Marjorie Perloff's review of Cary Nelson's anthology offers a starting point for vigorous debates over poetry, politics, and pedagogy. I am less interested in pitting these major critics of modern poetry against one another, than in considering the very different questions each raises. Perloff's generative questions are "What is poetry" and "Why this poet," while Nelson's are "What is 'American'" and "What can poetry do." This divergence would seem to reactivate the false opposition of aesthetics and politics, but I would caution against such an oversimplification. Perloff values poetry's effects on students as well as its form, and Nelson values the intricacies of poetic language as well as its ethics. Their differences occur through the degree of attention each gives to the cultural uses of poetry.
Perloff's review expends considerable energy asking if certain texts qualify as poetry, and if certain poets merit inclusion. Her censure of Georgia Douglas Johnson's "The Heart of a Woman" means to show that poetry is more than "meter and rhyme" and -- more pointedly -- to raise the question of what is "good" poetry. While the lilting rhythm of Johnson's mournful, anapestic (not iambic) poem does raise questions about form, I find equally important Johnson's cultural status as the foremost woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance. How might this poem's indebtedness to Victorian poetry prompt us to rethink narratives of modernism that privilege formal innovation? How does the work of traditional poets like Johnson resist the tendency to collapse "modern" and "modernist"? All of these issues could elicit lively classroom discussion.
Perloff also interrogates Nelson's inclusion of Genevieve Taggard, claiming that she appears only because of her involvement with "left politics in the 'red decade.'" I have found Taggard to be a valuable addition to my course on 1930s literature. She was one of the few women poets who sustained her social engagement, and her interactions with film and photography intersected with the decade's documentary impulse. But my students and I preferred the poems "At Last the Women Are Moving" and "American Farm, 1934" to "Ode in Time of Crisis." Poets like Taggard recall Raymond Williams's statement that one did not always have to choose between being "poet or sociologist" (30), and I think students benefit from such reflection on poetry's cultural roles. Students would also gain insight to canon formation by tracing Taggard's reputation through anthologies and reference books such as World Authors 1900-1950, and American National Biography (affiliated with the ACLS rather than the ACLU).
The question "Why is Genevieve Taggard in the anthology?" leads Perloff to interrogate Nelson's principles of selection. The poems from the early 20th century, she claims, serve "as exemplars of specific racial, ethnic, and political groupings," while the postwar selection "gives way to a straightforward identity politics." I contend that Nelson's is not an anthology of identity but of affiliation. Collectively, the poets reveal the visible and hidden ties that bind Americans in harmonious, ecstatic, uneasy, or even violent relationships. Nelson states most clearly this overarching theme in his headnote to Adrienne Rich: "Devoted like so many other poets to understanding the burdens of national identity, she has tried to uncover at once the texture and the governing principles of the lesson Americans are least willing to learn: that we are intricately embedded in and shaped by social life" (934). In other words, we might turn from questioning individual poets to questioning American individualism itself. For Nelson's is a national anthology, and its forum on what it means to be American is by necessity a different enterprise than the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
So what else does poetry do? Sampling Nelson's headnotes, we find that it can be exchanged for room and board, can get you arrested and interrogated, can usher in a new African republic, can bear witness to injustice, can engage in ecocriticism, can be read aloud, can enliven dance, music, and photography. Given their expertise on poetry and the visual arts, Perloff and Nelson might find common ground in valuing this latter kind of poetic doing. I would also venture that both critics value poetry's act of giving pleasure to individual readers, and that both concur with Wallace Stevens's claim that poets "help people to live their lives." But Nelson's approach shifts the debate from poetry's intrinsic qualities to its cultural work. By suggesting that a poem should not be, but do, his anthology brings poetry into the project of cultural studies.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1951.
Williams, Raymond. Culture & Society: 1780-1950. New York; Columbia UP, 1958, 1983.
Reply To Marjorie Perloff's "Janus-Faced Blockbuster" (symploke 8.1/2 (2000): 205-213) by Edward Brunner, Southern Illinois University
Georgia Douglas Johnson's poem hardly deserves dismissal as a "Hallmark card" written in "choo-choo iambic pentameter." In anapestic tetrameter (4 beats to a line, not 5), Johnson writes with distinctive design.
The heart of a wo- man goes forth with the dawn
As a lone bird, soft wing- ing, so rest- lessly on; [l]
Afar o'er life's tur- rets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those e- choes the heart calls home.
The heart of a wo- man falls back with the night.
And en- ters some a- lien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the shel- tering bars.
Take Perloff's charge of "slack diction." With "Afar o'er life's turrets and vales" (line 3), Johnson draws on the language of romantic overstatement to evoke not freedom but the unreality of a temporary freedom. That unreal vista of castles and valleys is a prelude to the reality-check of the second stanza whose final line repeats "breaks" three times in a self-conscious echo of Tennyson's seaside elegy "Break, Break, Break." When Johnson uses the iamb (almost always in opening feet, in lines 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7), she employs it as a rhythm that thrusts forward but immediately loses its momentum as it falls into lax and sagging anapests. The play between insistent iamb and sagging anapest imitates the resumption of the torpor of domestic life despite the speaker's exertion of energy.
Why is Perloff so quick to dismiss this work? One general answer is that polemically she has been arguing throughout her career for the domination of the Pound aesthetic (just as Harold Bloom, an equivalent on the east coast, has spent his career arguing for Stevens). Pound's enduring innovation is the imagist fragment: what seems, at first, only a scrap of nonsense becomes, through pointed juxtaposition, a "luminous detail." Perloff's background as a linguist prompts her to marvel at meaning that can emerge when concepts are linked even in the absence of conventional syntax. But if Perloff has been a trustworthy guide to the avant-garde from the Objectivists to the Language Poets, she has had little to say about those like Johnson who use rhythm and rhyme, whose poetry is orchestrated through a complex musicality rather than dramatic compare-and-contrast visuals.
But a less general answer gets closer to what the Oxford anthology is about. Johnson's poem is one of many that have previously gone unheard by a critical tradition that foregrounds "the difficult" as a crucial criterion, and in the process believes that anything that can't be quickly aligned with that tradition must be some kind of mistake, or the product of ignorance. At one point in The Pleasure of the Text Barthes reinforces that view when he maintains that high culture and mass culture are like "water and fire." Yet that battle-to-the-death metaphor isn't exactly applicable to much twentieth century American poetry in which opposites gleefully coexist and invite cohabitation. Johnson echoes Tennyson not in homage to his genius but to emphasize that in her poem, human sensibilities are being broken by domestic enclosures, not waves that tumble euphonically on the shore.
Why should this matter? Why might students be interested in poems about southern mill strikes and problems with abortion? One answer is that these poems aren't about just their moments in a remote "historical" past; they vividly depict problems that remain with us still. If all had a living wage then yes, strike poems would be quaint topics indeed. When Perloff responds to a poem by Taggard about immigration quotas before World War II by chiming in with her own counter-narrative, she couldn't be further from the spirit in which all poetry is written: poetry is never designed to narrow down to the merely personal, to evoke the anecdotal, to recall a singular memory, though it is perfectly capable of doing all that. Instead, when listened to, it takes us out of ourselves into a world of vastness in which we see parallels and sense greater understandings, in which we are able to bridge differences and make comparisons. The moments of history, when poetically transformed, aren't just small records of what happene d once, but large proceedings that invite us to think with them.
Reading poetically and not polemically, one finds there is no single tradition competing for emergence in the century. The Poundian aesthetic fostered a distinct avant-garde (whose evolution, incidentally, in the work of H.D., Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, Niedecker, Palmer, Silliman and Howe, one can trace in the pages of the anthology), but it is absurd to think of this or any other as the dominant tradition. Not only is the Pound tradition not the dominant tradition--its complex and allusive writing calls to mind Schoenberg and his twelve-tone scale: a bid, that is, by an idiosyncratic genius to transform an art form's fundamental rules, a dazzling feat that attracted a number of talented practitioners but which ultimately reflects a conservatory mentality. That there are multiple and competing traditions explains why it would be bewildering, as Perloff suggests, for a student to begin with pages by Stevens and Loy and then to conclude with pages by Ray A. Young Bear. But who would offer a student a route so mis guided? Young Bear's tradition isn't the early Stevens lyric that presents consciousness imagistically. His work emerges from a narrative-driven free verse tradition like that developed by Williams and Sandburg. The Stevens and Loy tradition leads elsewhere, to pages in the anthology by Harryette Mullen and Mark Doty that delight in word-play, irony, and excess.
Must anthologies be equipped with a user's manual, or at least a set of guidelines that warn against wrong turns? Perloff takes wrong turns that lead to dead ends of her own making. Citing the weight of the book isn't a useful evaluation. Nor does deciding that it looks ugly and the paper of its pages is too thin. And why count the number of pages one poet gets over another, especially when an aim of the anthology, as the introduction makes clear, is to give a generous sample of long poems? That's one reason Roethke has more pages than O'Hara, and Tolson's lines outnumber Oppen's. Indeed, this privileging of the long poem-a form that is intent on being capacious, on including more rather than less, on inviting conflict and embracing difference-shouldn't be a surprise at all. This commitment to openness by the long poem nicely demonstrates traits that are central to twentieth century American poetry--traits that it is the achievement of the anthology to represent with accuracy.
 This could be alternately scanned: "As a lone bird, soft wing- ing, so rest- lessly one" as a 5-foot line with the first foot a trochee, and the next two feet iambs, and the last two feet anapests. But it would be the only pentameter line in the poem, and since three of its five feet are substitutions, it hardly reproduces a regularized "choo-choo" metric.
Reply To Marjorie Perloff's "Janus-Faced Blockbuster" (symploke 8.1/2 (2000): 205-213) by Michael Thurston, Smith College
Marjorie Perloff's review of the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry centers on two objections: too many poets are included simply on the basis of their identity, and too many poets write about such extra-literary and non-poetic things as politics and personal suffering. These criticisms are worth answering because they indicate a fundamental difference between Perloff's notion of what poetry is and does and the ideas of poetry that inform the anthology.
Perloff seems especially troubled by the racial makeup of the anthology's selection of poets born after 1946. Of these twenty-five poets, she writes with an almost audible gasp, twenty-one are "poets of color." They must be here through some sort of editorial affirmative action because there are many "more accomplished" poets whose work does not appear in this section (Perloff provides a helpfully alphabetical list). One could point out that this group of poets takes up less than two hundred of the anthology's 1200-plus pages, or that ten of these poets get only one poem apiece. And one might argue that these "poets of color" represent a range of styles, from the dramatic monologues of Ai to the Steinian chiming of Jessica Hagedorn to the linguistic experimentation of Harryette Mullen. Throughout her discussion of these selections, Perloff reads off from a poet's identity to that poet's style, implying that all twenty-one "poets of color" write like Ray A. Youngbear (whose work, Perloff says, is not even poet ry at all).
What really bothers Perloff, though, is the sheer weight of what she calls "subject matter." Perloff objects to descriptions in headnotes that identify a poet's ethnic identity or political orientation. Here again, though, she reads off from identity to assumptions about a poet's purpose and style. A number of poets from the American Left, for example, joined the Communist Party or wrote for Party publications (most of these get only one poem apiece in the anthology). This information appears in their headnotes and indicates, for Perloff, that the poems have too much subject matter, that they "function as proponents of radical politics." She seems unbothered, though, when the headnote for T.S. Eliot tells readers that Eliot was educated at Harvard or that he worked for Lloyd's Bank. At the same time, Perloff objects to any poetry that too directly treats the poet's experience or the historical occasion of the poem. She holds up Genevieve Taggard's "Ode in Time of Crisis" as an example of such "meaningless phr ase-making" and "vague rant" about a set of events in the political arena. Work like Taggard's, Perloff assures us, will not "turn students on to poetry."
This is the heart of the matter, for Perloff's readings are overdetermined by a limited and limiting notion of what will turn students on to poetry and, more important, what poetry is, can be, does, or can do. Poetry, for Perloff, must be ironic, must be largely about itself (explicitly or implicitly), must be indirect, impersonal, and, preferably, experimental. The anthology provides plenty of poetry that perfectly fits this bill, from the work of canonical modernists to that of contemporary experimental poets. But surely there are more poetries under the sun than are dreamt in this philosophy. Surely poets and their readers have come to poetry for other purposes in the last hundred years. Poetry is, as W. H. Auden famously wrote, "a way of being, a mouth." And mouths speak different truths, in different voices, at different times. The wide range of practices that make up this variegated technology, "poetry," enable readers to make sense of their lives, to test received truths, to join imagined communities, to find their fears and joys and sensations and stories echoed and confirmed and challenged. Why must poetry be only and always one kind of thing?
Perloff gets cheap mileage out of an imagined course's path through this anthology, a path that would lead students through the ironies and complexities of modernism and then to the free-verse personal lyric voice of Ray A. Youngbear. But why must we go from Eliot to Youngbear? A class might move instead from Eliot to others in a much more Eliotic line. Or, better still, from Eliot and the experimentalists to Adrian C. Louis' "Colossal American Copulation," in which students would encounter the lines "Fuck The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot / and all those useless allusions" and "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets." Why, the class might productively wonder, would Eliotic impersonality and allusiveness seem an appropriate, even necessary, technology at one historical moment and seem, at least to some, an utterly inappropriate set of practices at another historical moment? Why might some poets at some times in some places prize transparency, directness, unremarkable diction, and personal narrative?
Students, like all readers, come to poetry from lives filled with all sorts of difficulties. If poetry is to be for them a means for working through some of those difficulties, then we should make available to them the widest possible variety of modes and models. This is a goal the Oxford anthology goes some way toward reaching.
Reply To Marjorie Perloff's "Janus-Faced Blockbuster" (symploke 8.1/2 (2000): 205-213) by Robert Dale Parker, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
In an age of critical recognition for the contingency of aesthetic taste, it is bracing to read an assessment so unself-consciously spoken from the mountaintop as Marjorie Perloff's review of Cary Nelson's new anthology. (I will say right off that I am on the Advisory Board for Nelson's anthology. Though I made suggestions, Nelson chose the poems.) Perloff believes that her taste is the taste, but there are many ways to value a poem besides her way.
Perloff begins by complaining that the anthology is too heavy. It may seem trivial to respond to such a complaint, but the point is that she uses imaginary trivialities to mask her fears about the real conditions of aesthetics. "[T]he book," laments Perloff, "which weighs in at almost five pounds, is heavier than my three-pound Dell Latitude laptop." Actually, if my scale can be trusted, it weighs 3 pounds, 1.6 ounces, non-contingently, unless you hold the laptop in your right hand, the book in your left hand, and let your contingent prejudices tally the pounds. Perloff also dislikes Nelson's book because "Today's undergraduate... has little familiarity with poetry and may well be intimidated by it." Isn't that a reason to bring poetry to students, rather than to give up?
For Perloff, the crux comes down to Nelson's large-scale inclusion of "poets of color" and poets on the left. That "would be perfectly acceptable," she says "if the Oxford Anthology were upfront about its political agenda." Then she complains that the back cover is upfront about its political agenda, and that when the back cover says that the anthology includes canonical poets and recently rediscovered "women, minority, and progressive writers," it offers "something of a trap, implying as it does that ... there were not sufficient numbers of women or minority writers among" the canonical poets. Well, there weren't: no trap there.
Perloff complains that Nelson included the poets he likes but not enough of the poets she likes, and that therefore his taste is biased. Of course his taste is biased, like everyone else's, and he never pretends otherwise. The pretender to objectivity is Perloff, not least when it comes to black and Indian poets. She complains that Melvin Tolson, an African American, gets many more pages than Frank O'Hara, a white, without noting that she has written a book on O'Hara or that Tolson gets more pages partly because of Nelson's innovative commitment to long poems (and without noting that O'Hara gets eight poems and Tolson gets only two). More reasonably, she complains that "Of the twenty-five poets born after 1946 ... twenty-one are poets of color," and the other four she identifies with various beleaguered groups, which to her amounts to the same thing. As usual, Perloff's math is wrong, since it's actually nineteen out of twenty-three, but I agree that Nelson's choice of minority poets for almost all the more r ecent poets was a bad idea, and I told him so when I reviewed a draft of his table of contents.
But when Perloff quotes minority poets from the anthology in confidence that quotation will prove them terrible poets, she only proves what a feeble reader she is, quoting inaccurately and wrenching her quotations out of context. Quoting four lines from a 301-line poem by Adrian C. Louis, she makes two transcription mistakes. She quotes twelve lines from a 134-line poem by Ray A. Young Bear, making nine, errors, even dropping an entire line. (Often, when Perloff quotes Nelson's headnotes to make fun of them, she misquotes them. She even gets the title of the anthology wrong, calling it the Oxford Anthology, though there is no Oxford in the title.) Still going after minority poets, Perloff picks out a poem "by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson" and makes condescending fun of what she calls its "chug-chug iambic pentameter," but "chug-chug" isn't iambic and neither is Johnson's poem. My object here is not to defend the poems that Perloff attacks--an easy task for any practiced critic--but to poi nt out that such rear-guard defenses of a supposedly neutral aesthetic taste are anything but neutral, not only because they land, uncoincidentally, on the backs of women and minority poets, but also because they repress the cultural embeddedness of aesthetics and so have to trump up pointless or inaccurate arguments to make their case, willfully ignoring the rethinking of aesthetic history and the contingency of literary taste that for most critics are now our stock in trade. Indeed, the point in my own question about Nelson's selections was not that the recent poems were chosen merely for the poets' colors, but that someone who has little understanding of literary judgment, poetry, or the history of aesthetic taste might suppose that he chose them that way, even though he couldn't have. There are many more African American and Native American poets than Nelson included. Perloff herself laments that Nelson chose the black poets that he likes instead of the ones that she likes, without mentioning that the one s she favors belong to the more-or-less-language set of poets that she writes about. His taste is biased, but hers is truth.
Reply To Marjorie Perloff's "Janus-Faced Blockbuster" (symploke 8.1/2 (2000): 205-213) by Carter Revard, Washington University
I might take Marjorie Perloff's review of Cary Nelson's Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry in "Janus-Faced Blockbuster" more seriously if she did not, at its beginning, complain that a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson is written in "chug-chug iambic pentameter," when it's actually in anapaestic tetrameter. What a shame that a highly intelligent and cultured person, which Perloff has long shown herself to be, has written a hasty and uncultured review that generally misrepresents the whole anthology, and utterly fails to understand the two American Indian writers--Ray Young Bear and Adrian Louis--whose poems she first misquotes and then misreads.
For brevity, I'll focus on her snobbish dismissal of Adrian Louis. To start with, she is self-contradictory when she berates him for (gasp!) dividing his poems into lines, instead of printing them as prose--just after she quoted a limp, formless, and bratty set of "lines" from Frank O'Hara, which begins with an exclamation. "How I hate subject matter!" and trails off into a dribble of muttered words, clinging together in odd-length "lines" that have neither rhyme nor reason for being broken where O'Hara breaks them, and are not well-written enough to be prose (to evoke Pound's criterion for poetry). But I won't bother talking about HER favorites, when the need is to show how culpably, in her review, she misrepresents better poets than O'Hara.
Of the few lines Perloff quotes (actually, misquotes) from Adrian Louis and Ray Young Bear, she shows not the least comprehension -- and then implies that all the other poems by "those people" are just like these, and that they ALL are in this anthology not because their poems have any real merit, but purely because they have dark skins and the radical editor favors them over worthy white poets whose magnificent poems have been kept out to allow these poetasters in. Holding her nose, she cites from Nelson's note the fact that Louis "is an enrolled member of the Lovelock Paiute Indian tribe" -- but ignores the next sentence, "He was educated at Brown University, where he went on to receive an M.A. in creative writing." Obviously, my deahs, this NObody was wet-backed into that Ivy League place to fill its GHAHstly quota of affirmative-action nincompoops.
That Louis, however, might just have redeemed his time at Brown, and later, is clear from a few other facts cited by Nelson's headnote: he went on to edit four tribal newspapers, help found the Native American Press Association, and from 1984 teach English "at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota," where he lived for almost two decades. There is other admissible evidence of his abilities: he has produced some of the most powerful and innovative poetry published in this country in the last fifteen years or so; his novel Skins has just been made into a movie directed by Chris Eyre, who recently co-directed (with Sherman Alexie) the marvelous Smoke Signals; and he is recognized by those who actually know his work as one of the strongest poets now writing.
Even as to his time at Brown, a less sniffy reviewer might have entertained the possibility that he picked up while there a few little things about English and American literature and poetic techniques, even though he came from an "Indian Reservation" in some benighted "flyover." Perloff might even have been relieved to learn, had she looked, that while at Brown Louis had studied with the poets Michael Harper, James Schevill, Edwin Honig, and Keith Waldrop, and that since he double-majored in poetry and fiction, he worked also with John Hawkes and R.V. Cassill.
He did not, however, snake up the Po-Biz ladder into a chair at Stanford or Harvard, so Perloff may be justified in treating him as an ignorant darky with no sense of how poetic metre should be shaped, someone presumably incapable of learning the difference between iambic pentameter and anapaestic tetrameter -- not, perhaps, an easy difference to perceive. And there may just be reason for her being offended by his presence in the anthology, since in one of his poems, the very funny and very melancholy "A Colossal American Copulation" (1131-4), which I think Frank O'Hara would have loved, Louis throws in (line 80) this bit of subject matter: "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E* poets." Of course, had she read the whole poem, and had any sense either of humor or of its use in surviving despair, reading it might have cured her of thinking this poet so simple and ignorant as her review assumes a Lovelock Paiute must be.
But to show why she is wrong, let's look at the poems she puts down -- first, at four lines of "Dust World" (1125-6), a poem whose setting is the liquorous twilight of a town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, at a moment when the poem's speaker is about to go into a video rental store. As he starts to go in, he sees three teen-age Sioux women sitting on the hood of their 1970 Chevy, holding their babies:
With pupil-dilated putti in arms
three teenaged mothers
on the hood of a '70s Chevy
wave at me like they know me.
What Perloff should have noticed here is the use of the Italian word putti -- which she, being a cultured woman, must recognize as le mot juste, catching the Renaissance painting quality, the baby angel quality, of those little Indian kids in the arms of their buzzed-up teenage far-from-that-OTHER-Madonna mammas. And if she had actually read the poem closely she would have noticed that the pupils of these babies' eyes are "dilated" -- that they seem, like their mothers, to be high on something, whether beer or whisky or pot. The effect is astonishing: the Rez as Renaissance painting, without in the least diminishing its Zola-esque "realism." What a chance Perloff missed here to SEE and to SAY what a cultured critic could have seen and said!
There is plenty more to see, in the poems of Adrian Louis. Perloff, alleging that Louis has no sense of poetic line, quotes (misquoting, again!) the first several lines of section ten from his "Petroglyphs of Serena," saying that it is cliche and technically sloppy. Here is the whole of section ten (1137):
About a year after Serena
died in the car-wreck
I saw her again-sort of spooky, but
ghost sightings are common around here.
Spirits come and go, to and fro.
She was with some strange-looking Skins,
drove a different car, and looked puzzled,
half-angry when I waved at her.
Acted like she didn't know me.
Kind of gave me a kiss-my-butt look
and then flipped me the bird.
I shrugged and did the same back to her.
Her car was filled with buffalo heads,
stampeding the ghost road
to White Clay.
There is nothing sloppy in Louis's use of line-breaks here. He tells this story in straight ordinary speech, but breaks it into vivid chunks, units of vision and understanding. In the first four lines the breaks interrupt grammatical units, letting our perception pause and then as it were kayak down over each line-end, as if chuting some live speech-rapids. The fifth line, though, is a complete sentence (a kind of pause-pool, to carry on the metaphor) with internal rhyme catching the sense of how the spirits appear and disappear, something anybody who had lived in a really Indian community would recognize at once. 
Then the narrative focuses on the dead woman in her ghost-car -- and cultured readers would immediately realize that this "realist" narrative has here become a version of the traditional "Deer Woman" story, a realization available to any decently educated critic -- who would have read, say, the novels and poems of Louise Erdrich or the stories and poems of Paula Gunn Allen, just as a reader of Eliot or Pound should have read Laforgue and Homer. But Perloff shows no sign that she actually read Louis's poem, let alone understood how complex and brilliant is his fusion of a traditional Deer Woman story with the life, death, and afterlife of his student Serena, while morphing these into the colloquial diction and rhythms of English as she is spoke on the Rez. His poem's narrator keeps his cool ("grace under pressure") at the Rez-car apparition of Serena and her sinister companions, and when Serena flips him the supernatural bird, he flips the natural one right back to her.
It is, however, the last three lines that hit hardest, though the impact will only register fully on readers who recognize the final line's allusion to "White Clay." Serena's car, filled with buffalo heads , is "stampeding the ghost road/to White Clay." Louis has broken the line there after "ghost road," so we might expect that the next line would lead to some supernatural destination, but it leads instead "to White Clay" --which is a real though nightmarish town of liquor stores and rednecks, just across the Nebraska state line from the Pine Ridge (South Dakota) Reservation. What the Indian readers know, and what any critic alive to genuinely American culture should know, is that White Clay is notorious as the place where Rez Indians go to buy liquor--which is not supposed to be sold on an Indian reservation, so the liquor stores cluster in towns just over the line, to which young ones go for what seems a rebellious party, and the older ones they will become also go, "street chiefs" gathering with those o f their friends still living to look for a drink . White Clay is a place where Indians have usually been cheated, beaten, and killed with very little chance that the crimes would be investigated or, if so, prosecuted and punished. So for Louis to say that Serena's car is "filled with buffalo heads,/ stampeding the ghost road/ to White Clay," is to turn Indian traditional narrative into Rez talk, -- that is, to do precisely what Shakespeare's Theseus so well described as the poet's task, giving "to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
Among Indian writers included by Nelson, it is not only Adrian Louis whose achievement Perloff utterly fails to see. To cite just one other example, she ignores completely Wendy Rose's haunting and powerful "Truganinny" (1156). To discuss it, however, she would have had to see that it is a dramatic monologue spoken by the last surviving Tasmanian, a woman whose whole nation has been wiped out in a completely successful Holocaust of all her people at the hands of the British settlers of Tasmania. (See the footnote, OAMAP 1156.) After her death, the body of Truganinny was stuffed and exhibited for over eighty years. This seems to me comparable to making lampshades of skins from Auschwitz, but that is mere "subject matter," against which Perloff is armed by Frank O'Hara, who says, "how I hate subject matter!" 
That could be my cue for a Jeremiad on how dumb, vain, primping and socially useless so much of the ego-surfing stuff that passes for poetry has been, in the last forty or fifty years, and how post-carious are the ivory towers within which this poetry sticks like dental plaque--but why bother? The New Grub Street gang might deserve a Dunciad, but even a Variorum edition would run out of footnote room for posterity to be told who all these Dunces once were--so let's come back to Perloff's "argument" (207-8) that it was fine for the anthology's editor to work to "open up, and rethink the restrictive Modernist canon--a canon, so Nelson pointed out, largely elitist, white and bourgeois--in the interest of the revival of a host of 'lost' poets of the period," but that it is then a mistake to mix these lesser figures with the great Modernist poets, as this anthology has done.
Could any argument be more snooty and irrational than that? "Fine, go dig up all those 'lost' poets, but don't you dare put them into the same book with the True High Culture Writers, and don't imagine for a minute that they have any merit comparable to all these nice white poets I have been writing about, poets that show the only REAL way to write poetry, which is to abandon subject matter and write language about language, destroying all sense of narrative and all sense of relationship between poems and popular culture." If only (perloff's review implies) these poets of color would write just like Ashbery, now, we might find them worth our notice. As it is, these unwashed unAmerican cultureless barbarians are so clueless that they write about what HAPPENED to Indian people, or what Indian people are doing, or what living in the majority white culture is like for a poet of color. They have, in other words, considerable "subject matter," although had they had the brains and sense to read Frank O'Hara they wou ld surely know better than to write about it--but of course they are too naive, grew up too far away from Manhattan to understand these things. From Manhattan to Stanford, one supposes, is just a step: there is no "there" anywhere else.
As for Perloff's take on the rest of Nelson's anthology, that is best left to critics more steeped than I am in twentieth century verse. Yet, having browsed through its wide range of writers and found many very pleasant surprises, having gained a sense that the "modern classics" show unexpected faces in this gallery, I can't resist just one "for instance" question: won't many other readers be as surprised as I was to view, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay's achievements in political poems as well as in lyrics of love and personal relationships? The anthology offers surprising angles, lets undergraduate or graduate students look anew at contemporary literature. It should be celebrated for this very fine achievement. Its inclusion of a good selection of American Indian poets, with some of their best poems, is part of this achievement.
 Or as Prufrock remarked, "In the room the women come and go,/Talking of Michaelangelo." My former student Doyle Quiggle, now in Bonn while writing a dissertation in American Literature, has suggested that this singsong internally rhymed line, "Spirits come and go, to and fro," echoes Eliot--and I, like him, am persuaded that Louis is here, as it were, re-frocking Prufrock. Maybe not--but if you stand on a beach and cover one ear with a seashell, you do hear the sea in both ears. And nine decades after he wrote them, Eliot's rhymes come back into a reader's mind as clearly as the sea's own sound.
 I am reminded of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series--when will contemporary poets start using THAT "traditional storytelling" allusion in their poems?
 For the term "street chiefs," I thank my friend Richard Ray Whitman, the last man to leave Wounded Knee after the occupation in 1973. Some of these men carry deep knowledge of Lakota language, songs, and traditions, but Lakota not being French they could not possibly be compared to Verlaine or other distinguished winos; and Pine Ridge not being Wales or Ireland, they probably should not be compared to Dylan Thomas, or the more bibulous poetic friends of Willie Yeats.
 It would be useful to compare "Truganinny" with Browning's "My Last Duchess," whose brutal husband speaks "for" his dead wife. Were Browning a living "poet of color," we could rebuke him for thus incorrigibly writing about "subject matter" like some boring feminist, instead of producing powerful, challenging, incomprehensible new collages like a good little Post-Modernist.
Response to Marsha Bryant, Edward Brunner, Carter Revard, Robert Dale Parker, and Michael Thurston by Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University
Three of the four members of Cary Nelson's Editorial Advisory Board (Edward Brunner, Robert Dale Parker, and Michael Thurston), together with a professor of Modern Poetry (Marsha Bryant) and a Native American poet/Middle English scholar (Carter Revard), have been enlisted by Nelson to respond to my admittedly severe review of the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. The five responses range from the polite and judicious (Bryant) to the nasty-vituperative (Revard), but the basic case made against my argument is more or less the same in all five responses. Let me therefore summarize it here.
(1) Reacting to my epigraph from Frank O'Hara's "To Hell with It," all five respondents assume that I am somehow "against" the poetry of "subject matter," that I have no interest in the meaning of poems or in the "cultural work" poetry can and does perform. As Thurston puts the case: "Perloff objects to any poetry that too directly treats the poet's experience or the historical occasion of the poem.... Poetry, for Perloff, must be ironic, must be largely about itself...must be indirect, impersonal, and preferably experimental." My "narrow" aesthetic, it seems, has blinded me to the potential of the work of contemporary (born after World War II) poets included in the anthology.
As a corollary of (1), I am accused (by Brunner) of being a proponent only of the Pound aesthetic, the poetic of the "imagist fragment"; or again (by Revard) of being an advocate of those evidently negligible New York poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Along the way, a few digs at the "language poets" are also thrown in.
(2) I am accused of being blind to the richness of poems written by the minority poets featured in the anthology's final section as well as some of the earlier poems by minority writers that I cite. Evidently, I have totally misread and misunderstood the poetry of Adrian Louis and Ray Young Bear -- the latter two defended at great length by Revard. The central complaint in my review -- namely, that the anthology omits most of the prominent and interesting younger poets writing today (white as well as poets of color) is treated to the jeering response (especially by Parker and Revard) that I am merely opposing my "taste" to Nelson's: take your pick.
(3) And, finally, I am accused by Parker and Brunner of making factual mistakes, of "bad math" (Parker), indeed, of being "illiterate and innumerate" (Revard). Evidently I don't know how to count and I misquote poems.
That those who teach poetry at the university level should be such inadequate readers of poetry is disquieting. Given their refusal to engage with what I actually do say, general accusations fly freely. Supposedly, I learn from Brunner, I have "had little to say about [poets] like Georgia Douglas Johnson, who use rhythm and rhyme, whose poetry is orchestrated through a complex musicality." I thought my first book was called Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats. I've also written on rhythm, rhyme and "complex musicality" in poets from Goethe to Hart Crane to Khlebnikov. Again -- this is Thurston's stricture -- I am evidently such a purist that I don't want anthologies to have headnotes that "identify a poet's ethnic identity or political orientation." I say no such thing. So far as I'm concerned, the more biographical material in the headnote, the better. What I do say is that the Oxford anthology headnotes repeatedly emphasize X's membership in the Communist Party or Y's Left-wing activism as if this were reason enough to include X and Y in the anthology. Thus the headnote to Joseph Freeman, represented here by a single poem reads as follows:
The most serious of these charges is, of course, the first. Bryant observes (quite rightly, I think) that "Nelson's approach shifts the debate from poetry's intrinsic qualities to its cultural work," it being her hope that, after all, these antithetical perspectives--Nelson's and mine--need not be mutually exclusive. But Bryant is the only respondent to be so generous: the four other respondents assume that I have no interest in what they call the poetry of personal experience or cultural construction. Oddly enough, they base this conclusion largely on my citations from Frank O'Hara. Can it really be that they don't see how playful the cited passages from O'Hara are? That of course he doesn't "hate subject matter," but only what Keats called, vis-a-vis Wordsworth, the "egotistical sublime," the poetry that has a "palpable design" on us. When Thurston declares that I have a predilection for poetry that is "indirect" and "impersonal," poetry that is only "about itself," how does he square this statement with my foregrounding of O'Hara? Has Thurston ever read the meditation on the Cold War called "Ode (to Joseph LeSueur) on the Arrow That Flieth by Day"? Can any poem be more "experiential" and less "impersonal" than "A Step Away from Them" or "The Day Lady Died"? Or again, are these or John Ashbery's or Charles Bernstein's poems the "imagist fragments" Brenner is convinced I value above all else? As for Revard, who refers scathingly to the "limp, formless, and stupid set of 'lines' from Frank O'Hara" that I cite, the campy reference in "Personism: A Manifesto" to poets who "act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat and potatoes with drippings (tears)" is evidently some sort of sinister slur on mothers and their starving children!
Born in Ukraine, Freeman came to the United States in 1904. A socialist from age seventeen, he was one of the most visible figures of the left in the 1920s and 1030s as an editor of the Liberator and cofounder of New Masses. His poetry regularly appeared in journals, but it was never collected in a book. He worked for the Soviet news agency TASS from 1925-1931 but later broke with the party. His most famous work is his political autobiography An American Testament (1936). Twelve of his poems are reprinted in the anthology Social Poetry of the 1930s (1978).
Now would Freeman have the same interest for Nelson and his editorial team if he had been, say, a New Dealer, writing for the Saturday Evening Post? Of course not: in fact, the inclusion of "Our Age Has Caesars" is ideologically determined. There is, as I said in my review, nothing wrong with such emphasis on the political, if only Nelson's bias were upfront, as it was in his critical study Repression and Recovery.
The charges against my own "narrow" aesthetic are also quite contradictory. I am said by Brunner to adhere to the Pound aesthetic (he is evidently thinking of my book The Dance of the Intellect), but how does this square with my interest in, say, Ashbery (an interest belittled by Revard), who has gone on record as having absolutely no use for Pound? As for language poetry, any student of its aesthetic would know that Pound is largely the Enemy: read, for example, Charles Bernstein's essay on Pound in My Way.
Such charges aside, I note that not one of the five respondents takes up my critique of the Janus-faced nature of this anthology, whose first thousand pages are, as I have argued, largely conventional, with the few exceptions I note in my review. The inclusion of a few political poets aside, there is certainly nothing revisionist about the midcentury sections, which dutifully rehearse the familiar Jarrell, Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Penn Warren scenario, minimize the work of the Objectivists, and omit the work of such great innovators as Jackson Mac Low and John Cage in the best Norton Anthology tradition. My argument was and is that the last 200 pages, with their sudden shift to minority writing, as if to say that white men and women in America today can't and don't write poetry creates enormous confusion. For, whatever one thinks of Garrett Hongo or Ray A. Young Bear, the white poetic community (and much of the African-American community as well) has simply been erased. No defense of this strategy is offered in these responses, except to say, oh well, Perloff has her tastes and Nelson has his.
How do we connect the poetry of the present, as represented in the last 200 pages, to the earlier work? Thurston argues that the discrepancy between A and B is all to the good, that a given class "might productively wonder [why] Eliotic impersonality and allusiveness would seem an appropriate, even necessary, technology at one historical moment" and yet "utterly inappropriate ... at another historical moment"? For me this is a non-question because I have no idea what Eliotic "impersonality" is beyond a sound bite or a label. Who still believes that Eliot was an "impersonal" poet? I know of no poem students identify with more fully than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a lyric intensely, if obliquely, expressive of the poet's own pain. But never mind Eliot: how does on relate the poems in question to, say, the lyric of Hart Crane, which, I take it, is not "impersonal" or made up of Poundian fragments?
A more convincing case-- this time for some of the hitherto marginalized modernist poets--is made by Bryant, who argues that precisely because a poem like Georgia Douglas Johnson's "The Heart of a Woman" is indebted to Victorian poetry, its inclusion can "prompt us to rethink narratives of modernism that privilege formal innovation." True, but how can one rethink those narratives, when, as is the case with just about any undergraduate today, one has never been exposed to them? Bryant finds Taggard a very useful figure for her course on the 1930s. Again, I agree. But when it comes to the initial poetry course, that usefulness becomes more dubious. And even if Bryant convinces me about
Johnson and Taggard, the same is not true for the contemporary section of the anthology.
(2) Here the issue of my notorious "misreadings" comes in. I cannot, in the space allotted here, take up all of Carter Revard's readings of the Native American poems in question. One example must suffice. Revard chastises me for ignoring what he takes to be the beauty and complexity of the following lines in "Dust World," referring to a moment when the poem's speaker, on his way to a video rental store in a town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota," sees the following:
With pupil-dilated putti in arms
three teen-aged mothers
on the hood of a '70 Chevy
wave at me like they know me.
What I would point out to Perloff is the use of the Italian word putti--which she, being a cultured woman, must recognize as le mot juste here, catching the Renaissance painting quality, the baby angel quality, of those little Indian babies in the arms of their buzzed-up-teenage far from THAT-Madonna mammas.... the pupils of these babies are "dilated" ... they seem also, like their mothers, to be high on something.... The effect is astonishing: the REZ as Renaissance painting, without in the least diminishing its Zola-esque "realism."
I think this is pure wishful thinking. For what is the point of the reference to Italian putti? It would make sense if the babies in question were and were not like the putti in Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture. But unless we believe that all infants are somehow little angels, the metaphor doesn't work. For these babies with their dilated pupils do not in fact look like putti. Putti are invariably blond and blue-eyed; they have chubby pink cheeks (or rounded sculpted ones) and the pupils of their eyes are the opposite of dilated. What insight, then, does the word putti give us into the life of the poor mothers on the "REZ"? Have we learned anything about these lives we didn't know before? Here is a case, I would say, where an article in Time or Newsweek might contain more information as well as more pathos.
But suppose we give Revard the benefit of the doubt here. Suppose the conjunction between "the Rez as Renaissance painting" and the Zolaesque image of the "pupil-dilated" babies really were as effective as Revard claims? The burden of proof would still be on him and his colleagues to demonstrate that these effects are more interesting than the images of poverty and deprivation in, say, Charles Bernstein's Lives of the Toll Takers. Indeed, not one of the respondents addresses the issue why important post-war poets from Rae Armantrout to Clark Coolidge, Kathleen Fraser, and Lyn Hejinian, to Jackson Mac Low, Joan Retallack, and Rosmarie Waldrop, have been omitted. And why, to repeat my earlier question, no African-American poets like Nathaniel Mackey or Erica Hunt or Carter Revard's colleague at Washington University, Carl Phillips? Is it really just a matter of "taste," mine against Nelson's? Or is this explanation disingenuous, the final section of the anthology being ideologically charged all the way.
(3) Finally, a fact check. And here I must plead guilty in a few cases. It is true, as Parker and Revard point out, that I misquote Ray A. Young Bear's poem on p. 1166, omitting a line, capitalizing initial letters of lines which should be lower-case (my computer unfortunately does this automatically and I hadn't reset it), and omitting the "d" of the word "drew." Unfortunately, symploke does not send its authors galleys of book reviews: had I seen proof, I believe I would have caught this and a few other typographical errors although making them at all is obviously inexcusable and I apologize to the poet. It is also true that "Oxford" should not be italicized: the reference should be to the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry, not to the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. And, thirdly, my bathroom scale evidently registered an extra pound and a half for the book: it weighs less than I said it did. On these issues, I am happy to stand corrected.
(4) Other so-called inaccuracies can be easily defended. When I count 25 poets after 1946, I am including the two poets born in '46: Ron Silliman and Adrian C. Louis. I thought this went without saying since the normal cut-off date here is the end of World War II in 1945. I suppose I should have said "1946 and after" rather than "after 1946." In any case, the count is otherwise quite correct. As for Edward Brunner's "correction" of my reference to the "chug-chug iambic pentameter" of Georgia Douglas Johnson's "The Heart of a Woman" (which Parker underscores in his critique), Brunner's own scansion is itself quite inaccurate. The anapest is merely a variation on the iamb, and although many of the lines do have four primary stresses and primarily anapestic feet, the meter, in keeping with that of the nursery rhyme or folk ballad, is not consistent. Brunner's scansion tries to force each line into the anapestic tetrameter mode. Here is his scansion of line 2:
As a lone bird, soft wing- ing, so rest- lessly on
Try reading the line this way and you'll find it's impossible not to give a strong primary stress to the word "bird," whereas "lone" and "soft" carry what are, strictly speaking, secondary stresses. The normal way to read this line would be
As a lone bird soft winging so restlessly on
And the last line of the poem has a cluster of three primary stresses in "breaks, breaks, breaks," which again occludes the anapestic rhythm. Brunner's statement that here we have "Insistent iamb" versus "sagging anapest" which "imitates the resumption of the torpor of domestic life." Is thus unconvincing. Despair (the Tennysonian "breaks, breaks, breaks") would be more like it." Many nursery rhymes have exactly this mix of spondees, iambs, and anapests in rhyming stanzas, which is why I called its rhythm "chug-chug."
What can we conclude from the larger controversy my review seems to have prompted? I think the difference between my position and that of most of the respondents is pedagogical rather than critical or theoretical. My own experience in the classroom--whether at a state university like Maryland or at a private university like Stanford, whose "elitism" Revard is so incensed about--suggests that first and foremost, we must teach beginning poetry students for whom these basic anthologies are designed, how to read. Close reading, I know, is out of fashion; it is associated in the minds of critics like Thurston with the despised New Criticism, even though close reading has been a feature of literary study from the pre-Socratics and pre-Confucians to the present.
The five responses to my review convince me of nothing so much as that we need more rather than less close reading, more textual analysis and knowledge of genres, conventions, and historical traditions, and therefore less material more fully studied so that we can get beyond such labels as "Eliotic impersonality." For if the established professors writing here can't figure out that O'Hara's dismissal of "subject matter" is tongue-in-cheek, that when this gay outsider poet, who often told his friends that he would die for his art, says casually "If they don't need poetry, bully for them. The movies are good too," he is being ironic, poking fun not at poetry (why would any poet do this?) but at the High Seriousness of manifestos like Charles Olson's Projective Verse, then how can we expect students to understand the poetic of whatever stamp?
Poetry, Bryant writes, "can get you arrested and interrogated, can usher in a new African republic, can bear witness to injustice, can engage in ecocriticism, can be read aloud, can enliven dance, music, and photography." Of course it can, but these are all instrumental values--situations in which poetry is, of necessity, secondary. Poetry that ushers in a new African republic, for example, does so as part of a larger revolution, part of an elaborate discourse of political change, just as poetry that "enlivens" dance is, in that case, secondary to the dance in question. But why should poetry exist so as to serve another discourse, especially a discourse like ecocriticism that can include poetry but can obviously do quite well without it.
Why-finally--study poetry at all, why produce great big poetry anthologies, unless poetry is the primary discourse to be studied? The movies, as Frank O'Hara put it, are good too.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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