The State of Criticism

Poetry Criticism Today

Marjorie Perloff

“There are two theoretical limits of criticism,” T. S. Eliot wrote famously in 1933, “at one of which we attempt to answer the question ‘what is poetry?’ and at the other ‘is this a good poem?’” And he continues:

No theoretical ingenuity will suffice to answer the second question, Because no theory can amount to much which is not founded upon a direct experience of good poetry; but on the other hand our direct experience of poetry involves a good deal of generalizing activity.
     The two questions . . . imply each other. The critic who remains worth reading has asked, if he [or she] has only imperfectly answered, both questions.1

This common-sense statement has always struck me as incontrovertible. The word criticism (from the Greek verb krinein, to judge) refers, first and foremost, to the making of judgments, and critics even today, when value judgments are often considered out of order, inevitably make judgments based on particular assumptions of what is good or bad, right or wrong in the work to be judged. The difficulty is that, with few exceptions, the practical critic’s theoretical assumptions are taken for granted rather than clearly articulated. Helen Vendler, for example, does not come out and say, “I am not especially interested in satire, comic poetry, or Dada collage; my own predilection is for a lyric poetry of high seriousness, a poetry whose language comes to terms with human suffering.” We can only deduce this view from her actual discussions of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and Jorie Graham.

In The Use of Poetry & the Use of Criticism, Eliot makes clear that the answers to his twin questions—“What is poetry?” and “Is this a good poem”-- will depend very much on the poet’s particular culture and especially on his audience. “There is,” writes Eliot, “a significant relation between the best poetry and the best criticism of the same period. . . . .The contemporary poet, who is not merely a composer of graceful verses, is forced to ask himself such questions as ‘what is poetry for’?; not merely ‘what am I to say?’ but rather “how and to whom am I to say it? We have to communicate.” (20-21, italics mine).

The function of audience is surely central. Today, plenty of journals and book reviews like the New York Review of Books, Bookforum and the Times Literary Supplement—journals that publish excellent criticism of fiction and non-fiction, as well as discussions of art exhibitions and theatre productions—fall curiously flat when it comes to the criticism of contemporary poetry. The New Republic and the London Review of Books, for example, regularly publish a few poems per issue, but the poems in question seem wholly unrelated to the sophisticated and biting essays on cultural or political topics printed on surrounding pages or, for that matter, to the critical discussions of earlier writers from Aeschylus to Kafka. And the New York Times Book Review, for better or worse the best known book review in the US, seems to have dropped poetry almost entirely, even as it scrupulously “covers” new fiction.

University curricula tell the same story. When I first began to teach at Stanford in 1987, there were eight of us in the English department who taught courses on modern and contemporary poetry. Now there are only one or two. And the same is true around the US. Whatever the causes—and this is too large a topic to be taken up here—suffice it to say that the “reading public” barely has “poetry” on its radar screen. Ask young professionals, those who do read fiction, whether they regularly—or even intermittently—read any poetry, and the answer, as many surveys have attested, is no. And those who don’t read poetry are not likely to read poetry criticism.

Indeed, poetry and its criticism has largely become the domain of university Creative Writing Programs and, at the moment, these programs have two major critical emphases. The first is the production of impressionistic essays or reviews, usually written by one poet about another, that point to the felicities of this or that “important” new volume of poems by an established—or at least well-placed—poet. Such writing—it might be called blurb criticism—is based on the assumption that, given the scant attention given to any poetry today, there is no point dwelling on negatives: after all, one wants one’s reader to go out and buy the book. The second—and more interesting poetry discourse is that of hitherto marginalized minority groups: African American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American, as well as oppressed nationalities from Palestine to Pakistan, and of course the very engaged discourse of the LGBTQ community. It seems that the Establishment’s large-scale rejection of poetry as significant discourse has prompted emergent communities of poets and critics to occupy the terrain.

On the whole this turn has been a positive development: throughout the 20th century, after all, some of the best poetry was born out of exile and oppression: think of Paul Celan or Aimé Césaire and of the great women poets like Susan Howe, who were marginalized by the prestigious universities that denied their very existence. The energy and excitement coming out of the new minority communities—especially the African-American community--is palpable. But it is the discourse that surrounds the practice that is problematic and that I wish to address here.

In a recent Arcade Colloquy called Poetry After Language, Walt Hunter writes enthusiastically of Michael Dowdy’s “close readings of Latina/o poetry,” which “show that poetic devices are inseparable from a critique of neoliberalism.” The term neoliberalism is defined by Dowdy—and Hunter does not disagree-- as “a global political project to restore capitalist class power by any means necessary, including state, paramilitary, and extraterritorial violence.” Among the poets practicing such “critique,” according to Dowdy, are a group of Nuyorican poets including Jack Agüeros, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Judith Ortíz Cofer. Indeed, reading this poetry alongside an immense body of critical theory about neoliberalism, from Wendy Brown and Slavok Zizek to Juan Flores and Nêstor Garcîa Canclini, Dowdy concludes that “Nuyorican poetics is the vanguard of poetry of the Americas.”2

Intrigued by this large claim, I turned to Agüeros’s Sonnets from the Puerto Rican (1996) whose “graceful, accessible, and formal anticapitalist poetics” Dowdy finds so impressive. Here is one such sonnet, titled “Sonnet Substantially like the Words of F Rodriguez One Position Ahead of Me on the Unemployment Line”:

It happens to me all the time—business
Goes up and down but I’m the yo-yo spun
Into the high speed trick called sleeping
Such as I am fast standing in the line now.

Maybe I’m also a top; they too sleep
While standing, tightly twirling in place
I wish I could step out and listen
For the sort of music that I must make.

But this is where the state celebrates its sport.
From cushioned chairs the agents turn your ample
Time against you through a box of lines.
Your string is both your leash and lash.

This unrhymed pseudo-sonnet—it deploys the three quatrains of a Shakespearean sonnet but no couplet—is written in a rough iambic pentameter and uses colloquial diction and straightforward syntax. The title sets the stage as graphically as possible: the poet-speaker is voicing the sentiments of his acquaintance or friend F. Rodriguez, who is standing in front of him on the unemployment line. Falling asleep on his feet from the endless wait, the narrator sees himself metaphorically as a yo-yo or spinning-top, “twirled in place” by the nameless and faceless power of an oppressive state, a power that, in the “box of lines” that is the unemployment queue keeps him on a “leash” that functions as a “lash” of pain. While the suppliants endure the hardship of the unemployment line, “the state,” in the form of agents on “cushioned chairs” “celebrates its sport.” The poem thus dramatizes the conflict between labor and capital, us versus them. In our cruel system, the sonnet suggests, you can never got out of line; you are held in place on a permanent leash. Even the formal “box” of the sonnet restrains its contents although the run-on lines like “ample/Time” express the urge to escape.

Agüeros’s is what we used to call a “well-made” poem. But what can it mean to say that such a text is emblematic of the “vanguard of poetry of the Americas”? The choice of concrete diction, the use of metaphor and irony, the first-person mode, and the emphasis on particular incident and the insight such incident yields: all these strike me as placing Agüeros’s poem in the line of Robert Lowell’s political sonnets of the early 1970s, especially the volume History (1973). Certainly, Sonnets from the Puerto Rican is closer to Lowell than to, say, Charles Olson or Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery or Frank O’Hara or, south of the border, to Octavio Paz or Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

But vanguard? This particular sonnet, published in 1996, is written as if New York and Beat poetry, much less the Language movement of the 1980s , had never existed. Still, Dowdy must have something in mind when he uses the label. Perhaps it is the critique of capitalism contained in the poem that is considered vanguard. But surely such critique was a common enough theme of American poetry throughout the ‘60s and 70s. Perhaps, to take the poem’s position one step further, it is its critique of neoliberalism that counts. But there is no indication that Agüeros has globalism or “extraterritorial violence” on his mind when he writes, as he does, of the pain of unemployment—a theme with us since the Great Depression. The avant-garde claim, accordingly, can only refer to the poem’s agency: it gives voice, as was not the case in the New York of the 1970s, to a Nuyorican poet.

But if ethnic identity is Dowdy’s criterion, what then, to come back to Eliot’s first question, is poetry? Dowdy and Baker seem to take as a given that poetry has instrumental value, that a poem is a political construct, a piece of writing that uses such poetic devices as line break, metaphor, and irony to critique the existing political/economic order. And that order—again this assumption must be taken on faith—is evil. No distinction is made between one kind of capitalism and another, between, say, the democratic capitalism of the US and the authoritarian version in China. Nor is any attempt made to compare Neoliberalism to Socialism or other political programs; it simply is.

Poetry, said W. H. Auden famously, makes nothing happen. Here, on the contrary, is the opposite formulation. The inseparability of the poetic and the ethical, the poetic and the political, has been claimed from at least Horace on down, but even if we take the category of political poetry very seriously, can we conclude that the poem in question has anything especially interesting to say about capitalism or that the poem’s formal features produce defamiliarization of the capitalist context? Then, too, why should we should go to poetry, rather than to history or economics, to understand the evils of our system? Read Thomas Piketty, a cynic might say, and learn what it’s really all about.

To put it another way, the weakness of the allegedly global critical discourse of the present time, at least so far as Dowdy and Davis’s poetic example is concerned, is that the discourse refuses to make its own case, to thicken the plot. Basing its conclusions on “an immense body of critical theory about neoliberalism” rather than on a comparably “immense” body of poetics from the pre-Socratics and Aristotle to the present, a discourse like Dowdy’s simply assumes (1) that the right poetry is poetry with the right political message; (2) that capitalism is our Satan and we need merely pronounce the word to get the appropriate response; and (3) that poets from oppressed minorities are in the best position to launch the necessary attack on the System. Whereas the political essays in, say, the London Review of Books take up the complexities of the contemporary scene—the recent articles on Scottish separatism and the British election are a case in point—the new “Activist” poetics too often rehearses the most puerile truisms as if they were original and remarkable insights. Ironically, then, such critical discourse, reaching out though it does to such a wide range of poetries and practices around the globe, is perhaps, on its own terms, not political enough.



  1. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry & The Use of Criticism: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1932-1933 (1933; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 12.   // back
  2. Michael Dowdy, Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013), 187; as cited in Walt Hunter, “Poetry and Sociality in a Global Frame,” ARCADE COLLOQUY “AFTER LANGUAGE,”,” 5.   // back


Before her retirement, MARJORIE PERLOFF was Sadie D. Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. She is also Florence Scott Professor Emerita of English at the University of Southern California. She teaches courses and writes on twentieth— and now twenty-first—century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and from a Comparatist perspective, as well as on intermedia and the visual arts. Her first three books dealt with individual poets—Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Frank O'Hara; she then published The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (1981), a book that has gone through a number of editions, and led to her extensive exploration of avant-garde art movements in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (1986, new edition, 1994), and subsequent books (13 in all), the most recent of which is Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2011), which appeared in Portuguese translation in 2013. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (1992) has been used in classrooms studying the “new” digital poetics, and 21st Century Modernism (Blackwell 2002) is a manifesto of Modernist Survival. Wittgenstein's Ladder brought philosophy into the mix; it has recently been translated into Portuguese (Sao Paulo), Spanish (Mexico), and Slovenian and will be translated in France for 2014 publication. Perloff has published a cultural memoir The Vienna Paradox (2004), which has recently appeared in German translation in Vienna and will soon be published in Brazil. The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, co-edited with Craig Dworkin was published by Chicago in 2009. A collection of interviews, Poetics in a New Key, will be published by University of Chicago in the fall of 2014. And Perloff is currently under contract with Chicago for a book called The Other Austrians, a study of the still largely misunderstood contribution of the late Hapsburg empire to the literature of Modernism. In this study, Perloff returns to her Viennese roots but also engages what is for her a new area—Modernist fiction, theatre, and memoir.