Mapping the New:
An Interview with Marjorie Perloff
Rain Taxi: Review of Books, 6, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 46-48.
Having just read POETRY ON & OFF THE PAGE, one of its more invigorating features is its non-literariness. It’s the least academic and professorial work of literary criticism I can remember reading in a long while. I’m assuming it is by conscious design – since it is already implicit in the title – that you covered work outside the province of the written word, such as Bill Viola’s videos and Christian Boltanski’s photographs. Do you feel literary criticism pays insufficient attention to cultural texts such as TV, movies, the Internet, politics, industry, sociology, fashion, etc.–that it is too grounded in academia?
The visual arts have always been very important to me. I took a lot of Art History courses in college, and whenever I travel, I spend most of my time in museums, galleries, and at architectural sites. The Futurist Moment (1986) deals with art more than with poetry, and Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1991) reads poetry against visual works as well as cultural artifacts like license plates and billboards. So there was nothing very new about my interests in Poetry On & Off the Page; the book is made up of occasional essays and some were based on lectures I gave in museums or, in the case of Boltanski’s photographs, at the Roland Barthes conference a few years back. As for Bill Viola, one day about a decade ago I was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and happened to wander into a video room showing Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (1982)—the narrative installation about the train wreck and how it destroyed the mind of the protagonist. What an astonishing work of art! From then on I was hooked and followed Viola’s career. It was hard to get some of the videotapes but the good news is that now much of the work is online.
But my interest in various forms of visual art doesn’t transfer to pop culture. Network TV is interesting to me only as a foil to video art. Long ago, I wrote a piece for the New Republic on soap opera (I’m a closet soap opera addict), examining (playfully) how wonderfully absurd the soap plots and happenings are. After that, I got a few letters asking me to analyze this or that cultural aspect of soaps—the portrayal of the elderly, race aspects, etc. That was the very last thing I felt like doing: to me it was and is a fun diversion. But I am not a cultural analyst as such; I’m a literary critic or maybe historian. Politics is something else again. I am passionately concerned with politics and have written “closet” essays on political subjects: I have one on the Florida fiasco in the recent Exquisite Corpse. But I feel rather as George Oppen did: if you’re going to write about politics, write about that and don’t confuse politics and poetry.
In “The Morphology of the Amorphous,” your essay on Bill Viola’s videoscapes, you said “Walter Benjamin, we recall, insisted that film was inherently a more subversive form than dada or surrealist painting… but within a decade of Benjamin’s death, the films distributed for ‘simultaneous collective experience’ had become at least as commercial and commodified as the art forms they had replaced, a prime exemplar, for that matter, of what the Frankfurt school scornfully dubbed the consciousness industry.” Can you comment further on the “consciousness industry” with regard to our contemporary climate?
Here my response grows out of the previous one. The Frankfurt School believed that the “consciousness industry” was the direct product of Capitalism and that it was an us-versus-them thing—a rapacious “they” (e.g., movie producers, publishers) out for the fast buck who were feeding Kitsch and Junk to the masses—masses who, so Adorno held, deserved better—indeed, could participate in real Art under a Socialist system. This aspect of Frankfurt School thinking has been questioned by theorists like Baudrillard who argue that there is no them vs. us—we’re all equally co-opted and no one is the “victim” of the system because the system is us. I tend to agree with Baudrillard here—it is dubious that citizens in, say, Communist Cuba are any more immune to the consciousness industries than we are. At the same time, Adorno and his fellow Frankfurt theorists were right about the debasement of “art” in mass society and the role money now plays. Hollywood has certainly been completely destroyed by the money game. I hardly ever go to the movies any more. Still, I’m optimistic enough to believe there will always be art that is “resistant,” and that artists themselves as well as those of us who care about poetry and the other arts must resist even if it means that our books and artworks don’t “sell.” And there are signs that young people are now coming back to a real interest in art as art (look at all the recent books on beauty!) and that they do sense there’s a difference between MTV
and Stravinsky or Cage.
I enjoyed, tremendously, your essay on Lyn Hejinian’s OXOTA: A SHORT RUSSIAN NOVEL. I, for one, am completely willing to accept that work
as a bona fide example of a new approach to the novel. But I largely suspect that if I were to find it in a bookstore, it would be in the poetry section, not the fiction section. What pressures do writers (and readers, for that matter) have to conform to standards of genre? In what ways can they be overcome?
That’s a very good question and I’m sure you’re right. But then Lyn herself intended it to be in the poetry section; she calls Oxota a “novel in verse.”
Current genre distinctions are indeed absurd, not only in bookstores but in the university. Beckett, for example, is never taught in poetry courses and not even often in courses on the novel; he somehow gets classified as primarily a dramatist even though his fiction is generally held to be more important than the drama. In the Stanford English department, Beckett and Pinter, among others, are hence untaught since we seem to leave “drama” to the Drama department. Gil Sorrentino, who has just retired, did teach Beckett frequently but that was his ‘writerly” bias not shared by most academics.
It seems the battle between avant-garde and traditional writing never
goes away. What remains useful about these opposing camps, or
conversely, at what cost to our culture is this opposition perpetuated?
You’re right. That battle never goes away, because “traditional writing” remains so uninteresting and so dominant. Realism, supposedly defeated by the 1950s in the U.S. when the various avant-gardes from Europe were domesticated, always comes back so that, after decades of Grotowski or Arianne Mnouchkine in theatre and Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham in dance, we once again have realistic “problem plays” like Wendy Wasserstein’s being taken seriously by the press. In poetry, the situation is even worse. After the great Modernists, after Black Mountain, the Beats, the New York School—name your avant-garde—we once again have realistic poetry that details some petty reaction to petty events, and critics take this work seriously.
At the same time, we must be careful not to support a simple binary opposition between A and B. for example, those who talk of “experimental writing” make that term sound as if we could easily distinguish between experimental and non-experimental. But it doesn’t really work that way. And there’s a lot of bad so-called experimental writing too, isn’t there? So categories must remain fluid and individual works must be taken on their own merit rather than merely touted as avant-garde or dismissed as mainstream.
In your essay on the feud between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, “Poetry in Time of War,” you quoted Duncan as saying “poetry’s function is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov — the vital thing is that they CREATED Iago and Raskolnikov [so that] we begin to see betrayal and murder and theft in a new light.” This caused me to reflect on the current outcry against violence in the movies and video games–Do you feel that such texts are mere celebrations of violence, or have a much larger agenda that the powers that be would like to see
I think what Robert Duncan meant in the statement you cite is that the greatest poetic critique of evil comes from those who can imagine it like Shakespeare or Dante rather than just from those who cry out against it in the abstract. It’s a question of complicity: Duncan felt that Levertov was writing as if she herself were somehow above the fray. But the question of violence in the movies is a very different thing: it is meant to attract an audience and sell and most of it IS gratuitous though I don’t believe in censorship. Violence and evil are not necessarily related. But, to concentrate on violence for a moment: there have been great films that HAVE been violent for artistic reasons, so the current outcry seems to me rather foolish. I think “obscenity,” for example, takes many different forms. There are “obscene” works that have no nudity or overt sex or violence at all—but it’s their hidden agenda that is obscene.
In “The Music of Verbal Space,” your essay on John Cage, you remark that “Cage’s work continues to go unrecognized as poetry by those who produce books like the NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY – as well as those who read and review them – has to do with our general inability to dissociate “poetry” from the twin norms of self-expression and
figuration.” The continuing – and eminently marketable – idea of the poet as a flamboyant, wounded, Byronic figure chafing against the indifference of the universe is especially apparent at literary festivals where people flock by the hordes to see an artist harangue, bellow, pontificate, rant and rave, but assiduously avoid an author who reads linguistically challenging work full of multiple, intersecting perspectives with a more neutral, less theatrical stance. Do you see a time when this may change? Is it possible to mix vaudeville with
Media attention does seem to be very bad for poetry, which is a solitary pursuit. Translated to the screen by Bill Moyer or to the stage at a poetry fair, naturally “poetry” attracts the lowest common denominator. The Robert Pinsky appearances on the Lehrer News Hour (PBS) are another case in point. But I think all this is fairly harmless. It doesn’t help “radical artifice” but it doesn’t hurt much either. And “linguistically challenging” work, as you call it, can go its own way despite these phenomena.
What is your opinion of some of the other popular modes of poetry, such as slam poetry, and how should they figure into critical discourse?
Well, I’ve only been to one or two slams but in principle I think they’re fine. I admire Bob Holman and what he is trying to do. David Antin has always said that when it comes to artists, the pyramid needs a base—and that base is what you have at slams and other huge poetry events. I participated last year in the New York Poetry Festival and I thought it was terrific. So many people running around the lower East Side so as to hear poetry. Most of the stuff was pretty bad but at least the people participating seemed to care enough to come out on a rainy Sunday morning to discuss varieties of poetry. I tend to like slams much better than the “genteel” media version of “popular” poetry because the latter is so hypocritical and so polite. And the worst, to me, was Maya Angelou reading her dreadful poem about the Birds and the Beasts at Clinton’s first inauguration. People have castigated George Bush for not including a poet at his Inauguration but I was relieved he didn’t. I hate it when the audience puts on it’s “we’re in church” look and listens politely—with utter boredom—to the house poet. Better no poetry than this simulation of it.
In his afterword to the anthology AMERICAN POETRY SINCE 1950, Eliot Weinberger remarks rather disparagingly of the proliferation, beginning in the 1970’s, of creative writing programs. “Poetry, almost overnight,” he says, “became a respectable middle-class career.” However, he goes on to say, it has also meant that “a sameness of lives is producing a sameness of poetry. Worst of all, it has become increasingly difficult for an individual poet to be heard in the collective racket.” Would you agree with this?
I’ve heard Eliot make this case many times and have had fun arguing with him about it! On balance, I disagree with him. Poets have to do something to make a living. Are those that work for computer companies better off? More varied? So what should poets do? At least in the academy they come into contact with some pretty bright and interesting young people. This is not to say that I like Creative Writing Programs; I always wonder what it is they teach when I hear that students spend the hour going over each other’s work and so on. Still, the Creative Writing Program brings to the campus those whose first concerns are reading and writing and that can’t be all bad, can it? Nor can we blame the Creative Writing programs for the spate of dull writing that’s out there. And then too the Writing programs are changing! Once Buffalo began its Poetics program, organized by three brilliant poets– Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, and Robert Creeley –other universities have followed suit. The University of Denver, for example, where Bin Ramke and Cole Swensen teach. Brown University has a very good writing program: Carole Maso is there and of course Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and C. D. Wright. And York U in Toronto now has Steve McCaffery, and so on. So it’s a healthy situation—healthier than what goes on vis-à-vis poetry in the English Department itself, which often still treats the “creative” writer as some sort of ignorant craftsperson who doesn’t know the right lingo!
Some Concluding Remarks
I’m completing a new book right now; it’s for the Blackwell’s Manifesto Series. The editor at Blackwell’s, Andrew McNeillie, is an amazing man, himself a poet and novelist and was a Virginia Woolf scholar, turned editor. He said I could do whatever I wanted on poetry, not a survey or history, and it doesn’t need “coverage.” But the book, to be called TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY MODERNISM is sure to raise hackles because I argue that the most “radical” poets today are, in fact, carrying on the modernist tradition (my exemplars of four different strains of modernism are Eliot, Stein, Duchamp, and Khlebnikov). Most of the book is devoted to these four. I pretty much omit the intervening century but that’s because I think the power of Modernism itself was so enormous—this first great avant-garde—that we’re only now absorbing it.
Well, that’s the gist at least. I no longer believe, as I once did, in the progress narrative whereby postmodernism (in the 60s) represents a great breakthrough that goes way BEYOND modernism and does something very different. The enemy of the New, as I see it, is not modernism but, as I said above, the conformist, realist, “slice of life” novel or poem or play that never goes away and that defines the poetic by sheer subject matter.
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