Wiman and the
of the Poet-Critic:
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Q: When did you begin writing criticism? Did you see it as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry?
A: Aside from a lot of newspaper reviews, I wrote my first piece of criticism when I was twenty-seven or so—a long, deeply felt, but in some way intellectually deflected piece about ambition and survival. I worked on it like a poem, over many months, and put it away afterwards for many months with no thought of publishing it. I didn’t think of it as “criticism.” It was an argument I needed to have with myself, a way of articulating and hopefully moving beyond both the gains I’d made in poetry and the limitations I’d begun to notice. Eventually I did publish it, though, in Poetry, and other ideas and assignments ensued.
As for criticism being an obligation, for me this is answerable in two very different ways. Pavese said that periods of critical awareness usually follow periods of intense creative activity. Certainly this has been the case for me. After periods of intense production, which tend to shut me down in all sorts of ways and cause a great deal of practical havoc in my life, I have found criticism to be a way of getting my bearings both on and in my own work, though that usually involves writing about someone else’s.
I’m talking about essays here though, a form I’m more comfortable with than reviews. The latter I’ve done under a different, broader sort of obligation, which is perhaps closer to the question you’re asking. Generally, I find reviewing new poetry to be a tedious, maddening, stifling task—tedious because poetry tends to be bad in the same ways and you find yourself merely reiterating them; maddening because of the constraints of time and therefore precision (I often find myself disagreeing with things I’ve written when I actually read them in print); and stifling because there’s just not a whole lot of room for creative imagination in reviewing. In the past few years I’ve taken on these sorts of reviews almost solely out of guilt. Why exactly I should feel guilty about not reviewing is one of the splendid mysteries of my character.
What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? What critics or
poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard?
A: I think the chief obligation of the poet-critic is to the poet side of that dubious title. That is, he should write prose like a poet, which is to say he should have a style, as well as using his own experience of writing poems to get inside the work he’s now criticizing. I’ve loved and been helped greatly by the work of some academic literary critics (a handful) but they almost never have the metaphorical and linguistic resources of poet-critics like Heaney, Auden, Eliot, Pound, or Jarrell (to answer your second question about exemplary examples). A critic should be somewhat detached and objective. A poet-critic should be passionate, partisan, maybe even a bit crazed.
I read Adam Kirsch’s interview on this site and admired the distinction he drew between poet-critics who are (I’m paraphrasing) real critics and others who are more enthusiasts or impressionists. His preference seems to be for the former—carefully supported arguments, close textual readings, that sort of thing. I can certainly see the value of this, but it always makes me feel like I’m in a classroom. My mind just slides off of it. What I love are impressions—Heaney’s description of the way reading Wordsworth is a kind of floating over a landscape, Jarrell using Frost’s “Directive” to make much broader assertions about life; Auden’s absolutely brilliant observations on D. H. Lawrence. Kirsch says these latter critiques (if that’s even what they are) fall away after they lead you to the work. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s just this sort of impressionism, the sense of an entire body of work being assimilated and distilled into a metaphor, that I remember and would aspire to.
Q: What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?
A: There was a time when I read enough contemporary poetry to answer this question, or at least stab at it, but it’s been a while. Auden says somewhere that a poet over the age of thirty or thirty-five will probably continue to read a good deal, but it’s unlikely he’ll spend his time reading contemporary poetry. I’m thirty-six and do indeed read a lot. But I just have too many interests and too little time to keep up with contemporary poetry, most of which, just at any other time, is awful. Or no, not quite awful, actually. It’s a sort of white noise competence, which is actually much more dangerous and deadening than outright badness.
I also have to admit that I don’t spend much time thinking about, well, the sociology of literature, I guess you could call it—questions of audience, general health of the art, “movements” like neo-formalism or what Stephen Burt calls the ellipticals. I’m sometimes struck by what some critics come up with in this regard—Dana Gioia seems to me the best at it—but it’s not the way I tend to think about poetry.
Q: Don’t you think a critic needs to keep up with contemporary poetry, needs to continue to read broadly among all the poetry that is out there?
A: First of all, I don’t care one whit about being known as a critic and am not really sure I’ve even written enough of it to qualify, or if many of the things I write really count as “criticism.” Even so, I would say the answer to your question is: absolutely not. Eliot talks in a letter about some people who read far too much to have any taste. That’s what I feel sometimes when I read poetry criticism, that the writer isn’t simply saturated with poetry, he’s drowning in it. Maybe, then, this is another obligation of the poet-critic, to bring a broad intelligence to bear on poetry, not to be a specialist.
Q: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism? Of its current health as an art?
A: It isn’t an art. Or at least the occasions when it is are so rare that they’re simply exceptions proving the rule.
As for its health, I wish I could say something positive or at least original, but I can’t, finally. Contemporary poetry criticism seems to me so obviously anemic, incestuous, timid, and dull that any voice with a trace of authentic passion and authority comes as quite a shock.
For an example of this, take a look at the last two issues of The Hudson Review. A young critic named Brian Phillips reviewed a new book very harshly and passionately, and in the next issue Anthony Hecht and William Pritchard both wrote in protesting the review. I haven’t read the book in question, but it doesn’t matter. Phillips is right, even if he’s wrong; you can feel it in his prose. Hecht and Pritchard are wrong, even if they’re right, and you can feel it in theirs.
Q: Why do you think this is? Is it because public discussion of poetry has become, as Kirsch says, “so limited and dishonest?”
A: Yes, certainly that’s one reason. Poets are afraid to review one another, or they review their friends. This is not news, nor do I have anything original to add to the subject.
I would say, though, that the worst scourge of contemporary poetry criticism is the “descriptive” review, wherein you finish a piece with no clear idea of what the reviewer actually thought about the book in question. Any poet should be ashamed of writing like this. I have actually heard more than one reviewer say that they didn’t want the professional grief that comes with hard criticism, but they did want the “publishing credit.” There’s got to be a special hell for this sort of ambition.
Q: You seem to suggest that part of the obligation of the critic is to write negative reviews. Is this necessarily true?
A: If we’re talking about being a practical critic, reviewing books of new poetry or anthologies, yes, I do think it comes with the territory. How can you take someone’s praise seriously if they never express any strong dissatisfaction? I suppose you could limit yourself to writing only about books about which you have, as my mother used to tell me, “something nice to say,” but then you either have to have no taste, or limit yourself to reviewing a book or so a year. That’s not really reviewing.
I’m not saying you should slam one book after another, though. That’s deadening for everyone concerned. There’s got to be a balance between enthusiasm and disgust. Indeed, I think disgust should be mostly eradicated from one’s tone. There are ways of expressing objections without that corrosive acid of contempt, ways of using reviews of bad books to engage broader questions of poetry (while still expressing a clear opinion!). These ways are finite, though, which is why most reviewers are and should be young.
Q: If one considers, as a body of writing, the poetry criticism written in the first half of the 20th century to that written in the second half, then clearly there has been a marked deterioration. What caused it?
A: I think there is both more and less at stake now. In terms of professional advancement—publication, jobs, prizes, etc.—a contemporary critic risks more now than in the past. In terms of real ambition, though, and a sense of criticism as a sort of catalyzing or neutralizing agent between literature and life (exalt the good, kill the bad), the stakes are much lower. When Winters went after Crane (a friend!), it was because Winters thought The Bridge was a diabolically dangerous work. What was at stake was life. Now usually what’s at stake is a livelihood.
I would add, though, that I see no connection in literary history between periods of great accomplishment in poetry and great accomplishment in criticism.
Q: Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been, and continue to be, politically conservative? From the New Critics to the New Formalists many of the important poet-critics have been denounced for their political allegiances as much as their aesthetic ideas.
A: Is that really true, that contemporary poet-critics tend to be politically conservative? I think people often conflate political and aesthetic conservatism, which is a mistake. Poet-critics tend to be aesthetically and artistically conservative, yes, but that simply means they’re historically informed and believe very passionately in making distinctions. The “edge” in art is almost always sharpened and extended by aesthetic conservatives, whether or not they write criticism. Think of Eliot, Crane, Stevens, even Frost. In any event, I see no necessary connection between aesthetic beliefs and political ones. Art doesn’t advance over the centuries; in some fundamental ways it doesn’t even change. Political realities most definitely do and must.
As for some poet-critics of the past being denounced for their political allegiances, I’d say that’s a good thing. Pound, Eliot, the Fugitives—these people had some vile ideas. To be sure, there is a large difference between them. Eliot was a great poet and very much at the mercy of his creative gift. Criticism was a means of survival for him, and I think his rigid politics were an extension of this. Pound was a lesser poet, though still awfully good. His madness was the opposite of Eliot’s—inclusive, accumulative, dispersing. To me, his fascism feels like a part of this madness, not something solid clutched to stave madness off. The Fugitives are minor, even when they look major, like Robert Penn Warren (who had the courage to denounce some of his early ideas). There’s no artistic excuse or explanation for their beliefs, and there’s something merely timid, pinched, and mean in that whole movement.
Q: What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, which is such a fixture of recent American poetry?
A: Again, I don’t agree with the premise, that much recent American poetry is political. Some of it is, but the great majority is about the self, and another large percentage is “about” language or perception.
But why shouldn’t poetry be “political”? Aren’t Wordsworth, Yeats, Jeffers, Hill, and Heaney political? Adrienne Rich makes a good argument for Bishop’s Chemin de Fer as a political poem. Presumably any good poet is engaged in the world at large, if only in apparently private ways, so it seems to me either naïve or pathological to insist that one’s political life be separate from one’s imaginative life. This isn’t an argument for propaganda. I’ve never read a political poem that convinced me in the way that, say, a good editorial can, and I have no patience for one that tries. If you’re a real poet, your imagination has to trump your political ideas, which is to say you should be capable of writing a poem that offends your political self.
Q: Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States ? Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry?
A: Poets have always had to negotiate their way among the institutions that both protect and deaden them, and I can’t really see how a university environment is all that different in this regard than the church, the court, or the drawing rooms of polite society. But as I said before, I just haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this issue or related ones in any depth. I’ve actually sat here for fifteen minutes trying to turn my mind toward this—think of an old, old gun turret—but it’s no good.
Q: It seems that the institutional patronage networks have, in some sense, co-opted poetry—or, at least, poetry criticism. A system designed to sustain and recognize artists has, in many ways, been perverted into its opposite. For example, with so many first book awards, aren’t all of them consequently diminished? Hasn’t the whole system, from the Pulitzer to the smallest press award, become ridiculous?
A: I don’t know any poet who takes the Pulitzer seriously, nor any poet who wouldn’t love to win it. We all play this sort of game with ourselves, roundly castigating the whole enterprise until one of its rewards comes to us, whereupon we think: Finally, justice has been done! Of course it’s a sham, but it’s only when you give your life and art over to it, requiring that sort of exterior confirmation like a drug, that it can destroy you.
Q: Which contemporary poets do you read with pleasure?
A: Seamus Heaney (until about ten years ago), Robert Bringhurst (“These Poems”), Adrienne Rich (“Toward the Solstice” seems to me a great poem), Don McKay, George Mackay Brown, Eleanor Wilner (“Bat Cave”), Richard Wilbur, et. al.
The truth is, though, I don’t respond well to poets in bulk (thus the parentheses). I can even think of poets I read with extreme, almost exclusive displeasure, but who I think have written great poems. Ashbery comes to mind. I’m in awe of “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” but I find him unbearable in bulk. Interestingly, though, there are opposite examples. You have to read a lot of James Schuyler or Thomas Hardy before you begin to hear how subtly calibrated their voices are, and can fully respond to the best poems that rise out of those voices. Or at least I’ve found that to be the case.
Q: Which contemporary critics?
A: William Logan (for the prose), Dana Gioia (for the broad sociological observations), Michael Hofmann (for the eclectic insights), Seamus Heaney (for the gems), Geoffrey Hill (for the fiber); Thomas Disch (for the humor).
Among younger critics, I’ve been very impressed by the intelligence, range, and sheer audacity of Adam Kirsch’s reviews. I also follow Peter Campion’s work, who has a real critical imagination and a sharp prose style, a rare combination.
Q: Are there any books of poetry published in the last few years that you would particularly recommend to readers?
A: John Peck’s Collected Poems; Timothy Dekin’s posthumous book, Another Day on Earth; August Kleinzahler’s Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club; W. S. Di Piero’s Skirts and Slacks; H. L. Hix’s Rational Numbers; David Barber’s The Spirit Level; Christine Garren’s Afterworld; Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love; Larissa Szporluk’s Dark Sky Question. And of course James Merrill’s Collected Poems was published in 2001, a great, great book.
Q: Can poets regain the common readers they once had? Will poetry ever exert itself again in American culture as it did a century ago? Does criticism have a role to play in this?
A: Whatever one thinks of the work, it seems to me that poets like Billy Collins and Maya Angelou are indeed exerting themselves in American culture in broad ways. They both sell thousands of copies of their books, appear in conspicuous magazines and on radio and television shows, and have a very devoted readership. How is this different from the popular poets of a century ago? Indeed, I’ve been told that Billy Collins sells more copies of his books than Frost ever did of his own. These sorts of phenomena—for that’s what these poets are—are not a bad thing for poetry. Quite the opposite, in fact: many people wouldn’t even know that such a quaint creature as “contemporary poet” existed if these examples weren’t out there.
So it does seem to me that this argument—that there was once this huge mass of common readers who are now gone—is a bit of a canard, or at least is often simplistically presented. Yes, Edna St. Vincent Millay had a large following, and Eleanor Wylie, and Joyce Kilmer, and Carl Sandburg, and Frost’s doggerel (rather than his good poems), and that excruciating poem about the hoe by Edwin Markham. But Stevens, Williams, Eliot, Pound, even Bishop—these poets had to wait a long time to find a substantial audience. Some of the best poets of the twentieth century—Bunting, Niedecker, Schuyler—are just now beginning to find a significant audience. To be sure, the cultural situation has changed. It sometimes seems that everything in American culture—the speed at which we live, the proliferation and dominance of images, the systematic eradication of individual place—seems bent on destroying interiority, and poetry, the best of it, depends on some transaction of interiors between writer and reader. But even in an ideal world, a world in which poetry books were flying off the shelves as fast as self-help books, if some truly original voice came along, I think he or she might very well have a tough time selling fifty copies.
That said, the audience for poetry could be much broader, and yes, I do think criticism has something to do with this. I come back to the idea of style. What we need right now, even more than good judgment, is good writing. The debate about books of poetry, both good and bad, needs to be livelier and sharper, reviews crafted to entertain as well as instruct. There’s lively prose everywhere outside of the poetry world; it’s just when you open a literary journal, or when you read one poet reviewing another in some major place, that it goes dead. Editors should entice people from outside the poetry world to review books of new poetry. They should also have the courage to eradicate the “descriptive” review from their pages. Poets who are going to write criticism (and learning how to do so ought to be a requirement of these MFA programs) should write other kinds of prose as well. We should all try and write as if we had a broad audience. Will it work? Who knows. But at least the public discussion of poetry won’t be so dull.