Marjorie Perloff, PN Review

“It is refreshing when a critic restores the function of narrative to the work of art, and finds aesthetic rather than biographical reasons to validate a work. [Marjorie] Perloff also knows that information and knowledge are not the same thing. We can recount the intimate and accidental facts of a writer’s life but know little of the content and meaning of those facts. The witnesses themselves are not be too trusted.”

From the Editorial in PN Review, May-June 2019, a good piece on Marjorie Perloff’s distrust of biography: “this makes her a distinctive voice at a time when gossip and appraisal often go hand in hand.”

It’s also refreshing that Perloff has not been sucked into the dull, middle-brow contemporary poetry scene:

“Charles [Bernstein] and I have wonderful debates about what’s happening in poetry. As a poet, he naturally wants to like a lot of work, but I find it difficult to agree. Look, when the language school of poetry started out, Charles was the radical, oppositional poet who brilliantly demolished ‘Official Verse Culture’, as he called it. But now, alas, much of what he previously condemned, like the ‘transit theory of poetry—from me to you’ has come back with a vengeance. Now the criterion for poetry is very romantic again, filled with the witnessing of personal pain and suffering, whether in relation to gender or race or disability, and so on.”

I’ve been reading Jacqueline Winter Thomas’ poetry; her blog a very recent discovery thanks to flowerville. The poetry echoes earlier modernist avant-garde work, of which I suspect Perloff might approve.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.