A Few Thoughts on Poetry and Criticism, Part III
The rather lively response to my previous two posts on this topic has prompted me to post this excerpt from a piece on which I have been working for a while. I hope that it generates similar interest.
Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the destructive encroachments of theory and criticism on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death.
This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others. Other literary works, both those with which I have felt affinities and those toward which I’ve felt great antipathy, have always been both inspirations for and challenges to my own work and the work I aspired to do. Indeed, I never would have considered the possibility of writing poetry without the impetus of reading deeply in it, wanting to comprehend, apprehend, and wield the power I found in it.
Complementarily, criticism and what is sweepingly and too vaguely called “theory” have been very helpful in thinking through my own writing, and have helped me work through many an impasse in my poetry. This is what the best literary criticism does and should do: elucidate and illuminate literature for readers and for writers. In this way, it is a very valuable tool.
Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem, having imbibed the conviction that close reading or textual explication is reactionary or simply passé without ever having informed themselves about just what such reading might entail. While poetry writing programs have burgeoned, poetry has fallen by the wayside as an object of literary study in favor of the examination of novels as social documents. As Barbara K. Fischer has recently noted, “Despite sporadic resurgences, poetry has for several decades occupied a marginalized position in English departments, where fiction and popular culture have become the preferred objects of analysis. The New Criticism, with its heuristic approach to analyzing a poem’s tropes and formal construction, left a generation of students with a distaste for the seemingly clinical task of ‘explication’—the dreaded homework assignment. Meanwhile, New Critical aestheticism—its emphasis on the poem as a self-referential objet d’art, isolated from politics and the conditions of its making—was set up over and over again as a straw man for the arguments that comprised the revolutions in critical thinking of the 1970s through 1990s. As poststructuralists, New Historicists, and many others challenged the New Critical paradigm, they also demoted poetry as the privileged object of literary study.”
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...