When does a literary critic reach maturity? Looking back over Marjorie Perloff’s career, one could point to “Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71” (1972), an omnibus review of more than thirty recently published books, as a possible candidate. Perhaps for the first time, instead of building on others’ insights, she actively sought to reshape literary opinion based on her own, independent observation and judgment.
“Poetry Chronicle” opens with a provocative quotation from Peter Schjeldahl — “Robert Lowell is the least distinguished poet alive” (97) — and goes on to declare the emergence of a new literary star, Frank O’Hara. Perloff marvels that a formerly “underground” writer’s “Collected Poems should now have appeared in an expensive glossy edition, brought out … by the venerable Alfred A. Knopf, and that [his] poetry, largely ignored by the Establishment during his lifetime, should win the National Book Award” (97–98). Moreover, while the “autobiographical elegiac mode inaugurated by Lowell’s Life Studies” (1959) might still have adherents — she mentions Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971) and John Berryman’s Love and Fame (1970) — “the real action now seems to be elsewhere,” namely, among O’Hara’s New York School imitators, whose works, like his, are typified by “improvisation, immediacy … catalogues of concrete images[,] … racy, purposely outrageous diction, and a very loose free verse line” (98).
Perloff’s writing in The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton University Press, 1981) is first and foremost addressed to resistant, uncomprehending, or skeptical readers. For a generation schooled in seeking and interpreting symbols in poetry, she proposes to delineate the pleasures of an Other Tradition that favors surfaces over depth and linguistic indeterminacy over symbolic coherence. One of the ways she wins over the reluctant reader is to show that the Other Tradition operates much more like a modern art than it does like a symbolist poetry.
During a season of two-word movie titles with hard consonantal punch — Home Alone, Total Recall, Die Hard, Naked Gun — I listened to Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff pair other words to communicate the essence of her forthcoming book. Old terms — avant-garde, experimental, innovative — seemed worn out. So did the academically toned nuances of “studies,” “approaches,” or “investigations.” More tired were the residuals of the plague of postmodern “signs” of the “hetero-hegemonic” “(un)conscious” and other neo- and pseudologisms.
According to Wikipedia, a “Wittgenstein’s ladder” is a reductive explanation of complex material, a “lie-to-children” or “tender introduction,” such as falling apples are to Newton’s Second Law. For her part, Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (University of Chicago Press, 1999) supplied an introduction, neither tender nor reductive, to the place where poetry meets the everyday, a place both aesthetic and ethical.
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.
France is a country of translations, but it has taken more than four decades before a book by Marjorie Perloff will have been published in France (a translation of Wittgenstein’s Ladder [University of Chicago, 1996] is to be released in 2012). This situation is not exceptional per se. Other important Anglo-Saxon authors have been ignored in Paris, the most blatant example being the almost Surrealist delay with which the major texts of cultural studies were revealed to Francophone readers. Yet the case of Perloff is different.
My friendship with Marjorie dates back to the early eighties — and, more specifically, to two Ezra Pound conferences, the first held at the University of Maine–Orono (where we sat together listening to Basil Bunting recite his “Briggflats”), and the second at Sheffield University (William Empson’s old redoubt and home that year of the World Snooker Championship). We immediately hit it off, especially upon discovering that we shared a mentor in common in the person of Craig La Driere.
Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media pivots on a seven-word manifesto: “The poet’s arena,” Perloff declares, “is the electronic world.” A key move in a long career, what backs this claim? What leads forward from it? How does it fare in the thoroughly mediated, digitized, networked, and programmable world we currently inhabit?
Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest […] I […] design to render [“The Raven”] manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition — that it proceeded step by step to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem. — E. A. Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”