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Sandra Simonds Responds to Marjorie Perloff’s Boston Review Essay

By Harriet Staff

On her blog, poet Sandra Simonds responds to Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “Poetry on the Brink,” recently published in the Boston Review, as we mentioned. The essay claimed that “[t]he national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the ‘good jobs’ advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced extraordinary uniformity” and then went on to suggest that certain kinds of conceptualist and “verbivocovisual” writing might well be the best turn toward a rejection of a simply tolerant status quo. Simonds looks to her own experience in workshops:

The workshops that I took at FSU (I only took a few), were heavily skewed to this formulation of poetry as worthy. It’s not that the professors were mean or unkind about what they perceived to be “experimental” poetry, but rather I truly think that they did not believe its value or history. In some sense, I might be wrong on this but I think that they thought that “experimental” poetry was an offshoot of “regular or mainstream poetry” which is, one could argue, a misreading of modernism. Instead of thinking that the modernists were themselves the experimenters, they believed that the modernists have always been the center or the “mainstream” of poetry. And obviously that’s true now, but this wasn’t always so. I also think that their general indifference and sometimes skepticism about innovation or what they perceived as “experimental” is pretty much a reflection of a publishing culture that tends to publish the types of poems that Perloff describes. If students go to school to become professors and publication is central to their advancement, the question becomes why should professors actively promote experimentation or innovation?

Simonds writes briefly of Perloff’s response to Dove, noting that anthologies are fairly useless anyhow, before noting that “Anyway, this is all setup for Perloff to champion the (mostly) conceptual poets who she perceives as working outside of this conservative system (feedback loop?) of both the workshop and publication.” She then tries to make a distinction–acknowledging the potential slipperiness–between the movement away from the political in a well-crafted workshop poem to what she sees as Perloff’s “lik[ing] [of] political poems that are ‘curiously free of all moralizing and invective,’ something that she’s finds in Voyager by Srikanth Reddy.” Simonds writes:

I’ve thought a lot about political poetry in the past few years and I’ve often wondered why both inside and outside of academia moralizing and invective with regard to the political are looked down upon and I’ve definitely had to question my own feelings in this area as I tend to react negatively to what might be called the “overtly political” in poetry especially if it’s attached to the personal or emotional. If anyone has read the exchange between Levertov and Duncan, it’s helpful at this point. Place and Goldsmith certainly make a commitment to the political, but do not use the lyric-I in the traditional sense. Perloff talks about the new lyric that is formed through technologically-mediated choices. (something that is not a new phenomenon).

Certainly, this movement away from moralizing and invective has something to do with our times. Outrage about say, pepper-spray cop, can take place on a thousand blogs and in a million Facebook updates, but it has no place in “craft-like” poetry or the person-less poem of the new avant-garde. Outrage, invective, moralizing or whatever you want to call it is reserved for the “amateurs” (the unschooled), the slam-poets, or the simply the poets with no taste. All sides seem to want to control the lyric into something manageable and safe: in the conservative view, this is a kind of mechanical, workshop poem that really has not much to do with the lyric after all. In the avant-garde, it’s a demand for a new, “unoriginal” lyric. But can’t there be something else? It seems like both sides are ultimately unwilling to cross the police lines of their own taste-making.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, May 16th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.