Whenever I see a new essay from Marjorie Perloff, I get so excited. I think the younger kids call this excitement getting “geeked out.” I geek out to Perloff.
I thoroughly enjoy Perloff’s observations on poetry. She’s so astute that I wonder if she’s a poet. I’ve never seen her poetry, but perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places. Her book The Dance of the Intellect was one of those great books of criticism that significantly affected me. It’s brilliant. Another book that significantly impacted me was a book of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s essays on poetry that I used to read a lot as an undergrad. I felt like stealing if from the SUNY Oneonta Milne Library since it became so important to me and since no one else had ever checked it out since the 1970s. I felt I could ethically and morally appropriate it from the library. Who would know? And who would give the book more love than me? Other important books of criticism to me are Ezra Pound’s The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (which I own), Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (which I own), and Roy Harvey Pearce’s The Continuity of American Poetry (which I own), especially the stuff about T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Those books are huge in my literary growth, and Perloff’s books (which I own) are a big deal in my life. (And now it probably sounds like I’m going to undermine or attack her, but I’m not. If you’re expecting an attack, it won’t happen.)
Her newest essay, “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” appears in the Boston Review. In this essay (which you should read else this essay might feel wobbly to you), it’s like Perloff is a curator or tour guide in The Contemporary American Museum (Lyric Branch). In this branch of the museum, she walks around and points out things and comments on them. She starts by pointing to the general gist of today’s poetry:
The poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain . . . .
That seems about right to me. Perloff then moves into Rita Dove‘s new anthology from Penguin Books: Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Now, we can all quibble with any anthology of poetry, as Jonas Mekas did: http://jonasmekasfilms.com/diary/?p=1447#. (You really should watch this. It’s delightful.) But in this case, Perloff makes valid and legitimate points:
[. . .] but what about the copyright issue Dove raises at the close of her introduction? Evidently, she wanted to include Allen Ginsberg (Howl gets a prominent mention) and Sylvia Plath, but the reproduction costs were prohibitive. [. . .] Clearly concerned about the omission of these important poets, Dove asks her readers to “cut me some slack” and reminds us that Ginsberg and Plath are readily available “in your local public library.”
[. . .]
But if the anthology is to have any sort of validity as a textbook or a selection for the general reader, this copyright caveat is unacceptable, and the fault is primarily the publisher’s. How could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose? [. . .]
Indeed, what Penguin’s editorial team seems to be saying is that the value of Dove’s anthology’s depends [. . .] on the prestige of its editor.
That’s true, and it makes me feel really sad for Dove. She probably entered this whole arrangement with the idea that she would put together a significant anthology of poetry. She was going to be the poet, not critic, who was going to frame a whole century’s worth of poetry for later generations to read. This was going to be huge and important to her and us. But she was manipulated by the big bad publisher of profits. I mean, if the publisher was really concerned with creating an anthology, those little costs wouldn’t matter. Those costs can be recouped. But Penguin was going on the cheap and quick. And as a result, Dove’s reputation suffers and Penguin’s profits go up. (Bah. I don’t even like Penguin anyway. I don’t even like the cheap paper they use and the layout of their books is hasty and difficult on the eye. This anthology should have been left to a place like Copper Canyon, Graywolf, BOA, or someone with the love of poetry in them instead of profits. But I digress. I want to get some important items.)
What is the state of the lyric? I think it has almost vanished from the poetry scene, which is why there was the “What Happened to the Lyric” issue 12 of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics, which quickly sold out but I’ve made it available online here: http://issuu.com/thelinebreak/docs/redactions_issue_12. First, however, I think we need a definition of lyric poetry. A lot of people think a lyric poem is poem that is musical or sounds good. That is partially right, but it’s not a full definition. All poetry should be musical or sound good, which is something Perloff notes is often missing in today’s poetry. But a lyric poem is more. Before I get to my definition of it, let’s get to the definition of narrative poem and then the definitions of the three other types of poetry. A narrative poem is a poem that moves through time, and it usually moves in a linear, causal fashion. It progresses through time much like a typical story. A lyric poem, however, stands outside of time or is a moment in time. Meditative poetry is similar to lyric poetry, but the poem is inside the poet’s mind and can often be philosophical. And then there’s dramatic poetry, which is like a poetry play or play written as poetry, such as William Butler Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” or Robert Frost’s “The Witch of Coös.” With that in mind, what’s the most prevalent type of poetry in contemporary American poetry? That’s right – narrative poetry. When Perloff says, “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation – triggering memory – insight) ubiquitous in the Dove anthology” (and elsewhere), I think she means “narrative” instead of “lyric.” If that’s the case, I completely agree with her, especially if she adds “first-person” before narrative. I’ve been noticing this for years. The implication of this is that we need something new. But what is the new thing we need?
One of Perloff’s suggestions is Erasure poetry. In Erasure poetry, you take a big chunk of text, such as a novel or long poem, and then begin erasing words from the text or using Wite Out to paint over words. The words that remain then make for a poem. But you can’t just use any text, as some poets do. No, you need a significant text, and then by erasing words, you find something like a secret meaning to the poem or text your are erasing from or “discover something like poetry hidden within [a] book.” John Cage did this with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but he added a twist. With the unerased words, he made an anagram: ALLEN GINSBERG. (See Perloff’s essay for the example.) As a result:
Without deploying a single word of his own, Cage subtly turns the language of Howl against itself so as to make a plea for restraint and quietude as alternatives to the violence at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem.
So the text you choose is important. Cage’s poem won’t make much sense or will lose most of its experience and meaning if you don’t know he is erasing from Howl. The same will hold true for Srikanth Reddy’s book Voyager, which is an erasure poem from Kurt Waldheim’s In the Eye of the Storm. Voyager, according to Perloff, is “one of the few really notable political poems of recent years.” However, its politics can only exist if you know the primary text or the author of the primary text. Who is Kurt Waldheim? If you know, awesome! I didn’t, so boo. Even Perloff had to point out who he was. Waldheim was:
Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981 and president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, Waldheim was exposed, in the mid-’80s, as having served in the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II and quite possibly having committed major war crimes. The president, who had carefully covered his tracks for years, continued to claim he was innocent, and many of his fellow Austrians defended him, even when the evidence became overwhelming. His political and diplomatic success – he was allowed to finish out his term as president – has become a symbol for the hypocrisy and mendacity of the postwar era in an Austria that had strongly supported Hitler in the war years, before it received occupied-nation status in 1945. Avoiding the fate of its Iron Curtain neighbors Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Austria quickly became a prosperous nation.
If you don’t know this information, you lose out on the majority of the meanings and experiences of the poem or poems. This will be the effect of an Erasure poem. The text the poet erases from matters, but if the reader doesn’t know the text, then the resulting poem will fail. And knowing the original text really isn’t enough either. One will have to have read the original text “to get the poem” that arrived from erasing. Erasure poetry, then becomes not only elliptical but exclusive, just like it’s actions in making the poem. It excludes certain words to create a meaning, and it excludes readers not familiar with the original text. (This also assumes that you wouldn’t just erase from some random book or chunk of text, because then what would be the point? You might as well randomly pick words from a dictionary. The text that is being erased from matters.)
Additionally, Erasure poetry has the same feel as an acrostic poem that our Puritan ancestors wrote.
“The Puritan elegist might well believe that in a man’s name God had inserted evidence of his nature and his fate” (Pearce, 31).
As fun as an acrostic is to write, we know the above Purtian elegist’s belief is not true. The secret evidence of a person’s nature or fate can’t be extracted from the person’s name even if laid out as an acrostic. And as fun as it is to create an Erasure poem, as much fun as refrigerator poetry, this is no way to find a new meaning in a text or in an author. It’s just play. And there’s nothing wrong with play. And poetry should be play, but it should be a play that resonates. Play that resonates and impacts. Erasure poetry doesn’t resonate or impact, unless the reader is ”in the know” of the primary text, and even then how much can it resonate or impact? So I don’t think this is the new direction lyric poetry should take.
But it’s this other idea of borrowing or appropriation that is intriguing. This is when the poet, such as Susan Howe in That This, ”combines cited material with her own prose and verse.” (I think Cid Corman was the first, or one of the first, to do this.) I assume that somewhere in Howe’s book there is a “Works Cited” page that indicates where each cited text came from. If not, then she’s appropriating, which has ethical dilemmas . . . but maybe not. (That Swinburne book should be mine!) But for now let’s assume all the works Howe borrows from are cited. This borrowing of other texts seems like a terrific idea to me. I mean, who isn’t just an amalgam of every person they’ve met, every book they’ve read, every song they’ve heard, every movie or concert or play or football game they’ve seen, etc. For instance, I once read so much Emerson with so much intensity that I can no longer separate him from me. I often don’t know if the thoughts I have are mine or if they were originally his. We have become one. So why not use fragments from other texts we have read to help us better express what needs to be expressed? Especially if it follows the associative path of how the poet thinks, as did Howe when reflecting on her husband’s passing when she cites Sarah Edwards (Jonathan Edwards wife):
“O My Very Dear Child. What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud.” On April 3, 1758, Sarah Edwards wrote this in a letter to her daughter Esther Edwards Burr when she heard of Jonathan’s sudden death in Princeton. For Sarah all works of God are a kind of language or voice to instruct us in things pertaining to calling and confusion. I love to read her husband’s analogies, metaphors, and similes.
What’s wrong with including this if it gets the poet closer to how he or she feels? The mind flows in its own thoughts and is invaded by the thoughts of others and others’ experiences. And if you are believer in Philip Whalen’s “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” as I am, then this borrowing seems an appropriate fit, a natural form of expression. Or does it? I’ll get back to this.
What if Howe didn’t cite where the borrowed text came from, which often seems to be the case, though not necessarily with Howe? I’m thinking of Flarf poetry and poets here, at least as I understand Flarf poetry. In this case, the poet appropriates the text and makes it his or hers. Those poets appropriate much in the manner that I wanted to appropriate that Swinburne book from SUNY Oneonta’s Milne Library. That book meant a lot to me, and it didn’t seem relevant to anyone else, at least since the 70s. So why shouldn’t I have it? It’s part of me. I should just steal it. Aha. “Appropriate” is just camouflage for “steal.” And it’s not good stealing like the stealing T. S. Eliot meant. It’s theft of words that aren’t yours, even if they appropriately express what you feel or want to say. But then, if it appropriately expresses what you feel and want to say, then are our your thoughts and feelings original? Original enough for a poem? A new poem? A new lyric poem?
This ties back to Howe borrowing from Sarah Edwards. Is Howe really expressing her grief by borrowing another person’s words? Isn’t the job of a poet to get closer to their own bone of experience? Or is Howe using other text as a trigger and much in the same manner that Perloff and I are bored of: “the free-verse lyric paradigm (observation—triggering memory—insight).” Howe’s observation is the painful passing of her husband, which triggers a memory of Sarah Edward’s words, which then leads to insight. Now, this doesn’t seem so bad does it? Especially if it helps the poet deal with and express his or her grief, which is really the important thing, at least and especially for Howe. The only difference with Howe’s presentation is the memory is of text instead of a physical experience.
So where are we now? What are the differences? What newness has the lyric poem experienced? How is using your own past experiences to lead to an insight better/different/less effective than borrowing from a text? How is bricolage different from the tapestry of your experiences? I don’t see the differences or how one method is more successful than the other.
Still it would be nice to find a new lyrical pattern to weave to help us get closer to the bone of experience we want to express. But I wonder what that pattern is. I’ve been searching now for at least five years. If anyone knows, please share.
Perloff, I’m so glad you wrote this essay. I hope these reinvention attempts continue. I hope every poet also continues to reinvent. Let’s make it new. Let’s get closer to the bone of experience.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poety. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1987.
Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric.” Boston Review. Boston Review, May/June 2012. Web. 3 May 2012. <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.3/marjorie_perloff_poetry_lyric_reinvention.php>.