The six papers which will appear this week in the CPR were all delivered on July 31, 2010, at the first annual Western State College Seminar on Poetry Criticism, in Gunnison, Colorado. The impulse behind the seminar, which we plan to hold each year, was a growing sense that critical writing – by which we mean reviews as well as more global discussions of the state of contemporary literature – has lost its way. The very purpose of criticism has become murky: most reviews of poetry today offer blandly positive comments or, more rarely but just as annoyingly, knee-jerk negativity, without quoting enough of the verse at hand or producing enough evidence based on close textual reading to let the reader see what is being recommended or dismissed. If the poems have a discernible form, reviewers either ignore it, disparage it, or treat it as an obstacle the poet has heroically overcome. Most academic criticism – the kind published in quarterly journals – focuses on writers already accorded high standing and endeavors to further justify that standing. Certainly there are exceptions, as readers of this publication are aware. But even the best working critics – perhaps especially the best – have long perceived a need to articulate and reconsider the principles on which we operate. Conversations initiated by Jan Schreiber with other poets and critics suggested that many of us wished to shine a light on an activity most essential to a strong poetic culture, to make it less routine and more conscious and probing, but were unsure how to start the process.
Fortuitously, the idea for a conference on the subject occurred to us at the same time as Western State College was inaugurating a low-residency MFA program for writers. As director of the program’s poetry concentration (www.western.edu/academics/creativewriting) and, like Schreiber, a contributor to CPR, David Rothman saw the value of a conference on criticism associated with the program. Mark Todd, the former chair of WSC’s English Department and the director of the MFA program, gave his blessing and enthusiastic support to the plan, and the college generously offered to host the event. It was decided that the initial conference would serve as a capstone marking the conclusion of the first two-week residential session of the program.
It seemed wise – in fact essential – to begin modestly. Rather than assemble a large roster of speakers to produce quasi-academic papers that could be packaged as a book and presented as a new critical manifesto, we opted for a conference that would bring together a small group of respected critics who are also respected poets. (We take “critic” in a large sense to embrace not just lit-critical essayists but book reviewers, editors, anthologists, and professors – in short anyone who must make judgments supporting or derogating certain works and has given some thought to the basis for those judgments.) We were fortunate that, in addition to Rothman, two other important poet-critics – Marilyn Krysl and David Mason – happen to live and teach in Colorado (Mason was in fact recently named the state’s new Poet Laureate). They agreed to join us, as did Ernest Hilbert and David Yezzi, two influential editors and fine poets who have thought carefully about many of the issues with which we are all concerned.
The conference took place in July 2010. We sought throughout to pursue serious inquiry in an open, welcoming, and convivial atmosphere. Each presenter had an hour and began by reading prepared remarks of 20 to 30 minutes. After each paper there was spirited discussion in the tradition of a seminar for the remainder of the hour, with audience members encouraged to participate.
The first paper, by David Yezzi, raises the question why poets, or anyone else for that matter, should wish to be critics. He observes that self-conscious criticism is not a normal activity in our time; we tend, rather, to deliver short bursts of appraisal (often scorn or worse) in blogs or “comments” affixed to other people’s opinions. Yet there are still compelling reasons, Yezzi maintains, to write criticism (which means to think coherently about what makes writing work or not work), and one of the most important is that such activity is an indispensible aid to the writing of poems. In short, there is a strong case to be made for thoughtful and self-conscious criticism in our own day.
But assuming we accept the desirability of criticism, Jan Schreiber asks, how can any group of critics be expected to agree on a set of poems worth anthologizing? (For the attainment of anthology status corresponds to beatification in the Catholic tradition: it is the penultimate step on the road to sainthood.) Schreiber’s proffered answer has less to do with abstract standards than with principles of developmental psychology: people, including poets and other serious readers, seek poems that contribute to and enlarge a widening, ever more complex personality. A canon is an area of agreement among people of broadly similar inclinations on the literary encounters they have found most valuable over a lifetime. Thus without being either an absolutist or a relativist, one can recognize that individuals, in the process of fulfilling a sense of self, which is of necessity somewhat inchoate to begin with, seek mentors and artistic experiences that help them to round out that sense and give it substance. Along the way, certain works acquire special value for significant numbers of people.
The next two papers, by Rothman and Hilbert, deal on a more granular level with specific features of poems that give them their peculiar force as artistic experiences. These are prosody and meaning (or its absence). Oddly enough, although both elements are – we might say – critical, critics often commit blunders when discussing them. Therefore each of the papers can be seen as a corrective for widespread misprision.
Rothman squarely addresses the unfortunate tendency of most critics to treat elements of prosody as if they conveyed a meaning that merely replicates the semantic sense of the poem’s words. To free oneself from this error, it is necessary to remember that poems not only say things but also always do things. Drawing on Austin’s and Searle’s writings on illocutionary speech, Rothman stresses the performative aspect of verse and argues that critics should pay greater attention to the unique and essential (not merely supportive) role of meter in the complete experience of apprehending a poem. This, he argues, would be a welcome tonic in contemporary criticism.
It would seem that, in dealing with meaning, Ernest Hilbert is treading the critic’s – and poetry’s – most familiar ground. But in fact he is dealing with a vexed question: what is the critic to do with a poem that resists attempts to fathom and restate its meaning? The locus classicus here is John Ashbery (almost any poem will do). Observing that “Ashbery’s poetry is process-oriented, which is to say that a poem reflects the process of its own making, much as a Jackson Pollock drip painting takes as its subject the energy of its own creation,” Hilbert concludes that Ashbery represents a kind of dead-end decadence in the mode of Swinburne, popular in his time but doomed in the long run because of a failure to provide that “stay against confusion” that we demand of poetry. In effect Hilbert asks readers to adopt an ethical stance in evaluating this or any other poetry.
This brings us nearly full circle, for we are once again made aware of the individual reader searching for poems (and other art objects) that will respond to an imperfectly perceived need for a richer, more complete self. And now comes Marilyn Krysl, with a semi-autobiographical reflection on the process by which she came to acquire a level of literary sophistication, or “taste,” that she had only dimly intuited as a precocious child far from traditional centers of culture. Krysl’s fascinating account could hardly be better calculated to illustrate the more theoretical discussions of the earlier papers in this series, or to demonstrate the strong emotions that accompany discoveries along the way.
Reading these papers offers fresh evidence of the rewards that greet writers who are able to come together to discuss work that often feels solitary and unanswered. Entering into the essays imaginatively not only provides the curious and the mindful with their own stay against confusion, it also reminds readers how powerful are the forces to which we all devote ourselves.
We are grateful to Mark Todd, the MFA program staff, and the English Department of Western State College for hosting the conference, and to Contemporary Poetry Review for publishing the papers. It is our conviction that contemporary criticism and therefore also contemporary poetry can only benefit from focused and purposeful gatherings of this kind, and it is our intention to continue the tradition through convocations, both in person and in print, next year and beyond. Perhaps we will see you there.
David J. Rothman