Poetry News

Boston Review Wants More Critical Binaries

By Harriet Staff

That headline's troubling irony and feeling, sorry. In truth: Boston Review editors Timothy Donnelly and B.K. Fischer decided to court responses to Marjorie Perloff's well-known recent essay, "Poetry on the Brink," by asking 18 poets to unbind other oppositional terms that surround/interest poetry today. In more detail:

Marjorie Perloff’s essay “Poetry on the Brink” in the May/June 2012 issue rekindled conversation about innovation and canonization in contemporary poetry. To continue and extend the discussion, we cast a wide net and invited 18 poets to address the following question: what is the most significant, troubling, relevant, recalcitrant, misunderstood, or egregious set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today, and, by extension, what are the limits of binary thinking about poetry? Their responses range from whimsy to diatribe, with meditation, appraisal, tangent, touchstone, anecdote, drollery, confection, wit, and argument in between.

Poets invited to respond include Dorothea Lasky (mysticism or science), Stephen Burt, Rebecca Wolff, Katie Degentesh, Maureen McLane, Angie Mlinko, Samuel Amadon, Anthony Madrid ("Irony versus feeling"!), Matthew Zapruder (poetry and song lyrics), Annie Finch, Sandra Lim, Evie Shockley, Lytton Smith, Cathy Park Hong, Dan Beachy-Quick, Richard Archambeau [sic], Noah Eli Gordon, DeSales Harrison, and Perloff herself. Some of these are full of rigour/contention/direct response. An excerpt from Hong's piece on canon formation:

...Canons are manifold and the avant-garde tradition has carved out its own hoary gallery. Conceptual poets, due in part to their brilliant PR strategies, are on the fastest track to becoming academicized. And like all institutions, the avant-garde canon has been as racially homogenous as mainstream poetry. One can rationalize these exclusions. The critic Timothy Yu, in his excellent essay “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” delineates two poles of thought that emerged during the ’70s and ’80s: multicultural poetry and Language poetry. Both groups worked to disrupt the dominant paradigm, but they had radically different aims: “the Language poet’s critique of the personal, lyric voice vs. the minority poet’s desire to lay claim to voice.” Many minority poets did not fit within the experimental rubric because they relied on content and employed language as a window on their need-to-be-told stories. This is Perloff’s beef with Trethewey, but I can’t help returning to Perloff’s sweeping dismissal of the poetry of identity politics in her introduction. In 2001, Perloff reviewed the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry and wondered why 21 out of 25 young contemporary poets were writers of colors, as if some affirmative action were taking place where content was favored over form, identity over merit.

It’s easy to forget that poets such as Stein, Williams, and Zukofsky also came from immigrant stock. Because they learned English as a second language, it brought “home the artificialness of . . . language,” as Charles Bernstein mentions in A Poetics. Much has changed since the ’70s and ’80s: multiculturalism and experimental poetics have twined. You have Trethewey, but you also have Ed Roberson, Myung Mi Kim, Fred Moten, Rodrigo Toscano, Bhanu Kapil—poets who acknowledge language’s artifice and unsettle race via formal deconstruction. These poets are not simply riding the coattails of their white experimental forebears. They have provided their own “lively reaction". . . .

Read all here.

Originally Published: December 6th, 2012