Cats and Bulldogs

A review of “Critical Contexts,” a roundtable on contemporary poetry criticism hosted by the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University on Monday, March 30th, 2009.

The Woodbury Poetry Room’s recent roundtable discussion on contemporary poetry with Adam Kirsch, Stephen Burt, and Maureen McLane was a lively beginner’s discussion of what a poetry critic ought to be—thoughtful reader? gatekeeper? bulldog? cat?—for an audience too well-schooled for it; from its generalist tone, the round table was more like a 101-level lecture given to a bored or bemused master’s class. Simply put: the talk was disappointing, especially considering the well-known intelligence of the speakers and the quality implied by an ivy-adorned venue.

Adam Kirsch, whose critical criteria seemed to be the most thoroughly conceived and elaborated, also seemed not entirely comfortable debating his peers in front of a crowd, several times deferring completely and in mid-argument to Stephen Burt’s more wide-ranging knowledge of contemporary poets. Burt himself held the floor for the majority of the evening, a wiry and excitable man with a lexicon of contemporary poets at his disposal, more the anthropologist interested in pinning poets and poems with the correct labels (“strands” and “clusters”) than the critic engaging with or evaluating the texts. Maureen McLane stood in as the token postmodern and the only primarily non-critical voice; her position was the staunch openness and eclecticism of postmodern enjoyment, of taste ad hominem; although her own critical taste is certainly not in line with, say, that of Kirsch, one wondered at the end of the night whether she would be capable of or willing to explain how.

There were many offhanded references to tradition, identity, lots of Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Tennyson, language poetry, and one entirely wrong-headed comment by McLane that “plenty of people are in the line of Robert Frost.” But, no—they’re not. Plenty of people are poor imitators; only one living poet, to my mind, is in Frost’s line, and that is Seamus Heaney. This comment was symptomatic, I thought. Writing in form does not put you in any category with Frost, whose standing and category are based on the immense accomplishment of his poetry, not in the easily-identifiable trappings of his verse. Stephen Burt at one point claimed to be more interested in individual poems, but none of the critics seemed willing to spend any extended period examining an actual text.

The true low point of the evening was the response of the speakers to a prompt regarding the poetry critics’ role as gatekeeper. McLane immediately denied the authority, as might be expected. Burt argued that critics were “really like a cat”—an outdoor cat, he noted—who brings odds and ends, dead birds, mice, etc., to the back door as if to say, “Look what I found!” Kirsch opined then, “But sometimes critics have to be like a bulldog.” It was amazing to see how defensively rhetorical the three became when the question of authority arose. They dissected the terms rather than discussing the question, and overtly denied their role as explicators, guides, or teachers, preferring the child-like image of a hoarding house pet. These writers have earned these roles fought and schmoozed for them, though, and spent hours writing and thinking about poetry: to claim as McLane did that they are nothing more than thoughtful readers is disingenuous.

One expects a less technical, less erudite discussion of poetry in the pages of a newspaper or magazine, as both are directed at a wider audience; but it is safe to assume that at Harvard University the bar can be slightly raised, that the audience’s acumen has developed beyond well-known platitudes of the way a poem “shows that an intelligent use of form, a deliberate use of form, can in fact amplify emotion and amplify the intensity of experience precisely by putting it at a slant,” or the way a poem “links on one hand to the avant-garde to the undermining of all linguistic claim . . . and links on the other hand to the ancient Greeks.” There were certainly moments when the conversation could have gone into greater depth, and nearly did; but whenever a point was raised it was let go quickly, perhaps for the sake of an unfortunate contemporary tendency to avoid offence, perhaps in their lack of confidence. In either case, what was offered last night was mostly summation and rough thoughts, the beginning of analysis but not the goal of a critical discussion—the why, how, and how good of poetry is what matters, and what was missing.

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