Recently I listened to numerous recordings of Perloff, pontificating in academia or conversing more casually. The online archives—in sundry places—are plentiful, and I enjoyed myself being in her audience, but have had to forcibly wean myself lest it become a habit. I process information better from a text; though Perloff's humanism shines through her speaking persona in a way that her writing does not evince. Never compelled to seek out her books before, I wanted to round out my experience, and Poetic License was a good choice (though a chance one at that) in that 1) it focuses on poetry, my subject, and 2) it begins with a lecture she gave that in its time appears to have had some renown, and is mentioned numerous times in the talks: "Can(n)on to the Right of Us, Can(n)on to the Left of Us." (The title's E.E. Cummings-like typographical trick should have been skipped.)
The pain and the pleasure are intricately tied. I find numerous mentions of my teacher Paul Carroll; yet the milieu he was involved in never held great interest for me. His groundbreaking critical anthology, The Poem in its Skin, is labeled a "revisionist study", but too many decades have passed for me to accept or refute that claim. Paul gave the first critical study to writers whose reputations subsequently grew—Frank O'Hara for instance, about whom Perloff wrote her first book. (I admired his work about the time of Paul's class, but have not returned to it since; Perloff's admiration persists, and his oeuvre appears to have been a cornerstone in her critical theory.)
Except for one footnote, Cummings is not mentioned at all; which disappoints me—because so much of the class that so fascinates her appears to have come out from under his overcoat, so to speak. An excerpt of a poem by John Cage called "Writing Through Howl" elicits her praise; yet is rather a humdrum piece of banality in contrast. Yet possibly, as belonging to a generation after it, my animus is against Post-Modernism which is her subject in favor of Modernism, if at all. Paul was something of a father figure for me—against whom (so psychology might say) it was fitting to rebel.
What does it mean, for example, to call Lawrence a "Romantic" poet, given the oddly un-Romantic free-verse articulation in his poems of a lyric voice that is hectoring, blustering, alternately rhapsodic and comic—indeed a voice closer to Marinetti's than to Wordsworth's or Keats's. Or again, how accurate is it to speak of the "postmodernity" of Charles Olson's "projective verse," when our own late-eighties postmodernity looks so very different? And if Paul Blackburn is a postmodern poet, what kind of poet is Clark Coolidge? Or Lyn Hejinian?
Paul’s book is faulted because it “makes no mention of [Louis] Zukofsky or [George] Oppen—yet Zukofsky’s name occasionally popped up during Paul’s lecture, his “great long poem ‘A’” specifically discussed possibly to shock the students (or some of them). Yet look at who was included: John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, James Dickey, Isabella Gardner, Allen Ginsberg, John Logan, W. S. Merwin, Frank O'Hara, W. D. Snodgrass, and James Wright, well-known literary figures of that era, about which life has brought me nary a jot of news since Paul—until now.
O’Hara, Snodgrass, and Creeley especially appealed to me. Revisiting Creeley’s work, I find the attraction has faded; Snodgrass I recognized the limitations of, and have not since revisited; O’Hara I liked best—but I shudder to think how I would feel today (there was so little of his work available to me then).
submit[ted] to close reading ten new poems by “the generation of 1962,” a generation which Carroll refers to as “Barbarians inside the City Gates”.... Merwin is called “the prince of the new poets”: “In many of his most recent lyrics, one feels as if taken into a country where all is poetry—pristine, totally natural, miracles everywhere.... the poet finds himself gazing into the eternal.”
Merwin is still writing, and I have heard him the butt of jokes, relaying (if I recollect correctly) the spiritualism the old man finds in walking his dog. Yet these appeal to me as badges of honor and virtue, not to be ridiculed; though, as much as such anecdotes might draw me to his person, when I have attempted to read his poems (lately) I have not found in them all the compositional virtue ascribed to them by Paul, or indeed by Perloff. She writes:
Merwin sets up his poems so that they press toward generalization even if the generalization to be made is only that we must recognize the nothing that is. Indeed, John Bayley, in a review of Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), puts his finger on the problem when he says, referring to the book blurb, which reprints the previously cited statement by Richard Howard as well as an even more extravagant one by Adrienne Rich:
W.S. Merwin seems to me a poet of civility and civilization, and as such a beautifully sensitive and accomplished one. What can Adrienne Rich mean by saying he “has been working more privately, profoundly and daringly than any other American poet of my generation”?... It was not daring of Gray to write “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” though if he had written “The curfew strikes the hour of parting day,” he would have failed to produce a line of good poetry.... Merwin’s poetry, I would have thought, is of a kind not at all common today and decidedly interesting: it is the poetry of a kind of inner cultivation, requiring an audience with something of the same degree of experience and refinement, with expectations and pre-knowledge of what is going on.
Precisely. That audience is the audience of the New Yorker and Poetry, of the Hudson Review and Virginia Quarterly Review, and it is this audience that has kept Merwin’s poems in print, unlike almost anyone else’s poems one can cite today, going through countless editions in their elegant Atheneum jackets. It is an audience that recognized that, like Gray, Merwin almost never writes a bad line of poetry: “wind without flags,” for example, conveys precisely and economically the sense of emptiness Merwin wants to depict.
As Perloff declares, “No one, after all, ‘owns’ poetry, no one has a ‘license’ to control its reception, which is, in any case, determined, as John Cage would put it, not by ownership but by use." The same might be said for criticism. Possibly, even after its various components fade, Perloff’s criticism will remain steadfast a locus of “close reading” and contemplation. One hopes as much. That, of course, will be for critics to determine; artists, and poets, answer to their own muses, for well or ill, heedless or careless of the outcome.