“Les jugements sur la poésie ont plus de valeur que la poésie.” (“Judgments on poetry are more valuable than poetry.”) —Comte de Lautréamont
“It is easy to treat poetry as if it were engaged in the language-game of giving information and thus to assume that what is important about a poem is what it tells us about the external world.” —Veronica Forrest-Thomson
“The ambiguity of poetic language answers to the ambiguity of human life as a whole, and therein lies its unique value. All interpretations of poetic language only interpret what the poetry has already interpreted.” —Hans-Georg Gadamer
Poetry criticism seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis. It’s not just that critics cannot agree on which poets or kinds of poetry are the best, but that poetry critics often have no common ground. They do not share the same aesthetic values, they cannot agree on common approaches. Critical writing about other art forms—say, visual art—is, or has been, in a similar position, but I’m not sure that art critics are constantly publicly worrying (in journals, on blogs and in comment fields) about art criticism. If they are, then maybe all critics (at least those who aren’t paid) should listen to Elvis Costello: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture; it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
Part of the issue is that people interested in poetry and poetry criticism often talk/write more about criticism than about poetry. The Matthew Zapruder piece at the above link sparked over 220 comments on the Poetry Foundation’s site; Stephen Burt’s equally provocative essay on the relationship between poetry and everyday life received 10% as many comments on the same site. Jason Guriel’s piece on negative reviewing received over 100 comments; David Bespiel’s polemic on poets and civics received half that many. Maybe people just like to argue, and it’s easier to argue with tertiary criticism about secondary criticism than with secondary criticism about poetry. Or maybe there’s a collective anxiety that, combined with individual anxieties, results in an explosion of tertiary commentary (with commentary on that commentary, which becomes quaternary). Or maybe it’s the quickest way for people to get their names and ideas out there, even if it means becoming best known for their work in the comment field genre. Or maybe, since most of the people writing about poetry also write poetry, there’s such a sense of urgency that every claim, assessment, and suggestion must be picked apart.
And then there’s the issue of category. Is poetry criticism a type of literary journalism? academic writing? informed but objective response? personal rumination with an intellectual bent? exploratory prose? This brings up the question of venue and audience. A poetry review for the New York Times won’t adopt the same approach as a poetry review for Talisman, even if they’re the same length. A review assigned by an editor with a word count usually will differ markedly from a review written for a blog, where the author and the editor are often the same person and where word counts are not nearly as important. And of course, a 500-word review cannot investigate a book the same way a 3000-word essay/review can. These are practical issues (and obvious ones), but they end up contributing to the crisis of criticism because all these pieces, however outwardly and inwardly disparate, are “poetry criticism.”
In “On Textual Understanding,” Peter Szondi writes, “texts present themselves as individuals, not as specimens. We must try to interpret them at first in accord with the concrete process whose results they are, and not in accord with an abstract rule, which itself cannot be established without an understanding of individual passages and works.” In other words, each text—e.g., a book of poetry—establishes the ground upon which it should be assessed. Poetry critics have been compared to doctors (albeit doctors who diagnose without fixing anything), but doctors at least agree on the basics. There’s no such foundation for the poetry critic to draw from. What one critic considers sophisticated, another considers retrograde; what one considers adventurous, another considers slapdash. This makes the poetry critic’s job that much more difficult and keeps the collective hand-wringing going.
One problem is that critics are using language to write about a language art. This often means that rational, normative language is being applied to associative, disruptive language. This is where critics of other art forms have a clear advantage—but also a disadvantage, since the best art and music critics know that their pieces must be engaging as works of prose in their own right, regardless of the product under consideration, because their criticism always must remain in a separate sphere of activity. Paintings and sculptures and albums don’t come with blurbs or excerpts from earlier reviews.
I used to write a lot of criticism. Between 1995 and 2006, I published, on average, at least one book review or essay per month. About 40 of these were written between 1995 and 1998 for a newspaper in Virginia; they served as my apprenticeship as a reviewer, since I learned to write a fixed number of words rather quickly and also worked out my own critical bent during that time. Another 30 were written for magazines and newspapers in Australia and England; they helped me address audiences with different poetic traditions while compelling me to articulate aspects of American poetry that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Eventually I decided that the best response to a book (or a poem) that I admired was another poem. And if I didn’t admire the book, then there were plenty of other, more worthwhile things to do than trash something someone spent years working on. I also was deeply affected by translating Tomaž Šalamun’s Gozd in kelihi (Woods and Chalices), such that writing conventional analytical prose seemed, suddenly, less useful as a critical act than translation. Both criticism and translation share the goal of illuminating what a poem is doing and how it works. In criticism, that illumination occurs in prose; in translation, it occurs in another language. In its way, criticism can be an act of translation, especially if it is not overly concerned with interpretation. When translation becomes interpretation, the translator is acting as a critic (and, I would argue, not a particularly helpful one).
Still, I’ve never understood why any poetry critics focus primarily on subject matter. Do art or music critics focus on content to the exclusion, or even subordination, of style or technique? Or do they try to explain how content and technique interact? Angus Fletcher seems close to the mark when he writes, “Thematic approaches to poetic effect are always bound to mislead.” Why? Because poetry depends largely on technique to convey whatever themes it deals with. If someone is writing mostly about content, then s/he is probably not writing about poetry. This doesn’t mean the work under consideration isn’t poetry, but that the critic is writing about what’s not poetry in the work. For poetry criticism to advance understanding, it needs to examine how the poems work.
Giorgio Agamben’s comment that “it is certain that a poet’s consciousness cannot be investigated without reference to his technical choices” highlights the fact that without those technical choices, poetry would not be worth reading, except to those looking for an entirely frictionless encounter.
One of my favorite quotes about poetry is by the Australian poet-critic-philosopher Kevin Hart, from an interview: “Poetry makes us consider the how as well as the what, and in changing the how great poetry also changes the what.”
Less punchy, but also apt: in “The End of the Poem,” Agamben, echoing Paul Valéry (“The poem: a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”), writes, “poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence also in the virtual interference) between sound and sense...” Poetry criticism needs to address that tension/difference/interference. Most poets know this, but in most reviews, the What prevails.
I’m not calling for a focus on the How to the exclusion or diminishment of the What, or even for an assessment of both elements individually, but for a consideration of the ways in which the How and the What inform and enable each other in poetry.
Many poets have already weighed in on this issue. Some samples:
“Every time there is an effort in style, there is versification.” —Mallarmé
“The meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines.” —George Oppen
“New rhythms are new perceptions.” —Robert Hass
“Style in the broadest sense … is consciousness in action.” —Alan Shapiro
“Style changes when one has got to the end, willingly or not, of a train of thought. The choice, then, is between another train of thought and the spiritual equivalent of lip-sync.” —Louise Glück
“[S]tyle is not merely the secondary ornamentation of poetic statement; it is the primary reality of the poem.” —Stephen Cushman (referring to Wallace Stevens)
“[T]he taking on, only apparently arbitrary, of stylistic devices—the inhabiting of them until they become the garment of one’s spirit life, the method by which one touches the world, the means by which one can be touched oneself, and changed.... The changes I made in my ‘technique’ are changes that occurred to my life: I became the person I couldn’t have otherwise been by these small devices, habits...” —Jorie Graham
“Style as persona, but also as reason to live.” —Stephen Burt
But style, when pursued to the point of “extremism,” can lead to “mannerisms”—tics, self-parody, bad habits. Agamben defines “manner” as “an exaggerated adhesion to a usage or model (stereotype, or repetition) and, at the same time, a show of absolute excess with relation to it (extravagance, or singularity).” So there’s a minor danger here. He continues: “If style marks the artist’s most characteristic trait, manner registers an inverse process of expropriation and exclusion. It is as if the old poet, who found his style and reached perfection in it, now forgets it in order to advance the singular claim of expressing himself solely through impropriety.” The tension lies between recognizing and resisting one’s own style in order to avoid descending into mere mannerism. (Poetry critics, too, develop their own mannerisms.)
But ultimately Agamben tries to move beyond this divide: “Only in their reciprocal relation do style and manner acquire their true sense beyond the proper and the improper. The free gesture of the writer lives in the tension between these two poles… Not only in the old poet but in every great writer (Shakespeare!) there is a manner that distances itself from style, a style that expropriates itself into manner. At its height, writing even consists in precisely the interval—or, rather, the passage—between the two. Perhaps in every field but most of all in language, use is a polar gesture: on the one hand, appropriation and habit; on the other, expropriation and nonidentity.”
“Without style, there can be no identity.” —John Kinsella