Marjorie Perloff

Uses of the useless

Against the division of poetry and scholarship

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Burrill.

Contemporary so-called “innovative” or “experimental” poetry’s fascination and engagement with the theoretical and the critical owes a lot to the Language poets, who, though not the first to approach the composition of poetry as an intellectual enterprise, did offer what Marjorie Perloff characterizes as a “rapprochement between poetry and theory” that could serve as an alternative to the increasingly anti-intellectual creative writing classroom of the 1970s.

Joseph Donahue's 'bowls of memory'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

In a recent interview with Jon Curley (The Conversant, April 2014), Joseph Donahue calls our attention to two lines from Emily Dickinson’s short poem “The spry Arms of the Wind”: 

I have an errand imminent
To an adjoining Zone —

“Each of those terms,” says Donahue, “‘errand,’ ‘immanent,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘zone,’ have for many, many years deeply engaged me. … the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. … Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?”

There’s a revealing error here: Donahue inadvertently reads “imminent” as “immanent,” the latter word designating the manifestation of divine presence inherent in the material world (as opposed to transcendent). But why not read Dickinson’s “errand imminent” — her urgent errand — as a longing to discover the immanent? Donahue has always been concerned with the spiritual dimension of material existence: he is, that rare thing today, a seriously “religious” poet. I want here to look at how this poet’s “errand imminent (immanent)” to those “adjoining zones” works in the opening poem of his new collection, Red Flash on a Black Field (2014).

Living Dada

“Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my machinery?”

In her poem “The Modest Woman,” published in the modernist literary magazine The Little Review in 1920, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven derides the prude and celebrates the female body and modern form.

Robert Creeley at Kelly Writers House, 2000

Editorial noteThis interview took place on the second of two days of visits by the late Robert Creeley to the Kelly Writers House in 2000 as part of the Writers House Fellows program, which brings three writers to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus each spring for close interaction with students, faculty, and other literary aficionados.

A few thoughts on Vendler's Stevens

I recently re-read Helen Vendler’s 1986 review of Milton Bates’s A Mythology of Self (1985) and Albert Gelpi’s collection of essays (The Poetics of Modernism, 1985) which included Marjorie Perloff on Stevens experience (or inexperience) during World War 2, Michael Davidson’s critique of Stevens as not a prosodic innovator, and Alan Golding on Stevens and Zukofsky. (I have insufficient space here to deal with Vendler’s complex reaction to Perloff’s piece – a topic that should surely occasion another foray into the matter.)[1]

Vendler was in general not fond of the essays collected by Gelpi, but she did admire Milton Bates — whose meticulous book was the first full-length biographical/intellectual/historical reading of Stevens.

Kristin Prevallet, 'Why Poetry Criticism Sucks'

From Jacket #11 (April 2000)

Stephen Burt (left) and Michael Scharf at the symposium discussed in this article

A response to the conference titled “Poetry Criticism: What is it for?”— speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt,and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, early in 2000.

ACCORDING TO a recent article by Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books, Randell Jarrell's descent into madness, and his speculated suicide, were in part provoked by a negative review in the New York Times accusing him of “doddering infantilism.” Jarrell, who was hailed on the Poetry Society of America's panel “Poetry criticism: What is it For?” as being the model poet-critic, apparently could not take the blow, after having dished out a fair share of them for so many years as “poetry's high-purposed body guard.”

Individual copy

Unpacking Walter Benjamin's iterations

J. J. Grandville, "Mélodie pour 200 Trombones"

Walter Benjamin is perhaps the writer we most commonly associate with the recognition of the changes induced in the work of art by the “age of mechanical reproduction” in the modernist period. In that essay, Benjamin’s focus is primarily on visual and auditory reproduction, but he begins the essay with “The enormous changes brought about in literature by movable type, the technological reproducibility of writing.” He then goes on to state:

Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it had also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.

Benjamin has in mind here phonography, lithography, photography, and cinema. But, as a quotation from Paul Valéry immediately prior to this passage suggests, these changes––along with those directly bearing on print, such as the rise of the typewriter––affected the way writers like Stein, Valéry, and Benjamin approached the printed book’s already established place among literary processes.

Editions and additions

Gertrude Stein and the iterations of the book

Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably
Gertrude Stein, Lucy Church Amiably (Paris: Plain Edition, 1930)

In our digital age, the printed book is often seen as resisting the immateriality and inauthenticity of the digital text through its “aura,” “singularity,” “authenticity,” “materiality,” and “bookness”––to cite some key terms from a conference on the future of the book that I attended last year. Even book versions that sit alongside versions in other media––what Marjorie Perloff terms “differential texts”––seem to stress the differences between the book and digital media and so each medium’s materiality.

Yet in a range of poetic practices developed in response to the age of mechanical reproduction and to our digital age, the book becomes a site for exploring––rather than resisting––reproduction and iteration. In the final posts in my “Iterations” commentary, I want to focus on the dual role of the book as both material object and copy, beginning with the work of modernists such as Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein before turning to some recent iterative texts that challenge the commonplace contrast between the singularity of the print and paper book object and the repeatability and mutability of the digital text.

The rise of new technologies of mechanical reproduction in the modernist period heightened attention to the book as copy, both in terms of the aura and materiality of the individual copy and as a reproduced non-original object. Gertrude Stein played with these two possible ways of looking at the book through her own press, the Plain Edition, which she used to publish a number of her works in the 1930s.

Is poetry going extinct, or isn't it? Let's get this right, folks.

The Boston Review, on its site today, posts the 10 “best and most read” pieces of the year 2012. Among them is Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink.” But the one-line tag that goes along with the piece on their list says Perloff argues that poetry is “in danger of extinction.” That's not at all what she says. Oh well. So much for close reading.

Celebrating Marjorie Perloff

On November 10, 2012, there was a celebration at the Kelly Writers House in honor of Marjorie Perloff's induction into the American Philosophical Society. We timed the publication of a major Jacket2 feature on Perloff's life and work to coincide with the induction and the party. Here are a few photos taken that evening.

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