I was going to call this entry “Why I Am Not a Critic.” But then I realized I’d probably get blasted for that, because, after all, everyone is a critic—andeveryone is a critic. But what I mean to say is that I generally don’t write a whole lot of criticism. The truth is, I don’t much care about criticism. I think it’s wonderful that people are able to write criticism; I read as much of it as I can stand to read, which isn’t that much; and I quote from it when I need to, which is usually when I’ve run out of my own views, as happens more often than I’d like. But most of what I think about contemporary poetry happens at an instinctual level. Let’s call it “feeling” for lack of a more socially acceptable term. I often “feel” things about poems—i.e., whether or not I think the poem is “good” or satisfying or intriguing; whether or not I’d like to read it again; whether or not I’d be moved to put the poem on my wall or show it to a student or set it outside my office in the pile of “free for the taking” stuff (which usually means either I have two too many copies or I have one copy and simply think that one is too many).

I realize that “feeling” is not rational; it’s not even what we encourage our students to do. We encourage them to “explain,” to “critique,” to “defend” their thoughts about poetry. And I don’t even mean necessarily that I am actually having feelings when I say that I “feel” things about poems. What I mean is that I am “appreciating” poetry, though the word “appreciate” has a positive connotation that’s not always an accurate portrait of what’s going on when I read a particular poem . But it is what’s happening when I read poetry, the stuff that I’ve decided either challenges me or moves me or puzzles me or resists me or in some way invites me back.
It’s not that I’m “anti-intellectual.” Some of my best friends…well, I couldn’t think of anything original to say on the subject of intellect, which leads me to believe I can’t claim to be terribly incisive in a scholarly sort of way. Every time the Bookmobile comes by, I find that I can spend hours in the poetry section, but only a few minutes in the theory section. I mostly like to make anagrams from the names. Julia Kristeva, for example, is “a vast jerk, u lie.”
Maybe I’m defending a position which is indefensible in this day and age, but I think it’s okay for poets to step away from the academy for a while and just read, write, see a movie, eat a plate of chicken and waffles, write a little more, go to sleep, dream about catching tigers in red weather. Poets can be perfectly learned creatures without always have to flex their mental muscles critically. When asked what she thought of modern art, Gertrude Stein could have been “the village explainer” (as she called Pound) but she chose instead to say simply “I like to look at it.”
And this story is almost entirely apocryphal, except for the part that was confirmed by John Ashbery: Ashbery was invited to a question and answer session for graduate students, and, as is always the case, there were at least a couple of students who were trying to show how big their cerebral peckers were. One of the students was incredibly persistent and asked Ashbery a very long-winded question—one of those questions designed to show how much print-matter the student had absorbed—revolving around Paul de Man’s essay “The Resistance to Theory.” Ashbery waved his hand as if to clear the flies from the room: I don’t read de Man, he said. A short while later, the same graduate student asked Ashbery another complicated, self-important question, this time involving Barthes. I don’t really read Barthes, either, said Ashbery. More questions. Sometime later, as Ashbery was quoting both de Man and Barthes, the afore-mentioned grad student stood up and complained: I thought you said you didn’t read de Man or Barthes. It’s true, I don’t, replied Ashbery: “But I do go to cocktail parties.”

Originally Published: July 31st, 2008

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. July 31, 2008


  2. July 31, 2008
     Don Share

    Being a village explainer myself, I thought folks might like to know the whole story behind the story of the Stein quotation.
    In ch. 7 of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, G.S. famously said of E.P., "He was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, if not, not." When asked about this remark later, she told Thornton Wilder, "Ezra Pound still lives in a village and his world is a kind of village and people keep explaining things when they live in a village.... I have come not to mind if certain people live in villages and some of my friends still appear to live in villages and a village can be cozy as well as intuitive but must one really keep perpetually explaining and educating?"
    (from Frederick Prokosch, Voices: a Memoir, "The Evil Corner")

  3. July 31, 2008

    Knowing how one feels about anything is a good thing. No defense required.

  4. July 31, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Seems like a sane & sensible attitude, expressed here... but it's a Big Topic, raises a lot of questions....
    I wonder if our received notions of instinct - feeling - intellect are really true... the Aristotelian Critic Elder Olson (of the Chicago School) has a curious way (in an essay called "Outline of Poetic Theory") of describing emotions stirred by poetry as having their source in "opinions". Given the ethos or ground prepared by the poem, we obtain certain opinions about the characters or situation presented, and the plot or outcome - what happens to this situation - evokes our emotions...
    He was focusing mostly on dramatic poetry, but I think he would apply the same approach to some (not all) other kinds...
    what we call an "instinctual response" of pleasure or interest might actually be a kind of instantaneous intellectual activity, coordinated very quickly on many levels, as we read or hear the poem... & maybe our pleasure has to do with the way the poem coordinates these responses - like a mental model of "fitness" or coherence or substance or accuracy... & our emotions are stirred by this sudden organization of experience and sense...
    Maybe it's like listening to music - you can only say so much about it, words are inadequate to paraphrase the inherent ("intellectual") order of the music itself, thus we are impatient with a lot of criticism, because it uses rather blunt intellectual instruments sometimes.
    But criticism has its own standards & values - maybe there are too many poets who lay amateur critic, and vice versa...

  5. July 31, 2008
     Henry Gould

    p.s. sorry, I meant to say PLAY amateur critic (last sentence)...

  6. July 31, 2008
     Henry Gould

    One more addition... I guess what I'm saying is that if poets accept a division between feeling and intellect, and leave intellect to the professors, critics, etc., they are in danger of giving away the store...
    this was the theme of Eliot's idea of a progressive "dissociation" of reason & sense - which poetry's "wit" aims to reunite...
    Of course our pleasure in poetry is rooted in sense experience... painting & music grow directly out of the physical pleasures of sound & sight... but poetry, when it translates sense experience into language, has already added a new dimension of reflection... the intuitive feeling of rightness we have when we enjoy good poetry is an intellectual-emotional experience, all in one...
    "a Tear is an Intellectual Thing
    and a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King"

  7. August 1, 2008
     D. A. Powell

    Thanks for the valuable comments. I don't mean to imply that some sort of Maginot Line needs to exist between poetry and criticism. I'm not asking anyone to dig a trench. I'm merely stating a mood that I'm in, and as such it is likely to shift. I'm not wedded to anyone's ideas, least of all my own. I just figured that as long as we were going to engage in the two human follies known as "poetry" on the one hand and "criticism" on the other, I'd pretend that one was somehow better than the other. Am thinking of writing a series of essays entitled "Can Just Any Matter Matter?" Unless that, too, has been done.
    D. A.

  8. August 1, 2008
     Henry Gould

    You're welcome, D.A. Was thinking this morning that my own dichotomies, described above, still need work also...
    - that is, in poetry, it's not simply a distinction between feeling or sense on the one hand, and intellect on the other. There's something deeper, involving the distinction (if there has to be one) between mind and heart, knowledge and love. Goes way back to Plato & Homer, & I'm sure before that, through the medieval theories of contemplation, etc....
    A balancing act, I guess. Hence the trouble with sentimentalism on the one hand, & deracinated intellectual apathy & vanity games, on the other.

  9. August 1, 2008

    The most noticeable achievement of critics vis a vis poetry seems to have been to distance it from the poetic impulse. I think it's a lot healthier if poets write poems and critics critique and a fairly sturdy wall is maintained between the two. Criticism by its very nature is exclusive, and I think the best poetry is in some sense inclusive. Two very different cognitive activities, appealing to two different types of (or aspects of) people.

  10. August 5, 2008
     Lydia Olidea

    Rather than these metaphysical vagaries about what, exactly, a "poet" and "critic" be, can we spend a minute on some more immediate matters?
    My first inquiry is this: is there any empirical evidence that there are more poet/critics now than at some earlier time? It seems likely that the very opposite is the case. After all, the dynamic of specialization has had its say across all the employment sectors. Within academia, to take the obvious example and as Doug well knows, there is considerable material pressure not to be a poet-critic: scholars generally don't get "creative" work counted toward tenure and vice versa. Since there is a limited period of time to meet tenure standards, you can see the pressure to specialize.
    Lacking any empirical truth, this claim has the character of a classic canard, on the order of "the real Paris hasn't existed for twenty years" – a sentiment that was old before the Commune was new.
    That is, I suspect that the claim that there's a proliferation of poet/critics is a thing people say so as to feel a certain thing about their current moment. I have some guesses as to what this might be, but I'd rather ask the question than answer it.