Click image to order
Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries


« "The Russian Revolution took a backseat to the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact" | Main | Kafka: It can always get worse. . . »

May 25, 2024


One appreciates that honest workmanlike criticism can be invaluable; I think of Frederick Crews' work on Hawthorne's stories before Crews went ballistic on Freud. But the older one gets, the more one realizes that "theory" seems more and more to be the tedious delivery of what one already knows. And why wouldn't it be? It's basically the working out of one's personality in conflict with one's god. On the other hand, poetry starts there, and at its best can be truly visionary. As a recent example of this, I would say read Jorie Graham's poem, "Death," in the April 8th issue of The New Yorker. It's a great poem. You may get annoyed at Graham's affectations, as I do, like right-justification, for instance; but when she hits a home run it leaves the park. "Death" is on the Whitman-Dickinson level of seriousness and greatness, I think. But generally, comparing poetry and criticism is apples and orangutans.

Jim, thanks for this excellent comment; it could form the basis of a terrific little essay. I agree with you about Crews and theory. Applicants and orangutans needn't say no.

"Applicants" is a GREAT synonym for "poets."

Every now and then, a sense of the futility of their daily endeavors falling suddenly upon them, the critics of Christendom turn to a somewhat sour and depressing consideration of the nature and objects of their own craft. That is to say, they turn to criticizing criticism. What is it in plain words? What is its aim, exactly stated in legal terms? How far can it go? What good can it do? What is its normal effect upon the artist and the work of art?
Such a spell of self-searching has been in progress for several years past, and the critics of various countries have contributed theories of more or less lucidity and plausibility to the discussion. Their views of their own art, it appears, are quite as divergent as their views of the arts they more commonly deal with. One group argues, partly by directly statement and partly by attacking all other groups, that the one defensible purpose of the critic is to encourage the virtuous and oppose the sinful --- in brief, to police the fine arts and so hold them in tune with the moral order of the world. Another group, repudiating this constabulary function, argues hotly that the arts have nothing to do with morality whatsoever ---- that their concern is solely with pure beauty. A third group holds that the chief aspect of a work of art, particularly in the field of literature, is its aspect as psychological document ---- that if it doesn't help men to know themselves it is nothing. A forth group reduces the thing to an exact science, and sets up standards that resemble algebraic formulæ ---- this is the group of metrists, of contrapuntists and of those who gabble of light-waves. And so, in order, follow groups five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, each with its theory and its proofs.

H.L. Mencken Criticism of Criticism of Criticism

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

click image to order your copy
That Ship Has Sailed
Click image to order
BAP ad
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


  • StatCounter