Show Your Work!

A poet calls for a new kind of poetry criticism, and a new kind of critic.

"I believe that as a reader I am, like almost anyone except the reviewer and perhaps his or her unfortunate subject, much more interested in the kind of thinking that led to the judgments of quality than the judgments themselves. We cannot have great poetry without great poetry criticism, so critics, please, do your job. We are counting on you." Matthew Zapruder discusses poetry criticism.

Matthew Zapruder

Once, in high school, I met a girl who liked very strange music. She was in art school and lived in the city. She gave me a record, and when I went back to my room in the suburbs and put it on, it sounded like a garbage truck backing up over a giant bag full of aluminum bagpipes and dead robots. I played it over and over, until the music finally made glorious sense to me. Listening now to “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground, I can’t remember what it was like to be the person who couldn’t hear that music.

What is the purpose of literary criticism? Among other things, to guide the reader past his or her resistance. Most art, subtly or aggressively, resists the familiar. Poetry in particular suffers from this resistance, because poets take the material that we depend on to operate in and make sense of the world (language), and bend it to other, often seemingly obscure, purposes.

Readers, sophisticated and beginner, need critics to explain why and how poets are using language for these different purposes, and what those purposes might be. Our attachment to familiar language is powerful, and understandable. Without critics, we will hold on to the familiar and be unable to accept that there are other uses for language, that there is new and exciting poetry all around us.

Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader. Only then can the reader grow to meet work that is unfamiliar, that he or she does not yet have the capacity to love.

Today, in American poetry, very few critics take it upon themselves to examine the choices poets make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader. As a consequence, very few people love contemporary American poetry. Many more might, if critics attempted to truly engage with the materials of poetry—words and how they work—and to connect poetry with an audience based on an engagement with these materials.

Think of visual art. Today, the public generally accepts paintings that derange our ordinary ideas of how things should look. Hardly anyone goes into an exhibit of Picasso paintings and complains that the lady's nose is on the side of her head, and therefore clearly Picasso is a crummy painter. People will even willingly stand before a Rothko or Pollock with a basic understanding that there is something called "abstract art," where the shapes in the painting are not intended to correspond directly to what we see in the world. They may not "like" or "understand" it, but at least they know there is a difference between abstraction and representation.

The reason? At least in part, it’s because museums and curators and critics (Clement Greenberg and Alfred Barr come immediately to mind) and of course artists have discussed and fought about and brought forward ideas about abstraction and representation that have trickled into the public consciousness over the last 60 years.

Surely I am idealizing the world of painters (something poets like to do). Surely art criticism has its own problems. But I think anyone who has been to a museum or gallery or walked by public art would agree that there is a difference between abstract and representational impulses, and that the community—curators, viewers, artists—at least has a basic shared idea of what that difference is. And regardless of value judgments, or arguments about what does and does not constitute abstraction or representation, almost anyone would, I think, also agree that those terms are essential to creating the conditions for interesting discussions about visual art. Yes, they are only a beginning. But poets and poetry critics have not done the hard work necessary to explore, refine, and develop whatever terms might help us to even begin to talk about poetry in ways useful to understanding it, not as pieces of prose chopped into lines, or as fragments of linguistic decoration, but as poetry.

* * *

Of course there are good reviewers who write interesting, thoughtful, and provocative pieces about American poetry. But look for yourself at the vast majority of reviews in journals, in print and online, and ask yourself whether for the most part the writers are doing a good job of actually describing what the poems are trying to do, how they are doing it, and why anyone would be driven to write (not to mention read) these poems. Are these reviews in any way truly helpful for understanding poetry?

Fundamentally, this is a problem of a failure on the part of critics to discuss, or even understand, the actual material of which poems are made. Stéphane Mallarmé felt compelled to remind Degas that the poet does not write with thoughts but with words. When you read poetry reviews, ask yourself how much time and energy is spent talking about the “thoughts” being “conveyed” by the words in the poem, versus the actual means of conveyance, i.e., the choices the poet has made with the language. This hegemony of content over form in the mind of the critic is at the very heart of the uselessness of mainstream poetry criticism in America; in turn, the reaction to talk about the fact of form without any reference to its possible purposes or effect on a reader is a glaring flaw in much criticism that appears in smaller journals and on blogs, particularly ones that are primarily interested in so-called “experimental” poetry that foregrounds its own formal innovation.

In visual art criticism, a common understanding of the difference between abstraction and representation has led to far more sophisticated and interesting blurrings of those categories than would have been possible without the initial distinctions. What would be a comparable distinction in poetry? Attempts to transfer the language of visual art directly onto poetry—i.e., discussions of “abstract” vs. “literal” or “representational” poetry or use of words—can be interesting but are not particularly helpful. It seems too obvious to say that paint is not language. But for many years, probably out of an unconscious acknowledgment that painting criticism has a more useful language than that of poetry, we have been talking about language as if it were paint. Often poems are called “abstract,” but I think that is misleading: all words are both abstract and concrete in nature, and calling a poem either “abstract” or “literal” is to deny the very thing that makes poetry so mysteriously powerful: its ability, like words, to be simultaneously general (belonging to us all) and particular (connected to individual experience).

The discussion of narrative vs. lyric modes seems promising. One could immediately object that those two modes are (a) not mutually exclusive and (b) almost always both present in any poem. This of course is also true of the abstraction/representation distinction, but these concepts remain extremely useful starting points for discussions of visual art, so maybe “narrative” vs. “lyric” could work for poetry.

The problem, however, is that “narrative” and “lyric” are ultimately categories that don’t exclude or refine any behavior at all in poetry. The use of the terms as oppositions to each other presume that if one is present, the other will become a decorative aspect. That is, singing becomes something we do to make telling a story more interesting or beautiful, and telling a story becomes something we do to make our singing more interesting or beautiful.

But when you actually read poetry, you see this is simply not the case. The story and the song go hand in hand. The terms “narrative” and “lyric” sound good, but they don’t really help make actual distinctions between kinds of poems; ultimately, the terms just become ways of describing various social communities. A “conservative” magazine publishes “narrative” poetry, and an “experimental” journal publishes “lyric” poetry, etc., though of course immediately in the course of saying this it becomes clear that those terms, narrative and lyric, no longer refer to the actual mechanisms of the poems, but are mere shorthands for degrees of supposed experimentation and coolness. Which is useless to understanding poetry.

So if not abstraction and representation, and if not narrative and lyric, what would be an example of a useful distinction? I propose the following: Does the poem have a single, particular, specified consciousness, speaking in a relatively identifiable situation? Or does the poem have a less defined consciousness, speaking without need of or reference to a particular situation?

Granted, that is not the most elegant formulation. I will leave it to critics, if they are interested, to refine the distinction and come up with better and more accurate terms (ones that will perhaps have the added benefit of moving us beyond the arbitrary “School of Quietude” and the oxymoronic “Post-Avant”). Of course, this is just one idea, but to me this distinction at least begins to directly engage with the actual experience that readers have with poetry.

There are many ways I can imagine this distinction functioning. One is to take two poets who are generally lumped together in the same general category, and bring their actual poems out into the light so we can see the different ways they operate. Rae Armantrout and Brenda Hillman, for example, are two West Coast poets who are most often associated with the hopelessly imprecise label “experimental” or, even more uselessly, “post-language.” Yet their approaches are actually quite different in ways that are not superficial.

For instance, here is the beginning of Hillman’s “Little Furnace”:

—Once more the poem woke me up,
the dark poem. I was ready for it;
he was sleeping,

and across the cabin, the small furnace
lit and re-lit itself—the flame a yellow
     “tongue” again, the metal benignly
hard again;

and a thousand insects outside called
     and made me nothing

One can clearly see a situation. There is a single consciousness, relating a particular event, in a definite situation. In a cabin, the speaker is woken up by “the dark poem.” There is another person there, a “he,” who is sleeping. The poem goes on to become a place where the speaker can think and talk about many things. But it begins with a particular situation, and the fact of that situation—the presence of the other person, the actuality of being in that particular place—is absolutely crucial to an understanding of what the poem is saying to you and to me.

It is perhaps obvious that the fact of a single narrating consciousness and situation—what is often referred to, dismissively when practiced by other poets, as “narrative” poetry—not only does not preclude, but in fact makes possible, the great lyric excitement of the poem. But the contemporary critic is likely, because of the specific speaker and situation, either to ignore the lyricism and simply talk about this poem as if it were prose, or, because of Hillman’s supposed affiliation with an “experimental” or “lyric” school of poetry, to talk about the poem without any reference to its narrative qualities.

Here is the beginning of a poem by Rae Armantrout, “Upper World”:

If sadness
is akin to patience,

                  we're back!

Pattern recognition
was our first response

to loneliness.

Here and there were like
one place.

But we need to triangulate,
find someone to show.

At first, this poem seems to resemble Hillman’s, but were we to read this poem the way we must read the Hillman poem, we would be lost in frustration, looking for a particular speaker and situation where it does not exist. This poem does not present itself as the manifestation of a particular consciousness in time. It is a more generalized “we,” and the words seem to emanate from our collective experience, or even a zeitgeist. The “we” in this poem is all of us, and the poem enacts for us how “we” all feel, at least sometimes. Partially this is the case because of a general condition of being alive, described in the first two lines; and partially this is the case because of how we first learned to experience the world. “Pattern recognition / was our first response // to loneliness” is, presumably, a way of describing how as infants or toddlers we first learned to perceive, and how that learning affected us emotionally.

Were we to try to fit this poem into a particular situation—one that is in no way indicated by any words of the actual poem—we would also struggle, painfully, to fit the (I think humorous) interjection “we’re back!” into some kind of story. To me, that little moment is an acknowledgment of some embarrassment about speaking so grandiosely, from the “we” perspective. “We’re back!”—once again, here we are talking for everybody! It’s a small, subtle, tonal moment. Others might disagree about where that interjection comes from, but I think we would all agree that trying to make it part of a hidden, unspecified story would be a waste of time. Yet, sadly, it isn’t hard to imagine such “close readings,” with their manufactured scenarios and untethered relations among imaginary characters, taking shape on campuses and in apartments all over the abject land.

* * *

This distinction I am making is only one among many that a critic could use to clarify a reading experience. My use of it is only for the purpose of giving an example of the kind of work I think critics should be doing. I want to emphasize that I am not making the argument that poems that are primarily (to propose a term) “situational” are better than those that are not, or vice versa. Rather, I believe that without a clear consideration of this issue, poems that do rely primarily on situations and specific speakers will be discussed primarily in terms of their content, whereas poems that do not will be either completely misunderstood or treated purely as formal exercises.

Just as most paintings cannot be said to be clearly either “abstract” or “representational,” most poems cannot be said to be either strictly organized around one defined speaker/situation, or not. Language belongs to all of us, and any use of it is in some sense common. And any series of lines or sentences, no matter how unusually or unexpectedly juxtaposed in a poem, immediately starts to accrue some kind of personality for the reader. Yet I am convinced that an analysis such as the one I have suggested above, or others like it based on different distinctions, can start to ground us in an understanding of what the poem is and is not doing. And because such discussions begin from a perspective of how a reader might be likely to react to the poem, they are likely to be useful. Even if one finds oneself saying, “I am nothing like the reader the critic is postulating, and my reactions are nothing like this reader the critic imagines,” one will still have points of reference and common terms with which to disagree, and to begin to further consider the issues.

American poetry is at a stage of great vibrancy and variety. There are too many different approaches to list. We can vehemently agree and disagree about which ones we like and dislike. But until we have some ways of talking about poetry, we won't be able to advance beyond the most superficial, and frankly tedious, expressions of preference.

I remember that my geometry teacher used to write at the top of my tests, in giant capital letters, SHOW YOUR WORK! This is what I often find myself silently screaming at the pages of yet another diffuse review. I believe that as a reader I am, like almost anyone except the reviewer and perhaps his or her unfortunate subject, much more interested in the kind of thinking that led to the judgments of quality than the judgments themselves. We cannot have great poetry without great poetry criticism, so critics, please, do your job. We are counting on you.


Works Cited

A list of the books, essays, blogs, poems, and ephemera cited in the 200-plus comments to Matthew Zapruder's "Show Your Work!"

Ammons, A.R.: " A Poem is a Walk"

Ashbery, John: Other Traditions

Auden, W.H.: " The Dyer's Hand"

Basboll, Thomas: The Pangrammaticon

Batuman, Elif: Reviews and Criticism

Berryman, John: " Dream Song 14"

Blackmur, RP: Form & Value in Modern Poetry

Brooks, Cleanth: " The Formalist Critics"

Burt, Stephen: Close Calls with Nonsense

Campbell, Joe: " Preachers err trying to talk people into belief. Better they should reveal the radiance of their own discovery."

Chiasson, Dan: One Kind of Everything

Davis, Garrick: Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau: " Poetry Questions"

Dworkin, Craig: Reading the Illegible

Eastman, Max: " The Cult of Unintelligibility"

Empson, William: Seven Types of Ambiguity

Fried, Michael: " Art & Objecthood"

Gould, Henry: The Plumbline School

Graham, Jorie: Introduction to Ploughshares Winter 2001-2002

Grumman, Bob: Compre Poetica

Guriel, Jason: " Going Negative"

Halliday, Mark: Pleiades reviews

Hoagland, Tony: Real Sofistikashun

Houlihan, Joan: "Invitation to a Far Reading" Contemporary Poetry Review(subscription required)

Houlihan, Joan: " Flatland"

Howe, Susan: My Emily Dickinson

Howe, Susan: The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History

Izenberg, Oren: Lowell & Oppen in Modernism/Modernity

Jarrell, Randall: " The Obscurity of the Poet"

Johnson, Samuel: on "Dick Minim," The Idler, No. 60. Saturday, 9 June 1759

Keats, John: " To Autumn"

Lazer, Hank: " Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout"

Lentricchia, Frank: Modernist Quartet

McCarthy, Mary: 1979 interview on The Dick Cavett Show

McSweeney, Joyelle: Constant Critic

Mlinko, Ange: " Lingo" in The Nation

O'Rourke, Meghan: from Slate

Rankine, Claudia and Sewell, Lisa: American Poets in the 21st Century

Ransom, John Crowe: The New Criticism

Rasula, Jed: Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry

Richards, I.A.: Practical Criticism

Richardson, Joan: A Natural History of Pragmatism

Pope, Alexander: " On Criticism"

Price, Seth: " Dispersion"

Sewell, Elizabeth: The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History

Shepherd, Reginald: " One State of the Art"

Schneider, Dan: Reviews

Stevens, Wallace: "Sunday Morning"

Taylor, Jutstin: " Criticizing Criticism"

Teicher, Craig Morgan: " In Support of Contemporary Poetry Reviewers"

Theune, Michael: Structure and Surprise

Tsur, Reuven: What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive?: The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception

Winchell, Walter: " The fastest way to become famous is to throw a brick at someone famous."

Vendler, Helen: " Merwin"

(compiled by Travis Nichols and Hannah Brooks-Motl)

Originally Published: March 25th, 2009

Poet and editor Matthew Zapruder was born in Washington, DC. He earned a BA in Russian literature at Amherst College, an MA in Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.   Zapruder’s poems employ nuanced, conversational syntax to...

  1. March 25, 2009
     Austin Bailey

    Yes, well said. And it's true about the

    supposed lyrical journals being more

    associated with being liberal and the

    supposed narrative journals

    conservative (and the New Yorker kind

    of comes to mind immediately.) Yeah I

    don't often read poetry reviews

    because they bore me to death, to be

    perfectly honest about it. Bore me to

    death almost as much as some poetry

    does. But you're right: we need to

    discuss the how not the what. These

    descriptions we get of the "meaning" of

    a poet's work are not only operating

    under a kind of faulty categorization

    that mixes and overlaps with all

    categories and congeals like slop, but

    they are such vapidly condensed

    summaries that are almost always

    interchangeable with each other.

    Frankly, the reviewer often sounds as

    bored as we actually are reading the


  2. March 26, 2009
     Aram Boyajian

    (Is Matthew Zapruder related to the one who shot the film of JFK's shooting?) He himself seems intent on "killing oof" poetry criticism as it is presently being written. But the analyses he makdes of two poems shows clearly the defects of his approach--namely poems that have a "definite situation" and those that are "indefinite." Words and how words are used are all that count.

  3. March 26, 2009

    Yes, Aram, words and how words are used. Words like "oof" and "makdes."

    More to the point, is it the critics job to help the reader learn? What would Oscar Wilde say?

  4. March 26, 2009

    That's a lot of boredom, Austin. Here's John Berryman on the subject:

    Dream Song #14

    Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

    After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

    we ourselves flash and yearn,

    and moreover my mother told me as a boy

    (repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored

    means you have no

    Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no

    inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

    Peoples bore me,

    literature bores me, especially great literature,

    Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

    as bad as Achilles,

    who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

    And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

    and somehow a dog

    has taken itself & its tail considerably away

    into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving

    behind: me, wag.

  5. March 26, 2009
     Bill Knott

    What is the purpose of literary criticism? Among other things, to guide the reader past his or her resistance.

    ——hoo boy, what arrogance—the "reader" doesn't need a guide; most readers are intelligent enough to find the poets they need to read without being led by the nose by critics—

    Hillman's and Armantrout's readers for example, all 800 of them,

    and Mary Oliver's readers, all 80 thousand of them—

    this kind of arrogant condescending Zapruderism is what drives so many potential readers away from poetry: fortunately there are counteractive patrons of poetry, Garrison Keillor for one example, who bring accessible poetry to a wider audience—

    Zapruder is an elitest promoting elitest poetry, but who knows, if he works at it he might increase its audience to 801.

  6. March 26, 2009
     Sam Amadon

    Oh good, Bill. Let's take a serious alternative to the godawful fluffy blurb versus shit-talking negative review debate and call it arrogance. Because I'd really like to see 4,000 more words on that subject from the internet.

    Sam says yes!

  7. March 26, 2009

    for elitists like Zapruder it's always the readers who are at fault for preferring reader-friendly poets like Oliver and Collins over reader-hostile poets like Hillman and Armantrout——

    But why are the readers the ones who must be "guided past their resistance" to difficult inaccessible poets like Hillman and Armantrout? Why is it never the other way around: why aren't Hillman and Armantrout urged to go "past their resistance," why aren't they urged to write verse that would be more acceptable to a wider audience?

    Zapruder wants critics who can retail this unpopular type of poetry to more than the niche market it now reaches,

    But the arrogant condescending attitude of him and so many others in the poetry world is as counterproductive now as it's always been . . .

  8. March 26, 2009
     Travis Nichols


    You have no use for critics. That's fine. But isn't Matthew arguing for "poems" rather than "poetry," just as you have repeatedly done on this site? I'm intrigued by that line of thinking, and so I'm asking just to make sure I've understood your arguments correctly elsewhere. You might disagree with his reading of the poems, but isn't his general approach what you advocate also?


  9. March 26, 2009
     Angela Sorby

    Would that critics had the power to

    create poetry readers. But MZ's initial

    anecdote disproves his point: he

    learned to love the Velvet Underground

    because 1) a cool girl gave him the

    record; and 2) he listened to it over &

    over. Likewise, I fell in love with

    poetry because 1) cool people gave it

    to me; and 2) I read it over & over.

    This was a private, ecstatic, non-

    intellectual process. It could not have

    been, and cannot be, a matter of

    didactic instruction. That said, I'll take

    the Velvet Underground over Sonny &

    Cher, even though Sonny & Cher (like

    Mary Oliver & Billy Collins) had a bigger

    fan base.

  10. March 26, 2009

    The cool girl is one kind of critic. The force of personality critic. Marjorie Perloff is one of those. As is Helen Vendler. As is, maybe, Keillor. They exist. The other kind of critic is the one Zapruder is arguing for, or hoping for. It's a hard argument to make that you fell in love with poetry without using your intellect. You can make that argument, but I don't believe you.

  11. March 26, 2009
     Ray Succre

    "Nomina sunt consequentia rerum." Names are the consequences of things.

    Criticism is a necessary turbulence, and critical minds are needed to pronounce the less clear in art. It is a consequence of language that the public has a strong disdain for unnamed things. The subjective nature of poetry can seem both daunting and belligerent to someone that prefers the simple statement, especially those works that fire from more abstract ramparts.

    You can ask a reader to read more, but you can't ask a writer to write less, and nothing new can reach a page when readership and its favor alone governs what is being written.

    At its best, criticism is the inside man, and at worst, the troll beneath the bridge, but criticism is necessary. The best critics are the roadsigns that aid in giving stability to literary traffic, but criticism's nature is to always require terminology, format, synopsis and reformation.

    There's nothing elitist about trying to ring the bell in attempt of starting a new round.

  12. March 26, 2009


    Some useful rubrics for these sorts of discussions can be found via Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Poetry Questions:

  13. March 26, 2009
     Tom McCauley

    Bill, your argument that Mary Oliver is a superior poet to Hillman and Armantrout because Oliver has more readers can't be a serious one.

    Roseanne had way more viewers than Twin Peaks, but that doesn't mean Roseanne was the better show.

    Same with Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly. You've got your work cut out for you if you try to prove Ricky's songs trumped Buddy's simply because Ricky's sold more. Those shiny-haired bastards and their fancy geetars.

  14. March 26, 2009


    Your dismissal of poetry with small

    readership is incoherent. Do you not

    think that these poems are received

    within a specific cultural context, and

    that the characteristics of that culture

    have some bearing on the popularity or

    lack thereof of different kinds of work?

    It should be pretty easy to imagine a

    possible culture which would value

    poetry with different qualities, no? And

    if that's too much of a stretch, then how

    about looking ahead one or two

    hundred years? Is it your position that

    the poems that are popular now, and

    no other poems or kinds of poems, will

    be popular then?

    Among other points, Zapruder is

    connecting the small audience for

    certain kinds of poems with a missed

    opportunity for good engagement with

    that work by critics. What's elitist about


    And while we're at it, let's also give at

    least some credit to the artists who

    make those works, and consider that

    perhaps, although their poems may

    appear opaque or even be truly difficult

    poems, there is valuable information to

    be found there. That could be the case,

    no matter how they compare to Mr.

    Keillor's work.

    And lastly, it does no service to your

    argument that you chose to focus on

    the writer of this editorial rather than

    engaging with the content of his piece. You have invoked the ad hominem

    argument, which, incidentally, is not

    going to get many mentions on Prairie

    Home Companion, but which remains,

    after several thousand years, a

    perennially dangerous pitfall for people

    whose big ideas blind them to the

    nuances of the actual discussions

    happening around them.

  15. March 26, 2009
     BA in Science with a Concentra

    Alright, let's try out your new poem-sorting doo-hickey on some actual test cases. "Situational," or, I guess the alternative would be, "non-situational":


    Row row row your boat

    Gently down the stream

    Merrily merrily merrily merrily

    Life is but a dream


    I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.


    I see words on my forehead, in the air, on foreheads

    of other people, on the typewriter, ON THE PAGE.

  16. March 26, 2009
     Tony Tost

    Poems are pretty easy to get and understand, and most readers don't need a critic to understand them. As Robert Frost said, the best way to understand a poem is to read other poems. You can start anywhere.

    I like critics who can make the case for what a poem or poet or poetics has to do with my life, or how I live it.

    (I would also just like to say that Roseanne actually was a way better television show than Twin Peaks.)

  17. March 26, 2009
     Rebecca Lindenberg

    This is so great - a critique of criticism!

    What a marvelous undertaking - and

    some exhilarating insights. The very

    cleverest poets and readers have all

    found themselves at some point, I

    think, confronted with the unfamiliar,

    the challenging, the new. In such a

    situation, I think we find ourselves

    having one of two reactions - either "I

    don't get it, I must be stupid," or "I

    don't get it, IT must be stupid." But

    good criticism invites us into a

    productive conversation about the

    poetry, one in which we are not forced

    to choose between our own

    understanding and the value of the

    work, but one that allows for BOTH to

    be increased! The best and most

    helpful criticism, therefore, doesn't

    pronounce upon the poetry so much as

    it tries to answer questions about what

    the poetry is conversant with, and how

    it departs from or innovates upon that

    conversation. While I appreciate Mr.

    Knott's populist approach, I do not

    actually see it as antithetical to

    Matthew's - it seems to me that a

    desire for criticism that enlarges both

    our understanding and our enjoyment

    of poetry (whether the poet in question

    has one reader or one million) is in fact

    the opposite of elitist. In fact, I suspect

    that some of the poets Mr. Knott

    admires from previous ages, perhaps

    John Keats, perhaps Wallace Stevens,

    were once championed by critics to

    audiences who were otherwise

    potentially open to them, but

    nonetheless grateful for another trusted

    reader's take on the work.

    (Incidentally, if indeed 80 thousand

    people read and love Mary Oliver, I will

    eat my own bonnet. One of my Mom's

    friends gave her some Mary Oliver to

    read and Mom thought it was *pretty*


    Yours in fellowship,


  18. March 26, 2009

    No way. Roseanne was pretty good, but Twin Peaks was totally haunting groundbreaking television. A bit overdramatic, maybe, but that's no huge drawback.

  19. March 26, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    Poetry must pay by the word for prose, eh? I guess that would shoot the hell out of any theory that paying critics a good wage will lead to better criticism.

    If criticism has a purpose, it's the same purpose as any other form of writing: to hold a reader's interest until the show's over. MZ's essay failed with this reader. Dull, plodding, pedantic, condescending, full of the now-cliched and largely unexamined analogies between poetry and other art forms--why do painting and music have it so good while poetry's fifty years behind? oh why?--which proceed from an assumption that the same qualities and quantities of abstraction can work in widely disparate media. (Even while MZ makes a tacit acknowledgment of why abstraction and non-representation might be more palatable in non-verbal media.)

    "Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader."

    False dichotomy alert! Strawmen at 10 o'clock! What are the third, fourht and nth, please?

    I've read an awful lot of poetry critics who do exactly what MZ is saying no one does: focus on the material. And they do it more interestingly.

  20. March 26, 2009
     Bradley Paul

    While I agree that poetry criticism is in terrible condition, I don't think that explains the difference between audiences' different receptiveness to abstract painting vs. "abstract" poetry. (And I use the abstract vs. representational terms here with all the usual disclaimers.) Millions of people every year see and like work by Picasso, Rothko, whoever. Few of them read art criticism, which, really, is beset by the same problems as poetry criticism.

    But they're more receptive to it because, by this point, they're familiar with it. The general public is exposed at an early age to abstract painting -- the first real art a schoolchild sees, on a field trip to a museum, is just as likely to be abstract as it is to be representational. "Picasso" is a household name; "Ashbery" is not. Most people aren't exposed to "abstract" poetry until they're in college, and only then if they actively study poetry. Otherwise, the poetry they're exposed to is generally much more narrative -- or at least can be reduced to a dramatic narrative. Shakespeare certainly has many moments of "abstraction" or "difficulty" or whatever you want to call it, but there's always a bad teacher or a bad Kenneth Branagh movie to boil it down to "Hamlet dies at the end."

    Far more important than art critics in this indoctrination are art owners. If someone pays $140 million for a Jackson Pollock, then, by god, schoolchildren and tourists and college kids are going to see it and appreciate it. They're the ones that make sure that abstract art is mainstreamed -- because, among other reasons, such mainstreaming protects and raises the value of their investment. No one pays $140 million for a poem. There's no money it it; therefore, there's little institutional interest in making sure it's appreciated.

    Of course, all this is contingent upon accepting the analogy of abstract art and abstract poetry as a valid one. I'm not sure it is. Once you remove the narrative from a painting, you still have color, line, balance, and other visual components that have meaningful impact in and of themselves. Non-narrative art can still have visual meaning. Can non-narrative poetry? Does such a thing truly exist? Even in the Armantrout poem cited above, we see such recognizable entities as "sadness," patience," "loneliness," "But." While the poem as a whole may be characterized as non-representative, the words themselves are still representative. A truly non-representative poem -- one that uses fragments of sound, letter combinations that do not form words -- is pretty much gibberish. But perhaps that's an entirely different discussion.

  21. March 26, 2009
     David Krump

    I won't call "foul" on other folks who, looking to make a point, toss out critical artistic terms without wholly understanding them. No. I won't. No point in that, really.

    I will draw attention to Auden's statement from _The Dyer's Hand_:

    "Writers, poets especially, have an odd relation to the public because their medium, language, is not, like the paint of the painter or the notes of the composer, reserved for their use but is the common property of the linguistic group to which they belong. Lots of people are willing to admit that they don't understand painting or music, but very few indeed who have been to school and learned to read advertisements will admit that they don't understand English."

    But that's just Auden. If you'd like to join the exterminate Auden campaign, press 1 in your head right now. If you're willing to consider Auden as a relevant thinker and poet, press 3.

    To download an Auden ring tone, enter your soul card number after the beep.


  22. March 26, 2009
     David Krump

    I appreciate the effort, Matthew, but this--

    "Today, in American poetry, very few critics take it upon themselves to examine the choices poets make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader. As a consequence, very few people love contemporary American poetry. Many more might, if critics attempted to truly engage with the materials of poetry—words and how they work—and to connect poetry with an audience based on an engagement with these materials."

    --is funny, because it doesn't it assume an audience for poetry criticism exists before an audience for poetry itself?

    Maybe the problem facing readers isn't the blight of engaging criticism on contemporary poetry.

    Maybe, this is closer to reality. Allow me to rewrite your otherwise elegant essay.

    "...very few poets take it upon themselves to examine the choices they make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader."

    While teaching modern and contemporary poetry, I've heard what my students are saying.

    It's not the lack of contextual placement, nor the lack of aesthetic explanation. It is, sadly, that much poetry doesn't connect with readers.

    If it doesn't appeal in an upper level lit course, where, exactly, does the avant garde have a chance of connecting to human beings?

    Grad level workshops?

    Maybe my students aren't intelligent enough. Except, they are extremely intelligent. They range in age from 19 to 48. It's not criticism that's lacking, man. It's reality, and effective poetic communication.

    When poetry requires a guidebook to its territory, it's not the traveler who has failed. It's the landscape, I say.

  23. March 26, 2009
     K. Connolly

    What you're saying, Matt, is still completely necessary and current in contemporary poetry, and yet was forwarded first in American letters by Susan Sontag a long time ago. Discuss the machinery of the verbal contraption (Auden), infer from the intelligence at work that there's something interesting going on (or not). Discuss that aim, the target, the effect and the success of the piece in that context. Don't bury it in received ideas, your own taste, and publicly applauded lazy paraphrase.

    As far as visual art goes (Sontag's forte also) you've identified a freedom we need as poet/critics. People are comfortable, by and large, surrendering sense and realism in painting, but to do so in words is still very much taboo for some reason. This needs to change, not because poetry is dying (it isn't), but because mainstream lyric poetry is in love with fossilization.


  24. March 26, 2009

    Great to see the length of this thread!

    Matthew writes: "Does the poem have a single, particular, specified consciousness, speaking in a relatively identifiable situation? Or does the poem have a less defined consciousness, speaking without need of or reference to a particular situation?"

    That's a good question to ask at all outsets, yes-- and it's not that different from asking whether the poem is 'representational' or 'abstract.'

    Also, the particular poems Matthew chose to make that distinction clear do make it clear-- the Armantrout is indeed abstract, discursive, without situation in an imagined place (it's quite situated in terms of personality and tone!)-- but Armantrout has written other poems with specifiable landscapes, settings, descriptions (poems more like Williams than like Stevens or Stein)-- 'Sad fat boy in pirate hat,' &c. Or the earlier poem taht begins 'These are the hills of home.' So don't assume Armantrout is always abstract (or 'unsituated' if you prefer).

    Let the discussion continue!

  25. March 26, 2009
     Come On Now

    David Krump: "If it doesn't appeal in an upper level lit course, where, exactly, does the avant garde have a chance of connecting to human beings? Grad level workshops?"

    Who cares if it connects to human beings? Who cares if it (yuck) "appeals" to them? It's not a buffet line, it's art. It's supposed to be hard. Criticism, among the things it should do (if it "should" do anything), is to make plain why the hardness matters.

    Do I want to dig a wading pool or an ocean? Do I want to build a speedbump or a mountain? As a reader, do I want to read a speedbump, and experience the satisfaction that comprehension brings, or do I want to read a mountain, which is obviously too vast to understand in the same way? A good critical vocabulary, rich in distinctions and multiplicities, might help an ambitious reader; nothing will help a child that wants its hand held.

  26. March 26, 2009

    Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is better than Roseanne.

    Roseanne is better than Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost.

    Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost is better than William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.

    William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is better than the last, like, 8 years of ER.

    And yet, I'll still be sad to see ER end...

  27. March 26, 2009
     Chris Hosea

    Seth Price's words about art seem relevant: "The problem arises when the constellation of critique, publicity, and discussion around the work is at least as charged as a primary experience of the work. Does one have an obligation to view the work first-hand? What happens when a more intimate, thoughtful, and enduring understanding comes from mediated discussions of an exhibition, rather than from a direct experience of the work? Is it incumbent upon the consumer to bear witness, or can one’s art experience derive from magazines, the Internet, books, and conversation? The ground for these questions has been cleared by two cultural tendencies that are more or less diametrically opposed: on the one hand, Conceptualism’s historical dependence on documents and records; on the other hand, the popular archive’s ever-sharpening knack for generating public discussion through secondary media."

    Read more at:

  28. March 26, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Would stand-up comedy be more popular or less so if it required someone to come along and explain all the jokes?


  29. March 26, 2009
     Come On Now

    You're right that the average club-goer or Comedy Central viewer has little use for comedy theory, but that doesn't mean it has no use. Standups themselves seem to think and talk about comedy theory kind of obsessively.

  30. March 26, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Heya K. Connelly--

    What Sontag essay are you talking about? It rings a bell, but a quick run to the bookshelf yields no results.


  31. March 26, 2009
     Bill Knott

    i didn't say that Oliver is better than Hillman and Armantrout BECAUSE her books sell more than theirs——

    even if Oliver's books weren't bestsellers, i'd still say she's a better poet than Hillman and Armantrout put together——

    to me, every word that Hillman and Armantrout writes is incomprehensible, including "and" and "the"

    (to paraphrase McCarthy re Hellman)

    . . .

  32. March 26, 2009
     Kazim Ali

    two small cents: I don't agree at all that Brenda Hillman could be described as "reader-hostile"-- she wrote a poem about the dust motes in the air at the library! and the smell of the books!

    Everything I had read before was hostile until that poem picked me up and took me in!

    I choose the vexed and difficult, sorry-- Rae Armantrout, Brenda Hillman, Jean Valentine, Gillian Conoley, Fanny Howe, Ann Lauterbach, Joan Retallack, Myung Mi Kim, Susan Howe, Sarah Gambito, Agha Shahid Ali, Yoko Ono-- I choose them!

  33. March 26, 2009
     David Krump

    Dear "Come on Now":

    You wrote: "the average club-goer or Comedy Central viewer has little use for comedy theory, but that doesn't mean it has no use. Standups themselves seem to think and talk about comedy theory kind of obsessively."

    If this is right, it also makes an interesting point--poets discuss poetic theory as comedians discuss comedic theory. Those discussion benefit both practicing groups. They don't benefit the "average club-goer" or "poetry reader."

    You also wrote: "Who cares if it connects to human beings? Who cares if it (yuck) 'appeals' to them? It's not a buffet line, it's art."

    I care if it connects to human beings. I care if it appeals to them.

    All art (and life) exists on a buffet line, take a look around you. People pick and choose everything from films to flowers to felines, one million times each day.

    I'm suggesting that on that buffet line, we shouldn't need the poetry cook to point to the green-bean slop and explain why its important to our nutritional needs. Either it appeals to us in some human way, or it sits and steams in its heated well.

    You can rally all you want for great and difficult poetry's right to exist. I'm not going to argue. I own, and enjoy, every book Hillman has ever written, except one chapbook of hers I have been unable to locate. I'd bet that most of us on this blog (all but one it seems) appreciate "difficult" poetry, but we're not the "average club-goer." We're alcoholics. We club it everyday. And because we're so accustomed to clubbing, we can savor many kinds of liquor brewed. We love it all.

    I'm not suggesting everything taste like a light beer. I think I'm suggesting that light beer outsells port because it's more palatable to the average/moderate drinker. Warning: The above metaphor may be broken.

  34. March 26, 2009
     thomas brady

    What Bill Knott said.

  35. March 26, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    What Thomas Brady said.

  36. March 26, 2009

    amidst all this, i'd just like to point out that

    the types of people who comment on

    blogs of this sort are, like Christy--from

    up top somewhere--the types of people

    who point out someone else's typo only to

    make one of their own.


  37. March 26, 2009
     Alan Cordle

    What Gary said.

    And, for the record, I find it laughable that someone as thin-skinned as Zapruder is calling for a new criticism.

  38. March 26, 2009
     Don Share

    "Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expence. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.

    I hope it will give comfort to great numbers who are passing thro' the world in obscurity, when I inform them how easily distinction may be obtained. All the other powers of literature are coy and haughty, they must be long courted, and at last are not always gained; but criticism is a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity.

    This profession has one recommendation peculiar to itself, that it gives vent to malignity without real mischief. No genius was ever blasted by the breath of criticks. The poison which, if confined, would have burst the heart, fumes away in empty hisses, and malice is set at ease with very little danger to merit. The critick is the only man whose triumph is without another's pain, and whose greatness does not rise upon another's ruin.

    To a study at once so easy and so reputable, so malicious and so harmless, it cannot be necessary to invite my readers by a long or laboured exhortation; it is sufficient, since all would be criticks if they could, to shew by one eminent example that all can be critics if they will."

    -- excerpt from Samuel Johnson on "Dick Minim," The Idler, No. 60. Saturday, 9 June 1759

  39. March 26, 2009
     Tony Tost

    I always thought the anecdote was that poems are made out of words, not ideas. Big difference from "the poet does not write with thoughts but with words." In poems words *are* thoughts. Poems show the thoughts/emotions that cut through words.

    Describing the decisions a poet makes, in terms of decision-making, is not very interesting, I say. It's like describing what a piano looks like while it's getting played. Good for maybe three sentences.

    I like it when folks pitch their ideas about what poetry or poetry criticism should be like. It creates a space for others to talk in. So thanks to Matthew for that. I'll pitch a critique of Matthew's piece, to show my gratitude for the space his essay offers.

    I agree that terms like 'narrative' and 'lyric' do tend to evaporate and blur, but only when we try to grasp them as if they exist only in the present (as if *we* exist only in the present). They have histories too, of course. And I'm *not* saying that Matthew should look up the etymology of the terms in order to get to their true essence. But at least bringing in how the terms have been used and bent can better help us see where we are in the present, utilizing a frame *other than the frame the present offers us*, which is (to play my hand) something a poet, critic, poet-critic ought to be getting at.

    Matthew's pitch, which the headline says is a call for a new critic or a new kind of criticism, exists in a kind of unmoored present, it seems. This new critic would be pretty New Critical: close readings so we can understand the voodooo that poets do so well.

    It's a pretty common-sensical call, but I think the difficulty with common sense is that it depends on an understanding of what-goes-without-saying, and *that* is always prepared for us ahead of time. But the most interesting and important argument is *always* over what gets to go without saying. Which is why history (and futurity) helps, because what goes-without-saying always changes.

    Another thing poems can do: get us to feel what goes without saying, what we didn't know was going by us without our saying it.

    All of this depends on a conviction that poetry has some relevance to how we live our lives. I think at a Brenda Hillman reading she had a line about Shelley's unacknowledged legislators bit; something like, "poets legislate the world like an owl legislates the darkness" or something like that. It made me want to stab out my eyes.

    Anyway, although interesting criticism can be done in the review format, I also think Matthew should be cognizant of slipping back and forth between criticism and reviews. The distinction I would make, I suppose, is that criticism puts itself within some existing ongoing discourse (scholarly, theoretical, cultural, historical, alchemical, mystical, etc), while reviews put themselves in the now (like, here's what just came out right now, and here's what it's like to check it out). Both are extremely valuable, but they're not the same thing. The so-called disciplinary traps of criticism (what people complain about, the scholarly asides, the jargon, the references to tons of other critics and theorists), the things that make it seem so non-common-sensical, are also its great freedom: to not be trapped inside the common sense of the present, and so to help us orient ourselves more knowingly within it.

    This is what helps us see what the poem and the world each is, or what they could or could never be, and how they may or may not have a connection in these terms.

    Common sense is just the visible flag of a bigger ship.


    Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet was pretty great, but Mel Gibson's was better.

    Neither is as good as Polanski's Macbeth.

    The best thoughts on Twin Peaks are over at that Stuff White People Over-Congratulate Themselves For Liking So They Don't Have to Think About Class website, whenever someone gets around to making that site. There's a pretty good entry on the Velvet Underground as well.

    Roseanne's version of the national anthem at that Padres game years ago was pretty rough, but still better than the reading I saw Brenda Hillman give in Chicago last month.

    And yet there are bits from Hillman's Loose Sugar that still stick in my brain, like the waitress of fire.

    Which reminds me of a sad episode of ER.

  40. March 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "The fastest way to become famous is to throw a brick at someone famous."

    - Walter Winchell

  41. March 27, 2009
     Hold on

    Poetry criticism needs a Chuck Norris

    figure. Someone who will champion

    what's good and roundhouse kick what's

    bad. Then I would know where to start

    with poetry.

    (Also, someone should ask Mr. Norris

    whether Roseanne really was better

    than Twin Peaks. My guess is he'd say

    Married with Children was better than


  42. March 27, 2009
     Tim Barrus

    The passion here is palpable. I love it.

    "Think of visual art. Today, the public

    generally accepts paintings that

    derange our ordinary ideas of how

    things should look."

    As an artist who works in Europe now,

    after having been exiled from America

    by the Literary Taliban for the high

    crime and treason of making art, after

    having endured the death threats and

    the hatred so endemic to America and

    its kindly people, to assume that visual

    art that deranges traditional ideas is

    accepted leaves me just shaking my


    Never underestimate the enemy.

    Traditional ideas, poetic, visual,

    literary, are very much in vogue, and

    they do not tolerate being pushed from

    their pedestal without a fight.

    That fight is called a culture war. We

    are still in one. It is very, very real.

    It never went away. Go ahead, I dare

    you, scratch the belly of the beast that

    is America and you will see the big cat

    growl. You will see.

    You violate the Idea Rules of the

    Arrogant Publishing Mafia, and they will

    get their pound of flesh. -- Tim

    Barrus, Amsterdam

  43. March 27, 2009
     Clay Banes

    God bless Doug Yule!

  44. March 27, 2009
     Joyanne ODonnell

    Words are like love

    angels spreading their

    work across time

    pages to white delicate triumph.

    Clouds of thought meaning and

    Earths cue

    cure so spectacular and true.

    Poets have gold fingerprints of my thoughts.

  45. March 27, 2009

    Show your work. Or don't show it, as the case may be...

  46. March 28, 2009

    It seems like Matthew Zapruder is simply

    calling for criticism period. Criticism as an

    art in itself, although rereading the first

    few stanzas of Pope's "On Criticism" I

    laughed a little too tearfully.

  47. March 28, 2009

    One thing I would like to add, and I think everyone here made some really hilarious and cutting insights. (And by the way, let's face it: America and poetry are like an awkward morning after a one night stand. Occasionally we meet and hook up, namely when there is some kind of tragedy or inauguration, but most of time we are just hoping one of us will grab our stuff and go because we don't have much to say to each other over breakfast.) I've never really given much creed to this argument over accessibility vs. obscurity in poetry. I always thought: if a poet is good what does the size of their readership matter? But, after having considered it more, you will have to admit that if poetry were truly mass marketed it would probably suffer a great deal. So writing to the audience's needs is the wrong way to go, as one of the comments on here suggested poets such as Armatrout and Hillman do. And to be honest, I'm not sure that they really could: poets write what they can write, I think. They do make SOME choices, but to a large extent style or "voice" is out of their hands. Why does the whole world need to read poetry? Do we really think it is going to stop war or something like that? That is so naive. Besides, it's not arts role to be political or even social-political. Sorry Adrienne Rich if I souded too white and male there.

  48. March 28, 2009

    An interesting discussion, especially liked the Berryman poem. I also liked both the Hillman and Armantrout poems - neither particularly 'difficult' or 'avant-garde' by most standards. I write poetry reviews myself and try to characterise the poets, explain what they're saying and comment on their language. What else? I do approach reviews sections with a certain amount of dread and boredom, and read my own efforts squirming in self-contempt. So you do feel that you're doing someone a favour. Celebrity critics like Vendler and Perloff are really just hired sycophants of factions, mainstream or avant-garde: that's their career - making some things sound better than they are, stomping on some others, and making themselves a place in the process.

  49. March 28, 2009

    "Preachers err trying to talk people into

    belief. Better they should reveal the

    radiance of their own discovery."

    --Joe Campbell

  50. March 29, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    First of all, I want to say that I found Zapruder's essay intelligent and useful, although I disagree with a few of his points.

    Trouble is, it and the comments following it (a few of them actually also intelligent and useful!) gave me too confusingly many thoughts about poetry, criticism and everything else that's gotten into the mix. So I'll limit my comments to just a few:

    (1) Philistines who claim that no good poem has to be explained to be appreciated are ridiculously unfair. That's because the poems that don't need explanation to be appreciated are based on poems explained for years to the Philistines. In school, remember, rhymes and rhythm are taught before high school, with lessons on things like alliteration and metaphor coming later. Meanwhile, there's a good deal of exposure to both canonical poems and current mainstream poems. By the time we're past formal eduction, we of course no longer have to be told why Frost's poems are great, or Yeats's. And those of Oliver and Collins are a snap.

    Sure, some of us can probably master poetry with nothing more than exposure to it. I doubt that none of us has ever been helped by a critic (if perhaps only an amateur one like the friend of mine who pointed out to me how Cummings's falling leaf poem worked and turned me on the instant from contempt to an appreciation that led to my becoming a visio-mathematical poet). But I know absolutely that there are those who can use explanations--to build enough of an appreciation of post-1950 poetry to carry on with it sans help.

    Still, even explanations of poems you are sure you are on top of can be fun to read since no one's view of any poem, however well-known, will likely be exactly like yours. It's also reassuring to find out some critic you respect has a view of a poem that's close to yours.

    (2) I think Zapruder's description of the Hillman poetry-fragment as being about a different sort of situation than the Armantrout is insightful and something critics should work with, but I wouldn't call the Hillman fragment "narrative." It seems to me a set-up for a possible narrative. A narrative-for me--describes a series of events in the life of somebody striving against obstacles toward a goal and achieving it or not achieving it. A situation is not a narrative.

    (3) Woulda been nice to have had the full texts of the poems Zapruder quotes--but I suppose the copyright creeps wouldn't allow it. (Which reminds me that a very good thing critics and reviewers both can do but too seldom do is simply expose poems by quoting them.)

    Bob G.

  51. March 29, 2009

    What about naming some critics we think are doing excellent work, and examining what makes their criticism stand out? Here are some critics/reviewers of contemporary poetry who are capable of reading in consistently enlightening ways, and able to translate those findings into language accessible to educated readers who are not necessarily poets. These are critics I trust for their wide reading in many poetries -- avant-garde to canonical, contemporary to classical:

    Stephen Burt (The Believer)

    Joyelle McSweeney (The Constant Critic)

    Meghan O'Rourke (Slate)

    Craig Morgan Teicher (Publishers Weekly)

    I've listed publications they've been associated with (though some might be outdated) mostly as a way to show that there are still some more "mainstream" publications friendly to poetry criticism; sometimes I think that it's this type of publication that more often publishes what Zapruder's calling for. Which is not to diss the little mags (I read and love them, though admittedly mostly for their poetry) -- but the little mags, I think, are mostly for poets themselves (not teachers or scholars or librarians or Ze Reader General). And maybe those poets carry around too many assumptions about a shared critical vocabulary that in fact needs to be defined, refined, or perhaps just invented. Yes, terms like "The New Sincerity" garner groans, but doesn't every groan in the end help define it, or at least test its utility? So I think critics should have the courage to go out on a limb, too -- since so many of them are poets themselves, I'm sure they can come up with some imaginative and useful new terminology, or trace some significant patterns.

    A side note that's not really a side note: I don't think it's a coincidence that Zapruder cites two women poets here, and that many of the other "difficult" poets listed here are women. The critical vocabularies and frameworks of pre-1945 or pre-1970 can't be superimposed onto the work of women writers and writers of color that have emerged since then. We need new and better ways of talking about these poetries. The work has not been done yet.

    Some simple solutions:

    1. More women should write reviews (or start blogs, or brave comment boxes).

    2. More people of various genders who read deeply in women's poetry should write reviews.

    3. The same goes for poets/critics writing from any cultural perspective that has been or is now suppressed or silenced.

  52. March 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Dinner with Critics

    One night a man had a fine dinner,

    prime rib and lobster,

    music and laughter, hors d’oeuvres;

    fine red wine.

    Later that night, after his murder,

    the coroner sliced open a pink

    and blue sack of stomach,

    emptied it of leftover lobster

    and prime rib. A faint sour smell

    of red wine.

    Copyright 2009 - Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  53. March 29, 2009
     Brad Jones

    Has anybody said it? The reason why the "public" values visual art, however abstract (or bad) it may be, is because they know it's worth a lot of money. Time being money. Visual art critics have done at least as much harm as good. Although some nice semi-public spaces get built along the way (what's the "recommended" entrance fee at the Met these days?) It seems like everyone's curious about what a lifetime of minimum wage looks like, or the GDP of Haiti looks like painted by Jasper Johns. How many people do you know with Gorilla Girls coffee table books?

  54. March 29, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Just a note to say I've continued the thought Zapruder got me into at my blog if anyone's interested. Here's the URL:


  55. March 30, 2009
     Joyanne ODonnell


    Poets can be critics to

    follow each line to cue

    words are adopted

    highway thinkers

    trust word tinkers.

    @copyright 2009-Joyanne ODonnell

  56. March 30, 2009
     Doug Martin

    I really liked this article!

  57. March 30, 2009

    I'd love to hear more follow-up on Becca's comment.

    I think Albert Mobilio's criticism is great, though I see less and less of it lately; Jordan Davis and Ange Mlinko have been doing good stuff in the Nation; Ron Silliman provides some interesting context, and for whatever reason he's the go-to site for certain discussions . . . . what else?

  58. March 30, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Those interested in Zapruder's essay and the commentary resulting from it might also be interested in reading Jason Guriel's "Going Negative" (about the need for negative reviews) and the commentary that resulted from it. Guriel's essay-review can be found on the Poetry Foundation web site:


  59. March 31, 2009

    a new kind of critic has been found!



  60. March 31, 2009
     the real zenSLUM

    that's not the real zenSLUM i'm the real zenSLUM. DO NOT BE FOOLED BY IMITATORS:

  61. March 31, 2009

    A thoughtful essay. But what's missing, I think, is a discussion regarding the influence that K-12 education has on criticism, poetry appreciation, and the writing of poems. Contemporary poetry may be discussed, with some limits, in the college or mfa program, but rarely is it touched thoughtfully in k-12 education. The problem with poetry appreciation and a newer, creative reading of newer works may be that the template for a poem, as was learned by so many of us in our k-12 experience, denies that kind of thing. Many k-12 educators go as far and Langston Hughes, and that's all.

    So anyhow, I lost my train of thought. Here's my final comment: we need critics who are familiar with not just poetry, but design, music , art and current events so as to coin a new critical language. The new critic should have a strong background in multiple disciplines to be of any use. Then, once their criticism is deemed valuable, the crticism must be published, and not just in jounals, but elsewhere for those who have had a template- experience of the rhymed art.

    There's a problem in marketing that should also be discussed.

    Random J

  62. March 31, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Matt, It's come to seem to me inescapably the fact that the most difficult but best and only way to advocate for good criticism is to write some. How's about you review something somewhere, to show us how it ought be done? Cheers, Joel

  63. March 31, 2009
     Michael Theune


    If I may be so bold (having been emboldened by your recognition of the need for greater marketing for certain kinds of poetry):

    I've been doing some work to try to create (or, rather, to make clear), to use your phrase, one new "template" for encountering and writing poems, one which provides a way to engage a variety poems, from the canonical and traditional to the avant-garde. My "template" has much less interest in poetry as "rhymed art" but instead considers poems in terms of their structure, the types of turns they take. I think a focus on the poetic turn is one way to potentially spark more interest in poetry, and to show the connections between (seemingly) more accessible poetry and (seemingly) more difficult poetry.

    If you're interested, you can read more on this at my blog:



  64. March 31, 2009
     D.W. Cunningham

    Mr. Theune, You might be onto something. This morning I discovered some milk in my fridge that had "turned." I spilled it down the sink, watching the whiteness thin and curve and disappear. Rather poetic that.

    [Metaphor Alert: This colorful anecdote might offer the state of verse today. Milky and drain-worthy.]

  65. March 31, 2009
     Rachel Dacus

    What poetry criticism? Where is it to be found? As far as I can tell, venues for vigorous criticism of poetry have all but ceased to exist. Most book reviews read like unedited blurbs and few poetry publications include critical essays. I suspect the readership for those is microscopic, compared to the minuscule readership of contemporary poetry. Sadly, poetry criticism is reduced to an academic hothouse flower. So I don't know how many minds it can open to new ideas in poetry.

  66. March 31, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Apropos the topic and some of the comments here, the premiere issue of Mayday, an online journal that debuts on May 1, will carry a large forum on the state of poetry reviewing.

    Contributors will be responding to a quasi-polemical piece I've written, which takes Jason Guriel's essay on "Negative Reviews" (in recent issue of Poetry) as starting point.

    Participants: Chicago Review Editor Joshua Adams, Joe Amato, Bob Archambeau, Onedit [UK] Editor Tim Atkins, John Beer, John Bradley, Steve Burt, Quarterly Conversation Editor Scott Esposito, Kathy Fagan, Annie Finch, Bill Freind, Daisy Fried, Action Yes Editor Johannes Goransson, Noah Eli Gordon, Mark Halliday, John Latta, Lana Turner Editor David Lau, Rain Taxi Editor Eric Lorberer, Maureen McLane, Ange Mlinko, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Tom Orange, Richard Owens, Rebecca Porte, Kristin Prevallet, Michael Robbins, Barry Schwabsky, Poetry Editor Don Share, Dale Smith, Michael Theune, Mark Wallace, and Joshua Wilkinson.

    Stay tuned.


  67. March 31, 2009

    How many blogs has Kent put this exact same message up on? It's like you're peddling penis enlargers, dude! Stop!

  68. April 1, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Sorry Kara, didn't mean to offend. It seemed pretty relevant to the general topic, and I thought people who've been discussing here on the subject might be interested? I think it's the second mention I've made of it-- the other time also under a discussion of reviews.



  69. April 1, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    Hi Everyone,

    I've been following this conversation with great interest and appreciation. I thought I would wait to jump in for a while ... I think with the mention of penis enlargers I can (somewhat) safely conclude everyone has had his or her say.

    First and foremost, thanks to everyone here and elsewhere who has taken the time to read and think about and comment on this essay. I had hoped it would be a catalyst for discussion, and I'm very pleased about how it's worked out. There are way too many interesting points for me to respond to in this discussion, but I just wanted to make a couple of points.

    My choice of Hillman and Armantrout to discuss was not in any way an attempt to support one particular so-called "school" or "type" of poetry over another. In fact, my point in the essay is that while they are often considered of the same "school," in fact their poems are (often) very different. Perhaps an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of choosing to write about two poets who are so often pigeonholed is that it appears as if I am arguing for so-called "avant-garde poetry" (whatever that is) over the "mainstream," when in fact I don't believe that distinction is particularly meaningful or interesting, nor do I support one side of this imaginary distinction over another.

    Really, the essay isn't about those two poets at all in particular, or what "type" of poetry is better. I could have picked Tao Lin and John Ashbery to talk about, or Elizabeth Bishop and Bill Knott for that matter. In fact, that's what I hope other people will do. It hopefully is also clear from the essay that this distinction I am making is but one possibility; while it is I think useful in some cases, people will come up with other and better rubrics.

    The discussion about New Criticism is an interesting one. Because of my use of close reading in the essay, I can see why it might seem to Tony and other people as if I am advocating a return to New Critical practice. While I do value close reading as a method, the purpose that I advocate using it for in the essay is really different from that of the New Critics, who were primarily interested in the text itself as a linguistic field of conflict and paradox for its own sake. While I think close reading is extremely useful, New Critical goals do not resonate for me as a poet or reader.

    As far as critics who are doing good work, apparently there is a very interesting review of Merwin's most recent book by Helen Vendler, in the New York Review of Books. I haven't read it, but I have heard that it focuses a lot on lack of punctuation in his poems, and what effect that has on a reader. If that's the case, that seems like the kind of thing that would be very useful: to take a really basic and important decision the poet makes, and to ask oneself as a critic what the possible effects of that decision are on a reader. That strikes me as a lot more interesting than whether or not Vendler "likes" Merwin's new book or not, or whether she thinks it's as good as his last one or better than someone else's new book, etc.

    Thanks again to everyone for reading, for pointing out where I fell short, and for taking the ideas and pushing them much further and in interesting directions.

  70. April 1, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    First of all, the easily discoverable answer to "Kara's" question is "two." I'll not hold my breath for the apologies that are never forthcoming from the several despicable pus-filled captains of ressentiment who answer Kent's perfectly reasonable criticism with venomous personal assaults. Kent has never tried to hurt the people he disagrees with, & I happen to know that he respects them. It would be nice if "Kara" would examine his or her motives for actually trying to make another person feel like shit. Well done, Kara, & I'm glad you have the time for such courageous enterprises -- your time must be precious to you indeed, since you could not spare a couple of seconds to ascertain that the answer to your question is, as I said, two. So, uh, penis enlargement spam must be a lot less widely distributed than I though.

  71. April 1, 2009
     Michael Robbins


  72. April 1, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    >>Listening now to “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground, I can’t remember what it was like to be the person who couldn’t hear that music.

    Yes, this is the sort of insight most people have when they're in high school.

    >>What is the purpose of literary criticism? Among other things, to guide the reader past his or her resistance.

    This is breathtakingly banal & condescending, & describes exactly none of the best literary criticism I've read.

    >>Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader. Only then can the reader grow to meet work that is unfamiliar, that he or she does not yet have the capacity to love.

    Or, like Winters or Kenner or Bloom, you could do both, without the new-age platitudes.

    >>Yet, sadly, it isn’t hard to imagine such “close readings,” with their manufactured scenarios and untethered relations among imaginary characters, taking shape on campuses and in apartments all over the abject land.

    Huh? I sure hope the readings of Hillman & Armantrout are not examples of the sort of criticism you're calling for, since each manages to be obvious when it's not wrongheaded. But maybe that's just how it looks from an apartment in the abject land.

    >>This distinction I am making is only one among many that a critic could use to clarify a reading experience.

    I should hope so, since the "distinction" isn't one, & the "clarification" hews so closely to a paraphrase of the most self-evident aspects of the poems that it's about as helpful as simply reading the poem aloud.

    For instance, an actual reading of the Armantrout would not ignore the beginning of the poem. "If sadness / is akin to patience." It would think about what it would mean for sadness & patience to be akin, about whether they are in fact, & in what ways, before moving on to eschew imaginary narratives in which "We're back" might be said. The poem has already supplied the most fundamental narrative, that of cause & effect, if-then. If x is so, then y. If not, not. We don't know whether "we're back," because we don't know if sadness is akin to patience. Or we know that in certain ways the qualities are related (to endure sadness, to wait for it to pass, it is helpful to be patient) & in certain ways they are not much alike (sadness is a state of emotion, patience an attitude toward time). It is not much use counseling against finding non-existent narratives in non-narrative poems, especially if you're not even going to identify the premises upon which the poem proceeds.

    Sorry to be so callous, but to end such a condescending & banal article with an imperative that turns out to be unintentionally ironic almost demands such a response. Show yr work? Sounds good, Matt: let's see some.

  73. April 1, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Wow, so much for formatting. That had many separate paragraphs when I typed it out.

  74. April 1, 2009
     Justin Taylor

    Thought people here might be interested
    to know that there's another discussion
    of "Show Your Work!" now going on
    over at HTMLGiant.

  75. April 1, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Where do I begin? There is so much superficial thinking and sheer ignorance in this "article" it's easier to simply not respond at all, but since it is my area of interest, I feel compelled to share at least a few thoughts here. First, of course there are critics writing about this so-called indefinable poetry—for starters, the Boston Review regularly features reviews of, and essays on, such poets as Armantrout and Hillman, there are new books continually appearing on the challenges of reading difficult/experimental poetry (Tony Hoagland's excellent "Real Sofistikashun"; Craig Dworkin's "Reading the Illegible"; Claudia Rankine's & Lisa Sewell's "American Poets in the 21st Century" and Stephen Burt's "Close Encounters with Nonsense" come quickly to mind); Reginald Shepherd has written extensively and eloquently on "difficult poetry"; Helen Vendler is well known for her extensive writings on John Ashbery and Jorie Graham; Ron Silliman regularly discusses post-avant types of writing on his blog; in fact, nearly all contemporary critics, including myself, have written reviews on such work, or essays about the challenges of reading experimental and sometimes seemingly unreadable poetry. Of course. Critics of contemporary poetry write about what's out there. What Matthew Zapruder probably misses is a way to understand much of what's out there (like the rest of us) and thinks somehow critics know but won't tell because they are too "threatened" by the scary newness of it all. He seems to believe that there is not a lot of close reading and critical explication and evaluation going on because the critics are willfully ignoring it, and that, like all philistines, they just don't get it. This is an adolescent fantasy at best, one that is fueled by the idea that the "parents" i.e. critics, don't get what's really happening, are, like, stuck in some other century. I can assure him that no contemporary poetry critic, including myself, is ignoring it. I have written about the difficulty of much contemporary American poetry, sometimes through reviews for the Contemporary Poetry Review, sometimes through my now-ended series of essays called the Boston Comment, at one time even incurring much wrath for my efforts (including some lovely missives from Mr. Zapruder himself).

    What Zapruder seems to be decrying is a lack of criticism that would help readers approach and appreciate difficult poetry. He seems to say that if we had more criticism, there would be more readers. Some here have already pointed out the absurdity of that idea (Bill Knott and Michael Robbins, e.g.), that if there is any logic in it, it is a cart-before-the-horse logic. But what hasn't yet been stated is something I find so obvious I must say it: the kind of critical writing that enables evaluation—not just the critic's opinion, but a "teachable" way to evaluate what's good, better, best or lousy—is what's missing in contemporary critical writing. Why? Because you cannot articulate, amplify or evaluate in words, writing that eschews words as conveyers of thought (to use Zapruder's phrase). If words don't function as conveyors of thought in the poem, but only as formatting devices or visual art, how does one successfully apply critical thought to that poem—it doesn't want to be thought about. There are only so many ways to say "language is arbitrary" and I, for one, am tired of every single one of those ways. We don't need a way to talk about such poems. We need more poems that have something in them to talk about.

  76. April 1, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Joan, I don't think Zapruder is calling for discussion of "difficult" poetry; what he seems to me to be calling for is criticism of it by people with some understanding of it, and of poetry in general.

    --Bob G.

  77. April 1, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Matthew Zapruder may be unaware of some of the prior work done on the issue of "difficulty", and his idea that better criticism might increase readership may sound naive, but I think his basic approach is sound, when he calls for a criticism that looks closely at what particular, individual poems are doing.

    I also think the idea that poetry primarily conveys thoughts or ideas, which are paraphrasable by the critic, is problematic. My sense is that a poem is precisely the fusion of style & matter, and that every paraphrase of the "matter" is an analytical process which is in danger of being reductive. On the other hand, I am certainly NOT in favor of the other extreme, represented by some versiona of postmodern poetry, which rejects meanings & messages outright. I'm just saying that the issue is complicated, and that Zapruder is emphasizing that good criticism will aim for a consideration of ALL the elements in a poem, both aesthetic & intellectual.

    I'm one of a group of poets who are beginning to deal with precisely this issue, that is the relation between "matter & manner", in a kind of incipient blog-criticism :

    We welcome participation....

  78. April 1, 2009
     Henry Gould

    & I agree with Michael Robbins, that it would be nice if this website would correct the formatting problems here in the comment stream. It's running distinct paragraphs etc. together.

  79. April 1, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Bob Grumman, there's nothing in what I've written to account for your comment to me. I have no idea why you've written it. Of course, Zappruder is calling for a criticism of difficult poetry, etc. etc. That's what the article is about. Why are you reiterating the obvious?

    Henry Gould, any poetry criticism that does not look at what paritcular, individual poems are doing, is not worthy of the name. And of course, poetry that is primarily "paraphrasable" is at best boring. And of course, poetry is a "fusion of style and matter" and "good criticism will aim for a consideration of ALL the elements in a poem." And yes, it's "complicated." Can't we move beyond such platitudes? I spend much time on analyzing and evaluating individual poems, as all editors and teachers and critics must. And "paraphrasing" is not how such activity can be characterized. I'm a big fan of elliptical work, not a fan of PoMo in general, but the problem is how to apply analysis to, and elucidate for, the general reader, a poem that is designed to prove that words do not convey thought. Can you do it with words? Doesn't that present something of a conundrum? I would like to know your thoughts on this.

  80. April 1, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "We don't need a way to talk about such poems. We need more poems that have something in them to talk about."

    Hooray for Joan.

  81. April 1, 2009
     J. L. Reck

    A person who isn't inclined toward reading poetry isn't likely to read criticism on poetry. There is a chicken/egg problem with the logic of using criticism as an entree into poetry. It is those most engaged with poetry already who read and write criticism.

    I agree with the writer who pointed to K-12 education as a place needing focus in this regard. Remember high school? Where's the joy in decoding what the red wheel barrow "means"? No wonder so many people walk away from poetry when they are through.

  82. April 1, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Well, one person's platittudes are another's building blocks. As I understand it, Zapruder's basic point was that we need less blurb-reviewing & more analytical, objective criticism (in reviews). I agree. I don't think either of the poems Zapruder used as examples, had much to do with what you say the problem is ("but the problem is how to apply analysis to, and elucidate for, the general reader, a poem that is designed to prove that words do not convey thought"). Then again, you yourself said this is an irresolvable non-problem. So why are we talking about it? Why are you criticizing Zapruder for an argument he didn't make? The reason I felt it necessary to bring up the so-called platitudes ("poetry is a fusion of style & matter") is because, once again, we were being confronted with a general value judgement : poetry that "means something" is good; poetry that insists on "not meaning anything" is bad. This was precisely the kind of binary polemics which it seems to me Zapruder is trying, in an admittedly tentative & exploratory fashion, to get beyond.

  83. April 1, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Hello everyone-
    Thanks for the zealous comments. We just relaunched the back end of this site on Monday, which seems to have caused some formatting trouble in the comments section. Thanks for being patient while we investigate and fix the problem.

  84. April 1, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Henry, when Zapruder says: "What is the purpose of literary criticism? Among other things, to guide the reader past his or her resistance. Most art, subtly or aggressively, resists the familiar. Poetry in particular suffers from this resistance, because poets take the material that we depend on to operate in and make sense of the world (language), and bend it to other, often seemingly obscure, purposes. Readers, sophisticated and beginner, need critics to explain why and how poets are using language for these different purposes, and what those purposes might be. Our attachment to familiar language is powerful, and understandable. Without critics, we will hold on to the familiar and be unable to accept that there are other uses for language, that there is new and exciting poetry all around us" --what do you think he means by "other uses"? Other than what? I'm assuming he means other than "making sense of the world," yes? But isn't that the very definition of poetry, that the language is being used for purposes other than merely "making sense of the world?" Isn't that why we go to prose? Either Zapruder is stating the obvious, or he's calling for some other use of what he calls "the materials of poetry--words and how they work." What is that other use? Could it be the use of words and how they DON'T work? I dunno. Just asking.

  85. April 1, 2009
     Henry Gould

    The tension between "standard usage", "direct statement", "obvious meaning", on the one hand, and the poet's usage, on the other hand, for artistic and often very idiosyncratic purposes, is inherent & inescapable. One of the key things that a critic can do is to try to follow, & then share with others, whatever he or she has discerned to be this particular path the poem takes.

    When at the conclusion of "Sunday Morning", Stevens writes :

    "Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
    Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
    Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
    And, in the isolation of the sky,
    At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
    Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
    Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

    - is Stevens describing something he's seen around Hartford? Maybe. But perhaps more importantly, he's echoing the conclusion of Keats' "To Autumn". So the words have a double meaning. And as I understand it, this is the kind of poetic "other meaning" that Zapruder is suggesting critics can help to elucidate. But perhaps I shd let Zapruder speak for himself.

  86. April 1, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Henry, yes. But I have a feeling Zapruder isn't referring to the usual kinds of poetic "other meaning" we are all familiar with as you describe so nicely here. If this is all it is, then his article is either evidence of misunderstanding of what critics already do, or it is a vague idea of some other function they should be performing, as yet undefined.

    Take care,

  87. April 1, 2009
     Henry Gould

    As I see it, this is the crux of Zapruder's article :

    "Of course there are good reviewers who write interesting, thoughtful, and provocative pieces about American poetry. But look for yourself at the vast majority of reviews in journals, in print and online, and ask yourself whether for the most part the writers are doing a good job of actually describing what the poems are trying to do, how they are doing it, and why anyone would be driven to write (not to mention read) these poems. Are these reviews in any way truly helpful for understanding poetry?

    Fundamentally, this is a problem of a failure on the part of critics to discuss, or even understand, the actual material of which poems are made. Stéphane Mallarmé felt compelled to remind Degas that the poet does not write with thoughts but with words. When you read poetry reviews, ask yourself how much time and energy is spent talking about the “thoughts” being “conveyed” by the words in the poem, versus the actual means of conveyance, i.e., the choices the poet has made with the language. This hegemony of content over form in the mind of the critic is at the very heart of the uselessness of mainstream poetry criticism in America; in turn, the reaction to talk about the fact of form without any reference to its possible purposes or effect on a reader is a glaring flaw in much criticism that appears in smaller journals and on blogs, particularly ones that are primarily interested in so-called “experimental” poetry that foregrounds its own formal innovation."

    Yes, there are critics already doing this. Zapruder says so here. He agrees with you. He's saying there's not enough of it. He's saying that the fault lies at the extremes (statements without form; form without purpose) - & he calls it lazy reviewing. I agree.

  88. April 1, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Joan, from what I know of you, and from your desire for "more poems that have something in them to talk about," I jumped to a conclusion that may well be mistaken, being a pop-off artist. It was that you considered the fact that there are visible critics discussing "Close Encounters with Nonsense" some kind of refutation of what Zapruder was asking for (which for all I know I also got wrong).

    But aside from that, how about a few names of critics who have discussed language poetry and told in reasonable detail what's in them and why it's of value. I haven't run into many. Silliman, for instance, hasn't helped me, nor Perloff. While you're at it, how about the names of a few who have given any kind of serious consideration to visual poetry.

    --Bob G.

  89. April 2, 2009
     Susan Denning

    It is interesting I think how many
    comments seemed to not comment on
    Matthew's comparison of some poetry
    to some paintings. His discussion of
    abstract paintings seemed to be one of
    the points he was making. But there is
    perhaps something about visual things
    that if they are nicely arranged or
    colorful, they can still be pleasing. So
    perhaps abstract painting is not the
    same as difficult poetry.
    I wonder if there is something about
    the fact that people use language every
    day that makes them feel like they
    should be able to appreciate a poem on
    their own and that critics are not
    Also, if I was trying to figure out how to
    change the oil in my car, and if
    someone gave me a manual to read
    about changing oil, I don't think I'd say,
    "I don't need to read a book about
    changing the oil, I can figure it out
    myself! Mechanics are useless!"
    There is something about the fact we
    use language every day I think that
    makes some feel that anything
    presented to us in that medium should
    be discernible, and if it's not, it's up to
    the reader to figure it out.
    Not that critics are mechanics, and
    poems aren't machines. It's not an
    entirely apt metaphor.
    Still. - Susan D.

  90. April 2, 2009
     Derek Catermole

    I'm so sorry I came to this
    conversation late. It's very clear that
    you desperately need my assistance.
    But let me render that assistance in the
    form of an enigmatic question (as you
    know, a very important part of the
    posture one assumes in these august
    circumstances): like, what's up with the
    whole thing where poets and litbloggers
    all have to call for a new something
    (which is almost invariably and old
    something)? Is it, like, some kind of
    application for admission to something?
    Has any of these exhortations ever had
    any effect at all? — at least, you know,
    since Ezra Pound? I'm a little nervous
    about what might happen if maybe ALL
    of these calls for newness actually
    succeeded at once. It could be chaos
    in the world of poetry and criticism.

  91. April 2, 2009
     Don Share

    Just a few painfully obvious questions, some already posed but not quite answered.

    1.) Are book reviews the same thing as "criticism" or not?

    2.) I know that the "new critics" are bad and everything, but can someone please tell me how "close reading" is a bad practice? Is the alternative some sort of oblivious reading? Can we detach the idea of sorting through a text from its apparently discredited apparent mid-20th-century practitioners? Let's assume that nobody sensible is saying that close reading is all you need; surely it's indispensible?

    3.) I agree with what Bob G. has said, and urge folks to read the rest on his blog, linked in his comment. As it happens, we have been talking about doing something very much like what he suggests about taking work in Poetry as the basis for discussion. It wouldn't be a contest, however, I don't think. (As for his idea, again, from his blog, about visual poetry, well, you can see how having people discuss it turned out right here on Harriet: not very well, in my opinion.) I wish more people would respond to Bob's remarks. By the way, we have a prize for Criticism: the Randall Jarrell award... winner this year to be announced in a few weeks!

    4.) I'm curious about the whole question of education. I was not an English major and never took a course in an English dept. in college. I can still read poems pretty well. Then again, I found lots of good books in the library on my own to teach me about things I couldn't understand on my own. Contemporary poetry was not on the curriculum in the US and UK till the turn of the last century or so; people seemed to get by ok till then. I'm not against the teaching of poetry; but nor do I find it any sort of panacea. What is it that we can, and cannot, teach ourselves about literature?

    5.) Re Making It New: you take an It (say, Whitman for EP, or better: Browning) and you make... it... new! That the new is the old is precisely the point. So let me reissue the old call to M.I.N., already!

  92. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Bob, I don't know what you know of me or what your remark about my remark implies to you, but anyway..I'm responding again because Don Share asked for more responses to you and also because I can't find the link he's mentioning to something of yours on Harriet. Would you post that, please? So, yes, I thought Zapruder was complaining that not enough critics were engaging in the kind of critical analysis and explication that would help readers to appreciate contemporary poetry, and yes, I was refuting that. Those names are just the most recent that came to mind. About naming names of critics who have discussed language poetry and "told in reasonable detail what's in [the poems] and why it's of value"--wow. Wouldn't that be grand! I have searched for such texts, finding only more language poetry packaged as criticism. In other words, prose as impenetrable as the poetry it professed to explicate. No, Silliman is no help, nor Perloff (and I remember the hope I felt upon discovering her--before I read it, of course). The only analogy I can draw is to that of a cult, wherein only those who already believe derive any benefit from the teachings therein. About visual poetry, I know nothing, only enjoy it when I see it. I liked the "concrete poetry" of the 70's, and I'm glad to see it's enjoying a new incarnation here.

  93. April 3, 2009
     michael robbins

    If I may be so bold, some reviewing is criticism & some is not. Jarrell's best criticism is in his reviews. I like to think I'm writing criticism when I review books. But the reviews in Rain Taxi (or whatever, no offense) ... well ...

    That the New Critics get a bad rap (do they, still, by the way) is mostly due not to a careful reading of their work but to a received caricature about them: that they viewed the poem as a hermetically sealed object that must not be sullied by contact with history or biography. Utter nonsense, as readers of Blackmur, Brooks, Richards, Empson know (Empson more a New Critic by association, of course). The New Criticism leads fairly directly to de Man, interestingly enough. Time to dust them off, & the anthology Praising It New is a great place to start, even if William Logan's introduction was dialed in.

  94. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Don, some responses to your questions, below. I'm afraid the formatting will be lost...but my responses follow your numbered questions and begin with *******.

    Just a few painfully obvious questions, some already posed but not quite answered. 1.) Are book reviews the same thing as "criticism" or not?

    ******To distinguish the two for the purposes of this discussion would be splitting hairs, I think. The salient differences are length, depth and focus of each, but both are engaged in "criticism" (or should be. As has been pointed out, many book reviews are simply extended blurbs and/or paraphrasing without analysis or evaluation).

    2.) I know that the "new critics" are bad and everything, but can someone please tell me how "close reading" is a bad practice? Is the alternative some sort of oblivious reading?

    ******Great question and at the crux of the critical problem. As far as I know there is no alternative to "close reading" (I've written on this problem in a number of places, including for the Contemporary Poetry Review, "Invitation to a Far Reading," in 2006 (I think). In my review of Matthea Harvey's "Modern Life" (also for the CPR, last year), I posited the idea of scanning as the new reading, since even ordinary reading, which requires thoughtful constructions of meaning line by line, cannot be applied to some contemporary poetry which demands a kind of surface scan, a drop in, drop out kind of attention, line by line.

    Can we detach the idea of sorting through a text from its apparently discredited apparent mid-20th-century practitioners? Let's assume that nobody sensible is saying that close reading is all you need; surely it's indispensible?

    ******Maybe it's the term that is discredited and everyone is actually still doing it, but not admitting to it, or maybe not calling it by that name. I don't know. What I do know is that no one has yet come up with an alternative to close reading and that many contemporary poems cannot be read that way (if they can be read at all). So we have reached an impasse. That's why a call for New Criticism is missing the point. You can't critique something, either an old way OR a new way, if you can't read it.

    3.) I agree with what Bob G. has said, and urge folks to read the rest on his blog, linked in his comment. As it happens, we have been talking about doing something very much like what he suggests about taking work in Poetry as the basis for discussion. It wouldn't be a contest, however, I don't think. (As for his idea, again, from his blog, about visual poetry, well, you can see how having people discuss it turned out right here on Harriet: not very well, in my opinion.) I wish more people would respond to Bob's remarks.

    ******I will if I can find them.

    By the way, we have a prize for Criticism: the Randall Jarrell award... winner this year to be announced in a few weeks! 4.) I'm curious about the whole question of education. I was not an English major and never took a course in an English dept. in college. I can still read poems pretty well. Then again, I found lots of good books in the library on my own to teach me about things I couldn't understand on my own. Contemporary poetry was not on the curriculum in the US and UK till the turn of the last century or so; people seemed to get by ok till then. I'm not against the teaching of poetry; but nor do I find it any sort of panacea. What is it that we can, and cannot, teach ourselves about literature?

    ******In the MFA low residency program where I teach (as you know, Lesley University in Cambridge, MA), I find that students are very good at annotating the work of other poets, and I also find this in my manuscript conferences; that is, everyone who comes knows how to read and comment on poems. And people can certanly teach themselves just about everything they need to know about analyzing a poem by lots of reading--source material and commentary, both. It's just not that hard. What's harder is what the critics do (or should do) which is to form opinons on work and share them. That's all criticsm is, really, informed opinons, hopefully well-written and thoughtful. And everyone is capable of becoming informed and also of writing about poetry, though some write better than others, and some are more informed than others. Plenty of blogs, including this one, prove that.

    5.) Re Making It New: you take an It (say, Whitman for EP, or better: Browning) and you make... it... new! That the new is the old is precisely the point. So let me reissue the old call to M.I.N., already!

    ******Yep. BUT. How do you "read" poems that are essentially unreadable (I don't need to quote some do I? I'm tired of making people mad ;-). We cannot, in such cases, build upon the old skill of reading. Then, beyond that, how do you evaluate, discuss, analyze, etc. poems that you can't read in the first place? And why should anyone try? Where's the pleasure in it?

  95. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Yow! What a mess! I'll try again another day, when maybe this formatting problem will be fixed.

  96. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    I agree with Michael. Garrick Davis has performed a great service to poets and critics with "Praising it New." I also reommend it highly.

  97. April 3, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    J. L. Reck (and others) raise an interesting point. Reck says:

    A person who isn't inclined toward reading poetry isn't likely to read criticism on poetry. There is a chicken/egg problem with the logic of using criticism as an entree into poetry. It is those most engaged with poetry already who read and write criticism.

    I’m not sure Zapruder is primarily suggesting that poetry criticism should be used to create new readers of poetry, but Reck’s comment brings up a question for me about the intention and intended audience of the different types of prose about poetry (all of which often gets lumped together as "criticism").

    I doubt I could articulate all the different types of prose about poetry, and heaven knows lots of writing about poetry straddles one or more of these categories, but I distinguish between them this way.

    Reviews seem intended for potential readers of a given book, whether the readers are poetry experts or novices, depending on the publication in which reviews appear.

    Criticism seems to me to be an academic genre, in which poems serve the purpose of the critic to make a particular argument.

    Essays on poetics seem to fit largely in the criticism category.

    General interest essays about poetry are the ones that make people unafraid of poetry and fall in love with it. I’m thinking of A.R. Ammons “A Poem is a Walk” or other personal essays by poets about poetry.

  98. April 3, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    This is a test and a question. I just posted my last comment by cutting and pasting from Word.

    Now I'm typing directly into the form for comments to see if my line breaks and paragraph breaks are maintained this way.

    Thanks for reading my test. Give me an A please.

  99. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    Hi Don, et al, I have some thoughts about your very interesting questions but I think I will wait to post them until the paragraph break has been brought back as an available formal device.

  100. April 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Thanks, Annie and Michael... and Matthew!

    Annie's hit on something, if you can find it in her response to one of my questions, and that is the matter of reading poems that are, as she calls them, "unreadable."

    I actually take great pleasure in such poems, which might better be called, oh, I dunno, not difficult, but... recondite. I adore Dickinson yet remain unconvinced we really do, can, or should know what she was up to. Ditto J.H. Prynne, whose work is a treasure and trove.

    Can a poem not leave much to the imagination? Can we not, at times, be silent, at least for a time, before a poem or other work of art?

  101. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan


  102. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Whereof one cannot blog, thereof one must remain silent.

  103. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Don, ED is not unreadable. Of course not. This is when I begin to realize it's useless to talk on forums and blogs. People seem to hear only what they want to hear. What I mean is something like this gem from Bruce Andrews. A moment of silence, please:
    Memories don’t even need language to be false. Luna park astro density — a deflatulent neighborly cranial busride, an abridged jitney, a swerve shocks skeezier sublunar underkill dose wobble gato muttonskin chrysalis monks on acid: vocational turtle-like dissonance. True-to-life means: let somebody else deal with it. Windowless cubicle silencing the spoiled & soft — pompano, glamour fish? — dizzier medfly tutus for trogs, penny diapers, sunset divas, intimate afterburners — fractal but late. Hypnosis victims impersonating our police — archeo-eerie calm lagniappe podunk saltlick mambo daikon gee-gaw slod — who loves the crude puffed-up ephemera.
    Prehabiliation. Stereopticon valuepak, merrier & merrier demerits. Eventually it stains little boyblue with smack-sights, a real bowwow browser semi-human rocks on victorian lava flow atop the steak, diving for gravy. Partygoers at trough axis lava plug itinerary mudpies’ acumen fragrance despondent per flower bot — replace little smudge with big smudge. The dismantling species, a groove makes it stick an endless flow of kid stuff; zero oomph, zero charisma, swallow it. A variorum skyscape missing telemetry, gooier & stuck on decalomanic hornet, dervish belief in ceilings.
    POV shit syringe immaculata, genetic halftrack matter doubles back oldies’ shiner run-off; whirligig axis tussle ogling purses naughty rubdown puckering the solstice — exo-perp iconage, a hydraheaded vishnu of unfocus teledeportation losing my semblance gazebo, you silly goose. Exhale astrophysically, overfund a secondary eruption. What’s fucking of its opaque dazzle me on & off again, impetuous as whiplash divinity with a driver’s license.

  104. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Well, but no, not this debate again, please. If you don't like Langpo, fine: I don't either. The above is eminently ignorable. It is not, however, meant to be "read" the way you intend "read." If the point of some artwork is to change the way that artwork is usually experienced -- & I could adduce dozens of examples off the top of my head (here are two: Michael Snow's work in film; Donald Judd's in sculpture) -- then it makes exactly no sense to wonder how we should experience it according to the very set of criteria it rejects. Some poetry's primary impulse is not the creation of poems but the distribution of new criteria, or questions about the old. You may deplore this all you want. No need to sign on. What you may not do, however -- that is, if you want anyone to pay the slightest attention to anything you have to say -- is maintain that it simply is not "art" or that because it cannot be addressed according to the conventional strategies for such art (close reading), it fails some sort of objective test. Again, this conversation is, like, a hundred & fifty years old. At least. So please, let's not have it.

  105. April 3, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Michael--Isn't Matthew saying this exact thing in the article above? I know you disagree with his readings of the poems, but the premise you're laying out here seems to me what he's saying, i.e. Let's move on from this tedious discussion and discuss the poems as they are, taken on their own terms. Am I misreading you both?

  106. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Hilarious! It's not that I don't "like" it, Michael (what's not to like ;-), and it's not only language poetry per se we're talking about here as I'm sure you know. But I DO like your take on it: "Some poetry's primary impulse is not the creation of poems but the distribution of new criteria, or questions about the old." Nice dismissal--see ya later masses of language poems, their post-avant ilk, and any other poems Michael Robbins can't read in the ordinary way--we shall not need you after all! I wonder how Bruce Andrews feels about this. Only problem left for you, Michael, is to tell us which poems shouldn't be read, but simply dismissed or, I'm afraid no one will pay the slightest attention to what YOU have to say. A proclamation does not an informed opinion make.

    --Joan (aka "Annie")

  107. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    This is why I didn't want to have this conversation. You're the one who reads what I wrote as a dismissal, Joan. And that you've never heard the thesis before (it's not original with me, believe me: Michael Fried's "Art & Objecthood" is a work you really ought to be familiar with) says more about yr perspicacity as a critic than anything I could write. In Fried's work the fact that the object of art is no longer central (the "experience" or "situation" of encountering it is) is damning; but he admits he lost that argument, & several younger critics over the years have taken it up in more positive ways. Some poets do not, first & foremost, intend the poem. This just isn't news, Joan. That's what I mean. You write as if you're completely unfamiliar with arguments that go back decades. And you have to contort them a good deal more than I did in order to conclude that they are counseling a dismissal of the work. Rather, they counsel a different way of experiencing it.

  108. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Travis, that's not the part of the essay I took issue with. We should indeed get past these stupid arguments, those of us who do not believe that criteria for art are handed down by God or genetics. What disappointed me about MZ's piece is that in their place he calls for banalities (at least to judge from the practice he offers as exemplary).

  109. April 3, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Thanks, Michael. That's what I thought, but sometimes the comments section can convince me that what I thought was very clear is muddy, and what seemed muddy is actually very clear. But on this, we're clear. Or clear enough anyway. I'm re-reading "My Emily Dickinson" right now, and have been struck by how careful I have to be reading the poems. I think Don might be right, actually, about how we'll never quite know what she was up to. But anyways, I second (or third) the call for more names of critics and/or venues for good criticism/reviews. Names, please!

  110. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Well, Michael, now we're getting somewhere. Just one more turn of the screw and I think we'll have it:

    "Rather, they counsel a different way of experiencing it."

    And that "different way" which clearly does not involve reading it, is.. ta da!..drum roll please! Bathing in it? Smelling it? Wearing special glasses to view it? I'm open to your ideas.

  111. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    I think Ange Mlinko is a very good critic indeed; she has a new column in The Nation on linguistic issues (not exactly criticism but worth a look). I read a lot of academic critics, too -- Oren Izenberg's essay on Lowell & Oppen in Modernism/Modernity a few years ago is very smart. Oh, & Jason Guriel has made me happy of late. Stephen Burt is, actually, somewhat overrated, I think: his ubiquity does him no favors, while his popularity belies claims about a lack of interest in poetry criticism. Dan Chiasson is interesting if not always as sharp as I'd like. Elif Batuman is doing very cool things with reviews, though not of poetry. (And of course, my own work, forthcoming in London Review of Books & Poetry, should not be neglected! [Smiley emoticon.])

  112. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Of course it involves reading it, Joan. I didn't say not to read it. One must read it, however, with a different set of expectations & purposes than those with which we approach more conventional verse. And, you know, Bruce Andrews himself & all his merry band have said all this already in their own criticism (which is unreadable in a different way). I don't endorse their views, but if one is going to throw one's hands up at a poetic practice, doesn't it behoove one to learn what has already been written about it, particularly by those who engage in it? I mean, I find Language poetry stupid, but not because I don't understand it: if you're truly baffled about what it's supposed to do for you as a reader, it would seem that reading what the poets themselves have to say on the subject is a pretty straightforward way of clearing up some of your confusion.

  113. April 3, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Ah, here we go! Thank you. I will seek out some new names. Has anyone read any of Reuven Tsur's stuff? It is pretty dense and "academic"--in that it proceeds from a certain kind of linguistics--but I'm fascinated by it. It has changed the way I read, which I should point out is an active and variable process.

  114. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    RE: "Some poets do not, first & foremost, intend the poem."

    This is rich too. What happened? Were they teched by god and twitched it out? Automatic writing, perhaps? That's going back a few hundred years at least. Michael, your only problem as a thinker is that you've been in academia far too long. You can think for yourself. Really.

  115. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    ok, here goes ....

    Hi Don and everyone,

    I am interested in a popular form of criticism -- in shorter pieces, i.e. "reviews," on blogs, and in longer essays that appear in journals or in books -- that would reveal how people read poetry, more that what their opinions are. Bless their souls, but I really don't care what Steve Burt or Marjorie Perloff or Dan Chiasson or Helen Vendler "like." I don't think they have better taste than anyone else, and even if they do that doesn't mean I'll like what they like. Anyway world being what it is today I can just read some samples of the poems being discussed on the web if I want to find out if I'll like them or not.

    But those and other people who write criticism are some smart individuals, and what I can definitely learn from them is how they make their way through the poems. I have my limitations as a reader, and want those limitations challenged by my reading of criticism. And even if I don't "like" the poems, or think they are "good," I can still learn a lot from how critics read through them.

    If people want to call that "close reading" I'm very happy with that term. I think most critics today go beyond the very narrow focus of New Critics on textual elements, and try to account for the role of the poem in the lives of the writer and reader. Perloff and Vendler are the two major critics of their generation: clearly they each value wildly different things in poetry, but they use very similar methods to write about it, again a form of close reading.

    The problem with New Criticism is that it gave the impression that poems have very little to do with our lives, and also require special training to "understand." As the enigmatically handled "J" wrote several thousand comments ago, there is a big problem with the way poetry is taught in the K-12 level. So often the way students that age are taught to read poetry is via a New Critical paradigm. This attitude about poetry has fully colonized the popular attitude towards poetry, to the extent that things that are far more confusing and more difficult to "understand" (like abstract art, song lyrics, and 80% of the cartoons on Comedy Central) are just taken on their own terms, whereas poetry is always, by its very nature, "hard to understand."

    Sadly, the definition of a poem for most general readers, is a speech act with a hidden meaning, accessible only to the poet and perhaps the rare expert, in which the words do not mean what they usually mean in real life.

    I think the analogy Susan Denning made about changing oil is awesome, that says it exactly for me. And the point she makes about language is really interesting, that people think they should be able to understand a poem just because it's made of language. Of course that's true: people should be able to read poetry without any help whatsoever. But it's also true that poetry has been systematically mishandled by teachers for so long, to the point where it can no longer be considered accidental. It is a great irony that, like it or not, we need criticism and yes even close reading, which came out of New Criticism itself, to rescue poetry from those very values.

    By the way, I wasn't an English major either Don, I studied Russian. And yes! I completely agree with you, that a valuable reading of a great poem would help lead us right up to the biggest part of it, the wordless feeling.

  116. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    ********The problem with New Criticism is that it gave the impression that poems have very little to do with our lives, and also require special training to "understand."********
    Well, if it gave anyone that impression, it was not arrived at through an actual reading of the New Critics. The New Critics get reduced to caricatures of their actual positions enough without perpetuating it in a call for new criticism (lowercase). I mean, I find it pretty amazing to believe that anyone could read someone like Yvor Winters -- who believed that poetry was a moral discipline, imbricated in the very fabric of our lives -- & say the sorts of things about the New Critics that you say here. Or, my God, read Brooks's "The Formalist Critics," a fair summation of much of what you call for in this essay -- two of whose central tenets are that poems is very important to our lives & that no special training should be required for their appreciation. This is lazy, Matthew. You summarize a particular received opinion about New Criticism -- fine; but how about noticing that that opinion is simply incorrect in its assumptions? Or how about going forth & discovering this for yourself?

  117. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Joan, I'm afraid that, like the Language poets, albeit for a very different reason, I cannot be held responsible for yr misreadings of my position. "Intend" has a specific sense there: of course the poem is one thing they intend; they are writing it, not receiving it from beyond; but I said it was not the primary thing they intend. They might intend, rather, a set of arguments, or a form of thinking about social conditions. The poem might point to these things allegorically, as an example of alternatives to given orders. Artworks do not signify on one level alone; sometimes they do not signify at all outside given contexts. A Language poem read in isolation alongside a bunch of Metaphysical poems is one thing; a Language poem in a room full of Language poems & critical manifestos is another.

  118. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    As I wrote, New Criticism "gave the impression" of those things. I could have said "unfortunately" gave that impression, in order to make absolutely clear that I wasn't making my own judgment about New Criticism, but trying to point out the undeniable fact that their ideas (to some extent unfairly, but also to some extent because of what they were actually saying) made their way into popular understandings of poetry, and the way it was taught. In fact, the very essay you cite, The Formalist Critics, begins with Brooks's acknowledgment of this very point, that there has been a persistent misunderstanding of the New Critical position, that has made its way into the teaching of literature. The point is, this version of the New Critical ideas made its way widely and perniciously into the teaching and understanding of poetry over second half of the 20th century. And that's been a problem for a long time, as many people have pointed out before me.

  119. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    OK, that's fair. Sorry.

  120. April 3, 2009
     Tony Tost

    I thought I'd pipe in briefly. Joan, there's ultimately no real shame in being continually lapped by the person you're trying to debate (especially if that person is as impressively grounded as your foe here), but there is a certain amount of dignity in at least recognizing that that is occurring.

    Otherwise, some poetry criticism I can heartily recommend: because it seems to be in the air, RP Blackmur's Form & Value in Modern Poetry (I'm finding his analysis of the limits of Pound really useful for a chapter I'm writing, though I'm putting it to a different use than Blackmur may consent to); Frank Lentricchia's Modernist Quartet (especially how he situates his poets intellectually in the wake of James, Santayana & Royce at Harvard circa 1900); Joan Richardson's A Natural History of Pragmatism (not just poets, but really great weaving of Stevens into a longer critical story that includes the James bros., Jonathan Edwards, Stein); Jed Rasula's Syncopations has a lot of great readings in it (including a chapter on Clark Coolidge & Bruce Andrews that may be of some use to Joan); as Travis mentioned, Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson is just stunning, as is The Birthmark; also, Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner are (along w/ S. Howe) the peaks for me. Oh, and I'd put Elizabeth Sewell's pretty impossible to find The Orphic Voice in that strata as well. Online, Thomas Basboll's The Pangrammaticon & John Latta's blog are the most stimulating for me (Latta has been on a great Kerouac kick lately).

  121. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    **"Some poets do not, first & foremost, intend the poem."**

    Michael, if by this statement you mean that a poem may not be intended to be something read, first and formost, that's fine--e.g. some poems are meant to be spoken ("performance poetry")--though it would have been clearer to say it this way: "Some poets do not, first & formost, intend the poem *to be read.*" Or, perhaps, "Some poets do not intend the poem as primarily something to be read, but instead as (a set of arguments, allusion to..etc.) As you can see, close reading applies in every kind of writing, and so it is important to say precisely what you mean. But only if you wish to be understood, of course. If you wish instead to resort to citing sources instead of clearly following the logic of this argument, and clearly offering counter-arguments, that's your choice; however, it doesn't impress me that you can cite outside sources when you haven't yet made a cogent argument of your own for them to support.

  122. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Actually, I think I said at the outset that I didn't want to have this argument for the billionth time, & one needn't be too charitable to interpret my source-pointing as the expression of a desire that you do the work for yourself.

  123. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Tony Tost, may I pipe back that there is no real shame in letting me (and others here) know what you think instead of innundating me with your library list? Reading recommendations are nice, but frankly, I have no idea who you are and have no reason (so far) to think you have good judgment re: reading matter. But maybe others here know you and can benefit from your list-making ability.

  124. April 3, 2009

    This is a test
    of the format
    to see if it's fixed yet.
    Well, that's that.

    The question is why, at the outset,
    if one didn't want the fight,
    would one climb back into the ring
    for the billionth time tonight?

  125. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Michael, That's fine, I don't wish to have "the argument" either. As for "the work"--sounds like you've done it, and I'm sure I won't. You win! ;-)

  126. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Joan, I do fail to understand why you persist in asking the questions you raised here if you don't wish to do the work necessary to answer them. If you're actually interested in the questions, do the reading. If you're not, stop asking them.

  127. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Michael, what you fail to understand is that "the questions" as you call them, are embedded in the discussion launched here by Zapruder's manifesto or whatever it is. I don't need to raise them. They are raised and they will remain raised. If you don't care to discuss essential issues re: how poems are to be read, analyzed and/or appreciated by readers, then don't engage in such discussions.

  128. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Michael, as you ought to know, Yvor Winters was NOT one of the New Critics - so your argument about its "ethics", using him as an example, holds no water.

    It would be nice if we could get over some of these 20th-cent. scholastic debates. Not to forget them, but to move on.

    Hate to sound like a one-note Charlie, but I do believe the Chicago Critics pointed a way out of modernist & New Critical aesthetic-autonomous bottlecaps (50 yrs ago). Their idea was that poetry is not simply a "verbal construct" or an alternate form of "discourse".

    In their view, poetry indeed has a substantive, concrete form (ala Aristotle) - a form which is utterly distinct & unique to poetry; but that form cannot be reduced to its verbal texture. Thus also it cannot be reduced to or equated with its hermeneutical "unpacking" or scholastic paraphrase.

    Poetry's form is "imitative" : a dramatic effect working through its audience's emotional and intellectual identifications. These identifications happen on a whole range of levels : but without the grounding in the immediacy of emotional & experiential identification, the deeper, more hidden or subtle "meanings" would have no consequence.

    This general theory seems to get beyond, to a degree anyway, the problems raised by Matthew regarding NC's "academic" odor & remoteness from lived experience & social history.

  129. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Oh, PLEASE, Henry. As you ought to know, the term "The New Criticism" was coined in a book by John Crowe Ransom, which was about Eliot, Empson, Richards, & Winters. Winters appears in every single anthology & discussion of New Criticism extant. The term, like every single other term designating a group (New York School poets; Cambridge critics; Chicago critics), does not designate a rigid body of individuals or doctrines. We use these categories because they're a convenient way of signaling affiliations & affinities, not because everyone we discuss beneath their rubric had the proper decoder ring. Although the assertion that Winters can reasonably be discussed within the shifting boundaries of New Criticism is, as I noted, entirely uncontroversial.

  130. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Yeah, Joan, except that you then asked how we were to read Bruce Andrews's poem -- the sort of poem you ALWAYS bring up in order to ask how one is supposed to read a certain kind of poetry of which it is held up as a synecdochal exemplar. Then someone (me, in about three instances) has said, oh, if you're interested in how this poem is to be read, why not check out this work (often a work by the author himself, in which he discusses the question of how his work is to be read), which addresses precisely that question? To which you reply: oh, come on, I can't be bothered with that nonsense. Then you quote some language poem in another forum & ask how it is to be read. Bad faith, & pretty tiresome.

  131. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    "Of those associated with the New Criticism -- in the American South (Ransom, Tate, Brooks, & Warren), in England (Richards, Empson, & Leavis), & elsewhere (Winters, Blackmur, Burke, & Wimsatt)...." (Garrick Davis, introduction to Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism). Or see the PEPP, which includes Winters among the New Critics. Or see any other discussion of them. It is hardly to the point that he didn't view himself as a New Critic: none of the others accepted the designation either. Just as none of the New York School accepts that designation.

  132. April 3, 2009
     Tony Tost


    My apologies if it wasn't clear, but the list of critical titles wasn't directed at you in particular, but in the spirit of a general question in this comment field as to who is doing poetry criticism that is worth standing behind or advocating for. (I generally suppose others are curious as to that general question, and was wishing to reciprocate the suggestions various other people made concerning critics.) However, I *did* directly recommend the Rasula title to you, as you have trotted out an Andrews poem as a specimen of inexplicability. Rasula is able to move beyond critical incomprehension, and I thought you might have some intellectual curiosity concerning that. My apologies, again, if I was mistaken.

  133. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    Whew! Now that we have settled for once and for all the burning arguments about New Criticism and Language Poetry, maybe we can hear from some of the people who chimed in earlier. I know it seems like a million years ago, but I and I know other people were really interested in what some of the participants wrote about difficulties in criticism, and/or reviewing. J had mentioned some of the issues with K-12 education: if you're still there, could you expand on that further? And Michael Theune (hello, we met once I remember), I know you have a separate site about this, but do you think you could talk about what you mean by your new template, that considers poems in terms of their turns and structure? I'm extremely curious, that's sounds super-interesting. And Susan, thanks again so much for what I thought were really perceptive comments ... by the way William Carlos Williams and Paul Valery both think poems ARE machines! Williams: "A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words," and Valery, "A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words." I agree! Thanks again for reading, and for contributing to the conversation, and moving it forward into more interesting places.

  134. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Check into it a little more, Michael. The handbooks & academic authorities have a way of passing on simplistic (& false) truisms. Just like you are trying to do.

    Winters rejected his designation as a New Critic on the very grounds for which you tried to use him as an example : the role of ethics in art. He also differed with them on the relationship between art & life. & in fact, Brooks and Ransom used Winters' example as a major FOIL against which they promulgated their aesthetic theories.

    See here :

    and here:

  135. April 3, 2009
     Don Share

    What a food fight! Coupla anchovies to toss into the salad.

    First of all, I propose that we refrain, no pun intended, from deploying the word "unreadable." Misreadings, now that's another subject. My point was misread, so I'll rewrite it: you can read anything; you may have trouble understanding what you read. If that's a bad thing, then Emily D. is gonna cause you trouble, and so are so-called language poets. Milton is "unreadable" to many. So is Hart Crane. If some sort of readability is at issue, go ahead and throw the poetry babies out with the critical bathwater.

    Second, I propose that we quit using "New Criticism" as a shibboleth. Let's argufy for or against things without the pigeons and their musty old holes, please!

    Lastly, and this is just a pet peeve, I despair of a thread about criticism that only mentions Empson and even Eliot by way of deciding whether to lump him in with the nasty old New Critics (though I'm grateful for Michael's clearing up the history of the taxonomy here so we don't have to fuss about it any further). MIA: Eliot, Johnson, Ashbery (Norton lectures, anyone?), EP, a dozen more. The roots are showing, and they're shallow.

  136. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Ok, Don. So is the formatting problem fixed yet?

    Here's a test.

    See if space inserted.

    See if indent inserted.

    If not, will wait for fix. Lots more to come if and when--and all will become clear. ;-)

  137. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    That's the thing, Don. I don't think Michael did clear it up. Facts can be complicated & stubborn. Just because some people want to make life easy on themselves by lumping Yvor Winters with the New Critics, doesn't make a duck a pigeon. If you're tired, go to another thread. But let's set the record straight before we move on. (I have nothing against the New Critics, by the way. They were very impressive. I just think their concept of poetry can be, & has been, improved upon.)

  138. April 3, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Matt Zapruder asks for more people to chime in (and I hope someone like Mike Theune does, as Matt requests).

    I don't have anything to say myself about Bruce Andrews or the Chicago School, but I'm wondering, just to toss out the idea, if maybe one piece of this crisis of criticism many are sensing has to do with the general mode of address (non-substantive variations taken into account) the review and critical essay almost always adopt, as if such were merely natural: Critic on top, as axiological master; reader on all fours, taking notes...

    Is such dominance always necessary? Why is it that all other forms of literary writing easily lend themselves to innovative, even iconoclastic gestures (we don't think twice of it) that unsettle the rituals of genre, while Criticism remains stuck in modalities of rhetoric and epistemic affect that have been around since, say, Kant?

    What about *experiments* in criticism, ones that might still proffer explication and propositions of value, but do so within more surprising, engaging, "meta" modes: As in a criticism (a broad notion, here) that would openly embrace imaginary arrangement, become a new form of fiction, even?

    Does criticism have to be "true"? Says Who? And really, given the general crisis of poetry proper, for What?


  139. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Actually, Henry, these designations ONLY exist for use in criticism & in handbooks & by academic authorities. The other New Critics rejected the label, too; people reject such labels all the time; that's because they're labels, not Platonic ideals. The record you speak of is amenable to different approaches. Is Clark Coolidge a Language poet or a second-generation New York School poet? Was Herbert a Metaphysical poet? Was Harold Bloom a deconstructionist? These are not important questions.

  140. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Michael, up above there about 3 miles, you wrote : "The New Critics get reduced to caricatures of their actual positions enough without perpetuating it in a call for new criticism (lowercase). I mean, I find it pretty amazing to believe that anyone could read someone like Yvor Winters -- who believed that poetry was a moral discipline, imbricated in the very fabric of our lives -- & say the sorts of things about the New Critics that you say here."

    - so, in other words, we are to take you seriously when you use these "designations" to dismiss Matthew Zapruder's arguments; but when you are called out on them, we are not to take them seriously. Gosh, that's a very interesting kind of debating you do - you win no matter what! It's a kind of doublespeak.

  141. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Good question, Kent, & I should recommend yr own anti-criticism in this thread -- for instance yr "review" of Corless-Smith in the most recent issue of Chicago Review, with that strange fellow whom the CCCP sent to spy on you & Martin in the Wittgenstein room.

    As for experiments, & folks who may or may not be New Critics (Henry's diktat having been delayed in the mails), Empson's 7 Types & Richards's Practical Criticism come to mind as templates that remain startling & useful today.

  142. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Again, Henry, way to miss the point. The New Critics is a designation used to denote a number of critics who shared certain attitudes toward & methods of criticism. Those attitudes & methods exist, are discernible, were propounded in the work of a group of critics, among whom Winters is often numbered. The point is hardly whether one person is definitely, absolutely among their ranks: these questions cannot be settled with any certitude. What can be settled is whether any of the people so designated actually held certain positions; & none of them practiced the sorts of cartoonish disregard they are misrepresented as popularizing. We should not, however, be surprised that none of them had calling cards printed up reading "Cleanth Brooks, New Critic."

  143. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    Hi Kent, at the risk of changing the subject away from the particulars of the literary career Ivor Winters, what specifically do you think criticism could do to change for the better? I think your question is very pertinent; it's one I thought a lot about while writing this essay. The comments stream seems to be a great opportunity to turn criticism into an ongoing collaboration, but what do you think the critic needs to do to encourage that? Oh, and if you don't mind call me Matthew, I have an irrational bias against the short version of my name.

  144. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    If you go back to my original post, Michael, you will see why I am snarling & gnawing this particular bone of contention. Let me repeat : you used Winters' stance on literary ethics & engagement - which is clearly distinct from the historical position of the New Critics generally - as evidence against Zapruder's general comments about New Criticism. Again : Winters repeatedly distanced himself from the New Critics, and his stance on ethics cannot be used to support an argument defending the NC's attitude toward same. You made a phony argument, face it.

    You further obfuscate matters by pretending that "New Criticism" is simply a latter-day academic designation, produced generations after the fact by people who weren't there at the time. The truth is, the New Critics were a formidable group of like-minded poets & scholars - Eliot, Leavis, Empson, Ransom, Warren, Tate, Wimsatt, Blackmur, Brooks - who over a period of several decades virtually created 20th-cent. academic poetry theory & criticism.

  145. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    When, or if, the formatting gets fixed here, I will post a long-ish exchange between Zapruder and myself from Contemporary Poetry Review wherein we discuss our various takes on a poem by Eric Baus called "While the somnambulist explains the proper way to carve the eyes from a pigeon.” Fun. Perhaps that poem and our commentary on it can serve as the basis for applying some of these often amorphous, necessarily off-the-point (since the point is the poem itself), critical theories. Meanwhile, to Kent--it's always delightful when you enter a fray like this with a totally unexpected view. DIY criticism--but isn't that exactly what's happening here and all around the blogs and forums? Do you really think more misunderstanding and chest beating like we're getting here is useful? I don't know about the dominance theory of criticism (though the reader on all fours sounds fun) being at the heart of a "crisis" because I don't think there's a crisis of criticism at all. This whole idea about calling for a "new criticism" seems like what happens with weather reporting these days; i.e. it's a manufactured crisis. There's no crisis in poetry criticism. If there's a crisis, it's with the poetry itself, not what can or cannot be said about it.

  146. April 3, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Actually (again) I pointed out exactly when the designation was invented & by whom. Winters is usually described as a New Critic because his practices fit such a description: his stance on ethics can be used as I used it because when people dismiss the New Critics they often have him, among the others, in mind. If you're going to include Eliot among the New Critics, you open yourself to precisely the same sorts of objections you make to my inclusion of Winters. We can say it this way if it pleases you: in certain of his practices Winters may reasonably be grouped with the New Critics (which is why virtually everyone does so). But no one else wants to read this inane argument, Henry, & I'd prefer to let other voices have a chance in this thread, which we've dominated for too long.

  147. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    One more thing, then I will step off and make room for others.

    Don, re: "First of all, I propose that we refrain, no pun intended, from deploying the word "unreadable." Misreadings, now that's another subject. My point was misread, so I'll rewrite it: you can read anything; you may have trouble understanding what you read. If that's a bad thing, then Emily D. is gonna cause you trouble, and so are so-called language poets." owwww my teeth are on edge--you are lumping ED with the langpos? No, no. "Misreadings" implies there is a reading that is true (that you are "mis-" ing it), that the reader is simply not yet tutored in the new way something is written (e.g. The Wasteland was initially misread; ED was/is misread, etc.). Unreadable means no tutoring can or will exist for the text, it will remain incomprehensible because it not written to be understood--anywhere, anyhow, anytime. But--I take your point re: the word "read" which is really to "decipher" or to "decode" a mass of letters into a format of recognizable words, and that therefore everything is "readable" (if it's in your own language, of course). So, I will agree to avoid the word "unreadable" but not replace it with "misreading" rather with "impenetrable." Hope that's ok.

  148. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Michael, you write : "his stance on ethics can be used as I used it because when people dismiss the New Critics they often have him, among the others, in mind".

    It would be very interesting to see a single piece of evidence that someone had Winters in mind when attacking the NCs position on aesthetic "autonomy". Robert Archambeau, from his blog essay which I linked to above, is very helpful here :

    "While Winters, in one of his less tolerant moods, could write that “many poems cannot be paraphrased and are therefore defective” (see Von Hallberg, “Yvor Winters” 804), it would only be stretching things a little to say that the standard New Critical assessment of Winters was that his later poems were defective because they could be too readily paraphrased.

    This was the basic substance of John Crowe Ransom’s quarrel with Winters, and the substance of the critique that his student, Cleanth Brooks, would level at Winters. Both Ransom and Brooks objected to the statement-oriented, paraphrasable side of Winters’ poetics, and for the same reason: Winters’ work violated the autonomous principle of poetry. Two other New Critics, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, would also object to Winters’ work on the same grounds. The repeated rejections were strong enough to sting even the thick-skinned Winters, who remarked in 1953 that the young Turks of Ivy League thought of him as “lower than the carpet” (Hall 224).

    Ransom explicity objects to Winters’ heteronomous principles of poetry — his subordination of formal concerns to moral concerns — in the 1941 volume that became the namesake of a movement, The New Criticism. Here he maintains that “Winters believes that ethical interest is the only poetic interest” (214). This is a problem, Ransom argues, because it looks to poetry for reasons other than “poetical interest” itself (that is, the autonomous principle of poetry):

    'Now I suppose [Winters] would not disparage the integrity of a science like mathematics, or physics, by saying that it offers discourse whose intention is some sort of moral perfectionism. It is motivated by an interest in mathematics, or in physics. But if mathematics is for mathematical interest, why is not poetry for poetical interest? A true-blue critic like Eliot would certainly say that it is, though he would be unwilling to explain what he meant. I think I know why all critics do not answer as Eliot would: because criticism, a dilettante and ambiguous study, has not produced the terms in which poetic interest can be stated. Consequently Winters is obliged to think that mathematics is for mathematical interest — or so I suppose he thinks — but that poetry, in order that there may be an interest, must be for ethical interest. And why ethical? Looking around among the stereotyped sorts of interest, he discovers, very likely, that ethical interest is as frequent in poetry any other one.' (214).

    The passage reverberates with the energies that were to bring the New Criticism to power in the universities: the science-based emphasis on a division of knowledge into discrete, autonomous fields; the condemnation of “dilettante” critics; the call for an articulation of “terms in which poetic interest can be stated” (terms, one imagines, like irony, balance, and unity — terms that stress complex structure over moral statement). Ransom takes a position that will advance New Criticism to the center of academic and literary authority. A great deal, in fact, depends upon his ability to establish the autonomous principle of literature: “there’s a big stroke possible for a small group that knows what it wants in giving [professors of English] ideas and definitions,” as Ransom wrote to Tate four years earlier. Winters, in this process, serves as a foil: he is the poet-critic who fails to grasp the autonomous principle; the representative of an outmoded, heteronomous aesthetic."

    Robert Archambeau, http://samizdatblog.blogspot.c...

  149. April 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Now for all of you who have grown weary of this debate : it's Friday, it's siesta time. Go take a nap. The Authorities in the Major Schools will surely settle all these questions for us.

  150. April 3, 2009
     Samuel Michael kurus

    Written by Samuel Michael Kurus

    "The Devil's Dilemma"

    Oh my God!!!
    What have I done?
    To deserve such a fate...
    I realize now that You are my mentor,
    and I am only here by Your grace...
    Once I was a mighty hunter,
    and now I am just prey...
    Demons chasing after me,
    every night and ever day...
    And now I am lost inside this nightmare,
    running scared through the chasms of hell...
    And only You and You alone Lord ,
    can break this Satan's spell...
    You are my judge and jury,
    though I feel I have committed no crime...
    As I look to the heavens above,
    from the depths of hell...
    I realize now,
    that I can not turn back the hands of time!!!

    Sambo!!! the Psychic?Burnout,Comedian...

  151. April 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Far be it from me to belabor a point, but I simply find that "impenetrable" is not a useful way to damn a poem. It's like saying that non-representational visual art is bad because it doesn't convey an actual picture of something. Here we'll agree to disagree, I think. The nub is what one thinks is "comprehensible," and I'm happy with poems that are no more comprehensible than the incomprehensible circumstances of living. I also, needless to say, love poems that are immediately comprehensible. And I hate the idea of being "tutored" in a reading of a particular poem, but again, I'm an autodidact.

  152. April 3, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Slightly off-topic, but I have seen this phenomenon here in this thread as well. I have noticed again and again in on line poetry debates the irony of those who, while defending 'Language', 'Flarf', 'experimental', 'Post-avant' or whatever other incomprehensible balderdash and poppycock you care to mention, simultaneously bemoan the general lack of interest in poetry these days. Go figure. (Talk about 'not getting it').

  153. April 3, 2009
     Michael Theune

    I’m happy to say a few more words about my work with turns.


    Matthew notes in his essay that “…poets and poetry critics have not done the hard work necessary to explore, refine, and develop whatever terms might help us to even begin to talk about poetry in ways useful to understanding it,” and this, in large part, is a result and a continuation of a situation in which so many of the terms we currently use (such as, as Matthew suggests, “narrative” and “lyric”) “don’t exclude or refine any behavior at all in poetry.” I think that the turn offers a new term (or reintroduces a term) to the conversation about poetry, one which has real potential to shake things up, to change behaviors, both in terms of criticism and pedagogy. I will very briefly sketch out that potential here.


    In criticism, attention to the turn reveals connections between seemingly disparate kinds of poems and aesthetics. The turn certainly is a feature of “accessible” poetry. A very large percentage of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180 feature the turn. However, the turn also is a key to the poetics of many “difficult” poets. In “Something of Moment,” her introduction to the issue of Ploughshares she edited (in Winter 2001-02), Jorie Graham argues that “[i]n a poem, one is always given…a stage upon which the urgent act of mind of this particular lyric occasion… ‘takes place,’” thus offering the poem an opportunity to “break.” According to Graham, “All such moments—where we are taken by surprise and asked to react—are marked places in consciousness, places where a ‘turn’ is required.” In fact, Hank Lazer, in “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout” (in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, and in Lyric and Spirit), argues that the turn is a central feature of Armantrout’s poetry.


    Paying attention to the fact that a lot of poems turn, then, is one way, if one wants, to break down distinctions between established groups of poems. However, paying attention to exquisite, thrilling, truly witty, or sublime turns also offers a way to create new distinctions. There have been (in other discussions, including Reginald Shepherd’s “One State of the Art”) numerous calls for more attention to the poem and not to poets or movements, etc. The turn provides one way to turn the attention to individual, singular poems. And recognizing poems with particularly intriguing turns offers one way to divide oeuvres and schools: some of the poems in any oeuvre or school have turns that are flat and unsurprising, and some have turns that are random, and some have turns that amaze.


    Such thinking has many applications. (In fact, my current project is writing a book which spells out these applications.) Here, I’ll simply note that attention to the turn has been influential in my own criticism (much of it published in Pleiades). It has offered me a way to combine the jobs of the critic, to argue, at times, that “something is good, or bad,” but it also has allowed me (to some extent) “to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader,” but without relying too much on my own personality. (One quick example: in a review of recent haiku, I considered haiku not as a formal unit (5-7-5) but as a structural unit incorporating a turn. Not many of the haiku I reviewed were, in that new light, at all good—no surprises there—but I do think that I also made the value of those few haiku that did have structural intrigue clear. Attention to turns also allowed me to disregard many previous distinctions between haiku—poet, school, etc—and to value individual haiku across the spectrum of poets and schools.)


    The really substantive application for the turn, however, is in pedagogy, which might be considered enacted criticism. In pedagogy, the turn offers much. The turn is, or easily can be made to seem, familiar to students—everyday language includes all kinds of argumentative, dramatic, and emotional turns; with a little training, students (high school…perhaps junior high?) can see this. Reminded that they themselves in fact are sophisticated language users, students then can recognize and appreciate turns in poems, and perhaps be more ready, able, and willing to apply such recognition and appreciation to not only accessible poetry but also more seemingly difficult poetry. How much better off (college/graduate) poetry classrooms would be if, rather than entering those classes thinking that poems “flow” students instead knew that (lots of) poems “turn”…


    I’ve gone on way too long. For more info, check out the turn blog:




  154. April 3, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Damn? No, just describe. A fact. And it's not at all like saying non-representational art is bad because it doesn't convey an actual picture of something. Jeez, Don, talk about pigeon-holing. Give me a little more credit than that 'ol stereotype. Ok, so seems a bit disingenuous to pretend a poem (or any writing or speaking for that matter) is simply incomprehensible to me, when it's obviously so to anyone, but I'll play along. As far as being tutored, you are being tutored in how a poem is to be read every time you read one, by the poem itself--the diction, style, tone, voice, line breaks--the poem itself "teaches" you how to read it. No need to leave your autodidact mode at all to learn how a poem works.

  155. April 3, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    coming back to this thread after an awesome bike ride ... Mike, wow. That's terrific. Obviously one of the most satisfying things is that your method takes the word "verse" literally, from vertere, to turn. When people have asked me what I think the difference is between poetry and prose I have sometimes, stumblingly, tried to articulate what you have so eloquently written: that the nature of poetry is intimately related to that turn, literally in line breaks but more generally of the mind, in prose poems as well. Clearly you have done much more thinking about this than I, and I really look forward to reading more of what you have to say, and your book when it is done!

  156. April 4, 2009
     Don Share

    I didn't mean any stereotype, but I did mean the analogy. I disbelieve in any monolithic "comprehensibility," and I know you do, too. I don't agree that a condition of poetry is that it must be "comprehensible" in any particular sense to any particular reader. It may be; it may not be. Nor do I particularly know what "the poem itself" refers to. The poem isn't teaching me how to read or, or anything at all. It is, as we say, what it is. I bring things to it... it brings much to me. And further: I'm not the same "reader" I was before. I "read" Whitman in the 11th grade - uncomprehendingly. He gets clearer to me by the day. Dickinson seemed very clear to me as a teenager, and less so to me now by the day.

    Texts also change (Dickinson and Whitman simply do not exist in stable texts in which tutor or teach anybody) - but that's a whole nother story.

    I take pleasure (and not necessarily instruction) in almost every poem I read - and I read a lot of them. What I understand of each changes over time, as if there were time enough to comprehend what may be in a poem. If a poem or kind of poetry challenges my sensibilities, beliefs, and sense of what I know - so much the better for me. As Empson said, an important purpose of imaginative literature is to engage with people who have different values than we do.

  157. April 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Um, should read: Dickinson and Whitman simply do not exist in stable texts which tutor or teach anybody.

    Folks are right to say these things have been debated before; let me add a link to Jarrell's famous essay on the "obscurity" of the modern poet:



    "If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help."

    "Paradise Lost is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it -- instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell's Life of Johnson. But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pail, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public's sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world's dullest books.

    "Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure -- i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected -- they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry. But most of the time neither is a cause..."

  158. April 4, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Jarrell's is one of the more recent complaints. Wordsworth said something similar, about the bias toward exciting novels over strenuous verse.

    Maybe there's a link between poetry & cultural deprivation. Look at the rise of rap & hip-hop & spoken word. Something comparable there to a bunch of knights in some unheated medieval hall, listening to Wolfram von Eschenbach rave on (in rhyme) about Percival & the Grail. Or say, Beowulf, by Anon.

    So is it obscurity, or just a kind of required stringency in listening? Poetry condenses & moves quickly. Novels prose along, setting up a familiar scene... Poetry hangs there somewhere between prose & drama, reverting to the intense shorthand formulae of language. "Terrifying density" (Mandelstam).

    So maybe there's something to be said for Joan's notion that the poem itself shows us how to read it. Nobody else is going to.

  159. April 4, 2009

    Poems that show us how to read them = pathetic fallacy?

  160. April 4, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Thank you, Mr. Share, for that link. The essay is very interesting. I would venture to say, however, that there is a difference between difficult/obscure poetry and sheer nonsense.

  161. April 4, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Thanks, Matthew.***I'd like to contribute the name of a critic I think consistently "shows his work": Mark Halliday. Mark's been contributing longer essay-reviews to Pleiades for the past few years (off the top of my head: on James Tate, on Helen Vendler's Invisible Listeners, and on Joshua Clover's The Totality for Kids), and they are terrific acts of criticism. That's not to say that I agree with everything in them, but rather to say that they are attentive, probing, and insightful. Mark also has a great satiric essay that plays with the distinction between poetry playing at radicalism and "reely reely radical" writing--very smart, very funny...***I also have to name one other critic: Dan Schneider of While Schneider is in some ways really problematic, he is brave and detailed in ways many critics are not. Check out his "This Old Poem" feature, where he re-writes poems, improving and then ranking them. If that ain't showing your work, I don't know what is!

  162. April 4, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Mr. Fitzgerald, can you elucidate that difference for us?

  163. April 4, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Matthew, to respond to your question, and at the risk of having "Kay" come after me again, may I say for now that I do make a specific proposal about reviewing in the upcoming Mayday forum I mentioned a couple days back. That's coming out in just a few weeks, and if I laid out my modest idea therein here, well, that might make the editors mad! In any case, the idea's a call to at least partially recover what used to be the paratextual norm of reviewing practice, and it's one I believe would liven poetry criticism up a good deal were it more widely employed. But the promised replies, in toto, are sure to be more interesting than my brief polemic (Barry Schwabsky cc'd me his riposte the other day, and if it's any indication, things could get entertaining).****

    On this other notion of taking critical forms into the territory of the imaginary, I've tried a few things to test out the idea. Most recently, the past four issues of Chicago Review have serialized the first chapters of a novella in criticism I've undertaken (it focuses on current UK poets and their relations to a mystery pertaining to Frank O'Hara-- links to the first three pieces are at the CR site). The whole thing, with additional material, will be published later this year, or early next, by Richard Owens's Damn the Caesars Press. So that would be one little step into what I think is a big, uncharted territory of possibility for critical practice: Fictional criticism. (Not that criticism isn't already fictional in essence; I'm just saying it might help to more fully recognize and explore its ontological nature.) As the great poet Armand Schwerner once asked, "Why leave the fictional experiments to the fiction writers?" And that question would also be in answer to your comment, Joan... There's no reason not to push the assumptions and protocols of the review genre, whether one feels there is a "crisis," or not. Because who knows what might be around the corner?****

    And a second on your comment, MZ, re: Mike Theune.****

    And how is it with the massive stimulus package the Poetry Foundation got that we still have this formatting problem? :~)


  164. April 4, 2009
     Garman Lord

    I think it's a mistake to suggest that the
    critic who isn't teaching his readership
    how to appreciate modern poetry isn't
    doing his duty. There is a certain point
    beyond which poetry that needs to be
    explained is no longer true to the
    original purposes for which poetry was
    invented, thousands of years ago, and
    thus is, I should think, no longer
    poetry, properly speaking, but some
    other as yet unnamed kind of art form
    (I would suggest something like
    "peroration".) The thing is, poetry
    appreciation has never authentically
    been so much an issue of "education"
    as an issue of taste, an instinctive
    aptitude inborn in all of us to some
    wildly varying degree, which can be
    "educated" and cultivated in any of us
    to some varying degree, but surely not
    educated plumb out of us in favor of
    some contrived elitist academic
    standard. If anybody has since
    elucidated upon this issue more clearly
    than Max Eastman's HARPER'S April
    1929 essay "The Cult of
    Unintelligibility," I hope someone will
    tell me, because I'd like to read it.

    Modernism's mission seems to be that
    of killing poetry under the guise of
    improving and enlarging upon it, and
    criticism's real crime or failing seems to
    be that of complicity after the fact. I'm
    not saying that nobody who might
    enjoy modernist poetry ought to write
    or read it, far from it. Rather, I am
    saying that modernist poetry, and not
    merely the incapacity of critics or
    others to inculcate our taste for it, is
    the real reason for the relentless
    dwindling of the poetic audience in the
    last century or so. In which case,
    though the problem may not be a
    simple one, a simple solution would
    seem to exist; to wit, beyond a certain
    level of purposeful unintelligibility, what
    we now still call a poem ought really to
    be more plainly labeled as something
    else. Do that widely and generally
    enough, and what do you bet a wider
    and more diversified audience might
    possibly begin to rediscover the original
    joys of poetry over time?

  165. April 4, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    ok Garman, I'm genuinely interested, if we did it your way, whose poems exactly would be left to be called "poems" nowadays? And what would we call this other thing that is no longer poetry, while we're at it? This is not the first time something like this argument has been advanced in this discussion: to me it seems like in various ways some people are arguing against the very notion that poetry, or any other art, should require any elucidation from critics, reviewers, etc. That seems to be just one step away from arguing that we shouldn't need any education at all! That all knowledge, artistic and otherwise, should be natural, and that it's "elitist" to instruct anyone about anything! I know personally I have been instructed a lot about poetry, and continue to be. I don't see why that's a bad thing. Again, Susan Denning pointed this out earlier, when she wrote, "I wonder if there is something about the fact that people use language every day that makes them feel like they should be able to appreciate a poem on their own and that critics are not necessary. Also, if I was trying to figure out how to change the oil in my car, and if someone gave me a manual to read about changing oil, I don't think I'd say, "I don't need to read a book about changing the oil, I can figure it out myself! Mechanics are useless!" There is something about the fact we use language every day I think that makes some feel that anything presented to us in that medium should be discernible, and if it's not, it's up to the reader to figure it out." Well said. When I write that I think critics can be helpful to people in teaching them how to read, I am not being "elitist," (any more than arguing for any sort of teaching at all is elitist -- if you don't want to be taught, don't go to school, and don't read critics who teach!), nor is it arguing that all poetry needs a constant interpreter, or patronizing the reader, or arguing for some high priesthood of criticism. It just means that some things that are valuable to do in this world -- like changing your oil, or playing chess, or looking at abstract paintings, or reading poetry -- can be helped along with a little guidance, which before this conversation I would have thought to be so self-evident that it was not worth even saying. To call criticism that instructs in any way "elitism," and then to argue against it (which is what several people have done in this thread and in various other places) is just a classic case of the straw man argument. Everyone knows elitism is bad: just ask John Kerry. Asking for some good criticism is not the same thing as saying people should always need a critic to understand poetry, or that only poetry that needs a critic is good. Sometimes it's the simplest art that needs a good critic, so that the subtle things that are happening and that can give pleasure are not missed in the surface "ease" of the work! Ok, this has been great, but now I am going to turn off my computer and enjoy the weekend. See you all next week, if you're not on to something else by then.

  166. April 4, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Matthew said****

    "It just means that some things that are valuable to do in this world -- like changing your oil, or playing chess, or looking at abstract paintings, or reading poetry -- can be helped along with a little guidance, which before this conversation I would have thought to be so self-evident that it was not worth even saying."****

    Well, Matthew, the "things that are valuable to do in this world" list you offer, comparing oil changes and the reading poetry is... well, somewhat problematic!


  167. April 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Oh, man, instinctive taste! The modernists violating an innate hierarchy of the mind! Yeah, there's a reason that article was written in 1929 -- by a guy who would become a leading McCarthyite. Such nonsense, alive & well, gives one hope: if there are people who could entertain ideas this idiotic, surely there are people who could respond to imaginative criticism.

  168. April 4, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Yeah, but George Plimpton as Max Eastman in Reds was terrific, wasn't he?

    What a fabulous movie!


  169. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Don, if you meant the analogy, the stereotype is meant as well. In any case, re: obscurity, there is a difference between obscurity (or mystery) in a poem, both of which I'm certain you know I love, and nonsense. And I know you can tell the difference. I know everyone here can, but they do not dare speak of "that kind of poetry" (TKOP) lest they be thought too limited and benighted by some future critics and readers to have "gotten it." (And no, it's not just LangPo.) Better to engage in the pretense that all poems make sense--if not now, then at some future time, if not here, then somewhere, in some universe, better to hedge our bets, just in case--than to state the obvious: certain contemporary poems simply do not, will not, and cannot make sense--either by design or by sheer lack of skill on the part of a poet. They are not in the majority of poems I receive as an editor (that's still the autobiographical, memoir-ish, "I" poem), but they are a healthy minority and growing. You can dance around it all you like, but it's part--a big part, in my opinion--of why poetry is in crisis. (Then there's the other part, those memoir-ish poems in majority, that are boring us to death, being turned out by the thousands.) You may admire Randall Jarrell, but of course everyone does--now. It's safe to do so. You can bet, however, that he would have had the cojones to speak up clearly about nonsense--and I bet you would be making the same kind of analogy re: his poetic sensibility as you are making re: mine. Fortunately, he cared about poetry more than he cared what his fellow critics, or poets, or colleagues, thought of HIM. And I admire that. Now, about the poem teaching us how to read it--there is no better teacher of a thing than the thing itself. You can go to all the sources and authorities you like, but the poem exists to be read by a reader who enters into it with an open mind, imagination, and willingness to go where it will go. To read a poem with attention and care is to study it. Noticing and trying to articulate to yourself (or others) how it does what it does becomes part of the experience of reading it. You read it and you learn it. Wide reading helps you develop a vocabulary and enhances the experience, and a more practiced reader of poetry, or teacher, can help guide you, of course, but if you are always looking for someone else to tell you how to think about something you cannot fully learn what that poem has to say to you. It's hard to be honest in your reactions to any art, simply because we fear being thought limited. But being too intimidated to have honest reactions, even in solitude, severely limits one's ability to finally, fully, engage with the work of art that is a poem. And that's a shame.

  170. April 4, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Joan, something you claim here troubles me, and I point it out because the notion seems to be at the heart of your concerns about the TKOP monster:**** "certain contemporary poems simply do not, will not, and cannot make sense--either by design or by sheer lack of skill on the part of a poet."**** The question obviously begged here is this: What do you mean by "sense"? Does poetry have one sense? Gosh, let's hope not!


  171. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Kent, yes, it is at the heart of my concerns about TKOP, and no, I don't think there is one "sense" that poetry should have. Thanks for probing this a little, otherwise, I end up again with the literalist label. A poem can make sense on many different levels, and in many differnt ways, and several ways at once, and an unexpected "making sense" is one of the chief delights of reading a poem. Logical sense is the least of it, and by far the least interesting when it comes to poetry. I am not a fan of most poems in form for that reason. I dislike didacticism in any form, including an obviously pursued strategy. There is emotional, psychological, sprititual sense in poetry, and there is a sensed, but never revealed kind of underlying logic in some of my favorite poems. I like the "sketch" poem (as I mentioned, I'm a fan of so-called ellipitical poetry). I'm also a fan of the "leap" (bly's notion), find much to like in "soft surrealism" as it's called, and I especially like poems that operate plainly on the surface (clear language) but are utterly puzzling and reveal depths once you start thinking about them (Celan is the extreme example here). But to my mind a poem must finally "add up" somehow--and I don't really care how, and I love to be surprised at how that might happen. And I also love that it may add up one way, one day, then another on another day, or year from now, etc. So, yes, please don't fence me in with "sense." Thanks.

  172. April 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Yes, Don, get over yr intimidation & yr anxiety about what yr fellow poets think about you & admit that you hate those poems you profess to love, you know, the ones that don't make sense. (By the way, Jarrell came out very strongly against abstract expressionism, as against non-representational painting in general, which should hardly matter to those of us for whom Pollock's work is a touchstone. So what if he would reject the sort of work Joan is talking about? I'm sure he would.) It's perfectly fine that Joan's sense of poetry is too narrow (too paltry, I want to say) to encompass the many wonderful poems that don't make the sort of sense she values. Too bad for her, & the rest of us can read Prynne & Rodefer w/ pleasure. But for her to suggest that we are not truly engaging with such work, but are dishonest in this because we fear censure for our philistinism -- well, again, this is bad faith, a critical strategy of muck & slime.

  173. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    "a critical strategy of muck & slime."

    eeek! I feel so dirty now... ;-)

  174. April 4, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    OK, Joan, then let me ask this, and I'm asking because you write lots of criticism and reviews, and I know lots of people follow what you write: Who are some of the main representatives of this TKOP poetry?**** But, actually, before you answer, let me go ahead and give you two poets I like very much, who can be very complex and difficult and who don't make "sense" in any of the usual ways we understand the word, and yet who *expand*, for example, my own sense of what sense and sensing is or can be: Louis Zukofsky and J.H. Prynne.**** What do you think of these poets and their often "opaque" texts? Are they part of that group that does not make any "sense"?**** I suspect you would have to include these two poets in the TKOP category of poets, am I right? But if so, then how do you account for the fact that some people genuinely find their work (I think you are unfair and wrong to suggest people just read them for "careerist" reasons) to be exciting, productively perplexing, and sometimes strangely beautiful, even if they cannot always say exactly why-- as one might often be expected to explain it in a conventional review... Does this make any sense?


  175. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Kent, I will respond fully to this asap--more soon.


  176. April 4, 2009
     Mark Grinyer

    Having been put through the English Major treadmill during the height of the New Critical hegemony, I cannot deny the elitist impact of new critical thinking as it was, and probably still is, applied to poems. I'm convinced that the complexities and ironies of that aesthetic applied to poems, to The Red Wheelbarrow, This is Just to Say, or to The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, for example, made it difficult for budding readers of poetry to enjoy some relatively simple "machines made of words," and probably turned them away from poetry forever. However, at the same time, these new critical disciplines also helped open the doors of many great poems for me, and provided me with some guidelines for the evaluation and writing of poems that I still believe are valid 50 years later. I suspect that I am not unique in this experience. Mr. Zapruder's attempt to focus our critical attention back into the language of the poem, and on the critic's duty to open the reader's eyes to the ways in which a particular poem might work, is a worthwhile one, and one that is neglected in much of the review literature I've seen in various magazines (although, of course, there are many exceptions). It is, at least, an attempt to focus our attention on the intellectual/emotional workings of the language of the poem, which are the province of the poet in the first place. There are, of course, other aspects, moral and aesthetic aspects, of great poetry that are equally, if not more important as well. I am afraid that it is in these areas that much of the poetry published today is sadly lacking. In reading today's poetry I often find myself asking for something more in this area than I'm getting. Too much of what I see seems too much the same. It is verbally and imagistically clever and shows accomplished "poetic" technique, but is ultimately lacking in "gravitas" or apparently serious intent. Perhaps this is my fault as a reader, but then again, perhaps it is not.

  177. April 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Mark, here are some poets I think might be worth yr while to check out, based on what you wrote: James McMichael, Robert Hass, Marianne Boruch, Allan Petersen, Donald Revell, Jim Powell, Mary Jo Bang. Great poets all, whose serious intent is not in doubt. Apologies if you know their work already.

  178. April 4, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Dear Mr. Harr:
    Elucidate. Such a fine word (are you sure you didn’t mean elaborate?).
    So, to elucidate, regarding nonsense, please refer to Ms. Houlihan’s post of April 2, 2009 at 5:02 pm, above.
    What I mean is understanding. Of what value is a poem that is not understood? Otherwise, what, exactly, is the point of communication? Are we speaking in tongues? There is language (in the true sense) and then there is gibberish. Difficulty and obscurity in poetry are only a matter of education. Since I am neither a scholar or a professor, I can use only my own poetry as example. I refer to myself (somewhat self-deprecatingly), as a ‘simple Taoist Nature poet’. My poetry is plain and simple by design, as accessible, some would say, as it gets. Yet, if one is unfamiliar with certain philosophical and scientific concepts, then even my humble poems could be considered ‘difficult and obscure’. For example, if one doesn’t understand such terms such as ‘mitochondrial’ or ‘deoxyribo’, xylem or phloem, metameristic or ‘quantum membrane’ or even Tao (and you’d be surprised how many don’t), then even my clear and plain-spoken words would be unintelligible.
    But, at least, there is some basis in reality there. The language is about something one will eventually understand when educated. The poems will, in fact, teach you what they mean by the very use of the terms you don’t yet understand. But the words of the poem quoted in Houlihan’s post have no meaning whatsoever and so, in my opinion, are not poetry but gibberish and, therefore, have no purpose at all. Anymore than this:
    17665 was an 889 to 39+19.2 and RRG is 77B but 29.3 it was, are you?
    Is this poetry? Is this communication? Horsefeathers!

  179. April 4, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    P.S. Formatting problem not yet resolved. Extra 'line break' periods unsuccessful.

  180. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Kent, first, I will say that many poets you might think *I* think of as TKOP I read and enjoy, mainly for the display of technique (as any poet loves to see another poet do something unexpected with language), including (most recently) Nathaniel Mackey, Ann Lauterbach and Peter Gizzi. I am a fan of Allen Peterson and Larissa Szporluk (though not her latest book), both of whom I published early on in Perihelion (though they are not so much TKOP as elliptical); I like many of the poets Reginald Shepherd gathered in his "The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries" (of which I am one), including Cynthia Cruz, Dan Beachy-Quick (some), D.A. Powell (just reviewed his latest for CPR), Christine Hume (reviewed her for Pleiades). Not a fan of Matthea Harvey who is also in there (also reviewed Modern Life for CPR). I like to expand my base of knowledge on what poets can do and are doing with technique, and there is a lot to follow, but I find a lot of technique and very few poets able to deploy it in the service of deeper meaning or emotional sense. So I see riffs and tremendous use of verbal hijinks, but this is only one dimension of poetry for me and interesting mainly because I am also a practicing poet ("Hey, look at that!"). I don't know Louis Zukofsky's work so can't comment. I've only seen a few poems of J.H. Prynne (he has some work available on the net, in Jacket), but--well, Ashbery was there first, at least in my reading chronology if not in real time, and I've already done my time with that--basically, he seems to be a list poet, one who makes fascinating lists of images, units of thought, and syntactical swerves, but it stays on the surface and there's no there, there. So, yes he is in the TKOP category for me, though no disputing his sheer brilliance with image-making and lyrical turns. There are worlds of poetry and not enough time--I would not spend my time on him. As to your question about how I account for the fact that some people find such poems exciting, strangely beautiful, etc., etc., I will say it's easy to account for it--if they are also poets, they are drawn to the excitement of something new being made with language. The question for me, is why stay with it? It's not nourishing. Beneath the surfaces of TKOP poems there is no depth, no emotional or psychological "truth" if you will. Surface beauty is not enough for me (and I've only mentioned poets who have that aspect--plenty of other TKOP poems that are utterly boring on the surface PLUS have no depth!) and I suspect that many who loudly laud the TKOP poems and try to make those who don't, feel lacking, are insecure readers without a mature enough poetic judgment of their own to say "It doesn't move me, I don't understand it, and I'm moving on." The word you use is "careerist" but I think it's simply lack of trust in one's own perceptions and fear of being thought limited.

  181. April 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Sorry, but "nonsense" just isn't a critical term, in my vocabulary, anyway. And I don't get the suggestion that I admire Jarrell because it's safe to do so, but that I wouldn't have when he was around! Yikes.

    Nor do I get lumping Prynne with Ashbery, or calling him a list poet, either, but our mileage simply varies here. Folks in the Chicago area might like to see Prynne read and lecture at the U. of C. in just a few weeks to satisfy their own curiosity, if they have any, about him.

    Alas, as the "Are You Being Served" tag line goes: "My patience are exhausted."

  182. April 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    Yes, indeed: Ashbery a "list poet"! It takes one's breath away, as does the idea that Ashbery & Prynne are doing exactly the same thing. And for a critic to be unfamiliar with Zukofsky, at this late date ... what is one's critical responsibility to actually grapple with the traditions one condemns? As Richards wrote in Practical Criticism, "We cannot profitably attack any opinion until we have discovered what it expresses as well as what it states." Joan refuses to do the work required for this discovery; if she did, she might be able to read Ashbery as a very subtle thinker, Prynne as an entirely different poet, Zukofsky as one of the most important poets of the period we call modernism. It's sad, really, but no one's problem but hers.

  183. April 4, 2009
     Michael Robbins

    (Or at least, I should say, she would then be able to mount a cogent attack, rather than one that anyone familiar with the work instantly disregards, since it insists on getting everything in it exactly wrong. No reader of Ashbery or Prynne recognizes them in Joan's remarks, because she appears not to have read them at all, not with the attention & curiosity & responsiveness they deserve.)

  184. April 4, 2009
     Joan Houlihan

    Michael (and Don), you're right, I haven't read much Prynne, much more Ashbery, but I have no desire whatsover to spend a lot of time thinking about, or reading critical texts about, either one. I was merely trying to respond to Kent's question, not mount a "cogent attack" on anyone or anything. As I said, we make our choices as readers and poets re: how to best spend our time, and I am not interested in spending more of mine on either Prynne or Ashbery (and I was referring to the former as "list poet"--obviously a sophisticated one, and obviously a tossed off comment on my part, but still..) and yes, I haven't read enough to make any good critical comments on him. The point I'm making is that I won't, as you like to call it, Michael, "do the work," because that poet doesn' t call to me and many others do. Sorry if he's one of your "faves" but I just don't have time--in fact, I have given this whole blog stream waaaay too much time. I'm afraid I'm using it to procrastinate--! It's been fun..I think. Don, sorry if I offended you, Michael, not so much. ;-) I never get out of these things without offending at least 3 or 4 people, so if it's only 2, that's pretty good.


  185. April 5, 2009
     kathryn diane austin

    ive entered so many poems in here and,was led to believe all rights were mine,now song of romance came out dec. 2007 almost word for word to my poem,also 3 others have been with some word changes in poetry of famous.i have all poems close to 7000 now and each are sent to lawyer as written as he holds all copies with original trying to let world enjoy my diary of poems,its my life with some fantasy also in.but im doing own book in typing and print out as all are interested in only praise and notice rich and famous poets,2 have put 3 of my poems in books ,they werte wrote in 1970s to 1980s.these are recent dates as of 2008 were published in their did they get permission to do this ???not from me,only famous are recognized,us unknowns die never knowing the thrill of having our poetry out there.only the rich and famous are getting known as we the poor always will remain unheard and unseen.ive decided to change that with my 4 poems taken,don't care if famous singer i wrote and on record along with stories and 3 poems that 2 famous poets also copied.that is unfair as i remain poor and unknown and they get paid and pride from my work im ashamed i ever trusted internet with my private poetry.i feel used and betrayed,what happened ?????

  186. April 5, 2009
     kathryn diane austin

    Only To Those Who Care

    I used to be so proud,
    I wrote beauty for all to see,
    Only through my eyes of life,
    poems or there beauty were mine to be.
    Now where is hope,when no one sees,
    Where is depth of my poetry unseen,
    How could nearly all my poems lost,
    They always live in me and my books.
    My Diary Of Life,my poems show,
    Real life of tradgedy,pain,my life real.
    I tell the world of life and death,
    Tell all ,yet a great will i live.
    Show you my intimate dreams and,
    SHow the lost way poor as me take,
    See and write from life or dreams,
    Never to be noticed unknown and unseen.
    Sad as ive felt,still survive,
    Life a gift to all but please be wise,
    Life can be nil in a second or flash,
    Where my heart lies,to show world poetry path.
    All poets dream of being understood,
    Most never see poem in print,
    Yet an artist as poets will preserve.
    They feel joy words bring,beauty poems send out.
    For those starving poets join the crowd,
    I think silent here on earth,
    In heaven God will grace me with applause,
    All us here rich or poor sit beside another at the heavenly door.

  187. April 5, 2009
     kathryn diane austin

    just wanted to see how site works.and alot of artist and poets may live in their own world but always open to love,companionship and does no give back what it takes,but you can give beauty to all.....what have critics to say of me ????a crazy artist and poet,not a very good ,loving and generous person whos shyness led to writting feelings at young age and id recommend for all ive had poetry going from 1965 to now,write for beauty and relaxation.for my dream to be good poet,but we all know never famous until we are dead.

  188. April 6, 2009
     Jim Richardson

    Look, listen,learn, see, say, do and enjoy for:
    Criticism cauterises
    Aalysis agonises
    Education galvanises.
    If you can't do it for pleasure - don't do it at all.


    PS I can't wait for the movie.

  189. April 6, 2009
     Dave M

    I continue to be astonished at the volume of people who write about poetry, as compared to the volume of people who write poetry. It feels like writing about eating an apple, or watching a sunrise. After a point, what is there to say that enhances the experience? We risk talking poetry to death.

  190. April 6, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Glad to see the discussion is continuing. I thought it had about ended so haven't been back till now. (And I was a little disappointed that just about no one responded to my first post and that my blog entry expanding on what I said in it seemed only to draw a few visitors.) Now I see that Don Share has said something nice about what I said (thanks, Don) and Joan H. wants the link. Here it is:

  191. April 7, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    I've now sort of caught up with the comments in this thread. They done wore me out too much to say much back right now. Will say this to Joan: seems to me your claim that we all recognize nonsense when we see it indicates what I find wrong with your outlook. I do not know nonsense when I see it. I know what makes sense to me, and what does not make sense to me, but it is difficult for me to determine whether or not what doesn't make sense to me is nonsense or not. That's where critical help comes in. If some language poem, for example, makes no sense to me, I want someone for whom it does make sense to tell me why it does. And I do believe a poem should make sense . . . of SOME KIND--not necessarily verbal sense. (Some poems can make non-representational sense to me.) ******************************************
    I also believe in returning often to poems that make no sense to me and reflecting on them, trying to figure them out on my own. On the other hand, my time is limited.************************************************
    You, however, seem to believe that since you can immediately recognize nonsense, you needn't bother as a critic with any poem you can't at once make sense of. A responsible critic would not have that attitude.****************************************************************************************
    One other comment, this to Matthew Z. He mentioned that K-12 teachers should give more help preparing students for "difficult" poetry. I disagree. Teachers should continue teaching conventional poetry and not unconventional poetry (except to the few very verbally advanced)--for the same reason they should teach arithmetic and algebra but not calculus (except to the few very mathematically advanced)*************************************************

    I don't think unconventional poetry will ever be very popular, but I agree with Matthew that good criticism of it would win it more appreciation. And the problem is not lack of good critics but lack of publishers outside the micropress willing to publish their work.


  192. April 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    “And I do believe a poem should make sense . . . of SOME KIND--not necessarily verbal sense.” - Bob Grumman...........................................
    [VERBAL – adjective -
    1. of or pertaining to words; 2. consisting of or in the form of words; 3.consisting of or expressed in words;
    4. pertaining to or concerned with words only (as opposed to ideas, facts, or realities); 5. using words;]................
    I believe you have touched upon the crux of the matter, Mr. Grumman. What, pray tell, is the point of selecting WORDS to make sense that is NON-VERBAL? After all, there are many non-verbal arts from which one could choose to ‘make sense’: music, painting, sculpture, dance. In fact, if non-verbal communication is the objective then one could simply grunt like a Chimpanzee or bay at the moon. Why waste our time with meaningless words? If you want to make a point about the meaninglessness of words, just publish a book with blank pages. If you can’t actually write poetry, why bother with words?

  193. April 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "Look!", the boy cried. "Look at the Emperor!"

  194. April 7, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Gary, your questions are precisely the ones I would want a critic to attempt to answer. I'm afraid I can't comment on what you said about the boy and the emperor. That went over my head.


  195. April 7, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    In his post in favor of certain of my comments, Don Share had this to say about my hope that criticism of a visual poem from Poetry be elicited, "about visual poetry, well, you can see how having people discuss it turned out right here on Harriet: not very well, in my opinion."
    I assume he is referring to the thread about mIEKAL aND's work. I agree that the discussion of that work was pretty poor. One good reason for that is that the aND "textscape," as I call it, is, alas, not a very complex or interesting piece. aND, a friend of mine, has done many much better pieces, some of them genuinely visual poetry, as this one is not. What could anyone be expected to say about it except that it is a pleasant arrangement of pseudo-letters that suggests something undeciphered from a lost civilization?
    Another good reason for the poor discussion is that very few people interested in works like aND's would be likely visitors to Harriet. Most participants in the discussion, therefore, were outsiders to visual poetry. Many were the opposite of sympathetic to it.
    So, my suggestion would be to choose a better example of visual poetry from the Poetry gallery. The Lipman work, for instance. And don't start a thread on it, post the poem with an e.mail address to send critiques of it to, and circulate invitations to critique through the Internet. Once the critiques are all in, then post the best of them (I myself would post the worst, too, as examples of the way not to do critiques, but that's just me). It is then that comments could be allowed.

  196. April 7, 2009
     Don Share

    Hm, well critiques ain't criticism - or am I wrong? I don't have the means to take up Bob's suggestion on this website, but I s'pose I could do it on my blog, or you on yours (Bob, or anyone). What I wouldn't want to do is decide which are the "best" critiques. But let me ask this: why exactly would a poem you don't think much of elicit responses worse than one that might, arguably, be better? Should only "good" poems (visual or otherwise) be critiqued? Are only good poems discussed well??

  197. April 8, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Not sure why critiques aren't criticism, Don, but "critical essay on a poem" would be fine with me, too.
    Deciding the best essays? Difficult, but really what I would think necessary is reducing the number posted for comment. There'd have to be some way of doing that. Seems to me that if you had a lot, the commentary would be even more confusing that such commentary usually is. And setting it up more difficult, etc.
    As for whether a good poem is better to critque than one not so good, I was thinking along with Matthew (I think) in wanting criticism that opened up difficult poems to people who might appreciate them given helpful nudges. Ergo, the helping critic would need a poem he thinks good, that he likes.
    As for the aND poem, I felt it drew little discussion not because it was, in my view, a lesser artwork, but because there wasn't very much to it (in my view). I do think a critic can say more about a work of more complexity.
    I think any poem can be discussed well. A good critic can be illuminatingly hostile toward a poem he discusses. But the very best criticism will be of the best poems, because the best poems will draw more enthusiastic investigation. Or maybe the best criticism is of poems the critic can sense may be good but is also stymied by. I guess I don't have any kind of final answer.
    As for setting something up, I'm an idea man only. I.e., I'm lazy. And over-extended. But it seems to me it shouldn't be too hard to get a space somewhere to post a poem at, and store critical discussions of it by whatever name. Maybe have some kind of panel to winnow them down to the most interesting, or to get a range of views, or whatever. Then post the chosen ones for comment--and at least publicize it at Harriet.
    Or maybe this: post a poem at Harriet, and call for bloggers to devote one entry in their blog to a discussion of it such that it demonstrates how they think a critic should respond to a poem. Harriet could, I should think, keep a list of the URLS of blog entries discussing the poem. Maybe someone with a big blog and time could collect all the discussions into one place.
    Just thinking out loud, Don. Thanks for the interest. --Bob

  198. April 8, 2009
     Don Share

    That's all well put, Bob: thank you. I think I'm with you on all this! Anybody else interested in crit. disc. of a visual poem?

  199. April 8, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    One additional thought, Don: that maybe we shouldn't start with a visual poem, but work up to it. Start with a few conventional poems, then Ashbury or someone whose work some consider difficult, then a language poem or a visual poem. But post a visual poem and I'll definitely discuss it at my blog.

    Meanwhile, I'll let my friends in vizpo know of the possible project.


  200. April 9, 2009
     C Mehrl Bennett

    Yes, I'd be interested in a critical discussion of a visual poem.
    To the uninitiated: Please see the vispo gallery I curated on the current online issue of
    It's been online for six months now.
    There is also a video interview of mIEKAL aND, accessible from the issue's home page.

  201. April 9, 2009
     Craig Morgan Teicher

    I know I'm a little late to the game here,
    but I've posted a response to this on the
    National Book Critics Circle blog:

  202. April 10, 2009
     KC Trommer

    i don't agree that we are in a golden age of poetry or of reviewing. there's certainly a proliferation of both, but i don't see real critical sifting through of what is interesting and successful and what is pretentious dreck. most of the reviews i read seem to do a lot of glad-handing, because the poesy world is so small and everyone is afraid of ... Read Morethe repercussions of offending people. i've hesitated to write reviews for that very reason. (i do like orr.) it's not just poetry that suffers from an inadequate critical response--it's part of a larger failing of American culture to value art. we lack the critical vocabulary, a variety of publishing organs to support real dialogue, and an audience that is able to define what it likes and what its challenged by. much art is often given a pass because there is so much discomfort around making something that doesn't have an explicit monetary value. so, if you make something you're brave, you're excellent, and your work has value.

  203. April 11, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Sorry, Craig, but your response didn't persuade me that Zapruder's view that most visible poetry criticism is pretty weak is wrong. The people you mention as "top tier" critics are competent enough, I suppose, but only say standard things about standard poetry.

  204. April 13, 2009
     Crag Hill

    Indeed, I would be interested in a constructive de-constructive conversation about a particular visual poem with the purpose of putting some light into the dark.

  205. April 15, 2009
     Howard Partch

    And I suspect there are many many
    invisible poems who see the day and are
    put down without thought of wider
    criticism. Life is criticism enough for most
    of us. Our daily musings balance the
    troubles and provide a track in the snow.

  206. April 15, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Matthew's been kind enough to talk to our Poetry Off the Shelf producer Curtis Fox about a John Ashbery poem. Listen to their conversation here:


  207. April 16, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    Also, here's a link to a list of the works cited in this comment section:


    That could make a pretty good foundation for a class of some sort. Required reading for constant critics?

  208. April 16, 2009
     Michael Theune

    Wow, Travis!--what a resource! Thanks for compiling and sharing this list.

  209. April 21, 2009
     Angela Khristin Brown

    Poetry is a metamorphasis of conjagation and retrieval.

  210. April 22, 2009
     Thom Donovan

    here is the call for a magazine I coedit, which features writings on the practice and/or poetics of one's contemporaries.
    one of the magazine's purposes is to create discourse, as well as to invent and extend alternative critical modalities. check it out!:

    ON: Contemporary Practice 2


    The first issue of ON, a journal devoted to contemporary poetics, featured over twenty essays (and a few epistolary collaborations) focused on poets such as Taylor Brady, kari edwards, Brenda Iijima, CJ Martin, Emily McVarish, Yedda Morrison, Hoa Nguyen, Sawako Nakayasu, Julie Patton, Dana Ward, and Alli Warren. Our goal is to offer a survey of the field 'as it stands,' written by and for those 'we' are reading and discussing, with the intention of bringing reflection to a discourse during a prodigious cultural moment. We hope you'll contribute to the second issue by engaging with the practice, poetry and poetics of one of your closest contemporaries.

    1. ON encourages contributors to investigate a "practice," rather than a solitary poem, chapbook, performance, review, art object, etc.

    2. The subject should roughly be of your generation – generation is defined as you see fit.

    3. There are no strict limits on page count – essays in ON 1 ranged from 1 to 18 pages.

    4. Please feel free to share this solicitation with writers from your community and colleagues who may have escaped our attention.

    5. Submissions should be single-spaced set in 10 pt. Palatino. For additional formatting requirements, please refer to the most recent Chicago Manual of Style. Please send either a hardcopy or PDF along with your word document.

    6. We suggest that you check out the first issue if you haven't done so already. Copies are available from Small Press Distribution and from the editors.

    7. Please also include a 35-word bio.

    Deadline for submissions is May 1, 2009. ON will be available in print and digital online formats. Please direct all submissions and questions to any of the addresses below, and thank you in advance for being ON.


    Michael Cross
    Kyle Schlesinger
    Thom Donovan

  211. April 24, 2009
     Ruben Santos Claveria

    I'm not sure what form this new critique of poetry should take. Should it sound abtract and almost incomprehensible as Frank O'Hara's abstract expressionist writing. O'Hara wrote satirical articles about artists too while describing the sandwich he was eating at the time. Maybe criticism should be satirical surrealism like Dean Young's poetry. Dean Young was my advisor at Loyola so I bought many of his books and found what sounds like nonsense and parody sometimes is a deeply interpersonal experience to whoever took a workshop with Dean Young. I would not start by listening to Velvet Underground if I was interested in a new sound. I'd start with Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob, U2's lyrics at and Joni Mitchell's greatest hits. When you stop seing poetry as unbearably boring, then critique of poetry begins to give an idea a new direction. For a list of songs that have said something interesting to me, go to my myspace page at Thanks. And write to your congress person at in support of National Poetry Month.

  212. April 25, 2009

    Interesting article. I do not have to agree with it entirely, or disagree with it entirely, to appreciate the cogency of its argument.

    I confess, however, this whole business of poet/critic relationships has, like a dead horse, been beaten mercilessly for a long time, for at least three generations by my reckoning, and maybe four. I guess it all started when a generation of Modernists, Pound's generation, opted for the difficult in synatx and sense delivery. (Pound himself declared the Modernist poet's greatest danger as his inclination to incomprehensibility. And Pound would know.) Nor did it start with Pound's generation even. It might have started with Mallarme's, with the arch-Symbolist himself who hated the idea of naming objects, who preferred the suggestion as the dream, who felt the pleasure of poetry resides in understanding the poem little by little.

    Anyway, while I too would like to see a new sort of critic, and of the ilk the author looks to find, it is pretty clear to me it ain't ever going to happen. After all, Keats' harshest detractors were in fact poetry critics, and that was a long time ago.

    Here is my antidote to the problem. Forget about the poet/critic dialogue. Focus, instead, on the poet/poetry reader dialogue. Trust more in the poetry reader who, after all, has no vocation or office to defend, who is there for the poetry.


  213. April 30, 2009
     Diana Manister

    Zapruder is infected by the marketing flu, a symptom of which is the belief that appealling to wide demographics is, in Martha Stewart's phrase, "a good thing." His argument is a hidden attack on connoisseurship. There are connoisseurs of mathematical puzzles, Japanese tanka, rare coins, Aztec murals, Petroglyphs in Chaco Canyon, Renaissance frescoes, shape-singing and film noir. Needless to say, their tastes are not shared by the majority of consumers. Readers who find pleasure in indeterminacy, ambiguity and obscurity, who delight in poems that yield their meaning only after having been read repeatedly over time, have as much right to their rarified taste and expertise as connoisseurs of any other art form. Connoisseurs by definition appreciate fine points that lumpen proles do not perceive and in which they have no interest. Plenty of literate readers still don't get that "The Wast Land" is a war poem -- Joan, note the title is three words -- a poem that expresses by means of the derangement of the narrator's identity and fragmentation of coherent narrative the emotional and cultural breakdown in Europe during WWI. No doubt many post-grad English majors believe that "Prufrock" is as "insane" as Harriet Monroe thought it was when she at first refused to publish it in Poetry magazine. Only readers with a connoisseur's obsessive interest in a work of art will meditate on its details and larger patterns until its mystery is at least partially understood. Great archaeologists, like Schliemann who discovered the site of ancient Troy, can describe their findings in scintillating and understandable prose, but they will fail to arouse interest in those who lack passion for Trojan artifacts. Chacun à son gôut.

  214. May 13, 2009


    Yes, that's our problem, not enough advertising. Let's advertise more. Jeez, how many times do you see people just browsing through bookstores without knowing what they already want.

    No surprises, you say, but it's usually the surprise in poetry which pleases.

  215. June 16, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    Unsurprisingly, it would appear that just about no one coming to this site is interested in following up on the idea of of serious discussion of visual poetry. This announcement is for the few who may be. If they go to:

    they'll find the text of my latest column for Small Press Review, a discussion of the issue of Poetry the gallery Geof Huth edited of visio-textual works appeared in. I didn't have space to say much about the works in the gallery, but said something about each of them. My next column, to appear in August, is devoted to the work by Scott Helmes, so goes into some detail.

    In the unlikely event some of those reading this are interested in finding out about kinds of poetry they will rarely if ever see in Poetry, they can follow links to previous SPR columns of mine.

  216. June 19, 2009
     kyu sun ariola

    human we are create all the vocabulary
    and world that we live we make prayer and we make the book to read and follow the world people and we make the law and we make the rule to make our life compotable and time that we live now time to change too much hard work human body cannot able to handle
    less income for hard work people cannot survive who and how we can change the world problem now that we live in our world we are the answer and we got the power and we got the idea and we got the skills to change the world by ask with write to goverment reader to change the world for entire world we need job for everyone like to do and we need pay enougth to every one need to live ample to enjoy life
    we got the resource on the earth and space and sea how we do that
    first understand we live in modern life style of computer and merchine world
    time change now less human work and let the computer and merchine do the work in order to do all the things that we want to complish our goal
    we need goverment funding to support 100 percent to all the area of life
    reader and goverment and people all age and world wide project
    why because company need merchine but human have to program and work and we need pay check to take care wroker and buy the supply and run the company and hire people less work days and hours create more job space and increase the income for everyone
    who work or not make our economic very successful and make zero crime in our world and enougth time to shopping and movie and trips everyone will be super happy that is call human happiness right as human being we derserve our happiness as we are live in this world and you and i can change the world by write a ltter to goverment president and he will change the world for us how comportable life we all want enougth money for everyone and enougth job space for everyone
    we need work as good fairmily
    like real mom and dad and sister
    how fast we need change our world today and now i love the world
    and i thank god for create me in this beautiful world that he make for us and i know god is in heven and jesus live in my heart and holy sprit love us you and me how open god think about our life everyday he pray for you and me
    and i thank god to make all the beautiful color and air and clould and mountain and people and all the life that we are live how wonderful that god care for all of us and he give us to power to change the world by our self
    time is now to change the worl
    all the age need life support money and we can use goverment unlimit funding for everyone why not if we use paper and ink and merchine to print money we got enougth land to grow foods and alot of things that we got just share while we are in this world
    human life are most important than
    anthing in this world and also all the life on the earth moving things or not moving i love sky so beautiful
    make me super happy and joy and when i see the sea how wonderful color of wave and water i love love love the world

  217. June 19, 2009
     kyu sun ariola

    human make prayer books and bible and all the different god name
    because time of people live all the years and nation wide have different languge we speek and we have been make all the prayer how come we did not make prayer anwer book yet
    to make our prayer can come true
    and people make all the wish and
    dream and we got the answer
    i am a woman but i belive i can change the world by speek how i feel and i how want the world to be change and how i want world to be and we have all the power to do that just simply belive in your self say that i can do it
    and when we make all the prayer answer god in heven father think how nice wand wonderful that our human make good excellent choice of life that we make right decision and we finerly say yes we are the answer and we make it right and we got the happiness and that s what we derserve and whole world travel and have fun and share all the foods and shopping and enjoy all the life of culture i will answer all the prayer of the entire world by write a letter to president and make them understand how we want our world to be and it will come true and we love true happiness say yes to human happiness right speek to everyone
    than time will come today and tommorrow soon you and i will see the world change as we all wish to live

  218. June 21, 2009
     Bob Grumman

    I've been informed that the link I posted that's supposed to go to my review of the visual poetry issue of Poetry doesn't.

    This one may:

    If not, try

    This should take you to a table of contents for all my Small Press Review columns. Once there, click "May/June2009" to get to my column on Poetry.

    The adventurous might try clicking to other columns to find out about kinds of poetry whose existence is rarely hinted at on the pages of Poetry.


  219. June 26, 2009

    Writing "Show Your Work, " above Geometry problems makes a certain kind of brutal sense, dangerous though it may be in the upshot. But writing "Show your Work' and sound the trumpet for exegesis on poetry is faliur of nerve just to start with, a capitulation and mistrust of either the reader or the poem when no such is necessary. "Your works are orphans," a great man once said. Orphans that scream for their daddy in the middle of the ocean drown. Those that can swim, do, and God knows where. God help all of egos, but critics are lifeguards, rescuing an overambitious stroke here, a "situation" there, but they have no part with the lonely, magestic multitude, as also has been said.

    I mean, c'mon.

    Here's a test:

    1. Apple tree branch touches the ground.

    2. Tree branch touches the ground, with apples.

    Take a second . . . .

  220. July 11, 2009
     kyu sun ariola

    thouand years of rulerships on the earth what we did wrong and did not understand what we must change the rule and law to make our life comporterble it seems old and our generation not understand what we all need to change to make perceful world wide of human life survival skills
    first we must understand crime come from less jobs space and less income or law of less support on human life
    if we understand how things can be change with new law to make our life much easier it is very simple to make everyone happy in our generation
    all the human age from one to one hundred years old need survival life time basic support income automatic pay from our goverment new law creation need in our generation because of time that we live now is computer and merchine world take all our job space away from our human
    near future it will be much worth
    alot of less job space for human to work
    why not we change the law and make new law that apply to our life and time that we live in who create all the law human lets build the new law and make our life very comportable
    we all need enougth income to pay the bills and buy foods and shelter and joy for intertainment dont you want to be so relex instead of argu and fight and suffer our generation come on the world understand dont be too hash on everyone life give up the challange
    what is challange mean put other down and self fish life harmoney to work with around the world and work together to share what we got and give support that we all needs is it human life much happier that when we live with harmoney and give everyone what we all needs better than war and crime
    nonstop support and 100 percent privde to all human race and world wide
    human happiness right creation that
    we all dont want the pain and suffer
    if we all write to goverment reader
    they do as what we all human needs and what we wish in our life
    stop make too much sounds use by mouth or gather simply letter will change the world i want love and rich and joyful and loving world it is beautuful world that we all live our earth is so beautiful and univerce of so beautiful lets make it happen
    say i want to make new world by say the truth what we all want to and what to change things in our life how past do you want is today and now
    and i belive you can do it and i can make it happen

  221. July 11, 2009
     kyu sun ariola

    challange mean put other down and hurt their feelings and destroy their life
    it is not too good to hurt someone to gain somthing or win
    when you help other to do better that means true winner and that is excellent choice and we must understand
    you and i need help each other and work together
    stop challange each other
    teach them and guide them and support them that is true winner and i know for sure that when you hold hand and cuddle how nice warm and feeling of love lets begin to think like true winner

  222. August 11, 2009

    The poor boy needs to learn more about poetics. Narrative and lyric are not in opposition to each other. They are two of the major syntaxes (dramatics the third) often employed by poets. Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" employs all three.

  223. August 23, 2010
     Delbert Mashburn

    "across the cabin, the small furnace lit and re-lit itself—the flame a yellow “tongue” again, the metal benignly hard again;" How can a furnace light and re-light itself? How can metal become "benignly hard again?" Poetry is rhetoric. I am unwilling to suspend my disbelief here. The poet skews logic and physics for the mere sake of "meaning," which is an imposition. It is the let's-make-this- scene-strange-therefore-unique move, dream-like, through transference or projection, without the thought of how the figurative and literal co-mingle, how the tenor and vehicle of an embedded metaphor work in unison or apposition or opposition, not independently. This is unattended poetics, lazy rhetoric.

  224. August 23, 2010

    If you name a thing, know that thing intimately (its integrity, functions, history, tradition)within the model that we all experience and "know" it, then find a way to compliment, unfold, the thing and its relations to some other mode, or you will burden it with the figurative, making it meaningless. The problem is that the donkey is no longer a donkey, and therefore, can no longer carry the figurative load.

  225. August 26, 2010

    Poetry does not need critics.
    Poetry however does need poets!

  226. February 23, 2011

    I thought this was a fine article. I wasn't looking for salvation, though it seemed so many of you must have been. In fact, if I can remember, after reading so many responses (good to know people still care about poetry...anyone have kids?), it seems what is being proposed is to bring a century's worth of literary critical traditions together with the aim of freeing poetry from the constraints of formulaic contemporary expectations. I will be sending this article, not my poet friends, though it is an interesting discussion, nor to my friends who "aren't into poetry," though I might print it out and keep it handy for such an occasion. No, I really would like to show this to all of those who have had success in the visual arts, experimenting with strings and things, that intended to make sense, sometimes, only in the absence of sense, and certainly by surrounding themselves with both familiar and unfamiliar. It is these same artistes who would look over a manuscript of mine and find the one most metered, rhymed, and familiar. I like music, songs, and stories, as well, but next time I will hand them some work like this, and see if they are more daring. Maybe I was looking for salvation. All apologies. But if you can't contradict yourself, what biz are you in?

  227. July 3, 2013

    Poet writes poem;
    critic critiques poem;
    the critique is criticized;
    the critique's criticism is criticized.

    Mandelbrot much?