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Marjorie Perloff: What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry: Some Aporias of Literary Journalism

Grub Street and the Ivory Tower: as my fellow essayists have so elegantly demonstrated, the worlds of literary journalism and literary scholarship have been, for at least the past two centuries, much more closely allied than is commonly thought. But what about the third term in the equation, the literary itself? Specifically--and this is my subject here--how does "literary journalism" confront the poetry written in its own time, along with the scholarly reception and theorization of that poetry?

Writing about poetry and poetics has, for a long time now, occupied an anomalous place in the larger humanistic discourse in which it is, after all, embedded. Take, for example, two long reviews that appeared just a few months apart in the Times Literary Supplement. The first is Richard Sennett's review of four books on contemporary architectural theory (18 September 1992, pp. 3-4), the second Glyn Maxwell's review of eight books on contemporary poetics (29 January 1993, pp. 9-10).

Richard Sennett is a well-known social critic (currently professor of sociology and humanities at New York University) whose most recent book The Conscience of the Eye (1991) is subtitled The Design and Social Life of Cities. The books under review in this, a special issue on "Cities", which also features articles by Gavin Stamp, David Rieff, and Saskia Sassen, are Jean-Louis Cohen's Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the USSR: Theories and Projects for Moscow, 1928-1936 (Princeton, 1991), Robert Harbison's The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable (Thames and Hudson, 1992), Beatriz Colomina's collection, Sexuality and Space (Princeton, 1992), and Anthony Vidler's The Architectural Uncanny (MIT, 1992). Sennett writes about these books as an informed insider: he has himself been active in the symposia held at the Princeton University School of Architecture, where some of the material in question has been aired. He takes it as a given that urban spaces are now largely disaster areas but argues that architects are neither to blame for this state of affairs nor can they be expected to come up with blueprints for some kind of Utopian renewal. Rather, he suggests, in sympathy with the theorists under review, what is needed at the moment is perhaps a better understanding of how these spaces actually work, how buildings, streets, and open spaces relate to the human body.

Cohen's book on Le Corbusier supplies Sennett with his historical frame, for it details the great architect's design for the proposed Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, a design based on the attempt to integrate inside and outside, built from to its surrounding space so as to downplay ceremony and create a truly popular architecture. The rejection of the plan by the authorities in 1932 "in favour of a standard-issue monument in neo-Palladian style by Zhotovsky" is taken, both by Cohen and by Sennett, as emblematic of the aporias of trying to invent a genuinely "popular" form of architecture. Perhaps, then, as Robert Harbison and the contributors to Sexuality and Space argue, the best that buildings can do is to create what Harbison calls "fictions of value." Harbison "sees the experience of industrial ruin as inviting a radically innovative response"; in the case of Richard Rogers's Lloyds Building, for example, the elaborate "mock-ruins", unexpectedly built from steel and glass, have a curious way of altering our sense of time. And Anthony Vidler's Architectural Uncanny (a book that has since become celebrated in discussions of the postmodern arts) carries this notion one step further. To counter the deadness of contemporary neutralized urban spaces, Vidler suggests, one must open oneself to the "uncanny" of crossings, must try to open up the suburb, the strip, the urban centre to one another and see what their intersection will produce. Loss, dislocation, invasion: these become positive values.

Another reviewer might have been less sympathetic to his subjects than is Sennett, but I think most readers would agree that his is an interesting, sophisticated, well-informed review that helps a non-professional reader like myself to understand what's going on in recent urban theory. And Sennett's knowledge of the social context, his own participation in the debate on what to do with urban spaces, makes him an excellent expositor.

Glyn Maxwell sees his role rather differently. The books that he was assigned to review are, in all fairness, as curious an assortment of apples and oranges as one can imagine. (1) First, two critical studies of of established poets: The Art of Derek Walcott, a collection of essays edited by Stuart Brown (Seren, 1989) and James Booth's monograph Philip Larkin, Writer (Harvester, 1992). Next, a biography, A. T. Tolley's, My Proper Ground: A Study of the Work of Philip Larkin and its Development (Edinburgh, 1992). These three are followed by three more theoretical works: Linda Reinfeld's Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (Louisiana, 1992), Charles Bernstein's A Poetics (Harvard, 1992), and Anthony Easthope and John O. Thompson's Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory (Harvester, 1991). These three books are related: the poet Charles Bernstein's manifestos, theoretical prose poems, and cultural explorations collected in A Poetics stand behind Linda Reinfeld's analytical history of the Language Poetry movement in the U.S. and Easthope and Thompson, for their part, have brought together a variety of critics who hold the common view that the more radical poetries today have much in common with poststructuralist theory. The three, in any case, have nothing in common with the Walcott and Larkin studies on the one hand or with Robert Pack's The Long View: Essays on the Discipline of Hope and Poetic Craft (Massachusetts, 1991), on the other. Pack is an American poet who has been around for a long time and is best known as an anthologist. His essays are avowedly personal, impressionistic, and casual. Finally, the review includes a study of Emersonian-Jamesian poetics by one of the distinguished academic critics in the U.S., Richard Poirier. His book is called Poetry and Pragmatism (Faber, 1992).

Unlike the four books reviewed by Sennett, which are closely related, both historically and ideologically, Maxwell's list thus has no rationale, except that somehow all eight books (published, incidentally, over a four-year period) have some bearing on contemporary poetry, whatever that is. One should note that Maxwell is given some four columns to cover eight books, as against the six columns allotted to Sennett. More important: whereas Sennett is on a par with the authors he reviews, having written comparable books and essays as a fellow-worker in the field, Maxwell has been assigned this review in his capacity, not as poetry critic or scholar or theorist, but as a poet. Indeed, it has become increasingly common, in literary journalism, for theoretical and historical studies of poetry, like Reinfeld's and Poirier's, to be reviewed (when they are reviewed at all) by certified poets. (A certified poet is one who has published a book or two of poems with a mainstream publisher and has received a few respectful reviews in the mainstream press). The parallel, in the case of the architecture books, would be to have an architect, perhaps a partner in a respected firm that specializes in office buildings on Park Avenue or in suburban tract housing, review Anthony Vidler's Architectural Uncanny.

Maxwell begins with a set of assumptions: (1) the "great poem" induce[s] strong, conflicting emotions in every reader who reads it in its language; (2) "it is always instantly memorized"; (3) once its author is dead, it quickly gets overinterpreted, has meanings read into it, and a myth of its author comes into being that threatens to displace the "authentic" poet who wrote it; (4) "Poets know what is worth saying about other poets"; and (5) the concept of "schools" is "especially unhelpful." All these theorems are put before us as if they were simply a matter of common-sense, even though critical theory of the past half century has dismantled, step by step, the notion of the authentic ur-poem, destroyed by later misreadings, the poem as catharsis of "conflicting emotions" (shades of I. A. Richards!), best understood by other poets. As for the memorability criterion, which Maxwell puts forward as if it were the second law of thermodynamics, this criterion allows for neither free verse (hard to memorize!), nor prose poetry or visual poetries--all of them very prominent and exciting today. Memorability depends, of course, on rhyme and meter; it's much easier to memorize Don Juan than The Prelude, Emily Dickinson's short hymn stanzas than Whitman's long poems, Robert Frost than William Carlos Williams. And how would one "memorize" Ian Hamilton Finlay's poetic compositions? Or Susan Howe's?

Maxwell doesn't worry about such thorny issues. He knows what he likes and the books on Walcott and Larkin are deemed worthy, not because their contributors are doing anything special, but because Walcott and Larkin are worthy. The reviewer doesn't worry much about them, nor about Pack and Poirier (the latter gets rather short shrift), his witty barbs being reserved for the so-called language poets discussed by Linda Reinfeld, by some of Anthony Easthope's contributors, and by Charles Bernstein, himself one of the founders of the movement. Maxwell doesn't like the concept of the movement or school, which animates Reinfeld's discussion of language poetry, but he never bothers to investigate if the poets in question--Bernstein, Howe, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Clark Coolidge, Ron Silliman-- do, in fact, constitute one. Never mind: the main thing is that these, to Maxwell, self-evidently worthless poets continue to write about each other "long after the magazine that gave them their name [L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E] has disappeared, along with any likelihood of anyone else taking an interest." And further: theirs is a poetry of "complete and deliberate impenetrability", a poetry that "jettison[s] the notion that language can communicate." The twin goals of poetry--to teach and to delight--are thus totally violated.

Richard Sennett, you will recall, is himself engaged in the discourse about the future of urban spaces which preoccupies his authors; he writes as a critical but sympathetic insider. Glyn Maxwell has no such commitment to his subjects. On the contrary, he gives no evidence that he has ever read a single poem by Charles Bernstein or the other poets Reinfeld discusses; indeed, it is doubtful that he has so much as looked at A Poetics, since Bernstein's arguments are cited only from Reinfeld's book, as if her account, which is after all an interpretation of Bernstein's theory, were simply equivalent to it. As for the Easthope-Thompson volume, I can testify to the fact that he hasn't read my own essay in that collection, of which he writes, "Elsewhere, Marjorie Perloff celebrates the brick wall of Steve McCaffery's work by invoking Ezra Pound- odd how these radical, dethroning writers will gulp whole the dicta ('Make it new!') of an old apologist for fascism." Period. My essay on McCaffery's Lag never mentions Pound's name nor do I say anything in it about "Make it new!" But even if I did, the assumption that a Pound echo in McCaffery would somehow link this poet to fascism takes one's breath away. And, incidentally, how and why is McCaffery's poem a "brick wall"? Is it enough merely to so pronounce?

Maxwell's is thus a review that blithely ignores the facts, not to mention the poetic principles involved. The reviewer's assertion that "no one" takes an interest in the language poetry movement is belied by so many articles, books, and symposia, not only in the U.S. but also in the U.K. (as in France, China, Japan, and Australia) that the statement hardly warrants serious rebuttal. Indeed, this review would hardly be worth talking about, were it not so typical. For the fact is that whereas TLS reviews of books on architectural theory, on feminist studies, on the Elizabethan theatre, or on philosophy (in the same issue, Arthur Danto has a brilliant, excoriating piece on Charles Taylor's Ethics of Authenticity) are, I would contend, largely responsible pieces, written by experts in their various fields, journalistic discourse about contemporary poetry (perhaps about contemporary literary forms in general) is largely impressionistic, uninformed, and philistine. And the TLS is by no means the worst offender.

Here, for example, is Anthony Libby, a poet-critic who teaches at Ohio State on Stephen Dunn's New and Selected Poems: 1974-94 (Norton, 1994) and Stephen Dobyns's Velocities, New and Selected Poems, 1966-1992 (Viking-Penguin, 1994) in the New York Times Book Review for 15 January 1995:

Are all the best poems about loss? They are not, probably, about happiness or love's sweet contentment, and the poet who aims to traverse those pleasant territories takes a hard road. . . . The heart of [Dunn's] collection records a long struggle to develop a voice true to Mr. Dunn's simple affirmations and proof against the cynical reader's resistance. . . . [As for Dobyns], His is a more traditional style of masculinity, somewhat cool or repressed, angry, torn by constant awareness that "we are the creatures that love and slaughter". . . . The triumph of Stephen Dobyns's poetry may be that it keeps that sense of play intact, without denying horrors. . . . His quirky imagination affirms by celebrating itself, if not the dark and clouded world. (2)

What is this supposed to mean? Why should the "quirky imagination" of our time "celebrate itself"? Why do we want poetry that conveys a "somewhat cool or repressed masculinity"? And do we in fact need poetry to tell us that "'we are creatures that love and slaughter'"?

Or, to take a third example, consider the poet David Kirby's review of Marilyn Hacker's Selected Poems, 1965-1990 (Norton, 1994), again in the New York Times Book Review (12 March 1995). Kirby begins by announcing, "The history of recent literature is the history of the phrase 'Only connect.' Writers and readers have taken these words from E. M. Forster's 'Howard's End' as an exhortation, with 'only' meaning 'merely' or perhaps 'exclusively'" (NYTBR 6). Those of us who don't quite subscribe to the notion that American poetry in the 1990s is written under the sign of E. M. Forster needn't worry. The reference functions merely as an acceptable literary lead-in, and Kirby quickly moves on to his more personal impressions: "At a time when so many writers seem to be measuring life from a considerable remove, it is invigorating to watch Marilyn Hacker glad-handing her way through the world with a warm facility. And a formalism so colloquial as to undo any readerly stereotypes"(6).

The New York Times Book Review has been castigated for not devoting enough space to poetry. I recently received a letter from a well-meaning New Yorker, asking me to sign a petition demanding that the number of poetry reviews be increased. True, the percentage is shockingly low: for the period January-June 1995, of approximately 500 reviews, only five or 1% deal with new poetry. But quantity, I have come to conclude, is not the answer. Indeed, I shall argue here, if the discourse on poetry in the popular press can't be better than the examples I've just given, I for one would prefer a moratorium on the half-hearted attempt to include, for the sake of some residual notion of "culture", the occasional poetry review along with the occasional poem, the latter invariably presented inside a box as if to cordon it off from more important matters. But my modest proposal is not as pessimistic as it may sound. For I also want to suggest that the abysmal state of poetry reviewing in the popular press is not, paradoxically, hurting the cause of poetry itself, which is, to my mind, extraordinarily healthy at the moment. Rather, there seems to be a mechanism at play that is making "literary journalism" fairly irrelevant so far as contemporary literary production is concerned. It is this mechanism I want to explore below.


Was poetry reviewing better in the Good Old Days? Is it only in recent years, thanks to the increasing commodification of our culture, that poetry seems to have no place in the public arena? Conservative critics like Dana Gioia would have us think so, (3) but a statistical survey of actual book reviewing tells us otherwise. My examples here are taken from what are generally regarded as the two leading book reviews in the United States: the popular New York Times Book Review, at this writing exactly a hundred years old, still the review that can make or break a book so far as sales are concerned, and the New York Review of Books, which began publication in 1963 in response to to the extended strike at the New York Times, and quickly established itself as the intellectuals' book review of choice.

The first issue of The New York Times Book Review (subsequently cited as NYTBR) appeared on 10 October 1896 as what was then called the Saturday Book Review Supplement. Its avowed purpose, according to Francis Brown's introductory essay for the Arno Press Reprint of 1968, was "to bring to readers news of books, news of authors, news of publishing, literary news of all kinds." (4) In 1896, this last category included such things as "reports on the state of Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol." Indeed, there are continuing reports, throughout 1897, on Wilde's condition, which is declared "beyond human endurance", and his consequent turn to spirituality (see Rowland Strong in the 12 June1897 issue). Reviewing was thus a form of reporting, its avowed aim being, as Brown puts it, "to help the reader and buyer, not the writer or publisher." The reviewer thus has the interests of the non-specialist reader in mind; he (the pronoun is used generically) functions as "his reader's guide, philosopher and friend. It is his business to say of new books what there is in them in such wise that his reader may learn whether the book under notice will probably interest him. Knowledge, equity and candor are the chief elements in the equipment of the book reviewer."

Two assumptions govern these and related statements. First, it was assumed that objective judgments on books could be made by more or less anonymous impersonal reviewers. (In the early years, the front page leader was in fact anonymous). And second, it was taken for granted that a review of "literature" was just that--a review of novels, poems, plays, perhaps belles-lettres, not, as is typical today, books on political, historical, psychological, anthropological subjects, on current events, and especially biographies. Reminiscing about the pre-World War I years, Brown writes:

In retrospect these were great literary years, these years before World War I. In verse, names were being made that would dominate for a long time to come: Yeats and Masefield, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Edward Arlington Robinson. In the novel it was the age of Conrad and Thomas Mann, Galsworthy, Anatole France, the still unappreciated Dreiser. Willa Cather wrote 'O Pioneers', D. H. Lawrence, 'Sons and Lovers', and there was always Mrs. Wharton. Kipling in 1907 received a Nobel Prize at 42. (Introduction, unpaginated)

The canon would not be described all that differently today. And Brown is also proud to note that in 1922 NYTBR pronounced Joyce's Ulysses "the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century" and that Proust's Swann's Way received high marks. In the 6 Feb.1897 issue, Paul Lawrence Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life, published by Dodd, Mead & Co. with an intoduction by W. D. Howells received extravagant (and anonymous) praise for its wit, keen satire, subtle humor, and "rich colours." Richard Le Gallienne (himself a poet, reviewing Dunbar's Complete Poems on 18 January 1914 went even further: the poems, he declared, "have a certain classical rank in American literature by virtue of an excellence which is in need of no allowances on account of the poet's race." Dunbar's is an "authentic achievement which must give him a high and permanent place among the dialect poets of the world", and such poems as "The Debt", written in standard English are also singled out for praise and cited in full. One would be hard put to find a an African-American poet today who has received this sort of attention in the Times.

But lest we wax nostalgic, it was also true that reviewing as spreading-the-word (more blurb than critique) ran into trouble as the volume of books increased sharply after World War I. And not just their volume but their variety. In 1909, after all, F. T. Marinetti had managed to get his first Futurist manifesto published on the front page of the Paris Figaro, where its competition is little more than the race-track news, the stock-market quotations, and the society news. After the war--a watershed for book reviews as for so much else--a larger literate (and voting) population demanded more political, historical, and social coverage, in reviews as in news articles and editorials. At the same time Modernist poetry seemed highly obscure. The Waste Land (1922), for example, could not be processed as readily as could the collections of short lyric poems to which audiences were accustomed, even if those poems were, like Dunbar's, by a black man. Eliot's long collage-poem, with its foreign phrases and fussy footnotes was not reviewed at all in NYTBR. By this time, in any case, books no longer meant just literary books On 6 January 1924, for example, the front page of the now larger (thanks to increasing advertising space) book review was devoted to a French memoir, the former premier and war minister Paul Painlévé's Comment j'ai nommé Foch et Petain. The same issue has a review of Count Burian's memoir of the Kaiser Franz Joseph and of Bertrand Russell's ABC of Atoms. And by the early 1930s, the basic blueprint and layout that characterizes the NYTBR to this day was in place. The lead article (on the cover, usually with a large photograph at the center) tended to be a review of a "major new novel" or of a large-scale historical/social critique. On 14 January 1934, for example, the leader is a review of Pearl Buck's The Mother; on 28 January, Sinclair Lewis's Work of Art, on 4 February, Phyllis Bentley's A Modern Tragedy (with the headline "A Novel that Clarifies Our Age"), and on Feb. 11, Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision.

Big novels, big ideas! What happens to poetry or to the more avant-garde literary productions in this context. Poetry could hardly be eliminated, a neoVictorian, neoRomantic culture continuing to demand its "higher" presence, even as it does in today's New Yorker, New Republic, or Atlantic. But as slender books of poems continued to proliferate, the group review became normative, one of the reviewer's chief tasks thus being to find a common thread like Kirby's "Only connect." The reviewers tended to be themselves minor poets or, as in the founding days of NYTBR, professional reporters. Certainly there was no precedent for asking a poetry specialist (e.g., an English professor) to review these books. For poetry--and this bias is still with us--is something "everyone" can more or less talk about. We all, after all, know what it is when we see it and many of us write it for birthdays, weddings, or just to please ourselves. Jimmy Carter is a case in point. "I have always found it possible", said Carter on the occasion of his best-selling Always a Reckoning (New York: Random House 1995), "to say things in my poems that would have been impossible to say in prose." Things like how sad he was to have to kill his aged dog:

Yesterday I killed him. I had known

for months I could not let him live. I might

have paid someone to end it, but I knew

that after fifteen years of sharing life

the bullet ending his must be my own. (5)

Try saying that bit of blank verse in prose! The newspaper reviewers did not wish to be harsh. And soon Jimmy Carter was embarking on a book tour around the U.S. and to Dylan Thomas's Wales.

The 14 January 1934 issue (the one with J. Donald Adams' review of Pearl Buck's The Mother on the cover), typically has a full-page article on "Six New Books of Verse by a Diversity of Poets." Among the poets are Kimi Gengo, Adelaide Love, C. Arthur Coan, and Mary Owens Lewis. The reviewer Percy Hutchinson praises the poems in Adelaide Love's The Slender Singing Tree (its "highly engaging title" is remarked upon) which are "written with skill against a background of deep thought." He cites "The Lien":

Relentless press of little things;

Eternal haste to do them all;

The prior claim upon our days

Relinquished to the trivial.

Our obligations never paid

But endless and imperative.

O life, why must you always leave

So little time to live?

"Somehow", remarks Hutchinson, "this seems to us the possible utterance of a disciplined Emily Dickinson. Not, of course, that the real Emily could ever have been disciplined, either as to thought or poetic utterance. . . . But . . . the Amherst spinster-poet must ever stand symbolically for her sex's expression of itself in poetry. Thus it seems to us that Adelaide Love carries on what might be termed the Emily Dickinson tradition, that is, she expresses herself fragmentarily while seeing with inclusive vision, and plucks at the heart-strings, but always with the most gentle touch, perceiving and transferring beauty" (p. 14).

From our vantage point sixty years later, we can laugh at the very idea of Adelaide Love's little jingle being compared (not unfavorably!) to the work of the, alas, "undisciplined" Emily Dickinson. But the problems of poetry reviewing confronting Percy Hutchinson were not all that different from those experienced by David Kirby in his review of Marilyn Hacker or even by Glynn Maxwell in his omnibus piece for the TLS. The mandate--to say something telling and original about five or ten unlike and generally unexceptional volumes of short personal lyrics--is not easy to fulfill. We can see this even in the more specifically literary journals like the Georgia Review or the Hudson Review. Consider an article in PN Review 80 (1991), in which T. J. G. Harris discusses Michael Hulse's Eating Strawberries in the Necropolis and Andrew Motion's Love in a Life, along with the first book, Tale of the Mayor's Son, by the very Glyn Maxwell who wrote that snide review for TLS. Maxwell, being the newcomer in this group, gets one long paragraph:

Glynn Maxwell combines strictness of form with abrupt arbitrariness, a kind of headlong, thrown-together, jagged improvisation that, if it often has small attraction for the ear, certainly has, as Joseph Brodsky remarks on the back of the book, a 'propulsion . . ., owing in part to his tendency to draw metaphor from the syntax itself'. But the propulsion is not so often real as apparent, and one has the frequent impression that a device (a tricky self-reference or address to the reader, a drawing of metaphor from syntax, a blatant obscurity of one kind or another--of which there are far too many) has been thrown in not so much to keep something going as to stop it from flagging. The 'propulsion' also makes reading this book, which would have been better shorter, a wearying--and not, as it should be, an exhilerating-- experience, since everything starts sounding the breathless, edgy same as it whoops and echoes in the ear's labyrinth. Maxwell needs an editor. But he is good at creating an atmosphere of arbitrary urban or suburban menace, and he can be funny. One senses a definite and characteristic style coming clear in this, his first book. (6)

This may have a more sophisticated patina than a comparable review in NYTBR, but what is it we really learn about Glyn Maxwell from Harris's review? Primarily that the book has the imprimatur of Joseph Brodsky, which probably accounts for its having been published by Bloodaxe in the first place What else does Harris tell us? Well, that Maxwell opts for "strictness of form" although that term is never specified. What is "strict" form? Quatrains? Sonnets? Blank verse? Sestinas? Canzones? Haiku or renga? And if "jagged improvisation" is confined within strict forms is it still improvisation? Further: if Maxwell is, as Harris implies, tricky and needlessly obscure, how and where is he "funny"? But the most puzzling phrase in this review is the reference to that "atmosphere of arbitrary urban or suburban menace", which Maxwell is evidently so "good at creating." Does this mean he is not good at creating an atmosphere of rural menace? Lambs stolen by vicious vagrants? Cows on speed jumping over fences? Or does he mean that Maxwell does not take on the menace of wild, untramelled nature? Of fire and flood and earthquake? But then what English poet today does write about these subjects? Urban or suburban--that about covers the menace most of Maxwell's readers are likely to have experienced.

The New York Review of Books, to which I now turn, does not go in for this sort of empty impressionism. Its own solution (and LRB's is similar) is to limit the list of reviewable poets, confining itself to a very small circle and then devoting long, individual reviews to its members. From its inception in 1963, NYRB has limited itself largely to the poetry of Robert Lowell (the then-husband of Elizabeth Hardwick, one of NYRB's founding editors) and to the Lowell circle that includes John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, and James Merrill. Auden is an elder statesman who belongs to the group as is, at the other end of the age-scale, Adrienne Rich. A few British poets--Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, later James Fenton-- have been invited to join the club along with Americans on the circle's fringes like Theodore Roethke, W. S. Merwin and Howard Nemerov. Helen Vendler, a regular NYRB reviewer, has tried to bring John Ashbery into the fold, but Ashbery seems not to be taken very seriously by such other NYRB poetry reviewers as Denis Donoghue and Frank Kermode; a number of his recent books have not been reviewed in NYRB at all.

However this parochialism may have been justified in the sixties and seventies --and bear in mind that NYR studiously ignored the Objectivists (Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker), the Beats, the Black Mountain and San Francisco poets, as well as John Cage, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and any number of Dada, Surrealist, and Fluxus poets-- it has become, in the mid-nineties, a way of denying poetry its very life. For most of the above are now safely dead, and where are the young who should replace them? Has time simply stopped so that "poetry" can mean no more than a review of Elizabeth Bishop's posthumously published letters or an obituary essay about James Merrill? So, much of today's "literary journalism" would have us believe. In a recent article in The Economist (8 July 1995, p. 82), for example, we are told that "[America']s poetic voice has shrunk to a whisper", that "Since the death of Robert Lowell in 1977, America seems to have lacked a major poet. In fact most people are not even aware of the concerns of American poets these days. It has declined into a minor art, subsidised principally by universities." The occasion for these ruminations is the publication by prestigious Faber & Faber of three younger (actually not so young) American poets: Charles Simic, Chase Twitchell, and August Kleinzahler. But since these are (rightly, to my mind) discovered to be not all that remarkable, the anonymous Economist writer feels the point has been proved.

The reasoning here is purely circular. If Chase Twitchell "represents" the New American Poetry, then the New American Poetry can't be very good, right? And since, so many of us would argue, even Robert Lowell can't represent great American poetry quite as convincingly as did Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson or T. S. Eliot --well, then, things are really pretty bad, aren't they? Thus, while the New York Review of Books and TLS pay careful attention to the New Historicism, the New Gender Criticism, or the New Cultural Studies, they pay no comparable attention--indeed, no attention at all--to the New Poetics. Let us consider why this is the case.


Suppose a reviewer is assigned to write a piece on Renaissance New Historicist studies. He or she knows (or quickly learns) that the founding father of this movement is Stephen Greenblatt, a professor at Berkeley, whose new book is to be discussed in the review along with others by Thomas Lacqueur, Richard Helgerson, and Nancy Vickers. The reviewer reads "background" material, considers opposing views, and is ready to write the piece. A similar process takes place when a reviewer takes on, say, the most recent book by Jean-François Lyotard or Helène Cixous.

But--and here's the rub--what is poetry anyway? Does anyone have a clear idea? The problem is not insurmountable if the review is to be of Milton or Eliot or even H.D. studies, for these canonical authors at least partially provide norms against which books about their oeuvre will be judged. But Charles Bernstein? Charles Wright? Charles Simic? Who knows what is to be looked for in the case of their books?

A further complication has been produced by the relative positioning of poetry and theory in the university curriculum of the past few decades. We expect graduate students in English or Comparative Literature to be familiar with Saussure's distinction between signifier and signified, Roman Jakobson's distinction between metaphor and metonymy, with Lacan's elaboration on that distinction, and Paul De Man's related discussion of irony and allegory. The "death of the author," as defined by Barthes and Foucault is now a common topic of discussion. Judith Butler's notions of "gender performativity" are regularly cited as are Fredric Jameson's interpretations of consumer culture and Homi K. Bhabha's theories on the hybridity and porosity of nations. But when the book to be discussed is a book of poems, the reader suddenly seems to forget everything he or she has learned about literariness, about the cultural construction of the subject, the naturalisation of ideology, and the relation of genre to gender. The fairly simple principle that the choice of verse form is never merely arbitrary, that one doesn't just "at will" write sonnets on Monday, fragmented free verse on Tuesday, and prose on Wednesday is largely ignored, as is the twin question why poet X--say, Philip Larkin- never wrote prose poetry. And beyond the individual poet, what about period style? National or ethnic styles? Are the "affirmations" of a "quirky imagination" the same in 1990 as they were when Wordsworth wrote "Resolution and Independence"?

A sense of history and a sense of theory: these are the twin poles of criticism missing from most poetry discourse today and hence missing in the typical poetry review. Poet X, we read regularly, "has found his voice." But is his voice one worth finding? Poet Y never lets her formalism get in the way of the colloquial. But why do we want poetry to be colloquial? "There is a distinct world in Michael Longley's poetry", writes his fellow poet Eavan Boland, "He has created it from a sense of lost values, out of lyric irony, and with a considerable fortitude." (7) But in most discourses today the very idea of a "distinct world" is suspect, and as for those "values" to be recovered with "considerable fortitude",maybe it would be better if they were "lost."

The poetry review (one poet reviewing another) comes, directly or indirectly, out of the poetry workshop, and the poetry workshop (or, for that matter, the creative writing workshop in general) is still dominated by a regressively Romantic concept of the poet as a man speaking to men (or woman speaking to women--the principle is the same), by the notion that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, the poet speaking for all of us--only more sensitively, perceptively, and expertly. And how could the workshop be otherwise without going out of existence? How could it not be based on the assumption that a given student just might have "talent", that that talent needs to find a conduit of expression and then he or she can become a certified poet. One writes on a given subject or uses a given verse form, the instructor and one's fellow students provide constructive criticism and, if one is diligent and lucky, poems are born--and published in American Poetry Review.

Ironically this workshop / journalism discourse is wholly at odds, not only with the discourses of architecture, anthropology, social science, and philosophy, but also with the amazing body of writing on poetics (often by poets themselves) throughout our century.. From Roman Jakobson's brilliant study of Khlebnikov called New Russian Poetry (1921), Ezra Pound's "How to Read"(1928), and Gertrude Stein's How to Write (1931), to the Concrete Poetry manifestos of the 1950s, produced by the Noigandres group in Brazil, to John Cage's Silence (1962) and A Year From Monday (1969), Ingeborg Bachmann's Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden (1983), and Susan Howe's The Birthmark (1993), we have an exciting body of poetics, a discourse on poetry impressive in its richness and excitement. This is not to say that there is large-scale agreement between individual poet-theorists, but what can be said is that, from Futurism and Dada on down, the international poetic impetus has been constructivist rather than expressivist: it is committed, in other words, to the basic theorem that poetry is the language art, the art in which the "what" cannnot be separated from "how", in which the said exists only in the saying. In his widely discussed "Artifice of Absorption" (reprinted in A Poetics), Charles Bernstein calls this quality the "non-absorbability" of poetic discourse. But then Yeats had already said as much when he declared that "Our words must seem to be inevitable." At the same time--and here is a corollary principle about which there's little disagreement in the arena of poetics (as compared to the arena of poetic journalism)-- poetic language is never simply unique, natural, and universal; it is the product, in large part, of particular social, historical, and cultural formations. And these formations demand study.

There is, then, no good intellectual reason why poetry reviewing in, say, the TLS, couldn't be just as useful and interesting as reviews of urban or gender studies. But--and here we have to consider the larger cultural landscape --it's not likely to happen in our culture because, to put it bluntly, there isn't enough at stake. As long as self-proclaimed poets appear on the scene in every city and small town in Britain or America --and, oddly enough, poetry still has enough cultural capital for this to be the case (8) --as long as the editors of NYTBR, NYRB TLS, and so on have to choose books to be reviewed from a wide variety of disciplines and areas, there is no way to weed out the dross, which is about 90% of so-called poetry publication. Who, we say democratically and bravely, is to decide which of the countless poets now plying their trade are worthy of attention? And why is one set of poetic principles--say, the ones I've just adumbrated above--any more "valid" than another?

Notice we never say this about historians or anthropologists--or even architects, perhaps because certification in these fields is a complex process. A given architect or architecture critic might, for example, personally dislike the work of Frank Gehry or of Denise Scott-Brown. But that work won't be dismissed by reviewers as simply unimportant or irrelevant. In poetry journalism, however, it happens all the time: witness James Fenton's "Getting Rid of the Burden of Sense", a review of John Ashbery's Selected Poems (1985) in NYTBR (29 December 1985, p. 10). The poet, declares Fenton, "ask[s] of the reader impossible feats of attention . . . yielding only a minimum of reward." And he confesses that "There were times during my reading of this 'Selected Poems' (a gathering from 30 years' work) when I actually thought I was going to burst into tears of boredom."


What, in the face of such arbitrary and subjective judgment, can be done to strengthen critical writing about poetry? A lot, actually, but perhaps no longer in the popular literary press. In the last decade or so, thanks to the world of the internet and hyperspace, of desktop publishing and small press production, poetry, as even the newspapers keep telling us, is once more a widely practiced and popular art form, and the discourse about it is becoming much more interesting. A case in point is a large, glossy-paged volume called Exact Change Yearbook no. 1: Yearbook 1995, edited by a young poet named Peter Gizzi, who received his training in the Buffalo Poetics Program from Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Robert Creeley, and is co-published by Exact Change in Boston and the Carcanet Press in the UK. Its elegant and perhaps too extravant layout has been executed by a team of production assistants and printed in Hong Kong. Yearbook 1 features Michael Palmer, glamorously pictured on the book's cover and represented by an excellent interview with Peter Gizzi and a twelve-page selection from his work. And--signs of the times-- the Yearbook includes a CD of readings by twelve poets from Palmer to Ted Berrigan (9) and is available for $35 in the U.S., £19.50 in Britain. I bought my copy at the Museum of Contemporary Art bookshop in Los Angeles.

In their prefatory "Publisher's Note", Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang (who doubles as the book's designer) write that they wanted to replace the now defunct New Directions annual (edited for some forty years by James Laughlin) with "a large miscellany of avant-garde work, both contemporary and historical, chosen less to represent a particular 'school', and more in the spirit of learning what's out there." To this end, the publishers asked Gizzi "to help us find a range of contemporary work that draws on the tradition we publish in our books of Surrealist and other early twentieth-century experimentation. . . . To what came back we added work by Exact Change authors [Stein, Cage, de Chirico, Aragon], as well as a few other discoveries we were eager to share."

What makes the project unusual is that it juxtaposes avant-garde poets and artists from the U.S. (ranging chronologically from the Imaginary Elegies of the late Jack Spicer and Fanny Howe's presentation of extracts from John Wiener's very moving journal 707 Scott Street, to a "Gallery" of younger largely unknown poets like Paul Beatty, Tory Dent, and Jennifer Moxley), with their counterparts abroad--specifically, in Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia--and, closer to home, in the Caribbean and Canada. And as if these juxtapositions weren't enough, we can also read, say, Clark Coolidge or Susan Howe against Gertrude Stein's Before the Flowers of Friendship faded Friendship Faded, which is printed for the first time (as Julianna Spahr explains in her headnote), together with Stein's source text, Georges Hugnet's Enfance, exactly in the form they were originally published in the journal Pagany (1930). Or again, we can read Barbara Guest's lecture "Poetry the True Fiction" against Hugo Ball's "Grand Hotel Metaphysics", the "Radio Happenings" of John Cage and Morton Feldman against Erik Satie's "Dried Embryos", Michael Palmer against Louis Aragon's "Peasant's Dream" or the "Fragments" of De Chirico.

Such collaging gives, at least me, a sense of--forgive the taboo word--transcendence. For instead of the usual anthology wars (who's in, who's out, which editor is sufficiently multicultural?) the Exact Change Yearbook offers the most convincing evidence I've seen to date that our own radical poetries are not (as Maxwell or Fenton would have us think) some kind of local aberration, spawned by a bunch of theory-crazed, left-wing poets in New York and San Francisco, and perpetrated by les jeunes at Buffalo and other out-of-the way stations--poetries that deserve simply to be ignored. Indeed, what Gizzi's juxtapositions of U.S. and foreign portfolios suggest is that the attention to the materiality of language I spoke of above, to syntactic disjunction and visual constellation, and especially to the reconfiguration of lyric as speaking, once again, not for the hypothetical "sensitive" and "authentic" individual ("Here's a vision I had as I was weeding the garden yesterday") but for the larger cultural and philosophical moment--that all these are now characteristic of poetries produced around the globe.

Take Jeff Twitchell's portfolio of the "Original Chinese Language Group." As Twitchell explains, "Original, not in the sense of unique, but because of their interest in the earlier meanings and associations that can be read in the Chinese written character. . . .So, too, the recuperation of the original impetus of poetry as the play in language." The "Original Poets", Twitchell notes, go beyond their predecessors, the so-called "Misty" (because branded "obscure" by the official critics) poets of the late 1970s, of whom the best known in the U.S. is Bei Dao. The 1988 "Original" Manifesto, reproduced here, comes out strongly against the localism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism that bedevilled Communist China until quite recently. The aim is to make contact with "modern Western art", and the vehicle for such contact, the manifesto declares, is the written character, which, compared to spoken language, is "less polluted and pre-judged." "We do not avoid", they declare, "the phrase 'word games' which already has aroused great misunderstanding. We even like it. 'Game' [yóuxi] is a word, connoting the profound, eerie spirit of art and philosophy." And the text gives way to the visual image of a large black cross which represents the intersection of "swim" [yóu]--to get in touch with reality-- and "play" [].

Twichell's portfolio is taken from the selection that appeared in the British journal Parataxis (#7, 1994), edited by the poet Drew Milne. In translation, the poems themselves--by Che Quian-Zi, Zhou Ya-Ping, Yi Cun, Huang Gan, Xian Meng, and Hong Liu (the one woman in this group)--don't quite live up to that manifesto. (10) "Word games", in the sense of Steve McCaffery's or Charles Bernstein's paragrammatic play, are less common than neo-Surrealist imagery and the casting of a sharp eye on the "direct treatment of the thing," in the Poundian Imagist sense. Just as Pound's fabled "invention of China" turns out to have little to do with the classical Chinese models which were his source, so the Original Poets's version of "language poetry" is more graphic and precisionist than, say, Lyn Hejinian's or Bob Perelman's. Here, for example, is Part III of Zhou Ya-Ping's "Vulgar Beauty":

An afterbirth is unfolded, taking the shape of an umbrella.

The ridges of an umbrella along yellow lines.

A fetus like a coal cinder has long been reared in it,

Lit by me, it will give off light.

A white crane, unexpectedly covered by a black string-net

A snake, bound with a copper wire, body

Like a tightening spring, soft parts flashing.

We must remember that in the Chinese, as J. H.Prynne notes in his Afterword, the "iconic deployment [of the language] by stroke play and contexture makes a traffic with the eye worked by a different ground-plan." At one point, the translators planned to include some of the Chinese text so as to show how the tactile element works, but the Originals themselves countered this idea because, as Prynne puts it, "it would suggest exoticism or extraneous willow-pattern ornament; to them, we are the exotics, with our credit-card view of the speech act."

That "credit-card view" is satirized in Prynne's own poems in Bands around the Throat, the entire chapbook, originally published in Cambridge in a limited edition, reprinted in the Exact Change Yearbook. And Tom Raworth's "Anglo-Irish Alternative," a portfolio printed elsewhere in the anthology, provides a rich context in which to understand Prynne's work. Such contextualizing (one should certainly read Rosmarie Waldrop's Berlin portfolio "against" Raworth's) provides a kind of information that is absent from the short review, however elegant, of the individual poet. And Gizzi's juxtapositions have their counterpart in a number of recent anthologies. Since 1993 alone, the following have appeared: Eliot Weinberger's, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (Marsilio, evidently a best-seller in Mexico in a Spanish edition), Paul Hoover's A Norton Book of Postmodern Poetry (Norton), Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-90 (Sun & Moon), Volume 1 of Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's Poems for the Millenium (California), and, most recently, Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK (Reality Street Editions). Some of these anthologies have barely been reviewed, and yet, in what is a surprising development, they are already being assigned for classroom use and discussed at conferences. Romana Huk, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, for example, has organized an international poetry festival called "Assembling Alternatives," based, in the case of Anglo-American poetry, largely on such yet-to-be-reviewed anthologies and small press books, many of which she came across during a fellowship year in the UK.

But how, it will be asked, is such work disseminated if not via reviews in the major papers? Here is where electronic discussion groups and the internet come in. On the Poetics Discussion Group sponsored at SUNY-Buffalo and open to anyone who hears about it by word of mouth and cares to join, the daily conversation now contains an average of 1200 lines and includes postings from all over the world. Much of the "talk" is trivial: who said what to whom where, what X meant when she said Y, and so on. But there have lately been extended conversations on the nature of free verse, on "close reading" (Peter Quartermain began this one when he asked, on the net, "Why the animus against close reading? Do we want distant and/or careless reading?"), and on the relation of language poetry to other contemporary movements. Bob Perelman's new critical book The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky (California, 1995) has been discussed in a series of postings; indeed, the argument as to what Perelman's book does and what its implications might be, acts as a kind of supplement (in the Derridean sense of addition as well as substitute) for the more conventional book review.

Buffalo also sponsors the Electronic Poetry Center where one can call up, say, an "Authors" file and access an impressive list of poets, each one represented by a photograph, followed by selected poems, prose writings, bibliography, and so on. Then, too, the Electronic Poetry Center publishes its own journal, Rif/t, which contains poems, fictions, critical essays, and reviews as does the on-line Postmodern Culture, published at the University of Virginia. A new group has just been formed in San Francisco that discusses concrete poetry, visual poetics, and language-art relationships; this one is called Majordomo and is accessed by subscribing to something called Wr-eye-tings; a related group is Silence, devoted to the work of the late John Cage; this group is extremely active, sharing information about Cage scores, recordings, musical interpretations, poetic texts, and so on. James Pritchett's recent book on Cage's music (Cambridge, 1994) was discussed and debated in a series of postings.

The "reviewing" that occurs on such lists and in the new e-zines is by no means ideal. Internet reviewers are not likely to be as accountable as are their counterparts in the print media, and editors are not likely to ask for a lot of revisions and fact checks. The ephemerality of the medium controlls the discourse: one flick of the finger, after all, and the text disappears from the screen, perhaps not to be found again. Then, too, onscreen discussion of poetry and poetics is designed for a limited (and largely younger) audience that is at home with the new technologies.

And this raises the spectre of the nominal "public" that, for the past hundred years, has ostensibly depended on reviewers to help it decide what poetry books to read. Doesn't a weekly paper like TLS owe something to this non-professional public, and isn't it therefore better to "cover" a range of books, even as Glyn Maxwell does in his omnibus piece? Two books on Larkin, one on Walcott, some theoretical treatises from the U.S.: why not let the reader decide which ones are worth her while?

My own sense is that this middle-class poetry public no longer exists, that poetics is now at least as specialized as is architectural discourse; indeed, the latter actually speaks to a much wider audience than does poetry, given that everyone lives and works in specific buildings and hence takes an interest in the look and feel of the built environment. In the case of poetry, however, the rapprochement with the university may well be a fait accompli. (11) And thus it is that the TLS or NYRB review may well be on its way toward becoming obsolete.

Take the case of Charles Bernstein's A Poetics, the book Maxwell dismissed so offhandedly. This 1992 collection of "essays" (the first and longest piece "Artifice of Absorption" is, strictly speaking, a verse treatise, written in what is predominantly iambic pentameter) was reviewed neither in NYTBR nor in NYRB, nor in The New Republic, The Village Voice Literary Supplement, or The Washington Post Book World, to mention just the most obvious daily and weekly papers. Yet within two years of its publication, it appeared on course syllabi across the U.S. (and many in the UK and Australia as well), has become a popular item on PhD qualifying exams, and is cited, along with Bernstein's earlier collection of critical prose, Content's Dream (Sun & Moon, 1986), with increasing frequency. The relation of "absorption" to "anti-absorption" in poetry is discussed in learned journals. And A Poetics has now sold some 5,000 copies and has gone through two printings and numerous translations.

How does the process of dissemination work in a case like Bernstein's? How is the readership for such a book constructed? Can the Electronic Poetry Center and other e-zines, together with the more traditional scholarly journals and small poetry magazines in which A Poetics has been reviewed, (12) really make the difference? Or is distribution dependent on word-of-mouth on the campus and at the ever-burgeoning number of conferences? Or controlled by a particular group of fellow-poets, professors, end editors? These are questions I can't yet answer satisfactorily. But what I can say is that literary journalism, as we used to know it and as many of us still practice it, has had nothing to do with the case.

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