D. H. Tracy and the Role of the Poet-Critic

This is the 10th installment in the “Role of the Poet-Critic” series, which includes interviews with Dana Gioia, William Logan, Adam Kirsch, Stephen Burt, Christian Wiman, Timothy Steele, William Jay Smith, and Rachel Hadas.

Interviewer’s Note: D. H. Tracy is the author of a book of poems, Janet’s Cottage (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), which won the New Criterion Poetry Prize.  His essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, the New York Times Book Review, Parnassus, and Poetry.  He is a founder of Antilever Press and lives in Illinois.

CPR:  When did you begin writing criticism? Did you see it as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry?

DHT: I began in my late twenties.  My extruded playdough undergraduate poems had run their course by then, and I felt, maybe melodramatically, that I was at a do-or-die juncture where I would either organize and deepen my thinking about the art, or die of inanity.  I found I had to accept a) Pound’s statement that poetry ought to be as well written as prose, and b) that I had no prose.  I girded my loins, wrote some reviews, put them on a web page, put the page on a server, and put the server in a closet.  My landlord kept unplugging it.

Around that time I took a class with Christian Wiman.  It was rousing how hard he leaned on his students to make them justify their opinions.  “It is very important,” he said, to our absolute silence, “to be able to say why you like a thing.”  More recently he has backed away from the importance of this kind of self-knowledge, but I still do feel a strong ethical impulse to put as fine a point as possible on my response to a work.  I’m not sure that I can get underneath this impulse.  It is antecedent, for me, to any instrumental use proposed for criticism, like acting as a literary aquarium filter, or as a prospectus for the literary stock market.

The seeds may have been planted much earlier.  On the whole I was a late starter with anything having to do with art or literature, but I remember somehow coming across Pauline Kael’s review of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I must have been eleven.  She hadn’t liked it (it seemed to me) but the process of not liking it had evidently raised her to a certain pitch.  I could tell, in kid’s-mind terms, that she was committed to the act of evaluation, that she was somehow all-in, and that the review was a thing in itself, whose quality had nothing to do with the quality of the movie.  This was bracing.  As a teenager I kept up casually with movie and music reviews, and I think even like Newsweek-level fiction reviews, but it took longer to click that this was a way of coming at poetry.

In a sense I did see it, the criticism, as an obligation, because I felt I had to do it if I was going to have any hope of advancing.  It worked, at some cost:  if the benefit of internalizing lots of criticism is that you see your age’s habits more clearly, the downside is a lot of inhibition.  Whatever you think of doing, some head in your head is shaking its head, and with reason.

CPR: What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? What critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard?

DHT: It is difficult for me to conceive of poet-critics in stable communitarian terms where the notion of “role” would have a firm meaning.  In fact I don’t discriminate naturally between a poet-critic’s poetry and a poet-critic’s criticism.  If you say, “Poet X,” I think, “Oh her, she wrote that poem about the Erie Canal and that essay on Villon.”  So ascribing roles to poet-critics that poets don’t already have doesn’t come naturally either.  The poet-critic’s role is, minimally, to write as well as possible—in the case of criticism, to hit that very tricky, almost Aristotelian mean, flexibility without floppiness, rigor without rigidity.

In the literary culture I might wish for, everyone would have this sense that the two activities were artificially distinct, and poets would be more invested in criticism than they are.  (Strengthening the relationship between poetry and criticism turned out to be one of Antilever’s tag lines.)  Criticism’s effects are mostly felt at the highbrow end of things, but it plausibly raises the baseline level of discussion in book forewords, in podium introductions, and so on.  I have a friend whose refrain for mercilessly mocking the poetry world is, “Dude, I love what you are doing with breath in this poem.”  No one who had read a Vendler essay would ever say such a thing.

It still takes me aback a little when I meet a poet in contempt of criticism, or who has received advice from teachers—I have actually heard this—to avoid criticism altogether.  When poetry seems determined to mediocritize itself in this way, I suppose I look to poet-critics to save us from being a laughingstock.  The best criticism I know combines analysis worthy of philosophy or science, with learning worthy of scholarship, with fineness of feeling worthy of art.  Poet-critics, empirically speaking, seem to achieve this suspension comparatively easily.

So in this regard the critics I find exemplary are the ones who take it as an article of faith that they cannot be too serious, that poetry is worthy of the deepest thinking they can do.  William Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral is like this, Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era, Geoffrey Hill in the parts of Style and Faith that I understand, Mary Kinzie in The Judge Is Fury.  The New Criticism generally is go-to stuff, and Arnold and Coleridge are somehow very congenial, though I’m not sure how useful they have been to me.

To speak more concretely of roles, it is surprising to me that critics are not called on more often to act in and for institutions in their professional capacity.  Why do book contests use poets for judges, and not critics?  What are we afraid of?

CPR: What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?

DHT: Several years ago I was drinking from the new book fire hose, but my situational awareness has since decayed a bit.  Certainly the short answer is still what it was, namely, that the signal-to-noise ratio is so low even the twelve people in North America who try to keep on top of these things don’t know in any absolute sense.  We are left with the theological question of whether a superior poem written in the forest makes a sound when there is no one around to read it.

I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it.  People have given up accepting the tender.  There is real value being created, but it is in the gray market, so to speak, in the barter economy of coteries and sometime hermits.  It is no one’s fault—America in its wisdom has figured out how to get lots of poems, things that are nominally poems, printed.  Recognizing this is important, as I wouldn’t want to ascribe to general venality and the Decline of the West what may just be contingencies in the means of production.  Why are the shows on HBO awesome and Hollywood movies terrible, when they are made by the same class of people—the same people, sometimes—in the same place, using the same processes and techniques?  Maybe it is that one sells subscriptions to affluent households and the other fishes for fourteen-year olds’ pocket money, that is, one is in a long-term relationship with its audience and the other is not.  It may be that vaguely analogous impersonal factors—parameters of our media industries, of our patronage systems, and so on—have pushed our dispensation into a place where it is better at producing Halo 4 than lyric poetry.  For the time being.

For all the lamentation around this question, I should say it isn’t that rare that I find quite piercing poems, even books:  a few a year somehow make their way into my hands.  From one point of view, that is something to be grateful for, and an indication, I think, that the art is beyond our capacity to completely bungle, even if questions of talent promotion and the artistic isolation of the undiscovered are extremely vexed.

CPR: What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism? 

DHT: Here I have some optimism.  I think we might be in a silver or at least a bronze age.  (Whatever it is, it isn’t the stone age of a generation ago.)  If I start naming names I will forget people I like, but broadly the critics who appear in the CPR, at the Nation, and in Poetry are paying attention.  There is a long tail of good stuff all over the place.  (And it doesn’t even have to be that good—middling criticism, unlike middling poetry, isn’t necessarily pointless.)  The New Yorker is covering living poets again.  David Orr has erratic but dedicated column space at the Times.  The NYRB and the TLS are hit or miss, but they haven’t given up, and their poetry coverage isn’t any worse than the rest of their arts coverage.  Adam Kirsch has moved to the glittering downtown of the all-purpose intellectuals, but he still seems to visit the old neighborhood once in a while and I hope he will continue to do so.

John Crowe Ransom saw in Eliot a historical critic;  in Richards, a psychological one;  in Winters, a moral one;  the hole in the lineup he called the “Ontological Critic,” a messiah not beholden to other discourses, who would have the ability to talk about poetry in terms of the qualities peculiar to it.  Though I rarely see anyone frontally interested in this ontological question, there is some churning currently around poetry’s proper functions, truth claims, and native strengths, and I am curious to see if the question won’t get approached again indirectly.  We aren’t very theoretical at the moment, which is generally for the best, but it would be tremendously exciting to see the intense abstractions of the first half of the century equaled or bettered.

CPR:  If one considers, as a body of writing, the poetry criticism written in the first half of the twentieth century to that written in the second half, then clearly there was also a marked deterioration. What caused it?

DHT: The provocations of modernism left a lot of work to do, but perhaps it got done.  Criticism has pretty high sanity requirements, too, and sanity got demoted after the war.

A significant component of the answer may be social.  Winters and Ransom were the two most influential teachers of the century, but perhaps not in the ways they intended.  Many of Winters’s ex-students say something one might say of a very strict father:  that they were grateful for the discipline later, but no way were they going to do that to their own kids.  There is a lot of poetry success in his descendants, but not as much criticism, not as driven, and not really picking up where he left off.  When Anthony Hecht went to study with Ransom, for his part he was very put off by Ransom’s social theorizing.  He did go on to write a lot of criticism, which is highly cultivated but somewhat insubstantial in its ideas, and again doesn’t pick up the threads of the previous generation.

William Logan wrote in the introduction to Praising It New, the New Critical anthology, “One of the ways a time is not right is if it falls after an age of such criticism.” Maybe the mystery isn’t the deterioration but the efflorescence before it.

CPR: Eliot believed the poet-critic criticized poetry in order to create it, so that his views were often partial and dogmatic. Allen Tate said that the poet-critic “is not concerned with consistency and system, but merely with as much self-knowledge as he needs to write his own verse.” Whereas Randall Jarrell’s criticism does not seem so intimately linked to his poetry. The two roles seemed to exist in him separately. Do you see your own criticism as that of a poet, partial and dogmatic, or an ideal reader’s? Is there a vital connection between your own poetry and prose?

DHT: It is almost comical in some cases (like Jarrell’s) how different the tenors of the two activities can be.  In my case there is a vital connection, in that I wouldn’t know how to pursue them independently.  But if the critic half were a propaganda officer for the front advanced by the poet half—I would find this arrangement awkward.  I rarely see this done as crudely as I’m making it out, and in cases like Eliot’s I don’t mind, because the method results in things like the dusting-off of Marvell, a public service.  For me, though, criticism is so inductive it hardly admits of agendas in this way.  If it resembles a science, it is geology, not physics:  “laws” don’t get you very far, and with each new piece of ground, if you are not going to be very cavalier, you have to invest a certain amount in new taxonomies and in characterizing local phenomena.  Past experience may apply, or not.  In fact I would say this is a very common failure point of criticism, that it does not adapt sufficiently to local conditions to say anything substantive about the case at hand.  Anyway this procedure puts me closer to the ideal reader in your question, though there is still a mercenary component to the enterprise, in the other direction:  letting criticism operate without program on people’s poems makes you a much more effective thief.  You never know what it will come back with.

CPR: Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been politically conservative?          

DHT: I think Dana Gioia made the point that critics, as contrarians in a lefty arts world, are bound to skew a bit right.  Progressive thought by nature has a telos, and tends to argue backwards from a desirable conclusion.  Applied to literary criticism, this procedure makes a hash of evaluation, since only one conclusion is ideologically permissible and you can usually see it coming.  Inversely, in progressive thought the past is by nature benighted;  applied to literary criticism, this tends to result in a philistinism-of-the-commissars.  So there is maybe a slight headwind for the left.  It isn’t specific to poetry.  In David Denby, for example, you have a decent critic whose liberalism is constantly interfering with his intelligence.

On the right, aestheticism can curdle very badly—Louise Bogan notes how Pound’s “passion for the Great Man led him, as Eliot has warned that it must lead anyone, to the worship of Dictatorship.”  And there is a lot of scatter in the data:  Bogan, aesthetically straitlaced, was privately and not-so-privately irritated like this at failures of compassion in her contemporaries.  Winters, perhaps the hardest ass in the history of English-speaking poetry, took a close interest in his minority, female, and disabled students, and in the thirties threw himself into preparing the (successful) defense for a circumstantial murder case.  Dumping the “American” in the question, we have the Marxististic Empson, as analytic as you please (he nearly went into mathematics) bridling at a Milton who “will see us damned if we don’t believe his story,” and at Thomas Gray, for his pastoral sentimentalizing of the rural poor.  Auden, the weirdo, is of the left but so strong he can take up any idea without fear of contamination, and writes admiringly about the civilizing effects of the cash nexus, to say nothing of Christianity.

I do find this question interesting, and to take it perhaps a step further than intended, criticism seems to conduce to an appreciation that different approaches pay off differently in different domains.  The deeper I get into it the more I admire personalities in which different capacities or impulses are forced to accommodate each other:  reason and imagination, reason and religion, politics and aesthetics.  My favorite minds now are the kind that don’t order their attitudes from the menu, but mix and (mis-)match.  Considered in this way figures as apparently different as G. K. Chesterton and Christopher Hitchens have the same à la carte quality I increasingly treasure.

CPR: What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, such a fixture of recent American poetry?

DHT: Politics, from polis, city;  polites, citizen.  Politics is the goings-on in the city, the interaction of citizens.  What makes political poetry so often a non-starter is that it has no polis on which to operate:  the poet has no venue in which to dramatize the competition of interests, and we are left with the asserting self and untethered opinionating.  Homer can dramatize the competition of interests—boy can Homer ever do this—but in American poetry there are very few polities.  We have Spoon River and Tilbury Town, not a great deal else.  What was the last poem you read with three characters in it?  (Not that it takes even that many—for an example of how a dramatic gift can carry off a political satire, see Tom Disch’s “The Cardinal Detoxes.”)

I wish we had more means of talking about collective experience, not fewer.  Political poetry?  As Gandhi said of Western civilization, It would be a good idea.

CPR: 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?

DHT: I went through the Boston University program about ten years ago, and at this point it is looking like the happiest year of my life.  So there is a limit to how contemptuous I can be.  If I could have ambled down to the corner pub and started arguing with Patrick Kavanagh, I would have;  alas, we just don’t have this.  The idea that we can rectify the matter by force of organization, that we can start a “program,” and the poetry will flow:  there is something earnestly American about that I find charming and grotesque.  Glyn Maxwell said something like, I wish there were five of these, instead of five hundred, and I suppose I agree, as long as I were let in.

Oddly, the programs seem to be a honeypot trap.  Every creative writing teacher I have known well enough to have a moment of weakness (this includes a couple with brass-ring positions) has confessed to feeling some compromise in it, or at least to hating it less than the alternatives.  (When the cameras are rolling and microphones are in their faces, they smile and say, I love teaching.)  Recently I spoke to a poet who had been recruited into a university after winning a prize.  If she had to do it again, she would have kept her day job as a kids’ librarian—at least there, she said, she was doing some good.

And there we have a nasty externality not much talked about:  the torque placed on the mission of poetry when there are large numbers of people with material entitlements to defend.  Most of us are middle class, after all, and don’t like to think of ourselves as useless;  therefore, some utilitarian benefit to poetry and the teaching of creative writing must be continually asserted.  In the marketing copy of our time, poetry stops torture, poetry restores lost muscle tone, poetry removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  As for what poetry actually does, it stands there gotten up in the fireman’s outfit, a beatific smile on its face, as the helmet slips over its eyes.

When I look at the bourgeois poets of another era, I am struck by how freely their art breathes without this burden of continual self-justification.  Williams and Stevens had their usefulness seen to by their day jobs;  on the page, they are relaxed in a way that now seems strange.  It is very difficult to imagine the creative writing professors at Asshole State (to borrow a phrase from the late great Alan Dugan) coming out for poetry as the Supreme Fiction.  It would seem irresponsible.  Who gets paid to study the Supreme Fiction?  People who get thrown up against the wall when the revolution comes, that’s who.

CPR: What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for?

DHT: My wife is a scientist, and she and her colleagues are constantly flying to Washington to participate in grant review panels.  It would be asking a lot of poets to have them bring this degree of seriousness to the task of resource allocation (if there is a committee meeting, the poets are slipping out the back of the room).  Although there are capable administrators around, and individual buckets of money may be disbursed more or less well, the temperaments of artists are perhaps not suited to building the institutions necessary to responsibly dole out large amounts of patronage.  We are not serious about poetry in the sense that the head librarian is serious about the library.  The result is a mishmash of ad hoc networking, logrolling, gossip, and general gemeinschaft that in practice is indistinguishable from corruption.

One hopes the money does some personal good, but I doubt it does much artistic good.  Munificence begets dissipation.  When Robinson got his presidential sinecure at the New York Customs House, he spanked for four years straight.  There was that recent Ben Lerner book, where the guy gets a full ride to Spain and sits around smoking hash.

In my recent experiences in publishing I’ve found that small press grants are relatively difficult to come by.  If there are any philanthropists reading this, press grants are a case where the money isn’t symbolic—these are organizations with real operating expenses.

CPR: What do you think of the recent revival of performance poetry—the so-called “poetry slams”?

DHT: I’ve only been to a few of these.  On the average, they’re much better than literary poetry.  Rap is too.  For that matter, Game of Thrones is better, and Halo 4 is better.  But one isn’t in poetry for the average.

CPR:  Do you think your criticism has hurt the reception of your poetry? Have your reviews cost you anything?

DHT: Short of adopting a pen name, one can’t do a good experiment.  I should try that.

It’s plausible that reviewing has cost me something, but if the poetry world is truly that brittle, then careerism is that much sillier.  And whatever criticism does to the reception of one’s poetry, its other effects are surprisingly positive.  Publishing criticism has been much more publicly gratifying.  It is true, there is a depressing tendency for the readership to pick out the most partisan-sounding statements in a piece and have a primate reaction;  still, an essay will generate a few pieces of considered correspondence, and will sometimes even result in a friendship.  A poem, nothing.

Editors find it relatively difficult to source prose about poetry, and if you can pass modest standards of competence you can publish it pretty easily, much more easily than poetry.  Any publicity being good publicity, its net career effect is probably positive.

CPR: Do you see hopeful signs for the future of poetry?

DHT: “Hopeful,” probably not in the aim-high sense you mean.  But hopeful, yes, in the aim-low sense that you couldn’t get rid of poetry if you tried.  It doesn’t require learning, education, foreign travel, wide experience of the world, the tutelage of a sensei, or professional certification.  It happens in metropolises and the most fetid backwaters.  It even happens in suburbs.  It is not, as the phrase goes, capital-intensive.  It barely requires paper.  In fact it is difficult to articulate what it does require, and if you try to look for commonalities in the origins of John Clare and James Merrill, for example, you will not make a long list.  I am grateful for this mysteriousness in its manifestations;  the fact that no one owns the game is exciting.  So in the long view I have an indissoluble kernel of faith in it.  I am all right as long as I am able to keep my expectations this-kernel-sized.

The minorness and dispersion of poetry foreclose all kinds of anxieties.  If I were a career journalist at the New York Times or a Bloomberg analyst, I would have to look for “hopeful signs.”  As a poetry critic, what’s the worst that could happen?

CPR: 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?

DHT: As in the previous question my posture is a hunkered one and I have to screw up my nerve to participate in robust campaign strategizing like this.  What would happen if poetry suddenly became solicitous of a mass audience, or had some kind of Eliotic breakthrough?  There seem to be two implied questions.  One is whether and how such an artistic movement could get underway, the other whether and how the culture at large would care about it.

Rejection of structure has been the path of artistic progress for centuries now, and one strains to imagine what the nature of the renewal would be, that would capture people’s attention even in principle.  Then again, any number of eminent Victorians probably thought the same thing on their deathbeds, so let us suppose it could happen.  As for criticism, it would either miss it first and mop up later, or the movement’s members would be critics in the first place.

The other question may be the limiting one.  I have avoided declinism once but there is one kind of it I can’t shake, namely, that American English is kind of bad and getting worse.  As a father of small children I have more contact than I want with aspirational parents, and it strikes me often how little my tribe cares about language.  Your neighbors will boast that Madison is making excellent progress in her Mandarin lessons, but if you were to point out she was confusing “lie” and “lay,” they would smile and pat you on the arm.  The point being not that poor usage is harming our nation’s moral fiber, but that this indifference extends to matters of wit, precision, rhetoric, and figuration, which are the matrix in which poetry can hope to matter in the sense this question means.

From time to time I think, as though of an antiquity, of Housman’s punctilious disapproval of Hopkins:

he puts light syllables in the stress and heavy syllables in the slack, and has to be helped out with typographical signs explaining that things are to be understood as being what in fact they are not. Also the English language is a thing I respect very much, and I resent even the violence Keats did to it; and here is a lesser than Keats doing much more.[1]

What interests me about this is not Housman’s particular judgments but the fifth dimension they seem to come from.  What in fact they are not.  If one were teaching this to American students one would have to appeal to their historical imaginations, historical imaginations they do not have, to explain what he is talking about.  Good riddance, you say, respect-schmect, look what that does to Keats and Hopkins, and anyway you have it upside down, vitality comes from the vernacular.

But the vernacular isn’t all that either.  When you watch romantic comedies from sixty years ago they seem saturated with dialogue.  (These days, if someone in the media is speaking in complete sentences, even odds the person is Canadian.)  I read the vocabulary of American teenagers has shrunk by a factor of two since 1950.  A generation before that Williams was delighting in one of his patients:

“Doc, I got a hemorrhage of the FLUTE,” he said.  “Cocaine for horses, cocaine for mules, IN THE TRENCHES!” he yelled as I removed the bandage.  “I’m going to feed this to the ducks,” he said.  The relief is never ending, never failing.  It is water from a spring to talk to him—it is a quality.[2]

Against this we have Alice Lyons, writing recently in Poetry about reverse emigration to Ireland:

[In Ireland y]ou find the most skillful employment of language, such timing, wit, and flourish, and all in the normal course of daily life.  I find speech to be more variegated, less processed here than in some other countries, where spoken English can sound emptied, like a husk.  The shifts in accent fifty miles in any direction are wonderful.  Speech is an erotic force here, a live culture.  It’s sustaining.

The idea that America isn’t worth listening to anymore is a brutal, difficult pill for me, betokening as it does personal and collective artistic impoverishment, and making this question very difficult to answer affirmatively.  John McWhorter wrote a book about this contraction of linguistic capital a couple years ago, and got poo-poohed—it is the kind of harrumph that gets harrumphed.  But I don’t think Lyons is wrong.  Independent of poetry’s infighting, marketing budget, and organizational problems, I suspect there is no topsoil here in which poetry might grow and spread.  What’s critic to do, except add a little manure?

[1] http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-art-and-faith-of-Gerard-Manley-Hopkins-4424

[2] In the American Grain 210-1

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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  1. I’d heard that Quincy R. Lehr, most recently the author of *Shadows and Gifts* (Barefoot Muse Press – http://www.barefootmuse.com) and former habitué of *CPR* had left a comment here and came to look. Where is it?

  2. I found Tracy’s last answer forceful and true and therefore sad. Sad when so many smart and artistic people see a problem but one that nobody can figure out a solution to.

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