Friday, April 27, 2018

On poetry criticism

Perhaps modern discussions on criticism aren’t ever going to go anywhere.  The July 1994  issue of the The Times Literary Supplement was devoted to critical theory, but I read only the essay, Doing Things with Words, Criticism and the attack on the subject" by Denis Donoghue all the way through.  The other articles and essays dealt with the modern (and I guess it is still modern) critical argument that literature and art ought to be political.  A poet arguing for revolution in a Latin American country is good.  A poet like Wordsworth who wrote whimsical unpolitical poems for the most part is bad.  The TLS reviewers were uncomfortable with the need to politicize literature, but did not (as far as I could tell by skimming the articles) actually defend poets who didn’t have political goals in mind when then wrote. 

Arguing against the consensus of that TLS issue, as Denis Donoghue summarized, criticism has to be ancillary and subsequent to literature.  Years ago I read a lot of poetry that adhered to the Communist Party Line.  It was awful stuff.  I think Harold Bloom would argue that any poetry adhering to any party line must of necessity be awful stuff.  It can’t have been inspired by the poet.  It must have been inspired by the Party Line with the poet doing his or her best to do something good with it.

Of course there is always the poet who says, in effect, “I really do believe in the Party Line (of whatever) and so my poems are inspired by me (however a poet is inspired) and not the Party Line.   I’m not convinced by that argument, but one can’t really argue with the poet who is.

The critic I am most impressed with in these later modern times is Helen Vendler.  Unlike I. A. Richards she does close readings, and she is very good.  She has no grand system or philosophy of literature that I’ve read her arguing thus far, but she will argue that a particular poem of Wallace Stevens is excellent, and proceed with a close reading that will probably convince you that she is right.  I appreciate her sort of criticism.

I have read a number of critics in the past who take a different approach, who do promote systems and philosophies (i.e., party lines) of poetry, and while I can’t be sure that none of that sort of thing (especially the ideas of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) isn’t stuck in my psyche some place, I can’t at this moment bring a single bit of it to mind.

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