Archive for March, 2024

Leading poetry critic Marjorie Perloff has died at 92: “Her passion was brilliant.”

Monday, March 25th, 2024

Marjorie Perloff, one of America’s leading poetry critics, has died at 92. At Stanford, she was the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities emerita. There will be many tributes in the days and weeks to come. Meanwhile, a few words of an early Facebook tribute from Stanford’s Hilton Obenzinger, who interviewed her for his “How I Write” program:

Marjorie Perloff

She lived a full life, fleeing Vienna as a child and ending up a leading critic. She always had an acute vision of current poetics, and she could be raucous and demanding and irritating and sometimes oddly narrow-minded, racially blinded on occasion, but she cultivated new experimental directions in poetry with a passion that was brilliant. I remember she sponsored a series of readings by avant-garde poets at Stanford. There were good turnouts – but with a remarkable absence of English Department faculty. She participated in a “How I Write” conversation. All I had to do was get her going and I didn’t have to say very much, she would just roll on in brilliant and funny bursts. Here’s an excerpt from the book that came from those conversations,. How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience:

Marjorie Perloff finds her subjects in a serendipitous or meandering fashion. She was asked to write an “omnibus review” of a hundred books of poetry, but she veered off when she discovered the work of one poet, Frank O’Hara, in an anthology. She was completely enthralled, and was compelled to write one of the earliest critical books about O’Hara’s work. “You’re going to write about something that speaks to you,” Perloff explained. “It does not mean it’s the greatest work; it just speaks to you. Nobody could be more different from me than Frank O’Hara, an Irish-American, gay, Catholic, male poet.” But she loved his work, his sense of humor; and she knew she liked the kinds of irony that O’Hara employs—so this became her project. Perloff explained that she has had to understand her own taste, “knowing what you like and don’t like,” and consequently her subject becomes a very personal choice, one that grows from that self-knowledge. “There are going to be certain things I never do like, that are, for me, sentimental,” and O’Hara was not one of those.

But it’s not only taste; it’s what she can offer to the conversation. Poets would often ask Marjorie Perloff why she hadn’t written about them or why she hadn’t written about some other writer. “It doesn’t mean you don’t like them,” she explained; but she may not have anything particular to say that hasn’t been said already. “There are a lot of people I like that I haven’t written about because I don’t feel I have anything to say that other people haven’t said. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t find them very interesting; it just means—Let’s take somebody like Faulkner, for instance. I adore Faulkner. But I don’t have anything to say about Faulkner, particularly.”

From Boris Dralyuk on Twitter: “I had this theory (ha…) that Marjorie was related to Shelley Winters. Like SW, she was a force, magnetic and grand. It was a joy to get her notes when she caught pieces of mine she liked, and it hurts to think that ’25 will arrive without one of her sumptuous New Year’s letters.

From Derek Beaulieu on Twitter: “Rest in peace Marjorie Perloff (1931-2024); an incredible scholar, critic, and colleague … Marjorie passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family. She was herself to the end – funny, opinionated, generous, and fiercely devoted to her friends and family.

Postscript from Peter Y. Paik of the University in Seoul, South Korea: “Ages ago when I was an undergrad interested in avant-garde poetry, it was Marjorie Perloff who made me want to pursue an academic career. I admired the clarity and grace with which she wrote on the most demanding sorts of texts, so much the inverse of much of the theory-heavy scholarship at the time. While my research interests moved in other directions, one of my fondest memories of graduate school was of getting to meet her in person at a conference in Cornell in 1995. She had an unabashed love for what she studied, which gave an invigorating and spirited quality to her conversation. Marjorie always retained the passion that drives one to study literature but which too often flags and flares out in the grind of the ivory tower. I pay my respects to a life well-lived, and offer the prayer that there will be more like her in the future.

Postscript on March 29: There’s more. From Robert Pogue Harrison (read the whole piece here):

“At Stanford, Perloff had a profound and lasting impact on her students and colleagues. Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, Emeritus, team-taught Introduction to the Humanities and two graduate seminars on the French 19th century poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud with Perloff in the late 1990s. ‘No one who spent an hour in Marjorie’s company could ever forget her,’ said Harrison, professor of French and Italian. ‘In addition to being the best scholar of modern poetry of her generation, she was multi-lingual, immensely articulate, and a tour de force of wit and storytelling. She gave greatly more to Stanford than she took from it. Team-teaching with her was an exhilarating experience that I will always cherish.’” 

Postscript on March 26, from Polish poet Julia Fiedorczuk:

Robert Harrison: “Our culture is getting more and more prosaic…We’re trafficking in concepts and not in spirit.”

Saturday, March 23rd, 2024

You could easily miss this long article with the long title, “Writer, podcaster “Robert Harrison challenges A.I. brain delusion, the Humanities’ deathbed and Fear & Loathing with the Love Bots.” I wouldn’t pass it up I were you. Scott Thomas Anderson has a conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison, Stanford’s leading humanist and Dante scholar, and Aqsa Ijaz, who writes for The Marginalia Review (we’ve written about her on the Book Haven here) and it shouldn’t be missed.

An excerpt:

“We were talking about the horrifying and exciting possibilities of Chat GPT, and I asked, ‘What if it starts to write books like you?” Ijaz reminded Harrison. “And you said, ‘I’m not worried that A.I. will be able to think metaphorically, or write books like mine. I’m worry that it will hasten the day when human beings themselves will no longer be able to think metaphorically and lose access to those depths.’ What do you think is happening in the Humanities? Have students already lost access to their metaphoric depths?”

Robert Pogue Harrison

“I think so, yeah,” Harrison admitted. “At Stanford, when I arrived in the 80s, there was the whole war over the Western canon. It had gone from Western Civilization to ‘Civilization, Ideas and Values.’ So, when they changed the reading list from Western Civ. to ‘C.I.V.,’ essentially, they threw out all the poets. They retained Thomas Aquinas but threw out Dante. They retained Machiavelli and threw out Shakespeare. They retained the theorists, the people who think in terms of concepts, but not in terms of images. So, this isn’t even due to technology, it’s just the fact that our culture is getting more and more prosaic, and professors are more and more in the profession of trafficking in concepts and not in spirit. So, it’s that de-spiritualization. And we’re becoming completely illiterate in terms of the language of imagery, symbol, metaphor. This increasing literalization of reality is a terrible blight on the poetic imagination.”

For Harrison and many of his listeners, that has consequences: This weakening of the full breadth of the human experience is accelerating at the very same moment that the zealots of Tech utopianism would have A.I. replace the human creative capacity all together. Harrison thinks that many of his colleagues are too consumed with indoctrination to see this grim writing on the wall.   

“Rather than them being an antidote or tonic or some kind of corrective to the general disaster that has been visited upon our ordinary human intelligence by technology, and the whole sorcery of the screen, I think the majority of my colleagues in the Humanities – according to my general awareness of the tribe to which I belong – won’t be in a position where we should expect much from them,” Harrison offered. “They won’t be providing a productive alternative or some kind of counter-impulse to the worst disfigurations … It seems to me that it’s just going to render everyone more and more vulnerable to fraud, propaganda, ideological manipulation and greater political polarization. And it’s the same technology that enhances and enables all of these exploitations of human loneliness.”

Aqsa Ijaz

The conversation turned to AI, perhaps inevitably: NYU professor Gary Marcus, who spoke recently about the extreme confusion society will now face between reality and unreality.

“What criminals are going to do here is create counterfeit people,” Marcus said. “It’s hard to even envision the consequences of that. We have built machines that are bulls in a China shop. Powerful, reckless and difficult-to-control.”

In other words, as these forms of machine learning teach themselves how to play to people’s egos and vanity, breathing in our collective online behavior – and how we use social media to desperately grasp for breadcrumbs of affirmation – these bots get better and better at gauging how a person secretly likes to imagine themself. They will learn to cater to such vulnerabilities, doing so from the guise of some vaguely independent, apparently all-knowing ghost. This alone gives A.I. the potential to be as addictive, or more addictive, than any force we’ve yet encountered in our mammalian experience, especially when love and sex are forced into the equation. And Marcus’s reference to criminals? Up until this point, con artists of average intelligence have been successfully preying on isolated, withdrawn and hurting people, often managing to catfish those victims for tens of thousands of dollars; or in some cases hundreds of thousands. Now imagine what a predictive “super-intelligence” can do to isolated, withdrawn and hurting people.  

Can Silicon Valley and the academic breeding ground that bolsters it somehow chain this part of the genie?  

Having taught at Stanford University for 38 years, Harrison has little faith that the ivy league institutions will be the answer … Read the whole thing here.

Writer Christopher Merrill celebrates the “blessedness of gathering” in Hong Kong

Monday, March 11th, 2024
Merrill (far left) with IWP alumni from Norway, Honk Kong, and Japan

“Only connect,” E. M. Forster famously wrote. Forster’s dictum is a plan of action for writer, poet, editor, and translator Christopher Merrill, who is the director of the International Writing Program (IWP), based at the University of Iowa. It’s been callled the “United Nations of Writers.” The late W.S. Merwin called him “one of the most gifted, audacious, and accomplished poets of an extraordinary rich generation.” He’s in Hong Kong right now to celebrate the IWP’s 29th anniversary.

IWP organizes a number of programs that connects literary communities overseas with distinguished American writers. He delivered a short keynote address celebrating the connections at the Hong Kong Book Festival.

He offered some thoughts on literary residencies:

“When I was hired in 2000 to rebuild the storied International Writing Program, there was concern in the leadership at the University of Iowa that another academic institution might seek State Department funding to create a literary residency like ours, thus undercutting our partnership with that federal agency, which dates to the IWP’s founding in 1967. This did not worry me, partly because I had so many administrative fires to put out, and partly because it seems to me that any literary residency is a good thing not only for individual writers but for the larger community: when poets and writers are given space to read, write, and reflect, good things usually follow.

“I often return Robert Hass’s poem, ‘Spring Rain,’ which begins with the speaker taking note of the intervals of light sparked by “a Pacific squall, started no one knows where, which moves its own way, like water or the mind.”

Accordingly Hass makes an imaginative journey, tracing the likely path of the rain… and then charts ends with calls ‘the blessedness of gathering.’” More than 1,600 distinguished poets, fiction writers, essayists, and playwrights have gathered in our UNESCO City of Literature to write, give readings, and engage with their counterparts from around the world, expanding their aesthetic horizons and building a network of literary connections that endure, and that is why I was thrilled to learn twenty years ago that Hong Kong Baptist University had decided to create its own version of the IWP. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I am pleased to join Nieh Hualing Engle, the co-founder of the IWP, in welcoming the International Writers’ Workshop. That many alumni of the IWP have had the good fortune to take part in the IWW makes this all the sweeter.”

“This book will change the way you see the world around you”: Zabolotsky’s “Columns”

Friday, March 1st, 2024
His poems took Leningrad by storm

When Columns, a slim volume of poems written by an unknown young Russian poet named Nikolai Zabolotsky, appeared in 1929, it took the literary world of Leningrad [St. Petersburg] by storm. Zabolotsky was not part of the city’s artistic elite, having arrived in Leningrad from the provinces only eight years earlier, but the privations and confusion he found in the city following the 1917 Revolution and ensuing civil war stimulated his poetic imagination. Zabolotsky’s translator Dmitri Manin describes his poetry as portraying “a worldview with no oppositions, no differences between the living and dead, abstract and concrete, naive and sophisticated, artful and artless, meaningful and meaningless, high and low, important and trivial, funny and sad. It’s all mixed inseparably…”

Now you will have a chance to hear his translator, Dmitri Manin, discuss the new published Columns ((ARC Publications, 2023) at the Stanford Bookstore on Thursday, Mar 7 2024, 5 – 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. What’s more, I will be moderating the discussion. I’d love to see you there!

Los Angeles Review of Books editor emertis, the poet Boris Dralyuk,  wrote: “The early poems of Nikolai Zabolotsky present to us images of such stark and surprising vividness that they continue to stun nearly a century after their publication. Dmitri Manin’s translations retain the freshness of Zabolotsky’s vision – that of an imaginative outsider thrust into a world torn apart and remade, haphazardly, by a bloody revolution and civil war – as well as the solemn music that effectively counterpoints the poet’s cavalcade of novel images. This book will change the way you see the world around you.”

Dmitri Manin, translator of Columns 

Dmitri Manin is a physicist, programmer and award-winning poetry translator. His translations into Russian span the range from Robert Burns to Allen Ginsberg to contemporary American poets. His translations into English have been published in journals and anthologies, including The Best Literary Translation, forthcoming in 2024 from Deep Vellum. Nikolai Zabolotsky’s Columns is Manin’s first book in English.

Cynthia L. Haven is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and book author. She writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, numerous other periodicals and her award-winning blog, “The Book Haven”.