On the Limits of Binary Thinking

From Ange Mlinko’s witty couplets, written in response to my essay, I learn that M.P’s. “real stakes” are to determine

Who are the heirs of the Modernists? This high bar seems to include Stein, Zukofsky but not Auden, Frost, or Yeats (it seems Irish, English, and Scots are lost in the discussion. . . .

Does it indeed so seem? True, I am not a great Robert Frost fan although I would never contest his importance as one of the central Modernist American poets. And there is no reason A.M. should know that at Stanford I frequently gave seminars on W. H. Auden, a poet I do love but have written about only rarely. But Yeats? Let’s see: I wrote my PhD dissertation on Yeats and it’s been published, excerpted, and reviewed (Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats), and I’ve published at least ten long essays on Yeats in scholarly journals and as book chapters. My discussion of gender in “In Prayer for my Daughter” is reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Yeats’s poetry; an essay on “Easter 1916” was written for Tim Kendall’s Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (2009). In the introduction to The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, co-edited with Craig Dworkin (2010), I use Yeats’s “A Deep-sworn Vow” as Exhibit A for the wonders of rhyme, repetition, and metrical alternation in poetry. Oh, and I have for years written quite a bit on Beckett and Ian Hamilton Finlay, so I am wondering how Irish and Scots are “lost in the discussion”?

I can only conclude that Mlinko knows nothing about my earlier work: she is responding only to what I say in this particular essay, whose mandate was to talk about the situation in poetry now and in America. But even in this case, Mlinko’s response is curious because my long discussion of Susan Howe’s “That This”—a work by a poet so deeply influenced by Yeats—might have provided the necessary link.

A similar phenomenon occurs in Cathy Park Hong’s contribution. Complaining about my “totalizing, shorthand generalizations,” about Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology, Hong admonishes me:

. . . 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.”

Not only do I agree with Hong that Yu’s is as excellent formulation of the issue, but I also happen to have directed Yu’s Stanford dissertation in which (in later book revision) this passage occurs, and I believe I know the chapter in question almost by heart, having read many drafts of it.

A third example. DeSales Harrison writes:

The want of precision [in Perloff’s argument] can be easily supplied with a bewilderment of glazed and fussed-up confections: “verbivocovisual,” “(cubo-)futurist,” and “ironic neo-avant-garde.” (“How fine our distinctions,” wrote Lowell, “when we cannot choose.”)

Thwacking at Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is deliciously tempting, arguably justifiable, possibly merited, and lately the Sport of Queens. It is also easy.

If the reader cares to turn back to my essay, s/he will see that I do not “thwack” Dove’s anthology for its choice of poets but focus particularly on what struck me as a troublingly superficial Introduction. If Harrison thinks my “easy” analysis of this introduction is incorrect, I would love to hear what he finds valuable in it. As for the “fussed-up confections” so “easy” to invent, I only wish I had invented them! The first is James Joyce’s (see the Sirens chapter in Ulysses), the second that of the Russian poets Maykovsky, Khlebnikov, and Kruschenyk, who called themselves cubo-futurists”—the third Peter Bürger’s in Theory of the Avant-garde. And the names Harrison accuses me of merely dropping—like Goldsmith—are ones I feel I have earned the right to “drop,” having written at length on their work.

Why does any of this matter? Why should the responders to the BR symposium be expected to know anything about my earlier writing or, not knowing, check out a few facts before making sweeping generalizations as to what I might or might not believe? Why did none of the eighteen symposiasts dig in and take issue with my specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi—readings that constitute approximately two thirds of the essay?

Constatation of fact—Ezra Pound’s phrase—does, I’m afraid, matter, given that most of the poet-symposiasts are teaching college and university courses on poetry. As for the symposium topic—the critique of binaries—it’s a perfectly good one, but I don’t understand what it has to do with my essay, which explicitly rejects the old binaries between the raw and the cooked, the formalist and the “New American Poetry” so as to be attentive to some of the lights I take to be shining in the darkness. It’s as simple as that.

Stephen Burt quite rightly notes that I am given to the making of value judgments—a tendency he takes to be ‘Neo Modernist.” On this charge, I plead guilty. But of course Burt too makes value judgments, having, for example, singled out the poems of Rae Armantrout from a large corpus of “language poetry,” much of which he has quite openly rejected as insignificant. Isn’t such choice by definition the domain of the critic? As my beloved Yeats put it in a beautiful little poem called “A Coat”:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.