English Professor, Avant-Garde Scholar

Marjorie Perloff

July 9, 2024

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Most nights, while her husband and daughters slept, literary critic Marjorie Perloff typed away on her IBM Selectric, her younger daughter sometimes waking to the clacking of the keys as it echoed through the house. Perloff stole those midnight hours to write after full days of teaching, hosting dinner parties, and catching up with soap operas, such as The Bold and the Beautiful. “It sometimes seems scientifically impossible that someone could pack that much into a 24-hour period,” says her longtime friend and former colleague Robert Pogue Harrison, a professor of French and Italian.

Portrait of Marjorie PerloffPhoto: Dagmar Logie/Stanford University/Courtesy Stanford News Service

She became famous for close reading—analyzing word by word, line by line—even while most of her contemporaries had turned their focus to broader interpretations. She wrote more than a dozen books, roughly 250 scholarly articles and book chapters, and hundreds of book reviews, all presented in accessible language, free of complex terminology, so that anyone could begin to understand what she saw. She didn’t owe her striking productivity to ambition, Harrison says. “She was just in love with her work.”

Marjorie Perloff, a professor of English and one of the world’s top scholars of avant-garde poetry, died on March 24. She was 92.

Perloff was born Gabriele Mintz in Vienna to a family of well-off Jewish intellectuals. She was 7 years old when Nazis invaded the city, leading her family to flee to the United States. They settled in the Bronx, N.Y., with little money. Even after changing her first name to Marjorie, “she always felt like an outsider,” says her daughter Carey, ’80. “She was always fascinated by people who didn’t quite fit the mold.”

Though Perloff consumed the classics, her passion was poetry on the cutting edge. She liked “leaning into the ambiguity and difficulty,” says Craig Dworkin, ’91, MA ’92, a poet and a professor of English at the University of Utah who studied under Perloff. Already fluent in English, German, and French, she learned to read Italian and Russian so she could study a wider range of literature. Perloff’s facility with language and interest in artists on the margins helped her recognize greatness in unexplored places. She was one of the first academic literary critics to examine the work of New York School poets, language poets, and conceptual poets, including Frank O’Hara and Charles Bernstein, says Dworkin. Ultimately, he says, Perloff validated avant-garde poetry “as a legitimate topic of literary study.”

She did it all joyfully. Dworkin remembers his many conversations with Perloff about how dour and self-serious literary criticism could be. “One or the other of us would say, ‘Why do it if it’s not fun?’” 

Perloff was predeceased by her husband, Joseph. In addition to Carey, survivors include her daughter Nancy, ’79, and three grandchildren.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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