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Marjorie Perloff and Robert von Hallberg

For Professions: Conversations on the Future of Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Donald Hall (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 87-108.

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Robert von Hallberg: I thought we would pursue our dialogue by assessing various evaluative criteria that are in play now among poet-critics, since they are the writers who most forthrightly make evaluative arguments. Readers find all sorts of reasons to admire a particular poem, poet, or even school of poets, but critics of poetry are often asked to state their standards abstractly, exactly because they traditionally assert on principle that poetry is not just another discourse, but a specially authoritative use of language. I know we can both speak abstractly about particular criteria; probably neither of us has the old aspiration of advocating some universal or even just permanent criterion for assessing poetry. I want to leave open the possibility of invoking different criteria for different poems,and even of invoking different criteria at different moments. You probably want the same latitude, so focusing on particular critical arguments now current makes sense to me.

Marjorie Perloff: Well, no, actually I guess I do still have that "old aspiration." And in a way my definition of poetry is quite conventional and classical. I believe a poem differs from routine or normal discourse (like this statement,for instance) by being the art form that foregrounds language, in its complexity, intensity, and, especially, relatedness. My criterion here is what Aristotle called to prepon or fitness. In the poetic text, everything is related to everything else--or should be--the whole being a construct of sameness and difference in pleasing proportions. What makes something "pleasing" can of course not be said outright and depends on the reader, the historical moment, and the cultural milieu. But we can say what poetry isn't: it is not straightforward, expository discourse (as in a chemistry textbook), whose aim is to convey information. I go back to Wittgenstein’s proposition (#160) in Zettel, "Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information."

Poetry must meet the criterion of re-readability. If a poem can be absorbed at one reading (as the typical poetry reading demands--i.e., at one hearing), then it's not much of a poem. Poetry is news that stays news; it is "language charged with meaning" (Ezra Pound). And here Pound's aphorisms accord with Russian Formalism and the notion of defamiliarization, making strange, the orientation toward the neighboring word. But neither Pound's nor the Russian Formalist notion is new: one finds the same formula in Sidney's Defense of Poetry or in Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare, where we read "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature." I take Johnson’s "just" to mean the Aristotelian "fitting" (the prepon again), the implication being that representations (whether in lyric, drama, or fiction) must strike us not just as plausible according to some outside norm, but internally consistent and coherent.

"Language charged with meaning" suggests that poetry can never be a matter of "lovely" or "elegant" language but that it must be meaning-ful; on the other hand, "meaning" that is external to or prior to language, as in much of contemporary writing that passes for "poetry" is not poetry either.

RvH: You have surprised me already. When you say that "everything is related to everything else" in the poetic text, I wonder how you experience the reading of Pound's Cantos or Susan Howe's Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. No one sees how all words, phrases, and sentences in these texts are related to all the others there; no poem is all coherence. When the sounds of adjacent syllables or the feel of proximate rhythms lead one to sense a relatedness beyond what can be fully articulated, that is the deep charm of poetry that underwrites the sense that poetry and religion are somehow neighbors--as well as the suspicion that poetry is a game of smoke and mirrors, of illusory relatedness. As critics we tell all about the relatedness we can explicate, and frequently imply that we might tell more, had we world enough and time. But much of the contemporary poetry I love is frankly mysterious to me, which means that I cannot go very far with the coherence criterion.

Coherence, as you describe it, is bound implicitly to a notion of economy: your point is not the simple one that there is much coherence in poetry but that there is no incoherence in poetry. I constantly try to read past incoherence in poetry, but I accept this effort as my lot. You seem to want a poetry that appears to be very highly coherent, which means highly economical. The poets I admire most are those who, on the one hand, condense their work so that its coherence is palpable, stony; Turner Cassity and Philip Larkin might be useful examples because their formality expresses that condensation so boldly, but Louise Glück and her onetime mentor George Oppen can also serve as examples, and they are not metrical poets. Reading these poets, one knows that one cannot account for each word and syntactic turn in terms of relatedness to other words and turns, but one does feel, line by line, that a strenuous process of selection for coherence has pruned the words down to remarkably few. On the other hand are those poets, whom I also admire, like Pound, Olson, and Ashbery who accept the inevitability of incoherence and let economy be damned. For these writers, a principle of coherence is negatively involved; one admires their work despite its moments of apparent incoherence, despite its lack of economy. In fact, incoherence and extravagance are signs that a poem is working at the edges of convention, straining for beauty and meaning that come without coherence. I expected you to speak more for the avant-garde range of the latter, capacious, Whitmanesque approach to poetry. So, as I said, you surprise me.

MP I think we’re talking about two different kinds of "coherence" or "relatedness" here. The Cantos, to take one of your examples, exhibit precisely the re-readability I was talking about. I opened at random to this passage in Canto LXXIV:

One day were clouds banked on Taishan

Or in glory of sunset

And tovarish blessed without aim

Wept in the rainditch at evening

Sunt lumina

That the drama is wholly subjective

Stone knowing the form which the carver imparts it

The stone knows the form

Sia Cythera, sia Ixotta, sia in Santa Maria dei Miracoli

Where Pietro Romano had fashioned the bases


A man on whom the sun has gone down (p. 450)

Here in the first of the Pisan Cantos is a recharging of the sacred images we know from the earlier Cantos: Mount Taishan, the light from the great crystal, Cythera (Venus), Ixotta delgi Atti (Malatesta’s adored mistress), the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the reference to "OU TIS" (Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave calling himself "no man"), a "man on whom the sun has gone down" who is obviously the poet himself. The reference to himself as "tovarish" ("comrade"), on the other hand, reminds us of the actual political situation in 1945, a situation tragically at odds with those images of Mount Taishan and Cythera. And the wonderful chiming of "tovarish"/ "rainditch" reenforces that harsh note. And yet another kind of relatedness is that of linguistic registers: we shift from the "glory of sunset" (line 1) to "sunt lumina" (line 5), so that light itself is refracted in complex ways, "sunt lumina," taken from Ovid, having been used earlier in the poem.

So I would say that here everything is "related" with great finesse, both to neighboring words and images and to Cantos written thirty years earlier. True, there are places in the Cantos where Pound rants on and on in his didactic, Douglasite, paranoid, anti-Semitic way, and clearly those parts are not as effective poetically, quite aside from the noxious "ideas" conveyed.

So far I’ve been focusing on universals. But now: if certain basic poetic principles remain intact across time, clearly other features change. Metrical and generic forms, for example, are often historically and culturally generated and conditioned. The Petrarchan sonnet, we know, originated in a particular court culture in fourteenth-century Italy; there are no Roman sonnets. The Pindaric Ode, originally a war poem, and adapted in various ways by Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century poets, no longer plays a significant role in poetry. Yet many critics persist in arguing, as has Helen Vendler, that the poet at any time has the choice of using any verse form he or she likes. What do you think of this argument?

RvH: [Transition needed] Contemporary poetry presents a special case, exactly because contemporaneity is one widely used evaluative criterion. It may be a mistake, as many critics have claimed, to evaluate art in terms of its special purchase on a historical moment. But the pressure to evaluate the art of our own moment in terms of its responsiveness to the immediate energies we recognize is very great. Eliot said that the poetry of our contemporaries has special pleasure for us, and this is what I mean. Contemporary poetry engages with this special moment of community, and this is where the accumulated interpretation of our predecessors is minimal. The burden of the past is negligible, and the future is open. A critic of the present feels that this or that quality in the art is in short supply, a little more of something or other seems the prescription for the art just now.

MP. Now it’s my turn to be surprised. I would have thought you believed that the "burden of the past" is never negligible, that it’s always there. We can discuss this a bit later with respect to Susan Howe.

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RvH: You proposed that we begin with Susan Howe's recent critical book, The Birth-mark (1993); her work rightly enjoys a great deal of currency among writers and readers committed to experimental poetry. My Emily Dickinson (1985) and The Birth-mark raise issues that pertain particularly but not exclusively to current avant-garde writing. She is not concerned in her critical prose, though, with contemporary writing, so our construal of her criticism in relation to contemporary poetry may become a little unfair. The evaluative criteria at work in these prose-books may not be quite the ones she would invoke in assessing contemporary poetry. All the same, the authority of her very engaging criticism does bring into prominence among her readers certain ways of assessing poetry that I want to disuss with you.

Generally, she has an ambitious anti-formal understanding of poetry--ambitious because she asks anti-formality to do a lot of work. Dickinson's "formlessness"--her syntactic and orthographical idiosyncrasies--has been understood by her editors as a "lawlessness" that has to be disciplined into regularity, conformity (Birth-mark, 1), and Howe accepts this view of Dickinson as anarchist transgressor. The opening of My Emily Dickinson says that "In prose and in poetry she explored the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader." (My Emily, 11) Howe charts the American antinomian tradition as a subterranean vein of wildness. She cites Thoreau, you remember, to the effect that "in literature it is only the wild that attracts us." (Birth-mark, 18) This recent book suggests not that such wildness is one among many resources for American writers, but rather that the best writers, like Dickinson, set themselves completely apart from the normative social institutions that attempt to govern the art and imaginative life of America. She cites Pierre Macherey with approval when he says, arguing for a kind of autonomy of literary texts, that "the work has its beginnings in a break from the usual ways of speaking and writing--a break which sets it apart from all other forms of ideological expression." (Birth-mark, 46) What she prizes in Dickinson and American literature generally is a standing apart from the dominant social institutions whose authority is implied by conventions of spelling, syntax, prosody, and publication. For W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, and any number of her contemporaries, free verse has no such grand significance, and few of her contemporaries are seriously engaged in syntactic experimentation. Howe's anti-formality is a throwback to that of Williams, Pound, and other modernists, who strove to discover new systems of order--the variable foot, the ideogrammic method. More than once she speaks of Dickinson asserting "a new grammar"--of the heart, of humility (My Emily, 21, 13). Howe, after Derrida, sees the slippage of signification as systemic to language (My Emily, 13), but it is the systemic orders of language that structure her expectations of meaning in matters.

MP: First of all, I don’t agree that My Emily Dickinson and Birth-mark are "not concerned . . . with contemporary writing." The are contemporary writing, and most readers, I would guess, are much more interested in what Howe’s take on Dickinson tells us about Howe’s own poetry rather than what it can teach us about Dickinson. Also both books have poetic passages and she is consciously trying to produce a new genre, loosely based on Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Williams’s In the American Grain, and so on. These books ar, so to speak, borderworks– part poetry, part critique, part autobiography. As for specifics, although I don’t care much for Macherey and for Howe’s habit of throwing in "big name" critics–-a sign of her insecurity, I would say, since she was, for so long, a marginalized poet- I think this particular Macherey quote serves Howe well. For her, poetry is always oppositional, always a form of calling into question the dominant culture." As for "wildness," by the way," I don’t think Howe means free verse. Free verse, after all is now the norm, the staple especially of the poetry of the sixties and seventies like Merwin’s and Levine’s. Her deconstructions of linearity are more radical than theirs.

But let’s turn to the larger question of poetry / theory. Howe and such poets as Charles Bernstein have been accused of being "too theoretical," too programmatic rather than naturally lyrical. Yet surely Louise Gluck or Frank Bidart or Robert Pinsky also have a "theory," a poetics that informs their work, even if they don’t write the sort of essays or manifestos one finds in Bernstein’s Content’s Dream or Howe’s Birth-mark. Can poetry ignore theory? (We know theory can ignore poetry, don’t we?).

RvH You ask whether poetry can ignore theory. The answer is plainly yes, and that is disturbing. The fact seems to be that many estimable contemporary poets do not attend closely to the discourse known as literary theory. I tried in 1990 to assemble a collection of essays on this subject. I gave up the project because so few poets I asked wished to address the issue at all. Literary theory in the United States is a professional academic discourse that competes for readers, authority, and prestige with the traditional genres of literary production. My colleague W. J. T. Mitchell said in 198x that we live in a golden age of theory, and that the traditional literary genres are not so distinguished now. The academic discipline of literary studies is hierarchically structured, and this is the view from the upper regions of the structure. The yield of literary theory for what I recognize as literary issues is often so slender that the principal significance of the field seems to be the construction and distribution of professional authority. When theorists engage with contemporary poetry, as Jameson does with Bob Perelman's "China," the results are unimpressive. Poetry seems to resist theory.

MP. I would argue slightly differently. It’s true that, within academe and its leading journals, poetry plays a slight role, but then so do fiction and drama. The most egregious instance of this is American Literary History, where poetry seems all but nonexistent, unless it can be construed as a cultural symptom. But ALH does not focus on theory either and neither does Critical Inquiry in its recent incarnation. These journals focus on Cultural Studies and the articles printed recall the pre-New Critical 1930s in their zeal to establish "context" and cultural discourse, never mind the poem or novel in question. At the same time–and here’s the irony-- poet-theorists like Howe, Bernstein, and Steve McCaffery have found that their essays are in great demand in these journals: Critical Inquiry publishes work by Susan Stewart, ALH published Bernstein, and so on. And I notice these essays are not written in conventional academic prose; Stewart, for example, writes very personally and collages things together. It’s as if the editors have no "use" for poetry as such but are geuninely interested in larger discussions of the poetic and its place among other discourses and so on. So when you say that "poetry" is of no interest to theory, I’d respond, true, if you’re talking about conventional poetry à la Pinsky and Hass but not true where the poetry itself is a little more challenging.

RvH: I have to admit that I resist Howe's anti-formality partly because it's so much the poetic doctrine of the 1960s--long since discredited for me--fortified by later academic literary theory; and yet I very much share her commitment to a concept of literary autonomy. The academic understanding of autonomy that Macherey goes on to argue for, beyond the passage Howe cites, is not, however, independence as I would have it, because the literary text, for him, is always secondary to other ideological uses of language. Literary language parodies ordinary language. (Macherey, 53) This is a common way of seeing literary language once formality has become a sign for social conformity. I've learned from East German writers that the concept of literary autonomy, despite the critiques of western writers and scholars, is a precious and powerful thing. As Ernst Bloch suggests, poems express a wish to speak and live otherwise. It is not just that a communist poet, like Tom McGrath, adheres to a mirror-image of a capitalist economy and society, and surely not that East German poets meant to articulate some capitalist imaginary in a communist society. A long aesthetic tradition, however compromised and maligned, holds out the possibility, as anarchism does too, of unaffiliated opposition, a rare and indefinite alternative. "Mystery is the content," Howe says. "Intractable expression." (Birth-mark, 143) "Poems and poets of the first rank," she had earlier said, "remain mysterious." (My Emily, 27) Howe is less politically predictable than Macherey in this regard, because she will not restrict the literary text to a parodic, secondary relation to ordinary language.

MP. I like that Ernst Bloch quote very much and I agree with what you say about autonomy. And Macherey’s old-line Marxism now seems quite beside the point.

RvH. One problem with Howe’s advocacy, however, is that it settles too patly on the side of so-called formlessness, or mutilation, glaring across at the stodgy repressive patriarchs of Order. The unacceptable axiom is that conventional forms of syntax and prosody stand for established social orders. I join Howe in insisting on the literary and political resources of a tradition of poetic autonomy, but without wanting always to read those resources simplified by some inversion of conventional form. Rigorously formal poets like Turner Cassity and Philip Larkin are staunchly resistant to the norms of literary and social institutions, despite the familiar analogies drawn between metrical order and political authority. Howe tends to describe conventional form as merely shallow or referential in a stable way to societal order. When she speaks of Anne Bradstreet's poems wearing "a mask of civility, domesticity, and perfect submission to contemporary dogmatism," I remember that the civility of art often implies a critique of the brutality of the society outside the poem. (Birth-mark, 113) Resistance to the symmetries of conventional forms is commonly thought of as particularly honest, and formality as duplicitous. I have been reading a lot of Paul Celan lately and see in him too a commitment to an art that indicates formally--principally in terms of diction--a historical rupture or wound in postwar poetry. Celan lost his family, as you know, to the Nazis and his native culture to Stalinism. In a sense, his historical experience is everyone's; the significance of the holocaust and of Stalinism is global, and for that reason the case for imitative form here seems especially strong. But most American readers of poetry witness that rupture in Celan from a historical distance. The familiar argument that contemporaneity is post-prosody (a development of the axiomatic equation of conventional form and established social order that Howe does not pursue)--that there can be no lyricism after Auschwitz, to modify Adorno--finds support here because of an American willingness to borrow trouble. I feel no right to claim that my culture, which has shown remarkable coherence in the past half-century, needs to display a relation to cataclysms of any kind; nor do I see that an attack on syntax or prosody is a particularly acute way of criticizing social orders. Although I can be persuaded by Howe that Dickinson's resistance to political and social order shows up in her orthography, my generation cannot be so easily charmed by assertions of necessary relations between form and political allegiance.

MP: Now here is where we really do disagree. If you believe, as I do, that form can never be separated from something called "content," then of course the choice of form is itself a statement. Take the heroic couplet. It was a marvelous form for Pope and Swift and they did wonders with it. But today, the very appearance of heroic couplets, say, in the TLS, is a signifier of "light verse," something fun and parodic, not meant to be taken too seriously. In France, as Jacques Roubaud argues in The Death of Alexander, the alexandrine was the straightjacket that controlled all verse till the mid-nineteenth century when Baudelaire wrote Les petits poèmes en prose and Rimbaud tried both prose poetry and "free verse." And now there’s no going back. You won’t find a single French poet, I don’t think, writing regularly in alexandrines. And if they did, there would have to be a good reason, the desire to deconstruct some other form, for example.

In the case of Larkin, it occurs to me that actually his "form" is appropriate to his meanings: both are quite retrograde. One thing his form "says" is that English poetry took the wrong turn when it welcomed Pound and Eliot and Williams and that it’s time to return to the good old stanzas of Hardy and Houseman. And that goes nicely with his dislike of strangers, immigrants, Americans, Jews, new social measures, etc. It’s true that, say, John Ashbery experiments with pantoums, villanelles, and other obscure forms. But he is playing with those forms, and his standard rhythmic contour, as many critics have pointed out, is the purposely unmusical, ungainly, "scratchy" rhythm we find in "Houseboat Days" as well as in his so-called pantoums. These are gaming frameworks.

Two further points. I am confused by your reference to the sixties-- hardly a very "experimental" time in poetry when you scratch the surface. Allen Ginsberg didn’t write especially "experimental" poetry; he adapted the Whitman line to a wonderfully exuberant, baroque performance mode. The poetry is often very good but no more radical than his ideas and sentiments. What other sixties poets do you have in mind?

RvH [respond here?]

I don’t, in any case, see the relevance to Susan Howe. But I also want to say-- and this is my second point-- that experimentation is not ipso facto a good thing. There are plenty of "experiments" that are merely boring: for example, Richard Kostelanetz’s many texts using generative structures. But I’m saying that real poets inevitably and even unconsciously will create new forms so as to represent the world they live in. John Cage is the great example of this. He doesn’t set out to "experiment"; he’s really quite empirical–-trying to capture the noises and images we actually live with.

RvH: Perhaps there is some confusion between us. I do not mean to be enforcing a content/form bifurcation. My claim is that Cassity and Larkin are formally and thematically resistant to the literary culture in which their books circulate. My understanding is that the Anglo-American literary culture is predominantly academic and liberal or left-center in its political affiliations. These two poets often express frankly illiberal views, and they do so in strenuously metrical verse that violates the dominant literary taste for free verse. My point is less that Larkin and Cassity attack certain social institutions than that they demonstrate by their work that fine art is producible from their point of view, from their position, politically and poetically. The quality of their poems underwrites their ideological and aesthetic views. This is what Eliot called an "aesthetic sanction."

Too often resistance in the literary culture is understood as being something that comes from the left, that seeks freedom from convention, but there is no reason to think of the center of American literary opinion as that of the Republican Party. Larkin and Cassity are oppositional poets in that they oppose not the rightist drift of the state's political center but instead the center of the literary culture that actually reads them. In this sense, they are confrontational. Most of the poets spoken of as oppositional are actually not terribly far from the left-liberal center of the academic literary culture, however far they are from the right-center of American politics, i.e., from the audiences that are indifferent to poetry.

MP. Here you have a good point–but I think it proves my point. Cassity and Larkin, as you note, return to strict metrical forms that accord with their opposition to the dominant left-liberal orthodoxy of the Academy. But another way of saying this would be that they’re retrograde both formally and thematically! I am hardly the advocate of the flaccid "liberal" free verse of the sixties/seventies (Bly, Kinnell), but do you really believe one can go back to a pre-World War II mode so readily?

Then, too, Cassity and Larkin represent different things. Cassity may be positioning himself against the left-wing academic orthodoxy, as you note, but that in itself seems like a fairly trivial pursuit (i.e., taking on the left-wing English Department!) and perhaps it accounts for Cassity’s near-total obscurity. I doubt whether ten people reading this dialogue have ever heard of him. The case of Larkin is more complicated because he was hardly writing with an eye to the Left-literary culture of the British universities but for what was still a literary culture–of the TLS, New Statesman, etc. where in fact he was immediately successful. In the Britain of his time where only 7% of 18-year olds went to university, it was hardly the university that valorized (or rejected) new poetry. No, Larkin was picked up by middle-brow culture and the professors came on board only afterward.


RvH: [TRANSITION NEEDED, to come back to issue of formalism] It seems odd to me that Howe expresses so little appreciation for the pleasures of formal fulfillment, because her own writing is exceptional among avant-gardists particularly because she has an extraordinary ear for the recurrences of sound and stress that fortify sense. She says, in Hopkins-like prose, that "A lyric poet hunts after some still unmutilated musical wild of the Mind's world." (My Emily, 105) Her access to the traditional lushness of language distinguishes her writing from that of most other avant-gardists. Here I don't mean those tight, tough passages that conform to her expressed poetics but rather passages like the one that closes the first section of The Nonconformist's Memorial (1993):

Half thought thought otherwise

loveless and sleepless the sea

where you are where I would be

half thought thought otherwise

Loveless and sleepless the sea (Nonconformist's Manual, 42)

This little strophe formally concludes a lyric of twelve additional lines that I won't quote, because here I want only to show that Howe uses the resources of formal symmetry to resolve matters that arise in her less formal explorations. There are the echos of syllables such as "thought," "-less," and "where" that give shape to these lines, and the syntactic structures too echo each other. But the prosody of the strophe is especially worth remarking. The first line has a rhythmic structure--two dactyls--that does not quite conform to the syntactic structure, with its pause after the first two syllables. The second line adheres to a dactylic rhythm, but with an extra stress concluding the line. The third line gives up on the falling rhythm altogether, but builds on the pattern in the previous line of two trisyllabic feet plus a concluding stress: x/x x/x /. And the third line resembles the first in exemplifying a shift of pace after the caesura: both lines effectively speed up after their pauses, as though fitting more syllables into their second "halves." It is remarkable that a poet who insists vigorously on the mutilation of form is so drawn to pastiche of the narcotic lyricism of nineteenth-century British poetry. I always feel the allure of such an ear's working, line by line, but after hearing such song I obviously listen skeptically to the anti-formal rhetoric of her prose. The best objection to imitative form is strengthened by the example of passages like this one from Howe: conventional forms do much else beyond imitating social structures; a too reductive allegorization of form reduces the resources of the art.

Although resistance to conventional form is a prominent feature of the literature that she esteems, Howe's more interesting evaluative criterion is intensity. Much of The Birth-mark is devoted to writing about forceful experiences and feelings. In My Emily she doubts that before World War II "any work of European imagining" exceeded "the rough-hewn intensity" of Mary Rowlandson's narrative. (The Iliad, the Medea, and Lear are presumably not rough-hewn; it took fascism and the holocaust to roughen up European literature.) The frontier experience itself obviously provided writers a highly charged subject matter, and that is a large part of the intensity Howe admires. Yet at the heart of her sense of poetic intensity is not just the deprivations and brutality of the frontier but the rivalry of poetry and religion. American poets, to their credit, are drawn to "Divinity's sovereign source." (My Emily, 55) The particular poetic intensity she analyzes is inconceivable in strictly secular poetry. Her own poems, and those of Michael Palmer too, draw often on Christian aspirations to a language comprehending divinity. Is contemporary academic criticism ready to return to the connections between poetry and faith that engaged American critics from the 1920s to the 1950s? Probably not: our academic intellectual climate is insistently secular and ironic. On the evidence of Howe's project, though, the modernist view that secularization diminishes poetic resources is far from passé.

But beyond the resources of particular subject matter, she treasures still more intellectual intensity. Her account of American literature might be extended to explain the Americanness of writers like Louise Glück and Frank Bidart, as well as Dickinson and Rowlandson; the scope of her assessment is grand beyond the immediate terms of her narrative. The assessment of poetry in terms of intensity is uncontroversial insofar as strong feeling is what is most commonly expected of poetry; but even a veteran reader of poetry feels the appeal of a prophylactic against the mediocrity one witnesses inevitably as one follows an art season by season. The worst charge against contemporary poetry is that it is merely industrial product.

There is of course a hazard in the ardent pursuit of intensity: it has been too easy for critics of the last thirty-five years to mistake forceful subject matter for emotional, intellectual, or linguistic intensity. There are some poems, like Bishop's villanelle "One Art," in which the intensity of the language seems to derive from the force of the subject--in this case, loss. The formal resources of the villanelle concentrate her force and dramatize the speaker's willfulness, which is the poem's subject too. In a poem like "One Art" the distinction between subject and treatment seems tenuous. But James Merrill's work, for example, rarely has patently forceful subject matter, though the pressure he puts on his syntax and prosody in some poems produces an intensity less obvious than that of, say, Anne Sexton's poems. One can distinguish clearly between form and content in Merrill's and Sexton's poems. And for one the intensity is all in the style, and for the other in the content. Howe herself is drawn to extreme scenes, i.e., to the power of subject matter itself, such as the eating of raw horse liver (Birth-mark, 125-26), and she recognizes this as a problem:

. . . I am concerned that so much of my work carries violence in it. I don't want to be of Ahab's party. I want to find peace. Anyway, you balance on the edge in poetry.

(Birth-mark, 177)

But her work gets its more important intensity from the pressure on her style. Her diction, syntactic patterns, and sound structures forge a "terse, tense, sometimes violent" style--"Chaos cast cold intellect back" (Singularities, 34)--suitable to the intellectual ambitions she most admires. (My Emily, 84) In many of her poems an austere refusal of eloquence, fluency, or formality acts as a structure of concentration comparable to that of the villanelle for Bishop. It is important when reading with Howe for intensity to remember that extreme subject matter is only one part of the intensity that matters most in poetry; often it only feeds a prurient appetite for violence.

Although I do often read as Howe does, looking for nodes of intensity, a line or a poem, this evaluative criterion is for me dialectically involved with its contrary: range. I cannot imagine a steady diet of Plath's "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy," and Bidart's "Ellen West," though these are exceptional poems that belong in any anthology of postwar poetry. To some extent the issue is whether one assesses poems one by one, in which case intensity counts a great deal, or whether poets are measured by their overall work. Eliot argued that minor poets are adequately represented by a small number of poems but major poets must be understood in terms of their entire work. Coleridge similarly says that "Our genuine admiration of a great poet is a continuous under-current of feeling; it is everywhere present, but seldom anywhere as a separate excitement." (Biographia Literaria, ed. Engell, I, 23) Coleridge does not stipulate the quality of that feeling, but if among the qualities one seeks are flexibility, proportion, judgment, variety, one is unlikely to be at peace with the results of an assessment in terms of intensity alone. Much of the poetry I appreciate is not of the first intensity in terms of subject or style, and most of Bishop's is not either. There are pleasures to be had from the fluency and elegance of poems that deliberately avoid extremity and intensity. How can we justly account for the Horatian pleasures of, say, Robert Pinsky's recent poem "Impossible to Tell"? Not with Howe's evaluative criteria alone. I use an intensity criterion often in sorting out the poems to read to friends, to study with students, or to discuss in an essay. But I long for ways of talking about the humaneness of poetry that moves away from the strains of intensity and force in order to express an appreciation for a more normal or ordinary life. Howe cites Thoreau as saying that poetry is "exaggerated history." (Birth-mark, 96) Exaggeration isn't satisfying in the long run.

MP: Your commentary on intensity interests me a great deal because I almost wrote my PhD dissertation on the history of the meaning of "intensity" as poetic criterion. Before the 19th century, "intensity" was NOT especially valued; it’s very much a Romantic invention (Blake, Keats, Baudelaire, Poe) and often comes down to the Moderns in the form of the privileged moment, the epiphany. "Can you recommend some novels of the first intensity?", Yeats wrote to Dorothy Wellesley. In this sense Howe is most certainly a Romantic. But intensity needn’t mean (your page ?) "strong feeling"--it can mean, as for Eliot, "intensity" of the poetic process, the making. I think this is also what Keats meant when he said "The excellence of every art is in its intensity" or what Poe had in mind when he declared that one should excise those parts of Paradise Lost that lacked intensity. It's not a matter of feeling but a matter of language. And here I can't see how you can invoke Frank Bidart. To me his language is generally quite slack as is Pinsky's--I'll return to this. As for Louise Glück, that's "intensity" on the surface level–a breathless invocatory lyric that doesn’t seem to have much substance. Not enough difference, always the same note of High Seriousness. Also I would never describe Bishop's "One Art" as having "intensity of language." It's too reasonable, rational, crafted, and willed.

RvH: Even after we have agreed that intensity of language or style is the proper goal of poetry, we are going to disagree greatly as to what constitutes intensity of language in particular poems. In many poems we recognize intense language by its appearance of being worked by the poet; Lowell's style in Lord Weary's Castle might be an instance of this. The intensity of language characteristic of seventeenth-century English poetry is reasonable, rational, crafted, and willed, isn't it? I don't sense any necessary conflict between these qualities and what I recognize as intensity of language. But in other sorts of poems intensity seems the result of strenuous selection, of an austerity that was not part of Lowell's, Donne's, or Marvell's intention; Bidart's poems seem intense to me in just this way. Perhaps, though, we can agree that the common notion that language becomes intense when its style imitates its sense is mistaken.

MP: Well, here I’d like to come back to the notion of relatedness, fitness, making every word count–which is, of course, another form of "intensity." One of my favorite seventeenth-century poems is George Herbert’s "The Windows," which begins:

Lord, how can Man preach thy eternall word?

He is a brittle crazie glasse;

Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford

This glorious and trascendent place,

To be a window through thy grace.

And the poem then develops the metaphor of priest = stained glass window, both worthless " unless "illuminated" by "light" (the grace of God). One of the great feats of this poem is that when the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor fuse in the last stanza, they do so phonemically as well as semantically, with the words "in," "Mingle," "bring," "flaring," with the final rhyme "flaring thing" / "ring" bringing the point home with great finesse. It’s the sort of effect Robert Lowell can only strain for in Lord Weary’s Castle because–-and here is a topic we have barely touched on–the sort of correspondence between the natural and the spiritual ("Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one") Herbert took as a given can’t be willed by a secular poet of Lowell’s day without a good deal of strain.

RvH: [TRANSITION?] Pope's principle ("The sound must seem an echo to the sense") presides over most critical discussion of poetic style: prosody is appreciated most often as an imitation of sense. But this is a way of rendering the sound of poetry servile to the ideas that critics specialize in explicating. It is consoling to a reader to find some neat parallel between the sound structure of a poem and what one wants to think of as its point. But sounds provide other pleasures that do not fall into line so obediently. Sound is a sense experience, and it has its own being beyond its instrumentality. The sensuality of poetry, generally speaking, is greater than that of prose. This is often part of the mysteriousness of poems: their sensual shapeliness, altogether aside from their paraphraseable sense. This side of poetry sometimes seems just unknowable, in the sense that it can't be reduced to paraphrase.

MP: I agree, but do you really think most critics today talk about sound at all? Or about syntax and diction? The typical discussion of, say, Ashbery (where there has been a great deal of criticism) is about meaning, voice, larger structure (or lack thereof) of specific poems, and so on, but critics (Harold Bloom is a case in point) rarely stop to so much as mention that Three Poems is in prose, not verse or to ask what that might mean. So we have to look more closely at the materiality of poetry and here I want to have a closer look at a poet you’ve praised as especially "humane"–Robert Pinsky. Pinsky's poems are barely poems at all. Or at best, to use Coleridge’s distinction, works of fancy, not imagination. Take the celebrated "History of My Heart":

One Christmastime Fats Waller in a fur coat

Rolled beaming from a taxicab with two pretty girls

Each at an arm as he led them in a thick downy snowfall

Across Thirty-Fourth Street into the busy crowd

Shopping at Macy's: perfume, holly, snowflake displays.

Chimes rang for change. In Toys, where my mother worked

Over her school vacation, the crowd swelled and stood

Filling the aisles, whispered at the fringes. . . .

"Do not retell in mediocre verse," Pound said, "what has already been done in good prose." Let's first of all transfer Pinsky's loose blank verse into prose:

One Christmastime Fats Waller in a fur coat rolled beaming from a taxicab with two pretty girls each at an arm as he led them in a thick downy snowfall across Thirty-Fourth Street into the busy crowd shopping at Macy's, with its perfume, holly and snowflake displays. Chimes rang for change. In Toys, where my mother worked over her school vacation, the crowd swelled and stood filling the aisles and whispered at the fringes. . .

Bob, what have I lost here? I've added nothing except that in line 5 I got rid of the colon and made it syntactically smooth with "with its" and in the case of line 8 I added an "and." I wouldn't even have had to do that. So: what does Pinsky gain by lineating his text and by using tercets? I can’t imagine. Now, my objection to Pinsky is not at all that he uses traditional "form" but that he doesn't do anything with the form. Just as, say, Ferlinghetti doesn't do anything with the "formlessness." I think--forgive me for being cynical--that what he does gain is that his reader processes the work as a "poem," which is to say that the tercet form is meant as a signpost whereby the reader is prompted to relate "History of My Heart" to great poems of the past. But I actually think the cited texts looks/sounds/reads better as prose because that's what it is internally. If Pinsky were writing short stories, though, the audience would be more stringent. I honestly believe that he couldn't get away with a lot of his flatness if he admitted he were writing prose. Short-story audiences are, in fact, more demanding than poetry audiences even if they're bigger.

Let me specify: "One Christmastime": why not "One Christmas"? The "Once upon a time" note is merely cute. Fats Waller "rolled beaming . . .": no defamiliarization here. Wouldn't it have been interesting if Fats Waller were scowling? Or something else that might arrest our attention. "Thick downy snowfall"--what else? What do you now know about December on 34th St. you didn't know before? "The busy crowd." Are crowds usually "unbusy." If not, why not just "crowd," as Hemingway might have put it. "The crowd swelled and stood / Filling the aisles"--again, what else? All this is, of course, part of Mother's Tales for Young Bob, "romance of Joy, / Co-authored by her and the movies, like her others." But you know what: it's not credible because if it were really a scene co-authored with the movies, it would be more graphic, more striking--more interesting. And the word do nothing to character their purported speaker. I think immediately of Frank O’Hara’s great New York poems like "A Step Away from Them"–poems that make us "see" Times Square (same locale!) as if for the first time, what with the blonde chorus girl clicking and the "Negro" who is "langorously agitating."

So when you and others tell me Pinsky is "humane," I honestly don't know what this means. He just seems like everyone else--a very nice guy, maybe a little more sensitive and articulate than other nice guys but why should I be interested in this story about his mother, a story that is not much more than a New Yorker profile? What Pinsky lacks here is "le mot juste"--I don't mean language per se but language that is memorable, graphic, precise.

RvH: Your questions about the opening of "History of My Heart" revolve around the issue of ordinary language: what is the function of ordinary diction and syntax in poetry? Some poets invest highly in striking diction and surprising syntax, but Pinsky puts more in story than many of his contemporaries do. In order to carry stories, I think, his style is well suited to a plausible narrator who speaks in sentences--not just syllables--that can be articulated easily. One recognizes such a style as familiar, more fluent than intense or startling. Only in the sixth line, beginning with the second sentence--"Chimes rang for change. In Toys, where my mother worked . . ."--does the diction indicate any flight. "Change" might be capitalized to indicate a season of transformation, and "toys" might be lower-cased to suggest Mother Hubbard more than Mother Pinsky. That is, when the diction becomes most obviously a mouthful, with the "Chi"/"cha" echo, the fantastic quality of even ordinary discourse surfaces for a moment. The poet is not taking credit for the figurative potentiality of the language here, as Merrill often does; ordinary life at Macy's every Christmas season is about transformation and play. But the syntax moves one's mouth and attention through an abrupt change, with a crisp four-word sentence following the forty-four word opening sentence. Pinsky is not displaying virtuosity, but the form of the poem is giving sensual shape to the movement of attention through the story. As for Fats Waller, he is the black man bringing sumptuous, sexy excess to the white world.

Part of your objection to Pinsky's language, I take it, is its conventionality, which truly is a prominent feature of the style here, and this has everything to do with the claim that his work exhibits an unusual degree of what I called humaneness. He does not try to make everything graphic or particular. The "two pretty girls," say, are adequately represented, it seems, by this abstract, conventional phrase. And similarly he tells of his father punching "the enraged gambler," in a corny scene fit for the movies, as he suggests. The poem affirms the occasional adequacy of conventional categories of expression and representation: "Shepherds and shepherdesses in the grass"; "the back room of Carly's parents' shop." That's a fit. He presents this conformity with some amusement or irony--

To see eyes "melting" so I could think This is it,

They're melting! Mutual arousal of suddenly feeling

Desired: This is it: "desire"!

--but it is nonetheless a match: conventional language will serve in some instances. And in just these moments the ordinary, conventional structures in which speakers of this language live are affirmed. The implication of the poems then is that the ways that we have found as groups to live together are significantly humane.

And not just any groups. The term "humane" is obviously slippery, exactly because it is meant to be inclusive above all; hence the continuing currency of the Latin tag from Terence--"nothing human is alien to me." The relevant counter-term is less "inhumane" than "partisan." Poets like Whitman and Williams attempt to elude the exclusions of partisan analysis, though of course they do not always avoid partisanship: they represent themselves as poets who wish to refuse certain kinds of partisanship; they claim a measure of inclusiveness that runs against the dividing lines of camps that their readers are expected to recognize. This is not a strictly thematic issue. The refusal of encampment that I am talking about can certainly be expressed through features of style or theme; the important thing is the aspiration toward some inclusive ground of affiliation--humanness, which can mean an attitude toward a political issue or a style that is not devoted to a narrow range of effect. The esteem for the humaneness of certain poetry rests ultimately on rhetorical properties, not on a claim about the nature of a particular poet as person.

You say that Pinsky just isn't sufficiently interesting, but I think this poem is quite rich. The richness I appreciate is not in the graphic language of the poem (and you would surely agree that elsewhere in the poem there are teeth-marks on the railing, etc.--enough graphic particularity to satisfy me), but rather in the overlap of various representations of the production of desire, the elaboration of some ornament, and the communication of a sense of identity. Is there another poet who can so nicely account for the mix of selfishness and mother love?

She wanted to have made the whole world up,

So that it could be hers to give. So she opened

A letter I wrote to my sister, who was having trouble

Getting on with her, and read some things about herself

That made her go to the telephone and call me up:

"You shouldn't open other people's letters," I said

And she said "Yes--who taught you that?"

--As if she owned the copyright on good and bad,

Or having followed pain inside she owned her children

From the inside out, or made us when she named us,


Made me Robert.

I think it is quite interesting that a predictable, ordinary moment can be transformed by someone like Fats Waller emerging out of nowhere. Why should he wish to transform the moment for a crowd of strangers, since he has surely had lots of adulation already? The answer suggested by the poem is that it pleases one to give gifts, to make someone else feel lucky. It is erotic to give pleasure, to make someone else feel desire. And yes, it is selfish too to want to see oneself desired in the eyes of others, to read one's name everywhere in the world. What we commonly take to be the type of selfless devotion is a mother's love. Pinsky relates how his mother's intelligence is bent to pursuing her claim on the identity of her children.


MP: Bob, you make the most eloquent case possible for Pinsky’s "History of my Heart" but it does leave me with some questions.

First, "ordinary language." I’ve just written a whole book [Wittgenstein’s Ladder] on Wittgenstein’s theory that "ordinary language is alright," showing how "poetic" ordinary language can be. But Pinsky’s is patently not ordinary language–that is the language that we actually use–-but calculated to "seem" ordinary. In ordinary conversation we don’t in fact talk about people "beaming from a taxicab" or "the crowd . . . whispered at the fringes." It’s not at all what Wittgenstein had in mind when he cautioned us to see how fascinating OUR ordinary sentences (e.g., "The rose is red") can be when we try to understand their uses.

Second, you say Pinsky’s language is conventional, and intentionally so. Well, which is it: ordinary or conventional? Because once something is conventionalized, it’s not really ordinary, is it?

Third, and most important, a few words about your discussion of the passage about mother love, a passage you obviously admire. Evidently, if I understand you correctly, you find the passage effective because you feel that this is what mother love is like, that it nicely embodies the tension between a mother’s "selfless devotion" and her urge to pursue "her claim on the identity of her children." Your argument here is, as you surely know yourself, extra-literary: you are praising Pinsky for presenting what you take to be a psychological truth about motherhood.

But suppose I don’t agree that this is a "just" representation of what you call "the mix of selfishness and mother-love"? Perhaps our difference here is gendered. From my perspective (and since we’re being extra-literary, I write as myself a mother and grandmother), Pinsky’s representation is that of the slightly patronizing successful poet-son, who is here imputing motives to his middle-class non-professional mother. The lines "She wanted to have made the whole world up,/ So that it could be hers to give," imply that she really has nothing of her own to give anyone, that she lives vicariously through her children (the Jewish Mother cliché)-–a statement that may or may not have been true of the poet’s mother but that doesn’t quite ring true poetically (fictionally) because the reader senses that there’s more involved here than the poet admits, that he is casting his mother in a role. Then, too, I find, the passage irritating because the poet claims to know what it is that makes his mother tic, knows that she wanted "copyright on good and bad," wanted "to own her children / From the inside out." But the reader is given no alternative: we have to take Pinsky’s representation on faith, even though, for all we know, the real Mrs. Pinsky had a secret lover and a rich sex life in middle age!

But, you may respond, isn’t this by definition what lyric is: a subjective representation of events, the expression of the first person? Romantic lyric, yes, but not all lyric and the voice is the problem here. For even if we don’t subscribe, as I don’t, to the current orthodoxy about the cultural construction of the subject, with its concomitant axioms about the end of individualism the "waning of affect" and "new depthlessness" (Fredric Jameson), it seems problematic, at the end of the twentieth century, to give the individual voice so much authority, so much knowingness. The facility of interpretation ("Or having followed pain inside, she owned her children /From the inside out") flies in the face of the ethos of the late twentieth century, however one chooses to construct it.

I don’t mean to beat up on Pinsky: God knows he is a much more accomplished poet than many now writing, and he is a sensitive and interesting essayist and commentator. But I would conclude–and here I do think we differ–by suggesting that if one takes Pinsky as paradigmatic contemporary poet, one is bound to have the feeling, which you said you have, that poetry just isn’t a very vital part of the culture any more. I think the reason you feel this way is that what you suggest Pinsky does "well" is really done equally well in essays, short stories, and especially in film! So to come back to Pound’s caveat: "Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose!"

And here I come back to my original proposition that poetry is the language art. Readers continue to come to poetry because, unlike film, or the personal essay, or video, or even the novel, it contains language charged with meaning. The pleasure of the text, in, say, Susan Howe’s Frame Structures, is that the word "mark," which appears and reappears in the first of Howe’s four books in that collection, "History of the Dividing Line," without registering fully on the reader’s consciousness, is now charged by the knowledge provided in the new title piece, the autobiographical memoir "Frame Structures," that "Mark" is the name of Howe’s father as well as of her son. Mark deWolfe Howe is central to her story, for the quest for paternity stands behind the poet’s obsession with the New England and Ireland of her parents, her documentary history of Buffalo and Boston, her vignettes of Beacon Hill ancestors and friends. After a while, every "mark" provided begins to fit into the puzzle.

I find that students are thrilled when they begin to "see" these connections, not because Howe has anything unique to "say" about paternity or ancestry, but because her poems enact such amazing labyrinthine paths that allow for exploration of the issue. On the "flat" documentary surface, the poet’s very real pain appears at the interstices of the text, and the reader experiences what Aristotle called the pleasure of recognition. It’s a pleasure, in any case, that is currently very widespread as a large alternate poetry culture is making itself heard through reading series, internet projects, websites, conferences, festivals, etc. A poetry world literally humming and with which I can hardly keep up!

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