In a recent issue of Poetry, I came across a familiar theme. In the commentary section, a critic, Jason Guriel, recommended a tougher, more “negative” approach for poetry reviews (a bit like William Logan). Too much pulling of punches, it seems, has resulted in a mushier criticism and taste. Guriel then goes on to criticize a number of new books for their abstract language, preferring instead writing with more “chewy imagery”. He contrasts, for example, a line (by Eric Ormsby) describing a rooster’s “dark, corroded croak/Like a grudging nail pulled out of stubborn wood” (good), with the more general one (by Jane Mead), that simply points to “the sound of cowbirds/in sudden excellence” (bad).
I saw Guriel’s piece, coincidentally, just as a reading group I was in had finished some of Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. And, on the verge of converting to Hegelianism myself, I was initially in sympathy with this critic’s approach. After all, Hegel was the master of “tarrying with the negative”; with him, it was an ethical point –only through endless critique can anything like clarity be achieved. But, in keeping with this approach, I quickly began critiquing Guriel’s critique. I became skeptical of the basis of his skepticism. Hegel, too, it turns out, warned against empty generalities when it came to aesthetics, remarking that “to produce works of art according to…abstractions is of course wrong – and just as unsatisfactory as when a thinker thinks in vague ideas…” At the same time, he cautioned that if you privilege the concrete above all else (like some art historians did in his own time), you paint yourself into an aesthetic corner. Something like this happened in our era. Back when I was in creative writing school, the main commandment teachers preached was the one Williams was credited with: “no ideas but in things.” Unfortunately, this often resulted in tons of poems with tons of things, but no ideas. If you embrace the empirical as a sort of aesthetic security blanket, you end up losing the visionary quality that makes poetry cool in the first place. To his credit, I think Guriel himself senses this, as at the end of his piece he complains about the tidal wave of competent but boring poetry he sees everywhere; poetry, without, as he puts it, “game-changing metaphors” – where it’s always “business as usual.”
So, as a born-again Hegelian (at least in aesthetics), let me propose another standard of judgment. It may be one the great man himself would have agreed with -- though I’m not sure about this, because Hegel is hard to understand. In any case, I think it’s actually the standard many critics and poetry freaks use already (without knowing it). So here goes…
Hegel divided aesthetic approaches by era. Each epoch, he theorized, had its particular characteristics. For example, the Classical Era, he felt, was the only one where the arts fully expressed the essence of their times. But this match between the arts and the real was only possible because the times themselves were more simple. During our own era, which in Hegel’s eyes begins with Christianity, goes through the Romanticism of his time – and is projected forward, this is no longer possible. Reality is too complicated to be fully expressed by poetry – or any other art form. The most significant art of our era, in his view, is on some level aware of this – and, as a result, is skeptical about itself – questioning its own assumptions, trying in the end to transcend even the definition of what makes an artwork in the first place.
This may sound a bit lofty, but it’s not really, if you think about what makes us notice breakthroughs in poetry. Take Creeley, for example. Isn’t one of the most striking things about his poems the fact that, although he was a direct descendent of Williams, sometimes he refused to use any “things” at all? That he was writer who, in place of standard-issue empiricism, proposed a poetry that proved “There is no trick to reality-/a mind/makes it, any/mind…”