Experimental poetry, in contexts

Book Review: Differentials: poetry, poetics, pedagogy
Marjorie Perloff
University of Alabama press
2004. 307 p.

How does one tell a good “experimental” poem from a bad one? And what is an experimental poem anyway?

Readers, writers, teachers, and theorists alike ponder these things. One person wearing all four hats is Marjorie Perloff, who offers Differentials with her usual erudition, humor, and interdisciplinary insight. These essays, written between 1999 and 2004, address performance poetry, concrete poetry, multimedia poetry, constricted writing, and how teachers might help their students make sense of it all.

Perloff’s prodigious knowledge of twentieth century artistic movements allows her to relate the work of Ezra Pound to Marcel Duchamp, to explain “differential poetry” that varies according to the medium of presentation, to compare the performance poetry of Laurie Anderson, Joan Retallack and Caroline Bergvall, and to elaborate on distinctions between Kenneth Goldsmith’s rule-generated writing and Ronald Johnson’s verbivocovisuals.

I particularly enjoy her discussion of the French Oulipo movement, a group of writers and theorists who created structures for generating language. She discusses its U.S. counterpart in the works of John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, the Fluxus poets and, more recently, the work of Christian Bo:k and Caroline Bergvall.

“Before we decide who is writing what claims to be the truly innovative poetry and how we teach it,” Perloff says, “the more closely we weigh the various alternatives before us.”

And how to teach “experimental” poetry? Take nothing for granted. Insist on close readings. And a close reading must account for all the elements in a given text, not just the ones that support a particular interpretation, she reminds us.

What matters is not what a poem may ‘say’ about old age or mother-daughter relationships, but how it says it and why. The reader places the poem in a number of frames: the book in which it appears, the writer’s oeuvre as a whole, then its genre and stylistic conventions, and then its cultural and historical markers in the context of other comparable poems of the period.


One thought on “Experimental poetry, in contexts

  1. Postfacto analysis of how a poem works. I suppose its good for giving academics something to do, justify their salaries or something, but for the life of me I can’t see any other point in it. This sentence for instance,
    “Before we decide who is writing what claims to be the truly innovative poetry and how we teach it, the more closely we weigh the various alternatives before us.” What does it mean? and couldn’t it be said more clearly? Poetics, they call it, I think, an intellectual wankfest of the highest order, utterly pointless.

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