Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Problem(s) of Criticism

If you are a real critic, you are going to annoy, even anger, someone. Like a prophet, often unloved in his own village, a critic must speak the truth of what he perceives.

The dearth of real poetry criticism nowadays is caused by the cooptation of poetry criticism by the professionals: professional poets, a class never seen before a century ago, who make their living teaching and writing, usually in the academy. The problem with bad criticism is that it is dishonest: it pretends to propose the truth, while obfuscating it. It's hard to find a good critical take on a poetry anthology nowadays, because most of those poets who dominate the publishing world are peers, and afraid of offending one another. It's the vicious backbiting of academic competitiveness, which I witnessed all too well in my several years in grad school. So, it's hard to get someone to write a negative review, even when it's deserved, because they fear retaliation. If you give my poetry textbook, which I edited, a good review, I'll give yours a good review in return, when you publish it. It's the dishonesty of marketing (a field in which I worked for two decades), where everything is shiny and bright, and blurbs stand in for actual criticism.

it is similarly difficult to take seriously criticism that relies too much on theoretical concerns placed before the word at hand. Criticism, like theory, must follow praxis, and not attempt to dictate it. Reviewing at its best is reportorial, interpretative, and illuminating. Critical theory at its worst has a visible axe to grind.

I like talking about art as much as the next person, and I even enjoy reading critical theory, and good critiques. But I do wonder how much about making art one can learn from critical theory, which is essentially talking about art but not making art. Theory follows praxis, it doesn't dictate it. It cannot. It describes it. It explains it. (Or attempts to.)

The point of being a poet is to make art. The problem with artists is they're unruly. They think outside the box, they explode the envelope, they keep coming up with things no one else has done before. The reason why there are so many nifty new critical theories all the time is because the critics are always trying to catch up with the artists—the wisest of whom generally ignore the critics and everything they have to say.

Is it possible to be a good, honest, fair critic, and still maintain civility? I believe so.

I have recently been re-reading Conrad Aiken's Collected Criticism (originally published as A Reviewer's ABC). The selections in Aiken's collection span the range of writers we now consider to be among the greatest of the 20th Century—or at least the most influential—from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and many others, some of whom are now rarely read outside the halls of academe. The book spans Aiken's published reviews from 1915 through 1955. I find Aiken a model of critical writing: even when he is quite negative, even harsh, he manages to pull it off in a tone that is respectful of what is good and bracingly clear about what could be improved. He can be severe, but he manages to do it with civilized discourse. Any modern poet who wishes to learn how it's done might wish to read this book.

Throughout, I find Aiken insightful and provocative: he makes me rethink some of my own assessments, or at least consider my defense of my own judgments; at other times, he clarifies my own ideas by clearly stating something that I was always on the edge of, but could never quite articulate. His assessment of Lorca validates my own view that the epitome of Surrealism occured not with that movements French originators, but in the hands of Spanish-language poets: Lorca, Machado, Neruda, Paz, Villaruttia, and others. But Lorca was not a "Surrealist" in the French sense, that weaker sense of "over-reality" that never quite achieved transcendence. As Aiken writes about Lorca: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

So, why do criticism at all? Isn't it all a matter of subjective taste?

The total subjectivity argument doesn't wash. That way lies solipsism, and the ultimate shrug: why bother, then, to write a critique at all, if there is only subjectivity? I mean, that implies that nothing anyone can do is ever communicable to anyone else, and it really is all masturbation. I disagree.

There are elements of poetry that can be looked at objectively, starting with those elements that commonly fall under the rubric of craft. There are also elements beyond that, in terms of affect, style, tone, musicality. A great poem has more in common with other great poems than it does with lesser poems, and one can discern that a great poem has an impact of a special type on the reader.

The argument is then made that learning the academic theories—say, from Freud to structuralism to post-modernism—might help one become a better poet. I agree that it can make one become a better critic, but I disagree that it can make one into a better poet. All the -isms in the world cannot substitute for inspiration.

Perhaps it's useful to know about the history of theory, but it's also useful to know where the theories fail. I agree that the New Criticism made a good point about looking at the poem from the inside, on its own terms: getting into the text itself seems obvious. But it is not true that the Text is all that matters, and the Author can be entirely ignored. Texts don't magically appear out of nothing: authors write them. While I completely agree that an author's biography is not necessarily determinative of the text—the autobiographical fallacy, as if all author's were utterly unaware of what they are revealing (some are, of course)—at the same time, the text is not written in a vacuum, and the artist's biography, mood, and context does have some input. Yet even the clichéd writerly dictum to "write what you know" cannot account for fiction, science fiction, poetry, or essay, all of which present stellar examples of writers writing well about what they "don't know."

So, I'm not at all clear that knowing theory can make one a sharper poet. I think it's just as likely to get in the way, or, even worse, turn poetry-writing into a purely intellectual exercise. Literary theory is a purely intellectual exercise; poetry, especially great poetry, is embodied, visceral, multi-valent, and contains factors that are not purely intellectual, such as emotion, surprise, etc. There are non-rational elements to all artistic processes, including where the heck the impulse comes from to begin with. So much theory ignores all of that.

The idea that Theory can help me work my way into a poem, so that I can look at it from the inside out, on its own terms, has severe limits, because as long as I'm thinking about the theory, I'm not actually inside the poem, thinking the poem's own thoughts. I'm thinking about the poem, not inhabiting the poem. It is a filter between self and experience: a filter of mind, persona, intellect. It is a veil, however permeable, between what is and what we think is.

The removal of thought-filters is the whole purpose and point of meditation practices, contemplative practices, yoga, Zen, even Western monastic contemplation. It is in fact quite possible to remove a maximum of filters from one's perceptions. It is practical, and technical, a skill that can be learned, and a viewpoint that can be attained with practice. Nothing magical about it. So, when one removes thought-filters in life, one notices they also get removed in one's critical life, and writing.

Poetry itself is a way of contemplation. Creative work can be done with mindfulness, attention, concentration, envelopment. I think that a reader can often sense the difference between a poem that is lived, inhabited, which has enveloped the poet, and a poem which was more of an intellectual exercise. There is something Other present, then. I may not be able to define it, in all cases, yet it seems an essential component of great poetry, that is often absent in lesser poems.

My fundamental point is this: writing poetry is not intellectual play. Intellect is of course part of it all, but not the primary part, or even the most important part—except as intellect is the directive force behind poetic craft. Saying that intellectual play is the most important part of poetry is the same thing as saying that craft and/or form are the most important parts, which I also disagree with.

The strength of my reaction comes from the fact that I feel that modern poetry and poetry criticism is heavily overbalanced in the theoretical direction—just look at many of the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets, or the faux brilliance of a James Tate or a John Ashbery. I desire to keep the balance between craft and the ineffable source of creativity centered, so that they work together in harness, in alliance, supporting each other.

I notice that some literary critics unconsciously reveal their personal biases about poetry (etc.) when they adhere to one school of thought or another. I think the proper first response to a poem is visceral, personal. When a critique seems off the wall or unconnected to the poem at hand, underlying assumptions and ideological agendas are exposed. In my experience, most critical theories are created in reaction to something, usually a prior theory, or in an often covert attempt to propose an ideological paradigm. I don't think people realize how much they reveal of themselves, their inner workings and prejudices, when they put forth certain theories as gospel truthes or Big Pronouncements. Similarly, I find art that is produced in line with a manifesto or theory to be usually pedantic and only intellectually interesting. Surrealism sold itself out in this matter, eventually. Dada did not, only because its root assumptions remain shocking and radical, and most critics would rather ignore it, and pretend it never happened. (The only two writers who have said anything really profound and accurate about Marcel Duchamp's art are Octavio Paz and John Cage.)

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Blogger eshuneutics said...

A thoughtful piece, well-balanced in a world of extreme views.

"Criticism should follow praxis".
Should it?
It didn't with Pound, who you cite as an innovator. One of the best books on EP is The Critic as Scientist: Old Ez was always using criticism (his) to formulate practices. The creation of the Image didn't come, in real terms, until The Cantos.

" a thought filter".
Isn't there a problem here?
A poem requires thought, so thought filters must exist. All thinking brings conceptual metaphors into play. Even as you write about "inhabiting" you are using a double conceptual metaphor whish says POETRY IS A SPACE TO BE LIVED IN AND ENTERED. That is a thought filter that shapes how you read the poem.

"Poetry is craft and inspiration".
Yet, how can you know craft without an ability to be critical? As Pound pointed out: Criticism=CRITO=to judge. All technique requires judgement, that is comparisons that bring theory into play. Cage is an interesting case in point. He has a reputation for being formless, yet his mesostics apply comtemplation through an exacting poetical form.

And what is "inpsiration"? I think I would agree with you, however, there is less and less poetry that is inspired, doing as Duncan said, taking the poem from where it starts, where it breaks, and working with that feeling through technique and poetical theory into felt form.

A really interesting article, enjoyed reading it.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, I cited Pound as influential. I never said he was innovative. An argument can be made for Pound as innovator, of course, based on his Imagist poems, which were a new thing—in English if not in the Japanese and Chinese poems that influenced the Imagists—and his editorial influence on Eliot and others of the first "Modern" generation. I don't particularly like Pound's own poetry, though, as I find his poems to be bland, intellectual, and unmoving: precisely because Pound allowed his praxis to follow from his ideas about literature, rather than letting his ideas emerge from observing what he was doing. He wrote the Cantos to make a point, at least as much as he wrote them to just write them.

It depends what you mean by "thought," doesn't it? Most folks use "thought" to mean "discrete packet of ideation" and associate it with the intellect, and not with either the unconscious, the emotive, or the kinesthetic. "Thought" tends to be defined as rarified and disembodied. It's the Cartesian dualism of "mind" inhabiting a "body," as though it were an idea operating a machine from within some control room with viewscreens and control levers. (One could make a case for Descartes having suffered from psychological disassociative disorder, or even borderline personality disorder, if one felt inclined to be vindictive.)

Theory is a filter of thought-forms applied to life, that stands like a scrim between stage and audience. Theory allows us to be emotionally detached, to be dispassionate, remote, unaffected. Theory also allows us to analyze before and after the fact. The point of being a poet is to write poetry, not to write about writing poetry, or write about thinking about poetry—those are valid things to do, but when I'm writing like this, I'm in "essayist's mind," more typically than in "poet's mind." Of course there's overlap, and I mix them up when I get into "prose-poem mind."

"Mind," by the way, is larger than "thought." Mind encompasses the whole field of operations, including those we don't knnow about, or pay attention to, in the shadows of the unconscious, and in the autonomic functions that continue without our attention. I think, therefore I have thoughts. I meditate, or sit quietly, with mind at rest, and I still have mind, even if I don't have thoughts at the moment.

Does poetry really require thought? Really? Do not some poems come to the writer without the writer "thinking about it," just appearing as if given? That does happen—even otherwise very intellectual poets have admitted it, in interviews and memoirs. I doubt Rilke was thinking about what he was writing during the process of the "great giving," as he called it in a letter, during which he wrote The Sonnets to Orpheus, and completed the Duino Elegies. Even if this giving is an exception, it exists, and that cannot be denied: it does happen!

As to craft and inspiration, people who think Cage is formless never studied his work; I strongly agree with you on that point. Cage was never formless and chaotic, although he was indeterminate. Indeterminate does not mean "random," a fact that many of his interpreters, including the musicians who played his music, often missed; it's a fact that this could get Cage very frustrated. In those cases, it's worth remembering that Cage wrote, in one of the early lectures: "Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want." His point was that the performer is supposed to use the parameters provided, and stay within the provided "frame," and not do whatever the hell felt like doing. Cage's work was intended to remove personal taste—both his own and the performers'—not coddle to it. When performers ignored the rules of the piece, even if those rules were chance-determined and openly arbitrary, they were not in fact playing the piece as it was intended to be played; they were indulging themselves, and not playing the music as it was given to them to play.

All of Cage's published writings are very much exacting, as you put it, even though they were often indeterminate in form and execution. His method of writing, the same as his method of composition, was to ask questions. The questions would lead to the rules of the piece at hand, would determine which rules he should follow where, and how closely, and so forth. After he had asked all the questions, then the writing could begin. Many of his mesostics explode traditional poetic form, but they also create new forms, and—possibly the ultimate test—they cohere. They are indeterminate, but not random.

What is inspiration? I don't know; I can only speculate, not give a definitive answer. Perhaps it's those things that are given to us, that just seem to arrive without being asked for, that suddenly appear before us, catch our attention, and demand they be recognized, worked with, and made into art. it could be as simple as watching a Starbuck's peon hold the espresso machine's lever, just so; it could be a cloud moving across the stars; it could the sound you most love in the world. Perhaps inspiration is what makes us feel alive and connected.

6:19 PM  

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