The debut of OBSERVATIONS a regular column by Joyce Wilson.


A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000


A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson

Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism

PSA Series on Poetry & Criticism
“Poetry Criticism: What Is It For?”

On March 15, 2000, at the Cooper Union, New York City, the Poetry Society of America held a panel discussion titled “Poetry Criticism: What Is It For?” and invited two well-known critics, Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff and two of their students, Steven Burt and Michael Scharf, to speak on the subject of literary criticism. The discussion was moderated by poet, Susan Wheeler. The full text of the discussion is available on-line at the PSA Web site, as are the papers given by the participants. There is also a link to a review in Jacket, an on-line journal. As I was not able to attend this event, I was pleased to be able to read a transcript of it, and it is the written version that is the basis of my discussion. This paper will focus on the presenting statements and other remarks made by Perloff and Vendler. A summary of the views of Burt and Scharf will appear in the next issue of The Drunken Boat.

***** It seemed the time had come for a showdown. Tensions between the views of Vendler and Perloff had been discussed in an article by Michael Scharf, which appeared in Poets & Writers earlier in the year. In the text of the panel discussion, however, both critics are more closely allied as professional educators than opposed by their doctrines. Both give ample advice on how to write criticism that is fair to the author, is lively, and is instructive about the author’s approach.

***** In her presenting statement, Perloff begins by saying that the state of poetry is healthy, but poetry discourse is terrible because poets don’t want to write about each other. She states, “[U]ntil we have poets willing to say what they really think of each other, not about earlier poets but of each other, and really write about each other, I don’t think the discourse will necessarily improve very much.” She states that reviews are often not interesting, too short, and not thorough. Much of the problem of criticism has to do with the problem of poetry. Perloff observes that too many poets writing now don’t demonstrate concern for how their poems sound to the ear and look on the page. At the same time, critics do not address these issues either. American poets don’t look to what is happening in other countries in poetry. She believes that the sound and look of poetry conveys much about the culture in which it was written and, in a direct reference to Vendler’s emphasis on poetry’s self-making, that it should not just take into account how we live today or what it is we do.

***** When asked if poets can, or should, be expected to review the work of their peers, Perloff continues in the affirmative. She states that a reviewer must understand the work being reviewed and give it some kind of sympathetic treatment to present it fully and fairly. Being dismissive is no help to the book or the poet. Perloff then relates an anecdote about meeting Robert Pinsky after reviewing his book negatively, and hesitating after that to review him again, having met him and seen that he is such a nice person. This comes as a contradiction but may function as a cautionary note. She is stressing the need for poets to review each other for the good of poetical discourse, but once poet and reviewer have met, each should be aware of the difficulties of writing objectively.

***** Vendler begins her presenting statement relating her own experience as a student and writer. She believes that one first writes for oneself about what one likes. Soon, through reading, one comes to appreciate the fact that poetry is written in a process of drafts. In her case, she studied with professors who taught as if they were the authors, completely effacing their own selves, and thus underscoring the relationship one could develop, through reading the original work, with someone who might be of another century. She studied with professors who taught her the value of using the single most important word. She claims that she wrote, in the beginning, to please her subject, the poet, and then went on to write for broader audiences. She blames the problems of appreciating poetry in society today on the elementary schools for not teaching poetry to children and getting them to love verse while they’re young. She attributes other problems with poetry—making a living, selling books—to the fact that adults cannot possibly sustain an interest in something they did not love when they were young. Therefore, they don’t read poetry or purchase volumes of poetry as adults.

***** Vendler challenges Perloff’s focus on culture by asserting that she, personally, never connected with cultural contexts, was never interested in groups, never joined a political party, never voted or even registered to vote. Context doesn’t exist for her, and she allows that this might be a deficiency in her criticism, but it is also probably a virtue. She acknowledges the role thrust upon her of promoter of poets as she ends her talk conceding “it’s very nice to be handing over one’s own function as a talent scout to the next generation.”

***** These remarks demonstrate, to me, Vendler’s response to being pigeon-holed as a critic who focuses on poets, their works, and careers. I had previously thought of Vendler as a critic of lyric poetry and an author of many books of criticism, but the same can be said of Perloff. Now, if the two must be differentiated, one can see an advantage in being a promoter of poets who are people, rather than ideas, because people can be accepted with all their inconsistencies, whereas ideas might be more readily embraced or dismissed on the basis of relevancy or practicality. To admit that, in this age of civil rights, one has never registered to vote takes a great deal of courage. It also shows the incorporation of an inconsistency in what otherwise appears to be a persona of responsibility.


***** What are the differences between these two critics? While the panel discussion focused on good criticism and scholarship, the philosophy of each critic was not readily apparent. One possible dichotomy runs as follows: Vendler believes that poetry is a construct of the self that may exist in a new aesthetic but that deals with age-old subjects, such as love, time, and death. Perloff believes that poetry is culture, that the self is incidental to understanding either, and that the subject is change. An examination of their treatment of the poetry of John Ashbery further illustrates their individual perspectives.

***** In her book The Music of What Happens, Vendler begins by focusing on Ashbery’ subject matter, admitting that it is often difficult to determine what his work is about. She traces his literary heritage from Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Stevens, and Eliot. She claims that, as Keats was involved with soul-making, Ashbery is crafting an identity in allegorizing, speculation, classifying, only he turns his gaze from the circumstances that issue identity to the processes themselves (V-225). “Haunted Landscape,” for example, describes the end of a farm, the desolation of life in particular place, now showing depressing signs of ruin, loss of hope and of love, with nothing to look back on. She praises Ashbery for giving an accurate rendition of our very elusive inner feelings and especially the transitive states between feelings. His poems are particularly American and make the American experience intelligible. She states that Ashbery’s aesthetic makes the old new, finishing with the declaration: "Nobody wants a new lyric subject. We want the old subjects done over” (V-256).

***** Perloff, on the other hand, states in her book Poetic License, that Ashbery writes to escape banal realities of culture that penetrate his verse, which are transformed, to use the term of Barthes, with a “corrected banality” (P-PL-278). She quotes Lawrence Kramer in Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After, who writes that "an Ashbery poem does not articulate a process, but simply lets a textured consciousness persist shimmeringly for a given duration, which is presented as something like an objet trouvé” (P-PL-279). She stresses the importance of the present tense in his poetry, that his verse works in a non-linear fashion to counter expectations of what it is about. Ashbery’s poetry must struggle against the linear and dissolve experience rather than integrate it.

***** Perloff believes that Ezra Pound is the innovator of modern poetry, not Eliot, Stevens, Keats, nor any poet of the Romantic tradition. In her book, Dance of the Intellect, she writes that Stevens’s images ordered to create a supreme fiction are at odds with “Pound’s deployment of metonymic links” (P-DI-17). Perloff wants to bypass Romanticism, to get back to something prior in time, to make poetry new (P-DI-22). She claims that nature writing is passé. She upholds Pound’s style—fragment, collage, parataxis, phonetic spelling, insertion of foreign phrases, documentary evidence, puns and other jokes, the juxtaposition of disjunctive images—as the example of a new poetry that must be understood in terms of syntax, or challenged syntax. In place of lyric, meditation, or still moment, the new poetry is collage, encyclopedia, or jagged fragment. Perloff agrees with Charles Bernstein who writes that the primary organizing feature of writing is not the self, that the poem exists amidst a flux of cultural relations that are more important to the text than the author’s life or voice.

***** Vendler, however, looks to Wallace Stevens and John Keats as premier examples of constructing a self, or soul, in their poetry. She stresses that to write about poetry is to write about life. In order to live in the world, everyone must construct it. The poet is unique because he writes his construction down and reflects on it. The work of poets helps us understand ourselves and the self-constructing that we all do. We describe memories, dreams, inventions as parts of our personal lives. When we read poetry, we are witnessing the poet’s act of self-making, which is familiar to if much more developed than our own self-making process, or what Keats called soul-making (V-260).


***** Despite their differences in approach to the criticism of poetry, Perloff and Vendler have similar responses to questions from the audience about the benefits of positive and negative reviewing. Neither supports a review that dismisses a publication that might have been years in the making. In closing Perloff has the final word in praise of scholarly criticism, which pressures the writer—or reviewer, or critic—to look back at the traditions that inform the work. This is far more useful, she states, than using labels and definitions that don’t further discussion. She advises asking questions about the work under examination: “What are we really talking about? What’s behind it? Where does it come from? How do you place it? How does it relate to the objectivists? How does it relate to Gertrude Stein?” Placing a work against the traditions from which it came might reveal perspectives you would never have considered. You might even change your mind, as she does, when she claims to have come up with the theory that her favorite Charles Bernstein may not be like Gertrude Stein at all, or in the tradition of Pound, but more like the early T. S. Eliot.



Stephen Burt, graduate student at Yale and frequent reviewer and published poet, former
*****student of Vendler
Marjorie Perloff, critic, Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.
Michael Scharf, graduate student at City University of New York and contributing editor to Publisher’s Weekly,
*****former student of Perloff
Helen Vendler, critic, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University



The Music of What Happens [V]
by Helen Vendler
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988
ISBN 0-674-59152-6

Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric [PL]
By Marjorie Perloff
Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1990
ISBN 0-8101-0843-7

The Dance of the Intellect [DI]
by Marjorie Perloff
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985
ISBN 0-521-30498-9

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media
by Marjorie Perloff
Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1991
ISBN 0-226-65733-7

***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a regular contributor to The Drunken Boat. She is a former student of Helen Vendler and a former managing editor of The Harvard Review. Her first collection of poetry, Spruce is forthcoming in 2002 from Salmon Publishing Ltd. in Ireland.