An Agenda for Critics: Judgment

By: Jan Schreiber

The task of the critic is judgment. I hope to unravel the complexities of judgment, as it applies to works of literature, and specifically to poetry. Those who imagine judgment to be a simple matter need only perform a small exercise to convince themselves otherwise.

In the fourth act of Macbeth, Malcolm and Macduff meet in England before launching an assault on Macbeth’s forces. Wishing to test Macduff’s loyalty to the idea of a virtuous king and, by extension, a virtuous state, Malcolm, who would be king if Macbeth is removed, proceeds to describe himself as a moral monster, a man of such unbridled lust and greed that no wives or lands would be safe in his realm. He goes on:

. . . the king-becoming graces,

As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

I have no relish of them, but abound

In the division of each several crime,

Acting it many ways.

Suitably appalled, Macduff recoils and avows that such a person is not fit to live, much less to be king; whereupon Malcolm, convinced at last of Macduff’s honor and patriotism, unsays the calumnies upon himself, allowing Macduff to recognize him as a man of virtue, a fitting heir to the throne.

Several kinds of judgment are occurring simultaneously in this scene. Malcolm and Macduff are of course sizing one another up with the aid of Malcolm’s ploy. Shakespeare is offering a judgment of a proper state and a diseased or debased one, as well as a judgment of each man’s character. Following Shakespeare’s lead, the viewer or reader is also forming judgments of the characters of these two individuals. Because he stands somewhat outside the drama at the same time he is caught up in it, he is also able to judge the credibility of the scene, the likelihood that Malcolm (or a character fitting the viewer’s developing sense of Malcolm) would behave as he does here. As well, he judges Shakespeare’s grasp of reality, his dramatic and rhetorical adroitness at this point in the play, and, ultimately, the overall effectiveness of the play and the extent to which this scene contributes to it.

Not only are multiple judgments involved, each is quite complex in itself. We might question, for example, how Shakespeare could expect us to believe either that Macduff would be taken in by such a wholesale inventory of crimes or that Malcolm would imagine he might be. But then we might reflect that Malcolm is portrayed as a young, relatively innocent man, someone whose first conception of immorality is sexual license, who then imagines the deadly sin next after lust, namely avarice, and who finally, in desperation to convince, heaps upon Macduff the entire catalogue of moral horrors his green experience offers to him. (Those horrors are, to be precise, merely the negatives of the “king-becoming graces” that come to Malcolm’s mind when he thinks of morality.) And Macduff might indeed, on sober reflection, doubt the veracity of the sordid catalogue, but he is facing a grave emergency, he sees his country in peril, fears (rightly, as it turns out) for the safety of his family, and thus needs to make a snap decision. All this races through our heads as the play streams past us.

This exercise—involving considerations of character, verisimilitude, technical fluency, and ability to convince—offers a particularly vivid illustration of the sorts of decisions that confront any perceptive reader facing a text. The issues are most acute when the text is unfamiliar, but as we have seen, even a well known passage can revive many of the same problems, causing us to consider them anew. Much of this judgment is ad hoc, made almost unconsciously and articulated, if ever, only because one must write a review, teach a course, or respond to a friend’s question, “What did you think of that?”

Nevertheless, in order to have a common platform for discussion it is desirable to systemize the process. The rapid and intuitive judgments an experienced reader makes can, for example, be expressed as a series of questions, though it must be stressed that both the form of the questions and the order of their presentation, as set down here, are an artifact of this analytic essay and in no way a faithful depiction of the critic’s mental sequence. Still, such an exercise has the virtue of making explicit what may be obscure even to the critic himself and of allowing us to determine which questions subsume others and which are illuminated by commentary in the rich but unreliable lore of extant critical writing.

Is it comprehensible?

The question precedes all others and is in our time surprisingly complex. A poem can elude understanding because the reader does not recognize what it is about, or—less often—because the writer is not in control of his material; but the obscurity can sometimes be deliberate, as when a writer attempts to convey the emotional impact of a situation without describing the situation itself. So the critic’s first responsibility is not to determine the writer’s intention—a futile quest most of the time—but to make sense of the poem. Doing so involves a combination of sympathy and skepticism. The reader must be alive to the possible meanings inherent in the text, yet not so credulous that any random association comes, for him, to represent what the poem is about.

A passage in Hart Crane’s “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” may illustrate the point:

The mind is brushed by sparrow wings;

Numbers, rebuffed by asphalt, crowd

The margins of the day, accent the curbs,

Conveying divers dawns on every corner

After the poem was published, numerous conscientious readers found this passage extremely obscure. They were troubled by the word “numbers,” which some took to be mathematical abstractions and others felt must be people. Neither interpretation shed much light on the passage, and only some time later, when it was pointed out that “numbers” referred to the sparrows in the first line, did the meaning of the passage, and the imagery it conveys, become clear. For a contemporary example, consider this passage from a poem by Jorie Graham:

Then, sugary at first, then monstrous, cuneiform,

as if a microscopic chain had rattled once-

bony lightning – invisible inscription –

the call is returned – or no, another call, almost identical,

is cast – like a hoofmark on the upper registers –

across the housetops . . .

Readers are likely to find this passage obscure. It seems to refer to a sound, that is, a call. But of what sort? Its quality or character is not clarified by the attributes given in the first three lines, nor by those in the final two. The six lines, in short, convey minimal information with a great deal of distraction or static. Such problems of comprehension may either cripple or, paradoxically, sometimes enhance a poem’s reputation with readers. One could argue that the incoherence of large parts of Pound’s Cantos has had both effects.

Is it true?

This question is rarely asked, and indeed it might seem either antithetical or irrelevant to poetry. Ever since Plato banned poets from the Republic as purveyors of lies, it has been taken for granted that poets and scholars inhabit different countries, notwithstanding the highly visible presence today of poets on the faculties of our universities. But even though many kinds of statements in poems do indeed require the reader to accept that they are valid (e.g. Larkin’s assertion “Smiles are for youth. For old age come / Death’s terror and delirium.”), let us for simplicity concede that truth in this pure sense often lies outside the critic’s scope. Still, there are related but less sweeping questions, such as those enumerated below, with which the reader must contend in making a judgment about a poem.

a) Is it convincing?

This question is often posed, but it can mean many things, depending on the poem and the critic. It might ask whether the poem presents, in the reader’s eyes, a balanced and mature view of the world. It might arise from a suspicion that the poem is merely an exercise in rhetoric, unsupported by an emotionally authentic base. Or it might be a way of questioning the underlying philosophy the poem seems to espouse—one for example that takes a simplistic view of human conduct or the complexity of human life.

The question might stem, as well, from doubts whether the poem embraces enough of the world. Cleanth Brooks writes that an insufficiently inclusive approach will result in a “trivial and anemic” poem, whereas, “By contrast, poems that achieve their basic unity through the poet’s ability to include the heterogeneous and the diverse are mature and tough-minded. They wear well.” We might, of course, question what Brooks means by these confidently arrayed terms, and whether they will come to our aid when we first confront an unfamiliar poem, but there is little doubt that some such questions pass through every serious reader’s mind; we feel the poem must bring to us something of our sense of the diversity—even messiness—of experience.

When we ask if a poem is convincing, we might also be asking if it is rhetorically effective. This is a question each poet must confront in the early stages of composition. A good idea is not enough. Neither is an excellent phrase or even an excellent line. The poem must cohere as a rhetorical act, whether through use of an established and recognized form, such as a sonnet or a passage of blank verse, or by impressing on its reader a sense of form achieved through the artful manipu­lation of sound, syntax, word repetition, rhythm, and other means at the poet’s disposal. In matters of rhetoric, as in other areas of judgment, there is not a universally recognized standard, though critics will point to certain touchstones that are likely to elicit more or less agreement from their peers.

b) Is it interesting?

A poem could offer a convincing sense of reality, perhaps, and yet strike the reader as obvious and trivial. Readers will discard it if it appears simply to restate matters already well explored. It must in some sense be new. Until recently, the prevailing belief was that a poem written in a traditional form could not be new, and this belief helped to estrange many poets from formal techniques. One result of the return to form that we are witnessing at the moment is the widening awareness that a poem must be new in other respects than the merely formal. Seeing that many free verse poems had nothing else of novelty about them, poets had to look more deeply at what constitutes a new thing to say, a novel and illuminating perception. And those who managed to find something perhaps unexpressed till now must still decide whether even then it was worth expressing. This is a question the present moment can almost never answer with certainty. A poet can only state his or her best case, then hope that posterity will judge favorably. Nevertheless, a critic, as a fallible stand-in for posterity, can often be a useful guide. Even a good critic will inevitably strike some false positives and some false negatives, but the former should be few, and the latter fewer still.

One’s sense of what is new connects powerfully with one’s knowledge of what has already been explored—that is, with what T.S. Eliot calls the tradition. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot assigns to the poet the daunting task of becoming familiar with the entire poetic canon, which for him would include everything written in English, as well as the major classical works of Europe from Homer onward. Perhaps now we should add works of Europe’s far-flung colonies as well as Africa, India, China, and Japan.

I am being only partly facetious. Wide knowledge of the tradition in which one writes is essential, and some knowledge of world literature is certainly an asset to any poet. On the other hand, being of a particular time and in a particular place goes a long way toward ensuring that one will write from a unique perspective, and in a style and idiom unlike those of the past. Age and a distinct personality also confer some advantages, as Paul Valéry noted:

. . . les morts n’ont point de ces retours étranges.

Ils reviennent peut-être en de faibles esprits;

Mais le tien, mais le mien, jamais ne sont repris

Que d’un vivant retour de leur soif de vendanges.

[Surely] the dead are spared these strange returns.

They come again perhaps to weaker lives;

But yours and mine are not to be reborn

Except when thirst for vintage wine revives.

And yet the strongest spirits are so in part because they have assimilated large amounts of their native tradition. Not every poet is a scholar, and for better or worse very few true scholars are poets. The education of a poet does indeed involve imbibing as much of the available literature as possible, but this is done not only to know what has already been said but also to learn how it has been said, and how it might be.

c) Is it revelatory?

There is a degree beyond the state of being merely interesting. Often a poem will intrigue on a first encounter, but the effect does not last. The poem displays, perhaps, a clever bit of wordplay or an esoteric fact like the use of saffron as a pigment in sixteenth-century oil paint, but once this curiosity has been absorbed it has no more to tell us. The sophisticated reader is looking for more—a new perspective, a way of seeing things that brings hitherto unrelated ideas into alignment. And—here’s the rub—he or she wants to experience the frisson, the thrill of discovery, on each occasion. Oddly enough, this is possible. The effect of a poem does not depend merely on an encounter with new information, else one would simply turn to prose. The successful poem recreates, on each reading, the illusion that its complex elements, which include not just information but the sound and manner and order of their conveyance, are being witnessed for the first time. And the reader, or listener, goes along with the pretext. But for the trick to work, the poem must be comprised of many small delights, whose sequence builds to a climax and which, taken together, have a numinous quality surpassing that of any particular detail.

I do not wish to suggest, by using words like “illusion” and “trick,” that the poet is merely a manipulator, following recipes laid out long ago by Edgar Allan Poe. If his work is insincere and not deeply felt, its duplicity will soon be discovered. But poets do not merely channel an imagined muse; they (the successful ones anyway) are also self-conscious craftsmen, and mastery of their craft entails understanding of the rhetorical and other structural principles that will produce the strongest effect on the reader. A superior critic will recognize the contributions of craft as well as those of intuition and inspiration. He may be able to say which is which, but if the poet has done her job well, he may not.

d) Is it just?

This is the most nearly ethical question the reader is likely to raise. It means, “Does the poem fit my sense of honorable human behavior or attitudes?” And that question in turn gives rise to others: “Are the emotions appropriate?” and “Are the portrayals accurate?” On such questions sweeping judgments sometimes depend, such as Czeslaw Milosz’s declaration, “I don’t like [Philip Larkin’s] poetry.” He was referring particularly to “Aubade,” a poem that has disturbed others as well, including Seamus Heaney, but has also been hailed as a masterpiece. Rebelling against attempts to cloak criticism in a spurious objectivity, Milosz complained, “I’m afraid we have completely lost the habit of applying moral criteria to art.”

We have lost this habit through some conscious choices. In a pluralistic society that has for some time been stepping deliberately away from fealty to an over-arching moral authority, the notion that one poem, or one opinion, carries more truth and virtue than another has come to be seen as somewhat quaint, if not untenable. Our very language, in which our discussions of taste are couched, has been transformed. As Louis Menand notes in a recent article on Lionel Trilling, “Most people don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don’t enjoy other things . . . . This seems to me to give literary criticism a lot less moral work to do.”

Be that as it may, less sweeping but perhaps more influential judgments are conveyed every day, as teachers work to educate the taste of their students, suggesting that certain poems may on scrutiny be found sentimental, superficial, or false to reality—poems the students may initially have been quite taken with—while drawing attention to others the students may have overlooked. To a large extent the education of the whole person, during the teens and into the twenties, takes place through exposure to—and commentary upon—works of literature. Questions of depth, dignity, and appropriateness, with their ethical implications, are an inevitable part of this process.

Note that here the critic is judging a judgment, not just a technique or a facility. The initial determination that the subject merited a poem of a certain type and in a certain style belonged to the poet. The poem is the evidence of that determination, but it is a complex sort of evidence. For, especially if the poem is flawed, it can be difficult for the reader to determine whether the initial idea was impeccable and the realization inadequate, or the other way around. In fact, most likely neither was the case. Critics who are also poets will recognize that the process of writing is also a process of discovering the true nature of one’s subject, that the idea and the manner of its statement (the dancer and the dance) are impossible to tease apart. That is why the poet’s judgment, or realization, of his or her subject is an often lengthy process of writing and refining the poem, and why the critic’s commentary on that poem, especially when it is acute, is in many ways a commentary on the writer’s sensibility and his life. A flawed poem, then, may be evidence of technical limitations, but it may also reveal the poet’s failure (or inability) to sufficiently explore the implications of his subject.

There are, to be sure, several other criteria that might be applied in this act of judgment, though I shall not treat them further here. They are criteria based on radically different ways of looking at a poem. Rather than a completed artifact, for example, a poem might be treated as a process—an act either of composition or of speech. Indeed there are poems that are designed for the microphone rather than the page, and some of them are much more impressive when heard or witnessed in the act of semi-improvised delivery than when read. From another point of view, a poem might be judged from a predominantly socio-political rather than a literary point of view. In this case critics may ask what the poem says about the social position and attitudes of the person who wrote it, or what implied commentary it offers on the society of its time. And it is even possible to write and think of poems with little regard for their overt semantic content, paying attention instead exclusively to issues of rhythm and sound, or of arrangement on the page.

To summarize, the judgment of a poem is a complex act that depends on the critic’s sense of the world, his experience with other literature, his sensitivity to language (regarding both discriminations of meaning and the sounds of speech), and his sense of the appropriateness of the statement to the matter at hand. All these matters admit of much variation and disagreement among individuals. Rare in our time are those who openly espouse a hierarchy of taste or confess a belief that certain poets or critics possess a refinement of judgment to which all others should defer. But amid all the lip service to an egalitarian republic of literature there remains a reverence for certain critics, certain writers, and—occasionally—certain anthologies perceived to speak with greatest authority for the highest ideals of contemporary poetry.

An observer viewing this landscape at any one time might conclude that the republic is in fact governed by a noble house of peers, chosen by an obscure process but widely acknowledged despite periodic revolts and continual skirmishes in the provinces. But a longer historical view reveals that few tastemakers dominate for long, and that as a result the canon changes significantly from one generation to the next. Such a view should instill a certain diffidence in even the most self-confident critic. To recognize the extent to which critics of previous generations were bound to the prejudices of their times is, perhaps, to begin a process of searching out and reconsidering one’s own unscrutinized assumptions. To find the points well taken in the otherwise offensive arguments of those on the other side of the culture wars of the moment may lead to an enlargement of one’s mental horizons.

The great majority of critics, unwilling to claim divine inspiration for their views, must base them on, essentially, three fundaments. The first is the critic’s own sensibility—his ear, his sensitivity to language and its nuances, his ability to follow the associative, logical, or symbolic links implicit in a poem, coupled with a conviction, based on experience, of what truly matters. The second is his familiarity with the poet’s contemporaries and with the thought of his fellow critics. It is with reference to them that he will be best able to judge the originality of the new work he encounters. Finally, the “tradition,” whether as Eliot invoked it or as the critic himself understands it, establishes the most reliable point of reference—or point of departure. In a sense all writing is a process of pushing back. But if the critic knows what the poet is pushing back against, he can make a far more sensitive evaluation, on more than one level, of the work in question.

About Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.
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