The Argotist OnlineTM

Home        Articles       Interviews        Features       Ebooks       Submissions      Links


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)



Jake 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 language poetry.


As 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. 


The 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. 


More 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


What, 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. 




copyright © Marjorie Perloff  




Marjorie 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.