Posts Tagged ‘Marjorie Perloff’

New feather in Marjorie Perloff’s cap, and a few words about making literature “useful.”

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Marjorie Perloff


A new feather for Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff: the influential critic is the 2014 recipient of Washington University’s International Humanities Medal.  The award honors humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts that have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006; journalist Michael Pollan in 2008; novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010, and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in 2012. You can read more about Perloff on the Stanford website here.

She will receive the medal during a ceremony on October 22 at Washington University in St. Louis. The news is on the website of the University of Southern California, where Perloff is Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – here.

Perloff is the author of 16 books and hundreds of articles, and “will be honored for her outstanding body of work, and for her impact on both the discipline of literary criticism and the landscape of contemporary poetry,” according to the website.

FeatherBut the occasion gave Perloff an opportunity to say some welcome words about the humanities, and literature in particular: “One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the tendency to justify everything now by saying it must be ‘useful,’

 ” she said.

“I don’t think studying literature needs any justification,” she said. “It’s simply one of the great arenas of human endeavor and has been from ancient times to the present. The study of literature literally transforms your life, opening up to you other worlds outside your own narrow one. It enhances your sense of the richness of life and its fascinating complexity: Indeed, it is life, in another form. To have no familiarity with the great literary texts is to lead a diminished life.”



Author, author! No, not me–him.

In other news, the modest fame of the Book Haven continues to spread – this time to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which gave us a shout-out in an article about upcoming production of Les Misérables at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater. In a recitation of the events of the 1832 failed uprising, it quoted from “Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven in her fun, informative blog post ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” It sounds like a great production, if you’re in the area. Read the whole article here.

Humble Moi seems to have become some sort of citable expert on Les Misérables and Victor Hugo, what with our recent Stanford talk on the subject here, and other posts here and here and and here, and the original post here, which currently has 99 comments, a Book Haven record. That means you have the opportunity to make the 100th comment, if you act quickly. We’ll give you a shout-out, too.


Postscript on 9/25: Congratulations, Linda McCoy! You made the 100th post on ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” You had only a few minutes to enjoy the honor before I found an earlier comment from you in the spam folder. So you have the 98th and 101st comments now, technically speaking – but we’re calling it for you. You won by a hair! So here’s a little champers to celebrate. My favorite. Veuve Clicquot. Enjoy.

Remembering Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov, and a meeting in Cologne

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

A gifted photographer as well (Photo: Eugene Ostashevsky)

I found out about the 2009 death of Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov accidentally.  At a meeting recently, someone casually mentioned that a memorial had been held for him at Stanford.

That comment was already some time ago. My memories and feelings piled up and became complicated, and so I postponed for months writing a few words about him.

In truth, he had scared the bejeebers out of me when we met in  Germany.  Here’s what happened.  We agreed to meet at the Cologne Cathedral, a good central spot where I wouldn’t have to wend my way through back roads of an unfamiliar city.  Friends dropped me off at the cathedral, and I thought I could trot over to his house with him.

Not so.  He lived some distance away.  We went on a metro for a seemingly interminable distance to the outskirts of the city – it must have been a half-an-hour’s ride at least.

He was acting in a manner that alarmed me – was he on drugs?  Had he been drinking?  Here I was, in a city I’d never been in before, trundling along to an unknown destination, with a stranger whose behavior struck me as oddly disconnected and lethargic.

It takes far, far less to spook me. I scare easy.  How would they ever find my body days later in “a built-up industrial area under the permanent curse of the deafening trains”?  I wrote later of our eventual destination:

“In a row of white buildings, Parshchikov’s flat is small, spare, clean, almost monastic. We sit in an austere kitchen with a white-painted table and two chairs. The only other room, the bedroom, is in bold, primary colors. A Macintosh sits on a desk in one corner. Photographs – 10-by-12 black-and-whites – are scattered here and there, for Parshchikovis a gifted amateur photographer. ‘Empty, empty space,’ he says, looking around. ‘My place in Moscow has more books.'”

He described to me the breakdown of his marriage.  “We quarreled,” he said, gazing at me and pausing for what seemed an impossibly long time.  “You understand?  We quarreled.”

I thought I could get the picture.  I wrote:

Some will find his literary style, well, odd. “As Russian poetry goes, he is difficult and more demanding on the average reader. But he’s worth the struggle,” says [Oxford’s G.S.] Smith. Publisher’s Weekly called his imagination “troubled and powerful” and noted, “The defining feature of Parshchikov’s poetry is its fantastical elaboration of metaphor, not as a decorative device or an occasion for clever display, but as a fundamental mode of apprehending and transforming the world.” Examples: “potato roots protrude from the earth like elbows from a fist fight”; a dying fish “[freezes] up, like a key growing thick in a lock”; “history is a sack, an abyss of money inside it.”

“Alyosha’s work has a quality at once ancient and entirely new,” says American poet Michael Palmer, Parshchikov’s friend and translator. “His poems present and project the turmoil of the present in a manner that is entirely his own, a tone of this particular fractured and diasporic moment, where the unsettled is the norm, and where all is in continuous flux.”


Marjorie Perloff befriended him at Stanford – I seem to remember interviewing her, but in the end did not quote her in my article.  He had fond memories of the university where he got a master’s degree, and of his “beautiful, more-or-less durable bike and the opulent libraries I’ve never seen again the world over.”

We discussed Allen Ginsberg, a sort of soulmate for him. Our meeting lasted for several hours.  My friends eventually found me after a confused and panicky rendezvous at the metro station – we were waiting on the wrong platform, and the “metarealist” poet was phlegmatic and not terribly well-oriented. One of my friends, a young Russian woman, began laughing uncontrollably when she began talking to him – a typical Russian type, she said.

I corresponded with Alyosha (as he signed his emails) for a time afterward – and a few other poets contacted me to find him, but  eventually the trail went cold.

In one email, he described his meeting with Joseph Brodsky (I quote it in full, with its idiosyncratic English, for any literary or historical value it might have):

"Opulent libraries I've never seen again the world over" (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

At the time I’ve met Brodsky at Stanford I was missing Europe, I meant Moscow and one abstract Europe on which I had only fuzzy ideas, the Europe to which belonged my Swiss wife. I’ve realized that there was nothing to do more in Stanford and my inner time has been expired. Just being in such a mood I met Joseph Alexandrovich [i.e., Brodsky – ED] while he had his lecture and readings in our University and in Palo Alto Jewish Center. After Brodsky’s lecture I handed out my Russian book to him and he asked me to call him next morning; then we appointed a place near coffee house and spoke about 3 hours. The common judgment about his arrogance has evaporated very soon: he was quite practical and knew about Moscow writing more then I’ve expected from him. We briefly skimmed contemporary poetry map, figured out “who is who” and switched to the topics concerned with the relevance of certain poetry devices and their imaginable opportunities in a given situation. He traced the plumb axis in whatever examples he had put. He was focused on how to bullish the value of the word (he used ironically the market notions sometimes) and spoke about ways to sublime the theme in our robustly reasonable world.

He told me that poetry is named a fine art just because the music is prevails in its tissue over the rational mind. “Poetry is a MELIC ART nevertheless,” – he wrote me later (“Music must be paramount… And everything else is mere literature,” – P. Verlaine), and advised me to expand my rhythmical repertoire. Whether he implied that I was too rational or it was only a premise for the further discussion, remained an enigma for me as he contradictorily told me about unpredictability and unpremeditated features of some of my images. Thus, I’ve got critical notes and encouragements simultaneously. He was enough sceptical, for instance, about the length of my subordinate clauses, although I used them not for drawing information or make the rhetorical figure, but for the further transformation of images which allowed me
to set the main event at the end of some respiratory phase (I enjoyed this Baroque style).

An artist argues if not with his opponent, then with himself. I was interested in him, he was interested in himself and it was entirely sufficient, for I realized that he was looking for another messages and triggers which affected him. While I listened him, it was important to prefigure the room, to define the vacancy for the new poetic applications. Just not in a rational way, but to imagine a space in which new experience would get a chance to be revealed.

Sorry, I have made a lot of notes on the margins of his books, and now it’s hard to arrange all of them.

You see why I postponed writing about him? This post is already long, and I’m left with a puzzle – the mystery of brief meetings that leave a lasting impression, and the memory of my misplaced fear of this oddly sweet and guileless man.

There was very little written about him a decade ago – now pages and pages are on google.  Here’s his poem, “Oil.”  And here is Ron Silliman‘s memoir of him, at an extraordinary moment of courage in a Moscow pub with a bunch of skinheads.

Alyosha died a month before his 55th birthday, of cancer, in Cologne.



Orwell Watch #17: The 10th anniversary of 9/11 – prepare for an avalanche of buzzwords

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

In preparation for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, perhaps we should brace ourselves for an avalanche of the usual buzzwords.

Yesterday I posted Marjorie Perloff‘s thoughts about the occasion (I liked her nailing the ubiquitous and largely meaningless rallying cry, “saving the planet”).  But after I posted her words, the letter from “humanusist” caught my attention:

I am surprised, Professor Perloff, that your essay on Language in a Post-9/11 world did not center more on, well, language.

For example, while you point to that wonderful phrase “free world,” it might be worth exploring how it once was understood to mean free of tyrannical governmental control. But today, of course, it implies something very different. It oft can be found in proximity, if not adjacent to other provocative phrases such as “religious zealots.” (In fact, that very phrase is to be found in this very series of the Chronicle’s special 9/11 retrospective essays…)

Another bit of language worth exploring: “National security.” What have we as society constructed, and come to accept, around those two words? What are we making of such language in our post-9/11 nation, and importantly what is it making of us?

“Jimislew” added a thought:

I remember being stunned that a “Homeland” security department was created. “Homeland.” What did that mean? What does it still mean?

From George Orwells 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language“:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”

So here’s a few words to be thrown around a great deal in the next week:  free world, national security, “homeland” security, religious zealots (well, why don’t we go the whole nine yards and nail “religious fundamentalists”?)

I’m sure there will be a few others.  Let’s log them in here.

As 9/11 anniversary approaches, litcrit’s Marjorie Perloff speaks out on American insularity

Friday, August 19th, 2011

No comfort in Whole Foods Market

I’ve had a chance to finally go through Marjorie Perloff‘s “Language,” which has been open on my MacBook Pro forever…well, at least since August 7, when it was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Perloff, one of the preeminent lit critics and a champion of the Language Poets and other avant-garde movements, takes on the changes in the nation since the events of 9/11.

In her essay, she argues that an event that should have made us more attuned to the outside world haa, paradoxically, made us more inward instead:

A new worldview

“The very language of the decade expresses our anxiety about the outside world. Talk of the ‘third world’ and ’emergent nations,’ expressing as it does a first-world confidence and sense of control, has given way to the ubiquitous ‘our planet,’ as in, ‘saving our planet.’ …”

“When most Americans talk of saving our planet, they have a myopic view: They mean the environment they witness every day, with its SUV-clogged freeways, plastic-bottle glut, and absurd excesses of electricity and water consumption. In this context, a session at Whole Foods Market may feel comforting, but what about those places on the planet where there is not enough electricity to speak of excess or where there are no paper diapers to clog landfills? Better not to think about them, and to focus on such issues as childhood obesity (Michelle Obama‘s cause) or the relative effectiveness of the various sunscreens on the market.”

Time to look outward again

She concludes:

“Perhaps, now that a decade has gone by since 9/11, it is time for us once again to look outward. The increasingly tedious discourse of self-reflection—based on the assumption that we are the leaders of the ‘free world’—must give way to a more accurate sense of who and where we are in relation to the developing nations and cultures in our ‘global’ backyard. Language study—not just of ‘foreign’ languages but also of our own—will help us to deal with the reality that, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘we are not / At the center of the diamond.'”

I don’t find her final argument terrifically convincing. “We are not the center of the world” has been the mantra of President Obama, but so far I don’t see Brazil or South Korea or even China stepping up to the plate of “world leader,” though their economies may be (comparatively) booming and their populations swelling.  Perhaps the role of “world leader”itself is one of the 21st century’s early retirees, and there are no cops on the beat anymore.

She quotes Stevens, but W.H. Auden makes a more foolproof bet:

"I told you so"

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.