Who rained on that parade?
The poet-critic gets no sympathy, and considering the charge-sheet against him — adversarial, addicted to dicta, motivated by an axe-grindingly acute sense of right and wrong — why would he? He is, in most eyes, a hyphenated hothead. Until recently, however, that hyphen was still a badge of special authority, so that practitioners writing critically about their craft were regarded as poetry’s ideal readers. Not everyone agreed (Northrop Frye thought poets made bad critics because they were too obsessed by their own processes), but Alfred Kazin summed up the standard view in 1967 when, with considerable professional envy, he described the poet-critic as always “right in the middle of the parade (and if he is good enough, he will be leading it).”
So begins Carmine Starnino's essay, "The Plight of the Poet-Critic," in the May 2008 issue of Poetry. It's a look at what Adam Kirsch has been up to... but the hyphenated p-c I think of almost automatically is Randall Jarrell, pictured above. (He even looks like a poet-critic, doesn't he?) Jarrell's standards, and he did have them, were as high for himself as they were for others; arguably the price he paid is that both his poems and his prose are read less now than they might have been if he'd stuck around long enough to flarf his way into the twenty-first century. But back in what used to be called "midcentury," such poets as Jarrell, William Empson, Delmore Schwartz, Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Donald Davie (just to name a few) picked up where Eliot and Stevens had left off and weighed heavily in on - criticized - contemporary poetry. (This is not to be confused, by the way, with New Criticism, which it was not: these were poets saying their piece.) Somewhere along the line our Big Name poets generally began to eschew argufying, for better or worse. I imagine this is partly the result of a kind of poetry-careerism that exists today in which it'd be a bad marketing move to pounce wittily on the competition - but "chalk it up," Starnino writes, "to life after theory." He continues:
As soon as powerful new methods began to dominate English departments, the poet-critic gig lost its prestige. Literary criticism for the general reader — the sort championed by poet-critics — took on a belletristic odor; no matter how formidable the close reading, it would now exist on the margins of a more sophisticated cogitating. Worse, by seeing off Arnoldian objectivity (“the object as in itself it really is”), theory discredited the probative force that powered the poet-critic’s prose. Standing on postmodern ground for their higher surmises, academia outgrew aesthetic evaluations; artistic merit, as a concept, became an ideological fairy tale. What eventually filtered down to street level — if the industry-wide outbreaks of shock at negative reviews are any guide — was a hypersensitivity to strong opinions and the taste-correcting urge lurking inside. Show us somebody dedicated to sifting out the best from the merely good, and we’ll show you somebody with a hidden motive. As a result, the poet-critic lost the gig altogether. Criticism by poets, once the conscience of the art, is now exposed as a theatre of special interests, an acting out of parti pris. Thus his plight: taking sides, the poet-critic can’t be trusted. He speaks for no one, except himself.
Much as I treasure essays like Jarrell's "The Obscurity of the Modern Poet" and almost everything gathered in Schwartz's unjustly-neglected Selected Essays, I'm not being reactionary or indulging in phony nostalgia to say that I wish more poets would put their prose mouths where their verse money is. Well, it's not easy to be a p-c: as Starnino observes (holding Kirsch to high standards himself): you have to record a struggle, create your own terms, move beyond mere aperçus, and avoid radiating "an egghead gravitas." It's enough to make you argue, as Stephen Burt has recently, against argument. Then too, as Jarrell once succinctly put it in a piece on "bad poets" - "Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle."
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...