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A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism, Part II

By Reginald Shepherd

I was rather surprised by some of the responses I received to my original post on this topic. I consider thinking about poetry to be an essential element of reading and writing poetry, though obviously not all poets take the further step of _writing_ about poetry. However, literary criticism (which is a genre, and which is not the same thing as thought about literature) is a second-order activity, dependent on the existence of literature for its own existence, and existing for the purpose of illuminating literature. It is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. In that sense, it might well be considered parasitic, or at least, as Joseph Hutchison puts it, derivative: literary criticism couldn’t exist without literature, but literature can easily exist without literary criticism (which, again, is not the same as thinking about literature). Literary critics know this, which is why they make such frequent claims that literary criticism is of the same status or even kind as literarature. Michael Robbins’ assertion that “Criticism is an imaginative activity in its own right, in no way secondary to the creative work it engages” would be an example of such a claim. To which the simple reply is: no, it is not.


Even though the Four Quartets is Eliot’s most talky, prosaic work, and thus my least favorite among his poetic ouevre, I still read it in an entirely different way than I read any of his essays, enlightening and even eloquent as they often are. I cannot conceive of a piece of criticism as replete with meaning and feeling as Stevens’ “The Snow Man” or Williams’ “The Young Housewife.” Nor can I imagine having my life transformed by even the best of Eliot’s essays in the way that it was transformed by “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Seven Types of Ambiguity is a brilliant book, though as a writer I have found Some Versions of Pastoral to be more useful, and as a reader I’ve found it more engaging. But again, I read William Empson’s handful of amazing poems in a completely different way than I read his criticism, and would gladly trade it for them. “The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.” Indeed it does.
Literary criticism and theory have been useful to me in becoming a better reader and writer of literature, but they are just that–tools. A mindset that finds literature and literary criticism equivalent or interchangeable is utterly alien to me, though it was just that kind of thinking that drove me out of the first PhD program I attended. Nor would I ever wish to inhabit such a mindset. It’s this mode of thought that drives and incites much of what Michael Robbins refers to as knee-jerk anti-academicism, and with regard to it, I am happy to jerk my knee as well. But then, I am one of those benighted souls who believes that the phrase “love of literature” still has some meaning

Comments (89)

  • On August 8, 2008 at 9:59 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I suppose my simple reply to your simple reply is: yes, it is. Now if you’ll say “is not,” I’ll respond with “is too,” & we can go on like that until one of us gets tired or hungry, & then the other can declare victory, but that declaration will remain secondary or remora-like to the primary shark of Homeric conquest itself.
    Anyway, most academics I know would agree with you. I remember a beloved professor, in my first year of graduate study, shuddering in horror at my apostasy when I dared to suggest that some criticism is as worthwhile as the poems or stories it analyzes. I suspect behind his reaction an unhistorical romantic distinction between creativity & analysis, a fear of “murdering to dissect” that reminds me, unfairly no doubt, of the slogan of Kentucky’s marvelously cracked Creation Museum: “The Bible speaks for itself at the Creation Museum.” No need for all that pesky Thomism.
    Of course, Anatole France once said (derisively, though I endorse the sentiment) that the critic ought to say “Gentlemen, I am going to talk about myself on the subject of Shakespeare.” This reminds me of Bloom’s comment that “the personality of the critic is much deprecated in our time. . . . Yet when I think of the modern critics I most admire—Wilson Knight, Empson, Frye, Kenneth Burke—what I remember first is neither theories nor methods, let alone readings. What return first are expressions of vehement & colorful personalities: Wilson Knight straightforwardly quoting from seances; Empson proclaiming the almost Aztec or Benin high barbarism of Paradise Lost; Frye cheerfully characterizing T. S. Eliot’s neo-Christian account of civilization’s decline as the Myth of the Great Western Butterslide.” I wouldn’t care to have to determine whether Benjamin, writing on Baudelaire, is engaging in less of a creative, imaginative activity than Baudelaire, writing poems, is. Aristotle & Johnson & Benjamin & Auerbach & Empson: just tools? Enough, or too much.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 11:36 pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    I think it’s too easy to get hung up on the idea that the purely descriptive senses of “primary” and “secondary” warrant extension into evaluation. Yes, literary criticism is secondary to literature, if all one means by that is that without literature it would not exist. In the same way, love poetry is secondary to love itself, landscape painting is secondary to actual countryside, and lupus research is secondary to the disease. The added step of declaring that, because of this secondary characteristic, criticism is somehow “inferior”‘ to literature is just prescriptive attitudinizing.
    The only thing Michael Robbins says in his very sensible comment that I would modify for myself is the part where he insists that the experience of reading Seven Types of Ambiguity is not different in kind from that of reading Four Quartets. Degree I’ll accept, but I do feel that their functions as writing are of a very different kind. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t many works that combine these two kinds (what sometimes gets called “poet’s prose,” for example, or some of the decentered poetics statements of the Language writers), but Empson’s and Eliot’s texts seem firmly on either side of the expository/expressive divide. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would read them in the same way, with an eye toward the same kind of experience. Again, however, I can see no basis on this account to determine that one of the two genres is more valuable, important, vital, etc. than the other. Why insist on such comparisons?

  • On August 9, 2008 at 10:59 am Lydia Olidea wrote:

    Thanks for these thoughts; they’re clear and direct and have the seeming of self-evidence. But — is it just me, or is there just a little bit of a shell game going on? You describe literary criticism (as distinct from thinking about literature — thinking that could presumably be put in words?) as necessarily secondary, derivative, parasitic. But by essentially limiting it to review and opinion, we are presented with a tautology. Reviews and opionions are reviews and opinions of something — how true, how true. Meanwhile, elsewhere (re PhD programs), you excoriate critical thought in the field of literature that declines to limit itself to “love of literature.” So we’re presented with a sort of trap: the critical work that does not deadeneth the soul — that loves literature — must agree to be a derivative activity. Critical work, voila, is second-order or worse.
    But is this really true? I mean, I too read poems and critical writing differently, but I also read poems differently from novels.
    The first line of doubt, however, would be this: isn’t poetry also dependent on other pre-existing things for its existence? Experience, language, emotion, flowers, that stuff. If Michael Robbins, who seems like a nice if somewhat busy gentleman, were to write a critical essay that seeks to grasp the rich historical and emotional complexity of flowers, and refers to some poems in prosecuting his inquiry, isn’t his inquiry of the exact same order as a poem which is itself an attempt to grasp the glory of the morning glory, and refers along the way to a photograph? That is, they ‘re both “secondary” to flowers, and both use pre-existing, fashioned things en route to their thoughts.
    This is in fact what most terrific criticism does. Not serve literature — that’s what reviews do. But rather, use literature for its specific way of being part of reality — something humans do — to pursue things that are not necessarily toward the service of literature. Some of the greatest thinking about what it was like to be alive in, e.g., France in 1857, is Baudelaire’s
    Les Fleurs du mal. Is it greater thinking about the experience of being alive and the particulars of bourgeois modernity than Benjamiin’s two essays on Baudelaire? I’m honestly not sure. I love them both, but neither is about the other, and neither has the quality of secondarity. They both use the means at their disposal to get at the nuances of a new experience in ways I found overwhelmingly powerful and revelatory. One requires Baudelaire’s poem to exist. But recall that the other requires Homer’s poems to exist! So I remain deeply unclear on how I could find one of these more primary than the other, nor what I would gain by doing so.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 3:37 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Lydia writes that an essay on Baudelaire “requires Baudelaire’s poem to exist. But recall that the other requires Homer’s poems to exist!” Unfortunately, this confuses influence with commentary.
    We can read, enjoy and substantially understand Baudelaire without knowing Homer, though our experience of Baudelaire’s poetry will be thinner for our ignorance; but Benjamin’s essay(s) will be substantially opaque without knowing the works of Baudelaire they comment on. In fact, the only genuine function of criticism is to lead us back to the original work.
    As for the flower analogy, surely Lydia doesn’t mean to suggest that art is more important than nature? When it’s clear that by comparison with nature, art is derivative—a secondary thing. If she doubts this, I suggest she try subsisting for a month by munching on books of poetry instead of the meat and potatoes—or tofu and kale—that give her the fundamental energy to blog.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 7:15 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    “The only genuine function of criticism is to lead us back to the original work.”
    You can continue to assert this if you want, Joseph, but those of us who have much richer experiences of reading criticism will continue to find it foolish.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 8:02 pm Lydia Olidea wrote:

    Joseph, I fear I wasn’t clear enough for you. My point was that a poem “about a flower” and a critical essay “about a flower” which makes use of poems in its thinking have exactly the same degree of secondarity. It matters not to me whether you think nature is primary or not, since quite obviously one could substitute “some dude” or “love” or “perception” for “flower” and we would still have to confront the fact that essays which route their thinking through literature are not secondary to literature unless they agree that they are just “about” some book and not about something beyond the book — something for which the book provides a useful way of understanding.
    I read the Benjamin before I read the Baudelaire, and still managed to have an experience, feel stuff, learn about the world, and have more ways of understanding when I finished than when I began. By the same token, you could read Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne” without having read Homer — but you see what happened there? “By the same token…” — what exactly is the difference there that makes the reading of one text primary and the other secondary?

  • On August 9, 2008 at 11:32 pm john wrote:

    Lydia,
    Forgive me — you probably get this a lot, but how funny that one’s name quotes a song by Yip Harburg! The line continues, “that encyclopidia” [sic — misspelled to indicate the rhyme] — so, an auspicious name, particularly for a literary commentator.
    What makes Lydia Murdock’s song “I’m Billie Jean and I’m mad as hell” secondary to Michael Jackson’s opus is that it’s an answer song. Catchy, fine to hear, comprehensible even if one didn’t know the Jackson, but still — an answer song.
    Benjamin on Baudelaire is the same. Catchy, fine to read, comprehensible even if one hasn’t read the Baudelaire, but still — an answer song.
    (Perhaps not a completely fair analogy; Benjamin was no one-hit-wonder; but the pattern pertains.)
    What we haven’t discussed: Poems that are answers to criticism. Are they secondary? Harold Bloom saucily anthologized a bunch of poems that quoted his “Anxiety of Influence” — are they secondary to his book?
    I’d say, Yes. I like to that think Lydia Murdock would agree, but I don’t know how to get in touch with her to ask.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 7:52 am Doodle wrote:

    And you can read Robert Lowell’s version of “Le Cygne” before you read the Baudelaire, and without criticism as well. All one needs to do is line these works up in one’s own mind (if one has a mind!)…

  • On August 10, 2008 at 3:40 pm Lydia Olidea wrote:

    John,
    [yeah, my folks are hilarious, though ironically enough by dint of faux-gaelige tradition it’s pronounced “oliday”]
    Andromache, je pense a vous!
    Wait, who’s Andromache?
    As I suspect you know, as you seem quite a smart person, your analogy simply proves my point. As you say, Benjamin’s essay comes after Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne.” It is a thing made by a person of words which in its thinking passes through some words of others. In that regard it is identical to “Le Cygne.” So unless you have an unexamined assumption in which poetry is given and criticism made, there are simply no grounds — by your own argument — for finding the Benjamin essay a more derivative work than “Le Cygne.” Of at least none you’ve shown. All you’ve told me finally is that one precedes the other temporally. Poetry is made too.
    Before I ask you to perform a thought experiment, let me inquire about your analogy a bit. By the original terms of this discussion, of course, your analogy is inoperative: Lydia Murdock’s song is a “song” rather than “criticism” and thus primary, even though it depends for its existence on another song. And how would your analogy handle Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long”? It’s a song that one might enjoy for itself. But it’s an answer song to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” — so then the Zevon is secondary, while “Sweet Home Alabama” is primary? But whoops, “Sweet Home Alabama” is an answer song to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” so those are then more primary than “Sweet Home Alabama”? Even though the latter is a far better-known song enjoyed by millions who haven’t heard the Neil Young or the Warren Zevon?
    But here’s a more serious inquiry. Instead of imagining a binary relationship in which the thing that comes later is by definition “about”* the earlier thing, and that they exist in a (fictional) given/made relation, imagine a triangle. The three corners are
    A) Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire
    B) “Charles Baudelaire – A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism” by Walter Benjamin
    C) The experience of bourgeois modernity
    Now (if one has in fact read these first two documents) I think it takes no great genius to see that, despite the presence of Baudelaire’s name in the title of Benjamin’s essay, the latter isn’t about Baudelaire any more than Baudelaire’s book is about flowers of evil. The fundamental relationship is not A-B (which would indeed establish a relationship of pimary-secondary). Rather what we have is the two equivalent relationships A-C and B-C. Thus A and B are equally “secondary” (though that figure of speech should now look a bit silly, no?). They are made things by persons in words, sometimes referring to the words of others. History or life or something is the given, and reasonably so.
    Now you will perhaps object that B requires A to exist in order to pursue its relationship to C, which objection would then require me to repeat that A too requires any number of things including Homer to exist in order to pursue its relationship to C — again putting A and B pretty much in the same boat. Again, all you will have said is that B came after A, and used the means at its disposal toward grasping C, just as A came after [fill in the blank] and used the means at its disposal.
    * I will certainly concede that “about” is a facile term; perhaps we can agree that it really means “trying to grasp the concealed and mysterious contours of,” or something to that effect?

  • On August 10, 2008 at 5:28 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    John, you seem unaware of the history of answer-songs that are (at least arguably) superior to the songs they respond to: Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lennon’s “Serve Yourself,” McCartney’s “Back in the USSR” — I could go on. At any rate, you miss the point. It isn’t a question of chronological priority: who cares that one responds to the other? What does that tell us about its relative worth as an imaginative work? And what about all those answer songs that have outlived the original work they take on? I’m sure some theologians still read Raymond of Sabunde, but really.
    The real problem with this whole thread is probably that I find it quite inconceivable that an intelligent person, sensitive to the wonders of literary writing, could find Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs of Baudelaire” or “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” merely “catchy, fine to read, comprehensible.” I’d say life-changing, as effective at taking off the top of my head as most poems I’ve come across. If you’re reading those essays just to elucidate Baudelaire, I’d say you’re really missing out; Empson’s quite mad on Milton but Milton’s God is a book to cherish.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 6:02 pm Don Share wrote:

    I adore, like so many other folks, the irreplaceable prose works of Benjamin and Empson – but at least the latter would find the prose ancillary to the poetry; and Benjamin was many things, but not what we would ordinarily call a poet – which is no demotion. Why the role of such works can’t be seen as invaluable while acknowledging the obvious, that some things are commentaries and no more, I can’t quite grasp here. I’d take Empson’s poems over his prose any day in a pinch, which is saying a lot, considering how much I treasure the latter – but happily, nobody must make such a choice. All that has to be made is a distinction.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 8:06 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Don, I’d certainly acknowledge that “some things are commentaries & no more.” My assertion that started all this was “Criticism is an imaginative activity in its own right, in no way secondary to the creative work it engages.” I now see “in no way” is too strong: in certain obvious ways it is secondary (like, it comes second in the whole time-space thingy). But what “the role” is that can “be seen as invaluable” is precisely the question. Reginald wants to say criticism is always only a tool; while I would not go so far as to disagree with Eliot’s contention that criticism is never autotelic, I want to hold out for a rather less ancillary role than that.
    As for Empson, I like what Hilary Corke said: his “poems are as much criticisms of his criticism as his criticisms are in another sense poems about his poems. Indeed, this poet’s ‘unit of creation’ is not the poem alone, but the poem plus the note upon it.” All I’ve really been saying is that criticisms can be, “in another sense,” poems about poems.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 8:43 pm Lydia Olidea wrote:

    Don’s right — and wrong. That is, he’s collapsing two claims. He insists there is a “distinction” between poetry and criticism, and I’m not sure anyone has suggested anything to the contrary. The question is what that distinction is, and here Don seems simply to assume the conclusion: “some things are commentaries and no more” — that is, not just distinct but “secondary” or “derivative” or the various other claims that are actually at stake.
    That dispute is unlikely to be resolved by Don’s common-sense tones, as long as there’s nothing but assertion behind them. For me I would certainly agree that “some things are commentaries and no more.” Many of them are poems.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 11:48 pm john wrote:

    Lydia,
    You’re right, I was agreeing: Our culture has been influenced by criticism, at least since the mid 17th century; and, Michael’s right too, by oral criticism for centuries and probably millennia before then.
    This influence hasn’t always been good, obviously. For quite a long time critical fashion denigrated Shakespeare’s plays because of their nonconformity with Aristotle’s criticism. Bad criticism! Bad criticism!
    Do any Western critics besides Aristotle and Longinus survive from the centuries before Johnson? There may be some Alexandrians in there, but the ones I’m thinking of were poets as well. (Johnson was a poet too, but is far more widely respected today for his prose.)
    In this light it’s suggestive that the founding document of modern criticism may be Johnson’s discussion of the metaphysical poets. Something happened with the metaphysicals that Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee identified with the birth of comically bad poetry, in their “Anthology of Bad Verse” from 1930, “The Stuffed Owl.” Hugh Kenner, elaborating on Lewis and Lee in his late ‘60s book “The Counterfeiters,” focused on the same era. Kenner’s argument is subtle and powerful, and I don’t have the energy to do it justice tonight, but he is persuasive that the “dissociation of sensibility” that occurred in the mid-17th century had the effect of transforming the typical poetic stance from that of “a man speaking” to “a consciousness observing.” W. R. Johnson, in his terrific book “The Idea of Lyric,” went so far as to count the decline of the pronoun “you” in lyric verse over the centuries. The figure of the poet gradually transformed from that of Romeo wooing (or Mercutio arguing) to Hamlet soliloquizing (famously making nothing happen), to the figure of the poet’s purported disappearance in the 1970s, into “pure” examination of “language itself.” With all this disembodied consciousness floating around, it’s no wonder that so many people find Harold Bloom’s declaratives so attractive. (I do too.)
    I agree with Jarrell, it’s an age of criticism, and has been since Johnson. (And I agree with Michael that I find much of Jarrell’s own criticism attractive and his poetry, ironically , not nearly as much. Same goes for Empson and Blackmur and probably Pound and Graves, though not the great poet-critic Edward Thomas, or Yeats, Eliot, Moore, Stevens, Rexroth, H.D., Duncan, Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Rukeyser, Eshleman, Karl Shapiro, Winters, Cummings, O’Hara, Notley, Du Plessis . . . )
    Well, this is hasty and oversimplified — obviously — but if anybody wants to value criticism as highly as poetry, that’s fine with me. I don’t understand the aggressiveness about it, though. There simply is tons of evidence that most people throughout history have valued the art with which criticism engages more highly than criticism itself. Me too.

  • On August 11, 2008 at 8:43 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Empson fans who don’t mind a splash of cold water on their enthusiasm should have a look at Elder Olson’s essay on same, in the anthology Critics & Criticism, ed. by R.S. Crane (1952).

  • On August 11, 2008 at 11:35 am Don Share wrote:

    Olson’s saying that there are “no necessary differences between poetic diction, as diction, and the diction of any other kind of composition,” etc., doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm – on the contrary… but then I’m not a neo-Aristotelian; your mileage may vary, I hasten to add.

  • On August 12, 2008 at 6:42 am Henry Gould wrote:

    It’s hard to get a sense of the debate between Empson/New Critics and Olson et al./Chicago School from Don’s single-line excerpt above. And you don’t have to be a neo-Aristotelian (I’m not) to find it very intriguing that, in the middle of the most “language-oriented” century ever, the Chicago critics were going back to the original lit crit (Aristotle) to mount an argument that, no, poetry is NOT reducible to the analysis of its language. Its language is only one element of a more elusive whole – language is its vehicle, not its substance… a very interesting position, considering the times & the intellectual climate.

  • On August 12, 2008 at 10:53 am Mary Maxwell wrote:

    To complicate matters even more, as far as the relation between poet and critic, it should be pointed out that the young Walter Benjamin did, in fact, aspire to be a poet. His sonnets, though published in German in 1986, remain generally unacknowledged and untranslated into English. Benjamin’s poetic aspirations, nevertheless, were both fundamental and essential to his vocation as a cultural critic. For those interested in such topics, please see “Benjamin the Poet” in the Winter-Spring 2007 Salmagundi, pp. 206-225.
    Mary Maxwell

  • On August 12, 2008 at 11:55 am Willard wrote:

    “…very intriguing that, in the middle of the most “language-oriented” century ever, the Chicago critics were going back to the original lit crit (Aristotle) …”
    — or not. It is not clear that one would be surprised, after the fact, to discover that the University of Chicago in the middle of the century produced a neoclassical theory based on the faith of a total system pursuing perfect balance.

  • On August 12, 2008 at 1:08 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Willard writes : “….a neoclassical theory based on the faith of a total system pursuing perfect balance.”
    Not sure to what exactly “faith of a total system pursuing perfect balance” refers. I don’t find this anywhere in Elder Olson or the Chi School. In fact they’re pretty sceptical about systems in general, as is Aristotelianism, for that matter. Aristotle was about being very careful to delimit the “line of inquiry”, and the specific facets or aspects or particulars of a subject-matter – based on empirical investigation. In this he offered an antidote to Platonic theoretical abstraction.
    But of course, postmoderns aren’t required to actually READ the deluded pre-postmoderns they deign to criticize…

  • On August 12, 2008 at 2:29 pm Willard wrote:

    I was referring to “History versus Criticism in the Study of Literature,” by Ronald Salmon Crane — Huffy Henry, I trust you’ve read it? Therein, the founder of the Chicago School defined lit crit as “simply the disciplined consideration, at once analytical and evaluative, of literary works as works of art.” Crane’s predilection (he actually argued against the tern “neo-Aristotelian”) was for Form and Matter and their interrelation — it’s actually quite hard to see his position as empiricist. He’s a bit of an idealist, not in the sense of a Platonist but simply as an ahistorical philosopher of criticism. I can certainly see wishing to ignore history in 1935.
    The structural similarities between the Chicago School of Criticism and of Economics are well discussed elsewhere. An interesting lineage: Hayek, the patron paint of Chicago economics, descends from the Austrian School that in the 19th century called for a return to…Aristotle!

  • On August 12, 2008 at 7:12 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I’m no Chicago-school critic (although I am a Chicago-school critic, & my adviser does the most marvelous impression of a cranky Elder Olson), but certainly Crane, Olson, McKeon &c. were interested in the history of criticism as providing varying standards by which to analyze & evaluate literary works — certainly it’s inaccurate to refer to Crane as “an ahistorical philosopher of criticism.” His philosophy of criticism was based on historical awareness of the many valid critical developments since Plato. Certainly he didn’t have a “philosophy of history,” but what Willard calls “ignoring history” — emphasizing artistic constructive principles & downplaying semantics & historical/biographical context — doesn’t strike me as terribly different from what some of the New Critics advocated.

  • On August 12, 2008 at 8:20 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    That’s fine, Willard. But nothing you’ve written here, aside from general dismissals & aspersions, really deals with the point I’m making : that the Chi School view, in which poetry cannot be reduced to its language, seems unusual, in the context of the 20th-century obsession with language – from Saussure through the NCs, to the structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists, language poets, ellipticals, jerrymanderists, etc etc.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 3:27 am mickey o'connor wrote:

    poets who have not written criticism :
    ted berrigan
    sam beckett
    bernadette mayer
    tom raworth
    alice notley
    allan fischer
    jeremy prynne
    ted greenwald
    joanne kyger
    philip whalen
    jack kerouac
    john weiners
    clearly there are more
    i don’t have the desire to think of any more
    clark ccoolidge

  • On August 13, 2008 at 3:27 am mickey o'connor wrote:

    poets who have not written criticism :
    ted berrigan
    sam beckett
    bernadette mayer
    tom raworth
    alice notley
    allan fischer
    jeremy prynne
    ted greenwald
    joanne kyger
    philip whalen
    jack kerouac
    john weiners
    clearly there are more
    i don’t have the desire to think of any more
    clark ccoolidge

  • On August 13, 2008 at 7:53 am Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Reginald’s clear statements about criticism ring true to me and I don’t see the problem with poetry criticism being at once inseparable from writing poetry (hard to imagine a poet alive who doesn’t see a poem, at the very least his or her own poem, as an aesthetic object for the intellect’s investigation at some point) and also a second order of activity. Obviously, poetry criticism can’t exist without poetry. You can’t think about something that isn’t first there to think about. In any case, I’m interested in this thread as it has provoked my thinking on poetry criticism, literary criticism, in general–does such a thing exist anymore? Reading “Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism” an anthology of writings by people like Allen Tate, Randell Jarrell, Cleanth Brooks, etc., edited by Garrick Davis, is especially enlightening these days–just as some of them asked, what is criticism anyway, and how does it happen, I wonder what are we talking about when we talk about “poetry criticism”? Does such a discipline even exist? Is it part of “literary criticism”? And where is that being studied these days? Since every poet I know either teaches, edits, reviews books, reads poems, or in some way engages in the second-order activity of perceiving a poem as an aesthetic object for the intellect, it seems curious to me that this common and pervasive activity is not acknowledged as an inseparable part of the writing process and also investigated and studied (as rhetoric once was). Wouldn’t it be great if poets and others interested in poems could have discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems, that did not use poems as launching pads for theories about language and/or political beliefs? How about an MFA in Criticism, separate from an MFA in Poetry or Creative Writing, where students would study literary criticism and perhaps, rhetoric and writing itself?
    (Great to see you back, Reginald!)

  • On August 13, 2008 at 11:36 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Mickey, a remarkable percentage of the poets you list have, in fact, written criticism — could be as high as 100%, but I’d have to check. Off the top of my head: Coolidge, Beckett, Prynne, Notley, & Raworth have all written criticism. Hell, Beckett wrote an entire book on Proust!

  • On August 13, 2008 at 11:37 am Lydia Olidea wrote:

    “Wouldn’t it be great if poets and others interested in poems could have discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems, that did not use poems as launching pads for theories about language and/or political beliefs?”
    Yeah! And if we could also have poems that were about the poems, and not used as launching pads etc etc, that would be even greater! Heck yeah! The less theory and politics the better! (Don’t worry — this itself is not a political or theoretical claim! These aren’t the ‘droids you’re looking for.)
    Signed,
    Ideology

  • On August 13, 2008 at 11:57 am Don Share wrote:

    Prynne’s critical prose is fascinating – also sprach Wikipedia:
    “Prynne has published a wide range of critical and academic prose. A transcription of a 1971 lecture on Olson’s Maximus Poems at Simon Fraser University has had wide circulation. His longer works include a monograph on Saussure, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words and self-published book-length commentaries on poems by Wordsworth (Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and others) and Shakespeare, (They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94). His essay on New Songs from a Jade Terrace, an anthology of early Chinese love poetry, was included in the 2nd edition of the book from Penguin 1982.”
    Here’s a supplementary checklist
    .
    Etc.
    Others can direct folks to criticism by the others on Mickey’s list, but I figured I start off with Prynne, though I know there are some Harriet readers who will pipe up in dismay.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 12:48 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    “Wouldn’t it be great if poets and others interested in poems could have discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems, that did not use poems as launching pads for theories about language and/or political beliefs?”
    Yes, Joan, that would be great! Because it is self-evident that “poems” do not use “language” “and/or” “political beliefs” so to have discussions “about” “the poems” is self-evidently not to have discussions “about” “language” “and/or” “political beliefs.” This is so obvious that we can dismiss with the need to “explain” how a discussion can simply be “about” a “poem” — because it is self-evident that if you discuss a “poem’s” “language” or its relation to “political beliefs” you’re “using” the “poem” as a silly “launching pad” for a silly “theory,” which is self-evidently silly! Imagine!

  • On August 13, 2008 at 1:20 pm Katy Tried wrote:

    “Wouldn’t it be great if poets and others interested in poems could have discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems, that did not use poems as launching pads for theories about language and/or political beliefs?”
    Yes, I can’t wait for classes on Yeats, Heaney & Muldoon that leave out Irish politics; classes on Milosz that leave out Polish politics; classes on Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky that leave out Russian politics; classes on Bei Dao and Gu Cheng that leave out Chinese politics … etc. etc.
    Or is it only American poets who don’t use poetry as “launching pads?” Then we could have classes on WCW, Pound, Ginsberg, Lowell, without politics. But isn’t this kind of a … castration?

  • On August 13, 2008 at 1:23 pm Doodle wrote:

    Well, Frank O’Hara used poetry as a lunching pad! I wonder if that counts…

  • On August 13, 2008 at 3:17 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    other poets who did not/do not publish literary criticism :
    lewis warsh
    arthur rimbaud
    mina loy
    jack spicer
    jack collom
    edwin denby
    anselm hollo
    barry macsweeney
    samuel beckett called his book on proust a ” monograph”
    what’s the difference between literary criticism & an essay ?
    if a poet writes an essay on another writer is it
    de facto then literary criticism ?
    mnichael robbins – what is the name of tom raworth’s book of literary criticism ?

  • On August 13, 2008 at 3:17 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    other poets who did not/do not publish literary criticism :
    lewis warsh
    arthur rimbaud
    mina loy
    jack spicer
    jack collom
    edwin denby
    anselm hollo
    barry macsweeney
    samuel beckett called his book on proust a ” monograph”
    what’s the difference between literary criticism & an essay ?
    if a poet writes an essay on another writer is it
    de facto then literary criticism ?
    mnichael robbins – what is the name of tom raworth’s book of literary criticism ?

  • On August 13, 2008 at 4:03 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Mickey, having claimed that a number of poets who wrote criticism did not do so, which drew a predictable response, you now proffer another list of poets many of whom who wrote criticism & claim they did not do so. I mean, Spicer? Not write criticism?
    The answer to yr question is yeah, an essay on a poet is not “de facto” but definitionally literary criticism. A monograph on Proust ditto. What else is criticism to be composed in but essays & monographs & the like? Poems? Well, yeah, Chas Bernstein & Susan Schulz, among others.
    I’m not seeing the small picture here. Anyway, who would not grant the point you seem to be trying, however unfortunately, to make: that lots of poets didnae write o’ the criticism? Yes? And? Who’s he when he’s at home? No one has ever suggested otherwise.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 4:06 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    more poets who did not publish literary criticism :
    paul blackburn
    gregory corso
    bob cobbibg ??
    larry eigner ??
    bill griffiths ??
    piero heliczer
    jackson maclow
    brion gysin
    bob holman
    bob kaufman
    charles bukowski
    ?? denotes uncertainty
    michael robbins – do you consider coolidge’s book
    NOW ITS JAZZ: WRITINGS ON KEROUAC & THE SOUNDS
    to be literary criticism ?
    i don’t
    what coolidge book is literary criticism ?

  • On August 13, 2008 at 4:06 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    more poets who did not publish literary criticism :
    paul blackburn
    gregory corso
    bob cobbibg ??
    larry eigner ??
    bill griffiths ??
    piero heliczer
    jackson maclow
    brion gysin
    bob holman
    bob kaufman
    charles bukowski
    ?? denotes uncertainty
    michael robbins – do you consider coolidge’s book
    NOW ITS JAZZ: WRITINGS ON KEROUAC & THE SOUNDS
    to be literary criticism ?
    i don’t
    what coolidge book is literary criticism ?

  • On August 13, 2008 at 4:07 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Katy, I was halfway crucified.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Droids? Lydia, I have no idea what your post is about or why it’s sarcastic. “Michael”, I guess “yours” is meant to “be” sarcastic also–? But, “again”, no idea “why”. Katy, at least I can address yours because I can understand it. You’ve interpreted my post to mean that I think a poem should not be a launching pad for the poet’s political beliefs, theories, etc., which is, of course, absurd. I meant to say that the poem should not be a launching pad for the critic’s political beliefs. Hope that helps clarify things a little.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 5:00 pm Anonymous wrote:

    The theorists think it is wrong
    To just look at the song-as-a-song.
    The songbirds say, Hey!
    You aren’t making my day!
    Do politics and theory belong?
    Each imagines the other’s oppressive.
    And the mutual grievance is impressive.
    Folks are angry and gloomy
    But there’s plenty of room. E-
    Ven Harriet lets folks get aggressive.

  • On August 13, 2008 at 6:17 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    (I mean, OK, you could write about a poet — in a biography for example — without engaging in lit crit — but all the poets I mentioned have certainly written criticism.)

  • On August 13, 2008 at 8:51 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, Joan, my comment was “sarcastic” because your comment, like yr new one, begged as many questions as it could from a haughty no-nonsense altitude. You say it’d be great to have a discussion about poems that were “about the poems” — assuming this is more than tautology, you’re implying that any discussion about poems that leads to a consideration of linguistic or theoretical or political matters is no longer “about the poems.”
    This is a dream of purity, & as a critic you endorse a line of aestheticism with a long & sordid history, in which the “poem” is instantiated in realm outside history, to be examined with calipers & loupe while waiting to send the wine back. But poems are artifacts of language created by humans situated in given historical & political contexts. There is no such thing as “the poem itself,” since even our ability to read the thing depends upon socialization, training, political weather, & historical specificity.
    As a corollary, you seem to imagine that poems that are themselves about politics or theory or language are not really “poems,” as this ludicrous question from the Boston Common “debate” makes clear: “Can you find pleasure in a poem that does not display some kind of organization and context, however loosely constructed? In other words, do you enjoy reading a collection of individual, unconnected lines?” Here we see yr penchant for begging questions: as if there could ever be such a thing as a poem “that does not display some kind of organization & context,” that was a mere collection of “unconnected lines.” The arrangement of lines into a poem is ipso facto a display of organization, & it also automatically creates a context of connection, as should be obvious to anyone not blinded by the most grating ideological blunder of all: to assume it is possible & desirable to work outside ideology.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 7:27 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Michael, you’re reading an awful lot into Joan’s posts. Is this how you read poems, too?
    Aristotle, the first literary critic, and Horace, similarly, conceived of criticism as a pragmatic analysis of HOW poets produce “good poems”. What techniques produce what effects? This kind of analysis does not necessarily entail the kind of “purism” and aestheticism you assume that Joan assumes.
    Of course there are lots of ways to approach literary criticism. See R.S. Crane’s book “The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry”. This is an excellent introduction to the whole subject.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 9:07 am Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Michael, first I want to thank you for taking the time to explain your point of view. Since you’ve referenced Boston Comment days, I can begin to understand the tone of your reaction to my current remarks. Before I go there however, let me take a moment on your first remarks here.
    –“You say it’d be great to have a discussion about poems that were “about the poems” — assuming this is more than tautology, you’re implying that any discussion about poems that leads to a consideration of linguistic or theoretical or political matters is no longer “about the poems.”
    I’m not implying anything, just stating as clearly as possible that such a discussion, while it may be prompted by a poem, and may, like a poet’s biography, add contextual interest to the poem, and may, like some linguistic theory, be interesting in and of itself, is simply not a discussion of the poem. To take this out of the realm of overweighted words like “context” and “history” and so forth, consider a discussion of a poem’s effect on the neural circuitry of the brain (such discussion can be found in the article I reference on my blog, “The Shakespeared Brain”). Is such a discussion interesting? Yes. (At least I think so.) Is it a discussion of the poem? No. The poem serves as a springboard for talking about the brain’s reaction to certain word combinations. An essay or story could have been used instead (though not with such clear cut results, probably). So the piece of writing, in this case a poem, is secondary to the discussion about brain circuitry, is, in fact, put in the service of the discussion of brain activity in relation to language. I enjoyed the article but would never confuse it with an analysis and discussion of the poem. So, while they may be interesting, discussions of brain science or capitalism, or how women were treated differently from men in 1919, are different from discussions about a poem. Do you agree? Or do you think everything discussed or thought about in the vicinity of a poem a discussion of the poem?
    –“This is a dream of purity, & as a critic you endorse a line of aestheticism with a long & sordid history, in which the “poem” is instantiated in realm outside history, to be examined with calipers & loupe while waiting to send the wine back. But poems are artifacts of language created by humans situated in given historical & political contexts. There is no such thing as “the poem itself,” since even our ability to read the thing depends upon socialization, training, political weather, & historical specificity.”
    How did you know about my calipers and loupe and my dream of purity? I’m so ashamed now. Yes, poems are artifacts of language created by humans, of course. I’m not postulating that they’re created by apes (well, maybe a few). And yes, humans live in a time and place and hold beliefs and eat dinner and shop and annoy each other. But how does this follow: “There is no such thing as ‘the poem itself’?” I want to make sense of your statements, I really do. But how does it follow that because we need to learn how to “read the thing” that the thing doesn’t exist? Is it the tree in the forest again? A poem doesn’t exist until someone is able to read it? hmm. Interesting. Hand me my calipers and loupe, Jeeves, I need to examine my sordid dream of purity more closely.
    –“As a corollary, you seem to imagine that poems that are themselves about politics or theory or language are not really “poems,” as this ludicrous question from the Boston Common “debate” makes clear: “Can you find pleasure in a poem that does not display some kind of organization and context, however loosely constructed? In other words, do you enjoy reading a collection of individual, unconnected lines?” ”
    As a corollary to what argument? Just wondering. Ok, so you think I imagine that poems about politics or theory or language are not poems? No, I never said that. The subject matter of poems is not the issue. The issue is a reader putting the poem in the service of his or her politics and theories instead of being able to, or wanting to, read the poem on its own terms. As for the linkage between this idea and the “ludicrous question” from the Boston Comment, I’m at a loss. The question does not in any way support or even relate to the first part of your statement (subject matter in poems), but instead raises a different idea (and one that you also object to, I know. I just want to be able to sort out what you’re actually saying so I can respond to it).
    –“Here we see yr penchant for begging questions: as if there could ever be such a thing as a poem “that does not display some kind of organization & context,” that was a mere collection of “unconnected lines.” The arrangement of lines into a poem is ipso facto a display of organization, & it also automatically creates a context of connection, as should be obvious to anyone not blinded by the most grating ideological blunder of all: to assume it is possible & desirable to work outside ideology.”
    Yes, this was the response from one of the participants (I forget who) and I didn’t respond because that wasn’t my role—I was “hosting” the debate (now I feel like putting quotes around everything too!). I often give my students the assignment to write a meaningless poem because such a thing is basically impossible, even physiologically impossible—we are constructed to find patterns in everything. Aside from the obvious example of cloud watching, there are many experiments in optics that show the eye/brain making ‘pictures” from random dot patterns (as our ancestors made “pictures’ from stars). So your point is..? Everything is connected? Sure. So what does that have to do with how a poem is or is not constructed? Obviously, some are far more connected than others (narrative vs elliptical, etc.). You seem to be arguing that all lines in a poem are connected whether or not the reader or even the poet perceives them as such (tree in the forest again). I think that’s your dream of purity. I would argue that someone has to hear it fall.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 11:27 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joan, the problem with yr position is that the phrase “the poem on its own terms” is empty. I meant to type (I thought I had typed) “There is no such thing as ‘the poem IN itself.'” I don’t know what this has to do with trees, except that you don’t seem able to see the forest for them. Or perhaps you find yourself in a dark wood.
    A poem, any poem, brings along with it questions of language, politics, & history; this is a different matter from the example you raise about neural circuitry. In that case, it’s clear that the poem is not the subject of the discussion. Likewise, I don’t find it particularly enlightening to be told that a given James Wright poem is racist because it includes a line about “Negroes.” I agree with yr broader point.
    But poems aren’t autonomous objects. As historical, linguistic artifacts, they carry their politics & linguistics around with them, regardless of subject matter. For Benjamin, for instance, a poem’s political properties would be deducible from its technical properties. I don’t happen to believe that, but it’s an example of the sort of thinking you would rule out as not “about the poem.”
    As for poems made up of disjunctive elements, a poem by Stephen Rodefer differs from a Ted Kooser poem in part in that its lines don’t seem connected in the same way. But this isn’t to say they aren’t connected: a reader cannot help but supply connections. Readers create contexts as much as writers do. One of the reasons it’s a poem instead of a grocery list (although I’ve read some pretty good grocery-list poems) is that we know, as readers, that the lines were placed & arranged in a certain order: connections follow, & hypotheses of connections follow.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 1:18 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    The English dept. academics who eviscerated the category “beauty” a few decades ago have to keep themselves in business somehow. Hence Michael’s anxiety to explain that poetry is always about SOMETHING else….

  • On August 14, 2008 at 2:52 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    michael robbins-
    where is jack spicer’s ” literary criticism ” published
    ditto for tom raworth ??

  • On August 14, 2008 at 2:52 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    michael robbins-
    where is jack spicer’s ” literary criticism ” published
    ditto for tom raworth ??

  • On August 14, 2008 at 3:01 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Oh, Henry. I was just reading Jennifer Moxley (for whom you’ve provided a very nice blurb as I recall) & thinking how wonderful it is that there is a poet who understands that the category “beauty” does not stand enshrined in Platonic form but is also a historical category — & yet uses this insight to produce beautiful poems (poems I would call beautiful). I am as interested in beauty as you are; it is one of the criteria of judgment I most deeply cherish. Unlike you, however, I don’t assume it is an a priori, objective category. I mean, “I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last” is pretty goddamned beautiful, if you ask me. But that requires argument rather than assertion. As yr precious Ronnie Crane knew.
    It’s good of you to continue throwing “academic” around as if it were an insult. It must get awfully lonely on the Brown campus. I’m also a poet, but who’s counting.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 3:45 pm Don Share wrote:

    Ah, Beauty! To borrow a phrase from Empson, Absolute Beauty is a baby which the critics never expected to have the trouble of bringing up.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 3:54 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’m not Michael, but you can find Spicer’s literary criticism in The House That Jack Built, edited by Peter Gizzi.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 7:04 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    –“Joan, the problem with yr position is that the phrase “the poem on its own terms” is empty.”
    Michael, yes, of course, to you it is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this “discussion.” But to me it is quite full and encompasses such things as: how it was written (what strategies, or techniques or devices used), what it is doing (the effects, both large and small); how and why it is structured as it is, what influences does it carry, or struggle against, what kind of diction, style, line breaks, tone, voice, etc, etc, etc, (I know you know them all), it uses and to what effect; when was it written and by whom; how does it reflect that time and culture (yes, there is a place for this, it’s just not the only investigation of interest)—oh, and just all the rest of intellectual inquiry one can muster in the service of understanding, and to use an outmoded term, appreciating it. I don’t know about you, but wanting to know how a poem works—especially one that I find particularly moving and mysterious and beautiful—is an increase in enjoyment, not a decrease. So, to take a poem on its own terms is simply to read and study the poem, not read and apply someone’s theories on language, cultural history or linguistics to it. I guess it also implies the courage to use your own sense, intuitions and intelligence to encounter someone else’s.
    –“I meant to type (I thought I had typed) “There is no such thing as ‘the poem IN itself.'” I don’t know what this has to do with trees, except that you don’t seem able to see the forest for them. Or perhaps you find yourself in a dark wood.”
    Yes, the wood is very dark—even silent and deep. And I definitely have miles to go before I can put this entire argument to sleep and out of its misery. Anyway, “there is no such thing as the poem IN itself” is certainly better than “there is no such thing as the poem itself” but not by much. At least you admit such an entity as a “poem” exists. However, please see your statement above re: emptiness. You’ll need to fill this statement up, it means nothing to me as it stands, unless you mean to riff on “no ideas but in the thing itself” or something else someone else said. Even so, I’d still like to know what you mean by it.
    –“A poem, any poem, brings along with it questions of language, politics, & history; this is a different matter from the example you raise about neural circuitry.”
    I think any poem brings along with it the questions you list as well as many more including how the brain processes it. Why not? And why not philosophy, psychology, aesthetics and biology while we’re at it? It’s an artifact made by a human out of words. Kind of gives rise to just about everything we humans like to think about doesn’t it? Funny how things are connected like that..
    –“In that case, it’s clear that the poem is not the subject of the discussion.”
    Just as it is clear to me that the poem is not the subject of discussion when reading literary theory.
    –“Likewise, I don’t find it particularly enlightening to be told that a given James Wright poem is racist because it includes a line about “Negroes.” I agree with yr broader point.”
    I don’t know where the “likewise” comes from, but I don’t find such a statement enlightening either. And I don’t know what broader point of mine you agree with by stating this, but I’m glad we agree on something, that’s nice.
    –“But poems aren’t autonomous objects. As historical, linguistic artifacts, they carry their politics & linguistics around with them, regardless of subject matter.”
    Yes, I think I’ve granted you that point. I agree. It doesn’t make me want to change my ideas about what it means to talk about a poem vs. talk about politics and language theory though.
    –“For Benjamin, for instance, a poem’s political properties would be deducible from its technical properties. I don’t happen to believe that, but it’s an example of the sort of thinking you would rule out as not “about the poem.””
    Yes, it is.
    –“As for poems made up of disjunctive elements, a poem by Stephen Rodefer differs from a Ted Kooser poem in part in that its lines don’t seem connected in the same way.”
    Ok, just checked out Stephen Rodefer and have to say that’s quite a tiny part of the difference. They couldn’t be more unlike, and in every way. It’s like a comparison between a concrete sidewalk and a snowball fight.
    –“But this isn’t to say they aren’t connected: a reader cannot help but supply connections.”
    Oh, I must differ. I can easily help supplying connections to this Rodefer excerpt:
    The fracas of desire collates us in an endgame
    Enumeral and viratic and like a signal guy
    Jacketted at the coupling coming on
    There is still there, still sizing up the sky
    A man and an amalgam, blinded by the parentheses
    Hard on belts and stuff
    Velvetter, tenemental and most ravenous
    Say, brother, can you spare a connection?
    –“Readers create contexts as much as writers do.”
    See “empty statement” reference, above. Please fill at your earliest convenience.
    –“One of the reasons it’s a poem instead of a grocery list (although I’ve read some pretty good grocery-list poems) is that we know, as readers, that the lines were placed & arranged in a certain order: connections follow, & hypotheses of connections follow.”
    I don’t know this at all. In fact, all signs in the Rodefer passage point the opposite way. So I will grant the possibility that, like the results from my “meaningless poem” assignment, this poem was generated (and I use the term denotatively) as an intentional example of how not to connect. In that case, I can see it has some “art” to it, if by art we mean intentionality. But if I have to pick between walking on a dull concrete sidewalk or getting into a snowball fight, I think I’ll go to another neighborhood entirely. Fortunately, poetry is large and contains multitudes.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 9:45 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joan, now we’re just repeating ourselves, except you’re not even paying attention to what I’m saying the first time around. To take just one example from yr muddled response — you say there is a place for considering how a poem reflects its “time & culture,” but “it’s just not the only investigation of interest.” To whom is this news? To me? I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was arguing that the reading of poetry entailed nothing more than considering a poem’s reflection of its time & culture. I’d also be interested to learn the name & email address of any person who has ever held such an idiotic position, for he’s the one in need of yr parenthetical allowances.
    “The poem in itself” is pretty clearly (I mean, isn’t it?) a reference to the Kantian dictum that we cannot know things in themselves but only things as they present themselves to our mode of cognition, mediated by our sense experience. It’s fairly obvious that you believe that the “simply” in the phrase “simply to read and study the poem” has a force. You haven’t explained what it is; rather, you defer questions of the situatedness of poems & their writers & readers to “someone’s theories.” I don’t know who he is when he’s at home, but I suspect he rarely is.
    If you don’t see that the argument you made about poems used to elucidate neuroscience is analogous to the one you made about poems used to explicate someone’s political beliefs (which is what the example of James Wright’s allegedly racist poem is doing in my post) then I don’t know why you made it. But I was agreeing that we’re not talking about the poem in either instance. That’s also pretty clear, I think, but I’m sorry it confused you.
    Sentences such as “Just as it is clear to me that the poem is not the subject of discussion when reading literary theory” aren’t helping you any. There’s not some single critter out there called “literary theory,” which is to say it’s no more monolithic than literary criticism or even, I daresay, than poetry itself.
    “Oh, I must differ.” I’ll try to disguise my shock. Since I’m somewhat dumbfounded that you need an explanation — after futurism, after The Cantos, after Dada, after (to skip ahead) Ashbery, after Cage, after Derrida, after Language poetry — of the creativity the reader brings to the act of reading (& which I, as an intentionalist, ascribe mainly to the reading of works such as Rodefer’s where such creative reading is invited by the work), I’m just going to note here that I am tempted to overcome my congenital aversion to citing Charles Bernstein on any subject whatever. If you were to read Rodefer’s lines with the attention they deserve, rather than simply dismissing them, you might find yourself making connections. And you might find different kinds of connections than the ones you fetishize. But running yr eyes along the lines isn’t reading them. The respondents to yr roundtable already provided astute answers to this question — which were similar to the answers various people provided to a flustered Sven Birkets in the pages of Sulfur 15 years ago. & pleasure is, as one of yr respondents noted, only one possible form of interest.

  • On August 14, 2008 at 9:55 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Also, Joan, yr comparison of the difference between a poem by Rodefer & one by Kooser to the difference between a sidewalk & a snowball fight is unintentionally revealing about the way you think about poems. Since both poems happen to made of words in the English language arranged in syntactical units, for example, & set in lines, & similar in a hundred other ways, comparing them is more like comparing a sidewalk & a really different sidewalk, or a snowball fight & a water balloon fight. Sidewalks are made of concrete & are for walking on & drawing on & shoveling & a bunch of other things; snowball fights are made of water & motion & kids & are for entertainment & target practice & a bunch of other things. Poems are made of words & are for reading — Rodefer’s no less than Kooser’s!

  • On August 15, 2008 at 2:19 am K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    Oh my, those two are never going to agree.
    Joan, may I take a turn now at picking on your statement?
    For those who don’t feel like scrolling all the way back up, it was “Wouldn’t it be great if poets and others interested in poems could have discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems, that did not use poems as launching pads for theories about language and/or political beliefs?”
    Specifically, may I just ask a simple question? Why, in your opinion, would that be “great”? That’s not a rhetorical question; I’d really like to hear you explain why you think using poems as launching pads to other things is a poor application of poetry criticism.
    Wouldn’t you at least grant that, for those who are interested in things like linguistic theory and politics, poetry might offer a uniquely valuable approach to these topics? One that other launching pads don’t offer?
    And I urge you to spend a little more time with the Rodefer. I think you were actually getting somewhere with your point about being able to conceive of it as “an intentional example of how not to connect”; the extra step I don’t see you taking is using a little imagination to consider why someone might extend such an “example” into an entire poetics. I sense that your intuitive response is one of suspicion and scorn, as though it were all a disrespectful joke at your expense, a trick to “make you look” (like when kids do that “Hey Ugly” thing). But you know in reality that there are intelligent readers who find this work fascinating and rewarding–have they all been duped? Isn’t it at least a possibility that there’s more going on there than just an empty jumble? I mean, maybe it is an empty jumble from one perspective, but why can’t empty jumbles be used as construction material like anything else? What sorts of things, one might ask, are empty jumbles particularly useful for building?

  • On August 15, 2008 at 9:07 am Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Hi Michael, yes, of course, I’m aware of the reader’s participation in the poem (though we are surely at different points in the continuum on this), I was just wondering about yours. Citing a bunch of references on such matters doesn’t convince me that you, Michael, can articulate why you enjoy/admire Rodefer’s work (if, in fact, you do). In any case, I agree that we’re repeating ourselves at this point and harder, so before our discussion becomes a snowball fight I will thank you for taking time to go ‘one step beyond’ in talking to me. I appreciate it. Some day these talks will actually result in a close analysis and discussion of a poem like Rodefer’s where someone can and will share their appreciation and understanding of it in a clear and convincing way. Until such day, I must away!

  • On August 15, 2008 at 9:42 am bill knott wrote:

    . . . why should i waste time trying to read poets like (Rodefer or Moxley who make no or little effort to
    provide connections and continuity for the reader,
    when i can read poets like Kooser who do make that effort . . .
    it’s the writer who’s getting paid to do the work, not me the reader . . .
    i refuse to read slackers . . .
    i the reader get to be the slacker in this economy . . .
    and if you the poet won’t work at it
    so as to ensure
    that i the reader DON’T have to work at it,
    then screw you . . .

  • On August 15, 2008 at 9:57 am Vijay Chaudhoury wrote:

    I think there is real critical truth in Joan’s statement (obviously there’s a good deal of psychological truth; the upset she evinces around the topic is familiar enough). It’s even quite Clementine: surely poetry has spent considerable effort developing its poetryness, figuring out what it can do that other arts can’t do? And attending to those particulars might be a reasonable referent for “discussions about poems and poetry that were about the poems.” Though I don’t think this would contradict Michael’s line of reasoning, as these poetic particulars might also provide an opportunity to understand a poem’s relation to its historical situation or whatever. So I agree with everyone; I am nothing if not agreeable.
    The part that puzzles me is this. Joan’s original statement here, a criticism of criticism of poetry, is demonstrably political, arguably involves a theory of language, and certainly forwards an agenda of Joan’s. Poems too, by her following claim, are welcome to do such things. In this Houlihanian world of poetry, in short, every stratum of thinking but for one is welcome to pursue its own agenda, politics, linguistic theories, and so on. In short, even if one didn’t accept Michael’s proposal that we are all shackled by the conditions of our own thought, we would be left in a situation where everyone was free to explore intellectual autonomy except for literary critics, who should be a kind of service sector. A funny worldview.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 10:29 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Dismissing “beauty” again. So 20th century.
    We read poetry for its “beautiful” representations – beautiful because true, because they ring true.
    Criticism, according to Aristotle anyway, investigates how poetry does this.
    Of course this investigation might involve historical, political, psychological, socilological, etc. etc. contexts and lenses of many kinds.
    But what Aristotle tried to define, in his Poetics, was the special field of inquiry involved in exploring the unique qualities of poetry as poetry. He sought definitions and characteristics of poetry – what distinguishes it from anything else.
    Unless this ground is the basis of poetry criticism, you end up having explorations of OTHER things – science, history, politics, psychology – using poetry as evidence and example; but the poetry itself is not the focus, not the real subject.
    Poetry itself is the subject-matter of poetry criticism.
    And let me just add here : duh.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 10:45 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joan, I appreciate yr taking the time to, & putting up w/ my polemical barbs in good humor. I realize I am difficult, always, but try to be “courteous, / on the whole, in private.” At any rate, it’s nice to disagree about something one cares about passionately with someone of critical intelligence who cares equally.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 10:45 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joan, I appreciate yr taking the time too, & putting up w/ my polemical barbs in good humor. I realize I am difficult, always, but try to be “courteous, / on the whole, in private.” At any rate, it’s nice to disagree about something one cares about passionately with someone of critical intelligence who cares equally.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 11:05 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    And Joan, if you’ll accept Clark Coolidge as a substitute for Stephen Rodefer — they’re very different poets but I suspect you’d find them similarly connectionless — since I don’t have time to whip up a reading of Rodefer (difficult to believe, I know, but I post on Harriet when I need a break from writing my dissertation), maybe you can forgive my posting a reading of a Coolidge poem I wrote a few years ago. It won’t convince you to enjoy it but perhaps you’ll allow that I both understand & admire such poetry & am capable of elucidating same (as are many, many others). (I don’t know how well the lineation & spacing of the Coolidge poem will show up in this space. I don’t endorse, by the way, the view of language Coolidge’s poem tropes.) You seem genuinely interested in these questions, which I appreciate, & I think disagreements like ours make Harriet a more interesting place.
    A poem from Coolidge’s Space (1970) demonstrates the point of this jettisoning of syntax as clearly as does any of the Language school’s theoretical formulations:
    by a I
    of to
    on no
    we or by
    a I of
    to on
    no we or
    To paraphrase T. S. Eliot on the Metaphysical poets, the idea and the metaphor become one. The idea of a subject formed by language is spatially established as the metaphor of an “I” surrounded by and sensible only in the material context of syntactical elements. With the important exception of the word “no,” which can be a noun, an adjective, or an adverb, every word in this poem is either an article, a preposition, a conjunction, or a personal pronoun—and the personal pronouns are those of the first persons singular and plural. Most important, “a,” “or,” “by,” “of,” and “to” are paradigmatic materials with which syntactical relations are built. The pronouns “I” and “we” are embedded in a network of syntax, are seen to be relative to linguistic connections: those that establish one thing’s position relative to another (“to,” “by,” “of,” “on,”); those that propose alternatives among things (“or”); those that negate relations among things or indicate lack (“no”); and those that specify cases of things (“a”). They are situated within a social context of language that, the poem seems to suggest, constructs the very notions of selfhood (“I”) and community (“we”). This is because syntax not only allows access to subjectivity (without syntax, we could not place ourselves in any kind of higher-order relations to the world) but to community (without syntax, we could not enter into any kinds of higher-order relations with others). Syntax allows us to differentiate ourselves from and situate ourselves with regard to everything else. That syntax is a finite system capable of infinite combination is cheekily alluded to in a kind of parody of poetic refrain: the poem consists of nine words which are, beginning in line four, repeated in order, though with shifting lineation, as if to emphasize that we are always performing variations on and with the same basic materials.
    Crucially, there is also, on Coolidge’s reading, a privative dimension to our syntactical situation. While asserting the linguistic formation of the subject and simultaneously exposing that formation by eschewing the establishment of normative syntactical procedures, Coolidge also seems to stress the illusory nature of the connections and affirmations language allows us to institute. He seems to imagine syntax as a social context, yet the poem is composed of syntactical parts separated by expanses of empty space. Its syntactical relations are implied rather than actual, and there are no verbs, as if to imply that language locks us in, that we cannot escape its determining structures. Where there is no action, there can be no agency, which could explain the lack of any conjunction besides “or”: most significantly, “and” is missing, the conjunction of inclusion, abundance, and choice. These absences are thematized in the most striking omission, that of “yes,” whose presence logic would seem to call for, given the presence of “no.” Coolidge’s minimalist poem, then, contrives with only nine words and eleven letters to argue that because of our origin in language, whose non-identity with meaning and truth is well-established, negation and disconnection are our lot. Like much Language poetry, Coolidge’s work displaces or decenters—situates—the universal, univocal, agentive subject by insisting upon its contingency as a linguistic construct.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 11:13 am Doodle wrote:

    Who’s dismissing b/Beauty in poetry? It’s the big baseball bat of Beauty-the-abstract-concept that’s proving itself to lack utility. Or rather than baseball bat let’s say Aristotelean (neo- or not) bludgeonry. Can we get beyond the 19th century, let alone the 20th – and move a little further ahead than the ancient Greeks for a change? If there’s mud, somebody will be a stick in it, I guess.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 1:37 pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    Michael, I appreciate the obvious thought that went into your Coolidge reading, but I have serious misgivings about it swaying someone who’s resistant to disjunctive poetics, or in fact, providing an adequate context for appreciation of Space and other early works of his in general. I realize you’re only showing us part of a longer piece of writing, so I’m probably being unfair, but in a way I feel like that’s what’s happening in your analysis as well: by isolating a small part of Coolidge’s composition, and treating it as though it put forth an “argument,” you saddle it with claims whose weight it can’t possibly support. (This is very like what has happened historically to Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which out of the context of the rest of Spring and All becomes both slighter than it is as part of the whole, and invested with a whole new dimension of ponderous and spurious “depth.”)
    One problem I see with the points you try to make is that they are so often arbitrary, in that they could be replaced by similar claims which are equally difficult either to prove or disprove. You remark, for example, that the “most striking omission” among the words in the poem is “yes” (even here seeming to contradict your immediately prior claim that the most “significant” omission is “and”), since the presence of “no” would seem to require the presence of its opposite as well. But by the same logic I could as easily argue that since “to” is included, “from” ought to be, or since we have “on” we should have “off” too, and so on. Besides, there is nothing in the syntax (or asyntaxis) of the poem to indicate that the opposite of “no” as used therein might not more accurately represented as “some.” And further, one could deduce from the poem as it stands that there is an implicit “rule” in place which would preclude the use of “yes” on the basis of its having one too many letters. And so on.
    Coolidge is possibly my favorite contemporary poet, or at least among my top five or so. I love Space: it was my first introduction to his work, and one of the texts that sucked me irreversibly into the quicksand of my love for poetry in general. I sometimes assign short excerpts from it to students myself, such as this, perhaps the most well-known piece in the book:
    ounce code orange
    a
            the
                    ohm
    trilobite trilobites
    I make some brief comments about the poem here, where one of the things I note is that although the poem does suggest normative syntactical relationships between its parts, it cannot be reduced to any reading in which those relationships were fixed or taken for granted. One of the things, I would suggest, that makes the poem interesting (to those whom it interests) is just how unnecessary each part of the poem in isolation is, how “ounce” might be replaced with “ooze,” or “pounce,” or “inch,” or any of virtually infinite other options, and so on for every word in the poem, within certain structural parameters (i.e., at some point the basic shape and feel of the poem would be completely changed, but there’s a lot of room to play around in). I think “by a I” works pretty much this way as well, as does Space generally. The poems in it demonstrate, among other things, how little their precise form matters; what matters is that the form they do happen to take is striking enough in its overall “violation” of certain near-religious ideas of what constitutes poetic correctness (ideas like organic unity, necessity, precision, elegance, clarity, etc.) that it does the job.
    My point, Michael, is not so much that the claims you make are “wrong” (though I guess in a way I feel they are), but that by presenting them as an “argument” the poem makes, they flatten out what I find most exciting about Coolidge’s writing: its near-total independence from declarative tyrannies. Some would call this “meaninglessness,” but I see it as extreme fascination with meaning, with the way meaning slips into and out of focus around words. I’m sure that in a lot of ways, we’re trying to make the same case here. My worry is that the hyperconfident, ultralinear explication you offer is more likely to cement a certain kind of distrust of Coolidge’s poetics (and ones like it) than to loosen it up.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 1:41 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    What’s mud to some is just plain old logic to others.
    See Reginald’s quote from Barbara K. Fischer in his most recent post above : “Meanwhile, New Critical aestheticism—its emphasis on the poem as a self-referential objet d’art, isolated from politics and the conditions of its making—was set up over and over again as a straw man for the arguments that comprised the revolutions in critical thinking of the 1970s through 1990s. As poststructuralists, New Historicists, and many others challenged the New Critical paradigm, they also demoted poetry as the privileged object of literary study.”
    This is relevant to what I’ve been saying here, & maybe what Joan Houlihan’s been saying, too.
    As I, anyway, understand it, the Chi School critics (ie. RS Crane & Elder Olson) clearly distanced themselves from the New Critical concept of the poem as autotelic verbal object – Fischer’s “paradigm” and “straw man” attacked by later generations. And they put together a different concept of poetry – in the early 50s. This was not a “purist” dogma, either : one of their basic principles was critical “pluralism”. They did, however, following Aristotle’s model, try to formulate a general definition of poetry – as a distinct sort of human activity, resulting in a distinct sort of product, a work of art. As Crane describes it, in his reading of Aristotle (in “The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry”), the activity of poetry is rooted in the pleasure that human beings take in beautiful – accurate, fitting, proportionate, integral – imitations from life. Not photographic realism or “transcriptions”, necessarily – but models which reflect the intellectual substance or spirit of their subject-matter. Crane makes a subtle distinction, too, between “pleasure” as an end in itself and as a supplement or side-effect. In Crane’s view, the real motive, end or goal of poetry is neither “pleasure” nor “instruction” : the goal is simply to satisfy the human thirst for the beautiful itself, the beautiful for its own sake, as an end in itself.
    And IF this is the case : if the experience of beauty is the most basic and central motive for poetry-making : then we cannot set aside “the beautiful in itself” as a crucial, formative element of the activity of literary criticism. It either is or it isn’t. Clear as mud!
    Furthermore, you cannot apply the “straw man” attack on the Chi School concept of poetry so easily as you can (and was done, as Fischer says) against the NC notion of the poem as autotelic verbal object. Following Aristotle, Crane & Olson conceive of the poem (at least in its mimetic forms) not as an “object” but as a “beautiful imitation”. In other words, its beauty is inseparable from its capacity to reflect some shared elements of human experience. So, following Crane here in particular, I think we CAN develop a critical approach which acknowledges “the beautiful-in-itself” without surrendering art & poetry’s roots in experience.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 1:44 pm michael robbins wrote:

    btw, those Rodefer lines rhyme! a connection! surely an indication the poem was carefullly constructed

  • On August 15, 2008 at 1:50 pm Don Share wrote:

    True, what K. says about “The Red Wheelbarrow” and its context within Spring and All, but that’s a complicated example. Williams himself read and published the piece separately, as he also did the excerpt “By the road to the contagious hospital…” – and therefore made some real concessions to the poem’s standalone character.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 1:56 pm Doodle wrote:

    New Critics again! Talk about being stuck in the 20th century…
    They’re always going to be strawmen, aren’t they, so long as we keep “praising it new,” to borrow from the title of Garrick Davis’s recent volume exhuming them.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:01 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Michael, I don’t think we can disagree because we haven’t even gotten to the point where we can understand each other’s point of view. I sense your intelligence and willingness to keep talking, and I appreciate your efforts to bridge this communication gap somehow, but I’m afraid even Clark Coolidge (especially Clark Coolidge) can’t help us now.
    Henry, I like the sound of another voice in the wilderness, it’s comforting. (“D’oh!”)
    Bill Knott, thanks for the Krazy Kat, brick-through-the window version of this thread.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:02 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
    by J. Spicer , ed. Peter Gizzi
    isn’t literary criticism it’s
    just jack spicer talking about how he
    makes his poems

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:02 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
    by J. Spicer , ed. Peter Gizzi
    isn’t literary criticism it’s
    just jack spicer talking about how he
    makes his poems

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:10 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Hi Kasey. Poetry has been and will continue to be a launching pad for all kinds of thinking. Poetry provokes, inspires, teaches, etc. To be brief and to the point, let me say with Henry that the subject of poetry criticism should be the poem. It seems self-evident to me and I don’t know why it doesn’t to you. Wouldn’t you be surprised to enter a class on say, physics, and find that the teacher was teaching art history? I would. I would think I was in the wrong place. I’d at least ask. If it turned out everyone there, including the teacher, believed, or convinced themselves, they were hearing about physics, my choice would be clear: pretend physics is really art history like everyone else, or keep questioning it (and get a failing grade). I’m in the latter category.
    And yes, I agree that it’s very difficult for me to understand why so many seemingly intelligent people (including you) claim that work like Coolidge’s or Rodefer’s is fascinating and rewarding. The extra step you refer to, wherein I see how someone is deliberately not connecting has already been taken by me. But I find no reward, only the same barrel of ideas about language and its component parts. I can go to linguistics for information about language. Furthermore, poems that are constructed to be examples of an idea are purely informational and of very limited interest to me, especially when it’s the same idea. To answer your last question: “what sorts of things, one might ask, are empty jumbles particularly useful for building?” I would say if you work hard, you can build an actual poem from them, one that is neither empty nor jumbled. But as Bill Knott says, why do I have to build it? Isn’t that the poet’s job?

  • On August 15, 2008 at 6:27 pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    Joan, I’m pretty sure Bill Knott was being sarcastic.
    At least I hope he was.
    Oh my god, maybe he wasn’t.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 6:49 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    People talking about how poems are made is what literary criticism IS, Mickey. Cf. its entire history since Aristotle.
    Thanks for the response, K. I definitely disagree, but since I’m not about to post my entire paper here, we’ll have to leave it at that.
    And Joan, I understand yr point of view completely: it’s the standard one, in fact. I’m not at all perplexed that you just want to talk “about the poem.” That was Eliot’s initial proclamation in the intro to The Sacred Wood that got the whole NewCrit ball rolling — & thank heavens for that, for the New Critics are, on the whole, much-maligned & a thousand times smarter than the caricatures people who haven’t read them reduce them to (obviously I often disagree w/ them, but agreement shouldn’t be a criterion for reading anything). Nor am I surprised by yr reaction to Rodefer: I imagine it’s one most poetry readers would share. Similarly, my point of view is fairly easy to grasp. I doubt that’s our problem. We just disagree.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 6:56 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Look in the back of the book, Mickey. There’s some prose, (in addition to Gizzi’s), that is lit crit as far as I can tell.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 6:57 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Actually, K., I do need to respond to an obvious misreading: you say:
    You remark, for example, that the “most striking omission” among the words in the poem is “yes” (even here seeming to contradict your immediately prior claim that the most “significant” omission is “and”), since the presence of “no” would seem to require the presence of its opposite as well.
    In point of fact, what I wrote was:
    Where there is no action, there can be no agency, which could explain the lack of any conjunction besides “or”: most significantly, “and” is missing, the conjunction of inclusion, abundance, and choice. These absences are thematized in the most striking omission, that of “yes,” whose presence logic would seem to call for, given the presence of “no.”
    As you can see, the first claim is that and is the most significant missing conjunction. “Yes” is many things, but it’s not a conjunction.
    The briefest way to explain my disagreement with yr response is to say that Coolidge’s writing is very much a part of his theory: it is not at all independent of “declarative tyrannies,” in part because he, like most sensible folk, does not view declarative functions as tyrannous. More to the point, I distrust the impulse to protect art from argumentative function; I don’t think you could be more off-base about “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which is an inexhaustible poem. I guess I mean to say you seem to partake of the same sort of “let the poem be” aesthetic that Joan is fond of.
    And I now I must take a break from Harriet; I’m spending too much damned time here & not making a buck off it!

  • On August 15, 2008 at 8:20 pm Joan Houlihan wrote:

    Kasey, I thought Bill was being sarcastic too-hmm. Now the question is: at whose expense? ;-)
    Michael, standard as I am, I still know how to see your side of things. I forgot that I had this, a parody of an old (2005) Silliman blog enrry, explicating–none other than Clark Coolidge! Enjoy.
    http://www.bostoncomment.com/ron.htm
    Now I am also jumping off the blog wheel for a while.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 8:54 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    totality of arrangements
    never suited aesthetics
    populated by twerps
    geeks fun loving joes
    cut their teeth on
    abstruse critical
    theoretical philosophical
    late 20th. century
    mysticism simplicity
    arrangements let the chips
    fall where they may

  • On August 15, 2008 at 8:54 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    totality of arrangements
    never suited aesthetics
    populated by twerps
    geeks fun loving joes
    cut their teeth on
    abstruse critical
    theoretical philosophical
    late 20th. century
    mysticism simplicity
    arrangements let the chips
    fall where they may

  • On August 15, 2008 at 11:36 pm K. Silem Mohammad wrote:

    Michael, yes, careless reading on my part about the conjunction thing, sorry. I still stand by my general position, however, regarding what I see as the arbitrariness of your general claim about why certain words are included and others aren’t.
    I too “distrust the impulse to protect art from argumentative function”; I don’t think Coolidge’s art needs protecting from it, because I don’t feel it ever threatens it in the first place, at least not in the poem you discuss. I do see how a phrase like “declarative tyrannies” comes of as tendentious in a way I didn’t intend. Of course you’re right that there’s nothing wrong with declaration in and of itself, and no reason for poets or anyone else to view it as generically oppressive. Again, I just don’t think that Coolidge is making much use of the declarative function in this instance.
    [Yipes, this point-by-point, back-and-forth argument stuff is addictive. It’s worse (better?) than Scrabble!]
    Sure, “The Red Wheel Barrow” is “inexhaustible,” but I still feel that there’s critical/editorial distortion involved in presenting it as an isolated poem rather than as part of a longer work, or at least as a work whose history includes being part of a longer work, even if Williams himself did contribute to this trend. All the same, when I said that such presentation made it “slighter” in some ways, I should have qualified that more carefully so it didn’t sound so much like a value judgment.
    And finally, I most emphatically do not have a “let the poem be” aesthetic. I feel, as I’m sure you do, that poems are able to take whatever prodding and poking and slicing and dissecting a critic can muster. It’s good for ‘em. We just disagree in this case about the precise tools and methodology that should be used.
    For what it’s worth, I do agree with about 87% of the things I’ve seen you say in this comment box, and half-agree with another 9%.

  • On August 16, 2008 at 1:40 am mickey o'connor wrote:

    some of you guys
    think everything is literary
    criticism soon you’ll claim
    bazooka joe bubblegum wrappers
    are a form of literary
    criticism
    oh well
    the tastemakers will go on
    until they need pacemakers
    they always do

  • On August 16, 2008 at 1:40 am mickey o'connor wrote:

    some of you guys
    think everything is literary
    criticism soon you’ll claim
    bazooka joe bubblegum wrappers
    are a form of literary
    criticism
    oh well
    the tastemakers will go on
    until they need pacemakers
    they always do

  • On August 16, 2008 at 8:40 am bill knott wrote:

    no, Mohammad, i (by a I)
    ain’t being (of to)
    sarcastic (on no);
    i loathe the writtings of Coolidge and his kind:
    and no babelful (we or by)
    of your spaghettios critprose
    can change the fact (a I of)
    that (to on)
    as the bestseller list on this site shows
    (no we or)
    most readers most of the time prefer
    (me too oh)
    poetry which is less ‘unconnected’ than his , , ,
    but please don’t let that fact
    discourage you avantistes
    from performing your specialty acts, that same old huff and puff guff,
    the incomprehensible in defense of the unreadable . . .

  • On August 16, 2008 at 4:02 pm Doodle wrote:

    Ooh, glad to be a tastemaker!! And I’ll take a pacemaker over being heartless anytime.
    Hm, wonder what Spicer thought of Bazooka comics: bet he liked ‘em.
    That Bill’s and mickey’s uncapitalized verse rants resemble each other is freakin’ me out!

  • On August 16, 2008 at 4:59 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    coupla quick things:
    totes fair enough, kasey, & i likewise agree w/ yr posts most of the time, & enjoy them always.
    i find it funny to be cast by joan & one of my favorite poets, the inimitable mr. knott, as the avant-gardener here, as i’m usually on t’other side o’ the fence, pointing out all the wonderful bushes & weeds & flowers growing in the yard watered by the “main” stream. but ignoring any part of the tradition is what i oppose, where’er it may grow. not liking it is one thing: although i too like it: dismissing it out of hand is quite another, & not worthy of a serious critic.
    but that’s an odd thing abt aesthetic argument: you end up defending positions that, because you’re usually surrounded by people who fervently take them up, you often try to temper, while arguing w/ people whose views, when held with less strident certitude, you share. i noted this when ange was in the position of arguing that yes the ideological & its dogmatic affinities is too a legitimate part of poetic distinction-making.
    which is to say i think many of the language folks are straight-up idiots, & a few official verse kulchur apparatniks are among our finest poets. & vice versa. still: third way? no way.

  • On August 17, 2008 at 1:18 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Kasey Silem Mohammad said:
    >…what I find most exciting about Coolidge’s writing: its near-total independence from declarative tyrannies. Some would call this “meaninglessness,” but I see it as extreme fascination with meaning, with the way meaning slips into and out of focus around words.
    Sorry, but why is this “exciting,” exactly? The idea goes back to Mallarme…
    Or Archilochus…
    Kent

  • On August 17, 2008 at 2:38 pm bill knott wrote:

    . . . the resources societies allot to poetry
    are so meager that poets urchins grubbing roots in a waste lot
    must of necessity wrest among themselves for a bite——
    every morsel Coolidge gets is one me and my gang doesn’t——
    in the class system of the arts, poets are the lowest, the slave class——
    clashing and contending for the only pittance they grant us——
    poetry, the least compensated and rewarded of all the major arts——
    i hope you’ll agree it’s a major art, even if those in the other arts don’t recognize it as such
    and don’t support it with their wealth, even though most of that wealth comes from products stolen and plagiarized from the efforts of poets——
    (how many of his million billions has Bob Dylan donated to the Poetry Foundation)——
    (hey Fence magazine, got any funds from the millionaire Pynchon lately—or ever? have any of those rich prosewriters or songwriters or screenwriters helped subsidize your publications)——
    as Genet describes us in “The Maids”:
    ‘When slaves love each other, it’s not love they feel.’

  • On August 17, 2008 at 5:16 pm Matt wrote:

    The idea goes back to Mallarme, so therefore it’s not exciting?
    Uh, ok.

  • On August 22, 2008 at 10:15 am Jilly wrote:


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, August 8th, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.