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Just Up: Marjorie Perloff Responds to Matvei Yankelevich

By Harriet Staff

Back again to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Marjorie Perloff is quick on the draw, responding to Matvei Yankelevich’s open letter to Perloff, “The Gray Area,” published just last week. Perloff states right away that she’s grateful for Yankelevich’s attention to her Boston Review essay, but that he “mistakes [the] essay’s intended audience, as well as some of its terminology.”

From his own perspective, as publisher on the downtown New York poetry scene, where a congeries of young experimental poets are producing a great variety of texts — visual poetry, performance texts, serial poems, documentary — that can’t be pigeonholed, he objects to what he takes to be the binary opposition between Conservatism and Conceptualism in my essay.

Perloff believes the binary is his, not hers:

I’m sure Trethewey doesn’t think of herself as a Conservative, and neither does Rita Dove. Moreover, these poets do not write at all “transparently,” as Yankelevich seems to think. Transparency, even a feigned transparency, can be associated with the Beats and the New York poets: Eileen Myles would be a contemporary case in point. But most of the academic mainstream poets use calculated indirection, “subtle” metaphor and imagery, allusion to historical events, and so on. Certainly, they avoid simply telling it “like it is.”

In any case, Yankelevich’s real interest is not in the “Conservatives,” of whom he is even more dismissive than I am, but in the Conceptualists. And here our disagreement is largely semantic. “Conceptualism, in its pure form,” he writes, “must be … by definition anti-lyrical, or at least a-lyrical.” This is a simplification. . . .

“Do I believe that Conceptualism is the only game in town? Not for long. As with any movement … the likelihood is that the moment of Conceptualism, which is now prominent enough to boast two recent large anthologies and many university courses dedicated to it, will soon be over,” she writes. After discussing Duchamp the original, Bernstein, Goldsmith, et al., Perloff focuses her attention on one of Yankelevich’s most interesting queries:

Why, Yankelevich asks, don’t I cast my scrutiny on the “complexly lyrical but conceptually minded work of the younger poets doing interesting in-between work today, poets not fully conceptualist and certainly not conservatively lyrical?” This would certainly be the subject for another essay, but you can’t very well oppose the Penguin canon by bringing up the names of what are, outside the world of small-press and chapbook publishing, wholly unknown poets. Then, too, I am not convinced that the “ever-growing margin on the sidelines of mainstream poetry” is as rich and fruitful as Yankelevich suggests. “New Surrealisms, new Confessionalisms entwined with new Feminisms:” these may be important to a publisher of new poetry like Ugly Duckling, but as someone who didn’t even like the old Surrealisms, the prospect of a fresh batch is less than exhilarating.

She then finishes her piece by contradicting herself, it seems. While dismissing his above suggestion that she take seriously these “wholly unknown poets,” Perloff still manages to argue that:

…[P]erhaps it’s time to forget about movements and isms and read carefully particular poets — poets who, in Yankelevich’s words about Nekrasov, “complicate the relationships of appropriation and transparency, context and concept, politics and aesthetics,” insisting on a “heightened materiality of language.” Whether we call such work Conceptualist or Post-Conceptualist really doesn’t matter. The point is to come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world, and to look closely at the alternatives.

Read the full response here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, July 16th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.