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.”
Marjorie Perloff, meanwhile, encouraged young poets to critique each other, putting themselves and their friends in the line of fire. She clarified that she did not mean that poets should trash each other — just to take risks and engage in critical dialogue.
In “Composition as Explanation” Gertrude Stein writes: “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.” .
Lydia Davis is a writer who is a great influence and inspiration to “everyone,” when everyone includes readers of experimental fiction as well as a myriad of poets “doing everything.” Davis is a master of short fiction and extremely short fiction, as well as a celebrated translator, novelist and poet.
At a recent reading at Bryn Mawr College, Davis addressed the audience at first by noting the grandeur of the room. She said, “I’ll just stand here and be impressed for a while.” And that is exactly how the audience regarded her, standing before dramatic windows and reading short and very short works from her forthcoming book titled Can’t and Won’t.
[N.B. : My dear editors have pointed out a problem with my using this image for the commentary's header, which is to say that the black background obscures my name and the column's title. As someone who has lived with an obscure name lo these many years, I would have been willing to chance it, but in the interests of consistency of style across our Jackets I have replaced the banner with another. The image lives on here, however, hovering over all that shall soon follow.]
I’m going to start simply by telling the story of this image.
Anna Everett was a young woman from Washington, D.C., who moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the early 1970s to live with relatives while finishing her high school education. As a new student, she was sent to Lafayette High School, which was only then being integrated. If you’ve read about the integration and bussing battles of that era, you can well imagine the challenges she faced. There weren't attacks on school buses by angry mobs as in Boston, but there were groups of white parents picketing the approach to the school and making it abundantly clear to the small group of black students that they were not welcomed by all. With all deliberate speed, Everett set about making her mark at Lafayette.