Tag Archives: marjorie perloff

Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

Here’s a confession, since Harriet started sending me traffic I’ve been paying far more attention than normal to poetry debates in North America. Two things have caught my eye recently, the first being ‘Poetry on the Brink’ by Marjorie Perloff in the Boston Review and the second being ‘Poetry is Dead, I killed it’ by Vanessa Place on Harriet.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed position on these matters is reasonably straightforward:

  • Vanessa Place can do no wrong and is always strategically correct;
  • poetry is far too poetic for its own good;
  • conceptual poetry is not the answer to the poetry problem;
  • whatever she might say, Vanessa Place is not a conceptualist;
  • creative writing cannot and should not be taught;

I regret to say that the first of these may be up for revision but I think I need to turn to the Perloff piece which is very grown up and thought through and has far too many words. I’d also like to make the rather obvious point that you don’t (ever) do long headers in very big fonts in a different colour. “We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material” is too long, too complex and dull for this kind of eager treatment.

Perloff’s survey of the nature of this particular brink is written from the perspective of a custodian rather than a user and makes some pertinent observations, the main one being that quality does not increase in lock step with quantity. There is a debate to be had about the ‘market’ for creative writing courses and how this functions just as there is a need for custodians to know what it is they want but Perloff manages to avoid this with her extended list of platitudes. A glance at the response thread gives a clearer demonstration of what might be wrong than the article itself.

Perloff also manages to lump Place, Goldsmith and Bergvall into the same very short and dismissive paragraph. This is the sort of error that makes me quite cross. I’ve said before that I do want to be Caroline Bergvall so I might be a bit biased but anybody who has bothered to read any of the work of these three will know that they don’t ‘fit’ together, they are doing different things in completely different ways and their relationship to the ‘C’ word is really rather complex.

Having waded my way through all of the words that Perloff has put together, I’m not clear as to what poetry might be on the brink of nor what we ought to do about this apparently quite bad thing. She does try to make something of Pound’s ‘make it new’ but omits to mention that the new was/is nothing without the irascible.

Vanessa Place’s piece is thankfully much shorter and has a proper header and says this:

But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.

Which is obviously correct and needs stating and restating but is only one variation on the ‘c’ word repertoire. For readers of Harriet however this could probably have done with a bit more flesh on the bone:

Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.

This is an accurate precis of what the Place Project might be about but you do need to know at least some of the work and (I imagine) most would need some evidence for the irrelevance of those a prioris. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Harriet might be read by more than those that have already got the ‘c’ message and that this faux defiance might not be the best way to fight the fight- and it is a fight that needs to be fought.

Now we come to the caveats, the text doesn’t live up to its header, which is almost as bad as Perloff’s abuse of headers- if you’re going to maintain your deserved reputation as the scariest woman in literature then you’d better come up with something more witheringly vicious than this. Let’s be clear, Vanessa Place scares me and I’m not easily scared and this was a missed opportunity to scare and convert a lot more people.

The second quibble is a bit more serious, I’m of the view that endings are quite important and that they tend to leave an impression. Place’s final paragraph tries to do far too many things and the last two sentences are just inept because it doesn’t say anything at all and the ‘boring’ conceit isn’t good enough. So, I feel a little bit let down that the only person on the planet who seems to have a handle on this stuff seems to have blown her place in the sun, at least on this particular occasion.

Whilst poetry eschatology is always a fun game to play, it’s never more than a game. Poetry goes through all kinds of phases and transmutations but (whatever the crisis) it doesn’t die, it might not be what we want or what we feel that we deserve but it doesn’t die nor does it get anywhere near a brink….