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.”

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.

Michael Scharf pointed out that Perloff underestimates the extent that this is already happening, in journals such as Shark, Rhizome, and Tripwire, and on-line in the various poetics lists and their sub sub spin offs. Scharf exclaimed with great bravado that the exchange between Brian Kim Stefans and Standard Schaefer was a model example of this kind of cross fire, to which Perloff replied “and how many people actually know who Stefans and Schaefer are?” Twenty hands, not bad for an audience of 200, went up. This was the most interesting exchange of the evening.

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