The Argotist Online
Marjorie Perloff’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)
(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)
Berry’s contention that the university presses today publish only “Iowa”
poetry or Language poetry, allowing no room for the newer experimental poetries,
makes some curious assumptions. To begin with, Berry seems to equate Iowa with
what Ron Silliman has dubbed “The School of Quietude.” But this category has
become so large and diverse as to be meaningless. For instance, the University
of Chicago Press Phoenix Series, which publishes poets like Alan Grossman, Alan
Shapiro, Eleonor Wilner, David Ferry, Susan Stewart—a congerie of intellectual
scholar-poets that are hardly “Iowa” in their ethos or formal structures.
Indeed, the university presses, now more or less working on the model of the
commercial presses, as Berry himself notes, publish a great variety of poetry
books that would seem to have no connection with such Iowa poets as Gerald
Stern, Norman Dubie, Stanley Plymly, James Galvin, Donald Finkel. Cole Swensen
has two recent Iowa books and teaches at Iowa—but who would call Cole an
“Iowa poet”? Then again she isn’t a language poet either but she’s
certainly “experimental”—perhaps closer to conceptual writing than to
for Language Poetry, I can think of only two language poets who are published by
university presses: Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan) and Charles Bernstein (Harvard and
Chicago). Charles’s books in question like A
Poetics (Harvard) and My Way
(Chicago) belong primarily to critical theory rather than poetry; indeed, MY WAY
is not part of Chicago’s poetry list. (The exception would be Girly Man). As for Armantrout, her poetry is now widely accepted by
the Establishment press and she has won a Pulitzer. But Wesleyan tends, on the
whole, to publish more mainstream figures like Heather McHugh. And they publish
Peter Gizzi: like Swensen neither an Iowa Poet nor a Language poet, but a fairly
unclassifiable and significant one.
University of Alabama Press did recently publish the completed ALPHABET
by Ron Silliman, but they certainly didn’t publish his earlier volumes,
and so this homage to a work begun some thirty years ago is an exception. And
Lyn Hejinian, one of the most admired language poets, hasn’t published a
single book with a university press; she uses smaller, less well-known presses,
like The Figures for the important Oxota
and Granary Press for A Border Comedy.
important: today, there ARE excellent outlets for experimental poets, beginning
with the wonderful Ugly Duckling Presse. Many of their books, beautifully
produced, do get reviewed and are by young poets like Uljana Wolf. Another
important press is Nightboat, which just published Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle
English. Coach House Press in Toronto is a great outlet. Roof Books
continues to bring out exciting material, most recently Craig Dworkin’s Motes.
And New Directions continues to be an important poetry publisher but limits
itself to a very small distinctive group: for example, Rosmarie Waldrop, Ann
Carson, Susan Howe, Forrest Gander, Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey
then, is Berry’s complaint? Where are those important experimentalisms that
the “university presses” are missing out on? Where are the neglected bards
of the present? Publishing today is extremely eclectic and—with exceptions
like New Directions, which has a certain trademark--one can never tell who will
publish what, where, and when. It’s a pretty open and fluid situation. Just
when you label Princeton as quite conservative, they publish Andre Codrescu.
Columbia has just published Kenneth Goldsmith’s critical prose Uncreative
Writing. It seems that the real contrast is between “experimentalism”
1980s-90s style and that of the present. Historical change is certainly
important to consider. But Berry’s dichotomy between Iowa and Language seems
to me a false one. Bear in mind that some of our leading Language poets attended
the Iowa Workshop: for example, Silliman, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten.
But such contemporary poets as Craig Dworkin, Uljana Wolf, Cia Rinne,
Caroline Bergvall, Vanesse Place are quite outside the Iowa orbit and yet they
do get published, even if, for now, at smaller presses.
© Marjorie Perloff
Perloff is Professor of English Emerita at Stanford University. She is the
author of many books on modern and postmodern poetry and poetics; the most
recent being, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the 21st Century.