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This item is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

ON APRIL FOOLS’ DAY – the first day of National Poetry Month in the United States – the poet Jeremy Sigler published an interview with his friend ‘the fearlessly outspoken critic and Stanford titan on the contemporary poetry canon, the complexities of O.J. Simpson, and the non-Zen of John Cage’, better known as Professor Marjorie Perloff. The interview appeared in Tablet Magazine: a new read on Jewish Life.

Perloff has contributed essays to PN Review: on Tom Raworth most recently, and before that in 2013 ‘Towards a Conceptual Lyric’ and, earlier, on ‘Anna Akhmatova in Translation’, on the Duncan/ Levertov correspondence. Her first contribution in 1981 was entitled ‘One of the Two Poetries’, a sustained response to British Poetry since 1970, a critical anthology I edited with Peter Jones. It was the beginning of an intermittent dialogue with Professor Perloff and other critics whose different points of view – because there is dialogue – illuminate the poetries they advocate and amend our own emphases, failures of contextual understanding and generosity. Her 1981 essay ends with praise for Christopher Middleton and ‘the sense that our differences are not, after all, irreconcilable’. Of PNR’s hospitality, she remarks, ‘Perhaps this is where Leavis’s call for a “humane social order” comes in.’

She was fifty when she first wrote for us. Now she is in her eighties. She claims that, ‘going back and rereading these old reviews after all these years’, reviews published between 1969 and 2017 that constitute her two-volume retrospective Circling the Canon, due out in the autumn, ‘I have to admit, I have hardly ever changed my mind’. What she has done is widened her circles and maintained a slant perspective on the scene and the canon. ‘A number of my harsh reviews were of fellow critics, for example, Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom,’ she admits. Her judgement has not changed, her understanding has. ‘It’s strange to read these reviews now, as I have come round to appreciating both of them much more. Both care so deeply about poetry, and this passion is ultimately what matters to me most.’

What she shies away from (and this makes her a distinctive voice at a time when gossip and appraisal often go hand in hand) is her distrust of biography. It can be

very misleading. Roland Barthes was right in the early ’60s to proclaim ‘the death of the author’. All he really meant was that one cannot regard the work as just the materialization of aspects of the author’s life, which was the standard academic mode of criticism in the various ‘Life & Letters’ series so common at the time. The work itself was seen as no more than an emanation of the life.

That prejudice insists that each genuine writer possesses, and must discover and develop, an individual ‘voice’, and the role of the critic, like that of a journalist, is to identify it. Yet how easily we are led astray by gossip and voice-hints. An example:

My dear friend and major William Carlos Williams scholar Emily Mitchell Wallace believes that the suggestion, made by the various biographers, that Williams had many extramarital affairs, simply isn’t true. She thinks the so-called evidence in the poems, which have such erotic moments, is largely a matter of fantasy.

It is refreshing when a critic restores the function of narrative to the work of art, and finds aesthetic rather than biographical reasons to validate a work. Perloff also knows that information and knowledge are not the same thing. We can recount the intimate and accidental facts of a writer’s life but know little of the content and meaning of those facts. The witnesses themselves are not to be trusted:

John Ashbery passed away recently and his biography is in the works. Karen Rothman, the author of Ashbery’s biography (first volume published, the second to come), was in town recently and interviewed me. […] I couldn’t help thinking that biographers must be careful not to trust interviews too much because, after all, we who are interviewed don’t quite tell the truth as we see it.

Perloff’s career began with Yeats, Lowell and then Frank O’Hara. She reviewed his Art Chronicles in the New Republic. A publisher invited her to write a book on O’Hara. ‘I didn’t want to write a biography because I am not really a biographer. My O’Hara book is a critical introduction.’ The publisher was disappointed with the first draft: ‘they wanted me to bring in more biography. But I was reluctant because O’Hara’s untimely death […] had been the subject of much romanticizing and lurid speculation and I didn’t want to get involved in all that.’ The book is personal in an unusual way, one which connects with the critic’s purpose:

While I believe in being scholarly, I can’t write the usual impersonal, even-handed academic text. I used to have colleagues […] who would never ask themselves if they liked the books they taught: They just taught them. I find that impossible. I only teach what I love. I’ve taught modern poetry, and can’t conceive of having to cover every ‘leading’ poet. I usually omit Robert Frost.

O’Hara opened into the avant-garde and Perloff has focused on writers who understand and then question convention. At a time when each new wave of prize­winning writers is enthusiastically applauded, her voice is perspectived and corrective. Her modernist avant­-garde, now behind us, continues to defy. Perloff’s interview begins, ‘it’s just not a great moment for poetry’. That’s not what the competition judges say, their enthusiasm delivered in sound bites.

‘I’m not eager to write poetry criticism right now,’ Perloff adds, ‘because the current scene strikes me as pretty unchallenging vis-à-vis, say, fiction or documentary.’ Poets who seemed likely to make a difference have been sucked into the ‘main stream’, or come to terms with it:

Charles [Bernstein] and I have wonderful debates about what’s happening in poetry. As a poet, he naturally wants to like a lot of work, but I find it difficult to agree. Look, when the language school of poetry started out, Charles was the radical, oppositional poet who brilliantly demolished ‘Official Verse Culture’, as he called it. But now, alas, much of what he previously condemned, like the ‘transit theory of poetry—from me to you’ has come back with a vengeance. Now the criterion for poetry is very romantic again, filled with the witnessing of personal pain and suffering, whether in relation to gender or race or disability, and so on.

It’s a felt judgement: ‘and so on’ only just contains her impatience. She will not conduct a discussion of poetry and poetic theory in the unstable zones of contemporary civic correctness where expression is inhibited by a focus on the unidentified ‘you’ in the transit theory: ‘your’ assumed susceptibilities determine ‘my’ language.

By contrast, in her recent book Edge of Irony (2018), which attracted a substantial readership in Eastern Europe, Sigler notes, ‘you point out how this diverse, multilingual, and vast geographical culture’ – of Middle Europe – ‘was shrunken into a nationalistic, predominantly conservative Germanic area of land, virtually overnight. You compare its diminished shape on the map to a tadpole.’ Perloff distinguishes microaggression and macroaggression, and the way in which the first can morph into the other:

A microaggression is an unintended slight to someone who lacks your privilege, usually a member of a minority group. And such micro-aggression taps into deep-seated prejudices in our culture. But a macroaggression is not a question of insulting words but of overt and hurtful action against someone.

It was the latter which forced the Perloff family to emigrate from Vienna in the 1930s. Another species of microaggression has (temporarily, one hopes) helped to silence the ‘Stanford titan on the contemporary poetry canon’.

This item is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

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