Perloff, Pound, and Canon Making
I’ve been mulling over Marjorie Perloff’s “Take Five,” a Pound inspired list of “don’ts” that appeared in last month’s issue of Poetry. Overall, I agreed with the spirit of Perloff’s piece and especially liked her second point:
Don’t take yourself so seriously. In the age of social networks, of endless information and misinformation, “sensitivity” and the “true voice of feeling” have become the most available of commodities. Remember that, as Wallace Stevens put it, “Life is a bitter aspic. We are not / at the centre of a diamond.”
The self-centrism of what Jean Twenge has called “Generation Me” is rampant and surely needs to be addressed. I just submitted my final grades this afternoon and, in reviewing student compositions (in this case, a required review of a poetry reading), I encountered this opening sentence: “I find it very difficult to relate poetry to my everyday life unless I am the author.” Poetry is, of course, an important modality of going beyond the self and a privileged genre for interrogating and exploring the limits of authorship. I hope that these lessons will eventually sink in for this student.
I had considered whether or not to use “Take Five” in a future class or workshop but Perloff’s fifth and final point raised my eyebrow:
Don’t forget that, whether consciously or unconsciously, all poems are written with an eye (and ear) to earlier poetry and that to write poetry at all, one must first read a lot of the stuff. So, at the risk of sounding like a Philistine, I would say put down thy Agamben and pick up thy Auden, thy Ashbery, thy Rae Armantrout. Put down thy Badiou and read Beckett, Bernhard, Bachmann, Bök.
I do appreciate the need and value for a certain kind of prescriptive pendanticism, and I, by and large, find Perloff’s canon to be valuable and exciting; I’ve enthusiastically taught nearly all of the writers that she’s mentioned here. The importance of reading deeply as well as widely, moreover, is a fundamental piece of advice that I constantly bring up in my workshops. But Perloff’s injunction to “put down” certain authors–in this case, continental philosophers–has me wondering about the pedagogical value of such a statement. Why the need to “put down” anything? Perloff’s alliterative quartet of “Beckett, Bernhard, Bachmann, [and] Bök” echoes, whether consciously or unconsciously, Langston Hughes’ famous trio of “Bessie, bop, or Bach.” Why not Badiou, Bök, Bessie, and Bach?
Hughes’ “Theme for English B” offers a great antidote to pedanticism and makes a powerful argument for cultivating a wide range of influences:
I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
Reading is important here but it is listed among a plethora of activities. And Hughes presents the self in a productive relation to others and envisions authorship as not a smug exercise in myopic individualism but a dialogic intervention within community:
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.