March 31st, 2009 / 10:31 am
Reviews & Web Hype

Criticizing Criticism: Matthew Zapruder suggests you SHOW YOUR WORK!

Matthew Zapruder in action.

A few days ago, the Poetry Foundation published “Show Your Work!” an essay by Matthew Zapruder, in which he calls for a sort of renewal of the spirit of poetry criticism. You should read the whole piece for yourself, but here’s the part that I take to be his thesis:

Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader. Only then can the reader grow to meet work that is unfamiliar, that he or she does not yet have the capacity to love.

In short- Yes, absolutely. For more, flip to page A16.

there is no method except to be very intelligent

"there is no method except to be very intelligent"

It seems to me that what Zapruder is calling for, in essence, is a sort of return to the ideas of the New Critics, only modified for use in a world radically different than the one they lived and wrote in. Of course, our world—our poetry world, anyhow—in large regard is the result of the New Critics’ existence and the battles they waged and won (and lost), so any sort of neo-New Criticism we might strive to engender or develop would necessarily look very different from the original incarnation, since this new incarnation will have to take the original set of developments, insights, failures, and all the artifacts of their actual criticism into account, and go from there. (That is, if it can. There’s no particular guarantee that lost knowledge is ever fully recoverable.)

Perhaps, in the more general sense, what Zapruder is asking for is a renewal of commitment to engagement with the art form—dedication not just to one’s own poetry, and the six journals that publish one’s own poetry, but to the entire state of the art.

The proof of how prescient such a call is is in the mostly miserable pudding of the comments thread on the post, which I’ve now been following for several days. Much like the UDP-NYT thread Mike Young posted about the other day, the few attempts at rational, intelligent discussion in Zapruder’s comment thread are drowned out by narcissistic yahoos, soft-skulled weirdos, opportunistic axe-grinders, and Bill Knott. I can’t tell if these people are declining to critically engage with Zapruder’s criticism of criticism because they would simply prefer to hear themselves talk, or if it’s because they’re actually too stupid to understand that what they’re writing is not, in point of fact, a contribution to the discussion.

Anyway. Moving along.

Without a vital critical tradition, and a living critical practice, an art form—and, no less importantly, the sub-culture dedicated to that form—has no way in which to describe itself to itself. It cannot engage in the process of what Harold Bloom calls “self-overhearing.” What Bloom is refering to is the process by which Shakespeare characters clearly demonstrate metacognition, aka the ability to think insightfully about one’s own thought processes and then respond to their own understanding of themselves. I’ll put it even more basically: Shakespeare’s characters seem to hear themselves speaking, and it is from this most human of traits/skills that their realism derives. They have consciousness, in other words.

Criticism, if it is to be useful at all, must perform a somewhat analogous function, though the metaphor obviously strains if we try to match its component parts up. Nonetheless, if we are to speak at all of art forms as singular entities (the field of poetry; the world of avant-garde ballet; etc) then it can hardly be too radical or ridiculous to claim that that form’s corresponding field of criticism is—or anyway, ought to be—the space where the art form self-overhears, and thereby self-actualizes, grows, changes, etc. In some sense: the criticism is—or anyway, should aspire to be—the consciousness of the form to which it is attached.

In my view, some kind of of self-overhearing is a necessary condition for the sub-culture’s being able to sustain its existence, to say nothing of achieving anything like progress, or to even broach the question of meaningful interaction with the culture at large–and this last, interestingly and commendably enough, is Zapruder’s goal, or anyway hope for poetry.

If I’ve gone somewhat afield from what Zapruder has written about here, I think it’s because even though I agree heartily with the argument he’s making, I’m not sure that the incredibly modest pre-conditions necessary for rising to his imminently reasonable challenge have yet been met. He writes:

Today, in American poetry, very few critics take it upon themselves to examine the choices poets make in poems, and what effect those choices might have upon a reader. As a consequence, very few people love contemporary American poetry. Many more might, if critics attempted to truly engage with the materials of poetry—words and how they work—and to connect poetry with an audience based on an engagement with these materials.

I’m not 100% sure of the cause-and-effect relationship here between the pitiful state of poetry criticism and the pitiful state of poetry readership. I’m similarly uncertain of what, if anything, can be done to reverse or alter the situation. There is no guarantee that even with Zapruder’s suggestions implemented poetry won’t fail to broaden or even sustain its present readership; without his suggestions, however, failure can be guaranteed absolutely. It seems to me that we’re better off taking the chance than not. The question, I suppose, is whether poetry criticism has its own house sufficiently in order to even attempt the things Zapruder is asking for.

One thing Zapruder writes about that I especially appreciate is the formulation that the critic’s job should be first to understand what the work is attempting to do. Anyone unwilling to ask “why was this written” and “who was it written for” shouldn’t bother asking “does it succeed?” How could you possibly know? All Bill Knott’s love for Sharon Olds–emphatic as it might be–isn’t going to help him with his reading of Mathias Svalina’s The Viral Lease. (Lucky for Knott, he seems unbothered by his own ignorance, but then he also doesn’t seem to suffer from the humanizing effects of self-overhearing.) I think that Zapruder is writing against Eliot here—Eliot opposed the practice of purely “technical”or explanatory criticism, which would seem to include the sort of “introduction to ___” method Zapruder suggests—but if he is against Eliot here, I think I have to side with Zapruder. Our poetry world is very different from Eliot’s, and much of what he would have (rightly, at the time) assumed his audience would already know, even take for granted, is for us essentially lost knowledge.

So we’re going to need to build our critical vocabularies back up, but in order to do that we’ll need to first build back up the vocabularies of the form itself. What do we talk about when we talk about poetry? Until we can answer that question articulately and succinctly to ourselves, we don’t have much of a chance of explaining it to anybody else.

In the meantime, since neither poetry nor criticism will stop while we all go to summer school, I think the best gift any critic can give to a work of art is sustained engagement—even if that engagement comes in the form of savage opposition. More than once I’ve heard it said of my old undergrad teacher, William Logan, that even though he’s about the nastiest poetry critic that there is, finding yourself on the wrong end of his shotgun is one way of knowing that you’ve arrived. If he took you for anything short of vitally important, he wouldn’t have bothered to try and destroy you, and it’s very clear when you read one of his reviews that he probably spends more time with a book of poetry he’s trashing than its top ten fans combined.

Of course, praise is nice too, but 1000 words of empty praise doesn’t offer anything more substantial than a “two thumbs up!” would have. An unqualified “good review” quickly becomes an embarrassment of riches, and the critic in question is often all too quickly revealed as a second or third-rate writer using the pre-text of a “good review” as an excuse to show off what they misunderstand as their own “writing skills.” They’re angling shamelessly for a spot on the book jacket and/or the publisher’s website–probably because they want to count it as a “pub credit”–and what they end up producing reads like cheap costume jewelry: not an embarrassment of riches, just an embarrassment—to all parties involved.

A critic of poetry (or anything else) needs to be able to identify his or her own aesthetic and artistic values, his or her own highly informed but still hopelessly (and unapologetically) subjective position relative to the form, including any and all biases both positive and negative, and then go from there. (Hopefully somewhere awesome and useful.) If he or she can’t do those things—articulately, succinctly, and convincingly—then s/he is incapable of offering a critical contribution to the art of poetry (and has nothing to contribute to the art of criticism, period).

In his introduction to The Sacred Wood Eliot wrote that “the great bulk of the work of criticism could be done by minds of the second order, and it is just these minds of the second order that are difficult to find. They are necessary for the rapid circulation of ideas.” What he meant by “second-order” minds was people who are not quite geniuses—intelligent, committed people who happen to suffer the ignominy of not being once-in-a-generation human comets like Emily Dickinson or Beckett. This perhaps painful self-knowledge of one’s own limits (cf. Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse) is for better or worse a necessary component-part of establishing one’s abilities, and of making the most of them—whatever they are or aren’t.

A critic is a person who can combine extraordinary passion with extraordinary dispassion, or at least discipline. He or she believes so passionately in the value of the subject s/he’s writing about—the particular artist, or the art form in general—that s/he will devote his own best creative energy to writing about somebody else’s work: exploring that person’s project, theorizing about the artist’s intentions, cataloging references and influences, asserting an original judgment concerning the work’s success, etc etc. That’s the first part. The second part, the dispassion or discipline, is necessary in order to ensure that the critic’s passion-inspired job is actually performed competently. Passion is a great engine, but unreliable as a steering wheel, and even worse as a set of tires.

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