“[T]here are no rules. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not rules.” —Clark Coolidge
“And the matter is language or, more exactly, words or, more exactly still, the material of words…” —Gerald Bruns
William Carlos Williams’ famous statement (in his introduction to The Wedge) that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” points to the fact that machines, like poems, are assembled by someone. This somewhat echoes Grigory Vinokur’s claim (about 20 years earlier, in 1923) that “poetic creation is work on the word not only as a sign, but as a thing possessing its own construction.”
A little later in his introduction, Williams writes (incisively, but with an unfortunate gender assumption), “When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them... It isn’t what he says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.”
And, finally: “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity.”
It is not particularly difficult to find criticism on the formal or technical aspects of poetry. Russian formalists such as Vinokur—“The material of poetry is language”— and their adherents, and linguists such as Richard D. Cureton—“language constitutes poetic art”—are the most common sources for formalist writing about poetry. But it can be difficult to locate criticism that considers style/technique (materials) in conjunction with content (material).
We could go toward the extremes of formalism and impersonality, as Osip Brik does in “The So-Called Formal Method” (1923): “The history of poetry is the history of the development of the devices of verbal formation.” (This is after he claims “there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.”) But to do so would reduce works of art to the merely mechanical. Poetry criticism needs a middle ground between form and content, between style and subject. That middle ground consists of explaining how form contributes to content, how subject matter is facilitated by technique. It’s useless to point to technique, to cordon it off as a separate element. And it’s not sufficient to discuss content without addressing what distinguishes poetry from other bits of language.
Although there are some scattered reviews in print magazines, online journals, and blogs that consider the material and materials of poetry, very few books do so. Perhaps this is because most books about poetry are written by scholars interested in poetry’s extra-poetic elements. But one needs a lot of spare time to keep up with periodicals and blogs. Poetry commentary occurs in numerous places at all times, and it’s easy to fall behind or feel overwhelmed, since the commentary continues, as does the commentary on the commentary. The conversation waits for no one. This is where books are (still!) helpful: they are “complete,” they don’t get deleted or subsumed by comment fields, they are relatively easy to find and obtain, and they’re waiting in libraries and warehouses.
There are the most prominent critics (such as Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Charles Bernstein, William Logan, and Stephen Burt) who publish books of reviews and essays, but what about books by less visible critics?
Gerald Bruns’ The Material of Poetry (2005) covers a few contemporary poets, such as Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Steve McCaffery, and Marvin Bell, as well as sound poetry (John Cage, Jackson Mac Low), visual poetry, Objectivism, and “poetic materialism” (Ponge). The subtitle of his book, Sketches for a Philosophical Poetics, gestures toward Bruns’ larger aims, which go beyond “poems” to “poetry.” He wants to find ways for poetry “to expand our beliefs as to what is meaningful and to develop new ways of experiencing meaning” as well as “connections between poetry and ethics,” with ethics defined (via Levinas) as “fidelity to principles and rules or to concepts of the good, the right, and the just.” He’s also interested in poetry as “a species of conceptual art.”
Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry (published posthumously in 1978 and currently out of print) is a treasure, not only for her critical acumen but for her idiosyncracies and approach. “There would be no point in writing poetry unless poetry were different from everyday language,” she asserts. Similarly, “it is only through artifice that poetry can challenge our ordinary linguistic orderings of the world.” Her statement that “The power of poetry depends on its ability to maintain continuity while achieving discontinuity” looks forward to disjunctive lyricism. Brian Kim Stefans has an excellent essay on the book at Jacket. Someone should bring this book back into print.
The title of Jonathan Holden’s Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry (1986) seems promising, since it gestures toward a reconciliation of apparent opposites, but is actually a contradiction, as he treats non-style—the first-person free verse postconfessional poem, or the “conversation poem”—as poetic style. Holden’s arguments are based on an appreciation of poetry that privileges individual testimony (sincerity, compassion, candor, etc.) and treats voice as style. When Holden views John Ashbery’s tactics of destabilizing the contemporary lyric as “an Olympian, non-committal language play that refuses engagement”; when he refers to poems like Ashbery’s as an ethical evasion, a failure in the “test of an author’s character and capacity: whether to trust one’s vision and presume to impose upon the world, by sheer force of character, an individual aesthetic and ethical order, or to continue the modernist hegemony of Eliot and Pound, to retreat in an elitist disgust from modern civilization and indulge in the facile despair of the parodist”; when he singles out for praise lines such as “husbands who stopped in / just long enough / to sample the cookies” for being “particularly effective,” commending the “line breaks [that] reproduce exactly the appropriately knowing tone of the voice”; when he frequently brandishes the word “beautiful” without qualifying or defining it or (oddly, given the value he attributes to authenticity) relating beauty to truth, it becomes clear that Holden is not interested in style at all. Rather, he is interested in imposing, “by sheer force of character,” an ethical order and a “moral authority” as well as an aesthetic.
Perhaps less egregious but equally problematic, Holden never even mentions, in this book purporting to educate readers about style in postmodern poetry, stylistically innovative postmodern poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Rosemarie Waldrop, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Alice Notley, John Yau, or those discussed by Bruns, or even more mainstream poets like Charles Wright, James Tate, Louise Glück or Yusef Komunyakaa, each of whom had published several books in the decade leading up to Holden’s account. When an innovative poet is mentioned, it is for dismissal. Every such list and selection of poets will contain lacunae, as will any critical book; but of the contemporary poets Holden does consider in any depth—Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Richard Hugo, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, John Logan, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Stanley Plumly, Stephen Dunn, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Forché, Susan Ludvigson, Nancy Willard, Gary Gildner, Ted Kooser, Reg Saner—none receives an individual chapter and nearly all are assessed by single poems. His practice of writing about individual poems and drawing large conclusions from them highlights the limitations of his approach: by writing about isolated poems, he facilitates the distortion necessary for poetry to conform to his notions of style and authenticity.
All criticism distorts. It’s inevitable. The only way to avoid distortion is to re-present the work as one found it (and one still could argue that this is a distortion, simply a simulacrum or imitation, scrivenery—or, as Bruns says of Jorie Graham’s use of other texts in Materialism, a “travesty” on the one hand and a case of “finding a text rather than producing an original one” on the other).
But criticism that meets the work under consideration (rather than confronting or assaulting it), that seeks to inhabit and understand the work from within (rather than from the critic’s entrenched position), and that engages the materials to illuminate the material can be exhilarating. The result of active reading, or what Jed Rasula and others have called wreading, this kind of criticism is as creative as it is analytical. But it is also time-consuming to write, inimical to short deadlines. And it tends to preclude negative criticism, since it’s usually not possible to dislike a book of poetry and still meet it on its own terms, inhabit it, and actively examine its choices. So, like all modes of criticism, it has its limits.
The linguist Ned Scott Laff’s assertion that “the ways poets orchestrate language is something more than masterful artifice to be appreciated and then put aside so we can concentrate on theme and content” and his plea—“to respond to the ways poets craft language we as readers have to make discoveries similar to those that poets make about how language can be crafted aesthetically to create the presentational significances of meaning”—sound like a call for wreading. But few linguists write about contemporary poetry.
William Gass has written that “To read with recognition (not just simple understanding) is to realize why the writer made the choices he or she made, and why, if the writing has been done well… its words could not have been set down otherwise.” Although he is talking about the kind of reading required by translation, he also could be discussing the kind of reading that seems most effective for poetry criticism.