A Different Notion of the Critic: some excerpts

Posted by @ 10:12 am on August 5th, 2009

A while ago I received the first issue of Rooms Outlast Us, a small poetry journal run by Ethan Edwards, J.E. Kielsgard, and Danika Stegeman (I worked Ethan and Danika on Phoebe¬†over a year ago). Anyhow, I wanted to give you a quick look at their project. This first issue is very simply designed. Here’s the cover:


The issue is thirty six pages long and contains poetry by Julie Doxsee, Eric Pankey, Jack Collom & Lyn Hejinian, Matthew Savoca, and Laura Sims. The issue also has a collaborative essay titled “The Function of Criticism” by a group of Berkeley writers: Mia You, Brooke Belisle, Javier Huerta, Megan Pugh, Eleanor Johnson, Marques Redd, Liz Young, Colin Dingler, Jasper Bernes, Swati Rana, and Lyn Hejinian.

It might be hard to discuss this essay without posting it in full (you’ll have to buy the issue in order to read it, or contact the authors or editors at roomsoutlastus [at] gmail [dot] com); however, I’d like to give you a sense of the authors’ argument with some excerpts I’ve picked out. So keep in mind, I guess, that this isn’t the complete essay?

Anyhow, if this is something you’re interested in, have a go.

Summary/excerpts after the break.

The Function of Criticism – a collaborative essay

The authors, after briefly reviewing the traditional job of the critic (‘to emphasize and elaborate the ritual context of literature: how it functions politically, how it establishes connections with the divine, how it allows for participation on the part of the reader, and how it elaborates an ever-unfolding tradition’), ask the question:

Can we imagine a different notion of the critic as scribe-priest?

In the next paragraph, the authors answer this question with the following:

Her role then might be prophetic, rather than conservative. And the products of her criticism might be gnomic, rather than strictly exegetical. Where the presumption currently is that the work of art is primary and initial, the model we are proposing would grant the status equally to criticism, whose function would be to initiate followers, followers in the condition of witnessing. Seen from this perspective, the act of criticism is a transubstantiation, bringing the divine into the realm of the human, sometimes in prophecy, sometimes benediction, sometimes condemnation. But, as in the ritual of transubstantiation, the wine truly is blood, the bread body: criticism is the host that bears the embodied essence of holiness to an entire community, rather than guarding it for the hieromants and hierophants alone.

The authors then go on to lean heavily upon Matthew Arnold, from whom they’ve taken his saying that criticism is a ‘disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought throughout the world’ and adjusted it to a formalist’s saying: ‘I would say that my concern is how that best has been said and thought in the world’:

Perhaps the most important thing we can take away from Arnold is the relation he sets up between the critical and the creative energies. Though creativity is most important; it is useless without criticism. The function of criticism, I say, is to show the creative writer the actual and the possible. The critic is to lead the poet toward poetic possibilities. In doing this the critic also emphasizes the impossible. But again, the focus should not be on what was said and thought but on how it was said and thought.

However, the authors also assert that, while a formalist approach to criticism is important, it has its risks:

We should reach down into the chaos with our quivering hands in search of the vital signs that might sustain us. Matthew Arnold was, of course, a very great man; I’ve no doubt his own organs were healthy and so he was not so prone to plummeting into the void as 21st C. man with his own misgivings that criticism and creativity can even exist – that what we call such, as well as what we have been taught is the best that has been thought or said, has not just been insidiously implanted into us – that our desire and attraction to certain forms has made us unconsciously susceptible to “bad content.”

The authors seem to suggest that ‘good content’ is information:

Information is always in a certain formation. This formation of rhythms and words (sound and sense) is evidence of the artist’s labor, a labor that must be historically contextualized. This historical formalism will awaken us from the atrophy of experience. In the end, the poem matters not so much for its information. Or, I should say, we must learn to see information as experience.

The rest of the essay describes the role of the critic as liberator,

It is the role of the critic to both liberate and query the work she is addressing. It is both her point of departure (the basis for what she will elaborate on its behalf) and the terminus of her explorations. But such a terminus can provide the critic with only a temporary resting point – and it is the role of the critic to make the beneficiaries of her criticism aware of this.

critic as a cartographer,

Criticism creates a map in which, or on which the work finds itself – takes place – and on which the consumer of the art (and the criticism) finds him or herself too. This isn’t a map coterminous with the territory mapped, which is to say that criticism fails when the map it produces is larger than its object. But…this isn’t your ordinary map either, for criticsm ideally functions as a map that helps the user to get lost.

and finally as ‘bad’ critic

The bad critic colonizes both the author’s attempts, and attemps prior to his own but subsequent to the author’s, to consciously and carefully express something through narrative, image, choreography, etc…[T]he bad critic does not seem to know, or does not care, that sometimes it is better to leave the artwork to rot than to aesthetically isolate the object behind glass or submerge it in formaldehydes.

So, there you have it: just a brief look at the essay. I don’t have much to say about it (my brain is not built for this kind of discussion), but I thought it would be good to post for those who care to talk about it further.

I’d be happy to send my one issue of Rooms to anyone who wants it. I’ll throw in a copy of Phoebe (37:2), which has a special feature on collaborative poetry gathered by guest editor Lyn Hejinian. If you’re interested in this, just send us an email (subject: ROOMS PLEASE), and I’ll select randomly someone to mail it to by, say, noon CST this Friday.

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