Bob Perelman, "Is there a renaissance in poetry going on?" - from an interview

For the entire interview, click here.

Q: Some people say that there is a renaissance in poetry going on across the country. Do you think that's true?

A: I hope it's true, and I want to make it truer. My own experience bears it out. In San Francisco there were many poets, many groups, readings, publications, and poets' theaters. At Penn, too, there seems to be an increasing interest in poetry. Of course there is still a significant number of students who are pretty phobic of poetry. They come out of high school distrusting the mysteriousness and unpredictability of poetry, having been taught it very badly.

But there's a much greater openness to poetry in general. I think it has to do with the waning of the New Criticism of the 1950s. That put very difficult poetry like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land at the top of the heap. Poetry was something that you studied intensively; it required a great deal of sacrifice and training. Now that whole model has waned. The poetry that has come up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s has been remarkable.
cover of Perelman's second book of criticism
There are the Beats, the best of them very serious writers. They're certainly taken seriously--as we saw with the recent visits of Allen Ginsberg to Penn: the audiences were consistently in the hundreds. There's the New York School--Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery--who are witty, ambitious, and appealing writers. There's Black Arts writing and feminist writing like Adrienne Rich and Judy Grahn. Many different voices. In the '90s, we have a wide range of intense, highly charged poetry. When I teach, I try to show all this to the students: the different aesthetics, politics, tones, and appeals to readers.

There's also a surprising sense of poetry that everybody gets from ads these days. The typography of ads comes right out of modernism. Everybody is aware of it and reacts to the placement of words on billboards or newspaper pages. What do all those catchy phrases in ads mean? That a copywriter had to put care into words to catch your attention. That's not really different from the care that a poet puts into a line. So it's not surprising that poetry gets on MTV or that singers are edging closer to being poets. We've been reading these market poems--known as ads--for the last fifty years.

If people can learn that there is something called poetry that has all of the potential grabbiness and excitement of ads but is not selling anything--is instead opening up society for one's own life and possibilities--I think many people would find that interesting. A poet must pay attention to language; you can't do without skill. Nor is language identical with your private self. These days there are many different language communities. It's not just a matter of self-expression but of multi-expression.

Q: Are there any dangers to expanding the audience for poetry? If you appeal to millions of people, will poetry become just another mass entertainment?

Maybe. Look at politics. The line between entertainment and politics is hard to draw these days. Politics as we know it has this bizarre entertainment aspect. We rate a politician's speeches on how well they play, not what they say. It's a performance. A speech might be a visionary explanation of goals that would make everyone's life better, but if it's an hour and 35 minutes long, that's all that gets noticed.

But we're a long way from making poetry a mass art. For me, a really key issue is still rhetoric. I come from an avant-garde that reads Stein and Williams and tries to do new things formally with poetry. But I'm also interested in what people who haven't read all this stuff hear in poetry. Rhetoric concerns the present. Can you hear what I'm saying right now? And what do you make of it? I'm interested in the political-ethical-aesthetic issues raised by bigger audiences.