Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Coming off a year of teaching in two MFA programs, one private workshop and several Colrain manuscript conference/intensives, I approached Stephen Burt's collection of essays (Close Calls with Nonsense, from Graywolf) in a rather more practical state of mind than I might have a year ago. Knowing how difficult it is for students to find the words to talk about poetry (including, maybe especially, their own), and knowing that the vocabulary necessary to articulate how a poem works or doesn't work takes time to learn, I admire Burt's well-articulated, incisive commentary on each of the poets he's chosen to examine. I especially enjoyed reading his remarks on Rae Armantrout, a poet I've liked—and truly enjoyed—for a long time, but whose "explainers" often seem more concerned with the project of language writing as a whole than with talking about the effects she alone achieves in her poems. For example, I've often laughed out loud reading her work, but not run into anyone who talks about her odd wit. Burt does. And, while he sets her writing in the context of the other language writers, he doesn't leave her reified there. In fact, his movement in each of the essays is from context—of time, place, poetic "school"—to the particularity of each poet, each poem he examines. This seems just right to me, and this is a great book for students of (mostly) contemporary poetry, one I'll certainly assign.
With Burt's essays in mind, I revisited the article by Matthew Zapruder ("Show Your Work!") wondering if Burt's work would satisfy Zapruder's call for a "new kind of criticism." It seems to me that yes, it does. It certainly answers Zapruder's invocation/provocation that critics need to "guide the reader past his or her resistance (to new poems)," or that they need to "write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Like Vendler (Burt's former teacher at Harvard), Burt's strategy as a critic in Close Calls is one of guidance and explanation, with the aim of bringing the reader into a state of ability to appreciate. In other words, the critic as teacher. But isn't this what critics have been doing all along (some obviously better than others)? Zapruder's call for something "new" in criticism again strikes me as a call coming from lack of knowledge. Vendler has been doing this for many years. For that matter, hasn't Burt? In fact, revisiting Praising it New—The Best of the New Criticism, a terrific collection of critical essays on and by the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis, reminds me that critics have been doing for decades what Zapruder says he wants done; that is, teaching the reader how to read new poetries. Yet, he's right, I think, in that there is a widening gap between poem and reader.
Maybe the explosion in numbers of those who call themselves poets and the resulting plurality of poetries in the last 10 or so years, while great for those who would be poets, has not been so great for those who would be readers. While Vendler has come round to Ashbery and Burt to Armantrout, for two "outlier" examples from a decade ago (and Burt to several others more recent), the rush of poetry toward less "graspability" is much faster and more widespread than any critic might hope to keep up with. Granted, the rush seen in journals and newly published collections, is mainly one of (to use Burt's term) epigones and not particularly worthy of attention, but—and here is where I differ with the strictly explanatory role of the critic—how can readers possibly know in such an onrush, what is worth paying attention to, if not through the evaluative function of criticism? I suspect that Burt's answer to this is simply that what he pays attention to is by definition, worth paying attention to, and that the critic is not (or should not) be in the "rating" business or, as he says, "placing poets in order of supposed importance, as if criticism were akin to constructing brackets for basketball tournaments, or (worse yet) to judging cases at law." Meanwhile, Zapruder oversimplifies what I see as the evaluative dilemma for critics by stating that "Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Aside from the fact that one can opine that something is good or bad and rely not on personality or reputation but on critical thinking to prove the point (no insistence needed), and even if we imagine that anyone who decides to write about poetry has access to all poetry, has read it all, and has no preference for some poetry over others, is utterly "objective" about poetry, what would be the point of writing about one thing over another if not preference? And what is that preference if not a kind of rating?
There are many more books of poetry not noticed than written about negatively, so, obviously, preference comes into play, even when the preference is to negatively spotlight a book. Furthermore, choice is a preference and so in some way also a "rating," albeit a personal one: this book is worth notice, this one, by implication, is not. But if, let's say, something is worth noticing because it's receiving a ton of positive notice that the critic thinks is not justified, why not say so? Rather than avoid overt rating, I think more critical writing should do just that--evaluate. Guidance depends not only on learning how to read what someone says is worth reading, but learning how to see what's not worth reading, how to make distinctions between and among all of the possible things to read we are presented with constantly. I don't see how critics can abandon evaluation, not teach readers how to decide what's good, better, best. If an education in poetry does anything, it seems to me it should at least help poets not only to to say something about poems, but to evaluate them, to make distinctions between and among them and yes, to render a judgment on them. As with any field, there are practioners who are better than others—-more experienced, more talented, original, exciting, and so on. Readers—and students—are not helped by an avoidance of this reality. Learning how to form critical judgments vis a vis poetry isn't helped by simply taking on the opinion of the day, but by understanding how a critic forms his or her opinion. Learning how to think about a poem may lead to appreciation, but it also, necessarily, leads to evaluation. I don't see how these are separate ends, nor that they should be.
Posted by Joan Houlihan at 11:35 AM