Ways of reading: Marjorie Perloff and the sublimity of pragmatic criticism

Marjorie Perloff in her living room, 2008. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.

For well over three decades, Marjorie Perloff has been one of the most engaging and engaged poetry critics in America. Her commentaries on individual poets, modernist and contemporary, as well on key poetry movements and directions, have become the go-to source for interested readers, students, and scholars. And these essays are among the best introductions to the poets about whom she writes. Whether you agree with her or not, Perloff has frequently defined the terms of the discussion; and indeed, disagreeing with Perloff can be as productive as agreeing with her, which is, for me, a clear measure of the success of her work.

Perloff is a pragmatic critic, employing a practice-based approach to reading poems based on aesthetic conviction and lucid analysis. While Perloff’s criticism sometimes resembles close reading, and much of her work includes detailed discussions of individual poems, she does not shy away from contextual, historical, and biographical framing and backfill eschewed by the New Critics of the 1940s and ’50s. Peter Middleton calls such socio-historically informed commentary “distant reading.” Still, in Perloff’s commitment to accounting for the minute particulars of a poem, she departs from many of her contemporaries, who in their valuable critiques of “Close Reading” have sometimes lost the poetry baby in the contextual bath water. Indeed, Perloff swims against the tide of cultural and historical criticism that focuses more on the bath than the baby, leaving poetry to take a bath, that is get soaked, while the aesthetic languishes high and dry. 

Reading Perloff, the immediate sense is of an inductive criticism grounded in a grappling with the poem at hand. Contrary to common academic practice, poems are not used to illustrate a thesis, whether cultural or historical. Perloff leads with the poem, drawing conclusions based on her readings.

Or does she? What is the poem “at hand”? 

More than meets the eye: every one of Perloff’s readings makes historical, aesthetic, and philosophical claims, which are all the more convincing, and persuasive, because of her method. Indeed, vital to her method is an “Or does she?” moment, where after laying down a plausible interpretation of a work, Perloff pulls the rug from under complacent assumptions and superficial readings, offering an alternative statement of the case. As with a detective story, Perloff often sets up the reader to see the clues leading to one conclusion only to delight us by coming to a surprisingly different way of seeing what’s what.

Unconventional poems require ingenious readings. Forms need first to be apprehended, contrasted with other related forms, modernist and contemporary, and then interpreted. The interpretation of a form is usually understood as considering not what a poem is saying but how it is saying it. But in the multidimensional field of formally inventive poems, forms are dynamic systems or processes, not static containers. Forms might better be described as poetic architectures, structures, environments, methods, or compositional principles. Whenever Perloff interprets a sound pattern in a line or speculates on the source of an appropriated segment, she makes a claim for its significance and places it into an articulated conception of the poem’s overall structure or process. In this sense, the value of her criticism is dependent on her ability to make judgments about the complex of formal elements that comprise the poem.

Perloff’s exemplary interpretations of poems do not provide closure but rather, crucially, model strategies for reading the poems. Perloff’s commentaries focus not only on sound patterning, forms, visual shapes, vocabulary, syntax, allusion, and tone, but also on contexts and frames. First and foremost, she gives an account of the possible meanings of, in other words reasons for, formal and structural features of a poem; she then contextualizes those formal features into an implicit literary history. This history is given as needed in any individual essay but also is provided full-blown in several of her books and in literary historical essays included in each of her collections.

Consider Perloff’s reading-in-detail of Susan Howe’s The Midnight, in an essay first published in American Poetry after 1975, a special issue of boundary 2 I edited in 2009 (and that Perloff included in her most recent book, from 2011, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century). Through sharp detective work, Perloff brings to light a range of textual sources and biographical information not readily available to the reader of Howe’s montage poem. She then provides a tour-de-force reading of the poem that would be startlingly informative to even Howe’s most dedicated readers. This is what is so captivating about Perloff’s writing: by the end of the essay you can’t help feeling how much you missed on your own. Then again, one of her most recent essays, on Duchamp’s Fountain (presented in the spring of 2011 at the Kelly Writers House at Penn) is structured like a detective story. We follow Perloff as she hunts down a relatively unknown context in which Duchamp showed his urinal at the Armory Show. In this case, reading-in-detail means seeing Duchamp’s signature work not simply “for itself” as a readymade but rather in terms of other images of fountains in more conventional works at the Armory Show. Perloff lets us see one of the most iconic works of modernist art in a fresh light by pursuing a novel sense of its context. What is “seen” makes sense not just in itself but also in relation.

Perloff is one of the few critics who will risk giving specific interpretations toward the meaning of resolutely non- or ambi-representational poems, taking into account the multidimensional field that establishes possible meanings. While many poets and critics alike are happy to celebrate or denounce unfamiliar poems as uninterpretable or empty (or free) of meaning, Perloff has shown over and again that anything that can be read can be interpreted and that meaning isn’t restricted to conventional forms or syntax, or to the conveyance of a preexisting message, but that, indeed, poetry can make its meanings by syncretizing unrecognized forms and syntaxes. Critical response has the potential to make concrete the experience of encountering the unfamiliar, which means also discussing the specific ways in which such strange encounters are both unfamiliar and familiar, including the ways a poem departs from the familiar and the ways it may articulate the familiar through its aversions.

Those of us in and around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E provided, in our poetics, frames for reading and extensive discussion of compositional methods, along with many interventions on literary and historical contexts. But early on there was an aversion to close readings of specific poems based on a conviction that the poems were aversive to such interpretations and also out of a fear that a specific interpretation of what a poem meant would be reductive and cast the poem as something stable rather than as a dynamic process or performance that allows for multiple, discrepant readings and listenings. As a result, the ways of reading we used, in practice, for conceptualizing and reading formally inventive, unconventional poems were intuitive and often inexplicit. You could get the hang of such reading styles by participating in a subculture of discussion and exchange and production, but without needing to give a detailed account (even to yourself) of what happened when you read a particular poem. For some, initiated into these practices, the aversion to close reading may have made the poems seem more hermetic than they were. One reason for Perloff’s great popularity is that she makes explicit a set of otherwise unstated, not to say hidden, codes for reading and interpreting, indeed for perceiving and grasping, unfamiliar poems. Her criticism is tied to teaching.

All literary interpretations are fungible. There cannot be a final and definitive interpretation of a poem, if poetry is understood as works in words we read as art. Even transparency and artlessness need to be interpreted. The point of local envisionments of a poem, an interpretation that makes a guess at what is happening and why, are not to give paraphrases but rather to suggest ways of reading: a concrete instance of how a particular passage might be interpreted. Perloff’s readings are remarkably apt but their aptness is part and parcel with their aversion of the definitive or of a logic of substitution. Her readings are probes, not summaries. They elucidate rather than explain. They model reading practices that are suggested by, even necessary for, the poem at hand (rather than deductively using poems to illustrate a previously existing idea). At the same time, they are often aversive to the claims made by the poets themselves about their work. For example, in Unoriginal Genius, Perloff resituates the discussion of new developments in conceptualism in poetry, placing the work in a spectrum of earlier writing, including Benjamin and Howe, which uses textual citation and composition by selective arrangement. The effect is to give close readings to work sometimes put forward as unreadable and to emphasize the brilliant ingenuity (and creativity and originality) of the aesthetic choices made in the poems she addresses.

Perloff’s readings-in-detail and readings-for-context are emphatically framed within literary-historical timelines that rely not on an invariant view of the unilinear development of radical literary form (as is sometimes the case with formalist art criticism), but rather on a historically informing and philosophically perspicacious sense of multiple, uneven developments in the poetic field. There isn’t one sort of new form or one dominant development, no single “right” kind of poem. Rather Perloff, the pragmatist, lays out how a poem plays in the language game that is its form, which also means defining every poem in contrast to other modes of poetic practice (but not to an absolute sense of quality based on a fixed conception of poetic craft).

Perhaps this is best exemplified by a series of historical framing essays Perloff has written to highlight emerging developments, from “indeterminacy” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), to her 1985 piece on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, several signal essays on poetic rhythm after free verse (prosody in nonlinear poetry), her article on feminism and innovative poetics, digital and procedural poetry, including the recent focus on conceptualisms, along with her series of influential, and often polemical, articles on the vexed category of postmodernism, the importance of poetry as an object of study for the literary academy, and the predicament of the humanities. A fine example of the iconicity of Perloff’s essays is “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” (1982). The answer to the question in the title is both. Instructive here, as in Perloff’s other essays on canon formation, affiliation, and anthologies, is the discussion of how poetics is organized around competing lineages, neither of which is right or wrong. The goal is less the selection of winners and losers and more bringing to consciousness how the poem works (a small or large machine made of … verbs): what to look for, what counts, what you might miss, what the significance of the formal choices are, how a poem stacks up against other historical and contemporary particulars, and how aesthetic affiliations and allegiances are fundamental to grappling with the meaning of poem.

Perloff has written trenchant essays on first-wave Anglo-American modernist poets, including Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Stein, Loy, Williams, and Pound, as well as such second-wavers as Beckett, Jolas, and Oppen. Her critical approach allows her to situate such poets, as well as subsequent poetic innovators, in the broader context of radical European modernist art, from Russian and Italian Futurism to Dada and Surrealism. Duchamp is fully as much a core reference for Perloff as Pound; and indeed she has in recent years focused more on Wittgenstein and Duchamp than on any of the Anglo-American modernist poets.

When reading contemporary American poetry, Perloff’s commentaries assume that the historical and formal context of poetry is the dynamic field of performance, abstraction, and conceptualisms from the Futurist moment onward — a perspective that is at odds with an American insularity and hostility to the European avant-gardes that dogs the poetry and criticism of the immediate postwar period (and beyond). Perloff’s wide-ranging arts perspective has served readers well in her incisive essays on postwar American poets such as Creeley, Ginsberg, O’Hara, Ashbery, Plath, Howe, Hejinian, Andrews, Mullen, Armantrout, and Silliman. Her works on these poets have also benefited from the wider context provided by her influential essays on Cage, Celan, Mac Low, Beckett, Antin, Rosmarie Waldrop, Bergvall, Raworth, Haroldo de Campos, O’Sullivan, Place, McCaffery, Tawada, Drucker, Bök, and Goldsmith — and vice versa. Perloff has also written appreciatively of the literary criticism of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner as well as encouraged work by two of the most compelling younger literary scholars of the time, Craig Dworkin and Brian Reed.

In this respect, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986) is a touchstone book, in which Perloff provides a historical and aesthetic foundation for many of her other essays. The Futurist Moment is the most comprehensive account of the multiple strands of poetic innovation that emerged 100 years ago. Tellingly, Perloff sets her study of radical modernist poetry in the context of the concurrent, and interconnected, revolutions in the visual arts. (A good companion piece for The Futurist Moment is Peter Nicholls’s Modernisms.)

It is instructive to read 21st Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) alongside The Futurist Moment. In the later book, Perloff brings Duchamp and Eliot into a relation that would seem as first counterintuitive, if one were thinking along the lines of linear literary history and the canonical reception of Eliot. But thinking of Eliot in the context of Duchamp opens up the reading of Eliot in a way that more strictly Anglo American modernist readings cannot. Perloff teaches her readers to look at poetry as part of the arts, and in the context of the visual arts, as well as seeing American poetry as not just, or even primarily, related to British poetry, but also to European poetry and poetics and visual art aesthetics. Indeed, The Futurist Moment provides a cogent case for the need to go beyond medium-specificity in the interpretation of both modernist and contemporary visual art and poetry.

At the same time, Perloff’s expanded aesthetic field of reference makes a decisive break from the normalizing lyric poetry criticism of her Official Verse Culture contemporaries, as exemplified by the modernist and contemporary poetry criticism from the past three decades and more in The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New Yorker, publications which Perloff has neither written for nor been reviewed in, and that have either ignored or been contemptuous of many of the postwar poets she has advocated. There are two related exceptions: in 2000, in a group review in The London Review of Books, Stephen Burt briefly takes up Perloff’s 1977 Frank O’Hara book (the first book on O’Hara) on the occasion of its 1998 reissue. Helen Vendler devotes one paragraph to the same book in a 1980 review in The New York Review of Books, in which she manages to condescend to both Perloff and O’Hara: “Perloff … wants to make her writer better than he is, to claim a cumulative effect for the Collected Poems greater than the effect of its parts, and to defend, as successful, writing too often dubious.” In contrast, Vendler’s reliably unsuccessful aesthetic judgments have made her the ideological bedrock of The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker. If blame is to be cast, it should fall on the editors of these publications for their ongoing choice of propaganda in place of critical dialog, and not on Vendler, who, after all, demonstrated her dubiousness early on. (Perloff has appeared frequently in the TLS and Bookforum.) [Subsequent to the writing of this essay, Stephen Burt reviewed Unoriginal Genius in the London Review of Books — May 10, 2012.]

Perloff has not shied away from controversy and hostility in standing up for the necessity of poetic invention. When she published “The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties” in the American Poetry Review in 1984, it was one of the highest profile accounts of this work to be published up until that time, and the article had a substantial effect on the reception of the poetry and poetics that was her subject. Perloff has often been out front in seriously considering — but not necessarily endorsing unequivocally (a point often missed) — the work of many poets whose work is not on the map of Official Verse Culture. But when you do that, you take some hits, as when Walter Benn Michaels tried to discredit a critique by Perloff of his work in a 1996 issue of Modernism/Modernity by writing, with imperious authority, “It is, of course, a little disconcerting to be lectured on aesthetic value by someone who thinks that Charles Bernstein is a major poet.”

The value of Perloff’s work rests heavily on her aesthetic judgments. Her work carries a reader along on its enthusiasm and conviction. Of course, a reader may value a work differently than Perloff, or value different works, but I think the greatest satisfaction comes from conceding her point: acknowledging that she has selected a poem worth our attention and made a convincing case for why. This precludes nothing but does hold a challenge that any alternate formulation be made as powerfully, as convincingly, and in at least as much detail.

Perloff has often lamented the unwillingness of many poets and critics to separate the wheat from the chaff — not only across large aesthetic fields, which is more common, but also within a given aesthetic frame, or even within an individual poet’s work. This is not a matter of connoisseurship for her — selecting “the best” or “the major” — but rather a prerequisite of making a convincing case for the value of a poem, which can only be explained in contradistinction from other, often apparently similar, poems. Selecting some poems over others provides the opening for critical articulation. It is not the silent judgment that counts but the criteria for the judgment. 

There is a pattern. The network of stoppages that is Perloff’s taste makes one of the most compelling maps of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. She earns our trust not by any asserted authority but by the power of her words to make us see, and hear, anew.