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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THE PROZAC CRITIC

In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad.   Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad.  Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.

In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.

“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”

Contestants design clothes.

Judges judge.

Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.

Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,”  so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]

Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.

“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”

Design a dress made from newspaper.  Write a poem about a red wheel barrow.  OK.

I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”

Judging is Fun.   Alright.   So far, so good.

But now Burt wades into deeper waters.

And is quickly in over his head.

Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:

The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Prozac.

“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”

The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”

Oh, no!

Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.

Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”

A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”

Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet’s life: Keats‘s tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning‘s successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinsons isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williamss medical practice, and so on.”

Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.

1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues?  When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life?  Is this really an issue, today?  Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century.   Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?

2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.”  (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.)  Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man.  Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.”  Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.

Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.”  What does this mean?  Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise?   The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place.   Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.

Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:

“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”

Shades of Blackwoods!   Say it ‘aint so, Professor!

Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”

Burt demands nice—or else.

Critics must be nice to poets.

Great.  The prozac is kicking in.

Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems.  Well, sure.  Judge poets accomplished by their good poems.  Sort of obvious, isn’t it?  Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.

Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.”   But he did.  He’s Wordsworth.

Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery:  “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”

A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?

Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain:  What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”

The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.

A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):

1. A criticism is a criticism.

2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.

3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).