Marjorie Perloff Critical Essays

Introduction

Marjorie Perloff 1931–-

(Full name Marjorie Gabrielle Perloff) Austrian-born American literary critic and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Perloff's career through 2000.

Marjorie Perloff is widely recognized as a leading critic of contemporary English-language poetry. Rather than subscribing to any particular ideological interpretive stance (such as Marxist or feminist), Perloff tends to adopt a formalist or historical approach to exploring a text. Her interest in poetry criticism frequently lies in uncovering the influences behind a group of poets and proposing a genealogy among writers. A defender of poetic Modernism, Perloff is attracted to such writers as Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. She is also recognized for championing the verse of poets not usually treated as significant, such as composer John Cage and experimental writer David Antin. Perhaps most importantly, Perloff's books are concerned with advancing a revisionist literary history of twentieth-century poetry.

Biographical Information

Perloff was born on September 28, 1931, in Vienna, Austria. Her father, Maximilian Mintz, was a lawyer and her mother, Ilse, an economist. The family, which was Jewish, moved to the United States, where Marjorie became a naturalized citizen in 1945. She attended Oberlin College but completed her A.B. at Barnard College in 1953. In the same year, she married Joseph K. Perloff, a physician, with whom she had two children. Perloff received her M.A. in 1956 at Catholic University of America, and her Ph.D. at the same institution in 1965. Following graduation, she stayed on at Catholic University of America, first as an assistant professor and then as an associate professor of English. During this time, Perloff published her first book of criticism, Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats (1970). In 1971, she left Catholic University of America to join the University of Maryland as an associate professor; within two years, she was promoted to full professor. Beginning in 1977, Perloff served as the Florence R. Scott Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. While at UCLA, she released The Poetics of Indeterminacy (1981) and The Dance of the Intellect (1985). Since 1986, Perloff has held the position of professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, and in 1990 was named Sadie D. Patek Professor of Humanities. She has subsequently published numerous and varied works of criticism, including Poetic License (1990), Radical Artifice (1992), and Wittgenstein's Ladder (1996).

Major Works

Perloff's critical writings reflect her diverse interests, ranging from Modernism and the avant-garde to foreign languages and philosophy. In The Poetics of Indeterminacy, the author considers what she sees as two strains in Modernist poetry: the “Symbolist mode that [Robert] Lowell inherited from [T. S.] Eliot and [Charles] Baudelaire” and what she refers to as the “other tradition,” which finds its origins in the work of Arthur Rimbaud. This “other tradition,” Perloff argues, is characterized by “indeterminacy” or “undecidability.” She examines this “other tradition” in the works of such poets as Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, and John Ashbery, and finishes with a consideration of the poetry of John Cage and David Antin. (The choice of the latter two has been judged somewhat surprising, since neither Cage nor Antin is universally recognized as a poet.) While The Poetics of Indeterminacy sought to explore a tradition that began with Rimbaud, The Dance of the Intellect attempts to form a genealogy of the American avant-garde that begins with the poetry of Ezra Pound. Beginning with Pound's Cantos, Perloff examines how the poet's writings have influenced such contemporary authors as Williams, Stein, Beckett, W. H. Auden, George Oppen, and Robert Creeley. In The Futurist Moment (1986), Perloff provides a portrait of the short artistic period (1909–1914) just before World War I known as Futurism. Working with texts in English, French, Italian, and Russian, the author uses both verbal and visual material from artists who welcomed the “Machine Age” in order to examine the influence of this artistic movement on contemporary writers. Poetic License, a collection of the author's essays, undertakes, according to Perloff, “a revisionist history of twentieth-century poetics.” In the book, the author not only reexamines the writings of such canonical poets as Yeats, Stein, Beckett, and Ashbery, but also draws attention to the work of such marginalized writers as the “language poets” Susan Howe and Steve McCaffery. Here, Perloff juxtaposes various writers, such as Franz Kafka against W. S. Merwin; William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara against Paul Blackburn; and Susan Howe against Rodney Jones. In Radical Artifice, Perloff considers the work of avant-garde poets since 1960, in particular their relationship to mainstream media. By examining recent popular culture, especially television talk shows and graphic advertisements, the author argues that these kinds of media, by robbing certain poetic modes of their impact, have forced poets to find new forms of expression. In Wittgenstein's Ladder, Perloff investigates the influence of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on various twentieth-century poets. Beginning with an introduction on the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein, the book offers a series of essays on how the philosopher's thought is evoked in the writings of authors such as Stein, Beckett, Creeley, and the Austrian writers Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard. Perloff has also produced full-length studies of individual writers in The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (1973) and Frank O'Hara (1977), and has contributed as an editor to several other works, including The Columbia Literary History of the United States (1987) and Postmodern Genres (1989).

Critical Reception

Fellow critics frequently credit Perloff with imaginatively pointing out new directions in poetry criticism. The Poetics of Indeterminacy, in its distinction between two strands of Modernist poetry, has been praised for opening up new readings of both Modernist and contemporary poets. However, reviewers have been even more impressed with The Futurist Moment. In addition to noting Perloff's multilingual facility in dealing with English, French, Italian, and Russian texts, critics acknowledge the book's insightful explanation of the connection between Futurism and contemporary writers. In particular, Perloff is seen as providing a clear link between Futurism and such Modernist innovations as the dissolution of the distinction between prose and poetry, as well as calling into question the “representability of the sign.” For its original study of the relationship between the media and contemporary poetry, Radical Artifice is likewise praised as a significant contribution to the study of contemporary poetry. Wittgenstein's Ladder, in its exploration of what the author terms “Wittgensteinian poetics,” is noted for its concern with the relationship of ethics to the study of poetry. Specifically, the book is credited as a precursor to new studies of the ethics involved in the use of poetically specialized language. Despite their approval for much of Perloff's work, critics have also been relatively united in pointing to what they perceive as a significant fault: her failure to deal adequately with theoretical issues. Reviewers have noted that Perloff often provides controversial or imprecise definitions of the terms with which she works. For example, critics were dissatisfied with Perloff's definition of “indeterminacy” in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, “Modernism” in Radical Artifice, and “analogy” in Wittgenstein's Ladder. Despite these shortcomings, Perloff is respected for the enthusiasm with which she approaches her subjects as well as the originality and significance of her conclusions.