Longreads 2012: Marjorie Perloff Takes on the Lyric and More

Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric (Boston Review), by Marjorie Perloff

Perloff’s critique of contemporary American poetry and praise for the Conceptual poets is worth a read if only as a matter of perspective. If I had to summarize her argument as to what’s wrong with poetry today, it would be that she thinks there are too many editors publishing too many poets writing boring poetry. Or rather, that too many editors publish too many poets writing the same kind of boring poetry, the “lyric” of the title:

[T]he 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, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.

Perloff goes on to refine the formula as 1) a present-time stimulus; 2) an ensuing memory; 3) an epiphany.

Perloff also looks at (and in fact joins) the Rita Dove anthology controversy of late 2011 (more on that later) and offers up such gems as, “World War II was the watershed. Since then, there has never been a fixed American poetry canon.”

The argument then moves on to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where
Matvei Yankelevich takes issue with the privileged position Perloff reserves for the Conceptualists in his The Gray Area: An Open Letter to Marjorie Perloff.

In her reply, A Response to Matvei Yankelevich, also in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Perloff concludes thus:

[P]erhaps it’s time to forget about movements and isms and read carefully particular poets — poets who, in Yankelevich’s words about Nekrasov, “complicate the relationships of appropriation and transparency, context and concept, politics and aesthetics,” insisting on a “heightened materiality of language.” Whether we call such work Conceptualist or Post-Conceptualist really doesn’t matter. The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world, and to look closely at the alternatives. And here I agree with Yankelevich that “we have a lot more work to do.”


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