Marjorie Perloff and the Joy of Poetry: On “Circling the Canon” and “Infrathin”

By Jan BaetensJanuary 13, 2024

Marjorie Perloff and the Joy of Poetry: On “Circling the Canon” and “Infrathin”

Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics by Marjorie Perloff
Circling the Canon, Volume I: The Selected Book Reviews of Marjorie Perloff, 1969–1994 by Marjorie Perloff
Circling the Canon, Volume II: The Selected Book Reviews of Marjorie Perloff, 1995–2017 by Marjorie Perloff

THERE IS SOMETHING TERRIFYING in having to write about Circling the Canon (two volumes: 1969–94, published in 2019; 1995–2017, from 2021), a selection of Marjorie Perloff’s book reviews, and Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics (2021), a collection of close readings of works the author considers important. The writers, works, styles, periods, topics, concerns, and languages covered by these publications are so exceptionally wide, and the background knowledge of text, context, and intertext so extensive, that discussing them is risky business. Although the volumes cover many of Perloff’s all-time heroes, they comprise less a nostalgic retrospect than a manifesto, an argument in favor of a renewed form of close reading, what she calls “super-close reading.”

Spanning a period of more than five decades—Perloff started publishing before receiving her PhD on W. B. Yeats in 1965—these publications nevertheless have a striking unity. Corpus-wise, they focus on modernist, avant-garde, and experimental poetry, American as well as European, although more traditional Romantic and confessional literature, generally framed as the countermodel, is present as well. There is also a very strong theoretical and methodological coherence, which Perloff describes in Infrathin:

This book is an attempt to convey to a nonspecialist audience what it is, from my perspective, that makes poetry with a capital P so captivating and indispensable. The choice of poets—most of my poets are familiar Modernists—is much less important than the example of a possible methodology. That methodology is by no means some abstract theoretical model; rather, it is a practice, based on my own sense of what a super-close reading—a reading for the visual and sonic as well as the verbal elements in a text, for the individual phoneme or letter as well as the larger semantic import—can do for us. Micropoetics, let me add, is by no means Art for Art’s Sake: the context—history, geography, culture—of a given poem’s conception and reception are always central.

Perloff likes to quote, paraphrase, comment upon, and exemplify Ezra Pound’s three basic Imagist principles:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. [Composing] in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Abstract and general as these principles of the “Make It New” poetics remain, they allow for a highly detailed, properly “micropoetic” (Perloff’s term) reading of a text, as well as for a very material take on it.

Perloff’s second guiding spirit, after Pound, is Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s art mimics the more institutional dimension of art and literature—the context, framing, and display of art objects. “Infrathin” (“inframince” in French) is also his concept, which he only ever defines through examples, and which Perloff explicates as follows:

Notice that in each of [Duchamp’s] examples, the case is made for difference, however minute, between an A and a B. Adjectives are not equivalent to nouns and shouldn’t be used as such […] The singular is not the plural, the present tense not the past. A second-long interval can be the decisive one. And, perhaps most importantly, even two or more objects made from the same mold are not, in fact, identical.

Alongside Pound and Duchamp, Perloff also cites John Cage and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and they all stand, in her work, for the same core values: Pound’s formalism is no less sensitive to context, for instance, than Duchamp’s contextualism is to detail.

For Perloff, what preceded modernism (which, for simplicity’s sake, I will use here as a synonym for avant-garde or experimental work) was “Symbolism.” Modernism, in her view, is anti-Symbolist. Although she can be sympathetic to pre-modernist and Symbolist authors, she is a champion of texts that are not to be viewed or judged in reference to any hidden “meaning.” Perloff takes the task of the critic as not unearthing such meaning but rather focusing on language and form and materiality. She agrees with Vladimir Mayakovsky that “[t]here is no revolutionary art without revolutionary form.” And nothing can therefore be more opposed to modernism than what she calls “the postmodern drive toward open form and process poetics, the Olson-Creeley insistence that FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN THE EXTENSION OF CONTENT.”

Perloff’s theoretical and methodological target is New Criticism, whose major tenets she considers a direct continuation of the Symbolist ethos. She tirelessly pinpoints what are, for her, the weaknesses of this type of reading, whose final horizon is meaning—even if this meaning is never given without an ironical twist—and unity (and thus not difference). Perloff is rarely dogmatic, however, and her willingness to consider some of New Criticism’s favorites is characteristic of her essential commitment to texts rather than theories.

Circling the Canon and Infrathin do not pay much attention to the technological preconditions and intermedia surroundings of modernist poetry—these topics are extensively discussed in her previous books. But the new books do address many other contextual elements of the now-hegemonic ethical-political and ideological reading of literature. As the author explicitly states, formalism is not Art for Art’s Sake, and thus issues of misogyny, racism, and homophobia have been often highlighted and critiqued in her writing. Her distaste for the posturing machismo of various Beat writers is a case in point, but she has also criticized, no less strongly, Charles Olson’s antisocial megalomania. Furthermore, she has bemoaned the exclusion of female voices from important anthologies.

On the other hand, Perloff rejects political readings that prioritize ideological content and disregard formal matters (for example, the notion that everything Pound wrote has to be condemned because he was a fascist), while she equally throws out readings that are too eager to accept an absolute split between author and work (hence her approving quotation of William Carlos Williams’s comment on Pound: “I could never take him as a steady diet. […] He was often brilliant but an ass”). Striking the right balance between these two dichotomous positions—ideological critique and formalist analysis—has of course never been easy, but Perloff has been doing just that in a 50-year career of sustained and nuanced dialogue with problematic texts and authors.


When Perloff began her career, René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1948), a mix of New Criticism and structuralism, was still in common classroom use. Since then, countless efforts have been made to define what literature “is” and what it “does.” Over the years, the focus has shifted from “what is literature?” to “why literature?” More crudely stated, why bother to do literature, as either a reader or as a writer? This fundamental move is the result of a cultural landslide: in 1989, Perloff noted that “the dominance of MTV, videocassettes and C-span is likely to turn reading from its early Modernist status as daily drug to its postmodern status as (once again) occasional luxury.”

The great originality, as well as the audacity, of Perloff’s thinking is her explicit coupling of the “what” and the “why.” Grounded in Pound and Duchamp, she has a strong idea of what poetry is or should be, which allows her to argue for its continuing importance and vitality even in a growingly postliterate culture. In her view, the best way to promote and thus to maintain poetry is to stress the richness of language and form, rather than any message, communication, or expression, all of which are accomplished with more force in other cultural practices, none of which poetry should try to copy or emulate.

In the field of scholarly literary studies, the withering of poetry is both manifested and masked by the explosion of theory. As Perloff put it in 1986: “What we might call the new indifference [to poetry] goes hand in hand with a preoccupation with theory as the literary discourse that really matters.” The burgeoning of theory in the curriculum is not necessarily a problem, of course—Perloff has always been in favor of theory, but exclusively when used like Wittgenstein’s “ladder,” a tool to be discarded after it has gotten you where you want to go. By contrast, theory can become a practical hindrance when it starts functioning as an excuse to avoid closely reading the text, which remains for Perloff the alpha and omega of any serious engagement with poetry and literature.

Narrowly theoretical or politicized or author-centered approaches to literature prevent us from acknowledging the benefits, including the deep pleasure, of the text-centered approaches that lie at the heart of modernism, the direct, embodied experience of the text. This experience is neither that of traditional beauty—although aesthetic appreciation certainly remains part of Perloff’s critical idiom—nor that of the intellectual and elitist enjoyment of difficult texts, a frequently articulated complaint against modernist poetry and a concern that Perloff takes very seriously, hence her commitment to precise and clear writing. Rather, Perloff’s criticism stimulatingly mixes supposedly “difficult” and “easy” poems, showing that the former become clear(er) when read from a material point of view while the latter display surprising knots of complexity when approached in similar ways. This is the joy offered by “difference”: “When it comes to reading poetry[,] at least its most striking exemplars,” Perloff writes, “the fascination, not only of what’s difficult […] but also of what’s different, may well be the heart of the matter.”

Perloff’s devotion to the academically undervalued practice of book reviewing is characteristic of her wide-ranging engagement with contemporary discourses about poetry. She began reviewing books early in her career, often using the form to critique the status quo of Symbolist and confessional writing, while addressing both specific works and general principles. Perloff’s reviewing is not a pretext for doing literary theory but rather an attempt to revise literary history, often cast in broad chronological categories, in the sense of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971). For Perloff, this era, coming after the Wordsworth–Yeats period, expands into contemporary writing, with authors such as Charles Bernstein and Kenneth Goldsmith, and great historical intermediaries including William Carlos Williams and, surprisingly perhaps, Frank O’Hara. At the same time, Perloff’s historicizing is far from being merely schematic, as she is alert to writers whose work jeopardizes the neat linearity of these transitions. Pre-modernist authors, in her view, can sometimes prove as capable of experimentalism as high modernists: Friedrich Hölderlin, for instance, is presented as a key contemporary, while many of today’s confessional poets are dismissed as mere Romantics.


Perloff is rather infamous for having contributed to the lasting discredit, at least among certain types of readers, of poets like Philip Larkin and Amy Clampitt. She has also not been afraid of adding more than simply critical footnotes to the work of major scholars such as Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. Yet always paramount, amidst her reproaches of unsatisfying or unduly praised works, is her commitment to close reading and contextual analysis, in alignment with the fundamental tenets of the Pound/Duchamp paradigm. Her engagement with O’Hara’s work is a case in point, focusing on its rhythm, its textualization of personal life, the concision of its metaphoricity, and its embrace of modern life in all its forms—an embrace Perloff likes to oppose to the “encloistered” environment of certain elite campuses where poetry is at once venerated and entombed.

Perloff’s pugnacity when confronted with what she sees as inferior or overvalued work can be quite bracing. Take, for example, her demolition of Larkin’s much-admired and frequently taught poem “Dockery and Son” (from his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings), which is generally read along New Critical lines of organic unity, irony, and universalizing personal confession. “But what happens,” Perloff objects,

if we aren’t disposed to accept the premise that having children is mere “increase?” Or that the poet’s “nothing” and Dockery’s “harsh patronage” finally add up to the same thing? To ask such questions is to notice that of course poor Dockery is never given a chance in this poem. […]

The poem’s carefully orchestrated details and clever ironies, in other words, will not stand up to real scrutiny. Dockery is just a prop, used to convey the poet’s own view of things, his sense that “Life is first boredom, then fear.” Far from expressing complex emotions, I would argue, “Dockery and Son” reduces emotion to stock response […] and anyway, whatever choices we make, the end result is death.

Building on this analysis, Perloff opines on “the curious failure of the imagination [that] haunts Larkin’s writing,” witheringly piercing the reputation of one of the icons of contemporary British poetry.

Or take another example: her scathing analysis of Mona Van Duyn’s Merciful Disguises (1973), whose verse is missing, Perloff argues,

the quality the Russian Formalists called factura or density. If poetry is, as Pound put it, “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” hers has a fairly low voltage. Too often, poems that begin with dazzling metaphors peter out because they go on for too long.

The real arena of these debates is the battle of the canons, but not in the now well-established meaning of that phrase. On the one hand, Perloff remains highly skeptical of the so-called “canon wars” of the late 1970s and early ’80s, the conflict between the ossified work of “dead white men” and the many new minority traditions of those “writing back.” The reason for her skepticism should not come as a surprise: although politically sympathetic to nonmainstream voices, Perloff finds that many of the texts celebrated by the anti-canon warriors do not survive the litmus test of Pound’s “make it new” or Duchamp’s “infrathin” poetics. On the other hand, Perloff’s struggle with the canon is in some ways more far-reaching: what she opposes to the traditional—that is, Romantic and Symbolist—canon is not a minority-centered one that supplements and enlarges it but rather an experimental one that supersedes it entirely. In other words, the battle of the canons should be framed less in terms of center versus periphery than in terms of outmoded versus innovative.

And it is her bold, consistent, lifelong engagement with the latter tradition, in these recent books and all the others, that has made Perloff such a challenging, but also helpful and necessary, critic of modern and contemporary poetry.

LARB Contributor

Jan Baetens is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is the author of The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations (2019) and of various books of creative writing (poetry, novel, film photonovel, all of them in French).


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