Poetics in a New Key: Interviews and Essaysby Marjorie Perloff, David Jonathan Y. Bayot (Editor)
Marjorie Perloff writes in her preface to Poetics in a New Key that when she learned David Jonathan Y. Bayot wanted to publish a collection of her interviews and essays, she was “at once honored and mystified.” But to Perloff’s surprise and her readers’ delight, the resulting assembly not only presents an accessible and/i>
Marjorie Perloff writes in her preface to Poetics in a New Key that when she learned David Jonathan Y. Bayot wanted to publish a collection of her interviews and essays, she was “at once honored and mystified.” But to Perloff’s surprise and her readers’ delight, the resulting assembly not only presents an accessible and provocative introduction to Perloff’s critical thought, but also highlights the wide range of her interests, and the energetic reassessments and new takes that have marked her academic career.
The fourteen interviews in Poetics in a New Keyconducted by scholars, poets, and critics from the United States, Denmark, Norway, France, and Poland, including Charles Bernstein, Hélène Aji, and Peter Nichollscover a broad spectrum of topics in the study of poetry: its nature as a literary genre, its current state, and its relationship to art, politics, language, theory, and technology. Also featured in the collection are three pieces by Perloff herself: an academic memoir, an exploration of poetry pedagogy, and an essay on twenty-first-century intellectuals. But across all the interviews and essays, Perloff’s distinctive personality and approach to reading and talking resound, making this new collection an inspiring resource for scholars both of poetry and writing.
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Poetics in a New Key
Interviews and Essays
By Marjorie Perloff, David Jonathan Y. Bayot
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2013 Marjorie Perloff
All rights reserved.
Becoming a Critic: An Academic Memoir
I came to the study of poetry relatively late in my career. As an undergraduate, I was, like most students, much more interested in fiction than in poetry; my favorite novels were the "big" ones of the nineteenth century by Balzac and Flaubert, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but I was also keen on Modernism and wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on "James Joyce and The Stream-of-Consciousness Novel," followed by an M.A. thesis on "Privileged Moments in Proust and Virginia Woolf." It was only in my first year of graduate school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, that I began to discover the pleasures and challenges of poetry. Three amazing professors—James Hafley, Craig La Drière, and Giovanni Giovannini—taught me basically HOW TO READ. They, in turn, had been influenced by an extraordinary body of criticism then available—not only to specialists but to the larger literary public.
The fifties and early sixties are regarded today as the heyday of the "New Criticism"—a term that has become a dirty word, signifying the narrow or "close" reading of autonomous poems while ignoring their political and cultural significance, their treatment of race, ethnicity, and gender. It is true that most (though not all) of the poems discussed by the so-called New Critics were by white men and that some of these critics were writing from a conservative Christian perspective: Cleanth Brooks, for example, read T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as exhibiting the central Christian paradox that life without faith in God is really a form of death and that conversely death can be life-giving. Again, Brooks and his colleague Robert Penn Warren—the two wrote the key textbook of the period, Understanding Poetry —tended to equate poetry with metaphor: they especially admired the lyric of the Metaphysical poets—say, John Donne's "A Valediction forbidding Mourning," which makes an extended comparison between two lovers who must be briefly separated and twin compasses that cannot be severed even as the outer leg (male) goes around the circle, bending away from its (female) partner.
But there were other studies, more historical than "merely" formal, that we read and that shaped our thinking in the late 1950s. The first I want to talk about here is W. K. Wimsatt's The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, which was completed in 1953, the year I graduated from college. The first essay in this collection, written together with Monroe Beardsley, was called "The Intentional Fallacy," and I still think it is basically correct. The fallacy in question is the belief that we can judge an author's work by his or her stated intention. It is, of course, always useful to learn what the author was trying to do, but, as Wimsatt argues, "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art" (Verbal Icon 3). The word "success" here implies that there is such a thing as literary value, that there are "better" poems and "worse" poems—a very unfashionable view today but one which, in fact, we all espouse by our choices of what to read, teach, etc. And we might also note that long before Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault talked about "the death of the author," Wimsatt and his colleagues were insisting that authors say all kinds of things to "explain" or account for their work—and yet that interpretation and evaluation must finally rely on the text itself.
I still warn students to beware the intentional fallacy. It's wonderful, say, to read the many interviews given by the late Robert Creeley or the great volumes of letters, recently published, by T. S. Eliot: these interviews, letters, and diaries shed important light on the poetry, but they can also be partial or misleading. Consider the response to Kenneth Goldsmith's repeated insistence that his "uncreative writing" needn't be read at all, that it is much too "boring" to read and only the idea counts. Even if Goldsmith believes this himself—and I think he is of course being playful—once the book—say, Traffic —is there—proofread, copyedited, and printed with a special design and cover—it is obviously demanding to be read. And when it is, authorial surprises are certainly in store for the reader. Or again, when Brian Reed took up the challenge of Craig Dworkin's parody grammar book Parse—another ostensibly "unreadable" book, whose author claims that he is making no "personal" intervention—he discovered that fifty pages or so into the text, "errors begin to creep in ... and Parse turns out to be intermittently fascinating, even at times laugh-out-loud funny."
But to return to The Verbal Icon. One of my favorite Wimsatt essays encountered in graduate school was a fairly technical one called "One Relation of Rhyme to Reason" (153-68). Here Wimsatt argues that the poet can use the sound coupling of rhyme to create a semantic charge as well. In the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," for example, we read:
One speaks the glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen.
where the implication is that there is little difference in the regard felt for Queen Anne and a piece of exotic furniture. Or take the following couplet:
Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,
Or some frail China jar receive a flaw.
Wimsatt writes, "In the first line the breakage [Diana's law is that of chastity]; in the second line another fragile thing (the jar) and then its breaking (the flaw). The parallel is given a kind of roundness and completeness" (Verbal Icon 162). Again, the implication is that we are dealing with a society where young girls are equated to delicate objects—things not to be "broken."
The New Criticism is always charged with ignoring the cultural dimensions of the text, but the fact is that Wimsatt is here calling attention to Pope's trenchant critique of the high society world of early eighteenth century London, which equated virginity with a perfectly intact China jar—a luxury item carrying a high price and hence to be carefully protected. Another poet who used rhyme thus brilliantly was Byron, who could round out an ottava rima (abababcc) stanza with a devastating rhyme, as in this stanza from Don Juan:
T'is pity learnéd virgins ever wed
With persons of no sort of education,
Or gentlemen, who, though well born and bred,
Grow tired of scientific conversation:
I don't choose to say much upon this head,
I'm a plain man, and in a single station,
But—Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-pecked you all?
(Canto 1, stanza 22)
Here it is the tongue-twisting couplet rhyme itself that makes the pseudointellectual Donna Inez, the hero's mother, look so wonderfully absurd. Or again, consider the wit of Eliot's intermittent rhyme in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," for example:
Shall I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Wimsatt's essay on rhyme stands behind my PhD dissertation Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970), where I similarly tried to show how Yeats's rhyme words often epitomize—and even create—the meaning of a particular poem. Yeats usually began the first draft of a poem by jotting down a series of rhyme words in the right margin; then he filled in the lines: for example, the opening stanza of the famous "Wild Swans at Coole":
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry.
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.
Here a ballad stanza—abcb—of uneven line lengths culminates in a couplet whose harsh rhyme epitomizes the import of the poem: swans—beautiful, graceful, traditional symbols of the soul—are juxtaposed to the harsh reality of the "stones": for Yeats, it is among STONES—in a bad or at least difficult environment—that swans are to be found. The rhyme is pivotal.
But to return to Wimsatt. There is another crucial essay in The Verbal Icon called "The Structure of Romantic Nature Imagery." Here Wimsatt asks himself the question whether Romantic poetry "exhibits any imaginative structure which may be considered a special counterpart of the philosophy, the sensibility, and the theory" of Romanticism (p. 104). Note that such a project can only be undertaken by a critic well versed in the intellectual history of a particular period—something the New Critics are always accused of ignoring. Wimsatt's way of proceeding, however, is not to perform some kind of background study but to look closely at the imagery of particular Romantic poems. Consider these lines from the opening stanza of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey":
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
The images, seemingly just descriptive, are, on closer inspection, chosen to define the absence of outline or distinction in this rural landscape, where the undefined sights and sounds seem to blend into one whole. The stage is thus set for the assertion of the poet's "sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns." Interfusion, blending is the dominant motif here. Unlike traditional metaphor in which two disparate objects are yoked together so as to assert their identity (e.g., Shakespeare's "Kingdoms are clay," where the subject (kingdoms) is rendered by the vehicle "clay" so as to form a figure of identity), Romantic poetry does away with the distinction between A and B, preferring "to read meanings into the landscape." For these poets, nature is itself understood as hieroglyphic: everything seen and heard and perceived in the external world has a deeper mysterious and spiritual dimension. Such nature imagery is the inevitable expression of the then sacramental view of nature as the indwelling of God. "Nature," as Emerson put it, "always wears the colours of the spirit." From here, we might add, it is just a step to the Symbolist poetry of the twentieth century—to the "curveship" of Hart Crane's Brooklyn Bridge or the yellow fog of Eliot's "Prufrock."
I can't begin to convey to you the range and brilliance of the literary criticism we read in graduate school in the 1960s: from Wimsatt and Joseph Frank (the author of "Spatial Form in Modern Literature") to the more cultural criticism of Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination, the semiotics of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, and the synoptic theory of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which provided encyclopedic accounts of the different literary modes, forms, and genres from ancient times to the present.
One thing missing in this critical literature, however, was an understanding of such Modernist experiments as James Joyce's Finnegans Wake or Ezra Pound's Cantos. These, after all, did not exhibit what the New Critic Reuben Brower called a "Key Design"—a design boasting an "Aura around a Bright Clear Centre." On the contrary, Gertrude Stein's "Rooms," the third section of Tender Buttons, begins with the sentence, "Act so there is no use in a centre." At Catholic University, I was introduced to the work of these poets, especially Ezra Pound, then incarcerated (for eleven years!) at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in downtown Washington. My professors paid regular visits to Pound at St E's, as it was called; some of my classmates tagged along out of curiosity and came back with mixed reports on Pound's behavior. I never quite wanted to participate in these visits, disliking, as I did, the poet's politics, his displays of racism and anti-Semitism. But when in Dr. Giovannini's Modern Poetry class we read "A Retrospect" and the other pieces collected in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (1954: I still have the same copy), I was hooked.
"A Retrospect" (1918) opens with the three principles of Imagism:
1. Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase not in sequence of a metronome.
It was not that I took up Imagism—a short-lived movement that Pound himself soon abandoned in favor of his adaptation of the Chinese ideogram—but that especially (2) and (3) seemed so sensible. Circumlocution and what the Romantics dismissed as Poetic Diction seemed then—as it did at the beginning of the nineteenth century and as it does today—to be the bugbear of poetry. Use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation: this principle, which Pound derived from his studies of Chinese poetry, has always been a yardstick for me, as has the notion of the "musical phrase" rather than the tum-ti-tum of the metronome. More important were Pound's negative prescriptions:
"Vers libre [free verse] has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it." A hundred years after free verse became the norm for poetry, this is truer than ever. And here are its corollaries:
Use no superfluous word, no adjective which does not reveal something.
Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace." It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete.
Go in fear of abstractions. Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.
Don't imagine that a thing will "go" in verse just because it is too dull to go in prose.
A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure.
Note that this last prescription was one Wimsatt endorsed, without being aware, I would guess, that Pound had made it.
This set of axioms could easily apply to the poetry of the twenty-first century, as we confront it in such "leading" magazines as The New Yorker. The path of least resistance—and Pound knew it—is the confessional free-verse lyric in which the poet defines his feelings vis-à-vis some object or event s/he has encountered. But what makes such self-revelation poetry?
In the next essay, "How to Read," we are given a broader definition of literature that follows upon these axioms: Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree (Literary Essays 23). Poetry, as Pound was to add in the ABC of Reading, "is news that stays news." Or, as he put it in a related formulation, in response to the question, "What is the difference between poetry and prose?" "Poetry is the more highly energized."
The New Critics like Wimsatt would have had no quarrel with most of these prescriptions, although their emphasis was on figurative language and organic unity rather than on the sound and visual appearance of the poem. But Pound's own poetry—especially the Cantos, written over a fifty-year span—uses techniques unanticipated in most of his own prescriptions, important as they are. When the New Critics confronted Pound's elaborate montage, they found it hopelessly formless. For what to make of a passage like the following at the opening of Canto 81:
Zeus lies in Ceres' bosom
Taishan is attended of loves
Under Cythera, before sunrise
and he said: "Hay acquí mucho catolicismo—
(sounded catolith ismo)
y muy poco reliHion"
and he said: Yo creo que los reyes desaparecen"
(Kings will, I think, disappear)
That was Padre José Elizondo
in 1906 and in 1917
or about 1917
and Dolores said: "Come pan, niño," eat bread, me
Sargent had painted her
Before he descended
(i.e. if he descended
but in those days he did thumb sketches,
impressions of the Velásquez in the Museo del
and books cost a peseta,
brass candlesticks in proportion,
hot wind came from the marshes
and death-chill from the mountains.
Excerpted from Poetics in a New Key by Marjorie Perloff, David Jonathan Y. Bayot. Copyright © 2013 Marjorie Perloff. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Marjorie Perloff is professor of English emerita at Stanford University and the author or editor of many books, including, most recently, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, also published by the University of Chicago Press. David Jonathan Y. Bayot is associate professor of literature at De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines.
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