Tag Archives: Michael Davidson


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.)


Ground Level Conditions Philosophy Poetry

The Perfume of the Soul

June 28, 2015

The Perfume of the Soul

I have been working on a talk I am scheduled to give in Dijon, France in November and reading with great pleasure and interest Michael Davidson’s On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics. In discussing George Oppen’s poetry, he mentions that “a number of recent books in critical theory have chronicled modernism’s ocularcentrism …. At the same time, social theorists have provided a critique of modernity’s ocularcentrism, pointing out how metaphors of seeing and sight dominate the work of philosophers and theorists from Marx’s theory of ideology as a camera obscura, Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture,” and Bergson’s duree to Foucault’s emphasis on the panoptical gaze, to Sartre’s “regard” and Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze” (116-117). To limit ocularcentrism to moderism and modernity, however, is to underplay its role in Western philosophy and culture. Sight was the key sense cited by Plato in The Republic, for instance, so this privileging should hardly be limited to a contemporary rendition of “modernity.” Rather, sight’s dominance is the mark of modernity, whether we are thinking of remote modernity or the prosthetic forms that pass themselves off as the post-modern.1

It is my understanding that this emphasis upon sight has a pragmatic basis, for I read somewhere that well over two-thirds of the information our brain receives and works with is directly accessed through sight. That proportion of appetitive perception will probably not alter much in the centuries ahead, but we might be better off if we take the time to cultivate the other senses, too, in the same way that pianist must learn to play with the “weak” hand as well as the hand that ‘s inclined to take the lead. In fact, would both Plato and Heidegger have been better off emphasizing another sense, that of smell. The latter’s quarrel with the former might well have led him to a different understanding of Being if smell had been the sense to which he entrusted the fate of his soul.2

A recent prose poem of a blog entry that points to the possibilities of an epiphany based on smell can be found at: http://www.juliaharis.com/ Her entry, “Textures of the Unknown,” is a profound meditation on how the aquifers of the olfactory nourish the perfume of the soul. After reading her entry, I trusted more than ever Heraclitus’s proposition that “if all things turned to smoke, the nose would know all things.”3


1 In particular, the discussion in Book VI of The Republic at one point becomes a eulogy for the interwoven nature of the sun, its light, the eye and the soul.

2 Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Review of Books examine the on-going destabilization of Heidegger’s impact on twentieth century philosophy due to his affiliation with the Nazi Party in Germany.

http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/what-to-make-of-heidegger-in-2015  What to Make of Heidegger in 2015? by Santiago Zabala (June 24th, 2015)

http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/king-dead-heideggers-black-notebooks   “The King Is Dead: Heidegger’s Black Notebooks” by Gregory Fried.

3 Michael Kincaid. There Are Gods Here Too: Readings of Heraclitus. Dickinson, North Dakota: Buffalo Commons Press, 2008, 53.