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April 16, 2009

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What I find interesting is how often the "serious" criticism of any age is often judged as so bloody wrong by future generations. Also, a lot of it, particularly mid-20th century criticism, is more about how clever the critic is rather than any real evaluation of the work. This is not to say that an ego-less critic is automatically a wimp. Nobody had higher standards than Randall Jarrell, but reading him one always has a sense that the poetry is all, not the reader's opinion of Jarrell, even when he's expressing, shall we say, his disappointment.

On a less precious level, my own feeling is that I'd rather encourage reading poems than not. Better to read a hundred mediocre poems because of encouragement than to step on one genius by discouragement. Besides, as I said above, contemporary critics are not always the best judges of the lasting value of a work of art (cf. the Impressionists). No offense to the critics - but we are all products of our own time and prejudices, and we all wear own own particular blinders; we often don't have the perspective that time gives to decide whether something is lasting or important or not. All we can do is read carefully and respond thoughfully -- and get the hell out of the way of the poem.

Some poets about whom their contemporaries were wrong:

John Keats
Emily Dickinson
Walt Whitman
Hart Crane
Allen Ginsberg
Elizabeth Bishop

Lots more.

The idea that poets, when discussing other poets, pull punches and lack the teeth of candor is ludicrous. Many poets are prone to make a display of spiteful glee (on another poet's misfortune)or ugly envy (if that other poet wins a prize). Alfred Kazin recollects that Diana Trilling sometimes wrote letters to the editor complaining that a negative review wasn't negative enough. Who would want to be remembered like that?

Not me! I want everyone to love me.

Although I will admit to some jealousy when someone wins a prize and I don't. But there's a difference between wishing something would happen to you too and wanting to take something away from someone else.

Which also makes me ponder -- why do some people think the poetry universe is so small that it can only accommodate one or two or three geniuses anyway? I think there is lots of room for lots of voices -- the more, the merrier.

And finally, when I get really teeth-gnashy about the unfairness of things, I read Clive James' "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered." Cheers me right up.

A PS. and a disclaimer - the critics in my first comment did not include DL - whose work is always thoughtful, respectful, honest, and immensely readable - in short, what good criticism should be.

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