Marjorie Perloff interviewed by Jeffrey Side for Poetry Salzburg Review
JS: In your book Twenty-First Century Modernism you observe that what we, today, regard as experimental and avant-garde in poetics is a consequence of what you call the “embryonic phase” of early modernism. And you cite Charles Bernstein’s concept of the “artifice of absorption” as having more in common with the High Modernism of T.S. Eliot than the “true voice of feeling” or “natural speech” paradigm dominant in the 1960s and 70s. If we can accept (which I do) avant-garde poetics as, indeed, the natural heir to High Modernism, what significance do you see the term “postmodernism” as having with regard to experimental poetics? Is the term born out of a basic misunderstanding of High Modernism’s actual development?
MP: This is an excellent question! In my essay ‘Postmodernism: Fin de siècle,’ in Poetry On & Off The Page (Northwestern 1998), I trace the term “postmodernism” from the sixties to the nineties and argue that what was once a term of praise (e.g., the postmodern was more hip, more chic, more avant-garde, and radical than the modern) gradually became a term of opprobrium: postmodernism referred to a late capitalist decadent media glut, and no one any longer wanted to be a postmodernist. But the evolution of the term doesn’t change the fact that back in the sixties, Ihab Hassan and dozens of other critics, especially in Germany, took postmodern to mean “more than”. Hassan has the famous chart which I cite, where the items in the “Postmodern” column represent a break-through from the elitist, centered spatial form of Modernism. And I then discuss the changes brought about by Fred Jameson and the French post-structuralists.
In the sixties and early seventies, then, postmodern was more or less synonymous with avant garde and I wrote about Frank O’Hara, John Cage, and Jasper Johns as “postmodern” (e.g. avant-garde) poets/artists. What is it that changed my own sense of the term? Well, as time went on, it became clear, at least to me, that as wonderful as Frank O’Hara was and is, his poetry is not really a decisive rupture with what came before, or at least not the sort of rupture we had with Eliot’s “Prufrock” or Pound’s Cantos. O’Hara’s lyricism comes squarely out of the Romantic tradition and certainly he is a modernist in that he believes in poetry as a high calling. The same is true of Ashbery. Meanwhile, as the century wore on, the “avant-garde” kept moving forward in time and soon became equated with Language Poetry and related experimentalisms like the book art of Johanna Drucker.
But political events have taught us that progress is illusory; art is not becoming increasingly “postmodern” (or avant-garde) and as we look back, it seems that the break-through we all talk about and celebrate came much earlier. Accordingly, by the time I came to write Twenty-First Century Modernism, I was looking at the larger picture and thinking that exciting poetry today must be understood in terms of the modernist revolution, a revolution much more dramatic than that of Charles Olson in “Projective verse” or Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”. In making this rather sweeping connection, I did neglect mid-century poets and I want to get back to the 60s avant-garde I think was so significant: that of Cage, Cunningham, Johns and their circle.
JS: I share your view of O’Hara and Olson. I have always thought it odd that O’Hara is regarded in some circles as “important” innovatively, whereas his roots, as you say, come out of the Romantic tradition. The same could be said for Olson’s poetic which with its concentration on perception (as manifested in: ‘One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception’): something that would not have found much dissent from William Wordsworth who wrote: ‘The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and the senses of man are, it is true, his favourite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’. It is the abandonment of this concentration on perception and sensation that, it seems to me, distinguishes much of High Modernism from later schools of poetry claiming some sort of lineage with it.
From what you say, it seems as if the innovativeness of High Modernism was not fully reflected in later poetic “schools” and “movements”, and that only in the 60s did the vestige of High Modernism look as if it could re-emerge. Given this how do you account for the stalling of this innovativeness between the years of High Modernism and the 60s?
MP: Charles Olson, as I argued in an essay called ‘Olson and the “Inferior Predecessors”‘ in ELH in 1973 or so-an essay I never reprinted in book form because it made people so mad but also convinced a lot of others of the case-took most of his “Projective Verse” essay straight from Pound and Williams. I demonstrate the “steals” in a long list. Olson had little original poetics but he did try to expand Pound’s internationalism so as to make it less Eurocentric or Chinese-Japanese-centric. Olson wrote about the Yucatan, about African poetries, and so on. And he seemed “radical” vis-à-vis the very tame New Critical poetry of the 40s and 50s.
Why was late modernism so retrograde? In the 30s, as the political picture became darker and darker, poets either turned to a more overt political poetry (on the left) or to a non-engaged poetry on the right. Left-wing poetry, with the exception of the Objectivists, was usually straightforward and didactic and hence hardly likely to carry on the modernist tradition. Meanwhile, in the mainstream, modernism hardened into what was often called “modrenism”. In the poetry of Archibald MacLeish or, later, Howard Nemerov, Modernism meant a heavy symbolic structure, replete with ironies and paradoxes but in fact quite assertive, unlike the poetry of Williams or Stevens, which refused the semantic closure of these modrenist poets. A good example is the verse drama of the forties-for example, Maxwell Anderson, whose plays were very popular when I was in high school. Winterset had “poetic” texture and every speech supposedly had large symbolic resonance, often Freudian. Everything was MEANINGFUL! Think of Martha Graham or later Eugene O’Neill. So, too, the poetry of the New Critics, while ostensibly based on Eliot’s aesthetic, used tight metrical forms and contained its ironies carefully. In this context, a poem like Olson’s “The Kingfishers” seemed nothing if not revolutionary, but of course if it were read against, say, Mallarmé or a section of Pound’s Cantos, or Apollinaire, there was nothing very revolutionary about its collage cuts and fragmentation.
Meanwhile, the real innovations and ethos of modernism remained largely misunderstood; indeed, critics began to assume that Allen Tate or, later, Louis Simpson were great “modernists”. It took decades to undo the damage: the false dichotomy between “raw” and “cooked,” between Tate and Olson and so on, became a new orthodoxy, masking the reality that Olson wasn’t all that avant-garde either. Fifty years after ‘Projective Verse’ this is becoming apparent.
JS: In your published conversation with Robert von Hallberg (‘Dialogue On Evaluation In Poetry’) in For Professions: Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies (edited by Donald Hall, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) you say: ‘Experimentation is not ipso facto a good thing. There are plenty of “experiments” that are merely boring’. Can you expand on this a little?
MP: I talk about this issue in the essay ‘After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents’ in Differentials. I suggest there-and have said so elsewhere-that sometimes we fetishize innovation, experiment, and “making it new” in ways that aren’t too useful. It was Hugh Kenner who said that the “avant-garde” can be just as boring as anything else. What he meant was that once the avant-garde has been codified and, so to speak, professionalized, it just becomes another style that poets can tap into and we’ve seen some very boring work that pretends to be doing new and exciting things. Pound said that after the inventors come the diluters and then the imitators; this is always the case. A poem (or fiction) has to be “innovative” for a reason; there has to be a motive for doing things in “new” ways.
To take an example: when Duchamp exhibited Fountain by R. Mutt at the Independents in 1917, the concept of putting a common plumbing fixture in a museum seemed amazing. But fifty years later when an artist exhibited a sink in another art show called “Avant-Garde,” it seemed merely boring. Duchamp’s Fountain involved a subtle iconography and style: it played on Renaissance and Baroque fountains, it had a sexual subtext, it was photographed by Stieglitz against the backdrop of Marsden Hartley’s painting of a Buddha and hence this “Buddha of the Bathroom,” as it was derisively called at the time, was made “beautiful,” so that its status was quite complex. But the experiment can’t be repeated-at least not in Duchamp’s way-and so the imitations of Duchamp’s urinal-and there are hundreds-are often merely dull.
JS: In general, do you think that this “experiment for experiment’s sake” has led to the overvaluing of a poem’s formal and visual properties (i.e. quirky typographical arrangements of the text etc.) to the detriment of the poem’s semantic operation? The latter being more able to evoke a response in readers that is distinct from responses that are associated with the experience of visual art works. I am, of course, if a sort of visual art aesthetic underpins some “experiment for experiment’s sake” poetry. If this is so, could this be one of the reasons why these works seem uninteresting to those readers who are expecting the poems to operate semantically?
MP: A good example of “experiment for experiment’s sake” may be found in the work of Richard Kostelanetz, who based his own “writings through”, alphabet games, procedural works, and concrete poems on the work of John Cage, but does not have much to say and so the forms lack a sense of urgency or purpose. Any poem must operate semantically as well as visual/sonically. Even a tiny poem like Decio Pignatari’s famous ‘Bebe Coca Cola’ (the concrete poem) plays with the letters and words so as to create a subtle critique of modern capitalism, and so on.
JS: Do you think the foregrounding of form may be one of the reasons why much experimental poetry is perceived as dull?
MP: No, not at all. Take the experiments of Frank O’Hara, which were pretty radical in the fifties. No one wrote in what seemed to be such a casual way: ‘It’s my lunch hour….’; ‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’ The new manner was taken over by a generation of younger poets from Allen Kaplan to Tony Towle, and visually their poems resembled Frank’s. The difference was one of tone. They couldn’t capture Frank’s racy insouciance or real pain and so it became just a matter of writing, ‘It’s 12.34 in Manhattan’ or whatever, and the poem went limp. It’s the absence of semantics in the poetry of the disciples, not their formal features that made the difference.
JS: In your essay ‘What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’, you highlight the difference in scholarly standards between reviews of books about, for instance, architecture, and books about poetry. The former being written by scholars knowledgeable in the field under review; the latter being reviewed by mainly mainstream practising poets mostly ignorant of the wider issues concerning poetic discourse, especially that which is not mainstream. This ignorance helps to foster in the readers of such reviews an ill-informed and potentially damaging view of non-mainstream poetry. You illustrate this by demonstrating how a negative review, by the mainstream poet Glyn Maxwell, of Linda Reinfeld’s Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue, is negative precisely because of Maxwell’s ignorance of the theoretical issues underpinning Language Poetry. Is one remedy to this state of affairs to stipulate that poetry reviews should not be written by those who have not formally studied literature academically? This is not as preposterous as it sounds given what you say concerning the reviews of books on other disciplines. Indeed, most visual art reviews I read are by people who have studied the field formally.
MP: No, I wouldn’t want to stipulate this because of course, as we both know, some poets are much better reviewers than comparable academic critics. I love the early reviews of John Ashbery: for example, his review of Adrienne Rich’s poetry where he says that her poetry seems to be suffering from ‘objective correlativitis, otherwise known as Dutch Elm disease’. And sometimes an older poet introduces a younger one to a larger public, and that’s very useful.
But on the whole, poets-as-reviewers are too biased; they have their agenda. To assign Charles Bernstein’s poetry to Glyn Maxwell, as the Times Literary Supplement did, is to ask for a negative review, and a snide one at that. The converse is also true: when Robert Pinsky is asked to review, say, Czeslav Milocz, he is obviously going to treat the Polish Nobel Prize winner, with whom he worked at Berkeley, with veneration. So one hardly gets an objective view. But I wouldn’t mind the lack of objectivity so much, if the reviewer were well informed and that’s too often not the case.
The nadir of reviewing, these days, is the New York Times Book Review. A recent issue carried a review of Elias Canetti’s posthumous The Party In The Blitz, the fifth installment of his autobiography, partly in note and diary form. I reviewed it for Bookforum, and found it to be fascinating. The Times gave the book to the notoriously snide, clever British (originally Australian) Clive James, a “big name”. I found his review almost libelous.
He called Canetti a “twerp” and made fun of him. It was a case of THE REVENGE OF THE BRITS against a book by a Central European who dared criticize some of them. What a choice for reviewer!
Or again, take Langdon Hammer’s review, this past week in The Times, of Helen Vendler’s very slim and slight book on Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery-a set of lectures she gave fairly recently. One could tell from the review that the book was fairly slight, something of a footnote to Vendler’s other writings, but The Times gave it a whole page and chose a reviewer who was almost sure to give the book a very good review. If you know Hammer’s own writing on Allen Tate and Hart Crane and now on James Merrill, whose biography he’s writing, you would surmise that he would be in the Vendler camp. Whereas any number of other reviewers-I am not talking about my friends but regular Times reviewers like William Logan-would have raised a few hard questions. Ideally, then, editors would choose reviewers (whether poets or academics) who are disinterested, who have nothing to gain from praising or blaming X or Y. Poetry reviews, though, are mostly just puffs, as in American Book Review. One would think each poet reviewed were a genius!
Having criticized the Times Literary Supplement in the essay you cite, I want to go on the record as saying that the single best editor I know today (although I’ve never met him) is James Campbell at TLS. I’ve reviewed 4-5 times for him and he really knows the poetry in question-say, Creeley or Ian Hamilton Finlay. He could write the review himself! And then his editing is exemplary; he carefully improves the piece. A brilliant editor, neither poet nor academic but himself a writer and anxious to see the work in question in its complexity rather than as an exemplar of the good or the bad.
JS: You have said elsewhere that poetry is not ‘straightforward, expository discourse (as in a chemistry textbook), whose aim is to convey information’. I agree with this, but am interested to know what a poem is doing when it is not doing this?
MP: I would say that the poem holds the meanings involved in suspension. It was Yeats who said, ‘We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry’. I’ve just written an essay on Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916′ as a political poem, and what’s so remarkable about this poem is that one can read it ten times and still not be sure which side Yeats was on. The fact is that the Nationalists-revolutionaries thought it supported their cause, while others thought the opposite, the oxymoron of “terrible beauty” reflecting the basic paradox of revolution. Now, does this poem convey “information”? Not exactly. It assumes that the reader will know the facts of the Easter Uprising, the take over of the Post Office and the center of Dublin on Easter Monday 1916 in response to England’s indefinite delay of the Home Rule Bill. It helps to know who the persons mentioned like Patrick Pearse and John MacBride are! So the reader must get some “information” just to read the poem intelligently. But that’s not the same as the poem conveying information, is it? You don’t learn anything new, but the poem is full of rich meanings, ideas to think about, emotions that are conflicting. Does “too long a sacrifice” make “a stone of the heart,” and so on?
JS: Tim Peterson has said that ‘there needs to be a way of talking about innovative poetry that allows for both stylistic inclusiveness and polemic’. By which he is referring to his rhetorical question: ‘If a central characteristic of avant-garde poetry is that it’s somehow politically oppositional, then what do we call “political poetry” that’s not “avant-garde”? His question assumes a view of avant-garde poetry as encompassing the political. How far (if at all) do you agree with his analysis?
MP: I take up this question early in the semester when I teach ‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’, a graduate seminar. The first thing to understand is that in the early avant-gardes, the aesthetic and political were inseparable. Especially the Russian avant-garde was politically AND aesthetically revolutionary, marking a sharp break with the past. But as time went on, there was a split. This was already true of Zurich Dada: the Cabaret Voltaire was “against” but not really political, as Tom Stoppard shows well in his play Travesties, where Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara all find themselves in Zurich and Lenin has no use for Tzara at all or vice-versa.
It may be asked: well, if a movement isn’t politically radical, can it in fact be avant-garde? The issue is complicated. The most avant-garde artist of the century, probably, Marcel Duchamp cared nothing about politics and left the country as soon as war was in the air-anything to avoid being drafted or even involved. And Gertrude Stein was actually quite reactionary politically as were many other avant-gardists like Wyndham Lewis, who was a Fascist.
So the two don’t necessarily go together, and a lot of “polemic political” poetry is very traditional so far as form is concerned and not at all innovative. There is, by the 21st Century, no necessary relationship between the two although our own avantgardists certainly tend to be on the Left! But being on the Left is not the same as a committed engagement in politics.