The Rest Is Criticism

Time was when there was too much criticism around. Randall Jarrell thought so, when, in the early Fifties, he pronounced it “the bane of our age.” Auden, whose fourth doorstop volume of collected prose recently appeared from Princeton, was similarly disenchanted. In The Dyer’s Hand, Auden announced that, when his daydream College for Bards convened, “the library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies”—pretty hard cheese coming from someone who made some decent cheese writing the stuff. To Jarrell’s mind, the works of art—poems, plays, novels—were in danger of being replaced by the works written about them; no need to read Moby-Dick when one could more easily digest a book on Melville’s thorny masterpiece. And not only was there—like dark, casuistic clouds blotting out the rays of literature—too much of the stuff, it was also frequently the wrong kind of stuff.

Jarrell carped that reams of poetry criticism “might just as well have been written by a syndicate of encyclopedias for an audience of International Business Machines.” In other words, too technical, too rote, too “scientific” (that bugbear of the New Criticism). He characterized this ubiquitous and inferior product as “astonishingly graceless, joyless, humorless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige-obsessed, almost-autonomous criticism.” It was that “almost-autonomous” bit—criticism masquerading as an autotelic form—that rankled most, I suspect. Criticism had become a race of body-snatching aliens impersonating the actual artworks. What Jarrell called for was a brand of writing, at once more lively and modest:  “it sounds as if it had been written by a reader for readers, by a human being for human beings.” Not a lot to ask for, is it? Still, such stuff was—and is—very thin on the ground.

Jarrell’s “age of criticism”—the literary climate of the Forties and early Fifties—is not our age. Quite the contrary. Today, criticism is out. Blogs and letters columns are in. When a negative review appears, wounded poets fire off blistering e-mails to the offending magazine (it might be this one)—no matter if the wronging critic was right! It’s possible to imagine, in more melancholy moments, that the once-vital culture of literary criticism has devolved from pointed, perspicacious, well-reasoned articles into huffy Letters to the Editor. Whatever the case, “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste” (Eliot’s famous phrase) is not an occupation that interests most contemporary poets; essays and reviews no longer figure as part of a poet’s project. If Jarrell envisioned a critical age, ours is an Age of Creative Writing, and creative writing is in many ways allergic to criticism (except occasionally as an agent of career advancement or generic boosterism). In part, this may be because so many poets’ livelihoods now depend on getting along. Poets are expected to play nice—in universities, on prize committees, in magazines, online. Critics, by contrast, are seen as the black-raincoat kids, skulking and scowling at the edges of the high-school dance.

More and more, it’s an us-against-them stand-off, with poets claiming not only the aesthetic but also the ethical high ground. You’re either one of them, or you’re one of us. Poets cry out as a body when one of their own is laid low, but no one gets very worked up when a poet denounces a critic. It’s to be expected. The poet is just giving as good as he got, and so what if the conversation immediately devolves into ad hominem attacks. It’s the critic’s fault for instigating the smackdown with his initial act of barbarism. My evidence for this is personal and anecdotal—but I would rather, as Jarrell says, deal with the subject imperfectly than not at all.  I miss the dynamic, bare-fisted, edifying exchanges of aesthetic ideas and judgments that occupied the pages of The Kenyon Review and Partisan Review, as well as any number of other literary journals featuring the likes of Jarrell and Ransom, Auden and Bogan, Moore and Empson. The vibrancy that Robert Lowell touted in early- and mid-twentieth-century criticism seems remote today: “Allan Tate, Eliot, Blackmur, and Winters … were very much news,” Lowell wrote. “You waited for their essays and when a good critical essay came out it had the excitement of a new imaginative work.”

Criticism is no longer merely secondary for poets; it is extraneous, or worse, injurious. One dusty testament to the bygone Golden Age is Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision, a survey of the New Criticism from Winters to Kenneth Burke. Hyman performs a useful triage, breaking prose about poetry into a Venn diagram of three overlapping categories—reviewing, criticism, and aesthetics. The reviewer, he writes, “more or less, is interested in books as commodities; the critic in books as literature or, in modern terms, as literary action or behavior; the aesthetician in literature in the abstract, not in specific books at all.” These categories are constantly shifting, Hyman explains, often within the same essay or review, such that

the reviewer who ignores the commodity aspects of the book under discussion to treat of its significance as a work of literature becomes, for that review at least, a critic; the critic who generalizes about the abstract nature of art or the beautiful becomes, temporarily, an aesthetician; and the aesthetician who criticizes specific works of literature in terms of their unique properties is at that time a critic.

Hyman has good fun with each critic’s personal M.O., while at the same time discovering their distinct views and methods, their “master metaphor,” as he calls it, that captures for each the function of criticism: “Thus for R. P. Blakmur the critic is a kind of magical surgeon, who operates without ever cutting living tissue; for George Saintsbury he is a winebibber; for Constance Rourke he is a manure-spreader, fertilizing the ground for a good crop; for Waldo Frank he is an obstetrician, bringing new life to birth; for Kenneth Burke, after a number of other images, he has emerged as a wealthy impresario, staging  dramatic performances of any work that catches his fancy; for Ezra Pound he is a patient man showing a friend though his library, and so forth.” But who now reads Blakmur et al.?

If those Titans of criticism, the poet-critics, no longer stride the earth as prominently today, it isn’t hard to imagine what’s led to their overthrow. (And here I’m not referring to non-poet, academic critics, such as Vendler and Bloom, Donoghue and Kermode, Ricks and Perloff. Non-poets have always written some of the best criticism, but it’s the poets I’m talking about now.) Every good reason for a poet to write criticism veils an equal and opposite reason not to. And some of the spurs to writing are pretty dull to begin with. Here’s a few: 1) to get one’s name out there, to attract attention and build a reputation, to forward one’s own aesthetic. Auden, who had a finely calibrated ethical sense, often felt his hooey-meter start to twitch when reading poet-critics: “I am always interested in what a poet has to say about the nature of poetry, though I do not take it too seriously…. In unkind moments one is tempted to think that all they are really saying is: ‘Read me. Don’t read the other fellow.’”  This kind of self-serving criticism is rampant, of course, and in a sense unavoidable. Eliot was certainly guilty of advancing a personal aesthetic in his essays, though he called for a more selfless and objective disposition from the perfect critic. But a poet’s idiosyncratic sensibility, while skewed, often provides a valuable two-way lens and in fact is one of the reasons we read poet-critics. Think of Eliot’s Donne, Baudelaire’s Poe, Hughes’s Shakespeare.

One danger for a poet getting her name out as a critic is that she can quickly become known more for her criticism than for her poetry. I’ve heard prominent editors confide, Well, he’s really a critic isn’t he? The poems are then dismissed out of hand. In general, editors constantly crave prose, while they have more poems than they know what to do with. To adapt the lines of the Moor buying diamonds in Casablanca: “Poems are a drug on the market. Everybody sells poems. There are poems everywhere.” At least when one writes criticism, someone on the other end is eager to read it and willing to pay you for it.

Which brings me to a good solid reason in favor: 2) to make money. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” wrote Samuel Johnson. Making money is a fine goal for a writer, though not surprisingly for poets it’s a concept often as difficult to master as learning a foreign language. Again, Dr. Johnson: “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” (Iago sees things differently—“If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Make all the money thou canst”—but no matter.) Still, one can starve almost as easily by reviewing poetry as by writing it. True, critics like Tate, Jarrell, Moore, Bogan, and Edmund Wilson (and more recently William Logan, Adam Kirsch, David Barber, Eric Ormsby, and countless others) wrote criticism for money, but it was never, I suspect, that much money, and only very rarely a living wage. One would have to write virtually a review a day to make ends meet. One thing a critic should never do is break down to an hourly wage the honorarium paid for a review or essay—it’s goodbye dinner out and hello ramen noodles. (By the way, you are right to notice that most of the poet-critics I’ve mentioned are men. It will no doubt get me into hot water to say so, but it is my experience as an editor, one confirmed by many editors I have spoken with, that it is far harder to find women poets who are interested in writing criticism.)

One flat-out reason against involves irate colleagues. So much of po-biz life these days depends on what I think of as the new collegiality. The new collegiality is that secret ingredient that greases the wheels of contests and prizes awarded by fellow poets and that helps keep tenure-track jobs on track. If you are working honestly as a critic, then there is an excellent chance—I would go so far as to say it is unavoidable—that you are going to piss somebody off. “Good critics,” writes Jarrell, “necessarily disagree with some of the reader’s dearest convictions—unless he is a Reader among readers—and they are likely to seem offensive in doing so. But the bad or commonplace critic can learn very easily (as easily as a preacher or a politician, almost) which are the right people to look down on or up to, and what are the right things to write for any occasion, the things his readers will admire and agree with almost before he has written them.”  So what kind of choice is that—pariah or charlatan? What could possibly make such a losing proposition worth the candle?

I’d like to suggest two largely unalloyed reasons for writing criticism. The first is that it can be an act of generosity, a mitzvah, an opportunity to draw attention to a poet or a work that might otherwise be passed over or ignored—criticism as recuperation. Poets today reside at the bottom of the heap, as far as society is concerned. Nor is this a new development. Carlyle, in his famous essay on Burns for the Edinburgh Review, framed the question handily: “In the modern arrangements of society,” he writes,

it is no uncommon thing that a man of genius must, like Butler, “ask for bread and receive a stone”; for, in spite of our grand maxim of supply and demand, it is by no means the highest excellence that men are most forward to recognize. The inventor of the spinning-jenny is pretty sure of his reward in his own day; but the writer of a true poem, like the apostle of a true religion, is nearly as sure of the contrary. We do not know whether it is not an aggravation of the injustice, that there is generally a posthumous retribution.

This was two hundred years ago. If anything, things are worse now. The question, then, is how to shift posthumous conferral of recognition to the living, even a little. Writing an essay or review about an unrecognized or underappreciated talent should be considered not a drudge but a duty. Such encomia also remind readers that not all criticism is designed to bare its teeth and draw blood.

A quick note on negativity: When one starts as a reviewer, a book or a stack of books arrives from a newspaper or journal, and that’s it; there’s no choice in the selection. This means, since most new books of poetry are dreadful, that the new critic will be forced to dole out his share of pans. Over time, however, reviewers can pick and choose. And a  talented reviewer will never want for work.

The most compelling reason by far for a poet to write criticism is that it is a useful, almost indispensible, adjunct to writing poems. Let’s take as a model Yeats rather than Rimbaud: most poets are not white-hot prodigies but rather slow-burners grappling with their work over decades. Occasionally they grow, as Yeats did, into a late flowering that considerably extends and elevates their achievement. According to this model, a poet’s work is never done, her most important and lasting discoveries always just around the next corner. The process is one of constant weighing and sorting, of risking certain unlikely moves and avoiding others. This ongoing series of choices and discoveries is essentially a critical process. As Eliot argues in “The Function of Criticism”:

The larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, composing, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing : this frightful toil is as much critical as creative. I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism; and (as I think I have said before) that some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior.

To be critical in this way—in other words, to sift with a fine sieve aesthetic material and discard the chaff—is to be conscious as an artist. But, as Eliot notes, this has long been an unpopular stance. There is a tendency, he writes, “to decry this critical toil of the artist; to propound the thesis that the great artist is an unconscious artist, unconsciously inscribing on his banner the words Muddle Through.”

Emerson extolled these very virtues of the unconscious in his essay “The Poet” (1844), and his Transcendental ideal has never lost traction in this country: “It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns,” Emerson believed, “that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things.” This has been poetic dogma from the Symbolists to the Surrealists and from the Beats to Ashbery. I prefer Baudelaire’s view, which Auden liked to quote, where the master of intuitive correspondences writes:

I pity the poets who are guided solely by instinct; they seem to me incomplete. In the spiritual life of the former there must come a crisis when they would think out their art, discover the obscure laws in consequence of which they have produced, and draw from this study a series of precepts whose divine purpose is infallibility in poetic production. It would be prodigious for a critic to become a poet, and it is impossible for a poet not to contain a critic.

Of course, much in this statement is hilarious—infallibility in poetic production, divine precepts, etc. Reason frequently reacts this way when confronting the occult: Baudelaire speaks as a Templar of poetic practice, a Mason of aesthetic laws. Yet his advice is sound enough. Poets who follow Baudelaire in this regard are hungry to know how the best poems work, how the poet has done what he has done. When I read a good poem, I want to know what went into the mystery of its success. I feel that any chance that I might have for my own success depends on it. When I read a less-than-good poem, I want to know—or rather I think I know too well—where it has gone wrong. A second note on negativity: When things go wrong, as they so frequently do, the best critics do not write disparagingly out of rancor but, rather, out of disappointment. “Good taste,” Auden believed, “is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.”

Are poets best suited to serve the art they practice? It is sobering to admit, but few lay people engage with poetry deeply enough—say, in the way an auto mechanic engages with a Straight 6. It’s true, one doesn’t always want to get grease on one’s hands. Sometimes it’s more rewarding just to take the poem out for a spin along the shore. But engine work of the sort I’m talking about does make for more reliable vehicles. Who better than the poet to fulfill Jarrell’s role of the ideal critic—“an extremely good reader—one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read.”

Eliot saw the question as something of a no-brainer: “The two directions of sensibility [the poetic and the critical] are complementary; and as sensibility is rare, unpopular, and desirable, it is to be expected that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person.”  Jarrell, too, knew how rarely one comes across a poet-critic of genuine talent: “There have been many very intelligent people, but few good critics—far fewer than there have been good artists, as any history of the arts will tell you.” Isn’t something this difficult and this important—both for one’s self and for our uncritical age—worth attempting? Poets perform acts of criticism almost as often as breathing. What poet can pick up The New Yorker or The Paris Review without either grinning or wincing. Perhaps it’s time for private grumbling and backroom ballyhooing to become lively public exchange again.

About David Yezzi

David Yezzi’s poetry collections include Azores (2008) and The Hidden Model (2003), and his criticism and poetry have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Best American Poetry. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. He has also edited The Swallow Anthology of New American Poetry (2009). His libretto for a chamber opera by composer David Conte, Firebird Motel, premiered in 2003 and was released on CD by Arsis (2007). Poet-critic Adam Kirsch, who selected Azores as one of Slate’s Best Books of 2008, noted that Yezzi’s poetry “displays a civilized mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of his generation can match.” David Yezzi is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and received his MFA from Columbia University.
Bookmark the permalink.

One Comment

  1. Provocative and inspiring. This makes me wonder, though, about the styles and methods of poetry criticism: there’s much critical attention to how poetry changes over time but less attention, it seems to me, to how written responses to poetry change or need to change. Should today’s fledgling poet-critics model their writing after Jarrell’s and Blackmur’s &tc. or should they forge a new idiom for critiquing (if such a thing is possible)?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *