from The New Criterion, September 2013.
"Good sir, how many angels may jig upon the point
of a needle?”
"The answer, friend, would be metaphysical, and
you must inquire of Aquinas.”
"But what of the dance itself?”
"That would lie within the physics, and you must
"And whether the jig be good or bad?”
"That must be aesthetical, and of aesthetics ’twere
best not to speak.”
—Papers of Methodius, Book III
A stranger asks me to write an Aesthetic Statement. He demands my notion of the ideal poem, so he’ll know the secret of my love of some poems and my distaste for others. I feel his pain. Perhaps he wants to prosecute me should I praise a poet who deviates from my Platonic ideal. An aesthetic statement is of little use to a critic unless he’s a lover of manifestos, a maker of quarrels, or a host who treats his guests like Procrustes. Aesthetics is a rational profession for the philosopher, but for the working critic it’s a mug’s game. To write about your aesthetics is no better than revealing your secrets, if you’re a magician, or returning a mark’s stolen wallet, if you’re a pickpocket.
Most aesthetic statements are of value only if they’re vague enough not to offend a fly—and most sound like a Mozart sonata written by committee. Even the plain aesthetics concealed in a definition of poetry, when the definition is not merely clowning (Newton called poetry a “kind of ingenious nonsense,” quoting his teacher Isaac Barrow), would look shaky under a Philadelphia lawyer’s cross-examination. Coleridge considered poetry “the best words in the best order,” a perfectly reasonable thing to say—yet doesn’t good prose require the best words in the best order? (Coleridge would go only so far as “words in the best order.”) Doesn’t even his own definition satisfy those terms? Pound claimed that literature was “news that stays news,” and he therefore badgered poets to “make it new.” I’m sure the Georgians felt their poems were making it new, as did most of the minor Imagists in the Twenties—yet we don’t read either, and with good reason.
There are problems even with Wordsworth’s compelling suggestion, in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” That describes only a limited part of Wordsworth’s poetry, and there have since been many good poems neither spontaneous, nor a flood of rugged feeling, nor born in emotion recalled quietly in solitude. (Hardy’s “emotion put into measure” suffers similar problems.) Trying to define poetry makes me sympathetic to A. E. Housman, who remarked, “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” However detailed or slippery the aesthetic justification, a good poem works like God—in mysterious ways.
A critic can make himself useful by describing those ways, and how they turn words available to anyone into something that might stir the language (or even other languages) a hundred or a thousand years hence. Homer can move us as Callimachus never could, yet Callimachus was one of the best poets of his day, highly regarded centuries later, at least by rhetoricians. Had the knights of the Fourth Crusade not burned the Imperial Library of Constantinople, we might have shelves of Callimachus still—but it’s unlikely that anything found there would be much better than the fragments we have inherited.
A critic should have principles rather than aesthetics. He should have tastes, though never at the cost of praising the bad book seductive to his taste rather than the good one that offends it. He should also have prejudices, but not ones that blind him to merit, not ones that have him shouting, every three books or so, “A miracle! A miracle!” Prejudices are often inverse principles, but a critic should hold his principles unless they contradict his reading, just as he should accept his prejudices until a poem forces him to war against them. By principles I mean that, for example, a poem should repay the labor of reading, that the content of a line should bear relation to its length (short lines bear a lesser burden of meaning than a long one), that diction and syntax should be natural except when artifice is more artful, that when a poet accepts the contract of form he should fulfill it—if he begins with exact rhymes, exact rhymes should follow unless he has better reason than a stutter of imagination.
Why not simply list your prejudices, then, in a pamphlet published in eighteen-point bold? But is a critic really the best judge of his prejudices? The most crucial prejudices may be subconscious, well beyond the critic’s knowledge. Think of all the ink spilled over poetry’s nature and name. I’m about as interested in what poetry is for as a plumber in what plumbing’s for. You have to understand the mechanics, but you don’t need to go on about it. Still, some readers think it the reviewer’s job to announce his prejudices in every review. That way lies madness. Pinning your aesthetics to your sleeve makes you seem prejudiced in a way that concealing your prejudices, and perhaps revolting against them, does not. Beyond the obvious—declaring that the author happens to be his mother, or that he despises poems in couplets—the critic should save his breath for his job of work. Even if you are reviewing the bard of Schenectady, it shouldn’t matter that you’ve just been elected mayor of Schenectady, as long as you’re really a critic.
We should not trust critics always true to their natures. If you claim the day for proportion, for example, let proportion rule—but when readers tire of your see-saw antitheses, your lead-crystal phrases, your well-tempered rhymes, then the aesthetics of Pope will be thrown on the dung heap while the private emotion, the roughened phrase, and the organic stanza of the Romantics bloom. There’s no poetry that, taken to perfection, does not provoke a reaction. (Think how ugly Shakespeare seemed to the age of Dryden—and how, even to the Victorians, Bowdler’s Georgian defacing had a point.)
If I admit that I take little interest in contemporary experimental poetry, it’s not a prejudice born of ignorance. I have read the anthologies as well as too many of the revered names—much have I traveled in the realms of tin. I admire avant-garde ingenuity, with the cantankerousness, self-confidence, and outrageousness attached—but I rarely, rarely, like the poems. This may be the prejudice of a prejudice, one that later generations may profitably put on display to confirm just how blinkered twenty-first-century critics were. For my taste, however, and to my prejudice, avant-garde poems have advanced very little from language experiments first tried when Ruth was hitting sixty home runs. Indeed, reading many experimental poets now is like listening to some bar band’s cover of “Satisfaction”—it’s not a patch on the original, even if you’re under the influence of a quart of gin. I don’t expect lesser things of avant-garde poetry; I expect things much greater.
Perhaps avant-garde poetry is what poets will holler from the barricades, the harbinger of a better poetry tomorrow (that tomorrow ever delayed, like the date of the Second Coming). Perhaps avant-garde poems will finally overthrow the elitist patriarchy of syntax, or the hegemony of the left-hand margin (I’ve heard both things damned). Perhaps the avant-garde of today really is the mainstream of tomorrow—a lot of academic careers have backed that horse and thrived, but the laws of academia are not those of physics, or taste. Consider the dispossession of the Augustans by the Romantics, or the Victorians and Georgians by the Moderns—such radical changes offer neither a strategy nor a tactics to the avant-garde. The congealed sentiment of so much experimental poetry, the sermonizing forms and soapbox politics, the meaning frittered away in visual and lexical disjunction—these seem marks of despair (as do the high-flown and often impenetrable aesthetic justifications). Poetry overthrows its predecessors usually by some new intensity of feeling cast in the vivid language of the present. Imagine what Pope would have done with the subjects in Lyrical Ballads, and you shudder.
Our avant-garde, which learned much from Pound, Williams, and Stevens (and too little from Eliot and Auden), has become increasingly static, the way that in certain subcultures ceremonies or manners of dress have fossilized—you need a costume museum to understand the Burgess-shale history of Catholic vestments, and a body of acolytes to explain the work of a J. H. Prynne. There are poets who dabble in the experimental, who borrow its radical means to conservative ends (Jorie Graham is perhaps the most important but impotent example), yet they would hardly keep Charles Olson awake at night. It’s curious how often avant-garde poetry, that supposedly outsider art, is kept alive by universities, requiring a hermeneutics in advance of any necessary for Revelation or the Apocrypha.
We have not two but many poetic cultures, and all a critic can do is follow his taste where it leads, opening new books by old favorites and sometimes being disappointed, condemning poets who have made a loud noise with small gifts, perhaps praising a poet whose memorable whisper has come with talent unnoticed, but always, always, reading the unknown hopefuls whose works pour over the transom like a cataract. I begin reading every book with hope, even books by poets I have long criticized. Without hope, a critic is nothing but a bundle of prejudices.
A critic must follow his taste or his whim, whimsically, tastefully, moving where he is moved, often wrongheaded, no doubt, but true to his instincts—and on occasion he must throw caution out with the bathwater. He should never dismiss the past as merely old fashioned, or believe with a sense of revealed religion that something brand spanking new must be the real thing. Nor should he think the old ways sacrosanct and new ones just upstart pretenders. He should be, in other words, ready to raise his hand against all, yet happy and untroubled at being surprised into joy. A critic requires a genealogy rather than a set of laws and ordinances. I have affection for, and perhaps affinities to, critics not enslaved by their intents—critics who can surprise their readers, and even themselves. If their distant forebears are Johnson and Coleridge, their inheritors have been critics like T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, Randall Jarrell, George Steiner, Christopher Ricks.
The critic must be a skeptic of his own taste—otherwise how could he ever change his mind? Some poets require rereading, or just the laid-up knowledge of experience. At twenty, I was not prepared to read Hardy’s poems; at forty, I delighted in them. A critic is like a metal plate that registers electric current. When he’s too rusty to carry current, he must be discarded. A critic must ask himself, in his dark nights, What is this thing we do? He must be prepared for acts of rescue, prepared to look at dead reputations afresh, prepared to accept what he’s loathed and loathe what he’s sworn by.
The critic is by nature a parasite—he cannot live without books, that most pathetic of bookworms, the critic. Judging at all seems the strangest part of the business—it’s not like checking a spot weld or overhauling an automatic transmission. What might be objective everywhere else is subjective here. (Critics violently disagree, revealing their blood relation to lawyers, congressmen, and other low denizens of public converse.) The critic is not an extension of the publicity department. He isn’t paid, if he’s paid at all, to write blurbs to please the poet’s mother.
The ideal critic would be part hanging judge, part Quasimodo, part bounty hunter, part Paul Revere. Critics can always be overruled by the court of public opinion—but the court of public opinion is notorious for short-sighted rulings. Whatever it is the critic does, it cannot be scientific. Perhaps he should have on his desk a book of litmus strips, or long racks of beakers and retorts (retorts he has aplenty, but of the wrong kind). Perhaps he should own a miner’s canary. Open a bad book and the poor thing drops dead.
There’s scarcely an aesthetic principle in poetry I haven’t rejected and then—for a night of passion or two—embraced. Circumstances alter cases, and cases abhor circumstance (just as aesthetic theory abhors a vacuum). If I prefer a language dense with meaning, darkened by metaphor, devilish in syntax, it will seem that I’ll soon be jabbering about lines iced with ambiguity, or deckled with the diligence of diction. It’s true, I do like the weight of Shakespeare’s line, Donne’s logic, Dickinson’s bleak psychology—but I’m as easily convinced by the dead flatness of The Prelude or Frost’s nattering yarns, at least some of the time. I love these things—except, well, when I love something else better. Aesthetics is too monogamous. I see no little virtue in a critic being promiscuous. If this rules him out as a writer of manifestos, so much the better.
I love Browning’s lurid voices, but on a different day I can be seduced by the noodling prose of William Carlos Williams. I would argue that this is what we mean by sensibility (even if sensibility sometimes has little sense). I don’t like poetry that plays games for the sake of games; but my head has been turned, when in the mood for turning, by the nettled late poems of James Merrill (our own Callimachus), or the Rubik’s-cube organization of Paul Muldoon. I love poems with an intimate sense of rhythm, until I’m struck dumb by some syllabic bit of whimsy and terror by Marianne Moore.
The maker of a good anthology is as close to an ideal critic as a critic can be; and there are few good anthologies whose contents don’t fight tooth and nail over what a poem is, what a poem does, and how in hell it should go about that impossible and ridiculous thing, poetry. A perfect critic looks at every poem on its own terms, but not all terms are equal. The perfect critic would probably like everything, or loathe everything—and be almost always wrong, or almost always right. God loves all and the Devil hates all, but a critic must sleep nearer the Devil. For God you must look to publicity departments.
This is not to say that Shakespeare is the same as Herrick. A reader goes to them for different things. It’s easy to read too much Herrick, harder to read too much Shakespeare. (A hundred more poems by Herrick would do little for poetry, at least not so much as the discovery of Loves Labours Wonne or Cardenio.) Yet there are days when Herrick, or Clare, or O’Hara offers what the day is missing, rather than Shakespeare, or Keats, or Eliot.
The nervous sort of reader wants the critic to lay out his aesthetics in every review—as if there were time or space! As if criticism needed disclaimers in small print! Such twitchiness began to infect scholarly writing some years ago, which made Ph.D.’s spout autobiography that rarely proved illuminating or necessary. The workaday critic, with his eight hundred or a thousand words, doesn’t have time or patience to hold the hand of a reader not willing to judge for himself. Surely a critic with principles will quote from a book, and the reader will triangulate using the quotation, the critic’s reaction, and the reader’s own impression. (Quotations are the earnest of the critic’s judgment.) If we require trigonometry in criticism, it will be of that sort. Bringing the critic’s miserable childhood, or distant ancestry, or pattern baldness, or peculiar cult practices to bear would, I submit, be a waste of time. The review should contain enough gestures toward taste for the reader to give the critic his trust, or brutally to withhold it.
Besides, why should the critic do the reader’s work for him? Readers must not fill themselves with the critic’s opinion, nod contentedly, then fall into happy slumber to dream of masterpieces yet unwritten. The reader must read radically different critics, consult his own taste, learn which jackals—sorry, critics—he trusts, and, if all else fails, read the book himself. Readers perhaps imagine that critics read books only in climate-controlled, dust-free rooms, wearing state-of-the-art hazmat suits, denied the name of the author until they form an ironclad judgment. Criticism is messy by nature and messy in fact. The art of poetry is a dirty business. A critic is the construction of his errors, his silliness, his sincerity, his doubt.
Note: This essay is drawn from the introduction to William Logan’s forthcoming book, Guilty Knowledge, Guilty Pleasure (Columbia).
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The New Criterion
Editor & Publisher: Roger Kimball
Executive Editor: James Panero
Managing Editor: Emily Esfahani Smith
Associate Editor: Brian P. Kelly
Poetry Editor: David Yezzi