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A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism, Part II
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