Winter 2010

Five Thoughts On Literary Criticism

Peter Campion, Amélie Frank, Major Jackson, Susan Somers-Willett, Scott Woods

PETER CAMPION: It’s difficult for me to separate my views on poetry criticism, and what its uses might be, from my own development as a reader and then writer of poems. I came to poetry from music. As a jazz and blues guitarist (a mediocre one) in high school, I had two close friends I could talk with. We debated and enthused, traded musician lore, and taught each other new things about the craft. We delighted, I see now, in the very act of phrase-making — coming up with our best verbal impressions of what we liked and didn’t in the music we listened to. We particularly enjoyed parodying the conventions of music criticism itself (“… from Hendrix’s amps, the chunks of purple noise emitted.”) Our exchanges looped back into speechless appreciation of the music, and then returned to conversation again, like unspooling, tangling audio-tape.
Those discussions are the kind of thing I want from poetry criticism. Certainly, they are what I looked for a few years later, clomping around the stacks of my college library. I wanted to be a part of some kind of public conversation. I also wanted to be taught — to be shown aspects of poems that I might otherwise have missed. Back then, Donald Davie’s work was particularly important to me. Cantankerous, generous, respectful of both old traditions and new ones, Davie led me to poets as various as Oliver Goldsmith and Ed Dorn, Thomas Sackville and Lorine Niedecker. Two other poet-critics important to me were Robert Pinsky and Alan Shapiro, whose The Situation of Poetry and In Praise of the Impure remain vital to me. Such critics have that dual engagement, with the aesthetic object itself and with social world around it. That’s what I want, not ultimate judgments — though I distrust criticism that attempts to be un-judgmental — but the critical mind itself, in motion in the world.

AMÉLIE FRANK: The summer before my freshman year as an English major at UCI, I received a booklet which included a lengthy reading list all English majors were expected to complete by the beginning of their senior year. It was a daunting list that began with The Dream of the Rood, Piers Plowman and Beowulf, and ended with the novels of Faulkner and Hemingway (oddly, Fitzgerald wasn't on that list). During that summer, the three summers that followed, and throughout my coursework, I checked off each completed work, knowing that we were required in our senior year to take three comprehensive examinations in English literature (one each quarter). UCI was one of only two schools in the country that required a comprehensive lit exam in senior year.
Did we fear the senior exam? Indeed, we did, but nowhere near as much as we feared our junior year criticism course, taught by the equally intimidating Robert Montgomery. This course lasted only one quarter, but it was a sumbitch. I still have the textbook: Hazard Adams' anthology Critical Theory Since Plato. In this book I haven't cracked open in about 20 years are the key critical ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Horace, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Bacon, Hobbes, Dryden, Pope, Hume, Johnson, Kant, Schiller, the Romantics (Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley), Goethe, Hegel, Carlye, Mill, Emerson, Poe, Ruskin, Baudelaire, Marx, Nietzche, Zola, James, Wilde (who contributed my favorite essay, The Decay of Lying), Tolstoy, Yeats, Freud, Eliot, Jung, Trotsky, John Crowe Ransom, Trilling, Sartre, Northrop Frye, and the head of our Humanities School, Murray Krieger – just to name about half of the critics represented in that terrifying red book.
New Criticism was all the rage during my four-year mission, and I barely understood it, likening its dry emphasis on analyzing text to cutting open a live cat to try and understand how and why a cat purrs. To this day, I remain relieved that I left UCI a few years before Jacques Derrida joined the faculty to teach Deconstructionism and Post-Modernism.
Fortunately, I was blessed with the friendship of classmate Sally Ann Sanders, an imaginative woman who formed an English majors study group that we ran together. One of Sally's strictly enforced rules for all members of our group was that we had to sleep with Critical Theory Since Plato beneath our pillows. She believed we would absorb the knowledge in our sleep, further strengthening and enriching what we covered in study group. As far as grades went, members of our study group did score higher on exams than non-members. Coincidence?
Key to both my understanding of literary criticism and my understanding of the creative dynamics (as opposed to mechanics) of poetry were the theories of the English Romantics. I was especially impressed by Coleridge, who envisioned poetry as the successful fruit borne of the union between the subject (the poet) and the object (what the poet writes about). I say in opposition to mechanics because this seemed to be the way that the Romantics envisioned much of their world. They lived in full throes of the Industrial Era in the most industrialized nation on earth, and much of their poetry was in response to, if not downright revolt against what they felt the mechanical world was doing to the human soul and human imagination. They also revolted against the mechanized universe of Alexander Pope's neoclassicism, which envisioned every person as a link of the great chain of being. Compare this world view to that of Keats, who argued for the organic, almost botanical origins of poetry. Pope's tidy cosmology paled in comparison to the wild, often dangerous grandeur of William Blake's mythological figures. In contrast to the rigid categorization of Plato and Pope, the Romantics held great appeal for me, a right-brained oriented child whose strongest creative urges came from the heart, not the head.
Interestingly, as I get older and come to appreciate the needs of the left side of my brain, I now crave with equal passion the tidiness of more classical forms of criticism. Criticism, when I first encountered it in sophomore year, proved to be a mighty comforting companion as I read through and checked off the works from that huge list assigned during my pre-freshman summer. To learn literary terms and concepts, to understand why they were developed, to understand the historic context and schools of thought that gave rise to them, helped steady me through the more intimidating works of literature to come: The Wasteland, the works of Joyce, the plays of Samuel Beckett.
Thanks to the red book, and to Professor Montgomery (who later proved to be far less fearsome in my Satire class, where he decided I was a good egg because I was the only student in class who knew who Margaret Dumont was), and to the Romantic poets, I learned about standards of taste and judgment, made embarrassing notes in the margin of the book ("poetry sweetens learning!"), and witnessed how one school of critical thinking gave way to the next, each with its own valid observations about poetry and with its prominent thinkers who were the products of their day.
Criticism became an important tool in my own writing, and it gave me context and grounding, as well as confidence as I developed my own voice as a writer.  Knowledge of critical theory stops me from making assumptions about the reader when I write (avoid that affective fallacy!) and keeps me honest as a poet. Thirty years after I first cracked open Critical Theory Since Plato, there remain rules to which I strictly adhere, including Keats' admonition that poetry had better come as easily as leaves to a tree, or it had better not come at all. I can't tell you how many really bad poems that rule has spared the world, at least on my account.

: I think a lot of how one approaches the question “What purpose does literary criticism about poetry serve?” really depends on how I think of the terms “literary” and “criticism.”  (In the words of the inimitable Bill Clinton, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”!). Does “literature” only encompass published texts, or great texts?  And does criticism only entail picking apart such texts, to praise or condemn them? For a long time, this was the model to follow, much to the detriment of the more interesting cultural exchanges and conversations in the world.

From my perspective — that of a poet, performer, and scholar — literary criticism is itself a fraught term.  It conjures the specters of Matthew Arnold and Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom writing polemical tomes which cause a kerfluffle among overly caffeinated grad students wearing Rachel Maddow-style horn-rims. The words “dilettante” and “Hegelian” and “sphere” are thrown around quite a bit.  It’s fun for us eggheads, but it doesn’t make much sense to everybody else out in the world, folks who like to read magazines where the cartoons are actually funny.
That’s not to say that literary criticism, and more specifically criticism about poetry, can’t have a purpose out in the world. At its best, lit crit can be a conversation, as Peter suggests. I think specifically about the work that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar did in The Madwoman in the Attic.  That book was a conversation just as much as it was putting forth a critical understanding of 19-century texts, and it spawned a number of responses from feminists, some of which evolved into very real political acts that affected us outside of the kingdom of lit crit.
I guess my biggest qualm is with the word “literary,” how that can conjure such a narrow understanding of our subjects as writers and scholars. The criticism I most admire is not just about language and text, but about acts and meanings that take place outside of the book. What qualifies to you as literary criticism? Does that understanding include a poetry slam? A woman burning the American flag in protest?  A Marvin Gaye song?
SCOTT WOODS: “Literary” should mean that which has been codified by text, great or otherwise. Anything more than that is, practically, an attempt to make something only tangentially related to writing more important than it is, and anything less than that is academic snobbery.  If I have to be published by a major house to qualify as fodder for the conversation, then clearly the conversation isn’t a conversation; it’s a lecture.  And if anything that brushes against language can qualify as literature, then we’re also not having the needed conversation; we’re committing acts of therapy.  So no, I don’t subscribe to the theory that acts somehow help define literature.  I think there is what literature is and there is what literature can be used for.  Since that purpose can be interpreted any myriad of ways and result in an infinite number of behaviors, I think it dangerous to poke at that kind of inclusion.  And while I am one of the loudest proponents for Poetry Slam as the ultimate democracy of art, even I do not think it qualifies as literary criticism in any usable sense.
The term “criticism” needs to lose the perception that it is only negative picking, or that its only purpose is to review.  Most writers get that and understand that this perception of all criticism – or even the word “criticism” – as negative is projected onto it by a society comprised mostly of non-thinking people.  I say this as the guy who writes a column called “Poetry is Doomed,” mind you, but I do so with the feeling that it is imperative to have this conversation as frequently as possible, and in a way that doesn’t simply hand out extra credit for effort.  There are real world implications in all art, in poetry even more so.  At this point in time we are at no shortage of poets, and should make an effort to criticize what passes for it and why.  In the words of critic and poet Thomas Disch, “Prize-giving and related perks are administered in the manner of children’s birthday parties, so that no poet must leave the party empty-handed.”  This collective approach to poetry as it exists – either by design, a lack of desire to address larger issues, or both – leaves us with a devalued art that loses its stock every day.
Much literary criticism as we know it has no relevance to the world at large, save that which has served to guide literary endeavor, which by contrast has had great effect on the world at large.  Poetry criticism – real, open-minded earnest poetry criticism – is still largely in an infancy stage, and one would have to be a working scholar to even begin to scratch the surface of what its catalogue consists of.  Poetry as an art constantly struggles for purpose in the modern world, and earnest criticism of it languishes even more.  But poetry criticism should be important and common and honest.  I don’t expect it to ever reach the level of conversation suggested here (though one can dream), but if it helps guide the art form to constantly evolving, clearer visions of what quality work can be (as opposed to what it should or must be), then by all means let’s be having those conversations every day.

MAJOR JACKSON: So much is here to respond.  I want to address Susan’s question, as I believe in doing so ostensibly touches on some of the other points made or challenged.  I am largely an autodidact, and though I am mildly familiar with the canon of American and global literary criticism and have had transcendent, epiphanic moments reading Cleanth Brooks on Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn (which definitely was a personal game-changer), Randall Jarrell on Marianne Moore, June Jordan on Phyllis Wheatley, pre-PBS Henry Louis Gates’ Signifying Monkey, William Empson on ambiguity, Edward Said on Joseph Conrad, Michele Wallace on the sexism of the Black Arts Movement, Bloom’s Anxiety book (haha!), Vendler’s Breaking of Style, Elaine Showalter, Terry Eagleton, on and on (so many): “literary”  or “literary criticism” does not bring to mind Maddow-esque horn-rimmed graduate students, but more committed intellectuals who have a belief in elevated public discourse (oops, I mean discussions) about a range of topics as diverse as how works of literature impact our personal and collective conceptions of ourselves, reflect transgressive or conservative ideologies, represent long-held philosophic treatises, embody current aesthetic values, or symbolize latent or repressed sexual impulses.

Yes, the word is weighty, but for now, I want to retain the implied standards of excellence in criticism which has language as its material – like the art it chooses to critique – that feels virtuosic and above ordinary conversation, criticism that is acutely aware of its rhetorical force as well as the interpretative tradition(s) out of which it speaks.  I can say whenever the criticism itself feels artfully written, rises to the level of the poem or volume under consideration, I am equally moved by such thoughtful responses and arguments as much as I am by the work itself, which frankly prior to the critic explicating the work I might not have appreciated. There’s that role, of course. However, when such criticism fails, what you have is mere shadowboxing.  So much criticism feels strained, especially that which seeks to do some canon-building or career-busting.  (I was so appalled by Marjorie Perloff’s dismissal in an interview of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d37kHq1TQrk>.)

Literary conversations raise the stakes through eloquent reasoning and measured debate.  Otherwise, we might find ourselves engaged in Town Hall-like shouting matches.   Not to say literary skirmishes do not occur among reasonable folk who appreciate poetry enough to let the public know what is of value and what’s going on. You only need to glimpse those manufactured by Poetry at the beginning of Christian Wiman’s tenure as Poetry Editor, which overall has had a positive effect, having dispensed with the niceties of conventional reviews and given us the “negative review.” However, it’s also spawned a bunch of would-be critics whose war hammers have gotten larger, all trying to out-Logan William Logan, who I must admit appears in my dreams like the bat-wielding Nazi hunter in the movie Inglourious Basterds.  (Which I should add here: back in the days of early hip-hop music reviewing, you took your life into your hands if you negatively reviewed a rapper or his crew in the pages of The Source.  A one mic out of five could get you jumped in a recording studio or beat-down in a NYC disco club.)

As much as I appreciate the tenor of the question, I have to disagree with the now age-old debate and implicit critique of what constitutes high culture, because that gets into questions of context and audience.  A woman burning the American flag in Yemen and captured by the omnipresent camera-man for CNN is political criticism.  A woman burning the American flag on the stage of Performance Space 122 in New York City is artistic expression which might contain literary qualities.  However, it is not literary criticism, which is the domain and province of literary women and men of letters. (There’s something gorgeously civil about the public intellectual.) And everybody knows, the best criticism comes from the poet’s themselves: Robert Pinsky, W.H. Auden, Annie Finch, Randall Jarrell, Langston Hughes, Stephen Dobyns, Stanley Plumley, Robert Haas, Louise Gluck, Stephen Burt, and yes, you too Peter.  If you haven’t read Joseph Brodsky’s introduction to Thomas Hardy, you haven’t lived, or Brodsky on Auden’s September 1, 1939.  These are folk I turn to first, if nothing else, to give me a glimpse into their own writing and set of practices, the next best thing to poet-interviews for the aspiring poet.

If critics can be accused of anything, it’s lack of range.  I am frustrated at the critic’s inability to hear the vibrancy of the poetry being written today; their parochialism is disheartening. The career ascendancy of academic critics on the backs of poets feels parasitical.  Their agendas, all of it, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There’s no way Perloff could hear the long American tradition of the praise poem/song as practiced by African American poets, and which Elizabeth Alexander based her inaugural poem. That is sad and limiting for us.

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