ESCAPE FROM PLANET PERLOFF!
Every now and then, Mad Marge Perloff squints up from her duties as America’s Foremost Poetry Critic to take a pot shot at metrical verse, despite the fact that she wouldn’t recognise it if it were screamed in her ear through a bullhorn.
In “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall” , her contribution to the latest issue of Jacket, she trots out that hackneyed trick of second rate reviewers everywhere, de-lineating free verse poems to reveal them as “chopped-up-prose” Here the victims are Yusef Komunyakaa, James Fenton, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss, Cathy Song, and Henri Cole.
How many times, in how many newspapers, have we seen this hack’s gambit? Of course the line breaks make a difference in these poems, even if it’s a purely visual difference, even if it’s a weak difference (and it so often is). So here you might reasonably expect a demonstration of the weakness of the lineation. That’s what a serious critic would do. But no. Here, according to the script, is where the hack reviewer stands aside and merely gestures smugly. OK, so there are good images here, she concedes,
But since fiction can — and does — foreground these same devices, the same ‘sensitive,’ [note the scare quotes] closely observed perceptions...one wonders if ‘poetry’ [scared again] at the turn of the twenty-first century isn’t perhaps expendable. Do we really need it? Or is ‘real’ [scarier still] poetry to be found, as some people now argue, in Hi-Hop [sic] culture or at the Poetry Slam? Or perhaps in New Formalist attempts to restore the iambic pentameter or tetrameter to its former position?
Bitchin! Is Margie about to sign to Puff Daddy’s label? Or is she a closet New Formalist? Has she been lurking at West Chester disguised beneath a sun hat and dark glasses? Is she about to “come out” as a champion of the double dactyl? Not bloody likely:
Whatever our position on the New Formalism, close reading of its exemplars suggests that, like the clothing or furniture of earlier centuries, the verse forms of, say, the Romantic period cannot, in fact, be replicated except as museum curiosities.
And just how is this - note once again the awkward passive voice - "suggested"? Why by cloth-eared close reading, of course! Her speciality. So she now turns approvingly to the opening of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’:
Five years have past: five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. — Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
A whole essay could be written on the subtle ways these lines enact the ‘connect[ion]’ of ‘the landscape with the quiet of the sky.’ The assonance of ‘quiet’, ‘sky,’ the internal rhyme of ‘steep’ and ‘deep’, ‘soft’ and ‘loft-y’...
Etc, etc.... Sounds like Perloff wrote just such an essay as an undergraduate and is reproducing an extract here. Why is she doing this? To set up Dana Gioia. She quotes from his poem ‘Rough Country’:
not half a mile from the nearest road,
a spot so hard to reach that no one comes–
a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
one piece of property that won’t be owned.
Leaving aside the absurd injustice of comparing Gioia to Wordsworth, what are we to make of Perloff’s close reading? Does she notice, for example, the assonance of ‘hiding’ ‘shrine’ ‘dragonflies’ and ‘sign’? Or of ‘won’t’ and ‘owned’? Nope: “Here the dutiful elaboration of the iambic pentameter does little to relate meaningful units: consider the monotony of ‘and NESTing JAYS, a SIGN that THERE is STILL.’ Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The word ‘There’ is relatively unstressed if you speak the line naturally (instead of chanting it). Either Perloff is deafened by her prejudices or she really has no idea whatsoever how metre works with speech rhythm.
Again, word and rhythm seem to have no necessary connection: if the first line read ‘not half a mile from the nearest highway’ and the second, ‘a spot so tough to reach that no one comes,’ I doubt anyone would notice.
Another hack’s gambit - and, of course, it backfires, because if the Wordsworth passage weren’t so well known, no one would notice if she’d misquoted it as
Nine years have gone: nine seasons, with the stretch
Of nine long autumns
But she ploughs ahead, oblivious:
It is not just that Gioia is untalented; even poets of much greater talent have found that... the recycling of a verse form that had a raison d’être at a particular moment in history at a particular place cannot be accomplished.
[note, once again, the clumsy, imperious passive voice] Why is it, then, that this “cannot be accomplished”? Because “Specific sound patterns change in response to their time and culture” But how, professor? Because they fall out of fashion? She seems to have fashion on the brain. Recall that earlier she likened the verse forms of the Romantic period to “the clothing or furniture of earlier centuries which can’t be replicated except as museum curiosities” Who dictates fashion, then? I guess the president of the MLA does.
In the next section, she thumbs through the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics for us and discovers that (eureka!) the poetry of ancient and non Western cultures is highly formal. So “Procedural poetry, in this scheme of things, marks a return to tradition — but not quite the Englit tradition the New Formalists long to recreate”
Hold it right there, Marge, I’m confused. So literary tradition is now A Good Thing. But not, for some still undemonstrated reason, if it’s an English tradition. That would be just so much “Englit”.
Meanwhile, over on his blog, Mike Snider links to Perloff’s
home page and her review of Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry, wherein she dismisses as trite a passage from 1918 by the African-American poet
Georgia Douglas Johnson
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on;
Afar o‚er life‚s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tires to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars
Tuts Marge,"These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card" Oh-oh. America’s Foremost Poetry Critic can’t tell iambic pentameter from dactylic or anapaestic tetrameter! Elsewhere, in an essay on Yeats, she quotes “A Deep-sworn Vow.”
Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.
She notes "..the two rhymes...are perfectly conventional as is Yeats’s basic stanza, 6 lines of iambic tetrameter" Stop, Doc, you’re killing me! [thanks to R.S. Gwynn and Michael Donaghy for these examples] And it’s not just Perloff, of course. Snider tells us that in "Poetics of the Americas," Charles Bernstein calls this Claude McKay line pentameter: "Just to view de homeland England, in de streets of London walk"
It may be some kind of neurological dysfunction. No, honestly. Among the diagnostic criteria for Asperger's Syndrome are a fascination with ‘difficult words’ (so that children with this form of functional autism are often referred to as 'little professors' ) incomprehension of emotion (the kind of incomprehension that might lead one to place scare quotes around a word like ‘sensitive’), and according to the website, ‘an inability to hear prosody’.