Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Peter Nicholson on Auden, and against the “Poetic”
The Auden centenary is coming up, and Peter Nicholson has posted his poem, “Asking Auden,” from 1984 at 3 Quarks Daily (seems we’re in a linking-to-3QD mood over here). He’s also posted a short essay with some reflections on the function of criticism, specifically poetry criticism. The highlight for me is the following:
There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word ‘poetic’ is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse’s patchy visitations. ‘Poetic’ is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public’s indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer’s efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.
It’s true, as Robert Hughes said in Australia recently—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout.That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. . . . Personally, I can’t think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly. However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that’s even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ and ‘All art is quite useless’ are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.(link)
(I had to look up “falls the shadow, Cynara". Did you?)
I like Nicholson’s general point here. While good criticism can be helpful and insightful, it’s almost never really “authoritative,” partly because even benchmark critics have their own spots of extreme idiosyncrasy, and partly because every reader brings an essentially unique combination of taste, experience, and intelligence to the text at hand.
I may be going in a direction you’re not, Amardeep, but here:
I wonder around this one a good deal myself . And usually I end up here:is it really a surprise to anyone that criticism is also an art? Or is it just me? (could be just me) Is there a serious problem with admitting as much? Would I be cheating my students to teach them so?
I’ve never been able to see what the problem could be with this notion. I’ve always found the strongest critics, and the strongest scholars, of poetry to be both faithful to the text/s, movements, authors at hand, AND creative in their relationship to it and to the history (should be any) of its reception, its place in the poet’s body of work, the critics own idiosyncrasies and quirks and positions, etc. Which, is what artists are doing in their “diving into” the world (to stick with N’s metaphor). The art, the poem, then becomes part of the world, and the critic dives into that. What, at bottom, else is a human to do in the face of the world or the face of art?
There are stronger and weaker readings: for me the weaker are usually either not sufficiently faithful to—or even interested in—the text or not sufficiently creative and engaged (what all those terms mean is pretty loose, intuitive). So, I’m wondering, does “authoritative” mean “definitive,” or does it mean “compelling” or “useful” or “mind-opening”? Or ______________?
EG: Kenner’s The Pound Era is strong criticism, but is it authoritative? Kinda depends on what one is up to. Vendler’s essays on Jorie Graham are strong criticism, but I don’t agree with them right through. And, neither of them gets the last word. Not if I get my say in.
Critics who function as taste-makers, anointers of poets, recommend that we buy or not their books, that’s another story.
Poetry does dive into the world, but only strong poetry does. There’s tons of weak poetry that deserves the sad valence of “poetic” Nicholson deplores. Strong criticism dives into poetry. (it seems to me who trained as poet and scholar at the same time in a nicely balanced program) And there is plenty of criticism out there that barely even deserves to be called “poetic.” EG: The article I read on G. Stein the other night that attended carefully to One Line Of One Work, and that was it. Smart things were written there, but none of them were all that related to, or relating to, Stein’s work. Not strong. Published, well published. But not strong.
Who was it who wanted this “authority”?
The one who believes in authority, it would seem, is Nicholson. What else does “proper” mean in the two places he uses it here (and one more in the full essay)?
Simone, I’m with you, but the notion of “faithfulness to the text” is worth unpacking. Do you suppose it can be formalized, or only learned and taught? I suspect it’s indefinitely flexible.
(I also like “seems misguided”. Yes, Wagner comes on a little strong sometimes...doesn’t put things quite the way I would...does rather go on and on.)
Dowson is right up my street. That was an easy one. (As was the homage in Nicholson’s poem to the meter of the last section of “In Memory of WB Yeats”—unfortunately coming off more like “Hiawatha”.)
Hey Vance, I read N’s “proper” here to refer to the poetry, “proper poetry,” and to criticism, “poet understood on a proper footing.” The interference I think he’s complaining about is a watered down notion of the poetic, reducing it to sentiment, cuteness, ease of access, or in his complaints against Auden and Wilde, a of decorative function (not really fair to Auden, but that’s what I think he’s saying). And he’s right about that sense of poetic. He’s opposing that to poetry that “dives into the world.” So, I suppose, ‘authoritative’ criticism would mean criticism that dives into the poetry, that recognizes (when the poem presents it) that more ‘muscular’ and serious function that strong poetry pursues.
As for my ‘faithfullness to the text,’ (good catch), I think it can and can’t be formalized. The bias here is from the history of my own training. My first teachers worked on the New Critical model, which is pretty formal, and can be taught in a formal way. BUT, applying it is still an art because poems are not, well, standardized—by this I include lots of formal poetry as well. We’ve all seen ‘em: those NC analyses of poems that are really just about the rhetoric and never get close to the mystery. But, we’ve also all seen NC readings that are subtle, attuned, as complex as the poem and not afraid to deal with the mystery in it (when there is one).
Then, Theory. All the many shades of it. This is in the late 80s early 90s, so I could read some of the more, shall I say, fanciful deconstructions of literary texts from the 70s and early 80s, in which Play was the rule, and the text became an excuse for the critic/scholar’s own musing in language. Or, sometimes, they were so interested in the theory they were investigating that the poem/story/painting just wasn’t really there. This was neither good theory nor good lit crit.
Or take for example this article I was just reading (not on the web, sorry) about Stein (well published too). The author quotes, and barely analyzes, ONE LINE from one work. The article says many interesting things, but few of them really connect to Stein’s work. Stein’s work is pretext, a ground, on which the author is building some other castle. Not listening, not attending to, not engaging the text in a detailed way. That’s the opposite of my sense of ‘faithfulness’. Faithfulness to Stein’s texts show’s up in DuPlessis and Quartermain and Retallack (and others), but not this piece.
In the art of criticism, we are engaged with the Text AND with our Insights or Theory, and the really good stuff happens when critics make them all work together. Which, is an art.
It’s the art of getting your analytical ability (formalizable) and your intuition (epiphenomenon) honed and cooperating.
Now, can that be formalized and taught? Eh, maybe. Some students have more of both to work with than others, but we can turn that on in them if they have it. I think it can be discussed. I think can and do show students how to read a critical piece to see that, like a poem, as we teach in Comp Rhet. They need familiarity with the poem and with the critical lens used in the essay, but they should be getting that from me and elsewhere anyway. We look at how the critic is placing their frame in relation to the text and not simply justifying their frame with the text. But, most of that learning for me came from the reading, from discussion with profs and friends, from my own idiosyncrasies. It’s a sort of epiphenomenon in my own experience. And it seems to be one that doesn’t happen for every graduate student, or scholar. Which is OK, that’s humans.
This is the Humanities, after all. Rigor, insightful genius, will not work factory style, will not work like the scientific method, will be cleanly logical, and should not. Those highly formalized tools are not designed for investigating imaginative activity. Our tools are, but their effectiveness will, necessarily, vary depending on the one employing them. Which is just fine with me.
Thanks, Simone. “can and can’t” about captures my own feelings about this. (In the peroration, I think you mean “will not be cleanly logical”.)
To use the phrase “proper poetry” is to say that some poetry, which does something he and we agree is good, is true poetry, and other poetry is not. And to speak of it being “understood on a proper footing” is to exclude some readings as not merely bad or weak or wrong but improper, inadmissible. Similarly with art’s “proper journey” later on—whether he means it or not, he’s deploying a rhetoric of authority like the one you disavow in phrases like “scientific method”, “cleanly logical”, etc. Since he’s apparently in favor of the multifariousness and roughness of life, it’s probably just careless habit.
I wondered why he specified the Exocet missile—Wikipedia reminds me that it was most famously deployed against England (in the Falklands war, by Argentina, bringing damage but not defeat), and is manufactured in France. Here too the rhetoric is intemperate, and I think not carelessly so....
Good eye! Thank you, Vance. I have this bad habit of dropping the word “not” and then ___ catching it when I proof. Freudian, clearly.
Yeh, N seems to just have a verbal tic with that word. In fact, having just now had time to read the whole thing, I smell an irritated poet. Hemingway said, and Henry Rollins quoted, “Critics are like those Generals who watch the battle from the hill above the field, and then come down to shoot the survivors.” Or some such. In both, there’s a plea to be understood. You have a choice as a poet (artist), work to be understood, or work to teach your readers to understand. Choose door number two, and you had better expect those who wanted you to choose door number one to be irritable and irritating. --- I don’t get the missile thing either, except in relation to Hem’s generals. Some redundancy of destructive force? Falklands? Strategic sheep purposes, as far as my Midwestern American self would know…. eep.
As to proper, I do make those distinctions. I’m not obedient to relativisms. I agree that what counts as good and true poetry changes over time under the pressures of many forces, but we all sort know what’s up. We know that Jorie Graham is writing proper poetry and that rhyming goop about a kitten isn’t. (Both might be expressive or presenting emotion, but both are not serious poetry.) We can sort of smell bad poetry. Too easy examples: Rilke vs. Hallmark. Proper poetry might have sentiment in it, sure thing, but it has something larger than just my little sentiment in it, something, well, er, transcendent (an idiosyncrasy of mine?). And there are inadmissible, wrong, and just plain bad misreadings. Too easy examples: Graham’s “History” is not about peanut butter or baseball, nor is it an elegy exactly. What counts as a misreading? And when do we decide we are in the presence of one?
My answer: Skipping the obvious obliviousness of peanut butter, misreadings leave out key aspects of the text, its composition, its rhetoric, ignore a clear allusion or connotation, refuse to engage its complexities, shuts down its ambiguity. Or, as I loved hearing in one class: “That’s a very interesting misreading.” It meant that a student’s reading of Eve at the pond in Milton might be interesting, even compelling, but in this class we are playing a Structuralist and Lacanian game, so non-such readings are misreadings. Or, overdetermined readings. The sort that seem to puff up and say, “I’m going to do a New Critical reading, by the book, on this poem here (insert poem that clearly resists NC readings, clearly rejects those premises – say, Stein’s “Picasso”). All these are bad readings. Improper.
Are those boundaries eternal, objective? Nope. But Wyndham Lewis could not (would not, more like) read Stein. From his PoV, his set of conventions for good poetry, Stein was so far out of bounds he referred to her work as “picturesque dementia” (actually, he was taking after most of a generation). Flash forward, and Joan Retallack holds that Stein is IT, a founder of the way that poetry is supposed to be in order to correspond our oh so no longer Aristotelian world. Lewis does not want to participate in the making of meaning, and about 90 years later, Retallack doesn’t want poetry that refuses her participation in making its meaning. This is contingency, this is not arbitrarity, just contingency. Lewis didn’t like it, but Stein did.
(Guess what I’m working on these days....) (Course, it never was an Aristotelian world. There was just no way of knowing so until, sort of, recently.)
Interesting about Lewis on Stein—I hadn’t heard that. In another mood or phase, he wrote a classic pluralist manifesto, that passage in Inferior Religions declaring that the characteristic beauties of different artworks are essentially different: proper to them, rather than proper.
I don’t mean that the possibilities of reading are infinite, or that there are no misreadings. Just that the boundaries can’t be patrolled too rigidly.
Graham’s “History" wears certain badges of seriousness pretty emphatically. It treats (in part) of that ur-atrocity by which we measure all other atrocities, not omitting the famous number. And it’s full of iambs, in streaks of five and six ("They share the day with him. A bluebird sings. [/] The feathers of the shade touch every inch of skin.") Can you imagine a reader who might feel the poem is trying too hard? Even such a reader, of course, wouldn’t say this poem belonged on a greeting card, and would acknowledge its craft, but might find it pretentious—which is a way to exclude it from the proper.
You make me curious to read Retallack etc. on Stein. I remember long ago being impressed by Lyn Hejinian’s “Two Stein Talks”, in Temblor, 1986....not sure whether to recommend it now, but LH is certainly rewarding in general.
I realize I’m not engaging half of what you’ve said, but this exchange threatens to become a blog of its own.
(And I was thinking that Nicholson was dismissing criticism, of whatever stripe, jingoistically as French.)
That Lewis bit is in several books on Stein from the 1960s, when the people were arguing that ignoring her was a major mistake. It’s funny, now. If I were Stein, I would have been just a bit irked.
It’s too common for writers to be irked with critics. Critics almost never have the same agenda, or goal, or desire as the writer. It leaves some kinds of writers feeling unheard. Which is the worst thing for a writer.
And yes, LH is joy. And lots of people find Graham pretentious, all of her work. It’s not a feeling I share, but it’s one I can understand. She’s not about what she calls “easy surfaces” in poems. But, hey, asking a poet to do what we want them to is cheating. It’s not their job. You’re not asking that, of course, but you did spot the opening from which people do.
Nice to get into it with one of the polite players here. Thanks.