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Yonder All Before Us Lie Deserts of Vast Eternity
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—and—everyone 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.”