Monday, March 21, 2016

What is the Point of Criticism?

The Observer on Sunday recently published a lengthy article on criticism and culture. Or that is what it purported  to be. The title of the main piece, by the New York Times film critic, A O Scott, is "What is the Point of Critics?" That title places the debate with personalities rather than purpose. This thrust became apparent when the debate was widened to the views of The Observer's main Art Critics: each critic explained their personal approach to the matter of criticism-- not all would concede that criticism is an art. 

The questions that came to mind on finding the article staring over toast and Sunday morning coffee was "Why now"? and the "Why the views of a New York film critic rather than Kermode, the resident Observer film critic?" The answer was simple: time to flog Scott's new book, Better Living Through Criticism-- to be released in paperback in a few days time. The book was released in hardback a month ago, did not cause many waves then, but with the paperback imminent and future sales, time to publicise: which speaks louder in the background of this debate, cultural values or making money? None of the major UK papers reviewed the hardback, in fact, the only main review was in the New York Times, Scott's own newspaper, 

The published excerpt reads like a rather bad and over-lengthy film trailer and nowhere as cogent as Ronan McDonald's Death of the Critic (2007) which is a concise and lucidly written analysis of the connection between criticism and critic and the resultant ideologies. The title of Scott's book indicates a significant link between criticism and life skills, almost mimicking the title of some dreadful DIY self-motivation book. Perhaps, that is all done with intended irony. Until the book is available it is hard to judge--critically, and fairly--its worth. It should be noted at this point, however, that Scott  puts faith in "the rigor of scientific method", an approach that has sent modern criticism down many dubious alleyways...into its present cul-de-sac. So, the title might be meant without any tongue-in-cheek smirk as science offers support to much of the mumbo-jumbo that comes out in the plague of self-help books that peddle mental health revolutions as dubious as diet fads.

Certainly, the debate in The Observer via the pens of its resident critics did not amount to much. Scott's piece tackled the usual attack on critics: they are failed artists. Moore was willing to concede that his architectural writings were better than his design submissions. Johnston accepted that her work was enthusiastic but often wrong about pop music and she playfully debunked the idea that criticism was done to make lasting, accurate judgements; a reasonable tone for online pop music. Maddocks wrote with seriousness about the difficulty of making final judgements at classical music concerts and Brennan stressed the importance of context in criticising theatre. The earnestness fitted the genres. But one aspect that did strike oddly was that Brennan felt the need to give a sense of the moment for those who were not there and Maddocks insisted that strove to give a sense of what the experience was like for the reader of her reviews. Is that what criticism does? Recount the event for the absent, for those not lucky enough to get to the event? Such seems a bit like disclosing all the fun of the party for the sad individual who could not make it. Cooke, explaining book criticism, went above her methodology into what she saw as wrong with book criticism in general: a lack of honesty and over-praise for mediocre work and a tendency to offer paraphrase as a successful book review. 

Scott rightly pointed out that the digital age has made much of criticism redundant. But then, criticism was dying before the birth of the www and its "extending of democracy" into the belief that life is all about opinions and not much else. The Observer dumbed itself down before the internet, disposing of its adherence to higher cultural values. It once employed serious poetry critics such as Adam Mars-Jones, now it reviews poetry rarely and when it does-- inadequately. It's not accidental that most critical space in The Observer is given to film criticism. Nor is it accidental that a film critic, such as Scott, should be asked to lead a debate on cultural issues and criticism. Clearly, the assumption is that film is what most people like so film critics are best to tread the hallowed ground of criticism and popularise criticism (or the critic) once more. Better Living Through Criticism will be an interesting test case for that belief. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mark Doty as Hermeticist in Deep Lane/Hermetical poetry (1)

The underworld has grown closer to the recent work of Doty: his fascination with Pound's Imagist poem "In a Station from The "Metro"

                     The apparition    of the faces      in the crowd  :
                     Petals    on a wet, black   bough .

transformed into the title of his Theories and Apparitions (2008).  Pound's image connects the subterranean railway through the word "apparition" with the Nekuia in Homer's Odyssey. Travel, travelling to the dead, the route of Hermes and speaking with spectral beings. Pound's energised image is as Hermetic as H.D.'s Imagistic exemplar, "Hermes of the Ways." In Doty's latest work, Deep Lane (2015), the chthonic gathers and the poetry exists, for the poet, like a membrane between this world and the world beyond. The word hints at memory which is both a barrier to death and a medium through which disembodied voices might speak. Towards the centre of Doty's volume is a curious poem, "Underworld", which seems "just the right" poem for Deep Lane and its descent into the dark earth and the bright roots of life. The poem is a tantalising read. 

The poem commences with a young man who has attempted suicide:

                      The new and towering boy in outpatient
                      folds the lavish scaffold of himself
                      into a smallish chair...

The figure is "new" in that he is beyond a death. In the adjective "towering", resembling a skyscraper, Doty suggests the height of this individual. Then more, for the adjective glances at the verb "touring/towering" and Milton's fallen angel in Paradise Lost (1674 final and revised edition) as he sweeps upwards and then downwards into the new underworld of Hell. Through the choice of "lavish scaffold", the poetry captures the structure of the youthful man, "scaffold" is read as a development of "towering", and suggests that he is a being needing support. Also, the beautifully imagined compression of the young man echoes Milton's Satan and the dazzling perspectives that amount to illusion as his size shifts in and out of focus. The opening is finely done.

As the poem progresses, Doty is drawn into marvelling at one aspect, "his legs" and this results in a digression via the history of English and Milton:

                    his legs (I want to spell long
                    with two n's as Milton spelled
                    dim with a double m
                    to intensify the gloom of hell)

For the Hermeticist words are magic. Spell and spelling, as the hermetical Robert Duncan demonstrated are inseparable. From Old English, a spell is a spilling out, a telling tale...and this is the direction to which Doty swerves. But before the reader can get to the tale, there is a jolt.  Reviewing Deep Lane in Ambit, Lydia Macpherson found that she had to "wince at the slightly self-conscious aside about Milton’s spelling in ‘Underworld’." Doty's interjection seems too clever, even forced, and it is fully self-conscious rather than "slightly". Macpherson is being gentle in her criticism (of a book that she admired). But there isn't just a difficulty with the interruption, there is also a problem with the details. Where in Paradise Lost does Milton spell dim as dimm? Certainly, not in his descriptions of Hell. The original edition only uses that spelling once, in Book IX, where Eve describes the effects of eating forbidden knowledge. And did Milton really make these kinds of visual images in Paradise Lost? Spelling in the C17 reflected the whims of the publisher/type-setter as much as the intentions of the poet. More to the point, would "lonng" mime the long legs of the figure anymore than a thickening of consonants imply deeper dark? Surely, "llong" would be better. Doty's egotistical interposition is the equivalent of a magician speaking his conjuration to angels and suddenly breaking off to have a chat with his assistant about some learned point in Latin. The spell would fracture. And maybe that is the point here: this mannered distraction is Doty forcing himself into language. It is anti-hermetical and serves as a contrast with what follows. The brackets denote a wrong method, one heard and best ignored, one outside the mystery of Nature.

The matrix of the poem comes later as the unspecified, spectral figures in outpatient, sit in an implied circle of conjuration-- the "speaking circle". Suddenly, the young man stretches his legs forward and in a moment of revelation reveals the name on his shoes-- a skater brand named "OSIRIS": 

                    maybe a brand too newly stylish
                    for me to have registered.

Not a new brand for the new man, OSIRIS has been around for almost two decades amongst the fashion conscious, stocking footwear, t-shirts and caps, but new or not the key word is "registered". The deep roots of "to take note" are in court, regis and king-- "registered" as much as "OSIRIS" marks the presence of the Egyptian King of the Underworld. (Much of Deep Lane is concerned with how Mark Doty marks darkness). Following street fashion the shoes are unfastened, so the "unlaced word" unlocks the Word and in a moment of epiphany, Doty is shown the "right god" for the time: Osiris, who was tricked into death by Seth and whose limbs were scattered and subsequently gathered into a whole again by Isis. For Doty (and the reader), the image "OSIRIS" is an hermetical sign, not a symbol, a point at which the silent world speaks; as in Imagism whereby the image simply presents itself. In one sense, OSIRIS is a found poem. 

It stands as an example of how language might elect and what has not been recorded in daily life, something even ordinary, suddenly strikes the imagination and assumes unexpected significance. It is the very opposite of the Miltonic section of this poem in which meaning is being forced into a poem somewhat dubiously. In "Underworld", Doty suggests what is at the heart of Deep Lane, method and meaning: how the poet/human being must surrender to the dark world, to read the signs that are placed there and hear rather than impose speech. Investigating the deep strata of existence, the hermetical poet interprets what is shown. "Underworld" is reminiscent of "To Caravaggio" in School of the Arts (2005), an insignia poem by Doty in which the erotic and religious coincide and observation transfigures a nude, Hispanic boy into the body of "our Lord". There is, however, a crucial difference. In "To Caravaggio", Doty is eager to set the scene and draw the reader in to experiencing the young man. The poem is what Bachelard would have called an example of the Promethean complex: how Doty describes the massaging of the youth is deliberately frictive, it rubs and sparks the imagination. It brings fire-- a profanely and sacred (gay) fire, like the paintings of Caravaggio. In "Underworld", the reader is kept out of the scene and the young man is kept at a distance. There is a community that shares pain in outpatient

                       Whose pain's not a common one?

yet the narrative is focused on communion. The word "on the tongues of his shoe" ignites the speaking of tongues, that moment when significant meaning speaks out of deep lanes of thought. Emphasis is on the sign, the act, not the individual man. The "lustrous blacks" of the Hispanic boy hold the shine of something transcendent (and sexual). The new "boy's/body radiantly restored" belongs to a different order of perception, of light: the hermetical where love reconstructs the scaffolding of existence.