Douglas Barbour reads Marjorie Perloff's Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy as a notable addition to her oeuvre, another grab-bag of pertinent, impertinent, and always provocative readings of both a wide range of works and some of the social/cultural contexts in which we read them.
I've been reading Marjorie Perloff's criticism, and putting it to use in my own, for many years now. She remains one of the few critics not also a poet who demonstrates a consistent understanding of the new, innovative, avant-garde (or choose your term) poetries while working from a historically solid understanding of 20th century literature, indeed the whole modernist 'heave' as Pound might have put it. Differentials, her new collection of essays, adds some new names and works, returns to others, and, despite containing essays written for a wide variety of occasions, seeks to make some specific arguments concerning the three terms of her subtitle, "Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy." Indeed, it is the latter term and its implications that hovers over all the readings and arguments of the various essays in this stimulating and provocative book.
In her Introduction, Perloff begins with what might seem like a backward turn, to "Reading Closely," not quite the old New Criticism manner of "close reading," but a kind of explication de texte that recognizes context, rhythm, tone, and any number of other things pertinent to a full recognition of the artifact before one. The many missteps the members of a graduate class make in trying to understand William Carlos Williams' "The Young Housewife," a poem many readers would, I think, find light, witty, and deeply implicated in the moment of its production, lead her to this re-turn. The ways her students missed the point of the poem, how it works its slight magic, allow her to think about how their training today, so full of theories but lacking in close encounters with poetry, leaves them unable to read such a work closely. As she points out,
close reading was hardly ever confined to the New Critics or to Formalists of various stripes. There have been stunning Marxist close readings... And the best close readings we have of Williams are probably those of Hugh Kenner, who understood that poetry was not the equivalent of metaphor or a "key design" waiting to be unpacked. Indeed, in his readings of Joyce and Beckett, Pound and Williams, Kenner relied just as heavily on biographical and cultural information as he did on rhetorical analysis. You could not, for example, understand the minimalist lyric "As the cat," he noted, unless you knew what a "jamcloset" was.
Formalist reading, we are regularly told, goes hand in hand with the premise that the poem is an autonomous artifact. But the privileging of the poetic function never meant that knowledge - of the poet's life, milieu, culture, and especially his or her other poems - is not relevant. (xiii)
She has much more to say about the kind of "Reading Closely" she wants to practice in the essays that follow (and, I would argue, that she has always practiced in her criticism), and she then offers a nifty demonstration on "an early (1968), little-known Raworth poem called "These Are Not Catastrophes I Went out of my Way to Look for" (xx). It's an odd, comic little piece, typical of much of Tom Raworth's work, and her exploration of how it achieves its effect (and affect) is typically shrewd as it sets this "domestic poem" (xxi) against both the poetry "of Raworth's closest poet-friend, the American Ed Dorn [and] the 'domestic' lyric of his British contemporaries" (xxi). She specifically relates it to Philip Larkin's "Home Is So Sad," the very title of which gives its conventionally lyrical game away. Perloff's reading takes account of all the details, especially how "every word and morpheme... is carefully chosen" (xxii), how internal rhyme and alliteration give the poem its characteristic movement. Her reading of this one poem leads to some comments on Raworth's later poetry and how it works. The whole small commentary sets the stage for the kind of readings she will perform, sometimes on individual works, sometimes on whole books, sometimes on a writer's oeuvre, in the essays that follow. One of those essays will in fact take up a sequence by Raworth, a poet whose work, after more than 40 years of writing and publication and a huge Collected Poems in 2003, is still far too little known.
Before she gets to individual works, however, Perloff takes up the question of the day in "Crisis in the Humanities?" In a typically witty move, she begins this essay by pointing to a new yet common genre, "the epitaph for the humanities" (1). As she points out, most examples of this genre, and especially of that other appalling genre, "the mission statement" (2), are at best "blandly patronizing" (3), at worst almost meaningless jabber. She begins to wonder if it's the way the so-called "humanities" (a term, "incidentally, of surprisingly recent vintage" ) represent themselves that is the problem, and that if all the humanities do is "'expose' students to the 'ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions of the human experience," then, of course, such exposure might be "nice enough - but also perfectly dispensable when leadership and expertise are at stake" (4). Her bewilderment at how "we [got] into this bind" (5), leads her to "take a look at what traditionally has been one of the central branches of the humanities: the study of literature or, as I prefer to call it, poetics" (5). This choice of term sends her back to Plato and Aristotle, and all the way up to contemporary theories (and philosophies) of poetry and poetics. She understands the value as well as the temptation of Theory, but she is wary: "the equation of poetry and philosophy tends to shortchange the former: when a given artwork is seen to exemplify or illustrate, say, Adorno's aesthetic theory or Althusser's theory of interpellation, its heterogeneity is ignored, the pedagogical aim being one of exemplification rather than respect for the poem's own ontology" (7). She also recognizes the concept of criticism as "no more than a second-order discourse, a repetition, in diluted form, of what a given poem or artwork 'says'" (8), but wants to underline the idea that "poetry as an art also implies that it is a form of discourse that is inherently other" and to suggest that an approach like that of the "Russian Formalists, whose object was to define poeticity" (8) can be powerfully useful. She also notes the approach that insists on taking account of poetry as "cultural production" (9), and then suggests that the first three ways of seeing poetry, as rhetoric, as philosophy, and as an art,
inevitably incorporate the fourth into the discipline, in that they examine the history and cultural position of different poetic, rhetorical, philosophical, and generic forms as well as the history and culture of their philosophical reception. But history of is very different from the transposition that views literature itself as history - the position of contemporary cultural studies, which is committed to the demolition of such "obsolete" categories as poetic autonomy, poetic truth, and formal and rhetorical value. (9)
Whether or not one agrees with Perloff's representation of cultural studies, her arguments for treating poetry (in the largest sense of the term) as itself worthy of close study on its own terms, of practicing what she calls poetics, are interesting and valuable. By pointing to examples of the kind of criticism she admires (some of the early studies of Ulysses, The Pound Era, for example), and also to the loss of interest among students (something I have also noticed) in English and other language departments which have "found themselves in the odd position of teaching anything but literature" (13), she sets the stage for her discovery of other sites of the old ways, so to speak, the most fascinating of which are the many websites devoted to older and more contemporary authors. One of the sites she finds most interesting in the context of the "crisis in the humanities" is Kenneth Goldsmith's UbuWeb, designed, she suggests, "to please the eye as well as to provide information"; indeed, it "is a work of art in itself" (14). As she points out, "Goldsmith is not himself an academic, and he does not apply for funding from the NEA or NEH, so he need not compromise his values. Yet, within a five-year period or so, he has made UbuWeb an indispensable site for artists, poets, art historians, and literary scholars" (14). Furthermore, sites such as UbuWeb are attracting a new generation of students who are actually taking up large questions of poetics in their engagement with the works, and their makers, appearing and discussed at such sites, for this audience is mainly interested in how these works function and what they can learn from them: "In the context of actual art making, the relationship between poetry and its audience (the rhetorical) and the examination of the poem as formal, material construct will once again predominate" (14). Which is to ask, given this new form of encountering art, "is the crisis perhaps more apparent than real?" To which she answers, "Yes and no," because "[w]ithin the academy it is real enough," but she suggests that this fact is because of curriculum changes that have, indeed, brought "other" literatures (or writing) into the classroom but not always with "clear-cut notions of why it is worthwhile to read literary texts, whether by established or marginalized writers, in the first place" (15). As she then takes up the encroachments of "Theory" into literature classes it might seem that she is simply falling into a classic "conservative" attack on "Theory." Such is not the case, for she has always read and utilized theory in her own criticism, but as supplement to the kinds of readings that bring the writing in question more fully into focus for her readers. Thus the pleasure of both her texts and those she engages. And she ends this introductory essay by addressing what she sees as "the contemporary fear of the pleasures of representation and recognition," which has, she feels, "trivialized the status of literary study in the contemporary academy and shrunk the corresponding departments" (18). The pessimism attached to this defeat she finds summed up in a recent essay by George Steiner, which, again, "never refers to a single work of art written since World War II: Adorno's adage that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz seems to be taken as a given" (18). But not by Perloff, as both her citation of Frank O'Hara's "Lana Turner has collapsed" as the final words of this essay and the various essays that follow, demonstrate.
Partly following hard on the arguments of her last book, 21st Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics, in which she re-discovered an "Avant-Garde Eliot" before turning to other early 20th century artists such as Stein, Duchamp, and Khlebnikov, to whom many contemporary readers would be willing to apply that designation, and then looking at how "modernism" is still active at the millennium, the essays in Differentials begin by re-reading one of Eliot's more controversial poems, "Gerontian," then turn to nominalist aspects of Pound and Duchamp. Wittgenstein on translation leads to Eugene Jolas' multilingual poetics, and finally to silence as statement in Beckett's radio plays. It's almost halfway through the book before she turns to contemporary writing, and when she does she takes up a most troubling question, indeed.
While Perloff has long been a champion of Language Poetry against Official Verse Culture (or what Ron Silliman has more recently taken to calling "The School of Quietude"), she still has some questions, which the very title of the next essay raises: "Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject." In it she takes up two places she feels are, in a highly specific way, "voiced" by their writers: "Ron Silliman's Albany, Susan Howe's Buffalo" (129). The essay is a prime example of Perloff's subtle arguments and her close readings of particular texts, and (perhaps as I have never been a true believer in all of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E's theories) it convinces me. But even if a reader doesn't finally agree with its basic argument, thinking it through will certainly sharpen one's thinking on the matter. Taking up both Barthes' and Foucault's insistence on the death of the author alongside Bernstein's and other Language poets' dismissal of "voice," she suggests that after a couple of decades the "differences among the various [language or experimental] poets now strike us as more significant than similarities or group labels" (132). She goes further, however, and argues that what she calls "the breakdown of the high/low distinction, accepted as a cornerstone of postmodernism by the theorists of the seventies and eighties, is coming under increasing suspicion as common sense tells us that all artworks are not, after all, equally valuable (whatever 'valuable' means)" (133). What follows this declaration are some subtle distinctions of her own, but it is worth noting that these comments are somewhat slippery, and perhaps fail her own tests of careful historicizing. And the term "common sense" always raises questions for me. Nevertheless, she takes up a problem Silliman himself has recently addressed, which is that readers continue to pay attention to who wrote what, and also feel they can tell who is behind a text. It's all very well to be against what Silliman calls "'the poem as confession of lived personal experience, the (mostly) free verse presentation of sincerity and authenticity that for several decades has been a staple of most of the creative writings in the United States" (133), but he seems to have arrived at a position similar to hers when he also argues (or she does, utilizing his sentences) that there is a subject even in Language poetry:
"The relation between agency and identity," writes Silliman, "must be understood as interactive, fluid, negotiable" ("Who Speaks" 371). It is a "relation between the poet, a real person with 'history, biography, psychology,' and the reader, no less real, no less encumbered by all this baggage. In poetry, the self is a relation between writer and reader that is triggered by what [Roman] Jakobson called the contact, the power of presence" (373). (134).
Finding it interesting that Silliman now invokes the great Russian Formalist critic, she notes a similar shift in Charles Bernstein's criticism. When she finally turns to Silliman's "Albany" and Susan Howe's Frame Structures, her way of "Reading Closely" leads to an exploration of the individual subtleties of each text and how they do, in fact, display something of each author's particular subject-activity in the act/art of writing.
The next essay returns to larger concerns, dealing as it does with various kinds of women's writing since L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry's early and determined attacks on "Official Verse Culture." Beginning with her recognition that "[t]he lasting contribution of Language poetics... is that at a moment when workshop poetry all across the United States was wedded to a kind of neo-confessionalist, neo-realist poetic discourse, a discourse committed to drawing pretentious metaphors about faded relationships from hollandaise recipes, Language theory reminded us that poetry is a making [poien], a construction using language, rhythm, sound, and visual image; that the subject, far from being simply the poet speaking in his or her natural 'voice,' was itself a complex construction; and that - most important - there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems; and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse" 161). She reads aspects of a number of interesting poets, like Lyn Hejinian, but devotes most of the rest of the essay to Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge, both how it works, and how it worked for different reading publics. Her ability to bring those two aspects of such a text together under her form of "Reading Closely" is certainly what keeps me coming back to Perloff's criticism.
Essays on Haroldo de Campos's "Concrete Prose," Ronald Johnson's 'Verbivocovisuals," Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall's "Procedural Poetics," Tom Raworth's "Letters from Yaddo," and what she calls "The Case of Rae Armantrout," all demonstrate Perloff's ability to find and offer subtle commentary on specific realities in a vast and various group of writers and writings. The final essay, "Writing Poetry/Writing about Poetry: Some Problems of Affiliation," takes up the difficulty of being so involved with the poets she writes about while not being one of them, and feeling a necessity to remain a valid and contributing "academic." It's something of a reprise of her career, offering insights into how she moved from dealing with such "mainstream" poets as Yeats and then Lowell to O'Hara and then all the more innovative poets whose work she has explored since. Her affiliation remains doubled, and she convinces me that it must remain so if she is to do her job, or is it duty to the poems.
I own almost all of Perloff's books (not the ones on Yeats and Lowell), and I have returned to some of her essays over and over again. All her critical writing has offered me something useful, and some have been touchstones concerning modern and postmodern poetry. Differentials is a notable addition to her oeuvre, another grab-bag of pertinent, impertinent, and always provocative readings of both a wide range of works and some of the social/cultural contexts in which we all read them. Not all are equally persuasive, but there isn't one that doesn't offer something useful to the engaged reader. Long may she continue her encounters with the news that stays news.