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  • Writing Poetry/Writing about Poetry: Some Problems of Affiliation
  • Marjorie Perloff (bio)

    ;I am not a painter, I am a poet. Why? I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not. Well . . . .

—Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not A Painter”

Academics like myself, who write about contemporary poetry and poetics, often have an affiliation problem. On the one hand, our subjects are alive, kicking, and ready to praise but also challenge our interpretations of their work. On the other, our more traditional colleagues regard our area of expertise as “soft” and trivial. When it comes time to hire for the Creative Writing Program, moreover, they are convinced they can “judge” the poetry to be evaluated at least as well as we do. Creative Writing is only a fun “extra” activity anyway, isn’t it? A few years ago, when my brilliant colleague Gilbert Sorrentino ventured an opinion as to a “regular” job applicant’s understanding of Joyce (whose work Gil taught almost every year), I heard a second colleague say, “What does Gil know? He’s only a writer!”

I am not myself a “writer”; I have, as one of my favorite Oberlin professors, FX Roellinger, told me tactfully many years ago, more talent for the “critical” than the “creative” essay (much less, for the poem), but I do have a special affinity for work in progress, the writing that is not yet canonical or fixed, whose attributes I like to try to define and put in some perspective. And, in a curious way, I am—I [End Page 21] might as well confess it—in love with the twentieth century (this, despite all its elitism and imperialism, its Eurocentrism and even its phase of totalitarianism)—the twentieth century whose first half gave us so many extraordinary poets and artists and composers and architects and dancers that it blows the mind, and whose second half, if less dazzling, is fascinating for its working out of the problems the early century produced. Then too it is our century and, again in the words of Frank O’Hara, “I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining / but I have to smile” (“Naphtha”).

But throughout graduate school and for the first ten years of my academic career (1965–75), my affiliation was with the world of academic scholarship. I had been taught in graduate school to “back up” every statement with a footnote, to provide the necessary evidence to buttress an argument, and especially to observe academic decorum. This meant that, as critics, we never declared X’s argument “wrong” and certainly not “preposterous” or “silly”; rather, we would say, “I wonder if Harold Bloom’s reading of Wallace Stevens takes into account that. . .,” or again, “Thus far, no critic has noticed that A. R. Ammons’s poetry is informed by . . .” and so on. Again, as academics, we were taught to write a straightforward, coherent prose, where “b” follows logically from “a.”

My first two books, and certainly my articles for scholarly journals, followed these prescriptions to the letter. When I was writing my dissertation Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats, I used to go to the Library of Congress and ferret out obscure scholarly articles in German that might have something to do with the theory of rhyme. Or, if I wrote on the elegiac mood in Robert Lowell, I began with Theocritus and looked up the etymology of the wordelegy and what anyone else might have said on the subject, no matter how obscure the journal. But then in 1975, I was asked, on the basis of an article I wrote for The New Republic on Frank O’Hara’s Art Chronicles, to write a book on O’Hara for the commercial publisher George Braziller. The book that resulted marked a shift in affiliation. Not that I ever quite pleased the publisher who wanted more anecdotes and fewer footnotes, more biography and good gossip and less assessment of O’Hara’s debt to French Surrealism. But in the course of writing Frank O’Hara: Poet among Painters (1977), I met the deceased poet’s sister Maureen O’Hara Smith and his editor...

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