CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: The New Critical Habit and How I Broke It.

As someone who was trained at Yale and Cambridge in the 60s, caught the bug from W.K.Wimsatt, sipped sherry with I.A.Richards and E.M. Forster on the same couch at Kings, shared a bag lunch with F.R.Leavis in a cold brick corner of some unrecorded quadrangle at Queens, and suffered a nervous breakdown when a close disciple of Wittgenstein played with his mind and wife somewhere down the Huntington Road toward Girton, mostly on a bicycle, I have the New Criticism in my blood — and it’s a rush, I tell you.

And that’s a major part of the problem for any New Critic, to resist the thrill of using the gift of the academic gab as if it were a divine right — and I had a lot of that sort of chutzpah too, which I’ve now partly outgrown and partly forgotten. Indeed, that gift has bedevilled me both as a teacher and a poet all my life — because I so loved being a Guardian of the Poetry Threshold, I got so high on it, so vatic and blissfully feathered, I was not to be trusted on the ground at all. And even in my twilight years here on another planet I can still hold forth for hours and hours on a text, and the few people that somehow find their way to my table in Chiang Mai and ask the wrong question, e.g. anything to do with poetry, are still in mortal danger.

The danger is the way we New Critics deliver the message that only specially trained people can get the full meaning out of poetry, and even worse, that poetry that’s good is difficult.

We New Critics have become heavy pushers of that line, and far from increasing the popularity of poetry, our critical ‘gifts’ have crippled those who would like to hear about it just as much as those who would like to write it. For just like heroin, the effects of the New Criticism are as irresistible as they are destructive, and we’ve all ended up hooked on a kind of poetry that simply can never deliver enough. Indeed, the habit gets bigger and bigger even as we get smaller and smaller and more and more isolated from the world of real people down below.

Enter American poetry today. Enter the New Critical Angel.

Angels? Well Kierkegaard can tell you just how dangerous “great moments” can be, and how disastrously misleading, but there’s another picture that works for me too. In the well-known Tibetan mandala,  ‘The Wheel of Life,’ the angels are at the very top either blissfully at ease or blissfully exerting power. At the very bottom are the ghosts in hell, thirsty, hungry, endlessly tormented, abject victims of their own ignorance. Human beings are exquisitely poised between the two extremes and, the Buddha says, that’s a better place to be than even among the angels — because humans are the only beings that have any real hope of seeing things as they are, and thus achieving freedom from self-serving prejudice. And why? Ghosts suffer, angels live in bliss, but only human beings know both at once. When at last the heavens begin to change after countless aeons, and the slightest crack appears in the firmament, which inevitably it does, says the Buddha, an angel is unable to adapt. An angel’s attachment to bliss, permanence and control is so insidious it falls headlong into the very deepest hell at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Even an animal, it is said, is better off at that moment than an angel.

Instructional, and the curse of all inflation.

What I did about the potential Angel in myself, the Poet written Big in my nature, was truly radical. I simply placed a moratorium upon myself as a writer, and from my teen years in the 50s until I felt at last safe enough to try again in the 90s, I just didn’t write poetry at all. I always knew I was a poet, secretly, but a poet who couldn’t be trusted to write poetry as it should be written, with restraint, patience and integrity. Like T.E.Lawrence on the road to Damascus in 1918, I realized that “all established reputations were founded, like myself, on fraud,” and in my own humble way I wanted to avoid that pitfall. Even though I was very young and not remotely anything special, just living in a special time and place, I knew I had to be careful. And in the end I did manage to stay me, and not become just another fiddling angel. I arrested my development, went into artistic hibernation, and emerged 30 years later to publish my first poem at 52 without any established reputation at all to get in the way.

Here’s a poem about all this — yes, it’s a ‘new critical’ type poem for sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it better. And there is room for this type of poem in Parnassus too, it’s just a lot harder to keep your head at such a heady level and, of course, to keep your hat off.

Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai

…………………………SAMSON BETWEEN THE PILLARS,
…………………………SAUL AND LAWRENCE ON THE ROAD

…………………………………There was knocking but
…………………………………no door into that heroic
…………………………………world but first
…………………………………………………..bowing out of it,
…………………………………deferring gracefully to those
…………………………………small private abstentions
…………………………………that had murmured all
…………………………………along just behind the
…………………………………uncompromising hard
…………………………………………………….god’s brilliance.

…………………………………Like all things likely shorn
…………………………………undressed ears can hear
…………………………………the faintest abdication
…………………………………………………………….knocking.

…………………………………Each white petal’s fall or
…………………………………slightest finger’s white
……………………………………………………….print in soot,
…………………………………every clean track or dry
…………………………………tear knocks too against
……………………………………………………….that solitude.

…………………………………Even the infinitesimal shock
…………………………………of a single naked
………………………………………………………….snow-flake
…………………………………slipping through some
…………………………………daedalian avenue before
…………………………………all that slicked-back tar
…………………………………can even wink at such
…………………………………quick celestial skin
………………………………………………………is knocking—
…………………………………just as veiled eyes seeing
…………………………………too many fine things done
…………………………………for the good in Damascus
…………………………………turn toward whatever
…………………………………violence or private wailing
………………………………………………………..wall closing
…………………………………even as the bluntest flint
…………………………………tapping, tapping opens.

…………………………….

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