Marjorie Perloff

July 1998

1. How I became an “essayist,” as you call it. (we would say “critic”).
Answer: When I was in college, I took a course in Essay Writing with a very brilliant professor, F. X. Roellinger. The first semester we wrote personal essays, the second “critical.” Although I did quite well at the personal essay, it became clear that my real metier was the critical. We had to take an “issue” like point of view in Henry James’s THE WINGS OF THE DOVE and I loved arguing. So I thought I might like to be a critic. But I was not so sure I wanted to be a scholar! What most scholars did seemed rather dull to me. I came into my own when I started working on contemporary literature. Here, everything hasn’t yet been said (as it has in the case of Shakespeare although of course there are new things there too!). You can try to pick the winners and try to understand their historical derivations. I love figuring out how X came out of Y and why that happened.

2. Cultural Studies is already somewhat passe in the U.S. The really serious variant of cultural studies was the Stuart Hall school in Birmingham, England — a Marxist group that studied very closely the phenomena of popular culture. In Britain this seemed revolutionary because academic English Departments only studies the canon. So Cultural Studies was an exciting alternative.

But in the U.S. it never quite caught on because the Marxist base wasn’t really there. Cultural studies assumes, even when it doesn’t say so, that a given poem or novel is a symptom of a particular economic, social, and cultural formation and it is always interested in the larger picture, not the individual work. Then, too, as John Guillory has shown, cultural studies can do entirely without literature. It can devote itself to Madonna or comic books or shopping malls. Literature gets left behind. Most U.S. academics now see that and so they are beginning to want to turn to literature again. For who wants to do nothing but sociology?

5. Does poetry have a future in the market world?

Certainly! Critics have been predicting the death of poetry for a century now but it never quite dies; it merely changes. Poetry as the language art is essential as a critique of the social order. The language we hear all around us is so debased and so cliched that poetry is necessary to revive our ability to think, to make meanings! And there are lots of exciting developments in poetry. I was just leafing through some new journals like the Australian BOXKITE and Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman’s CHAIN, and thinking how amazing it is how much interesting work- verbal/visual in nature — there now is.

In the U.S. poets are barely known to the “public”; on the other hand, the poetry circuits in the university and in various journals and presses is not so small so there seems to be quite enough getting attention. Of course it is frustrating that little of it is reviewed in the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books, but in the long run that won’t amtter so much.

6. This leads to next question. “Conservative” poetry in the U.S. is written in a loose free verse in what seem to be arbitrary stanzaic divisions and is usually a personal observation about a particular experience. Most of it is very trivial: I am thinking of the “established” poets from John Hollander and Robert Pinsky and Edward Hirsh and Louise Gluck down to younger versions of these people. Most of it isn’t bad poetry; it isn’t poetry at all. “Remarks,” said Gertrude Stein, “are not literature.” But these poems are just remarks.

This is not to say that all “experimental” poetry is good. POEMS FOR THE MILLENIUM, Volume 2 has a lot of third-rate poetry in it as does Douglas Messerli’s FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CENTURY and Paul Hoover’s NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POSTMODERN POETRY and Margy Sloan’s new very fat anthology of “innovative” poetry by women. All these are much too big. Indeed, if I think of any real fault of the poetry scene today it is megalomania. Why these huge books? How many great poets can you have? Or even good ones? I prefer the British anthology Maggie O’Sullivan did, OUT OF EVERYWHERE, a slim anthology of experimental women poets in which almost every work is good!

What is needed at this stage, so far as experimental or avant-garde poetry goes, is more and better critique. There’s no use saying that anything goes, that if X says he or she is a language poet, so be it! There needs to be much more selection and then, more support for those selected.

8. My most recent books are RADICAL ARTIFICE and WITTGENSTEIN’S LADDER; I also have a new collection of essays out, POETRY ON & OFF THE PAGE: ESSAYS FOR EMERGENT OCCASIONS.
I think I enjoyed writing WITTGENSTEIN’S LADDER more than anything else I’ve done. I fell in love with Ludwig, my fellow Viennese. I think reading him has totally changed my life, the way I think. For instance I just wrote an essay on the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair called “A Modest (Wittgensteinian) Proposal.” I took two sentences that one hears on TV every minute: (1) It’s just about sex and everybody lies about sex so it’s OK,” and (2) The President’s private life is nobody’s business but his own.” I showed how, with Wittgensteinian rigor, one can see just how silly these sentences are. For instance, suppose Clarence Thomas “lied” in the Anita Hill case? Well, it’s just about sex, so why not? Or, if Clinton didn’t constantly put Hillary (his private life, after all) before us, and Chelsea, and the dog!, perhaps we wouldn’t pay so much attention to Monica! And so on.
I want to do more work on Wittgenstein’s aesthetic because it is so brilliant.
RADICAL ARTIFICE was somewhat more polemic, a brief for a different kind of poetry and I am happy with it but I wish I could have convinced more of my colleagues at Stanford about language poetry, John Cage, etc. They remain adamantly opposed to this material.

I have many new projects (too many–commissions, etc) but I am under contract with New Directions to write a book about Viennese culture vis-a-vis my development so I must begin that. I also want to write a larger book about poetic value–talking about sound and visual elements as well as “meaning.” In common parlance, poetry is still treated as a message, as “saying” something nicely. It is a big mistake!

9. Every artistic statement is always somehow political, of course, and I believe in the close relation of art and politics but that does NOT mean that there must be a fixed agenda. Multiculturalism has had a terrible effect on our poetics because, if you cannot criticize an African-American or Chicano poet, you cannot criticize a white one either and so there is no meaningful debate or discussion. The notion that you must always have one of each–one Chicano, one Native American, one African-American woman, one lesbian Asian-American poet, and so on–has been very destructive. Not that there aren’t excellent poets from these minority groups. But interest can’t be forced. And multiculturalism has had a bad effect on multinationalism–that is, in the U.S. there is little interest in the poetry of any other nation and the languages are not known so “foreign” poetry is a dubious proposition. I myself hope to correct that in some way!

10. Duchamp is in many ways the great artist of the century, the most inventive, the test case. Criticism on Duchamp is of a very high order: for example, Thierry de Duve’s new book KANT AFTER DUCHAMP is excellent. So when we want to understand what it means to be avant-garde, who is more interesting than Duchamp. On the other hand, we needn’t hero worhsip him as some scholars now do. We needn’t believe everything he says!

OK, Regis??