Monday, August 25, 2008


Recently, Reginald Shepherd offered a series of views on the relationship between poetry and criticism or criticism and poetry (let’s not place one before the other and upset anyone). His comments, as balanced as ever, were a reply to Doug Powell’s dislike of “pitics” and “croets”, an evolutionary development about as much desired (by him) as genetically modified food. The three posts by Reginald Shepherd caused quite a response; and the level of response was more worrying than the starting point. Sarcasm, arrogance, put-downs, misunderstandings, all of it in away showing why criticism is important: had the respondents been better critics they might have listened to each other better. I was tempted to wade into the murky waters beyond a simple comment, but backed off since I sensed all the usual crocodile prejudices were lurking. I had to be content with silently observing that though Reginald Shepherd applauded the “explosion of online discussions about poetry” many of the so-called explosions on the internet, such as this one, frequently turn into damp squibs.

A number of aspects deeply concerned me in the debate and I think they are worth reflecting on.

1) I do agree with Reginald Shepherd that poetry and criticism stand side-by-side. And I would say unequivocally that they stand equally, sharing the same stature. (That is the bias that I bring to this debate). I am bemused, therefore, that anyone would want to separate the critical faculty from poetical. Of course, this is easily done when a person slips in the word “creativity”.

2) A few months ago I offered criticism to a young novelist. He asked for criticism. He received criticism. He replied with the accusation of “critic” which I realised fell just below the word motherfucker as an insult. This so-called young novelist then berated my criticism on the basis that I was an “academic” who had no knowledge of “creativity”. This is one of the most common responses I find on blogs towards any worthwhile comment bordering on “judgement” (Criticism, kritos, to judge). Creativity is the province of the artist: criticism exists beyond the perfect state in which the artist lives. Critics, consequently, are not creative, their thinking is not of the first-order.

3) This stance was well summed up by Joseph Huchinson (of The Perpetual Bird) in reply to Reginald Shepherd:

‘Criticism is a derivative activity—what I would call "second-order thinking." By that I mean that critics attach themselves to a text or texts like remoras to sharks.’

A metaphor creeps in. Criticism is a remora and poetry is a shark. That isn’t the best example of a poetic metaphor in defence of poetry, not exactly a fine example of “first-order” thinking, but that is probably because this respondent has had to sink to the level of subterranean criticism. The relationship between poetry and criticism is based upon commensalism (though I suspect Joseph Huchinson means parasitic behaviour): poetry feeds criticism, but criticism doesn’t harm poetry. I am not sure that such is true. Criticism can be harmful to poetry. Some of Eliot’s ignorant views on Seventeenth Century English Poetry ought to carry a Parnassus Health Warning. And that opens up another disturbing thread in relation to Reginald Shepherd’s argument. So much of the debate raged around Eliot as a poet and critic. Not very wise. As a poet criticising poets, Eliot was a very bad critic.

4) Michael Robbins, who teaches poetry at Columbia College, entered the debate on the side of Reginald Shepherd, but rather entered the field too vociferously, stating with almost Paterian delight that criticism is equal to poetry. He argued that reading some criticism was as rewarding as reading poetry, which to some was rather like saying that a meal at McDonalds could be as good as a meal at The Ivy. Heresy. Heresy. And heresy again. There is some truth, however, in what Michael Robbins says. There is a lot of bad poetry about (especially on the internet), though of course I shouldn’t say that because that betrays a value judgement. (Critic!) And there is a lot of good criticism. Like Michael Robbins, I would have to admit that I have gained as much pleasure in recent years from reading criticism as I have from reading poetry. This aversion to theory/criticism is an unhealthy state for any culture to be in. It not only restricts the reading experience but also prevents the flow of understanding between what different readers see.

5) Another element that was worth noting in the debate—and one that was largely avoided— related to derivation. Two distinct images of poet and critic were constantly presumed. The poet is the Romantic genius unsullied by secondary materials. Thoughts leap from within, original, as fresh as a mountain stream etc. The critic is the shadow, nothing more than Echo hiding among valleys, forever repeating what has already been said. In actual fact, poets today are anything but this. They live very much within the Imaginary Museum (Donald Davie). A poem can begin anywhere, often in a line from someone else’s poem or reflection on poetry (criticism, Apollo forbid!) A poet takes the poem from where it starts, said Robert Duncan, unashamedly acknowledging the multiple roots of modern poetry and its alchemical act of transmutation. And critics, especially artist-critics, are anything but mimics. Ronan McDonald, in his perceptive book The Death of the Critic acknowledges this beautifully. In the criticism of some critics there is a mastery of prose, image, structure, that equals the language of many modern poets and novelists. This isn’t to go as far as Wilde in The Critic as Artist where art improves on nature, but it is an important correction to the belief that criticism is uncreative, as he puts it, “the eunuch at the harem”.

6) Ronan McDonald’s book is a very useful reflection on the current place of criticism—not that anyone mentions it The Harriet debate. One of the ideas he dismantles is John Carey’s belief (in What Good are the Arts?) that the quality of art is relative. McDonald puts it nicely, arguing that this is a strange position for a critic of Carey’s standing to arrive at. More sharply it could be put like this. Only a critic who had lived among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford could afford to offer such an uninspired view of artistic value. John Carey’s book itself actually offers a perspective on this debate. Carey preserves a quasi-mystical view of poetry (the inspired poem preserving its creative ambiguity) whilst demolishing criticism and value, any whiff of Leavisite narrowness and a great tradition in literature (criticism cannot touch the sources of creativity).

7) Another work from which The Harriet debate might have benefitted would be Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, a superbly written book of criticism that faces the legacy of Structuralism and (negative) Existentialism. In it, Denis Donaghue demonstrates what happens when criticism strays from the power of the voice into silent hermeneutics. How odd that a whole field of criticism written under the guidance of Hermes should forget that the god of interpretation (criticism) was also the god of sound and words (creativity). There is no disjunction inside the mytheme between critic and creator: both are androgynously combined in the god of interpretation and revelation. There is no creative revelation without critical interpretation of events.

8) I admire the view-points of Reginald Shepherd. He is not afraid of theory (unlike too many poets who are uncritical in relation to both themselves and their art). But I would question his conclusion to the debate:

"In this way, it [criticism] is a very valuable tool. "

Or perhaps, re-direct the artisan image by pointing out that Hermes was a consummate user of tools and natural materials—hence the lyre of poetry.

Ronan McDonald concludes his survey of literary criticism by suggesting that criticism has been misplaced. It has become a matter of passing judgement beyond the process of creation. And as it has retired more and more from being evaluative, so it has lost a sense of its own value. It would make sense to connect literary criticism back to the process of creativity so as one interweaves with the other, as Reginald Shepherd claims, not to create an elitist poetry founded on credos and theories, but a deep poetry that as Doug Powell says you can “love”.


Onyeka Nwelue said...

Nice one. I enjoyed every bit of it and you know what? There's a concise debate over poetry you have here.

Eshuneutics said...

I am pleased you found it interesting, Onyeka. Concise, but only a beginning.

AlooFar said...

This is really interesting. Every aspiring poet should read this.

Eshuneutics said...

Hello, aloofar, you are an early morning reader! Thanks for reading the debate.