Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Brian Phillips
Dear Editor,

Averill Curdy is right to point out the depressing homogeneity of much contemporary poetry criticism, and right to connect it to the coziness and insularity of the poetry community, in whose warm lap the critical noise has declined to an afternoon purr. But to make this a problem of gender, as Curdy does, seems a little premature. There may be very few young female critics worth reading, but there are very few young male critics worth reading either; and given a tradition of women critics that includes George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Moore, and Helen Vendler, it seems bizarre even to speculate that women are temperamentally unlikely to excel in conventional critical forms. Every critic needs a new form of criticism, his own; but the critical heritage is broad enough to include a model for almost any inclination. In the terms of Curdy's essay, E. M. Forster is a more feminine critic than any of the women I have listed, and Coleridge, as Woolf once noted, is respectably androgynous.

The problem, it seems to me, is more general than gender, and has to do with the way criticism has come to be viewed in the poetry community—as a sort of prose vagueness, inexact in purpose, to be written primarily by poets; useful for recording professional admiration or keeping one's name afloat, a functional auxiliary to the professional poet's career, practiced as an easy obligation, the way a politician goes to church. The idea that criticism can be justified by its own importance and not by the benefit it confers upon poetry and poets—what Curdy calls "keeping the work healthy"—has become alien to the poetry community. So has the idea that criticism exists for readers, those necessary outsiders, with the result that the poetry world has become deeply uncritical of itself. But criticism, even practical criticism, even the business of reviewing, can be a part of philosophy, a "branch of aesthetics," as James Wood has written; it can be a part of literature, and not merely literature's servant. Criticism can have its own distinct ideas, and be the well of its own pleasures. More journals, including this one, need to seek out work that emphasizes criticism's more than quotidian possibilities. If young writers can somehow be made to feel them, the criticism produced by men and women, poets and non-poets, will improve.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2004

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Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry.

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