In his excellent essay on Adam Kirsch [“The Plight of the Poet-Critic,” May 2008] Carmine Starnino laments the decline in prominence of poet-critics, which he attributes, in part, to the rise of sophisticated hermeneutic strategies in the academy. “As soon as powerful new methods began to dominate English departments, the poet-critic gig lost its prestige,” Starnino writes.
But surely the criticism of poets such as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon indicates that the poet-critic is not universally in dire straits. Heaney and Muldoon may certainly be accused of certain tendencies that Starnino associates with the poet-critic—idiosyncrasy, belletrism, the “acting out of parti pris.” But their most powerful writing—think of Heaney on Larkin, or Muldoon on Yeats—is not easily dimissed. In Starnino’s native Canada, meanwhile, poet-critics of various stripes have wielded considerable influence in recent decades, both within and outside universities. They continue to do so. Examples might include Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, who have written memorably about Al Purdy and Leonard Cohen, respectively, and whose terms of engagement retain critical currency; or Robert Kroetsch and Christian Bök, who have advanced both theories and examples of Canadian postmodernism; or Don McKay and Robert Bringhurst, who write insightfully about the possibilities of poetry in an age of environmental catastrophe; or Rosemary Sullivan and George Elliott Clarke, who are poets, professors, and, indeed, reviewers of new books of poems. And there is Starnino himself, whose trenchant criticism has made him not invisible but rather the enfant terrible of the Canadian literary scene; the mere mention of his name at a recent conference on Canadian literature was a perturbation.
“The clout might be gone, but the duty remains,” according to Starnino. I agree wholeheartedly about the duty, but I would suggest that poet-critics today are in fact widely recognized and influential figures, whose essays and reviews jostle vigorously for space with those of critics, academic and otherwise, who are not also poets.
Victoria, British Columbia