“To Thine Own Self Be True”: In Defense of Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink”

Perhaps a poet’s self-knowledge can extend beyond lyrical effusiveness to comprehend the value of her work.  How often do we come across published poetry that quite simply is not very good?  Can a poet develop cognitive faculties to self-censor bad poetry?  Would that be the left or right-brained cogito?   Or is enrolling in a MFA/PhD creative writing program analogous to plodding through the gauntlet of first-year law school classes in that the pupil often loses discernment in what’s good or bad?  How would we develop criteria for bad poetry?  That proposal is fairly silly.  But in an ideal world poets would self-censor their writing just as most people censor their speech at church services, in mixed company, or at a company cocktail party.  I think Dana Gioia asked the wrong question: Can poetry matter?  No, we should be asking why mainstream poetry is bad;  bad as in banal.  Even the New Yorker has a reputation of publishing the worst poems by our favorite poets.  Why?

According to Marjorie Perloff in “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” one reason is that the proliferation of cash-cow creative writing programs generates an atmosphere of misguided sales promotion, designed to attract “emerging poets” much as rotting beef draws flies: everyone is or can be a poet.  All that’s required to test this proposition is to flip through any poetry magazine or journal.  Her argument is not that we currently have too many poets, or too many creative writing programs, although these criticisms could be true, rather she claims, “The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the ‘good jobs’ advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity.”  Accordingly, uniformity amounts to nearly universal conformity to formula and banal expression.  Moreover, it leads to a lack of craft: the poet not knowing poetic form or rhythmic construction.  Indeed, do we teach the importance of meter, form, sound and rhythm?  Rather than trans-global racial and ethnic identity, or “cosmopolitanism,” perhaps we should emphasize the “poetic ear.”

Perloff catalogues plenty of examples to support her claim, such as the following recently published poetry anthologies: American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2009), and Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011).  In respect to the latter, we should also be aware of Helen Vendler’s insightful commentary, which can be found here in the New York Review of Books.

The crux of Perloff’s position is: “Today’s poetry establishment commands polite respect but hardly enthusiasm and excitement.”  And further: “In the current climate, with thousands of poets jostling for their place in the sun, a tepid tolerance rules.”  Tolerance, we may ask, for what?  Well, for bad poetry.  But what is the alternative to the mainstream?  Perloff directs us to conceptual poetry and various practitioners of “uncreative writing.”

Perhaps this suggestion is a viable alternative in that conceptual poetry offers us thoughtful gestures against marketplace nihilism, and dullness and boredom.  In fact, a conceptual poem can be as beautifully expressive as a traditional lyric poem.  Hence, we look at examples from Susan Howe and Peter Gizzi (as opposed to a rather traditional lyricist, such as Larry Levis).

But what if conceptual poetry doesn’t speak to us?  And it needn’t speak to us.  Perhaps the best a conceptual poet can do is perform the uncreative act or produce the merely interesting.  Surely, interesting poetry is preferable to the gallant adventures of a dilettante or the academic publishing poetry to obtain tenure.  And surely, we may consider other contemporary innovative poets, such as Trevor Joyce, Michael Smith, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson, Tom Raworth, Randolph Healy, Maurice Scully, and J.H. Prynne, to name a few.

Perhaps we can address the problem with banal (or bad) writing.  Here, I would refer readers to Vladimir Nabokov’s splendid essay “Philistines and Philistinism” for a diagnosis of banal characteristics–what he calls the “bourgeois” in Flaubert’s sense of the term (not Marx’s).  But, what can be done about it?

What happened to poetry with philosophical import?  How many creative writing programs require courses outside the English Department?  This is not a mandate for philosophical poetry per se, but if we take lessons from the early modernists, who aspired to make poetry “new,” then we might do well to learn a bit of philosophy, or acquire a deeper liberal arts education.  T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens—they all had a philosophy of language and a metaphysics of sound.  We can recognize the role of philosophy in their poetry by recognizing the contributions that philosophical aphorisms have in it.  Thus, poets can adopt philosophical perspectives with great affect, and philosophers can write poetically with much aplomb.  Regarding the latter, the philosopher-poet Ludwig Wittgenstein adopted a poetic “therapy” approach to solving problems in language and logic.  And as “unpoetic” and rascally as the philosopher Bertrand Russell was, let’s remember he won a Nobel Prize in Literature primarily for his eloquent prose style.  Not long ago Nietzsche, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Santayana, even the likes of Heidegger, used to be all the rage with poets and critics.  The point is that writers of all stripes can employ philosophical learning against banality.  Look at the importance of philosophy in the writing of Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett.

To this point, we can briefly cite the classic book on fiction writing—John Gardner’s  The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.  As we know, Gardner’s advice is relevant to all writers, not only fiction writers.   The problem with mainstream writing today, poetry included, is that in most cases it is an extension of exercises performed in university creative writing workshops.  As Gardner reminds us, in art “everything is for keeps, nothing’s just for exercise,” and continuing, he says, “[the writer] must learn to see fiction’s elements as only a writer does, or an occasional great critic: as the fundamental units of an ancient but still valid kind of thought.  Homer’s kind of thought; what I have sometimes called ‘concrete philosophy.’”      

Moreover, we would also do well to recall Goethe’s comments: “A poet needs all philosophy, but he must keep it out of his work,” to which W.B. Yeats commented:

“All writers, all artists of any kind, in so far as they have had any philosophical or critical power, perhaps just in so far as they have been deliberate artists at all, have had some philosophy, some criticism of their art; and it has been this philosophy, or this criticism, that has evoked their most startling inspiration, calling into outer life some portion of the divine life, or of the buried reality, which could alone extinguish in the emotions what their philosophy or criticism would extinguish in the intellect.”

Perhaps this is the main feature that bad poetry misses—the proof of thought.  If we take Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler seriously, and we should, for very few critics these days address a public beyond the ivory tower with such authoritative conviction, then we would admonish the poet within us to think carefully, study the philosophic mind, and report the knowledge of lyrical expression.


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