In an age of critical recognition for the contingency of aesthetic taste, it is bracing to read an assessment so unself-consciously spoken from the mountaintop as Marjorie Perloff’s review of Cary Nelson’s new anthology. (I will say right off that I am on the Advisory Board for Nelson’s anthology. Though I made suggestions, Nelson chose the poems.) Perloff believes that her taste is the taste, but there are many ways to value a poem besides her way.
Perloff begins by complaining that the anthology is too heavy. It may seem trivial to respond to such a complaint, but the point is that she uses imaginary trivialities to mask her fears about the real conditions of aesthetics. “[T]he book,” laments Perloff, “which weighs in at almost five pounds, is heavier than my three-pound Dell Latitude laptop.” Actually, if my scale can be trusted, it weighs 3 pounds, 1.6 ounces, non-contingently, unless you hold the laptop in your right hand, the book in your left hand, and let your contingent prejudices tally the pounds. Perloff also dislikes Nelson’s book because “Today’s undergraduate . . . has little familiarity with poetry and may well be intimidated by it.” Isn’t that a reason to bring poetry to students, rather than to give up?
For Perloff, the crux comes down to Nelson’s large-scale inclusion of “poets of color” and poets on the left. That “would be perfectly acceptable,” she says “if the Oxford Anthology were upfront about its political agenda.” Then she complains that the back cover is upfront about its political agenda, and that when the back cover says that the anthology includes canonical poets and recently rediscovered “women, minority, and progressive writers,” it offers “something of a trap, implying as it does that . . . there were not sufficient numbers of women or minority writers among” the canonical poets. Well, there weren’t: no trap there.
Perloff complains that Nelson included the poets he likes but not enough of the poets she likes, and that therefore his taste is biased. Of course his taste is biased, like everyone else’s, and he never pretends otherwise. The pretender to objectivity is Perloff, not least when it comes to black and Indian poets. She complains that Melvin Tolson, an African American, gets many more pages than Frank O’Hara, a white, without noting that she has written a book on O’Hara or that Tolson gets more pages partly because of Nelson’s innovative commitment to long poems (and without noting that O’Hara gets eight poems and Tolson gets only two). More reasonably, she complains that “Of the twenty-five poets born after 1946 . . . twenty-one are poets of color,” and the other four she identifies with various beleaguered groups, which to her amounts to the same thing. As usual, Perloff’s math is wrong, since it’s actually nineteen out of twenty-three, but I agree that Nelson’s choice of minority poets for almost all the more recent [End Page 181] poets was a bad idea, and I told him so when I reviewed a draft of his table of contents.
But when Perloff quotes minority poets from the anthology in confidence that quotation will prove them terrible poets, she only proves what a feeble reader she is, quoting inaccurately and wrenching her quotations out of context. Quoting four lines from a 301-line poem by Adrian C. Louis, she makes two transcription mistakes. She quotes twelve lines from a 134-line poem by Ray A. Young Bear, making nine errors, even dropping an entire line. (Often, when Perloff quotes Nelson’s headnotes to make fun of them, she misquotes them. She even gets the title of the anthology wrong, calling it the Oxford Anthology, though there is no Oxford in the title.) Still going after minority poets, Perloff picks out a poem “by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson” and makes condescending fun of what she calls its “chug-chug iambic pentameter,” but “chug-chug” isn’t iambic and neither is Johnson’s poem...