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A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism

By Reginald Shepherd

I adore Doug Powell as a poet and a person, but I must disagree with his recent post regarding poets and critics. It’s true that the skills required to be a poet and the skills required to be a critic are distinct, but they’re related, and to be a good writer one needs at least some of the skills of a good critic. (I also know from his writing that whatever Doug says about the divide, he has both.)


To be a good writer one needs to be a good reader, and a large part of learning to write is learning to read, to analyze (that is, take apart and examine) other pieces of writing and see how they work, if only so that one can utilize some of those techniques in one’s own work–and for that matter, so that one can avoid some of them as well. (One can learn a lot from work one doesn’t like.)
I’ve always aspired to be a poet-critic, being of the belief that at least as a poet one one can indeed add a cubit to one’s stature by taking thought. With the recent publication of my book of essay, Orpheus in the Bronx, I’d like to think that I’m come closer to that goal.
I can’t think of any good poets who have avoided thinking and writing about poetry and the issues it brought up. (We’ll take up the question of what a “good” poet is at a later date. Much later.) To take some obvious historical examples, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Stevens, Williams, Zukofsky, the New Critics (including R. P Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, all fine poets), Auden, Spicer, and even Mr. Insouciance himself, Frank O’Hara, didn’t do so, not to mention such diverse contemporary examples as Charles Bernstein, Allen Grossman, Robert Hass, John Hollander, Susan Howe, Mary Kinzie, Ann Lauterbach, Heather McHugh, Michael Palmer, Robert Pinsky, Ron Silliman, and Susan Stewart. The explosion of online discussions about poetry, in poetry blogs, on this web site, and elsewhere, is evidence that this process is still going on today, and hopefully will continue to enrich poetry and thought about poetry.

Comments (33)

  • On August 8, 2008 at 3:17 am geoffrey wrote:

    I agree completely with the last point you made – there does seem to be a sort of “explosion” with the merging of creative literature and the internet. The opening up of view points, and the creation of a medium through which opinions, thoughts, conjectures, critiques and epiphanies can be shared with such fluidity is truly amazing – and this is what poetry (art) needs in order to generate those periodic rebirths.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 5:32 am Jordan wrote:

    Setting aside the place- and gender-specific terms, the closing statement of Eliot’s “Imperfect Critics” might also serve as a benediction for this controversy:
    “The creative artist in England finds himself compelled, or at least tempted, to spend much of his time and energy in criticism that he might reserve for the perfecting of his proper work: simply because there is no one else to do it.”

  • On August 8, 2008 at 9:45 am Doodle wrote:

    I think it will continue, and bless the poet-critics – but I just tossed yet another issue of the PMLA into the recylcing in near-despair. May the critics of that ilk wither.
    Just saw Carmine Starnino on the poet-critic here:
    http://poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0508/comment_181504.html
    “The poet-critic gets no sympathy, and considering the charge-sheet against him — adversarial, addicted to dicta, motivated by an axe-grindingly acute sense of right and wrong — why would he? He is, in most eyes, a hyphenated hothead. Until recently, however, that hyphen was still a badge of special authority, so that practitioners writing critically about their craft were regarded as poetry’s ideal readers. Not everyone agreed (Northrop Frye thought poets made bad critics because they were too obsessed by their own processes), but Alfred Kazin summed up the standard view in 1967 when, with considerable professional envy, he described the poet-critic as always “right in the middle of the parade (and if he is good enough, he will be leading it).”
    That was then. Today, as Irish poet-critic David Wheatley reminds us, “there is a temptation to read the hyphen as a subtraction sign.” Chalk it up to life after theory. As soon as powerful new methods began to dominate English departments, the poet-critic gig lost its prestige. Literary criticism for the general reader — the sort championed by poet-critics — took on a belletristic odor; no matter how formidable the close reading, it would now exist on the margins of a more sophisticated cogitating. Worse, by seeing off Arnoldian objectivity (“the object as in itself it really is”), theory discredited the probative force that powered the poet-critic’s prose. Standing on postmodern ground for their higher surmises, academia outgrew aesthetic evaluations; artistic merit, as a concept, became an ideological fairy tale. What eventually filtered down to street level — if the industry-wide outbreaks of shock at negative reviews are any guide — was a hypersensitivity to strong opinions and the taste-correcting urge lurking inside. Show us somebody dedicated to sifting out the best from the merely good, and we’ll show you somebody with a hidden motive. As a result, the poet-critic lost the gig altogether. Criticism by poets, once the conscience of the art, is now exposed as a theatre of special interests, an acting out of parti pris. Thus his plight: taking sides, the poet-critic can’t be trusted. He speaks for no one, except himself.”

  • On August 8, 2008 at 12:46 pm john wrote:

    Bob Kaufman never, to my knowledge, wrote any articles about poetry. I’d call him a terrific poet, though others may disagree.
    On the main point, I agree: Almost all dedicated poets engage in criticism or theory or polemics, at least occasionally.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 2:32 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    Criticism is a derivative activity—what I would call “second-order thinking.” By that I mean that critics attach themselves to a text or texts like remoras to sharks. This is not to denigrate remoras, only to suggest that sharks are the primary, vital source, the original energy. I suspect that remoras often take themselves too seriously, perhaps even fantasizing that the shark exists for them in some way, or that the rush of life-giving water through their remora gills is the product of their own efforts, when in fact it derives from the onwardness of the greater fish. Criticism is natural, but its importance shouldn’t be overestimated.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 3:01 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    One more thing, Reginald. Your post inspired me to finish my own post on the subject of literary theory, which you can find here: http://perpetualbird.blogspot.com/2008/08/on-theory.html

  • On August 8, 2008 at 5:27 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joseph’s comment is untrue, although it expresses a commonplace attitude (Jarrell for instance says almost the same thing, although I’d trade every poem he ever wrote for one of his best essays). Criticism is an imaginative activity in its own right, in no way secondary to the creative work it engages. The Poetics, Sidney’s Defense of Poesie, Johnson’s essays, James’s Prefaces, Eliot’s essays: this stuff is permanent & first-order thinking. It’s weird to think that because a form of writing often takes other writing as its subject it is therefore parasitic or lesser. Rather, as Harold Bloom has written, “We read criticism as we read poetry (or ought to), so that we can acquire a further sense of what Milton’s Satan calls ‘quickening power.'” My experience of 7 Types of Ambiguity is not different in kind or degree from my experience of Four Quartets. I do mean that.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 11:59 pm Robin Michaels wrote:

    “Criticism is … in no way secondary to the creative work it engages.”
    I simply do not understand how anyone can believe this.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 10:30 am john wrote:

    It’s fine that Michael experiences poetry and criticism as identical, and it’s fine that other people experience them as different; but the theory is sequentially and historically secondary. Some poems engage with prior theory, but all theory engages with prior poems. Lots of poetic cultures have existed without criticism. No cultures of poetry criticism have existed without poetry. Regardless of anyone’s personal experience of criticism, it’s historically secondary. Because poetry can exist without criticism, but criticism cannot exist without poetry, it makes sense to view criticism as dependent. I’m not sure what “first order” and “second order” thinking means, but I would say that poetry’s relationship to “thinking” seems less straightforward than criticism’s.
    I just noticed: My slippage between “criticism” and “theory” was unconscious. I don’t have a brief to distinguish criticism from theory; presumably all criticism assumes or argues a theoretical position.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 12:34 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    “In pre-literate cultures the composition of songs is a process in which discussion & criticism, often passionate, plays an important part — & inevitably so, because aesthetic reaction implies preference & preference implies criticism.” (Kenneth Dover, writing about The Frogs)
    It’s just not true that any poetic cultures have existed without criticism. On the contrary, one without the other is a historical impossibility. This is part of what I mean when I say criticism is not secondary: poetry has never & could not exist without it.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 1:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    By popular request, I’ll quote some more Basil Bunting:
    “there is no excuse for literary criticism”
    &
    “There is no need of any theory for what gives pleasure through the ear, music or poetry.”
    (I knew you’d like those quotations!)

  • On August 9, 2008 at 2:08 pm john wrote:

    If all that is meant by “criticism” is “aesthetic preference,” then it might be true that no aesthetic experience is possible without aesthetic preference. When my son was an infant, months and months before talking, he preferred some songs to others, and he could make those preferences known before he could talk.
    To follow this notion further, no aesthetic creation is possible without reflecting an aesthetic sensibility informed by critical reactions to previous aesthetic experiences. It may well be that aesthetic response to unknown, non-cultural phenomena preceded conscious aesthetic creation, in the pre-history of our species.
    But this Harriet thread has by and large taken criticism to refer to a consciously articulated set of aesthetic judgments and responses, not simply the fact of aesthetic response and preference. This alternative definition of criticism confuses things, but that’s OK with me, as long as everybody’s talking about the same thing.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 7:14 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    John, once again: no one has said or implied that “all that is meant by ‘criticism’ is ‘preference.'” If you’ll re-read the passage I quoted, you’ll see that what it actually says is that preference implies criticism. If something implies something else, those two things are by definition not identical.
    I’ve noticed a few times in our discussions that you move from what some quotation actually says to some more simplistic version of it, & then refute the simplistic version while leaving the original assertion untouched. I’m not trying to be rude, but I do think that our conversations would be more productive if you’d watch this tendency.

  • On August 9, 2008 at 11:14 pm john wrote:

    Michael,
    My apologies for misconstruing your redefinition of the term under discussion. Regarding your observation of my conversational style, I would be happy to reciprocate, if you would be interested; please let me know.
    I will recast my comment, taking your note into account.
    This Harriet thread has by-and-large taken criticism to mean: Written response to aesthetic experience. If you’re going to re-define criticism to mean any discussion of aesthetic matters, that’s fine, as long as everybody agrees; but it does not seem wise to expect people to understand that you’ve redefined the terms before you tell people that you have.
    Whether conscious discussion of aesthetic matters has always accompanied aesthetic creation is a matter of pure speculation. My hunch is that has not. My hunch is that, historically, aesthetic creation preceded the ability to articulately discuss one’s aesthetic sensibility. The testimony of the Classical Greek scholar you quoted is pertinent but insufficient evidence, and I am doubtful that sufficient evidence is available or ever will be.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 10:47 am john wrote:

    The written historical record seems clear: The oldest surviving poetry precedes the oldest surviving criticism by (how many? don’t know) some centuries. Even if a culture of aesthetic discussion (or criticism) arose simultaneously with a culture of aesthetic production, the written record indicates that, historically, poetic cultures gave precedence to poetry, strictly judging by what our forebears valued enough to write down.
    This doesn’t mean that any of us needs to value poetry above criticism, or that criticism didn’t arise simultaneously with the earliest poems. Just that, traditionally, poetic cultures have given precedence to poetry over criticism. A critical culture that sought to eliminate this hierarchy would have to buck millennia of tradition, which is fine on a personal level, but likely to run into resistance on the cultural. A critical culture that argued that criticism has always been the equal of poetry would have to transfigure thousands of years of the historical record, down to today. Anthropologists still record the poetry of non-literate people. I know of no instance in which an informant insisted that the anthropologist record the criticism and theory as equivalent to the poems, and I’d be surprised to learn of any.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 12:21 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I suppose there’s no use in pointing out that at no time have I “re-defined criticism to mean any discussion of aesthetic matters,” or that I don’t hold that to be a definition of criticism.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 1:26 pm john wrote:

    Michael, you’re right, you haven’t defined anything. You’ve quoted a classical Greek scholar’s statement that aesthetic discussion in pre-literate cultures constituted an example of criticism.
    Most people had been taking criticism to mean “written criticism.” You have introduced a new understanding of criticism into the discussion. You introduced oral criticism as evidence for your argument that criticism has always accompanied poetry. Apparently you meant that the discussion of aesthetic matters in pre-literate societies had to meet an unstated, undefined, un-indicated, unillustrated standard in order to pass as criticism. OK.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 3:15 pm michael robbins wrote:

    My point only was that a culture of criticism arises simultaneously with poetic culture. I don’t know what it means to say that “poetic cultures have given precedence to poetry over criticism.” In some cases, I’m sure that’s true, if I understand the claim. In others, not so much. It has nothing to do with my argument, either way. “Equivalence” is yet another term you’ve introduced as if it were something on which my statements have depended. And I really am tired of having to address straw-man arguments that refute claims I have never made.
    Anyway, in order to have done with this discussion, I’ll just recommend that anyone interested in the questions of criticism as other than some auxiliary tool have a look at Andrew Ford’s marvelous The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture & Poetic Theory in Classical Greece, which demonstrates among other things how much more ancient than we tend to assume criticism is, & how seriously it has been taken for millennia.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 3:24 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    1:27:
    “And of course, with the birth of the first artist came the inevitable afterbirth: the critic.”
    I love history.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 4:34 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Has someone brought up Eliot on “The Function of Criticism” yet? There he formulates a number of axioms with which I (obviously) cannot agree, but he does so with a style & panache that tend to undermine them.
    And my apologies, John, for once more taking the huffy road — the road of huff, a road well traveled by critics to be sure, but one worth avoiding if one can help it.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 5:38 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    Ahem. That was supposed to be accompanied by a YouTube video. Fargin’ HTML.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkz83VFEk1A
    1:27: “And of course, with the birth of the first artist came the inevitable afterbirth: the critic.”
    I (still) love history.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 8:25 pm john wrote:

    Michael —
    When you said, “Criticism is an imaginative activity in its own right, in no way secondary to the creative work it engages,” and, “My experience of 7 Types of Ambiguity is not different in kind or degree from my experience of Four Quartets,” in response to Joseph’s claim that “criticism is a derivative activity,” I took your statements to be part of an argument for an equivalence between poetry and criticism. I think my extrapolation was reasonable, even if in this instance erroneous.
    It’s fine that you believe that “criticism arises simultaneously with poetic culture.” I don’t believe there’s any evidentiary way to prove it, but that’s fine. You may well be right.
    Anyway, apology accepted. From now on, I’ll try to quote you directly if I have a comment to make on one of your comments — and I won’t even care if anybody denigrates my comments for being derivative of yours!!!

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

    Well, I think both those statements recognize a distinction between poetry & criticism. There are obviously lots of distinctions, but the question is whether any of them somehow denigrate criticism at poetry’s expense.
    I really like what Lydia’s been saying in the other thread. I wish I knew who she is.

  • On August 10, 2008 at 11:45 pm A wrote:

    Michael,
    Jeanne d’arc, duh!

  • On August 11, 2008 at 12:10 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    What! Is that true? I had no idea! (Which is ironic, considering that — I swear this is true — I sussed Jane’s real identity from the first review I read — it’s the voice — didn’t even realize it wasn’t general knowledge for years.)

  • On August 11, 2008 at 12:17 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    (also, if that’s true, I dunno where s/he gets off calling me “busy.”)

  • On August 11, 2008 at 8:33 am JP Craig wrote:

    What about the notion of poetry as itself secondary or derivative? Unless, you’re making up your own language, you’re derivative in that sense alone. But how about the tropes we borrow? Or the way we are indebted to the forms that came before us? I’m not talking about standing on the shoulders of giants, just the notion that poetry as an activity has characteristics that come from elsewhere. Innovation is over-rated, and foregoing it doesn’t deny creativity.
    A third way poetry is derivative is that it often comes to the writer from some “outside” source. Or at least I read many poets describing it that way. The really good poem or line seems to come from somewhere or someone other than the self. Granted, this is “fictive,” but it’s descriptive, and it describes an imagined derivative relationship.
    This seems to be a strand missing from the arguments going on here.
    So maybe this “secondary” parasitic quality is something poetry shares with criticism and other forms of writing?

  • On August 11, 2008 at 9:07 am graywyvern wrote:

    I like to say that when the best poetry in our language was being written there were neither critics nor dictionaries, but actually that’s only half-true. From the very beginning, when people started writing down & editing their beloved epics, this was an act of “criticism”; as were the innumerable attempts at translation that preceded & accompanied our own Elizabethan era. In fact, the idea of a pure lyricism is itself the creation of a later, self-conscious age. Poets meet & talk shop just as soon as they begin exchanging poems. Their poetry reflects what they have heard & read. If there is a distinction to be made between the two activities (& i omit for the time being, allusions & actual borrowings), it must be rather between those words which are addressed to a wider audience, & the things that one addresses only other poets with.
    m.

  • On August 11, 2008 at 9:25 am Doodle wrote:

    Perhaps l’affaire d’Jeanne d’Arc demonstrates nicely how critics can fail to see the obvious!
    Alors!

  • On August 11, 2008 at 11:19 am Doodle wrote:

    Well, there’s a lot more to poetry than tropes, borrowed or blue!

  • On August 11, 2008 at 11:39 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, now that you mention it, I’ve never seen Henry Gould & Kent Johnson in the same place at the same time. J’accuse!

  • On August 11, 2008 at 11:52 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    I’m looking over a many-leafed clover that I overlooked before. “Doodle” — if that is your real name!

  • On August 13, 2008 at 8:15 am John Gallaher wrote:

    I agree with one or the other or both of you, depending on what I’m doing at the time.


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