Tuesday 14 February 2012

Poetry reviews and poetics: is poetry doomed to charismatic legitimation?

The most-read piece in PN Review’s archive is an essay by Marjorie Perloff (vol 115, 1997) called ‘What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’.  Intrigued by the title, and not being a PNR subscriber, I read it in the Poetry Library last week.  It’s about literary journalism: reviews of books of and about poetry.  It didn’t feel out of date.

What we don’t talk about, according to Perloff, is the difficult stuff: the history, the theory, the context.  Reviews tend to be amateur, poet-on-poet.  She contrasts this with the expertise behind reviews of books about anthropology, say, or architecture.  It’s a long and complex article; here are some things I thought were interesting, and still relevant, at least in the British mainstream of literary journalism.  

Perloff, an American critic, quotes the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (from a 1983 essay):

Poetry, by virtue of its restricted audience… the consequent low profits, which make it the disinherited activity par excellence, and also its prestige, linked to the historical tradition initiated by the Romantics, is destined to charismatic legitimation. 

Perloff says, of poetry reviews on both sides of the Atlantic: “The mandate - to say something telling and original about 5 or 10 unlike and generally unexceptional volumes of short personal lyrics, is not easy to fulfil.”  Two things are missing: a sense of history and a sense of theory.  Insufficient space to define the reviewer’s terms contributes to “haziness of vocabulary coupled with the need to make definitive judgements”.    The lack of signposts means we don’t know what poetry is or should be now, so don’t know what to look for.  This is one reason why the main literary reviews concentrate on relatively few mainstream poets, many of whom are dead.

This comfort zone approach is still prevalent in 2012 - another article on Philip Larkin, anyone?

The phenomenon of one poet reviewing another comes, says Perloff, from the poetry workshop, which is “still dominated by a repressively Romantic concept of the poet as man speaking to man (or woman…), by the notion that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, the poet speaking for all of us”. 

The world of poetry is democratic “because, to put it bluntly, there isn’t enough at stake”.  [I think Perloff would replace this democracy with a strictly modernist hierarchy - but one of the delights of 20th and 21st century poetry is its variety.]  She samples some reviews, full of the kind of empathetic commentary and adjectival striving we still get in 2012. 

It needn’t be so, says Perloff, because there is lots of good 20th century writing on poetics, often by poets, from Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein through 50’s manifestos for concrete poetry to Susan Howe.  They may diverge widely but have this in common: “From Futurism and Dada on down, the international poetic impulse has been constructivist rather than expressionist: it is committed, in other words, to the basic theorem that poetry is the language art, the art in which the ‘what’ cannot be separated from the ‘how’, in which the said only exists in the saying.”  Also, there’s consensus in poetics (as opposed to literary journalism) that  “poetic language is never simply unique, natural, and universal; it is the product, in large part, of particular social, historical and cultural formations. And these formations demand study.”
“um movimento” by Noigandres poet Décio Pignatari, Brazil, 1956
Perloff takes hope from the increasing diversity of poetry publishing, and from the study and discussion of poetics at universities; and foresees (from 1997) the internet’s potential to disseminate all this.  But she doesn’t seem to expect any of it will penetrate mainstream literary journalism.  On the contrary: she thinks that the middle-class poetry public is a thing of the past, and that poetics is now “at least as specialised as is architectural discourse”.     

15 years later, the poetry public is expanding, and has become more (though not sufficiently) diverse: workshops, open mics, small presses, competitions, blogs, online forums, magazines, MA’s.  But mainstream literary journalism is much the same.  I’ve just done a very quick online search of 3 mainstream British publications for articles that refer to Philip Larkin and J H Prynne.  (I’ve no idea how many of these take either poet as their main subject; but the ratio of mentions does give an idea of these publications’ frames of reference.)
Times Literary Supplement:   PL 537       JHP 38
London Review of Books:      PL 205       JHP 24
Guardian Books:                  PL 1,209    JHP 19              

Does all this matter?  I think it does.  Reviews with a hinterland, at least, that includes history and theory tend to be more rigorous and interesting.  And it would be very good to see a widening of subject matter: less Larkin, more Prynne, and more on books about poetics.  Those of us who lack a background in poetics would learn from such changes, at all levels, from the basics of metre to theories about language.  We might read more widely; that includes people who read mainstream literary publications for things other than poetry.  The general discourse about poetry and poetics would improve. 

Now for the reviews in poetry magazines.  I enjoy reading many of these.  The poetry world needs them.  I enjoy writing about poetry, though get frustrated by my own lack of knowledge - I need stuff on poetics as much as anyone.  I agree with everything in praise of poetry reviews that, by coincidence, Helena Nelson’s just posted on her blog.  But I do think there’s too much easy, empathy crit, too much that’s blandly positive.  And it would be great if things could be mixed up more, with brainy reviews, and reviews of difficult poetry, not just left to brainy magazines like PNR or Jacket, and to blogs etc like some of those listed on the right-hand side of this one. 

The worlds of serious poetics and mainstream poetry discussion seem far too separate.  Both mainstream literary reviews and poetry magazines could bring them closer.  Let’s not be doomed to charismatic legitimation!

While writing this, I discovered that Perloff’s essay is on her website, here.  I recommend ‘Strong Words’, edited by WN Herbert and Matthew Hollis, as a way in to 20th century poetics: published by Bloodaxe, it’s a collection of writings by modern poets on modern poetry. 


  1. In poetry reviewing there's little online accumulation of opinion. If someone likes a book they might Tweet or mention it in book-of-the-year lists, but there's little substance. Cinema has Rotten Tomatoes, etc. Novels have Reading Groups, with publishers providing material, and there's http://www.theomnivore.co.uk/Book/Default.aspx

    Put there's no point having a site that crowd-sources, that collects and summarises poetry reviews, if reviews aren't available. I looked recently for reviews of "Deep Field" by Philip Gross but couldn't find any. Quantity, even if it's not of the highest quality, can be exploited.

    p.s. Did you see ‪Ahren Warner‬'s review of Carrie Etter in a recent Poetry London? It was beyond me. I'd like to see more reviews like that.

  2. I agree one would think the internet might bring things together more than it does. I just googled 'Deep Field' by the way, and on its Bloodaxe page several reviews are listed, of which the Guardian and IoS ones are probably online. So an on-the-ball publisher can help.

    Have just looked at AW's review of CE. I like it, but don't find it especially difficult, which makes me wonder, perhaps I don't understand what I don't understand...

  3. I couldn't find the Guardian and IoS reviews online. Maybe I should try harder, but I'm surprised that several write-ups aren't easily available.

    As for AW's review - maybe it's just that my mind goes blank when I see philosophers' names in reviews.

  4. I sympathise over philosophers, Tim. I tend to be not so much interested in what people believe, as in why they believe it; and not so much in what philisophers' arguments are, as in why they make them.