The work of criticism is always, let’s say, ephemeral; Saint-Beuve’s name survives only because Proust was against him. Even more fleeting are the reactions of the mere reviewer. “No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” sniffs Renata Adler in her screed against Pauline Kael.
So the outpouring of emotion in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death might seem a transitory thing; already, the passing of the Iron Lady (of whom more later) has moved him off the screens. The rise of Siskel and Ebert neatly paralleled in time the switch from the decade-long Prague Spring of New Hollywood to the blockbuster-driven economy still churning its way through the Marvel and DC lineups. Even if Ebert’s courage and openness in the face of his disfiguring illness and his resolute identity as a newspaper journalist in the twilight of that industry render him heroic, he and his partner might still seem like emblems in a narrative of cultural decline, banally and profitably celebrating the culture industry’s assembly line, whatever caveats they might have about individual products.
But I want to offer a different view. Sneak Previews and its successors enjoyed an astounding success, given how unpromising the show’s basic structure might have seemed: two untelegenic, middle-aged white guys bickering about movie clips. The show operated on the premise that arguing about culture could draw a mass audience. And it did. “Thumbs up or down” may have been the takeaway message, but both critics made clear that those decisions were made for reasons, and reasons that each would emphatically try to make the other acknowledge.
Maybe those arguments weren’t always the most sophisticated. And maybe the very act of treating Weekend at Bernie’s 2 as worthy of detailed consideration was as much a con as it was a tribute to critical open-mindedness. But in their humble way, Siskel and Ebert offered a model of rationality, one on which thinking wasn’t a matter of following an algorithm or asserting a purely subjective preference. In other words, it was a humanistic kind of education.
And it strikes me that poetry criticism, that much-lamented field, could do with more of a dose of At the Movies-style debate. We have our dramatic flareups, as with the fascinating byplay between Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich last year. But too often, even when critical disagreements break out, they either proceed at an austere level of abstraction or wind up with people talking past one another. I’d love to see a pair of writers devote themselves to detailed and contentious consideration of recent books or poems of note. There are some excellent examples approximating this: Al Filreis’s Poem Talk, for instance, or the byplay between Christian Wiman and Don Share on the Poetry podcast, but I think there’s room for a similar effort that's neither tied to a particular publication nor emphasizing a scholarly conversation.
The use of thumbs in the poetic context, though, might have its risks:
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush.
(Sylvia Plath, "Cut")