it’s true that I have learned much more from philosophy, especially Wittgenstein, than from poststructuralist theory. Reading some of the more programmatic asemantic, asyntactic poetry began to make me feel some longing for a good old landscape poem!

Antoine CAZE: Although the good thing would be that now, the landscape would be mediated by the whole range of theory-bound writing that has been done in between. You’d never get the same landscape as before, right?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Exactly! I think we will go back to a poetry of feeling, but it will manifest itself in a different way. For instance, Craig Dworkin has written a poem called Dure that I have written about in a forthcoming essay. Dure—which is about a broken love affair in a very complicated and oblique way—is a very passionate poem although its basic mode is ekphrasis—the elucidation of a Durer self-portrait in which the nude subject points at a spot near his groin, a mysterious wound. Dworkin’s ekphrasis takes over the allusiveness, concern for etymology, and difficulty of Language poetry but not its intentional impenetrability and broken syntax.

I also feel that we are currently witnessing an increasing emphasis on sound. Language poetry downplayed sound repetition in favor of disjunction and fragmentation, but the current revival of sound poetry has taught us that how much can be done by foregrounding various soundings, in relation to musical values—say those of Cage or Satie, or, more recently, Hip Hop and various new musics. And I think the poetic line, when used at all, must be used well. Frank O’Hara used the poetic line brilliantly; he created a taut and tense musical line whose cuts were always significant. Pound is the great exemplar here and Williams is another.
I think there’s much too little attention now paid to sound. An exception would be Steve McCaffery whose career began as one of the Four Horsemen, the “sound poetry” group. The importance of sound was raised here in France not long ago by Jacques Roubaud who brought up the issue when we were all at a conference and reading series in Amiens [3] . Listening to the poets read , Jacques asked, “Why is it that many of you don’t even stop at the end of a line? You don’t raise your voice at the end of a line, what does that mean? What’s your concept of a poem anyway?” These are key questions because much of what passes for poetry today is just lineated prose. One can relineate it at will and nothing changes.

Antoine CAZE: I remember when Roubaud raised this question. I think there was a risk there, however, of understanding his criticism as a conservative way of looking at what the line is, wasn’t there? There is a thin line, of course, separating a conservative approach to form from…

Marjorie PERLOFF: I know some of the poets in the audience felt that way, but I think they misunderstood. What Roubaud is essentially saying, here and elsewhere, is that poetry is a special kind of discourse; it must manifest itself as poetry even when it seems totally improvisatory and casual. Otherwise, why bother. Why lineate if the lineation has no effect and one can’t hear it at all? Roubaud is objecting to what he calls “International Free Verse” –a verse wholly translatable because it’s just straightforward prose, using normal syntax. And his invocation of Pound and the Troubadours was picked up by Haroldo de Campos in his astonishing “prose” work Galáxias, where sound controls meaning in startling ways. It was true of Joyce too and of course of Beckett. The visual is equally important for poetry. I was looking at Beckett’s notebooks today at the Pompidou Center exhibition. He has things like little diagrams in different colors and he always writes on only one side of the page and the other side is then used to stick in notes, and the drawings, the paintings are little works of art, they really are, amazing! So again, Beckett would be a model for me.

Hélène AJI: When you talk about the musical quality of the poem, the fact that it should be sounded, are you thinking also in terms of performance?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, although the poem should work on the page too. Some performance is very sloppy and too easy. But yes, I think the most interesting poetry being written today is very aware of performance—for example, that of Christian Bök or Kenneth Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall, Tracie Morris. Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe were always amazing performers. There are other poets, though, who emphasize visual defamiliarization: Cole Swensen would be an example. In either case, the Poundian adage still holds: “Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” And again, “Poetry is news that stays news.” I tend to go to much fewer poetry readings than I used to because so much of what I hear is slack—there is endless filler. The “famous” American poet Jorie Graham is Exhibit A. Her long lines are full of dead prepositional phrases or needless adverbs.

Hélène AJI: As a translator, I have experienced that poetry readings, or at least the reading of a poem aloud, actually narrows its meaning, while at the same time it prevents a sort of unlimited interpretation.

Marjorie PERLOFF: That’s a very interesting point. The convention of the poetry reading does pose problems. It assumes that one “gets it” at first hearing. You notice at poetry readings, people applaud and say, “Wow!” or “Terrific,” as if they had already taken it all in. How can this be? A reading by John Ashbery, for instance, is interesting mainly because one wants to know how he emphasizes certain words and phrases, but it is by no means definitive. And other poets—Williams, for example—were not good readers of their own work. Frank O’Hara read in a nasal New England accent I dislike; I prefer the videos others have made of his poems, for example Joseph Fusco, whose rendition of “Song (is it dirty)” you can see and hear on You Tube. These videos bring out fascinating interpretations of the poetry and are more interesting than the poet’s own reading.

Hélène AJI: Actually I’ve wondered whether the flatness of a Williams wasn’t intentional to a certain point, precisely to prevent the narrowing of the interpretation and to keep the poems as open as possible.

Marjorie PERLOFF: Maybe so, I don’t know. But certainly, it’s wonderful that we now have PennSound and that all these readings are made available, so that you get you a good sense of them. [4] . My students listened to Pound on PennSound and one of them came up to me and said, “Oh! I don’t care whether he was a Fascist or not… That’s the most amazing sound I ever heard!” When you hear Pound read those Cantos, the variety is unbelievable and yet you always recognize his voice; and you could chart its rhythm, and understand why Pound’s sound structures are so unique. He had an incredible ear: just listen to those lines, [quoting by heart the beginning of Pound’s Canto IV], “Palace in smoky light,/Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones,/ANAXIFORMINGES! Aurunculeia!/ Hear me. Cadmus of Golden Prows!” From “smoky” to “smouldering” to “golden”: Pound develops the o sound brilliantly, in contrast to the long Greek and Roman names that follow, all the while varying the trochaic rhythm. How many poets could create such variety and yet unity?

It’s interesting, in this regard, how concerned with precision the poet-composer-artist John Cage was. When he was staying at my house in Palo Alto in 1992, the Museum of Contemporary Art (LA) curator Julie Lazar came over to consult him on the planning of the Rolywholy Circus, the forthcoming exhibition of his work. He was fussy about the actual presentation of his supposedly improvisational work, telling Julie, “No! I don’t want that! No, that can’t be there! No, this has to be two inches from that! No, it has to hang this way! No it absolutely can’t be done!” That kind of care is rarely found in contemporary poets, Language poets or otherwise. But I mention it because the usual view is that Cage just let “anything” happen. One should just “open one’s ears” to the sounds out there and all would be well. But in reality, Cage, and also Jackson Mac Low and then the language poets, took quite seriously Adorno’s notion of art’s resistance. Poetry could never merely reflect.

Antoine CAZE: Talking of resistance, does a poet necessarily want to reach a broad audience?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes and no. Everyone would like to reach more people; it depends, though, what one is willing to do so as to reach them. If it means talking down to your audience, it’s not very desirable. On the other hand, a poet like Christian Bök, who uses Oulipo devices and elaborate scientific analogies to create quite wild sound effects, is very popular with engineering students, scientists, computer programmers. They understand what he is doing. And Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative” has also hit a real nerve. I would say recently we have poetry that is both difficult and yet more accessible. Still, literary people are often suspicious of Bök or Goldsmith because the inwardness of the lyric “I” just isn’t there.

Antoine CAZE: But what about the autobiographical dimension of a poem? Saying “I” in a poem, since there is no fiction pact in poetry, necessarily implies something more complex than a straightforward autobiographical stance. What is your view on that question of the first person in poetry?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, in good poetry of whatever period, the “I” is always an invention; it is, as Yeats put it so well, “not the I that sits down at the breakfast table; it is always a phantasmagoria”. But the American poets of the Lowell generation lost that sense of phantasmagoria; it was always a confessional “I,” presented in as flattering a light as possible.
In Denise Levertov’s poetry, for instance, you have an “I” that knows and judges but is not personally responsible.

Hélène AJI: But when you look at Rousseau’s Confessions, it’s all a question of self-defense—showing the nicer side of one’s personality…

Marjorie PERLOFF: True, but Rousseau was always quite willing to be honest about all the things he had done. I like the way Frank O’Hara did it when he wrote in “Naptha,” “I think I was made in the image of a sissy truck driver.” [Laughter] He had the ability to laugh at himself. John Ashbery has this gift as well, the gift of being able to look at himself from a distance. But you have that quality in any good poetry, really—in T.S. Eliot for instance, in the early Eliot of “Prufrock,” that capacity for “dédoublement.” A version of this is the ectasis, which you have in Rimbaud or in Sylvia Plath—an utterance, your back turned to the audience, with voices that speaks through you. Je est un autre. That is wonderful! Rimbaud, for example has that great line in Une saison en enfer, when he is trying to make himself over as a native African, only to suddenly note that “Les blancs débarquent,” He wants to get away from his “white” self but he can’t. It’s a terribly personal statement but it’s objectified in a distinctive way. The same thing is true of George Oppen. He has that gift for taking an “I,” sometimes a “we”—as in Of Being Numerous— and distancing himself from himself and looking at himself almost as if he’s an object, and that’s wonderfully done and very moving because you just feel the difficulty which is there all the time, even when he says “Here is the brick […] Mary-Anne”[5] — that difficulty of pinpointing it which is so beautifully done in Oppen. So we have here a personal “I” in a way, but it’s depersonalized.

Now compare this effect to the use of the first person in Elizabeth Bishop’s widely praised“In the Waiting Room.” I don’t think that when you sit in the dentist’s office waiting for your turn and you pick up the National Geographic and you look at that picture of African natives and then you suddenly realize “This is what it means to be a human being,” it just doesn’t ring true to me and I don’t believe it. “I am an Elizabeth” is asserted but the recognition is hollow because the context hasn’t been sufficiently established.

Antoine CAZE: Would you say that in Oppen, it’s a question of “an I/eye that includes history,” to paraphrase Pound?

Marjorie PERLOFF: In a curious way, he’s all history. I think that at every turn in Oppen when you look carefully you could find that sense that he ruined his life in many ways, that he was wrong, that the Soviet Communist block was wrong; it’s not that he ever quite understood what was right, but that years were spent barking up the wrong tree—there’s something very tragic in all this.

Antoine CAZE: Maybe we could speak of how to include some sense of community in the first person, then?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, community. In Oppen, the “I” becomes an “I” for our time or for a later time, the “I” has to be part of the community—that’s true in Zukofsky, too. The “I” isn’t so much the “I” of what “I feel or think”; now, autobiography can certainly appear in whatever dress, but it has to be absorbed somehow into the fabric and artistry of the poem. Robert Lowell, too, handled that well in Life Studies and For the Union Dead, though less so in later volumes. He regarded himself wryly, for example in the poem “Eye and Tooth”—a poem which I recently discussed in an interview for an online journal, The New Ohio Review—a very autobiographical and realistic text in which Lowell speaks of his pain even as he comes to recognize that “everyone’s tired of my turmoil,” But voice is terribly hard to create convincingly. Pound’s habit was to begin with an external– “The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent shoulders,” [6] and then qualify it–“ but the twice crucified”—and then move on to a particular anecdote or historical fact so as to make the reader realize that there’s a world out there.

Antoine CAZE: Framing and unframing, changing frames all the time…

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, exactly. Frank O’Hara solves the problem by using direct address (to a friend? lover? the reader? himself?): “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.” [7] [Laughter] It’s a great line because the second sentence so nicely contradicts the first and so we laugh at the lack of self-knowledge. And in this sense, poets can still do wonderful things with the first person. Peter Gizzi’s poetry provides a contemporary example: voice in his poetry is always shifting, elusive, self-contradictory. But very much his particular form of voicing.

At this writing, Craig Dworkin is editing a little anthology online, called An Anthology of Conceptual Poetry [8] and it’s going to be a book, too, which he and Kenneth Goldsmith are putting together. The issue here, as Craig says in the little introduction, is whether it might be possible to move from a poetry of personal emotion to a poetry of intellect, and ideas—a conceptual poetry. Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather [9] , the record of a year’s worth of radio weather reports, is a case in point.

Antoine CAZE: When you describe yourself as a historian of poetry, do you mean your main interest is in the genealogy of the contemporary?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, I like to try understand what it is that has happened and why. Why do movements—say, Concrete Poetry—seem to go under and then reappear? Why do certain poets and movements seem important at one moment in history but less so, later? Why is a poet like Ashbery revered by such otherwise disparate audiences? Then, too, I like to pick the winners—to see who “the great ones” are. I think on the whole, time has sanctioned most of my choices.

Hélène AJI: What’s the ideology and the intention behind the processes of selection when editing volumes of selected poems? [10]

Marjorie PERLOFF: That’s a great question. I think the selections that poets do themselves are in fact a way thinking through their work and thinking what won’t totally last, since no reader can read all of their work. Williams made his own selections from his poems, Oppen was so careful to winnow out his poems that he helped secure his reputation.

But it’s dangerous to use too much control. In recent years, Language poets have attacked Ginsberg’s politics, and the politics of the Beats, saying, and the Beats’ politics, saying “They didn’t understand politics, they were just protesting in an overt way but they didn’t understand that you can’t protest in direct language; and then, we came along and we did it the right way!”

Hélène AJI: Was that at the 1960s conference in Maine? [11]

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, I believe so. And I find that extremely irritating, because Ginsberg really was a political figure, and he made a difference around the world and gave people permission to do and say certain things; he was very bright that way and very learned, a very interesting poet. I thought it was really unfair to make slurs—the notion that “We arrived” and the other group is wrong, “We vs. Them”… That has to go! Labels such as “Post Avant-Garde” and “The School of Quietude” are really unfortunate terms!… The School of Quietude is “everybody else,” poets writing from the personal “I,” the lyric “I”—the mainstream, in other words those poets who get discussion in the magazines.

Antoine CAZE: One thing that strikes me is how the critical style of French theorists is so much more poetic, in a sense, than the style of their counterparts in the United States—so that when French Theory was invented in the States, the theory was imported without the style…

Marjorie PERLOFF: That’s absolutely true—Barthes is for instance a great poetic writer. Foucault had a beautiful style, so did Deleuze and Derrida…

Antoine CAZE: …and so isn’t there the risk of a misunderstanding here, when American poets think they write theory or philosophy…

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, the inclination towards theory was a big push, because if you didn’t do theory you were considered a nobody, especially among women. I remember Kathleen Fraser telling me that the men of the Language group would not let her be part of their group if she didn’t participate in their theoretical discourse. But in the U.S. “theory” was watered down to refer to a few key terms—rhizome, differend, death of the author, interpellation, supplement, doxa.

Hélène AJI: You’ve told us several times that poetry has to be grounded in the every day, it has to be linked with life. How do you understand this practically or pragmatically?

Marjorie PERLOFF: I think everyday material, whether it’s political or something else has to be include in one’s work,. We do live in the world. I always like the work best that takes into account—that doesn’t mean, only takes into account—what is actually happening and is aware of the craziness of the culture, whether it be advertising on the billboards and posters, all the nonsense of it. Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, for instance, use film imagery brilliantly in their work. And we have great documentary poets like Susan Howe. Now an interesting question I ask myself is; why do I find documentary material interwoven with poetry so exciting? In Susan Howe’s work (to me, she is one of the most important poets), there is always a mix of very high, lyrical style and documentary bits with precise data and facts. Jacques Roubaud’s reference to rue de la Harpe in his preface for Haroldo de Campos’s Galaxias is another example. I could picture it exactly, it’s a narrow street, and its right here and now, and then you can move out from there. I think documentary veracity is extremely important. The Belgian poet-critic Jan Baetens (who writes in French) has argued that the Minimalist poets of the Anne-Marie Albiach circle are perhaps too remote, too removed from the everyday. There is something disingenuous in being too remote, I think. In other words, if you were Hölderlin, you could ignore the everyday, because you would be living in an entirely different world. But today it is hard to evade engagement. I think Susan Howe has done wonders in her various books with inserting documentation into lyrics, autobiography and so on. She places a treated photograph next to a lyric passage with a commentary on both and creates highly stylized complex texts.

Antoine CAZE: And again, it’s a way of showing that the everyday is something constructed, not something natural.

Marjorie PERLOFF: Of course. It’s never natural. There’s no such thing as the natural. Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir (the constraint-based poetic elegy for his wife), for example, is highly constructed, but it gives you the sense that you are there, a sense of authenticity. The same thing occurs in the writings of Sophie Calle—a constructed authenticity that is wholly compelling.

I had a discussion with Susan Howe the other day, and asked her, “Why do you like dates and facts so much?” You know that she actually will give a date and she sort of then recreates that date, whatever it is. It becomes a generative device, controlling your way of seeing things. It’s exactly the same thing in Frank O’Hara when he writes “It’s 12:33 on a Monday”—it is a way of creating intimacy and drawing the reader into the poem. But it is a difficult technique to keep up, as O’Hara learned toward the end of his short life.

Antoine CAZE: You mentioned earlier on the Anthology of Conceptual Poetry: can you talk a little bit more about anthologies?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, I’m not a great fan of anthologies and I never use them in class. I take seriously David Antin’s quip that anthologies are to poets as the zoo is to animals. It is almost impossible to anthologize Pound because snatches of the cantos are not sufficient. The same thing is true of Zukosky’s “A”. Anthologies always favor those who write short poems, and they give a skewed view of the state of the art. Then, too, the internet has made them somewhat obsolete because now one can pick and choose and make one’s own selection.

Antoine CAZE: But there’s a practical dimension to anthologies, they serve to introduce texts to people who would otherwise never read these authors.

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes. I mentioned before that I first encounted O’Hara in the Anthology of New York Poets. So it’s true that sometimes anthologies introduce us to new work. And anthologies like the Jerome Rothenberg-Pierre Joris Poems for the Millenium [12] are art works in their own right; indeed Rothenberg has put together many intriguing, highly original anthologies like Revolution of the Word or Shaking the Pumpkin. These represent his own creative collaging and are very attractive, but I would caution that they are often misleading for students.

Hélène AJI: What about anthologies compiled by poets? Usually they can be seen as manifestoes: so what kind of manifesto would come out of conceptual poetry?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Yes, that’s very much a manifesto. These texts—like those by Vito Acconci which Craig Dworkin has edited, and which are odd, little, experimental texts in the Fluxus vein— are they really poetry? [13] And if so, what is “poetry” anyway? There’s a lot of that material, conceptual poetry from the 1960s or 1970s, that they will have in that book about which many people will say that’s not poetry at all! You can find the first version on UbuWeb as well [14] . These anthologies are best understood as manifestos. There are other anthologies like Jahan Ramazani’s Norton Anthology of Modern and Postmodern Poetry in two volumes that do try to be inclusive. Ramazani includes Hejinian, Howe, Bernstein, Michael Palmer. But there are many other poets equally important that he does not include: for example, Rae Armantrout or Bruce Andrews or Rosmarie Waldrop. Ashbery must be the only poet who makes it into to all of the anthologies, whether mainstream or not, and it would be interesting to examine the reasons for this ubiquity. Then too there’s the national problem. Steve McCaffery was omitted from every one of the early Language anthologies because he counts as Canadian. How do you solve this problem?
One anthology I’d like to cite is Mary Ellen Solt’s book, Concrete Poetry: A World View, which unaccountably has never been reprinted. It was published in 1968, it’s the book on the topic. And she includes a little MacLow, and Creeley under that rubric, which illustrates the fact that you can group people in different ways [15] .

In recent years, oddly, anthologies have gotten narrower rather than broader: we have rubrics like “experimental women poets,” “British poets,” “Asian American poets,” and so on.

Antoine CAZE: Part of the problem is how do you assess the value on the contemporary?

Marjorie PERLOFF: Well, it’s a risk. And there is so much out there! My own way of dealing with the problem is to trust my own choices. Choose ten poets you really like, make up your own “anthology” and teach that. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive, and at least you will be happy with your own choices.

A more serious problem is that there is so little good discourse about poetry. My wish is that there would be a much better discourse: I think it was better in previous decades. I liked the days (in the sixties) when John Ashbery could write a review in the New York Times Book Review, saying that Adrienne Rich suffered from “objective-correlativitis,” otherwise known as Dutch Elm Disease!! One could actually be irreverent. You could never say things like that now! Everybody is so polite. We have to get away from that politeness, because if no one is willing to argue the relative merits of this or that work, in the end nothing matters. But it should not be done in a personal or nasty way—which is why it is so hard to do—poetry should be openly debated.

And then we need much greater precision. At a conference at Cornell University on “experimental” poetics, I made a real experiment once, putting side by side on the same sheet of paper one poem by A.R. Ammons, whom I like very much, and one by Denise Levertov. She was considered a “New American Poet” (Donald Allen’s term), a worthy heir of Williams, whereas Ammons was dismissed by this group as “mainstream.” As it turned out, no one in the room could tell which of the two poems belonged in the “experimental” category! It shows how superficial our classifications can be. And incidentally Ammons was also writing in the Williams tradition. So we must try to maintain a certain openness, which is not the same thing as mere inclusiveness however.

Hélène AJI: “Does this really talk to me?” is the question that I always ask myself. It boils down to something very subjective.

Marjorie PERLOFF: I agree with you! Finally, we have to realize that we all have certain preconceptions and are looking for particular things. Bear in mind David Antin’s comic (but also very profound) aphorism, “From the modernism that you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve.” Poundians will quite naturally gravitate toward the Objectivists, the Black Mountain poets, and then contemporaries like Susan Howe who produce comparable documentary collages and treat proper names in Poundian ways. Those whose favorite modernist is H.D. will turn to a rather different postmodernism—say, the work of Robert Duncan, and beyond Duncan to Michael Palmer. And so on. I’m very interested in the historical dimension of all this, and why certain poets come to the fore when they do. That’s one of the fields in which fruitful research can be conducted. We could have dissertations endeavoring to refigure and remap thing. Charles Bernstein, for instance, probably has more in common with a New York Jewish poet like David Antin than with West Coast language poets like Ron Silliman. So it’s a question of reconfiguring and reconnecting people differently.

I believe I think of myself more as a historian than as a theorist, a historian-critic of poetry, although many people, I suppose, take such a designation as pedestrian. I like to try and understand why people write the way they do at a certain period, why other people react as they do, why writing is so eclectic now. I find the little magazines, online journals, and even blogs very fascinating. It’s a lively, confused, exciting time for poetry and poetics—a time that calls into question most of our earlier suppositions.


Poet Douglas Messerli is the editor of an important anthology of avant-garde poetry, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994).

“Avant-Garde Tradition and Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry,” Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines 103 (février 2005): 117-141.

This was during a poetry reading at the Musée de la Coopération Franco-Américaine in Blérancourt (Aisne), organized by Jacques Darras for the “Poésie Américaine 1950-2000” conference in December 1999. Among the poets reading were Charles Bernstein, David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson MacLow.

Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, PennSound is an audiovisual archive making historical as well as more recent poetry readings and performances available for free on the Internet. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/

George Oppen, Of Being Numerous, section 21.

Opening line of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (Canto LXXIV).

Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency.”

The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Introduced and edited by Craig Dworkin, http://www.ubu.com/concept/

Kenneth Goldsmith, The Weather (Los Angeles: Makes Now, 2005). Cf. Marjorie Perloff, “ ‘Moving Information’: On Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather”, http://www.ubu.com/papers/kg_ol_perloff.html.

A conference on Selected Poems was held in Caen in January 2008, organized by Hélène Aji and Jennifer Kilgore.

“The 1960s: A Decade of Hope, Rage, & Change,” Orono, The University of Maine, October 29, 2004.

Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (U of California P, 1998) 2 vols.

Craig Dworkin, Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006).

http://www.ubu.com/ UBUWEB is a produced by The Poetry Foundation.

M.E. Solt, Concrete Poetry: A World View, Indiana UP, 1968. The book can be read on UbuWeb at http://www.ubu.com/papers/solt/