Tag Archives: Marjorie Perloff


Marjorie Perloff (1931-2024) and Helen Vender (1933-2024)

Sunday, April 21, 2024

An Extended Moment of Silence, Please, in Honor of a Great Poetry Critic:
Marjorie Perloff — The Intellectual Choreographer of Contemporary Innovative Poetry

This past Wednesday night I was checking the list of panels that are being formed for the PAMLA conference, in Palm Springs, in November, 2024, and finding the usual areas of poetry and poetics trotting out their CFPs. (For those outside of academia, PAMLA stands for Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association; and CFP designates Call for Papers.) I felt, once again, as I read the panel abstracts, that I was at home, in a way that I no longer feel when I am at a place such as Beyond Baroque, which for me recedes ever further into the realm of the proleptic. While I still write poems, the place that I feel most welcome is at an academic conference. Of course, given that academic work is how I have managed to emerge from penury, it’s not surprising that I might feel this way. I still believe that W.C. Williams was spot on when he said, “Only the imagination is real,” but it is also the case that only intellectual curiosity can critique that imagination; I’m afraid that too few poets these days are eager to become a dance partner in the “dance of the intellect.”

This year’s theme for the PAMLA conference, which is being organized by Dr. Craig Svonkin, is “Translation in Action.” Suddenly, though, I stopped my search as I noticed a special session in honor of Marjorie Perkoff, which turned out to be the way that I learned that she died recently. I suppose I shouldn’t be completely shocked at her passing; she was much older than I am, but she still brought such an enthusiastic embrace of the ever-renewed investigation of both the defamiliarized and the only very recently familiarized that it is hard for me to accept that I will never again hear her voice trill with exasperated disdain for the conventional or twirl in the spontaneity of definitive cohesion.

Marjorie Perloff was the critic I most admired, even when I disagreed with her. For a very long time, well before I started graduate school 25 years ago, I knew that there were two camps in American poetry criticism. Helen Vendler (1933-2024) was on the East Coast, and she oozed a submissiveness to whatever aspect of the traditional canon might bolster her stature. Marjorie Perloff, on the West Coast, radiated a desire for her readers to share in the eager enticements of contemporary poems that had yet to be taken as seriously as they merited. It was Marjorie Perloff, along with Michael Davidson, who first alerted me to the value of criticism that encompasses the playfully erratic, the methodically marginal, and even writing that remains a tantalizing puzzle. If the still-to-be-excavated abundance of West Coast poetry was ever to find a critical refuge, it would be among those who felt at ease in their affiliation with the critical poetics of Marjorie Perloff.

My personal encounters with her were always brief, for we moved in different social circles, but each one was a memorable increment that in retrospect interweaves itself into the choreography of her critical commentary. Rarely have I felt the counterbalance of a writer’s books being the gift that will ameliorate their personal absence in my intellectual life. I look forward to the panel that Dr. Susan McCabe is organizing for the PAMLA conference as an occasion when all of us present can express our immense gratitude for her accomplishments on behalf of poetry and literature.

(Updated on Sunday, April 28, 2024, to include my learning of Helen Vendler’s passing, which occurred two days after I posted this entry in my blog.)



The Quirky Whimsicality of Andrei Codrescu

Sunday, September 4, 2016

UP LATE AND LATER ON: Andrei Codrescu’s So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems 1968-2012
(Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press. 2012)

The two senior poetry critics whose careers have been based in academic discourse the past several decades are Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler. It is perhaps appropriate that they live on opposite sides of the country, for I am not certain that it would benefit the artistic ecology of any region to have this pair living even within tangential proximity. Vendler exudes the confidence of someone who believes that simply being part of the line of succession at an Ivy League college will automatically assure her of a place in the pantheon of important and cited critics well into the next century, and she might well be right in her self-assuredness. The “selfie” camera that Vendler holds up features an undefined future in the background that she believes she has shaped with her judgment. An autocratic diplomacy suffuses her regimen: that Jorie Graham deserves to remain one of the crucially influential figures in American poetry for the rest of this century is, from her point of view, not something to be questioned.

Fortunately, I live on the other side of the country, and have enjoyed bantering with Marjorie Perloff since the late 1970s, when she walked into a bookstore I was working at and made a joking comment about an anthology I had just published. I don’t think she was aware that I was behind the counter. Despite this inauspicious start, I have always respected Marjorie Perloff’s intellect and insights, and regard any occasion or topic on which she is writing or speaking as an opportunity to grow as a critic and working poet. I certainly have disagreed with her assessments on more than one occasion, in particular regarding some of the contemporary poets working in Los Angeles, but she has an ear for poetry far more attuned to a variety of poets in the United States than Vendler has ever demonstrated, and it’s a bit late in the game for Vendler to play catch up.

In reading and commenting on contemporary poetry, Perloff has especially distinguished herself in recognizing the importance of the Language poets; but that cluster of poets hardly represents her primary focus, nor does her ability to make use of their assumptions about language and social life tie her down to such an extent that she cannot rove elsewhere. It’s a rare talent that can write about Rae Armantrout for instance, and also give an accurate evaluation of a poet who would just as soon never have met a poet influenced by Language insurgency. A prime example of Perloff’s much more capacious list of subjects to comment on is Andrei Codrescu, one of many immigrant poets who began attaining recognition in the past century, a list that includes Olga Broumas, William Pillin, Armand Schwerner, and Charles Simic.

I start by mentioning Perloff’s review of Codrescu’s So Recently a World Rent a World because her assessment of his free verse prosody is exactly what my reaction was, a month or so ago, when I finally sat down with this collection:

“Codrescu … has never paid much attention to the niceties of line breaks or sound structures, and he seems to write his poems as quickly and easily as he does his NPR columns. Not every poem, consequently, is as fully realized as it might be. …. Line by line, these jokey poems are great fun to read, but they may not have much staying power.”

I appreciate being able to call up Perloff’s commentary because it sums much of the problem I have with Codrescu’s poetry. Anyone seeking to teach young poets about how enjambment in free verse poetry is the crucial factor in increasing the line’s dramatic and connotative power as well as its internal tension as a rhythmic unit would not be able to make significant use of the poems in So Recently Rent a World. What Perloff describes as the “niceties of line breaks” is a kind rebuke, and I suspect Codrescu has not often had this flaw pointed out before. Even if it had been, perhaps it would not have made any difference. Codrescu’s writing discharges, at a fairly steady pace, an anarchistic jauntiness that serves as his substitute for formal shapeliness, control, and dexterity. His attitude recalls Frank O’Hara’s “just keep running” advice: “do like me I say / keep talking” he advises young immigrants who approach him, asking “what should / we do with our accents” (“often after a public event”).

Codrescu has certainly kept talking, as evidenced by several long poems such as “not a pot to piss in” and “Comrade Past and Mister Present.” I confess I lost interest in his monologue long before these poems ended. Codrescu’s charm works most efficiently in short bursts, in poems such as “A Grammar” (on page 128) or “The Gap” (page 70), both of which share a theme that echoes a sort of existential variation on Zeno’s Paradox. A skeptical surrealist is at work in Codrescu’s imagination when he is at his best. “Wishes” begins: “I wish I could appear at will in your thoughts.” The final five lines bring the wish full circle:

I wish there were a way for many of these
futures to be known
by something other than their names”

By the need for them perhaps or
by their light”

The answer to this wish is one of the few poems that is worth quoting in its entirety, “Why Write” (page 136). If I can ever get permission to quote it, then I will someday insert it for the pleasure of my readers at this point in the commentary.

Finally, it perhaps is indicative of Codrescu’s limitations as a poet that there is no index of titles or first lines at the end of this 400 page volume. Unfortunately, such as index would tend to highlight the flatness in his work. There are enough interesting moments in this collection to make it worth perusing, but it was probably a good decision to leave out these indices. One doesn’t want a person to glance at something meant to highlight the alluring parts of a composition only to have a potential reader encounter mediocrity. Codrescu places himself in Charles Bukowski’s company, but Bukowski would never settle for the nondescript titles that head up all too many of Codrescu’s poems.