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I have noticed a lot of interest in criticism—what criticism is, how it should function—at Harriet/Poetry Foundation. And especially interest in the function of ‘negative’ criticism. Throughout the past couple years I have had a few different answers to the question of what criticism does. Or rather, what it can do. Criticism, not unlike poetry and art, for me should be an art of the potential that intermixes desire with conscience. Criticism recalls Baruch Spinoza’s basic proposition: “we have not yet determined what a body can do.” By engaging poetry, poetry criticism engages the limits of what the poem as an expression of culture or embodiment can do.
In terms of ‘negative criticism’ (so called), I rarely see the use of it. If it is to dismiss a work of literature/art as unvaluable/irrelevant, don’t we already do this by not attending it, or by not investing our desires and passions in it? It is so much work just to understand poetry/art (for works of art and poetry to become legible to one’s self) I have never understood why people would want to waste their energy on what does not interest them (what, that is, they do not love or desire). This problem goes back to Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book where Duncan reiterates that the poet “goes where they are loved.” I think there is a lot of wisdom in this mantra of Duncan’s, and in the ways Duncan practiced criticism and scholarship besides his poetry.
Critical actions are not “hard” or “soft,” but they are devotions to our own personal understandings. The want to collate devotional criticism—a criticism that cathects the aesthetic objects which it engages—was one of the impulses behind founding the journal ON Contemporary Practice with my friends/colleagues Kyle Schlesinger and Michael Cross. What would it mean for contemporaries to exteriorize the critical conversations they are having with each other’s work in the present (that was one question we asked ourselves in the inaugural issue)? How, likewise, can criticism serve a conversation about art and poetry in terms of how they inform socio-political practices/problems. A criticism founded purely on aesthetic judgments/’taste’ I have always found wrong-headed, because it neglects the fact that poetry—as a cultural phenomena—will always presuppose political and ethical actions, thus consequences/effects.
Another way that I would proceed in writing criticism, would be through the Hippocratic oath of the poet, designer, and architect Robert Kocik: at least do not do harm. When we write criticism one should ask themselves what they are doing, and whom they are serving. How can/will criticism function for power? How for one’s own interests—or in the interest of one’s friends, family, community, institution, nation, world? How can critique be in the interest of the world one would want? Too often ‘negative’ criticism makes claims about what is ‘wrong’ with something/someone before saying what it would want from poetry/art/cultural phenomena? What are the conditions of a work’s making? How is it positioned within a socio-historical context? How are aesthetic decisions co-constitutive with their social context? If we get ‘negative’ guided by these questions then so be it. But writing a ‘bad’ review, for me, can only be produced out of these concerns, and when I do get ‘negative’ (and I realize everyone does for a variety of reasons) I still weigh projecting negative critique against the value a ‘positive’ critique/offering could have for the sake of something/someone I truly love (or am trying to).
Here are links to some other statements I have made regarding contemporary criticism:
ON Contemporary Practice 1 and 2 (forthcoming at Bookmobile and Small Press Distribution) also have editorials about the state of critical discourse in contemporary poetry and poetics.
Two magazines that I think are doing superb work in terms of devotional/affective/productive criticism are con/crescent press, whose aim is “to release high quality chapbooks from emerging poets, as well as a bi-annual journal focused on the art of critical response, philosophical treatise, political discourse, and discursively formed spaces for theoretical work.”
And Wild Orchids, which “hope(s) to reencounter, write close to, and trace the unlit flows of our favorite writers, in volumes centered around single authors.”
Yet another interesting project worth taking a look at is Carlos Soto Román’s Elective Affinities, a blog which proceeds rhizomatically by asking poets to recommend five poets with whom they feel affinity.
Such publications embody Gilles Deleuze’s equation of love with the flowering of desire’s productive powers:
“What does it mean to love somebody? It is always to seize that person in a mass, extract him or her from a group, however small, in which he or she participates, whether it be through the family only or through something else; then to find that person’s own packs, the multiplicities he or she encloses within himself or herself which may be of an entirely different nature. To join them to mine, to make them penetrate mine, and for me to penetrate the other person’s. Heavenly nuptials…every love is an exercise in depersonalization on a body without organs yet to be formed.” (A Thousand Plateaus, 35)
Tags: A Thousand Plateaus, con/crescent press, Criticism, Desiring Criticism, Elective Affinities blog, Gilles Deleuze, Kyle Schlesinger, Love, Michael Cross, Negative Criticism, On Contemporary Practice, Productive Criticism, Robert Duncan, Robert Kocik, The H.D. Book, Wild Orchids
Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 15th, 2010 by Thom Donovan.