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Who rained on that parade?

By Don Share

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.”

Comments (43)

  • On April 28, 2008 at 2:29 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Poetry of the 21st century gave the impression of having been written on a PC by a PC; or on a p-c by a p-c.

  • On April 28, 2008 at 2:39 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    “…a belletristic odor…”
    I would love to know a bit more about how belletrism was stigmatized. Any thinking not based in Marxian criticism has a “belletristic odor.” Am I right? Not that I haven’t loved my share of Marxian writers (e.g. John Berger) or been a vulgar Marxist myself…
    The poet-critic you describe, Don, assumes a default conservative position in relation to “the more sophisticated cogitating” of academic leftists and the breathtaking anti-intellectualism of the mfa’s. Sad.

  • On April 28, 2008 at 4:04 pm john wrote:

    “I would love to know a bit more about how belletrism was stigmatized.”
    The great cultural shift of the ’60s — H. Bloom agrees with you, Ange, in blaming academic leftism, and adds identity politics on the “most wanted” list — gets blamed for a lot, but I wonder whether it wasn’t TV. My parents went to college in the ’50s and played bridge through college and still play bridge. My mom’s much younger sister and cousins have never played bridge. In my family, that may have been a more profound cultural shift than the earlier advent of radio, records, or movies, or the subsequent advent of PCs (personal computers), cell phones, and the internet. My parents, grandparents, and Victorian great-grandparents all played bridge. My younger aunts and uncles didn’t.
    TV wiped out Burma-Shave roadside jingles. And when Burma-Shave roadside jingles fell, could belletrism be far behind? I kid, but not completely. I’ve seen rock and roll blamed for the extermination of popular newspaper verse (Allan Bloom blamed rock and roll for the closing of the American mind), but why could rock and roll succeed where Tin Pan Alley and radio hadn’t? Rock and roll had TV. More powerful weapon than radio or movies — its power is like that of radio multiplied by the movies.
    My grandparents and their friends — college-educated but not especially arty people — quoted poetry as a matter of course. My parents at least recognized it and enjoyed light verse. Their younger cousins — no.
    The more depressed I feel, the more I love TV. The completely passive cultural experience. Where’s the remote?

  • On April 29, 2008 at 1:05 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Sophisticated cogitating bad. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read.

  • On April 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm john wrote:

    I wouldn’t cede sophistication to the academics. I’ll cede jargon to them. And I’ll grant that some of them can be sophisticated. More sophisticated than Empson would be rare; Jarrell could be acutely perceptive too — his essay on Whitman is fantastic. Why acute perception wouldn’t be considered sophisticated is beyond me; isn’t perception a key to understanding? Edward Thomas was an amazing critic — his stuff on Pound is eerily prophetic.
    Nothing against the academics. Helen McNeil’s book on Emily Dickinson, influenced by deconstruction, is one of my all-time fave books about poetry. I like Terry Eagleton on Shakespeare too. And nothing against the Marxists. John Berger is a great critic, though “Ways of Seeing” — in most ways an amazing book — occasionally falls into the since out-moded Marxian Puritanism of weighing other people’s desires for their authenticity.
    To get back to Ange’s question — and Don’s implicit one — I do think TV eroded literary culture in ways that we haven’t digested, but this specific question is more of a puzzle. I agree with the leftist academics that we’re all influenced by our social position. This understanding has effected a fundamental paradigm shift in our culture. Anybody trying to go back to the previous paradigm is bound to look reactionary. But — that doesn’t mean that close readings of contemporary poetry shouldn’t happen. We just now understand that Jarrell was a partisan in the poetry wars of his day too, even if he might have denied it (which he might not have).

  • On April 29, 2008 at 6:32 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Yeah. Allen Grossman, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon: three great poet-critics, off the top of my head (or off the pages of my dissertation). The problem isn’t that we lack poet-critics, it’s that from Samuel Johnson to Randall Jarrell poetry had an audience. Fewer people reading poetry (& maybe we all know what I mean, even given meaningless stats about how well poetry collections sell?) means fewer people reading about poetry means fewer poets writing about it. As an art declines into senescence, so decline its practitioners’ abilities to articulate what it is they do. Maybe? I just made that last part up.
    What I can’t for the life of me fathom is why anyone who cares about poetry cares about whether it has an audience. Men live just fine every day for lack of what is found there.

  • On April 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    Hi John — I’m not asking what eroded literary culture — I’m not interested in that at all. I’m wondering at what point “belletristic” became a dirty word in English departments. I would bet real money that there’s an exact year, but no one’s telling.

  • On April 29, 2008 at 8:11 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Ange,
    In Cultural Capital, which often strikes me as the only book I believe every word of (& which I bet you’ve read), John Guillory traces the displacement of “the circumstance in which the linguistic capital defined by ‘Standard English’ was being more or less successfully disseminated at the lower levels of the school system” & in which literary language held a certain distinction by “the syllabus of theory” whose “oblique purpose” is to signify “a rapprochement with the technobureaucratic constraints upon intellectual labor, symptomatically registered as a fetishization of ‘rigor.'” So call it 1968?
    I have nothing against theory or rigor, by the way, just as I have nothing against belletrism or literary language. Or those writers, like Benjamin, who manage to combine the two.
    Best,
    mr

  • On April 29, 2008 at 11:26 pm john wrote:

    Dictionary.com
    belles-let·tres /Fr. bɛlˈlɛtrə/ [Fr. bel-le-truh]
    –plural noun
    1. literature regarded as a fine art, esp. as having a purely aesthetic function.
    2. light and elegant literature, esp. that which is excessively refined, characterized by aestheticism, and minor in subject, substance, or scope.
    [Origin: 1700–10; Dictionary.com
    belles-let·tres /Fr. bɛlˈlɛtrə/ [Fr. bel-le-truh]
    –plural noun
    1. literature regarded as a fine art, esp. as having a purely aesthetic function.
    2. light and elegant literature, esp. that which is excessively refined, characterized by aestheticism, and minor in subject, substance, or scope.
    [Origin: 1700–10; < F: lit., fine letters.] I'm betting that it's usually been a dirty word in English departments. Don't know for sure. Anybody?

  • On April 30, 2008 at 8:17 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I really admire the systematic, general, “practical” criticism which Kirsch seems to represent here. Because it’s systematic, it can try to look at the whole field, take a somewhat independent position. This helps free both poetry & criticism from parochialism, petty feuds, tendentious partisanship, etc. (I say “helps”… nothing’s perfect.)
    However, the “system” of Kirsch’s anti-modernist position, as outlined by Starnino here, seems flawed somehow. His attitude toward poetry’s formal traditions and requirements seems somewhat similar to the attitude of the New Formalist movement. (I guess I’ll have to actually read some of Kirsch’s essays; as it is I’m just commenting on Starnino’s summary.)
    Nevertheless, I’m going to toss out a hunch as to what might be my complaint about Kirsch’s undergirding perspective. I think it might come down to something like this : while it is true that certain general rhetorical principles of value apply to the critical analysis of ANY AND ALL works of literary art – going back to ancient times – nevertheless, these general principles are insufficient for “practical” criticism. And if these principles are applied to the minutiae of poetic form and style in some sort of categorical way, as if they existed in a kind of Platonic realm of unchanging values, then the critic will miss the particular cultural and historical characteristics which actually make the poetry an authentic and interesting reflection of its particular time and place.
    It’s complicated for me, because on the one hand I believe strongly that poetry does reflect certain perennial, unchanging characteristics, but on the other hand, as I say, it’s not enough for the critic simply to abstract THESE elements and apply them in an abstract way.
    I think what I’m trying to get at is something about the nature of poetic tradition itself. There’s something subtle, bi-fold or manifold about it. What I think is that precisely BECAUSE poetry is indeed such an ancient art, that it has absorbed, digested, domesticated and reflected, over the centuries, SO MANY possibilities of rhetorical expression – then poets can transmute all these rhetorical rules into PLAY. In other words, the real game of poetry is a game of indirection and variation. Forms, traditions, rules become implicit; they become the backboard for special games of verbal ricochet (I don’t want to say dribbling). And these “special forms” are often results of the poets’ attempts to adapt perennial rhetorical rules to the specific vernacular “form and pressure” of their own times & socieites. Thus Kirsch’s bogeyman “modernism” is a catch-all for varieties of poetic adaptation to change.
    I guess Kirsch’s response to this – at least according to Starnino – might be, that in pursuit of novelty, too much of tradition has been thrown out. My response to that would quote Whitman, I think, where he writes somewhere that the American poetry of the future would be “indirect”.

  • On May 1, 2008 at 9:01 am Ange Mlinko wrote:

    “I have nothing against theory or rigor, by the way, just as I have nothing against belletrism or literary language. Or those writers, like Benjamin, who manage to combine the two.”
    Me too! I think it says something very hopeful about our moment that we can even say something like this now. I’m just very, very tired of a sort of criticism that is implicitly contemptuous of poets … as if waiting for them — us — to catch up to the future…

  • On May 2, 2008 at 1:49 pm jane wrote:

    Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine.
    The point about jargon is a hard sell, insofar as it so consistently means “terms of art that I don’t like and/or understand, and that haven’t yet come to seem natural.” That’s not to say all terms of art are equally useful or persuasive, but still. C’mon: “negative capability” is pure jargon by any definition, or was; it just happens to be jargon that got naturalized and that many poets like. But it’s still jargon, as is “belletristic” or “pentameter.” And as Raymond Williams reminds us, the word “jargon” is, first and foremost, itself jargon.
    But I’m more perplexed by Ange’s “Any thinking not based in Marxian criticism has a “belletristic odor.” This is a striking claim, by which I mean, I have a hard time understanding it in relation to the empirical situation. I guess it could be made to work tautologically, by defining in advance the “belletristic” as the opposite of “theory” (as if there were only two points on the continuum), and then further defining all “theory” as “Marxian” (as if structuralism and post-structuralism and etc had never happened). But neither of these two claims is meaningfully descriptive.
    Meanwhile, in the world: if I were to take four (arguably the four) majesterial critics of modern/contemporary poetry of the decisively non-belletristic variety, I might list Perloff, Altieri, Bloom, Vendler. These occupy in many ways varied critical positions, but you’ll note that their institutional power is incomparable. We are looking at Presidents and Executive Council members of the MLA; we are looking at endowed chairs at Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard; we are looking at cultural capital as such. How many of these four titans are “based in Marxian criticism”?
    None.
    Indeed, at least three have been frequently and openly critical of Marxian approaches to poetry (has Vendler as well? I don’t recall). Contrarily, the most puissant Marxian literary critics, with Jameson leading the way, have been notably indifferent to modern and contemporary poetry. So I might offer two conclusions: First, if I were concerned about poetry and poetics being treated seriously in a larger cultural context, I might find myself hoping that “thinking based in Marxian criticism” would turn quite a bit more attention to poetry (though I would certainly hope that such critics would refine their analytics to be more attentive to the matter of poetics, rather than their symtomatology which is more finely attuned to narrative.)
    And second: sheesh, the ongoing critical red scare sure makes this venue seem a bit of an echo chamber. But it really doesn’t describe the situation out there. Maybe it was just May Day getting under the skin…

  • On May 3, 2008 at 11:36 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Joshua responds by politicizing art, for which much thanks.
    I too am reminded of Williams’s great entry on “jargon” when I read the distressingly common kneejerk deployment of the term in this forum. As if the use of specialized language were a priori deplorable. Cuz, you know, there couldn’t possibly be anything so complex that it required a complex vocabulary. Damn those medical practitioners & their fancy Latin.
    Williams also reminds us of the word’s original meaning of “birdsong” & says that “if it meant only an unfamiliar specialized vocabulary, its dismissive sense could be as readily seen as a fact about the person who calls this ‘jargon,’ in an overbearing qualitative judgment of its presumed object. . . . It is true that specialized internal vocabularies can be developed . . . to a fault. But it is also true that the use of a new term or the new definition of a concept is often the necessary form of a challenge to other ways of thinking or of indication of new & alternative ways. Every known general position, in matters of art & belief, has its defining terms, & the difference between these & the terms identified as jargon is often no more than one of relative date & familiarity. To run together the senses of jargon as specialized, unfamiliar, belonging to a hostile position, & unintelligible chatter is then at times indeed a jargon: a confident local habit which merely assumes its own intelligibility & generality.”
    Comrades, hombrés,
    mr

  • On May 3, 2008 at 1:16 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    It’s true I’m thinking of a small — but rigorous! — corner of the poetry world which is both anti-belletristic and crypto-Marxian when not actually Marxian, like the Langpos. Who needs Jameson when you have them?
    Again, many of my favorite writers — including poets I have written about on Harriet — are socialist; how does describing them thus constitute red-baiting? I thought the bourgeoisie was the class that dared not speak its name, not leftist academics …

  • On May 3, 2008 at 1:39 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    How’s this for “raining on the parade” of a belletristic ex-Trotskyist Poet-Critic?
    I gave a talk and reading at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on April 10th (an evening when an ice storm befell the city), where I talked about authorship issues, forgery, and related matter–and criticized Charles Bernstein for this and that (politely). The video of the event was made active yesterday.
    http://channel.walkerart.org/detail.wac?id=4371
    Today, I have about twenty emails bemusedly asking me why the video is not of me, but of Isabella Rosselini, the actress, talking about acting and art. I am not kidding. I’ve been in love with her ever since David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
    It could be the museum staff (wonderful folks, truly) did this purposely in a kind of homage to allegory. There was, in fact, a major installation there of works by Richard Prince when I gave my presentation, so I suppose it’s perfectly apropos.
    Well, as Ron Silliman just wrote me, “You never looked better.”
    Kent

  • On May 3, 2008 at 5:14 pm Don Share wrote:

    Hmn, dunno about Red Scares and May Days, and no disrespect to Perloff, Altieri, Bloom, Vendler, et al. – but I’m just trying to figure out why more poets are not also critics. Present company excluded?

  • On May 3, 2008 at 5:42 pm Don Share wrote:

    Michael, I love reading Hill and Grossman, though they generally spend much of their critical force writing about things other than contemporary poetry (nothing wrong with that!), and Muldoon’s writing about poetry seems mostly limited to the Oxford lectures (nothing wrong with that, either)… So I feel that Starnino’s point still stands.
    As for yours about audiences… maybe we should amend Whitman (and Harriet Monroe) thusly: To have great poet-critics there must be great audiences, too. On second thought…. nah!

  • On May 3, 2008 at 11:20 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    “Hmn, dunno about Red Scares and May Days, and no disrespect to Perloff, Altieri, Bloom, Vendler, et al. – but I’m just trying to figure out why more poets are not also critics. Present company excluded?”
    Don, you’re asking why there aren’t more poet-critics; I thought Starnino was asking why those who do exist don’t have more prestige.
    How about a new tack: why are so many poet-critics dull? I was browsing in a used bookstore tonight; I passed over a book that I figured I should really own, on principle, given that it is by a female poet-critic; but her sentences were just boring. High-minded, but boring. Poets are my people; I’d rather read Hill or Muldoon or Grossman — or Alices Fulton and Notley — or William Corbett — than straight-up critics: but it must be said that one thing that makes us poets is an ability to turn a phrase, to connect with the senses/passions, to create rhythms; and yet these are often the first casualties of critical prose.
    Maybe that’s why I feel like defending the odious “belletristic” — because I don’t think there should be more poet-critics, and I don’t particularly care if they’re considered Important, but I think that those who can do it, should at least look alive!

  • On May 4, 2008 at 12:03 pm john wrote:

    Jane and Michael,
    Of course academic jargonistas are going to defend their lives, which have been lived mastering one or usually more jargons. One of the purposes of an academic jargon in the humanities is to provide an initiatory process for the aspiring academic. Sometimes academics do this by taking common-coin vocabulary and giving it an esoteric spin — see, for example, Baudrillard on “obscene” or Badiou on “disaster,’ “obscurantist,” and a bunch of other words. By taking common-coin vocabulary and redefining it, jargon-ist academics create an us/them boundary between those who have initiated themselves into the new definitions and those who have not.
    In many cases, I have not found these redefinitions useful or illuminating. You can chalk it up, Jane, as a mere matter of taste — “I don’t like” — or pretend that “I don’t understand.” But by jargon, I meant, “terms of art that I don’t find useful, which apparently have the purpose of creating boundaries between the initiated and the uninitiated.”
    Now, to the initiated, the boundaries are useful! I recognize that! One of the primary purposes of the university system in today’s America is to enforce class boundaries. In some cases, the university provides a gateway for the lower classes to enter the white-collar class, but in many professions, a college degree is simply a filter to keep out the rabble. The gateway is a hoop to jump through.
    I also recognize that mastering a jargon takes a lot of effort. Walter Kaufmann ascribed some of Hegel’s reputation to the effort that his writing required a reader to make in order to understand it; once a philosophy student takes a lot of time to understand someone, Kaufmann argued, concluding that the effort wasn’t worth it can be too painful for people to face. Now, I haven’t mastered Hegel — have barely read him at all — so I don’t have an opinion on Hegel per se; but I have taken pains with other writers and have concluded that the effort, while perhaps providing an enjoyable cognitive exercise, did not provide me with a fresh, new, better, more sophisticated, or more accurate understanding of anything.
    If others find Baudrillard’s redefinition of “obscene” useful, God bless you! And please don’t worry that my marginal carping might have the effect of eliminating tenure. It won’t.
    Kneejerkingly yours,
    john

  • On May 4, 2008 at 12:57 pm jane wrote:

    I half-agree with Ange, or I entirely agree with part of the claim: that poet-critics are often better prose stylists — and that this is a larger fact than sometimes understood, if one accepts the constructivist possibilities of writing itself in making thinking happen, rather than merely conveying thoughts, (as poets tend to do, happily).
    However, the charge all-too-easily leveled at, say, Muldoon or Grossman (I can’t really speak to Hill) is that they tend to be far less sensitive to extra-poetic context. And this too is a problem of interest. I am in awe of Grossman’s erudition, but his all-but-transhistorical claims about poetry’s purpose and function and so on (moment generative of speech, etc) are, frankly, ridiculous — and I fear that even I am not mean enough to find such accounts interesting simply because they’re pompous and silly. By which I mean, I find the lack of attunement to history and historical change, and the accompanying pronunciamenti, plenty dull no matter how well-written — they’re not interesting about the world, regardless of prose style. So we agree there are (at least) two obligations here, I hope, and being an eloquent writer is necessary but not sufficient.
    Or to phrase Don’s question from this perspective, what is it about poet-critics that makes them reticent to take on engaged historicizing? And as a corollary, is it them? Or is one offered a platform to say some things more than others?

  • On May 4, 2008 at 1:11 pm john, B.A. wrote:

    To clarify my own class position (Jane knows this, because I’ve told him, but others might not), I was raised into the college-educated middle-class and got my own B.A. after having dropped out for 10 years (to devote my life to theater and music and writing). I went back to school because I saw myself being excluded from jobs on the basis of “college degree required.” I’m glad I went back — had fun, learned a lot.
    I’ve responded overdefensively to Jane’s overdefensiveness. Jane accused me of making a “point” about jargon. All I said was, I’ll cede jargon to the academics, but not sophistication. I should clarify further: I’ll cede the professional requirement to master literary jargon to the literary academics, but I won’t cede sophistication to that process. Sorry. Call me unsophisticated, go ahead. (Which reminds me, does anybody else hear the echo of “sophist” in sophisticated? And does anybody else object to Socrates’ dissing of the sophists? It seems to me a professor must be wary to accept Socrates’ diss, since one of Socrates’ big objections to the sophists was that they accepted payment for their instruction!)
    Oh, would that I were in the position to make my definition of “jargon” an element of jargon!
    Because — making up new definitions for words is fun! I once coined “neo-vocabularism” to describe the process, but, dammit, it hasn’t caught on!
    I’m being too flip — sorry. Like I said above, nothing against the academics — I stand by that; I read ’em too, and often find them helpful, instructive, illuminating.

  • On May 4, 2008 at 3:37 pm Don Share wrote:

    Ange, you’re right… I was looking at Starnino’s question from a slightly different angle, though I think that in the end we’re asking the same thing. I’m not looking, though, for quantity, but general responsibility: surely some of our best poets ought also to be our best poet-critics. I agree with everything you’ve said so well, in any case.
    Maybe if our own generation(s) had good mentors in the art of poet-criticism, we’d be in different shape: I know that my own teachers couldn’t be bothered.
    P.S. Inspired by my own blather, I picked up a used copy of the Delmore Schwartz book for a poet who’d never seen it; least I could do…

  • On May 4, 2008 at 6:31 pm Kent wrote:

    Ange Mlinko said:
    >How about a new tack: why are so many poet-critics *dull*?
    I ask this question myself, in so many words, in a conversation with J.H. Prynne at Pembroke gardens, in the last issue of the Chicago Review, wherein I consider his recent poetry in context of the anti-belletristic and crypto-Marxian (more accurately, really, nouveau Martian) Langpos. Prynne nearly swallows his chew when I ask him if he thinks it’s possible that Frank O’Hara never actually wrote “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” Things get worse after that: threatening phone calls, actual violence at the Keat’s museum in Hampstead, and so on.
    The review-essay on Prynne is the second of a four-part series I am writing on current British poets (the first is available at the CR web site); the next part is due out any day now–a discussion with Tim Atkins on defenestrating Horace through the aperture of translation. All of the critical discussion in this series takes place (by the way, Michael Robbins, who is an editor of CR, can vouch for this!) against the backdrop, incredible as it may sound, of a secret society based in Cambridge, UK, charged with protecting certain secrets related to O’Hara. Prynne, it is rumored, is its Magus figure.
    Anyway, these four sections are the first four chapters of a critical novella in progress, one that is based in real facts concerning the mystery of “O’Hara’s” famous poem.
    I mention all this as preface to reply to Ange’s question, a reply I am very confident about:
    Because poetry criticism has not yet figured out how to fold itself into the genre of Crime fiction.
    Kent

  • On May 5, 2008 at 4:33 am Tim Upperton wrote:

    Pound preferred poet-critics, too. To paraphrase from his ABC of Reading: if you wanted to know about a car, would you go to somebody who had made one and driven one, or somebody who had merely heard about one? And if the first, would you go to the person who made a good one, or the person who made a botch?
    F.R. Leavis made the perfect, unanswerable riposte to this, if only I could remember what it was.

  • On May 5, 2008 at 9:16 am Jordan wrote:

    Claims and accounts (law and finance).
    Starnino’s thesis appears to be that bullies need the bullied. Nolo contendere. (Law.) No interest whatever. (Finance.)

  • On May 5, 2008 at 9:25 am Ange Mlinko wrote:

    Hm. I am reading Richard Price, so maybe you’re right, Kent…
    Don, when I was researching the Duncan-Levertov friendship I came across Perloff’s essay “Poets in a Time of War.” She suggests that, these days, poets are far too reticent to criticize one another, and Duncan’s willingness to criticize Levertov — which cost him her friendship — was also what made him a major poet-critic.
    I have to admit, Joshua, I took 2 advil after reading your comment. When you ask “what is it about poet-critics that makes them reticent to take on engaged historicizing?” but you admit that you “can’t really speak to Hill” I have to wonder what your interests are. For is there a serious reader of contemporary poetry who doesn’t think “Geoffrey Hill” when they hear “poetry” and “historicizing” in the same sentence? Or does “historicizing” mean something else altogether? It seems to me Hill does nothing but historicize poetry; I suspect something “extrapoetic” about him — his Britishness? His Christianity? puts him beyond the pale of your interests.
    “I am in awe of Grossman’s erudition, but his all-but-transhistorical claims about poetry’s purpose and function and so on (moment generative of speech, etc) are, frankly, ridiculous — and I fear that even I am not mean enough to find such accounts interesting simply because they’re pompous and silly. By which I mean, I find the lack of attunement to history and historical change, and the accompanying pronunciamenti, plenty dull no matter how well-written — they’re not interesting about the world, regardless of prose style.”
    Again I suspect the unmentionable word here is “religious,” which Grossman’s poetics is. But hardly ignorant of history — “Milton’s Sonnet ‘On the Late Massacre in Piemont’: The Vulnerability of Persons in a Revolutionary Situation” thinks about poetry and revolution and the value of the person … yet this is somehow not what you’re looking for.
    I think the “transhistorical claims” you reject so vehemently are beautifully laid out in the first two essays of The Long Schoolroom; it is impossible for me to read them without crying. If you can’t find some way to embrace their claims about poetry’s origins — even if we take the myths as metaphors — then I invite you to consider Grossman’s antithesis, Steven Pinker, whose explanation for value in the arts can basically be boiled down to one credo, courtesy of our mutual favorite show:
    “It’s all in the game.”

  • On May 5, 2008 at 12:15 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Modern criticism BEGAN where crime fiction began…. cf. Edgar Poe. Maybe it went downhill from there (bloodhounds lost the scent).
    Edgar was a pretty nippy critic, too.

  • On May 5, 2008 at 12:21 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I can certainly vouch for Kent in this as in all other matters. And I heartily recommend his piece in the last issue of CR. It made me LOLZ, then I had to sit down for a while, then I stood up & began to spin in place, very slowly, & the world was as pink as a pit of chemical waste from an industrial hog farm.
    Ange, I just finished Lush Life! ZOMG!
    Dark Clover’s objection to Grossman is very familiar &, it seems to me, a bit, well, pompous & silly. It says that he’s a vatic writer right on the bottle. You don’t have to buy into his claims to find something of value in them any more than you have to believe that consciousness constitutes all its objects to learn something from Husserl. As someone of Marxian bent, I find it deeply refreshing to read critics with whom I disagree.

  • On May 5, 2008 at 2:02 pm jane wrote:

    Oh, I’m not sure that “religion” (or the theological, which is a different matter) is unmentionable, so much as the fact that if one imputes it adversarily, one gets inevitably battered about for daring to suggest such a thing So I prefer to let the mentioning be done by apologists, and then at least we can have the cards on the table. I myself think there’s much of interest in theological thought, though it is interesting — symptomatic — how consistently, for example, poets and others prefer the messianic Benjamin to the materialist Benjamin. Much as Ange with her prophet, I can’t imagine someone not crying when reading the latter.
    I’m not sure that I think knowing or naming historical events coeval with certain poems, and even giving them explanatory force, strikes me as “historicizing” as I understand the concept. I love poetry in part because it has the capacity to make the unseeable structures of historical situations stand before me — briefly, surprisingly, and like no other kind of thinking. Sometimes this “seeing” is greatly aided by critical accounts of poems. I am not currently experiencing a shortfall of the vatic, nor of liberal humanist truisms. But listen, I get it: those are the things that will be defended endlessly here, and defended as if that were not a politically aggressive move but somehow just treating of poetry as such. Happy Fifth of May; good day to listen to “Isis.”

  • On May 5, 2008 at 3:17 pm Kent wrote:

    Michael Robbins said:
    >I can certainly vouch for Kent in this as in all other matters. And I heartily recommend his piece in the last issue of CR. It made me LOLZ, then I had to sit down for a while, then I stood up & began to spin in place, very slowly, & the world was as pink as a pit of chemical waste from an industrial hog farm.
    Micheal, I love this, even though I don’t know what LOLZ means… When the critical mystery is published in novella form, I will certainly use the above as a blurb. Should I credit it (as in your poetry journal bios) to Michael Robbins, Ph.D. candidate?
    And Henry is right–Where does modern literary criticism in the U.S. begin? Why, with the master of Crime fiction, Poe!
    Kent

  • On May 5, 2008 at 3:48 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Oh, and by the way, the video of that talk I gave in Minneapolis is now up, in correct form.
    No doubt most will be sad that it is now me and not Isabella Rossellini, but hey. And believe it or not, Isabella wrote me to apologize!
    I said, that’s no problem, Isabella, because in fact, did you know that Ron Silliman said on his blog today that “Kent Johnson has never looked better”?
    Ha, ha, said Isabella… No wait, she said, Do you mean Ron Silliman the Linguistic Poet, he is one of my literary crushes.
    Yes, I said, that one. Can I tell him you said that, Isabella?
    Oh, no, please, I would be tooooo embarrassed, you know, I would just DIE!!!
    Kent

  • On May 5, 2008 at 8:04 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    Happy Fifth of May; good day to listen to “Isis.”
    Or Liz Phair, depending on how old you are.
    I’m still on the library waiting list for Lush Life, Michael: I’m halfway through Samaritan. Rereading Personae too — am just bursting with politically aggressive bourgeois individualism!! 😉

  • On May 5, 2008 at 8:55 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    I’m not sure that I know where to impute religion adversarily invites battering. At the University of California? Surely one might confess one’s opposition to religion on Harriet, might say, with Raymond Guess, that religious belief in the twenty-first century “would have to be even more willfully obscurantist than it was in 1805 because it requires active suppression of so much of humanity’s accumulated stock of knowledge and lacks the institutional support that was still entact in much of Europe in the nineteenth century,” without arousing so much as a tut-tut.
    The question is rather one should allow one’s opposition to religion, or to liberal humanism for that matter, to prevent one from reading in the vatic tradition from Augustine to Grossman. I can think of nothing shallower than the collected high-school arguments against religious belief of the Dennet-Dawkins-Hitchens axis. Guess is also quite lucid on religion, in the tradition of Critical Theory, as “a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination,” though he finally argues against this position. At any rate, the gods aren’t going away any time soon, though liberalism & Marxism probably are.
    Kent, you are welcome to use anything I say as a blurb for whatever you wish as long as you credit me properly: “B.A., M.A., M.F.A., A.B.D.”
    Best,
    mr

  • On May 5, 2008 at 10:08 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Ange –
    Samaritan is wonderful, but not, I think, as good as Freedomland, although my favorite Price is now Lush Life. You’ll have to let me know what you think (did you see James Woods’s review in The New Yorker? weird). The Wire is my favorite show as well. The final season was a bit hinky with the speechifying, but i already miss it. Thank the gods for Battlestar Galactica.
    You make me feel bourgeois indeed with yr library card! I really shouldn’t be buying crime novels in hardcover.
    Best,
    mr

  • On May 5, 2008 at 10:16 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    ARRGH. Apologies for posting three times in a row, but vanity demands that I correct a typo that makes me look rather less sophisticated than we all know I am [winky emoticon]. Raymond Geuss’s last name is not “Guess.”

  • On May 6, 2008 at 1:35 am john wrote:

    One of my favorite anthologies is a collection of the verse that the commander of British forces in the Middle East and later southern Asia during WW2 had memorized, and published during WW2, “Other Men’s Flowers.” I mention it because of how the editor is credited on the cover of the posthumous edition I picked up for a quarter:
    A. P. Wavell
    The Late Field Marshal
    Earl Wavell
    P.C. G.C.B. G.C.S.I. G.C.I.E.
    C.M.G. M.C.
    I just looked up Earl Wavell on Wikipedia, which told me what all those initials are. (I hadn’t known.)
    So, Michael, your wish to list your initials has precedent!
    Also, [Winky Emoticons] is the best unclaimed band name I’ve come across in a while!

  • On May 6, 2008 at 8:38 am Bobby wrote:

    On the subject of Geoffrey Hill and the adversarial imputation of religion, can I suggest his brilliant but somewhat bizarre little essay “Between Politics and Eternity”? The piece is about Dante’s Monarchia, and it ends with these lines, which serve a better brief for the essay than I could presume to give:

    Between politics and eternity, aesthetic considerations, as, for instance, ‘taste’ and ‘enjoyment,’ are quite simply irrelevant; alien to the purpose and quality of the Monarchia as they are to the work of Antonio Gramsci who dismissed Croce’s aesthetics and would have rejected Eliot’s had he known of them. As an Anglo-Catholic conservative, I arrive at this conclusion reluctantly but hardly with surprise.

  • On May 6, 2008 at 10:52 am Anonymous wrote:

    Bukharin to the Academic Marxist Poet-Critics
    What he said, in 1913, or thereabouts,
    when even the Central Committee
    was variegated as a Comment Box:
    To the factories, comrades!
    To the community colleges!

  • On May 6, 2008 at 4:15 pm Don Share wrote:

    “These academic ambiences / really do get to me. / They’re always done in some new unfam- / iliar shade of gloomy…”
    George Starbuck, Talkin’ B. A. Blues; The Life and a Couple of Deaths of Ed Teashack; or, How I Discovered B.U., Met God, and Became an International Figure; a Rhyming Fiction in Seven Chapters

  • On May 6, 2008 at 9:20 pm Ange Mlinko wrote:

    I will look up that Hill essay, Bobby. It reminds me of this passage from Agamben:
    Johan Huizinga reports the case of Denis the Carthusian, who tells how once, upon entering the Church of St. John at Bois-le-duc while the organ was playing, he was immediately entranced by the melody and brought to a prolonged ecstasy: “Musical sensation was immediately absorbed in religious feeling. It would never have occurred to Denis that he might admire in music or painting any other beauty than that of holy things themselves.”
    As an aesthete myself, it serves to remind me of my limitations.
    And Michael: Does the idea of “a bulwark against the closed world of bureaucratic domination” bear any resemblance to the idea — I may be fuzzy cuz it’s, like, Kafka via Bakhtin via Susan Stewart — that we must have God because the idea of no third person — no one to overhear — in the interrogation room is too unbearable?
    Don, full disclosure, I actually just sat on a panel with Steve Burt about the state of poetry reviewing. So this really has been much on my mind, and Starnino’s essay was a good summation of the problem (such as it is) … the suspicion surrounding the poet-critic. But at heart I am an epicurean. For me, it’s hard to improve upon “Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man.”

  • On May 7, 2008 at 11:11 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I think the current absence of what we think of as the poet-critic has less to do with either Marxism or Theory than with the level & energy of general public discourse. It parallels the supposed decline of the “public intellectual” or the independent “person of letters”. & this has less to do with the academic disdain for “belletrism” than with the migration of so many poets themselves into academia. The excitement of the “poet-critic” is the combination in one person of poet and independent writer (the journalist, the observer of society, the diarist of public life).
    There have probably always been accomplished poet-critics who are really scholars, who write from their deep & erudite researches in literary history. But if they lack this quality of writing for the general public, then they cannot contribute to any sense of a presence of the “poet-critic” in society at large.
    Of course the rise of Theory, Politics & other fogs can be blamed for this situation… but poets themselves probably bear the most responsibility. They’re the ones hanging about the greeny groves all day.

  • On May 8, 2008 at 12:52 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Ange – I think it’s more in keeping w/ Adorno’s thesis that even in advertising & popular culture the possibility of negation can be glimpsed although not realized: these forms incite the knowledge that a better world is possible. (It’s tricky to rock the dialectic.)
    best,
    [Winky Emoticon & the Pseudoindividuals]

  • On May 8, 2008 at 5:02 pm john wrote:

    Michael [Winky],
    If you send me some lyrics for the Pseudoindividuals to play, I’ll write some music.
    It’s tricky to rock the dialectic, to rock the dialectic without feeling dyspeptic, it’s tricky!
    Rock on!


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 28th, 2008 by Don Share.