Marjorie Perloff visited the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia for most of four days this week – as a Kelly Writers House Fellow. For three hours on Monday, she met with 21 undergraduates in the so-called Writers House Fellows Seminar; they had read and discussed her writings for the previous five weeks. That evening – April 25, 2011 – she gave a 55-minute talk that, in part, offered the full context for Marcel Duchamp's attempt to exhibit his pseudonymous readymade, "Fountain" (1917).
Reading it now, the article seems a yawn - obvious, innocuous. Was it only eight years ago that the availability of poetry on the web was deemed innovative? (My own poetry site was created in '94. It's a grandpa.) Zoe Ingalls wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Electronic Poetry Center, with glancing looks at the digital poetry archives of the Writers House (including webcasts) and my online poetry course materials at Penn, and several other repositories of the time. I found a copy of this article yesterday while rooting through old files, and am pleased to make it available here.
In my basement I found a water-warped address book dating from the period 1978-1985. This morning I went looking for a few old addresses, picked up the little half-rotted black codex and out fell a pink card, which brought back a flood of good memories. It's a researcher's card given to me on the occasion of my very first visit to an archive of literary manuscripts: the Huntington Library, December 1982. Virginia (Ginny) Renner was the readers' services librarian who immediately befriended me. Dave Wyatt took me there (MLA was in LA that year, I think); we visited his father in Laguna Beach and he escorted me around and across the LA of his youth. At the Huntington, as I read the unpublished correspondence of Wallace Stevens, I got to know Stuart Curran and Joe Wittreich, who were enormously generous and hospitable, knew the Huntington and Pasadena like the backs of their hands.
And I met Marjorie Perloff for the first time, who sat next to me reading Stevens' WW2-era letters for a paper she was writing arguing his social and political ignorance. Marjorie and I enjoyed several long lunches together at the researchers-only cafe to which at noon the readers were sent walking (they closed the library for an hour, partly to enforce the daily gatherings of the scholars). We walked past the building in which was displayed Blue Boy, through the meandering Shakespeare garden, had lunch, and walked back to our manuscripts by way of the Japanese garden with its giant hungry carp. Thanks, Dave; thanks Stuart; thanks Marjorie. Thanks to the late Holly Stevens who sold her father's letters to the Huntington in part because he and wife Elsie had stopped to see Henry Huntington's collection on the way back from their trip through the Panama Canal and up the west coast.
Yes, I did note that Marjorie sat next to me researching a paper on Stevens' wartime political ignorance (and/or obliviousness). What I didn't mention--but those who have read my scholarly writing will already know--was that I was beginning to write a book arguing precisely the opposite. This did not put Marjorie off. In fact, quite the opposite. It endeared me to her and was the basis of the beginning of our friendship. We argued, to be sure, but in a way I found utterly productive (and perhaps she felt the same). She was the first energetically open-minded member of my profession I had met. We were teaching each other the conflicts. I'm going back to that first book to be sure I acknowledged her in this way. It's been a while. And in any case, now I've done so here.
In January 2000, Lingua Franca asked me to write very, very briefly in praise of a then-recent book. I chose Marjorie Perloff's Poetry On & Off the Page and here is what I wrote:
This fine collection of occasional essays is concerned with the way supposedly ordinary language becomes poetic. From The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) forward, Perloff has confidently, helpfully mapped contemporary poetics during a period of almost constant change. (She herself is one of the few constant features on that landscape.) Wary, as always, of holistic paradigms for the literary history of poetry, in POETRY ON & OFF THE PAGE she describes not the replacement of hip canon for square canon, "political" for "formal" poetries. Rather she shows shifts within (usually coinciding with the growth of) aesthetic movements that range across interests, forms and social formulations. Although a number of the essays have less to say about poetry per se than about, for example, Johanna Ducker's bookworks, the video art of Bill Viola, the photographs of Eugene Atget, and Christian Boltanski's simulated documentaries, I cannot think of a better introduction to contemporary poetry and poetics. Such commendation tells much about the special mode of Perloff's writings as well as the dynamic, interactive condition of experimental poetry today.
I’m interested in poetry of the ‘other tradition,’ as spoken about by Jerome Rothenberg or Marjorie Perloff or blogged by Al Filreis or Lemon Hound. It’s not simply contemporary work. It’s a way of reading poetry through types of restlessness of being in the world. It could be Pound translating “The Seafarer” or it could be Linh Dinh’s photo blog; the poet is engaging with the ‘soul of the world’ which he or she finds to be fucked up in some way or another. The stance of being against the zeitgeist. Saying that, I definitely am not a fan of all types of ‘rebellious’ / ‘disruptive’ poetry, whether abstruse or ‘slam’, just because it speaks out. Nor do I dislike the haiku of Basho or the ‘everydayness’ of Berrigan and the New Yorkers. I suppose the way I read these writers is that their voices are implicitly rejecting of what society-at-large was pimping at the time. I feel like the times are hurtful, solipsistic to a new level and cruel and ignorant to staggering degrees. Poetry is a way to make vision clear. What’s my fucked up version of Shelley? “Poets are the true legislators of the unacknowledged world.”
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Here is a draft excerpt from Charles Bernstein's "Close Listening" discussion with Marjorie Perloff - which was recorded in November of 2009. Of course these are candid, drafty remarks and we'll need to edit them for Jacket when and if we publish "Close Listening" transcripts there. And here are some remarks Marjorie sent after seeing the excerpt below: "I’m just back from London from the TS Eliot Summer School and it was WONDERFUL and restored my faith in poetry. The students were exceptional—from all over including Beijing—and knew their Eliot inside out and so I was kept on my toes. And when all is said and done, Eliot is a GREAT and amazing poet; the students this time convinced me (almost) even to admire THE FOUR QUARTETS. Do I like E’s poetry better than Stevens’s? I’m afraid yes I do. But that should be neither here nor there."
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BERNSTEIN: How about, let me shift it to Stein/Pound, who are so different, and yet you’ve obviously written a lot about and are a champion of both.
PERLOFF: Yeah, they are very different, and both wonderful in different ways. It’s certainly a different concept of what modernism is, but I do think, actually, modernism can cover them both very well, as opposed to other people, you know, for instance, now there’s this kind of Marianne Moore cult afoot. My feelings about Marianne Moore are she’s a, yes, of course, she’s a delightful poet. She always was admired, you know, it isn’t that she was neglected. Eliot loved her, Pound loved her, Williams loved her, et cetera. But she’s just, for me, not very interesting. So there are always two things. One is a kind of broad view that one can try to have and be objective, and another is, as one gets older and gets more subjective. You sort of feel that you don’t have to like everybody anymore, and, I mean, I’ve taught Marianne Moore, for instance, but—
BERNSTEIN: Was there some time in your life where you did feel like you had to like everybody. I can’t imagine that.
PERLOFF: Well, yes. Yes, certainly I did when I was a student. You had to write about whatever you were assigned to write about.
(1) I introduced Marjorie Perloff in 1999 by bringing together a number of things o(1) I introduced Marjorie Perloff in 1999 by bringing together a number of things others have said about her. I solicited these comments from others in the weeks preceding Marjorie's talk at the Writers House.
Susan Stewart: Marjorie, unlike other American intellectuals, thinks constantly about the future. This is why she is one of my favorite European intellectuals.
Bob Perelman: Didn't someone in some universe once say, "May the Force be with you"? Poets in the innovative universe say it this way when any new project is being launched: "May Marjorie be with you."
(2) And speaking of Marjorie, or speaking of Marjorie speaking: PennSound has just now added a recording of the 1989 "off-site" reading at the Modern Language Association conference that year. Marjorie read from her then-in-progress book, Radical Artifice. It was '89 and she was advocating that we get away from the term "language writing." Have a listen. And check out PennSound's off-site MLA reading page.