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A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism, Part III

By Reginald Shepherd

The rather lively response to my previous two posts on this topic has prompted me to post this excerpt from a piece on which I have been working for a while. I hope that it generates similar interest.
Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the destructive encroachments of theory and criticism on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death.


This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others. Other literary works, both those with which I have felt affinities and those toward which I’ve felt great antipathy, have always been both inspirations for and challenges to my own work and the work I aspired to do. Indeed, I never would have considered the possibility of writing poetry without the impetus of reading deeply in it, wanting to comprehend, apprehend, and wield the power I found in it.
Complementarily, criticism and what is sweepingly and too vaguely called “theory” have been very helpful in thinking through my own writing, and have helped me work through many an impasse in my poetry. This is what the best literary criticism does and should do: elucidate and illuminate literature for readers and for writers. In this way, it is a very valuable tool.
Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem, having imbibed the conviction that close reading or textual explication is reactionary or simply passé without ever having informed themselves about just what such reading might entail. While poetry writing programs have burgeoned, poetry has fallen by the wayside as an object of literary study in favor of the examination of novels as social documents. As Barbara K. Fischer has recently noted, “Despite sporadic resurgences, poetry has for several decades occupied a marginalized position in English departments, where fiction and popular culture have become the preferred objects of analysis. The New Criticism, with its heuristic approach to analyzing a poem’s tropes and formal construction, left a generation of students with a distaste for the seemingly clinical task of ‘explication’—the dreaded homework assignment. 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.”

Comments (19)

  • On August 15, 2008 at 10:23 am Eshuneutics wrote:

    A similar debate is taking place in the UK– yes, there are poets and critics outside the USA—which is aligning itself with this point of view, a view-point which is finely expressed here. The desire to split poetry from criticism reflects the common attitude that there is a division between teachers (critics) and makers (artists). Teachers, like critics, teach because they cannot make themselves. But good teachers are creative– are vital to keeping creativity alive. Critics have a vital cultural role to play, a therapeutic role in the true mythological sense of that word: a role that demands they “draw up” meaning from the wor(l)d. The war between critic and poet springs because people impose reductive images of both poetry and criticism. Shadow-boxing results.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 12:33 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    I like the bit: “Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem.” I have my way of reading poems. It would not work for other people the way it works for me just as the way others read does not work for me. It has taken me a long time to learn how to read and it is a process that changes as I get older and more experienced. It could be argued that I have even more experience with misreading–my misreadings and the misreadings of others. More a process of elimination than anything. I remember being an undergraduate (1994) and going to see John Ashbery read. I didn’t understand a single thing he read. It sounded as though he did not understand a single thing he read. He seemed to get tripped up over and over as he read off the page. People were laughing like he was a stand-up comic, but there was nothing that could honestly warrant much more than a mental chuckle it seemed to me. The guy I went to the reading with looked at me like I had something contagious when I said I didn’t understand what the big deal was. My professor the next day said John Ashbery is one of the most important poets in America…. One professor in grad school, she called Ashbery “a trick on white people.” I thought that was funny, but I also thought it was interesting that I didn’t totally agree when I might have agreed 10 years earlier. Taste evolves and I believe it has come to include certain critical attitudes. Where a generation ago might have thought a certain fashion was the rage or the lasting thing, the same way a generation before thought their fashion was the rage or the lasting thing and so on … the next generation is the generation of the DVD extras and all of the small print on the labels and where it was made and by whom and so on and so on. Boredom. Bursting at the seams with information but totally starved of all nutrition. As bored as Henry was of achilles except jacked up on Red Bull with no idea who Daedalus is until we open another tab and paste it to search Wikipedia. Then we are well on our way to becoming the worst nightmare of any elected official. Open-source humanity.

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:16 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    there’s nothing wrong with
    literary criticism per se …i’ve read hugh kenner
    & marjorie perloff & others it’s inessential
    is all …a long time ago i learned
    how to be a poet from ted berrigan
    in a class once at naropa he said
    ” all you have to do if you want to
    be a poet is read hundreds & hundreds
    of poems by lots of different poets
    & then write hundreds & hundreds of
    imitations of those poems & after
    a certain amount of time years
    apprenticeship you’ll be a poet
    that is you’ll understand how a poem
    works how a poem operates the different tones &
    registers poets use how the poem works
    at the end of the line &c. &c. &c. ”
    poems aren’t that complicated
    some poems are complex
    but that just means they
    have lots of different parts stuck together in a particular
    fashion is all

  • On August 15, 2008 at 5:16 pm mickey o'connor wrote:

    there’s nothing wrong with
    literary criticism per se …i’ve read hugh kenner
    & marjorie perloff & others it’s inessential
    is all …a long time ago i learned
    how to be a poet from ted berrigan
    in a class once at naropa he said
    ” all you have to do if you want to
    be a poet is read hundreds & hundreds
    of poems by lots of different poets
    & then write hundreds & hundreds of
    imitations of those poems & after
    a certain amount of time years
    apprenticeship you’ll be a poet
    that is you’ll understand how a poem
    works how a poem operates the different tones &
    registers poets use how the poem works
    at the end of the line &c. &c. &c. ”
    poems aren’t that complicated
    some poems are complex
    but that just means they
    have lots of different parts stuck together in a particular
    fashion is all

  • On August 15, 2008 at 6:08 pm Jim K. wrote:

    The desire to split everything from everything else in poetry gets a little
    heavy and depressing sometimes. Art is not so elbowish. We should be free.

  • On August 18, 2008 at 5:36 pm JP Craig wrote:

    The notion that critics can’t perform a reading seems a bit unfair to me. It is difficult to get a reading published because journals prefer essays with “significant” claims, meaning addressing thematics, culture, or poetics. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t such readings out there. If you take the time to look through journals, you’ll find them. But it’s easier to find a good reading serving to illustrate an argument.
    Yes, there are bad readings and bad critics. There are also bad poets. If you go around denying value, you’re only shortchanging yourself, foreclosing potentially useful or pleasurable lines of flight. It’s best to just take the risk that something will be crappy and give it a shot. It beats the hell out of TV.

  • On August 18, 2008 at 9:14 pm nick wrote:

    STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE
    Alone with our madness and favorite flower
    The tall haystacks are great sugar mounds
    Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
    What name do I have for you?
    In all this springing up was no hint
    Does it mean one thing with work
    As I sit looking out of a window of the building
    Slated for demolition
    We’re leaving again of our own volition
    And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea
    The spoon went in just right,
    The song tells us of our old way of living
    The hat hasn’t worn too well
    One professor in grad school, she called Ashbery “a trick on white people.”

  • On August 19, 2008 at 8:01 am Jordan wrote:

    Nick, nice reference to Ashbery’s “The Cathedral Is.”
    Maybe somebody already said this in one of these unreadable posts and comments, but the basic problem the poet-critic poses is how to understand approval and disapproval doled out by someone seeking approval in the same field.
    Whereas the basic problem the poet poses is how to understand someone hellbent on wasting life.

  • On August 19, 2008 at 9:31 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    FYI, Jordan, Nick’s sonnet is an Ashbery amalgam.
    Line 1: “Late Echo”
    Line 2: from Ashbery’s first poem at age 8
    Line 3: “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (first published in POETRY)
    Line 4: “Just Walking Around”
    Line 5: “Scheherazade”
    Line 6: “Attabled with the Spinning Years” last week’s New Yorker
    Line 7: “The Instruction Manual”
    Line 8: “The Cathedral Is”
    Line 9: “Mottled Tuesday”
    Line 10: “A Worldly Country”
    Line 11: “A November”
    Line 12: “Song”
    Line 13: “The Gallant Needful”
    Line 14: [See Above]

  • On August 19, 2008 at 9:57 am Benjamin wrote:

    Reginald deserves our thanks for his deft and gracious way of opening these various cans of worms. This one has, for the moment, perhaps exhausted its crawl…but permit me to point out one dimension of criticism that has gone unmentioned here: I mean the question of ethos. Criticism distinguishes itself from other literary arts–at least to my taste, and I lay claim to no other–by its democratic (or perhaps more properly, republican) earnestness; its claim, however latent, to inform and correct the sensibility of the masses; its commitment to being the vehicle of a certain kind of civility. This spirit may be expressed (as in the case of the New Critics), or latent, or present in some fussy confusion of the two (as in any recent volume of the PMLA), but in any case, it declares its awareness of a singular fact of modern culture: that everyone has the right to judge. (Trilling, I believe–in one of those moments where a critic seems to renounce this ethos in the service of something more profound–made this point best.) The work of art, insofar as it shows traces of the legacy of modernism, turns a defiant face to that aforementioned singular fact, saying, in effect, judge me if you can, if you dare, but I care not; and it could be argued that in the dominant moods of modern poetry–surreal, confessional, identitarian, post-avant-garde, etc.–one can detect the same defiance, turned now this way, now that. The work of criticism, on the other hand, seeks to educate judgment, to insert itself into a hierarchy organized by the rational judgment of people’s ability to judge; and in this lies its earnestness, that it is born of the attempt to reconcile us to the tacit democracy of judgment in we which wander, dazed, wounded, half-blind, as among the shrapnel of the gods.

  • On August 19, 2008 at 10:49 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    “Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured.”
    Heavily policed institutional borders? Would you please elaborate …

  • On August 19, 2008 at 4:01 pm nick wrote:

    I like to think of it as a googlecento, Aaron (the traditional googlecento is “stitched together” entirely from the contents of Google search results pages; clicking on links to locate additional text is frowned upon….)

  • On August 19, 2008 at 4:57 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    I don’t like to think about my two cents.

  • On August 20, 2008 at 11:07 am Kent Johnson wrote:

    Jordan said:
    >Nick, nice reference to Ashbery’s “The Cathedral Is.”
    Aaron said:
    >FYI, Jordan, Nick’s sonnet is an Ashbery amalgam.
    Line 1: “Late Echo”
    Line 2: from Ashbery’s first poem at age 8
    Line 3: “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (first published in POETRY)
    Line 4: “Just Walking Around”
    Line 5: “Scheherazade”
    Line 6: “Attabled with the Spinning Years” last week’s New Yorker
    Line 7: “The Instruction Manual”
    Line 8: “The Cathedral Is”
    Line 9: “Mottled Tuesday”
    Line 10: “A Worldly Country”
    Line 11: “A November”
    Line 12: “Song”
    Line 13: “The Gallant Needful”
    Line 14: [See Above]
    CENTO OUCH.
    Kent

  • On August 20, 2008 at 11:54 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    CENTO OUCH? Am I supposed to be feeling really humbled and stupid right now? Please advise.

  • On August 20, 2008 at 12:04 pm Doodle wrote:

    At least it isn’t your two centos!

  • On August 20, 2008 at 12:44 pm Doodle wrote:

    From The Centos of Ezra Pound:
    While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
    You were praised, my books.
    What if I know thy speeches word by word?
    I am homesick after mine own kind.
    I, even I, am he who knoweth the roads.
    Go, my songs, seek your praise
    From the young and from the intolerant.
    Come, let us pity those who are better off than we are,
    For I was a gaunt, grave councillor.
    Go, my songs, to the lonely and the unsatified.
    Even in my dreams you have denied yourself to me.
    Will people accept them
    With minds still hovering above their testicles?
    The small dogs look at the big dogs.

  • On August 20, 2008 at 4:03 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I started to compose a cento of Clark Coolidge then realized it didn’t look any different from the rest of his poems.

  • On August 20, 2008 at 7:27 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Tom Raworth Cento
    lo! nears the orgone-bug
    through adjectives
    you get what you put
    inside the dentist’s peephole
    all the boats go out to sea
    and the plane lands
    on the windowsill
    water tower thumb tacks hold the country down
    this spy seemed reasonable
    now is a word i like and morning, morning now
    in a restaurant in cincinnati
    punctuated by birdbaths
    i’ve also got some stars and moons
    facts, give me some facts
    did you guess? some people are dancing
    moo moo went the cows in the only way they could


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Reginald Shepherd.