Marjorie Perloff Interviewed by David Clippinger
Marjorie Perloff is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita of Humanities at Stanford University. She is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she taught before going to Stanford in 1987. In 2006, she will be President of the Modern Language Association.
She is the author of twelve books and a few hundred essays and reviews on twentieth century poetry and poetics–both Modern and Postmodern–as well as on poetry and the visual arts. Her first three books were on individual poets–Yeats, Lowell, and Frank O’Hara; she then shifted to questions of poetics in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981) and The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985). The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde and the Language of Rupture (1986) takes up an alternate Modernism and its influence today; this book was republished with a new Introduction in 2004.
Of her later books, perhaps the most important are Radical Artiifce: Writing in the Age of Media and Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary.
She has recently published a cultural memoir,The Vienna Paradox and a collection of new essays Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy.
David Clippinger is a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and a former Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Penn State University. His publications includeThe Body of This Life: Reading William Bronk, Bursts of Light: the Collected Later Poems of William Bronk, and The Mind’s Landscape: William Bronk and Twentieth Century American Poetry .
DC: Why do you think abstract art is more accepted than abstract poetry? Does the aura of the museum offer a form of validity that poetry cannot access, or does the fissure go beyond the issue of institutions?
MP: I think there are two answers to this question. (1) visual art, abstract or otherwise, is much more accepted by the public than is poetry. Ours is increasingly a visual culture: a few years ago, I went to a Magritte exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. It was packed; one couldn’t get near the paintings. But if one asked the same people to read surrealist poetry, comparable to Magritte’s painting, they would be at a total loss and say the poetry was much too difficult, too obscure. Thus Max Ernst’s paintings and frottages are Big Business whereas André Breton’s poems are barely known in the U.S. And the same would be true of Dada or Italian Futurism. Kurt Schwitters, for that matter, is well known as a painter, but his poems remain almost unknown!
But (2) “abstraction” in language is a very different thing from abstract painting. I take it by abstract poetry you mean non-sensical? Like Clark Coolidge or Bruce Andrews? I think the hostility to such poetry has to do with the simple fact that words (unlike paint strokes or dabs of color) inevitably have meanings, and so the reader inevitably wants to “make sense” of a poem and is frustrated when he/she can’t. I don’t think it’s the aura of the museum versus the university classroom. Then, too, poetry is taught especially badly: in even the best high schools the only modern poets read are Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or maybe Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. There is no training in HOW TO READ whereas art history classrooms do better by paintings and sculpture.
DC: Certainly the visual arts are taught within the purview of cultural history and within a dialectic of development: i.e., certain painters or movements are responding to and quoting from previous painters or movements, and the understanding that emerges has a historical continuity. Poetry does not seem to be taught in this manner. Rather, students are taught to read poems for its semiotic codes and tropes as if semantic meaning requires merely a secret decoder ring. A difficult poem, which does not easily yield its “one” true meaning means that it must be a flawed work. Students often make such comments about Pound, Zukofsky, Susan Howe, and others. How might one correct such misperceptions about the merits of such poetry?
MP: I think the best way would be to return to history, as you point out, but of course in an individual course, there isn’t time to do much background. I was taught to read Yeats against the background of the Romantics and pre-Raphaelites and that made all the difference because you can see what he was resisting against. In the same vein, Zukofsky is only understandable, I think, if one begins with the situation in poetry in which he was writing. And Susan Howe too. If a young student comes cold to a Zukofsky poem, s/he is not likely to respond. It takes work.
DC: One other way of getting at this issue of the reception of abstract poetry might be to consider another art form–contemporary classical music. Mariss Janson, the recent conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was firmly committed to including contemporary classical music in his repertoire, and he balanced many world premieres with classical “standards” to some success. Alongside thunderous applause, I often heard “boos” in the audience for premieres of some difficult atonal pieces. Do you think that people are more receptive to abstract music than abstract poetry?
MP: I’d say abstract poetry and abstract music are in the same ball park, whereas abstract art does speak to the public. Abstract music, like its poetic counterpart, is difficult: composers like Schoenberg will always speak to a coterie taste. At the same time, the coterie is not small so that, say, Schoenberg can be honored in Vienna by a whole Institute and is played around the world and the focus of criticism by Adorno and hence later musicologists and critics. What you call “abstract” poetry has the same status: it will never be popular but its audience is sizable nevertheless.
DC: Why in particular do you think that abstract poetry is often treated with such disdain? Is the problem endemic to the fact that poetry has become almost entirely situated within the university?
MP: I’ve answered this partially above. I don’t think it is always treated with disdain; students are quite willing to read poets like Lyn Hejinian or Charles Bernstein and enjoy it. In fact, I once taught writing as an aid to memory (Hejinian), and my students discovered that the indents depended on the letter of the alphabet with which a given line began–e.g. if the line begins with an “e”, it is indented 5 spaces–which I hadn’t even noticed.
But we suffer from the awful high school (and also college teaching) which reads poems for their “messages.” I always have to remind students not to think in terms of “the message.” Then, too, the opposite obtains: go to a reading by Language poets and their students and everything read is judged to be unassailable. No one questions how something is said. No one asks whether, say, Coolidge really has to say it that way and be so “obscure.” And, as in everything else, there are good and bad versions. There’s a lot of terrible “language” poetry that isn’t so much obscure as it is just vague and badly written. So naturally this sets people off. And the poets themselves are partly at fault in that they refuse to explain what they’re doing (or not doing) and just wait for the “right” response.
DC: I’m curious about how you would respond to the fact that many great contemporary poets, who would seem to fall into the “experimental” category (Barbara Guest, Susan Howe, David Antin, John Ashbery, and John Yau, for example) share significant points of intersection with abstract painters, and yet are not granted the same cultural cache.
MP: The poets on your list don’t strike me as especially abstract. Susan Howe has very specific historical themes and a particular discourse radius. David Antin is quite comprehensible, the question being what it is that makes his little “tall tales” and ramblings so “interesting.” The “how” is difficult, not the “what.” And John Ashbery, perhaps the most “abstract” poet on your list is, ironically, the most popular; he has a huge following even in England where suspicion of abstraction is greater than here.
Nor is it true that abstract painters are always granted the “cultural cachét” you mention. Not Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt certainly. Wallace Stevens is a philosophical, difficult poet whose thought processes are hard to track but again, I wouldn’t call him abstract. An example of an “abstract” poet would be the Zukofsky of “80 Flowers,” where the lines literally make no “sense” and one has to tackle their relations in other ways.
DC : Let me rephrase this question. Instead of abstract, I mean that these poets are more experimental in the way that they approach the visual dynamics of the page. I am especially fascinated by Susan Howe’s technique of cutting and pasting lines and words in order to achieve a visual order.
MP: Certainly Pound and Williams imagined a visual liberation as well. In the case of Susan Howe, I’ve found that students DO respond very positively to the mixed media of, say, ‘The Midnight’. They love the juxtaposition of verse, prose, treated photograph, visual image, archival material. In this case, it’s not students who are the problem but our colleagues who will only accept “normal” looking work. I once lectured on Howe in the UK at a poetry conference where the other keynote speaker was Helen Vendler. After the lecture, Vendler came up to me and said, “Well, Marjorie, you made an eloquent case but it’s just not poetry!” Frank Kermode feels the same way. One can’t sway these people but it’s their loss–a refusal to see that poetry must be of its time. Still, younger critics do “see” it quite easily.
DC: What poets do you think are particularly neglected or vilified but deserve our attention?
MP: I wish the mainstream press would drop its wholesale attack on “language poetry” and realize that there are, in the end, only individual poets, some much better than others. Bruce Andrews deserves much more attention than he gets as does Steve McCaffery and, in the UK, Tom Raworth.
These poets have their coteries, certainly, but they are never so much as mentioned in mainstream publications. The New York Times Book Review gives a wholly distorted picture of poetry to the public, but then so does the august New York Review of Books! They should be reviewing Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian! Even Charles Bernstein is not reviewed in the mainstream press. And visual poetry, increasingly important, is treated as if it doesn’t exist.
The one exception to all this is the Times Literary Supplement, which has asked me to review Raworth, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov in the last few years, and has been attentive to Jeremy Prynne, Oulipo, Brazilian Concrete, and other international movements. It is ironic that the most established and in many ways traditional periodical is also currently much more forward-looking than, say, The New Yorker.
DC: Perhaps what is lacking in most journals and anthologies is an inclusionary approach to poetry and not one dependent upon being a card-carrying member of a particular poetic group. Such a criticism could be leveled against some of the experimentalists as well as the mainstream.
MP: Yes, but anthologies are, by definition, problematic today because no gathering can be definitive and perhaps it’s best to make up one’s own for teaching purposes.
DC: If you were to edit a poetry anthology and the publisher has given you total control over the anthology from inception to publication‹, how would you choose what would be included? What would be the governing principle that would hold the anthology together?
MP: Well, I’ve never wanted to edit an anthology because I’m not sure there’s a good way of doing it at the moment: there are too many schools, factions, movements, interests. But if I did, my criterion would be VALUE. I would want to include only those poets whose work is distinctive, original, really interesting, regardless of male/female ratios, identity politics, and so on. So that’s why I don’t edit an anthology. These days one must be sensitive to all the special interests.
In teaching (which is a bit like anthologizing, isn’t it?), I do relative few poets. This year in “Modern Poetry” at USC, a 15-week semester—I taught Eliot, Pound, Stein, Duchamp, Stevens, Moore, Loy, Williams–and then Aimé Césaire even though in translation, because I think he’s a much stronger poet than, say, Claude McKay or Langston Hughes and I did want to teach some African-American poetry. Notice I omitted Frost and H.D. Simply a matter of taste: I never teach work I don’t really like.
DC: I have found my student readers less and less willing to question the merits of a work if it is anthologized. For example, in a recent class on 1950s American culture, I had students read Donald Allen’s _New American Poetry_, and when we arrived at Helen Adam’s poetry, which seemed to be deeply out of step with the style of the rest of the work and really not on par with most of the other poetry, the students retreated from critique by arguing that the merits of the poem must be a given since it has been published. So is this an issue of our inability to read and critique poetry?
MP: That’s interesting. I’ve never had that particular experience. I think in this case it had to do with Helen Adam being one of the only women poets in the book and so your students probably wanted to defend her on grounds of gender.
DC: Do you see any trends in poetry scholarship and/or readership since the wave of literary theory that swept through the academy in the 1980s and 1990s?
MP: I’ve argued in various places, language poetry, in its first stage, was certainly a version of French poststructuralist theory! It would not have existed without it. And the theory connection gained the movement some readership although also a lot of hostility. Today, certainly postcolonial theory, globalism, etc. are impacting on poetry reception: look at the fuss made about Teresa Hak Kyung Cha! One would think she had invented the wheel! But the whole issue of diaspora is now unavoidable and one poet who handles it beautifully is the Japanese-German poet Yoko Tawada, who speculates (in German, her adopted language) on what it means to move from the ideogram to the alphabet and soon.
DC: Many of your books have addressed the continuity from modern to postmodern poetry and the disconnect that seems to happen between various “schools” or poetic movements. Are you working on a project that focuses upon this issue of poetic continuity in relation to the visual arts?
MP: I haven’t quite decided what my next project will be but I’ve just written an essay on Allen Ginsberg on the issue you cite. I was asked to write on “HOWL” 50 YEARS LATER” for a book Farrar Straus will be publishing and, in rereading the poem, I found it oddly assimilable to the tenets of the very New Criticism that so angrily rejected it. Part I is built on paradox, oxymoron, a tensile rhythm, and very careful revisions of individual lines to make them stronger. It is, ironically, much more of a “modernist” poem than are such of its contemporaries as the poems of Ginsberg’s Columbia colleague Louis Simpson. The fact is that the New Critical poetry of the 50s, far from being, as we’re always told, a continuation of Modernism, was a rear-guard operation whereas Ginsberg did indeed carry on the Modernist tradition of his mentors Pound and Williams. Fifty years later this becomes clearer. For me, the really great sixties aesthetic, although it was not a school or named movement at all, is that of Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Morton Feldman, Jackson Mac Low, and, on its fringes, poets like O’Hara and Ashbery. This was a genuine avant-garde, quite superior, to my mind to the New York painters who, as time goes on, seem less and less revolutionary, and only Pollock, Rothko, and a few others were great painters. The hype about Abstract Expressionism now seems almost quaint: it was neither “Abstract” nor very originally “Expressionist” (the original Expressionists were much more interesting), and its renomée was a Cold War exaggeration. I would like to do some revisionary work on the mid-century which remains curiously misunderstood, I think.
DC: Many poets of the mid-century–in my opinion–fell to the wayside in the 1950s and 1960s–Kenneth Rexroth for example, who had the misfortune of being born too late for modernism and too early for the various schools pushed by Donald Allen’s New American Poetry. Do you see your future project as a correction to such omissions and/or a correction to the partisan ways in which we imagine literary history taking place–an us and them played out over and over?
MP: You put it very well! I think that throughout the 20th century, there has been, not straight-line progress, but a dialectic between the traditional-conventional and the experimental. At the beginning of the century, you have Eliot, Pound, Williams, Moore rebelling against the dreary poetry of their day. But even after their innovations are accepted, there’s a swerve back: so by the 50s, there’s a throw-back to the conventional, neo-Victorian poem, with revolt from people like Rexroth as you point out. But look what happens next: in the second half of the century, the dialectic continues and right now, even as Language poetry and other experimentalisms are lively and exciting, the dominant mode in the New Yorker or APR looks just like Anthony Hecht or Louis Simpson re-treaded–the delicate little insight presented conventionally on the page. It’s as if humankind cannot bear too much innovation, to paraphrase Eliot. A discouraging scenario but also challenging.
DC: What about the future of poetry? What do you think are some of the emerging traits that will define future poetry and who are what Ezra Pound called the “innovators” of this generation?
MP: I am currently writing an essay on citational or “found” poetry and the poetry of constraints and I think the innovators of this generations are the Oulipo poets and related poets who cross boundaries (verbal/visual/vocal) and genres and write poetry that hold a dialogue with earlier texts or texts in other genres like film. I don’t think the personal lyric will make a come-back because it’s harder and harder to make the personal lyric representative. Rather, poetry will turn more “public” with respect to its interests.
DC: Finally, if you had unlimited time and energy to devote to a project, what would it be?
MP: That’s a tough question. To be frank: if I did have unlimited time and energy, I think I’d want to go back to the early 20th century and my Viennese roots and study that literature and art which I don’t know as well as I should. That would be a whole Other project. I never meant to get fixated on things American since I am able to write on French and German and, to some extent, Italian and Russian literature and so I’d love to have a chance to study these OTHER poetries.