Ventriloquies: On the Outlook for a Poetic Planet

Ventriloquies: On the Outlook for a Poetic Planet

Alan Shaw

Against the literary history proposed by Marjorie Perloff, Shaw goes on the lookout for an Outlook that just might save poetry from contemporary theory.

…there are people who associate meter and rhyme with order and good sense, or denounce them as reactionary; there are those who regard free verse as sincere and forward-looking, and those who dismiss it as squalidly prosaic…The fact is that no form belongs inevitably with any theme or attitude; no form is good or appropriate in itself, but any form can be made good by able hands.
– Richard Wilbur

…we must realize that the choice of verse form is not just a matter of individual preference, a personal decision to render a particular experience as a sonnet rather than a ballad, a prose poem rather than a free verse lyric, and so on. For the pool of verse and prose alternatives available to the poet at any given time has already been determined, at least in part, by historical and ideological considerations.
– Marjorie Perloff

Whether or not there is anything political about the forms of poetry, the politics of discussions about them are by now rather familiar, and tinged with the ironies of our times. The fact, for instance, that it is the spokesman for the “conservative” view - writing in a foreword to a 1986 book of verse in traditional forms - who insists on the poet’s freedom to choose any form whatever, and the critic known for championing “radical” poetics who declares that freedom to be severely limited by history. Just the reverse, in other words, of what each might have been expected to say a hundred years ago. And just the reverse, we might add, of what each would likely say in other contexts.

We may wonder, first off, whether Wilbur thinks that any form, with sufficient skill, could be made suitable for any purpose. Limericks about Auschwitz, perhaps? On the other hand, do Perloff’s “historical and ideological considerations” really apply to anything much, beyond such trivial cases? Indeed, Auschwitz limericks might be just outrageous enough to make a poet or critic of “radical” sensibilities put them on the “available” list after all.

By putting terms like “conservative” and “radical” in quotes I naturally intend to convey a certain doubt as to their pertinence. That in itself will signal something of my own position: to deny the pertinence of such terms makes you a conservative these days. On the one hand, I understand Wilbur’s motives for emphasizing, even perhaps exaggerating, the poet’s freedom of choice: one gets tired of being put in the role of the fuddy-duddy, the prescriber of rules, when it is really the other side that seems prone to categorical pronouncements about what is and what is not possible in poetry, art, or culture.

What motivates Perloff, on the other hand, seems clear as well. She is on the lookout for the truly new and though she is certainly smart enough to know that what is most truly new is not always what is most obviously or outwardly so, she believes newness always involves some formal innovation, and for some time now she has found that mainly in a group of poets who eschew not only the traditional meters, stanzas, and rhymes, but also the sort of personal, imagistic free verse that has become standard over the past thirty years.

On this latter point she and the Language Poets she favors are in fact joined by many of the New Formalists whose poems appear in the anthology to which Wilbur’s remarks are prefaced. And if nothing else would, Pound’s dictum (quoted by Perloff) that “no good verse is ever written in a manner twenty years old” might have equal appeal to two movements that are both - well, barely that age themselves. Both also share a certain emphasis on form, as opposed to what they see as the free verse orthodoxy’s excessive preoccupation with content.

Beyond this, of course, there is little agreement between them. One group tends to see free verse, or at least the exclusive cultivation of it, as a temporary aberration in poetic history, while the other sees it as a vital revolution that got momentarily stalled, one that they are now themselves carrying to its next logical stage.

Historical and ideological considerations? No doubt. But what, one might ask, do they have to do with the making of poetry? With what gets made they clearly may have a lot to do, but as to how good any of it will be, they can tell us little, if history is any guide at all. If one side’s prediction of poetic history turns out, a century from now, to have been wrong, that won’t prevent its poems from being read, if they are any good, nor will the other side’s having been right rescue its bad poems from oblivion. And yet the implication of Perloff’s position, unless she is simply stating the obvious - that poets use the forms they know about or can imagine - seems to be that there is some connection.

But presumably she is not even talking about individual or collective ideological positions; she knows perfectly well that these are a poor predictor not only of poetic quality, but even of the sort of thing that gets written in their name. To whom, then, do her “considerations” belong? To the ghost of Hegel, perhaps, whose dialectical descendants, materialized, eroticized, and deconstructed, haunt so much literary theory to this day? Without some such arbiter, it is hard to see how we can distinguish the “real” historical or ideological purport of a poetic form from whatever the individual poet, critic, or reader on the one hand, or the prejudices of the day on the other, might declare it to be.

Is there not something a bit chilling, too, in that passive has already been determined? I am not suggesting that Perloff believes in poetry by committee; whatever tendencies towards that sort of thing are afoot, she clearly doesn’t support them. Still, it does rather sound as if someone or something is taking the choice out of the hands of the poets.

Well, let’s admit, then, that the poet’s choice of form is not entirely free. What choice in life ever is? The more important a choice, in fact, the more likely we are to feel that it is compelled by some necessity, that it is more, in other words, than just an “individual preference.” And since these things matter to poets, most of them, including, I’m sure, Wilbur himself, experience their poetic “choices,” whatever they may happen to be, in some such way.

But in trying to define what this “necessity” is, do we necessarily arrive at Perloff’s “historical and ideological considerations?” Of course we can’t deny that these may, perhaps even must, play a part. But we may doubt whether they are always the “determining” factor, or even an especially important one. To be sure, we can define them in such a way as to include almost anything, and these days “ideology” is customarily used, by literary theorists, in a very broad sense indeed. If the sonnet, for instance, necessarily embodied, by its very form, the chivalric ideals of its inventors, then it would be hard to see how poets of an industrial age could ever have used it at all. That some modern sonnets retain echoes, often ironic ones, of those ideals, speaks more for the poets’ awareness of their predecessors than it does for any compulsion in the form itself. If, however, the “ideology” of the sonnet is declared to be something nebulous enough - say, a belief in the Coherence of the Self - then we can claim, with some appearance of plausibility, that anyone who uses it is thereby expressing adherence to that ideology. Leaving aside ironic uses of the form, as well as the numerous sonnets, from Petrarch to Nerval, in which the self within the lines seems anything but coherent, we can probably persuade ourselves that it is so, since most people throughout the ages, poets or otherwise, do seem to assume that the self has a certain coherence. But if not, then we can switch to some still vaguer “ideology,” such as a belief in the idea of Order.

But surely, it will be said, no one is trying to prove any “essential” qualities in poetic forms? No, the qualities we ascribe to them are all historically contingent. But historical contingencies are precisely what are always present. So that if I write a sonnet today, regardless of its content, diction, style, or anything else, the mere fact that I use this archaic form says something about my ideological attitude. And so it may. But what it says about it may be of no real importance to me, though if you are a critic or a poet ideologically opposed to sonnets, it is likely to be the only thing you hear. It all seems a sad hangover from the high times of dialectical philosophies in this century, in which one’s taste in clothes or food, or anything at all, could be taken as an indication of one’s political stance.

Suppose, however, that I do choose a form precisely for its “historical and ideological” associations. That still leaves open the question of what my attitude towards that form’s “ideology” is. Is it necessarily one of approval? Could it possibly be ironical? How blatant would the irony have to be before an “ideological” critic would recognize it? Could it be partly affirmative and partly ironical? Or mostly negative but partly accepting?

In the late twentieth century, to write, for example, a straightforward “Ubi sunt” poem on the medieval model is hardly an available option, even as poets will continue to spin ironic and parodic fantasies on this time-honored topos.

Like many of Perloff’s pronouncements, this one contains just enough hedging to make it unassailable. One might wonder at what precise time, in fact, a poem of this description was “an available option.” Did Villon himself write straightforwardly, “on the medieval model”? Marilyn Hacker’s feminist makeover of Villon’s ladies no doubt qualifies as ironic or parodic fantasy, but is anything less obviously parodic necessarily “straightforward”?

The loaded word in Perloff’s vocabulary is “available.” For note that she is not just saying that whichever of the available - in the sense of known or imaginable - forms the poet chooses, the choice will be ideologically revealing. She is saying that, but she is saying something more, too. She is saying that some forms, though they may be available in the sense of being known, are unavailable in the sense of being no longer viable; that anyone, in effect, who tries to use them beyond their expiration date is going to end up with something that, well, stinks. Though presumably this would only apply to a “straightforward” use of the form, whatever that may mean.

And so we can’t simply envision a promiscuous pool of forms, each with its own history, from which the poet may fish out whatever looks appealing, though at the cost of having to work, in one way or another, with all of its limitations, as well as whatever connotations inevitably cling to it. No, now we must picture, next to this larger pool, a smaller, purified one, into which History continually drops those forms deemed to be in accordance with the Spirit of the Age, at the same time picking out all the outmoded ones and throwing them back into the larger pool. The advanced spirits, the true poets, will naturally take their forms from the smaller pool. And any poet who tries to fish from the larger pool, the one marked “unavailable,” is doomed to failure.

Well, now, but is this not a caricature of what is really a very common and reasonable view? It’s not, really, that forms necessarily become permanently unavailable: they simply begin to suffer from overuse, at which point they drop out of the “available” pool. But after a lapse of time, during which no one much uses them, they may again become “available.” There is nothing in the nature of things to prevent an “unavailable” form from being used - at least not in the way that Hegel, in a malicious story spread by Bertrand Russell, is supposed to have said, just before the astronomers discovered Uranus, that it was in the nature of things that there could be no seventh planet - it’s just that the more a form is used, the harder it becomes to use it convincingly.

This does sound unobjectionable, and it might be a useful guide for determining a form’s viability, were it not for one thing: it works only in hindsight, if at all. We may be able to see periods in literary history in which everyone wrote sonnets, followed by periods in which no one did, and we may then conclude that during these later periods the sonnet was no longer a viable form - hoping, as we say this, that no hitherto neglected, brilliant sonneteer, like a seventh planet, suddenly swims into view. But if we are in the middle of a sonnet boom, how do we know when the last good sonnet has arrived? And if no one writes them any more, how can we be sure that none are imminent?

If pressed, Perloff would have to say - as anyone would - that of course we can’t be sure of anything, but one’s sense of probabilities allows one to make some plausible guesses. But if they are really only guesses, why does she prefer to state them in a way that, though hedged with qualifiers, sounds categorical? I can think of several possible reasons.

She is, first of all, an advocate of a certain contemporary movement in poetry. But she is a literary historian as well, and she can lend weight to her advocacy if she can give people the sense that the formal choices of the poets she favors have something more than personal predilection behind them, that they are, in some way, the result of “objective” historical forces. This has of course always been a favorite claim of movements of every kind.

Second, she is, like most critics nowadays, something of a theorist, and theory in the literary realm has long been synonymous with one form or another of historicism. Just as the type of history that stresses the importance of personalities has been, since the nineteenth century, looked down upon for being insufficiently “scientific,” so any criticism that does not try to account for the artistic choices of individual creators in some other terms - that does not show how the creator is, in a phrase Perloff approvingly quotes, “ventriloquized by his or her tradition” - is thought to lack theoretical content.

And finally, to put things in probabilistic terms would be inconvenient because Perloff knows that poets, like all artists, thrive on improbability. When the difficulties of using a form become apparent enough that some significant section of the literary world thinks it no longer “viable,” then that makes using it precisely the kind of challenge that might attract a good poet. If everyone thinks it is unviable, then the attraction may be all the greater. But, lest we think we have found a formula here, there may be other poets who are challenged by forms that no one but themselves finds problematic, the very forms thought to be the most “straightforward” and natural in their times. And to the superficial critic, their work, being formally the same, will be indistinguishable from that of merely fashionable poets.

All this Perloff must know, but in the throes of advocacy, enthusiasm, or distaste, is inclined to forget. The unpredictable, the improbable, the paradoxical, are all part of what we mean by originality, and Perloff, despite her historicist assumptions, does believe in originality. But the uneasy cohabitation of those assumptions and that belief tempts her into formulas. Not only her, of course; formula-making is the occupational disease of the theorist. Without attempts to account for what we know to be, strictly speaking, unaccountable, neither theory nor criticism could get very far.


Are we not all “ventriloquized” by our tradition? Are some of us more so than others? Does recognizing that you are make you less so?

The phrase is calculated to offend. Many people have been content, even proud, to regard themselves as mouthpieces, vehicles, or vessels for something larger than themselves. But only dummies are ventriloquized.

A German poet once told me that in the lines

Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch

he heard the voice not of Goethe but of the Gestapo. Who or what is being ventriloquized here?

The “Wandrers Nachtlied,” from which these lines come, is one of four texts that Perloff uses to illustrate the forms that were “available” at different periods of literary history to express a similar poetic content, namely “a moment of silent contemplation when all the elements of the scene stand out in sudden sharp relief.”

Her remarks on these texts, and their relation to their times, are well worth reading. The “thesis” that connects them, however, seems to me, like others of its kind, exceedingly tenuous. Now, in a criticism that wore its “theory” lightly, this would be no great fault. Provided some pearls of perception are there, what they are strung on makes little difference. But though Perloff is not, like so many of her colleagues, all string and no pearls, one does have the sensation, in reading her, of a bit too much slack at times, and hence some needless tangles, between the beads. She is a far less portentous theorist than is the norm nowadays, but she clearly does want her theory to be taken seriously.

Her three other examples are a prose poem by Rimbaud (“Les Ponts”), a poem by W.C. Williams (“Good Night”), and a short text by Beckett (“Still”). Her thesis, as I understand it, is that we can see a progression from Goethe to Beckett in which each subsequent text shows the inadequacy, for a contemporary rendering of the theme, of the form used in the one immediately preceding it. In Rimbaud’s time, the form of rhymed and metered lyric that Goethe had used was no longer “available” to render this experience of quiet, no doubt partly because the experience itself, occurring in an industrial rather than a pre-industrial setting, had changed. He therefore turned to the prose poem, which shed the rigidities of traditional French prosody, but was still a self-consciously “lyrical” form, using the formal syntax and cadences of nineteenth century descriptive prose. This, in its turn, was inadequate for W.C. Williams’ machine-age evocation of the same theme, which demanded the kind of staccato free verse lines Williams was in the habit of tapping out on his typewriter. And finally, free verse, with its mechanical clinging to the “line” as verse’s last defining formalism, gives way, in Beckett and others in our own post-industrial age, to a nonlineated, nondescriptive, rhythmic something that is neither quite verse nor prose.

Would we be wrong to feel here a sort of shadow of the Hegelian dialectic, with its formal march of thesis, antithesis, synthesis? In any case, no one in literary studies nowadays would find anything very remarkable in such a progression. The assumptions underlying it - that “new” forms make previous ones obsolete, and that one can thereby trace a clear line of “advance” through literary history - are so widespread as to pass nearly unnoticed. As Perloff puts it:

…between Goethe’s “Ruh” and Beckett’s “Still,” two centuries have intervened: by 1972, when Beckett was composing his text, the poet could not, in John Ashbery’s words, “say it that way any more.” How and why this is the case is my subject.

But before we follow her to consider the how and the why, let’s ask: is it the case? Obviously, everything hinges on what you mean by “it” and “that way.” Since it is poetic form we are talking about, however, “that way” could be taken to mean “using this general form (rhyme and meter, prose poem, free verse, etc.)”

Now clearly, if every “obsolete” form obediently made way for its successor - if rhymed lyrics, for instance, had died once and for all with Rimbaud, and no good poet thereafter had written any - there would be no need to argue her thesis at all: it would be self-evident. But whatever she may think of the work of contemporary poets who continue to write in old forms, she cannot so easily dismiss the work of a Yeats or a Frost or a Valéry.

But she might say: it’s not that nothing can be said “that way” any more; just not the “it” we are looking for. And what might “it” be? Something, presumably, that is peculiar to the times, and that the old forms are powerless to express.

But is there any reason why the things that the old forms cannot express should be more important, or more truly characteristic of the times, than the things they can? Might there not also be things, even “new” things, that only the old forms can express?

In any case, the “it” she chooses for purposes of illustration, the “moment of silent contemplation when all the elements of the scene stand out in sudden sharp relief,” is enough of a poetic commonplace that one might wonder whether one couldn’t, at any given time, find versions of “it” in just about any form one likes.

Here, for example, is a version by Wilbur, in a poem called “Stop”:

In grimy winter dusk
We slowed for a concrete platform;
The pillars passed more slowly;
A paper bag leapt up.

The train banged to a standstill.
Brake-steam rose and parted.
Three chipped-at blocks of ice
Sprawled on a baggage-truck.

Out in that glum, cold air
The broken ice lay glintless,
But the truck was painted blue
On side, wheels, and tongue,

A purple, glowering blue
Like the phosphorus of Lethe
Or Queen Persephone’s gaze
In the numb fields of the dark.

The metric form of the poem, unrhymed trimeter quatrains, though rarely used, could be called “traditional.” In terms of the formal stages that Perloff implies, it belongs to the first, the stage of Goethe. But it comes from a book published in 1961, which places it towards the end of the Williams era. The baggage-truck, in fact, may recall a much better-known conveyance:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The resemblance may or may not be fortuitous. As a young man Wilbur wrote a good-humored but sharp critique of Williams’ dogmatic rejection of traditional forms, and certainly at that time (and still to no small extent today) any poet who wished to use those forms had to cope with Williams’ influence. The mythological hyperbole of Wilbur’s final quatrain, in a scene described, up to that point, in good, concrete, no-ideas-but-in-things fashion, could be seen as calculated to offend against everything Williams stood for aesthetically. Though one could say that Williams indulges in a little hyperbole of his own, characteristically sentimental or quasi-mystical rather than mythological, at the very beginning of his own poem. The point perhaps being that no poem can convey an intense perception by description alone, without some sort of rhetorical hook on which to hang it.

Some critique of Williams’ stated aesthetic may thus be implicit in Wilbur’s poem as well, and Perloff, whether she thinks such a critique has any value or not, would doubtless say that it only goes to prove her point, that form is always ideological. But it’s unlikely that Wilbur, even if he intended a critique here, deliberately set out to write a poem in opposition to Williams. Indeed, to Williams the poet, he probably felt no opposition. Wilbur simply had the urge to use certain forms and devices in his poems, and it was the fact that Williams, the poetical ideologue, had inveighed against them (not just that Williams, the poet, preferred to use different ones) that lent a potential polemic to their use. If I say that I don’t eat meat, that is not an ideological statement. But if I say that no one ought to eat meat, that meat-eating is a relic of the past, that’s pure ideology. If someone then replies that he or she sees nothing wrong with eating meat, are we to brand this statement as being just as doctrinaire as the one it replies to?

Of course, whatever position we take, we all see ourselves as this harmless second person, the one who is merely responding to someone else’s “ideology.” The vegetarian ideologue thus never sees vegetarianism as an attempt to restrict others’ freedom, but as a freedom won in the teeth of fierce opposition from meat-eaters.

For the poststructuralist, though, there is not even the possibility that meat-eating and vegetarianism could simply be personal tastes. They are always ideologies, and it makes no difference whether their adherents try to impose their practice on others or not. In fact, the tolerance that any majority, like meat-eaters, extends to a minority like vegetarians, is seen as a sign, not that the majority are unideological, but rather that they are so confident of winning that they feel able to dispense with the cruder forms of compulsion. A minority, for its part, may practice tolerance as a ruse to gain converts to their cause. Everything is a power struggle, and the only difference between the zealot and the democrat is in their choice of weapons. Whether or not there is any visible attempt to dominate, the wish to do so, it is assumed, is always there.

To be sure, not every contemporary theorist openly subscribes to this dog-eat-dog view of things. Perloff, to her credit, does not, though some of the things she says seem to demand some such thinking as their logical underpinning. It may be that she is “ventriloquized” here by tendencies that, in their more crudely explicit forms, she would reject.

But isn’t it naive, at this late date, to continue to believe in the existence of simple tastes? Hasn’t one of the strengths of a theory-based criticism been its ability to ferret out motive and strategy beneath what had hitherto looked like inscrutable quirks?

Perhaps so, notwithstanding that such criticism, like any other, is all the stronger when it does not try to explain too much. So one might readily admit that a “simple” taste is bound to be, like most simple things, quite complicated when you really look at it, and that among its other constituents, “ideological” ones may be more or less in evidence. To put it in Freudian terms, a taste is probably never built purely upon the pleasure principle; it likely always contains some “ideal” element, some suggestion of how things “ought” to be, as well.

But to treat this element as always predominant, highly developed, or even important, doesn’t really respect the complexity of taste either. And to slight the element of pleasure, particularly in the realm of the arts, is even less excusable. The taste for rhyme, for instance, may wax and wane in different eras, and some of this variation may indeed be due to ideological and historical considerations. But the taste itself owes little to ideology, as may be seen from the fact that many who hate rhyming in “serious” poetry readily enjoy it in popular songs. The belief that it is acceptable in the one case and not in the other might indeed be called ideological; the enjoyment is not.

There is of course good reason why theorists prefer the ideological constituents of taste to the pleasurable ones. The first lead outward into the kind of grand historicist metanarratives that are their stock in trade, while the second, if they lead anywhere at all, lead downward into biology or neurology. Of course, those disciplines could be “historicized” too, but attempts to do that have met, at least since Stalin’s time, with nearly unanimous derision from their practitioners.

In relation to artistic forms, one thing does seem clear: the more specific the form, the more complicated the taste for it must be. All cultures, and even some animals, can respond to binary and ternary rhythms, but marches and waltzes are a more limited and, as they say, “acquired” taste. Likewise we would expect there to be more elements, both ideological and pleasurable, involved in the appreciation of the sonnet as written by Shakespeare or Petrarch than are involved in appreciating the sonnet form as such. And that, in turn, involves more than just a general taste for rhymed verse.

It is thus not in the taste for the simpler forms, but in judging what elements properly go together to make a specific form - that is, a poem - that most of the “ideological” issues of poetry arise. A “period style” is always highly ideological: it believes, for instance, that such-and-such a meter requires such-and-such a diction, such-and-such a subject matter, and so on. Not that the reasons these elements seem to go together are necessarily all purely ideological, though this is how modern theory, with its conventionalist bias, mostly views the matter. But the ideological character of such a style is manifested in its resistance to combinations other than the sanctioned ones, just as the unideological character of original poetry comes from its willingness to try new (or old) combinations, judging them purely, or at any rate mostly, by the complicated pleasures they afford. Even when an original poet does appear, to us, to have been using the period style, it is not uncommon to read of contemporaries objecting to certain “unorthodox” combinations of elements, and often one suspects they were bothered more by these slight deviations than they would have been by an outright rejection of the style.

Of course poets are never either completely original or completely conventional, and it is also quite usual to find major figures, like Goethe or Williams, appearing in the guise of both free spirit and ideologue, at the same or at different times, to the same or to different people. Nor is it hard to see a certain evolution of taste, relatively independent of ideology, even in the absence of “major” figures.

But ideology, though it arises mostly in connection with specific forms, does not always leave the simpler forms untouched. Williams’ disdain for the iambic measure came from his inability to dissociate it in his mind from a peculiarly British intonation, diction and speech rhythm, and at a time when Frost and Stevens were providing copious examples of decidedly non-British iambics, he continued to insist that the iamb was totally unsuited to American speech. Whether this prejudice helped him to achieve his own special rhythms, or whether they could have been achieved just as well, or better, without it, is hard to say. But it shows what a powerful hold conventions can have on minds that think they reject them. The British tradition, in a funny way, ventriloquized Williams, to reclaim exclusive possession of the iamb.

Similarly, in those places where Perloff seems to imply that it is now impossible not only to write some specific form like a “straightforward ‘Ubi sunt’ poem on the medieval model,” but even to effectively use simple forms like rhyme and meter at all, it seems to be because these forms continue to carry, in her mind, a whole raft of historical baggage, with diction, outlook, preferred themes, organization, and rhetoric all so intertwined that one could never hope to jettison part of it without sinking the whole. But the ideology that binds it all into a single package, the mesmerizing, monolithic voice she hears emerging from that waterlogged mass, is really her own. Those dumb logs, the forms, have nothing to do with it.


Now that we’ve begun to flesh out some of the issues, and drawn some rough distinctions, let’s go back to Perloff’s four stages, and try to discern more closely what it is she really intends to say with them about the evolution of poetic style in the last two centuries.

It’s obvious, first of all, that the more specific an interpretation we can give to the forms representing each stage, the less open to question her thesis becomes. That no one after Goethe, Rimbaud, Williams, and Beckett can write like Goethe, Rimbaud, Williams, or Beckett would be hard to dispute. But if that were the beginning and end of her thesis, she would hardly dare trouble us with it. No: each example is clearly meant to represent something a little more general; therefore the form in question must, in each case, be more general too.

But how general can it be? If the stage of Goethe is represented merely by the use of rhyme and meter, the stage of Rimbaud by the writing of prose poems, and so on, then the stages do not stay very neatly within the periods she wants to assign them. What she is really looking for, it seems, is something that has the specificity of a period style, without actually quite being one, for to say that any of these poets wrote in a period style is somehow grotesque. Some of them, notably Goethe and Williams, may have served as models for one, but that is another matter. Rimbaud’s prose poems certainly never did.

Perhaps we could put it like this: whatever is the common denominator between the specific forms used by each of these poets and those used by their contemporaries, then that gives the degree of specificity of the form representing each stage. But this rather begs the question, doesn’t it? The existence of such a common denominator is one of the things we might expect her to show; we can’t just assume it’s there, and if it is, it would be nice to have examples from at least a few more poets in each era. Only for the final, most recent stage does she cite a couple of other examples (Ashbery, Bernstein) in addition to her primary one (Beckett).

Really, to place on three out of four of her poets the entire burden of formally representing their eras does not seem very kind. There is something problematic anyway in the notion of a poet representing his or her times, and the better the poet, the more problematic it is. The best poets, we tend to think, are not representative, but exemplary.

And that, in fact, points to what we naturally ought to have realized all along: that each of these examples is meant to represent, not the standard, but the most advanced poetic forms of their times. But that hardly solves all our problems.

In the first place, if these four examples simply are the most advanced poetic forms of their times, then we have the same problem of specificity as before. We can’t generalize from them. If, on the other hand, each example merely “represents” the most advanced form, then we again have the problem of a common denominator, and in spades, because the best poets of any era are apt to be very unlike one another.

Secondly, if most advanced means something other than best, then we must ask what it is, how we identify it, and why we ought to care about it.

But does a historian of poetic form really have to justify trying to single out what is formally new in each era? Certainly not, provided she gives some idea of the variety of forms, both “radical” and “conservative,” newness is capable of taking. The problem comes from her fixation on “radical” forms, and again, her attempt to generalize, for most of her eras, from a single example.

Still, one must concede, I think, a certain elegance to her procedure, and here is where the other limb of it, the “it” that can’t be said “that way” any more, comes to her aid. Since people are impatient with absolutes, to imply that something is the best or most advanced invites the question: best in what way? Most advanced in terms of what? And her answer is ready: in the way each of these forms is able to deal with a typical experience: “a moment of silent contemplation when all the elements of the scene stand out in sudden sharp relief.”

Not that she doesn’t face some of the same problem of specificity or generality in regard to her experience that she does in regard to her forms. For the formulation is a bit broad. It would readily include much that she would probably wish to leave out - Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example - and yet it can’t be made much more specific without dissolving the thread that connects her chosen texts, all of them very different from one another. As it is, that “sudden sharp relief” is more apt for some of them than for others. She can really only appeal here to our own perception of a common thread.

What her own discussion of the examples makes clear - and this is why she would probably exclude Frost’s poem, as well as, no doubt, the one by Wilbur quoted earlier - is that what she sees in each of them is a uniquely contemporary version of the experience. In Goethe’s lyric we have the sort of forest scene that the Romantics loved, and yet we can feel a certain tension in the background, which she connects with Goethe’s rather harried life in the squalid provincial town nearby. Rimbaud’s prose poem shows us an unnamed but recognizably nineteenth century cityscape, a phantasmagoria of bridges and masts, whose lack of coherence suggests a new kind of alienation. William’s crisp lines give us an edgy, gas-lit interior, a quasi-photographic still-life of an urban kitchen early in this century. And Beckett’s ruminating text offers, with typical late twentieth century ambivalence, the image of a stark, genderless figure at a darkening window, a figure who may or may not be the speaker.

All this is quite suggestive, even compelling in a way. To condense a maximum of contemporary life, whether by way of sight, sound, and object, or sensibility, outlook, and thought, into a scene in which nothing, by definition, can really happen - surely a better test of a form’s power could hardly be devised? In each case Perloff does an admirable job of sketching in the contemporary background, and of showing the formal devices by which condensation is achieved. And one might well agree, after such a demonstration, that neither Frost’s snowy woods nor Wilbur’s Stygean baggage-truck quite meet the mark of contemporaneity.

Still, doubts do arise. For one thing - and she would surely agree with us here - the belief that poetry must reflect or express contemporary life, to the extent that it admits no other opinions on the matter, is pure ideology. True, it is partly a reaction - one that has been in progress for several hundred years now - to the “classical” dogma that poetry is or ought to be timeless. Partly, but not entirely. Classical poetry itself cannot be said to have perpetrated such a belief; many older poets simply did not have our sense of a radical difference between the present and the past. The “classical” and “modern” dogmas were really born at the same time, having in fact created each other.

It is significant, though hardly surprising, that of Perloff’s four poets only the first, Goethe, is commonly regarded as belonging to the “classical” camp - classical, that is, as opposed to modern, for he of course belongs to the “romantic” era as well. One suspects that she would have arranged things in this way regardless of where she had begun her sequence, and that had she begun it a century or two earlier, she would have placed another “classical” poet at the beginning, and chosen someone more “radical” - Blake or Wordsworth perhaps - to represent the romantic era. For part of what she wants to convey is that the “classical” stage, however much we admire it, is one to be gotten over as quickly as possible, and that henceforth poetic progress depends on breaking all the rules. To have a “classical” poet like Goethe pop up in the middle of the sequence wouldn’t do at all.

It is notable, too, that her attempt to connect Goethe’s lyric to its contemporary background is a bit strained in comparison to her other examples. Not that all the details of Goethe’s social milieu, personal life, and philosophy that she fills in aren’t in themselves fascinating. But to claim that we can see or hear or sense any of this in the two-dozen words of Goethe’s lyric, without her standing over our shoulder to remind us of it, is pretty bold. True, what we hear is more than a simple folk song. It is, very much as Goethe must have intended, a sort of apotheosis of the folk song, inseparable now in the minds of many from the apotheosis of a folk tune Schubert composed for it, though musically Goethe himself was too much of a fuddy-duddy to appreciate this. Whatever bits of contemporary life are condensed into his song, they have achieved such fusion that their features are no longer distinguishable, giving them the “timelessness” that Goethe must surely have deliberately sought.

And so ideology again rears its ugly head. But not necessarily. That ideologues of the classical are apt to have a taste for old forms and the way they were once used, and ideologues of the modern for “new” or “radical” ones, is hardly surprising. But ideology and taste, as we have been somewhat embarrassingly forced to emphasize, are nevertheless not the same thing. It is unfortunately quite possible for people to advocate things they have no real taste for (like a certain kind of old-fashioned, dry-as-dust schoolmaster, nowadays rare, or the more recent variety who used to try to impress their students with how “hip” they were) just as it is possible to have a taste for things, whether new, old, or unclassifiable, without requiring that the rest of the world necessarily share it or approve it. And though poets may or may not be advocates for their own tastes, it seems sure as anything can be in this realm that whatever forms they choose to use in their poetry, their taste for them had better be genuine.

And so it ought to surprise no one that Frost, for instance, for all his bumpkin image, was actually a far more avid and knowledgeable classical scholar than either Eliot or Pound. If one has really read his poetry, one will have suspected as much. More surprising, perhaps, is Beckett’s love for authors such as Racine and John Millington Synge, authors who seem about as remote from his own supposedly “postmodern” sensibility as can readily be imagined. And yet to those who know the plays of all three, with their supremely concentrated actions (or inactions) and settings that, despite chariots, shebeens and tape recorders, seem strangely out of time, it’s perhaps not so very surprising either.

Perloff is not unaware of Beckett’s “classical” leanings, at least to the extent that she does see a certain affinity between his text, which ends her sequence, and the Goethe lyric with which it began. But it is of course merely good story-telling to have your end echo your beginning. Provided we have avoided any unwanted bumps in the middle, it lets us look back and see how far we have really come.

How far, indeed, have we come?


There are doubtless those who will feel by now that I have been willfully misunderstanding everything that Perloff is saying, out of my own distaste for putting things in certain terms. Would it help, then, if when we hear that the form of a poem reflects an ideology, we substituted “outlook” for “ideology”?

Well, it might. And then again it might not. I doubt that Perloff, in any case, would accept the substitution. The connotations of rigidity, exclusivity, and historical compulsion that are so ingrained in the one word, and so absent from the other, are far too essential to her argument. It is easy to think of outlooks as ranging over a continuum, with one fading insensibly into another, but an ideology is an all-or-nothing affair. To impose the laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle on real life (where Hegel himself had said they don’t apply) is what any ideology worthy of the name will try to do.

In poststructuralism ideologies are neither materializations of the spirit, as in Hegel, nor idealizations of a material process, as in Marx, but hierarchies of signifiers, which are themselves arbitrary, conventional, and meaningful only by opposition to other signifiers. Since there is no longer any spiritual or material “engine” driving things, there is no inevitable development, but the oppositions are as rigid as before, so any development that does occur can still only do so by overthrowing or “inverting” an existing hierarchy. In its cruder expressions, this view results in the fashionable sorts of race-, class- and gender-based revaluations of literature, from which Perloff is careful to distance herself. For her, the hierarchies to be inverted are formal rather than political or social, though the use of the word “ideology” for all of these tends to suggest that, notwithstanding the frequent lack of observable correspondence, they really are somehow all of a piece.

Now, even if Perloff were to agree to say that the form of a poem merely reflects an outlook rather than an ideology, I think this could be held to be true only in a very rough sense. There may indeed be an historical association, and once a form came to be associated with an outlook, there would be no reason for them not to stay together, for as long as they continued to agree. But such associations, being marriages of habit, are not always stable. As we have just seen, an outlook that is at least partly “classical,” that sees little essential difference between the past and the present, can be married, as in Beckett, to a form that is not traditional. Conversely, an outlook that sees the present as utterly and irretrievably sundered from the past, as in early Eliot, can go with forms that are still fairly “conservative.”

It seems, then, to come down to this: are there any associations between form and outlook that are based on something stronger than habit, convention or chance? And here Perloff faces a real dilemma, if she wishes to push her thesis forward. For the whole burden of contemporary theory, and of every conventionalist philosophy, is that no such affinity can exist. Between form and outlook, idea and matter, the word and its meaning, there are no bonds of love. That Perloff - like virtually everyone else who has ever considered the matter - nevertheless seems to glimpse a few, is very interesting indeed.

But as always, in talking about forms, we need to say how specific or general a form we have in mind. At the limit of specificity, of course, we are simply talking about the poem itself. If we say that the poem expresses a specific outlook, and that we are able to understand fully what this is, and distinguish it from other outlooks, only by reading the poem, then it seems clear that virtually no detail of the form, which is in this case a particular arrangement of words in the language, can be changed without changing what is expressed. At this level, then, the marriage seems to be very exact.

The question, then, is how can a mere combination of general forms - words, rhymes, grammar, syntax - convey something so specific when none of them taken singly refers to anything in particular? It is a question that some twenty-five hundred years of philosophy, and a hundred more of linguistics, have not yet answered. But I think it may be fairly said that some of the most common answers have been found wanting, and that among these, the doctrine that all elements of meaning are purely conventional is one.

Now, the more philosophically astute poststructuralists have not been unaware of this, and their response has been varied. Mostly it has been to say, in one way or another, that if conventions do not quite add up to meaning, then too bad for meaning. Perloff cannot quite go this route, though her constant reference to “ideology” naturally reflects a desire to obediently substitute, wherever possible, pure convention for meaning. But she is no dry abstract theorist; she is an enthusiastic advocate and historian of particular moments - intensely meaningful to her - in poetry. When the problem becomes acute, she takes refuge in something like the following:

From the standpoint of poststructuralist theory, poetry is no longer any one thing (the lyric, the language of tropes, metered language, and so on) but rather that species of writing that foregrounds upon the materiality of the signifier, the coincidence between enunciation and enounced.

Let it be said, in her defense, that she rarely subjects us to this kind of thing. But at this precise juncture, as she prepares her final stage, she is trying to explain why it is that a “contemporary” outlook cannot express itself through any of the inherited forms of poetry. She seems to want to say that the poet must grope towards the appropriate form by sheer feeling for the materiality of language, what Stevens calls its “flawed words and stubborn sounds.” But to say so plainly would sound theoretically naive, and might involve her in some sort of “imitative fallacy.” As it is, she comes perilously close to this a bit further on, in discussing Ashbery:

To articulate a line like “All that we sée is pénetráted by ít,” with its clumsy shift, in the sixth syllable from iamb to trochee and then back again, is to imply that a larger harmony is no longer a meaningful possibility.

There are a couple of different ways we could interpret this. We could say that the outlook she attributes to Ashbery is expressed by his deviation from a traditional metric pattern, which itself expresses the opposite outlook, namely that a larger harmony is a meaningful possibility. But this is a view of poetic rhythm that she has explicitly rejected elsewhere, being essentially the one put forward by Eliot and lately developed further by Annie Finch. Its weakness, from her point of view, is that it makes the new form dependent on the old. But the only alternative seems to be that Ashbery’s rhythm somehow directly expresses his outlook by a sort of inner affinity or resemblance, which is of course a theoretical no-no. That she goes ahead and implies this is to her credit, but not really surprising. It is quite customary, after all, to drop one’s theoretical guard when discussing details of individual works, since everyone knows that otherwise nothing interesting could get said about them.

The mimetic theory of meaning is not without its problems too, and the ancient philosophers who favored it were already aware of most of them. And yet, like the conventionalist theory - which is, of course, equally old - it will never quite go away. It has long seemed evident to the philosophically minded that an adequate theory will have to take some account of both mimesis and convention, without necessarily trying to reduce one to the other. While I am hardly prepared to offer yet another General Theory of Meaning, in regard to poetry I am willing to venture at least a sketch of what I think a true theory might look like.

In certain kinds of drawing, notably the classical Japanese variety, it is usual to do everything with a certain limited “vocabulary” of conventional elements. A wedge-shaped brush stroke, for instance, might be used to represent almost anything - branches on a pine tree, a rice field, or the waves of the sea. Its ability to do this naturally subtracts, to a certain extent, from its ability to accurately represent any single one of these things. But the artist is able to make up for this by the way he or she combines the elements. If wedge-shaped strokes, all pointed upward, are combined into a larger upward-pointing wedge, we may recognize a pine tree. If the wedges are spread over a uniform field, we may recognize a rice field when they point downward, or when they point upward, the sea.

Now, we might see in this a very rough analogy to the vocabulary and the larger elements - grammar, syntax, prosody - of a language. The words are like conventional brush strokes, and they are combined into shapes that are themselves conventionalized. But in both drawing and poetry - and language in general - all this is used to create something that is not conventional, which we may call a meaning, a feeling, an outlook, as the case may be. The important thing is that it is unique, and that it corresponds to some reality. But though it is not itself conventional, we can see that at every level convention can - and to a large extent must - be used to arrive at it. Whatever this overall thing is - the Japanese doubtless have a name for it - depends for its reality on a certain uniformity and predictability in its elements, just as all the varied and characteristic moods of the sea depend on the uniformity of water molecules and the physical laws that govern them.

Now, when we say “characteristic” it might suggest that these things are somehow conventional after all. But all it need mean is that though they are unique in the sense of being recognizable, they are general in the sense that they can be conveyed from one mind or perception to another. There are doubtless many things that cannot be so conveyed, but it seems clear that the things art, poetry, and language convey must in this sense be general.

There are of course many objections, both traditional and possible, to such a view. The most common, perhaps, being that the words of a language, apart from the exceptional case of onomatopoeia, have no resemblance at all to the things they represent. But language deals with more than just visible or even sensible things; it can’t tie itself to the representations of just one sense in the way that drawing does. So whatever words might directly represent by their sounds, this must be something far more general even than what conventional brush strokes represent. And those, as we have seen, are already abstract enough so that they need to be combined together in order to represent anything definite at all.

Think of the following series of words: spit, spite, despicable, spendthrift, spoil, spook, spot. Then think of another series: span, spy, speak, spin, spot. The first conveys a certain aversive quality in each of the things represented. In the second series, nothing of the sort is heard. The “sp” sound has become entirely conventional, whereas in the first series, though it was conventional there as well, it was felt to somehow directly represent the feeling of aversion. The two series, though, are not absolutely distinct. One word is common to both. If we hear “spot” in a context that implies aversion, we will hear the “sp” sound as helping to imply this meaning; otherwise we will not. Just as, if we see a downward-pointing wedge in a context that implies a rice plant, we will see it as such, but otherwise not. So it seems that there need only be a very slight tendency, within a language’s mostly conventional phonology and lexicon, for certain sounds to represent certain qualities or feelings more than others, in order for speakers - or poets - to be able to make use of this to convey their meaning. Unless we want to categorically say that neither speakers nor poets ever do or can make use of such things, and that all mimetic effects of this kind are purely illusory.

But grammar and syntax have their own mimetic capabilities, which are on the whole much greater, as both Peirce and Jakobson pointed out, than what we find in the vocabulary. For these commonly represent relations rather than qualities, and relations can be much more directly represented. The man hit the boy. The boy hit him back. English grammar requires that the order of elements mimic the temporal order in which they are perceived. Latin grammar, on the other hand, doesn’t require this for subjects and objects, though it does in other situations.

If we consider all the different levels that make up a language - phonology, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhetoric, prosody - and think of mimesis on each level as not merely adding to but multiplying the levels below it - in the way that the large wedge of the drawing multiplies the small ones to make a pine tree - then we can see that even if each level taken singly appears mostly conventional, and only very slightly mimetic, the representative power of any real utterance could easily approach a hundred percent. And in the case of poetry, perhaps more. The mathematics are admittedly fanciful, but the idea is, I trust, clear.

As for the philosophical implications of such a “realist” view, Peirce discussed most of them a century ago. Two of the more important for our purposes being: that it makes sense to speak of general qualities, and that all meaning is more or less general. But let’s go back to where we left Perloff, on the horns of her dilemma between a purely conventional and a mimetic view of poetic rhythm. The first must be correct according to her general theoretical - what we would not be wrong in calling “ideological” - standpoint. And yet it does not satisfy her. It can hardly satisfy anyone, indeed, who has the slightest feeling for rhythm. On the other hand, to say that the rhythm of the Ashbery line directly mimics the outlook that “a larger harmony is no longer a meaningful possibility” involves her in a number of other woes, the least of which, perhaps, is that this formulation of the poet’s outlook would likely seem a little too “ideological” to the poet himself. The main problem is that she cannot account for the ability of a rhythm to mimic anything, let alone something so specific as an outlook. If all other elements of Ashbery’s language are purely conventional - a mere series of “differences” as her theory tells her - and only its overall effect - what we might call, in the broadest sense, its rhythm - is unconventional, then how does this rhythm appear? As some sort of mysterious aura surrounding the dead poles of the signifiers?

Among the more prominent failings of structuralist linguistics, indeed, was its inability to properly deal with matters of rhythm and prosody. And poststructuralist literary theory, with its bizarre insistence on the primacy of “writing,” simply carries this to the point of bafflement.

But if we think again of our Japanese drawing, we may see how the difficulty is largely owing to the insistence on absolute conventionality for all the signifiers. Suppose the artist’s teacher insisted that he or she make all the wedges absolutely the same? Naturally, to make them all very much alike is simply a part of the style, what we properly call its conventions. But would such a teacher then be justified in complaining when the pupil’s drawings lacked a certain fluidity and grace, and when it was sometimes difficult to tell what they were supposed to represent at all?

So the poststructuralists are quite right in saying that language is not transparent, only - myopic beings that they are - they think that this means it must be utterly opaque. But as poets have always known, language is neither transparent nor opaque, but translucent. It colors the things it represents, surely, but it needn’t - like bad painters and theorists - color them badly.


Goethe’s central conviction that the landscape is man’s natural habitat, his sense of himself as at once unique and yet representative, his view of poetry as the fruit of a particular experience, an experience to be “objectified” and universalized by purging it of the merely personal and by recreating it in accord with fixed metrical laws - all these come together to create a text that calls attention to itself as a “poem,” specifically a “song,” by foregrounding sound repetition and stanzaic structure.

Does not Goethe’s philosophy, in Perloff’s representation of it here, sound rather like some of the things we were just saying? And yet her own ideology subtly - and not so subtly - colors the description, especially towards the end. For all these aspects are presented as tenets of a credo, with the implication that their opposites, in each case, were utterly denied by him. Does she really think Goethe the poet would have insisted that man is perfectly at home in this world, that there were no parts of himself that felt utterly alien to the rest of creation, that good poetry never springs from a general sense of things rather than from a particular “experience” in the limited sense, or that, finally, nothing personal, nothing irregular or unconventional, could exist in the poet’s final “product”? I doubt that even the driest Goethe scholar would say so.

Now, in regard to her central thesis concerning poetic form, all this has a purpose. She is going to show, in particular, that this imagined credo of Goethe’s - which is really her own ideologizing of his outlook - was typical of the age in which he lived, that this is why that age favored traditional metrical verse, and that the progressive breakdown of that outlook was directly correlated with the progressive abandonment of regular, traditional form throughout her four stages.

It seems like a bold thesis, and yet - does it not sound rather wearyingly familiar as well? At any rate, there are two poles to the argument; one concerns a certain view of poetry, the other a certain view of the self. Let’s deal with them briefly in that order.

We notice, in the above quotation, that the poem is characterized in terms of something “objective” that “calls attention” to itself. This is a sense of the poem that will be gradually eroded in subsequent stages. Rimbaud gives up the “foregrounding” of sound repetition and stanzaic structure in his prose poem, but in his adherence to balanced syntactical structures, retains the view of the poem as a self-conscious artifact. Williams breaks these structures up and focuses on the detailed views that each line affords; the poem is no longer a harmonious artifact, but a “machine made of words,” something like a camera. Beckett then abandons even this more fragmented “artificial” view, arriving finally at a purely associative rhythm, the “rhythm of speech,” in which there is, however, no definite speaker.

Well, this is interesting, but something’s rather askew. First, the dogma of the poem as an “object,” to the extent that it existed at all, might be taken to have been at its height during the Symbolist era, that is, in Rimbaud’s stage, or even slightly later. Second, though it is certainly true that Beckett, being a man of the theatre as well as a poet, was always much concerned with the rhythms of speech, the “contemporary” view of poetry in her own profession, and in perhaps at least one of the other poets she associates with her final stage, is that it is really always (always already) merely a piece of writing, which is of course the ultimate artifact. Does she think, then, that Goethe was not, like any good poet, concerned with the rhythm of speech? Did he not, despite his lack of appreciation for Schubert’s setting, think of his own “song” as a song? Does she imagine that people both speak and sing it to this day merely out of appreciation for its “objective” qualities, and not because for anyone whose native tongue is German, and many others besides, there is a real, almost physical pleasure in doing it?

The way she speaks of “foregrounding” is symptomatic. The use of a two-dimensional, visual image in discussing, of all things, the sound of a poem, substituting a spatial scheme for what is perceived in time, also carries a familiar “structuralist” implication: that this is merely one of a series of “differences” that may be reversed at will. In the next era, what had been in the background will come to the fore, and vice versa. And as usual in this kind of either-or scheme, any middle ground will cease to exist.

Is it not almost a classic case of projection, or compensation, or something or other? For two hundred years, literary theory has steadily, relentlessly eroded the idea of poetry as springing from ordinary speech, an idea that was still very strong in all the German theorists of Goethe’s time, as it was in Goethe himself, and replaced it, first with the idea that poetry was the product of a special sensibility, then that it was an object to be contemplated, and finally that it was nothing but pure, unadulterated text. And now that same theory - or one quirky representative of it - asserts that, in the most “advanced” poetry of that same two hundred years, something like the opposite has happened. But let’s leave this now and go to the other pole, the pole of the “self”:

In Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied,” we find an “I” aware of itself and of its feelings, a coherent “I” in control of the situation. When the poet declares “Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,” the reader accepts the statement as valid, given the particular context of the speech. In Rimbaud’s “Les Ponts,” the relationship between the “I” and the “other” becomes more problematic: it is not clear, say, whether the minor chords that crisscross and flow away are outside the self or are part of its mental landscape. This disappearance of the distinction between subject and object is equally marked in Williams’s “Good night,” in whose field of copresence the “I” and the sprig of parsley in the glass become one. But in Beckett’s “Still,” the question of copresence gives way to a doubt as to the very existence of a unitary represented speaker. The inflections of the speaking voice, coming to us in short repetitive phrases, each permutating what has come before, give us no hint as to a controlling presence.

Again, there’s something very strange going on. We may note, just for starters, that in Goethe’s lyric, where Perloff finds the “coherent ‘I’ in control of the situation,” that particular pronoun does not happen to occur, whereas in the Williams, where the “disappearance of the distinction between subject and object” is supposedly “marked,” the pronoun “I” occurs twice in fifteen lines. But perhaps we are judging too superficially. It may be that, since Absence really implies Presence, the suppressed “I” is actually stronger in the song, just as, in a man’s briefcase, the presence of phallocentrism could be deduced, or deconstructed, from an absence of cigars.

Still, is there not something of that “doubt as to the very existence of a unitary represented speaker” in Beckett, as well as perhaps in Ashbery and Bernstein, that she talks about? There may well be. But is that really quite unprecedented in the poetry of the West, or of the world? Is it not something like what all those old mystics and visionaries were always saying? Is there not something of that very doubt in the voice of any real song?

In a way, of course, that is what Perloff wants to say. The mystical tradition is indeed so strong in poetry that virtually everyone, whatever their ideology, is “ventriloquized” by it at one time or another. But there is also another desire at work in Perloff, as it has always been in American culture generally: the historicist desire to see a steady progress from rigid conservatism to total freedom. The product of these two desires could not help but be strange.

Perloff has trouble with other pronouns as well. I wonder how much Ashbery would appreciate her taking “you can’t say it that way anymore” as a sort of authoritarian pronouncement, rather than as something addressed, like all poetry, to those - or that person in oneself - in whom it strikes a chord.

And now, in parting, we will note just one more thing: the reason why she represents her three historical stages by only one poet each, but represents her final stage by two more poets in addition to her main one. What we have in her final stage, of course, is what she hopes will be the beginnings of a school. The ingredients have already been isolated, and like the ingredients for any period style, they are framed largely in terms of prohibitions: no rhyme or meter, no balanced syntactical structures, no organization by lines, no coherent sense of self. And I think we might safely surmise that if in a hundred years the literary histories speak of a period style whose models were Beckett, Ashbery, and Bernstein, the name of a certain critic will come up there as well.

Critics and enthusiasts have always been tempted to hitch their wagons to this or that star of a poet or movement, convinced that the future will belong to their protégés. Their weakness for formulas naturally convinces them that once they have found the latest one, it has to be a sure-fire thing. And so they go their smug and merry way, unaware that before long they may well be - like Russell’s mythical Hegel - blindsided by a planet.

As for the historical eras she deals with so cavalierly, my own outlook, as I have given it here, entails the possibility that there may indeed be something like the poetic essence of an era. But all that need be said about it is what Perloff would doubtless tell you herself in her better moments: that if you want to get at it, read the poets, all of them, and that were she to try to give it to you herself, all she would end up doing, or trying to do, would be to bottle it into a formula.


The story Perloff tells with her poetic stages is not so very different from the kind of story people are always telling themselves or each other, a sort of personal mythical genealogy, a series of begats in which one’s own - or one’s generation’s or movement’s - poetic or spiritual birth figures as the final term. Like any story, it has to be judged, not so much by its logic as by its suggestiveness and, well, beauty.

The problem, indeed, comes with the attempt to make such stories “objective” and “logical” rather than personal, which is a pretty good definition of historicism, whether of the Hegelian or post-Hegelian variety, or as it appears in the great theologies and eschatologies, or in the manifestoes of the latest artistic movement, or the latest doctoral dissertation in Postmodern Literature. I think History has shown (to enter into the mode for a moment) that the more “objective” these stories are made to appear, the uglier they tend to become. Once we set up our own taste, heroes, or experience, not merely as an example to others, but as law, the game is up. For what happens then is not only that we willingly slight others, but that, having committed ourselves to a taste we might at some point no longer even have, we grow cynical ourselves.

Perloff is a rarity among academic critics of poetry in that the stories she tells about the recent literary past are not devoid of charm, and can even be illuminating. There is, however, a faint tone of exhortation that often creeps into them, which is a little more problematic. Sometimes it is the product of a forgivable or even endearing enthusiasm, the sort of thing that we expect of any good teacher. No one could accuse her of having no taste for the things she advocates. At other times, though, another voice can be heard: the wooden, insistent, jargon-ridden, dying voice of Contemporary Theory, saying not this is what I find exciting, or this is an interesting way of looking at things, but this is the way things are.

That last epithet, I am afraid, is a bit hopeful on my part. The beast is far from dead yet. I only wish, for the sake of those tender brains it continues to devour, and everyone interested in the art of criticism, that mature scholars like Perloff, when they feel a need of some theory in their work, would at least try to clear their throats a bit, and talk like men and women.

As for the poetic future of our planet, the glimpse of it that Perloff’s stages seem to afford will entice some, but insofar as it gives a definite form to that future, it is of course no more than a fantasy. Just as I, with my own predilections, have sometimes had fantasies of a coming “classical” age. But we ought to know by now that the future, though it will probably meet some of our desires, will never meet our fantasies. When I consider things soberly, I see no reason to doubt that many poets will continue to have a taste for old forms, and a few will use them well. Just as many will have a taste for new ones, and some will use those well. What the poet must try to catch is not the tide of History, but the rivulet of a true taste. As a certain hero says, in his quaintly archaic way:

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.


[Perloff’s essay, ” Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms: ‘Metrical Choice’ and Historical Formation,” here in digital format, appears in Poetry On and Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions ]