Friday, December 07, 2012

Us vs. Them: Poetry and the Limits of Binary Thinking

Experimental vs. formalist; formalist vs. free verse; post-avant vs. quietude; lyric vs. language-based — you know the old binaries that people drag around when they write and talk about poetry.  They're like the weather as described by Mark Twain: everybody talks about them, but nobody does anything about them.  Until now! The good people at Boston Review (Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fischer, and David Johnson) have put together a great forum on binary thinking in contemporary poetics, now available online.

Back in May, Boston Review ran a Marjorie Perloff essay called "Poetry on the Brink," which sparked some lively and contentious conversation.  Since much of the conversation involved the question of just how useful (or harmful) our old critical binaries were, the editors asked a group of poets and critics to write short essays addressing the question "what is the most significant, troubling, relevant, recalcitrant, misunderstood, or egregious set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today, and, by extension, what are the limits of binary thinking about poetry?"

Responses came in various forms.

Maureen McLane and Ange Mlinko replied with poems, Mlinko's consisting of a series of rhyming couplets, beginning with: "
M.P. is right: much free verse exists to give a pass/to naïfs who only learned of poems from a glass..."

Annie Finch waved the proud banner of poetic meter.

Stephen Burt struck the note of the expert overwhelmed by the plenitude of poetry and poetry-talk (which you may remember from an earlier essay of his).  This time he tells us "So many binaries circulate in and around contemporary poems that I find myself running out of Ibuprofen as I pursue the most useful."

DeSales Harrison comes out swinging, saying that Perloff's essay is at times mired in "self-regarding sludge" (I would advise Harrison to shy away from Orono, Buffalo, Louisville, and other stomping grounds of the Perloff enthusiasts for a while).  

Matthew Zapruder and Lytton Smith stand up for music, with Zapruder defending song lyrics as poetry and Smith taking issue with the visual/auditory divide.

Sandra Lim reminds us of Matvei Yankelevich's contribution to this discussion.

Katie Degentesh wins the Wicked Wit award for the line "If it’s not a legitimate poem, your body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

Dan Beachy-Quick seeks a middle ground between lyricism and the dissolved self; while Noah Eli Gordon notes the conundrum of the poet-professor, drawn to both indeterminacy and clarities more readily adaptable to a pedagogical context.  Dorothea Lasky works with a similar division, claiming that "a young poet today, finding his or her own way, must decide to be either a mystic or a scientist."

Samuel Amadon notes that labels tend to be imposed on poets from without, saying "American poetry is littered with schools and movements that no one claims to be a member of."

Cathy Park Hong accuses Perloff of being "disingenuous" in her treatment of poets of color (look out!).

Anthony Madrid, who has a strong claim as the possessor of Best Head of Hair in American Poetry (men's division) decries the insistence that irony and feeling must be at odds with one another.

Rebecca Wolff notes that her journal, Fence, has been interested in the binary question for years.

Evie Shockley dislikes the very idea of binaries, while some guy named Archambeau doesn't want to go without them even though he advises treating them with suspicion and getting promiscuous with the things.

Marjorie Perloff writes a reply in which she addresses various contributions, and manages an answer to DeSales Harrison that deftly sidesteps the issue of sludge.


  1. I think it's worth remembering that life and art are never this polarized. What makes for a critical argument about aesthetics has no real application in the lives of most working artists.

    Real life, including making art, is almost always both/and rather than either/or.

  2. Yes, Katie's line wins. Can't talk about poetry if you don't use a metaphor that brings in the Other World.