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The poet-critic.

Afew years ago, I came on the following observation in the Modern Library Basic Writings of C.G. Jung:

Society expects, and indeed must expect, every individual to play the part assigned to him as perfectly as possible.... (E)ach must stand at his post, here a cobbler, there a poet. No man is expected to be both. Nor is it advisable to be both, for that would be "queer." Such a man would be "different" from other people, not quite reliable. In the academic world he would be a dilettante, in politics an "unpredictable" quantity, in religion a free-thinker--in short, he would always be suspected of unreliability and incompetence, because society is persuaded that only the cobbler who is not a poet can supply workmanlike shoes.

(pp. 162--63)

(There is some irony here: at the back of Jung's mind is Wagner's figure of Hans Sachs, the cobbler-poet, who is essentially the hero of Die Meistersinger, the only character hose judgments are free enough of class-bias and pedantry to be reliable.)

But in some similar way, I think, society does not like the critic to be a poet, and vice versa. Critics, after all, are generally educators; and educators, however marginally, are solid citizens, part of the framework that holds society together. Poets, traditionally, are wild cards, the native inhabitants of the margin. In the English Department I first taught in, there was an infamous institution called Permission to Proceed: a faculty meeting at which the "terminal M.A.s," as they were called, were separated out from the students good enough to "proceed" to the Ph.D. When any of these students were known to write poetry, one or two of my senior colleagues would invariably suggest that we would really be doing them a favor by saving them from academicism, giving them some experience of the "real world." So I wasn't altogether surprised when my own tenure proceedings came to essentially the same conclusion.

But the distrust also works in the other direction. For years, "academie poet" was the worst insult that could be hurled at anyone, as if the double meaning of the word "academic" settled the question of originality, then and there. More recently, the fact that most poets now teach is regularly blamed for everything from our lack of social conscience to our lack of audience. I can remember, as a young person, being nervous of publishing too much criticism too fast, lest it group me with certain prominent older critics whose efforts to publish poems were regularly laughed at.

And yet, I want to argue that this "unpredictable," hybrid quantity, the poet-critic, is useful, even necessary, to both communities, to rescue them from their own potential ingrownness and staleness. Let me begin with the academic side, and say some things that neither old- nor new-fashioned critics will like to hear. There is--I say as one who has practiced it--a poison latent in the critical enterprise even at its best: the poison of voyeurism, of living at second-hand. The risk of imagining a world; of bodying forth that world believably in language; of being compelled to use one's most intimate secrets, and lose friends; even, perhaps, of leading the kind of experimental life that has sometimes gone with great imaginative work--all of these the critic can have the feeling of participating in, without ever really putting anything of his or her own on the line, except intelligence. How easy, from one's solid-citizen vantage-point, to start to feel a little superior to the creatures struggling down there in the mire! And how hard to admit that one motive for that sense of superiority is envy! So the old-fashioned scholar-critic, secure in his knowledge of the rules of composition and the Universal Truths, laughed at Whitman or Wordsworth or Lawrence, for getting these things so often, and obviously, wrong. So the new-fashioned theorist--who is much jazzier, and almost convinced that he or she is the true creator--detects all the politically incorrect prejudices, the social evasions and compromises, that really wrote the great works of the past; including that most specious prejudice, that there were, in fact, human authors.

In both of these contexts, the writer-critic is a useful corrective. Our very presence, after all, is a kind of evidence that poems and stories are written by human beings. Our often humble emphasis on technique reminds the world that even the journeyman stages of any art are difficult. (As Randall Jarrell said in "The Age of Criticism," "It is hard to write even a competent naturalistic story, and when you have written it what happens?--someone calls it a competent naturalistic story.") And that the stages anyone would want to call genius have so much of personal quirk and the unconscious to them, as well as subtlety of effect, that it would be as foolish to consider them a mere dramatization of the ideas of the age as to expect them to be perfect. Finally, we remind critics and students that works of art come out of the experience of being alive; there is nowhere else they can come from. "Reader, he was not kidding," John Berryman howled at the New Critics, speaking of Shakespeare's Sonnets; we find ourselves howling the same thing at the Post-Modernists.

It would be nice to say that, in turning toward the world of poets, we turn toward health and honesty. But here, too, people feel safer in schools, like fish; vanity and spite do their eternal work; and human beings tend to be easy on themselves when the world is easy on them. The more monolithically the age approves of a given style--whether it is the journalistic "confessional" poem, the "stones-and-bones" surrealist one, the political protest, or the arch and campy New Formalist tour de force--the less its practitioners are likely to listen to the little inner voice that tells them their poem could be more honest, could be beautiful in ways the current aesthetic neither knows nor cares about. It may be that almost the entire function of poet-critics, among poets, is to make that little voice louder. James Wright said, "there can't be good poetry without a good criticism," because "the effort to write poetry" should be "an intelligent act." He said that, ironically, at a time when his own poetry was lavishly admired, not for its intelligence, but for free-association and emotional directness. But he remembered his own teachers, Roethke and Ransom, and held himself to a more complete aesthetic.

Another function of the poet-critic may be to arm us against the slings and arrows of fashion by reminding us of the long view and its inevitable corrections. To remind us that no aesthetic school was ever so right, so timely, as to lift all its adherents to greatness; or to sweep all its opponents into the rubbish-heap of history. That the classicist Valery and the avant-gardist Apollinaire were writing their great poems at exactly the same time. That if Frost, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, and Crane all sniped at each other unmercifully, posterity has not felt obliged to do so. That Byron was terribly wrong to hate Wordsworth and Coleridge, but perfectly right that no one in the future would ever consider Southey their equal. That, by the same token, Sylvia Plath may not come in a package-deal with Adrienne Rich, Judy Grahn, and Alice Walker, simply because all express anger against men. Etc., etc., etc.

After this panegyric to the poet-critic, the reader may expect me to say I'd rather be one than anything else in the world. But no: that wouldn't be honest. I have had the luck, the last ten years, to work in an English Department that values the two things I do essentially equally; and so have been spared the anxieties of the first part of my academic career. But, inwardly, the old sense of being "unreliable," neither one thing nor the other, still nags. When I go to my study in the morning, I must choose. Do I take up the work that is (relatively) quick and fun, because it can be done mainly with the intellect, but that for that very reason leaves a slight guilty sense of being too safe, respectable, secondary? Or the work that is much more self-exposing, much more painful to fail at, even for one blocked morning? I could say--and it may be true--that the two will, in the end, form a coherence, too complex to be understood along the way. But I don't think it would be to the good of either to believe that too complacently, as I go. There's a kind of threshold of faith, that makes me not finish the easy poem, refuse the invitation that would lead to the tooglib article, that comes with the competition between the two, and that I would not willingly do without.

Alovely recent example of how good poetry and good criticism can go together is Stephen Yenser's first collection, The Fire in All Things (Louisiana State University Hress, 1993). (It makes one a little sad, though, to notice that some of the best poems were around in magazines almost twenty years ago. One wonders if the poets-on-this-side, critics-on-that mentality didn't interfere with earlier book publication, over two decades that saw many trivial and forgettable first volumes.)

For Yenser is a justly celebrated critic--the author of a fine book on Robert Lowell, and an even better one on James Merrill, with whom he has more temperamental affinity. Yenser has, indeed, learned from Merrill, but not just the superficial lessons so many poets have picked up, recently--crisp metrics, endless punning, an arch and off-hand worldliness. Yenser sees the beauty that can arise from an intelligent playfulness. Listen to the following passage--how much onomatopoetic splendor is subliminally organized around the double meaning of "spring," before it is finally "sprung" on us:

With chirps of crickets, squeaks

Of unoiled shutter hinges

And pulleys dropping buckets

Back down black wells, the spring uncoiled....

Above all, Yenser has learned Merrill's Freudian lesson--how quickly playfulness leads to the most uncomfortable, central, yet elusive psychic content.

Consider "Makila," one of the best poems from Clos Camardon, a haunting sequence about a marriage disintegrating during a sabbatical year in Europe:

"Walking stick." Sparks jumped

From where one steel point struck the stone

The afternoons you'd followed

A friend and two half-jackal hounds

Past the clearing down into the woods

And I would strike out through them on my own

Toward town. The other point, a goad,

Fit in the grip I couldn't seem to keep

Screwed on the shaft of sculpted medlar,

Slit on the living branch, then cauterized,

And then cut down to size and shape,

The warped straightforwardness we prized.

Makila. The only Basque we learned

Brings back woods hanging fire at our arrival,

Brings you up from them later in the year,

When they had turned bare birch and ash.

But there's no point today, since you have turned

Away for good, in all this striking out.

Part of the underlying theme is the yearning desire to be one with the local landscape, sanctified by delicateness, age, and art (the one word of Basque). (This theme runs through the whole sequence, the tone ranging from the relatively pure, if devitalized, nostalgia we expect from travel writing--

The silver birch will have been turned

To gold by now, the bracken,

As though in someone's memory already --to savage self-satire, as in "Nulla Dies Since Linea," where the "flaming gas" of "the new oil well" becomes "a manic sable brush/Burning to top that cypress in Van Gogh,//To be a candle held to Valery.") The other half of the theme is the difficulty of living with oneself, let alone another person, in the burden of that loneliness and expectation. The implications of "sparks"--passion, inspiration, anger--seem followed out in the exotic but separate (and bored?) ventures of the two protagonists. Still darker meanings are shadowed forth in the walking stick's other use: a "goad," whose "grip" the speaker can't "keep/Screwed." Probably the intensest point in the poem is a digression, on how the walking stick is actually made. It is at once the high point of local color--the real encounter with the otherness of this place--and a metaphor almost too uncomfortable to follow out, for what something (intimacy? introspection? sexual disappointment?--"medlar" is a sexual word, in Elizabethan English) is doing to the moral selves of the characters, honing them down to "warped straightforwardness."

The last stanza returns to Proustian nostalgia, but without losing its grip on irony: is the suspended "fire" that of beauty, the autumn leaves, or of marital warfare? The poem ends with one of Yenser's most resonant puns. "Striking out" still means adventure, freshness, oneness, as it did in the first stanza; and it extends this meaning onto the act of writing itself. But it also means "retaliation." And it also means "leaving out." What unseemly incidents do lie behind "grip," "screwed," and "medlar"? What makes even "straightforwardness" "warped"?

For the reader who knows Merrill's poem "Days of 1971," there is a further poignant subtext here. In that poem, "Stephen" gives the narrator "a Basque walking stick"--a gift the older poet takes as an implied critique of his self-indulgent life. How infallibly we project strength onto our friends, and weakness only onto ourselves!

A poem like this is an "intelligent act," in Wright's sense--the product of years of thinking about the possibilities of the art--without losing its essential grip on important human crisis. And, lest anyone consider the mise-en-scene of the crisis too "academic" or "elitist," it is good to find, farther on in the volume, equally assured poems about the rural Midwest--notably "Carnal Knowledge," a literary ballad as successfully unself-conscious, in its way, as Bishop's "The Burglar of Babylon."

Two first books of essays, by already eminent poets, have made an enormous impression on me, in the last year. I would note with pleasure, without unduly underlining, that both are by women. (Women poets have played a pivotal role in the making of feminist criticism, but are still underrepresented in the less ideological--in the best sense, belletristic--criticism that influences taste.) Mainly, both books are the expression of fiercely independent spirits.

Louise Gluck's Proofs & Theories was published by Ecco in 1994. What I love in Gluck's prose--as, often, in her poetry--is how, with a few magisterially placed words, she forecloses easy, comfortable ways of magisterially placed words, she forecloses easy, comfortable ways of looking at the world, and makes us consider the logic of uncomfortable ones. Has what is wrong with bad "confessional" poetry (its obligatory therapeutic optimism, its unconscious competitiveness, its self-pity) ever been stated better, or more savagely, than in these few sentences?

I don't think our society's addiction to exhibitionism and obsession with progress (a narrow myth for triumph) completely explain the ease with which survivors have begun to show their wounds, making a kind of caste of isolation, competing in the previously unpermitted arena of personal shame.... In what would seem an impossible manoeuver, any number of poets have managed to dissociate the forbidden from all tragic implication while continuing to claim for their efforts the prestige of tragedy.... [W]hat they demand ... is admiration for unprecedented bravery, as the speaker looks back and speaks the truth. But truth of this kind will not permit itself simply to be looked back on; it makes, when it is summoned, a kind of erosion, undermining the present with the past, substituting for the shifts and approximations and variety of anecdote the immutable fixity of fate.... (pp. 53--54)

Or consider the essay that juxtaposes Robinson Jeffers with the "literary reprimand[s]" he has received from Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass. A forgone conclusion, one might think: what contemporary reader will not prefer Hass, at least, both for his more tempered, craftsmanly style and for his liberal humanism? Yet Gluck works us around to see that there is nothing more "human" than "the manner in which Jeffers espouses rock ... exposed, rash, extreme, vulnerable." And then to see Hass's stance as more defensive and rigid--but also, more complex in possibility--than most readers would allow:

Hass hates disappointment, hates being imprisoned in its continuing and limited range of attitudes, of tones: rue, regret, plangent lament. When Hass sighs in Praise he does so with a kind of savage fury, constrained by perspective, by habitual poise; in these moments, he comes closest to being what Milosz has always been, since to write as an ancient soul is to write as an ironist....

(pp. 66--67)

Some critics delight us because they really can pick out what's good in an immense range of styles; others for the rigor with which they make the case for a single, elusive virtue. Gluck is of the latter kind. The virtues she champions are severity of argument, tragedy, lack of easy self-forgiveness. While my own canon might not include, say, Seidman or Oppen, I enjoy the angle of vision that lines them up with poets I, too, passionately admire: Eliot, Jeffers, Plath, Berryman, Bidart. Above all, I enjoy Gluck's principled opposition to the cant of the lifeaffirming--perhaps the most repressive form of tolerance that commonly influences the ranking of poets.

Many poets dislike literary theory from a cursory acquaintance with its premises, without actually reading it. Heather McHugh is one of the few who know it well enough to argue back on its own terms. Her Broken English (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) is greeted by its blurbists--who lean a little toward the theory side--as putting an end to "useless bickering and distrust." In fact, I would argue, the "bickering" between poets and theorists is about something: it is about the intellectual irresponsibility with which, on the academic side, half-truths about subtle questions have been made into dogmas, their counter-truths pursued and, as a theorist might say, de(r)rided with all the energy of an Inquisition. One of these dogmas is that our experience of presence in the world is an illustion, because consciousness does not exist apart from language, and language always points to other language, never directly to the Thing. So we find McHugh writing, of Paul De Man's essay on Rilke:

A reader like Paul De Man astutely remarks the reversals in Rilke's work--the sudden turning of out to in and subject to object, before to after, death to life, fiction to reality, and vice versa. But what De Man calls Rilke's "ambivalence" is, to my mind, in the nature of poetic language; indeed, art must raise and ratify this discomfort, this uneasiness, the play of the senses against what escapes them, or of language around what is unspeakable. Most poets seem to believe that consciousness is larger than language and many critics today seem to doubt that it is. For criticism, consciousness is coextensive with language ... whereas the poet's art exists precisely in the refinement of language until it's able to suggest or trigger uncontainable or inexpressible experiences of consciousness, depths of presence.

(p. 18)

This is to say, both De Man and McHugh note a certain circularity or self-referentiality in Rilke's sounds and image patterns. To De Man this proves that poetry is, metaphysically speaking, a conjuring-trick; to McHugh, that it circles "around what is unspeakable," or that "we live in the charged field" between contradictions that are both true. Both conclusions are unprovable; they rest on prior assumptions about the value of the intuitive side of the human mind as old, at least, as Plato's Ion. What McHugh can prove, through her close readings of Rilke's New Poems, is the dialectic of presence and absence in art; how, by presenting the reactions of onlookers rather than the Thing itself, Rilke makes us feel the Thing's presence as an ineluctable fluidity in time. Writing on "The Ball," McHugh dwells on the moment when the ball, hanging still in mid-air seems to "arrang[e]" its catchers (Edward Snow's translation) "as for a dance's turn."

This is the moment in which the seers are themselves shaped by the seen, the maker by the made. The object's uncatchability is dwelled on, not its catchability; what the artistic gesture frames is, at the same time, unlimited. The poem moves into the present's stillness.... The object will answer the subject's yearning by returning (bound from boundless) into grasp, but the poem persists in the moment of ungraspability.

(p. 13)

So, in McHugh's other example, Robert Capa's photographic diptych of the Tour de France, the bicycle race is never seen; its position, postures, and excitement are measured in the attitudes of the onlookers. (But, as McHugh is delighted to point out, a bicycle is before our eyes all the time; it is standing, unnoticed, in the store window behind the crowd.)

One can't help feeling that if the poets' case--the case for presence, and for the unsayable--were often made with such wit and hermeneutic sophistication, we might have been spared a lot of academic silliness, the past twenty years. But McHugh can be rough on poets, too, for their laziness, their servitude to the moment. Consider this riff on the advice given in workshops about "craft"--as if it had one meaning, for all intentions--from her Dickinson essay:

The dictionary definitions [of "art"] include "cunning" and "sly trick"; under "craft" apear such synonyms as "guile" and "deceit." This is no minor semantic peculiarity; the "artful" and the "crafty" edge our ideas of the artistic enterprise toward the shallows of publicity; sophistication and sophistry share a root. The paint-by-numbers sense of craft, a craft of ease and foregone conclusions, the craft we float around in, on vacation's reflecting pool, meant to kill time--are precisely at odds with Dickinsonian art.

(p. 101)

McHugh's essay on Yoruba poetry, "The Still Pool Forgets," attacks contemporary American practice for its insistence on "polite nostalgias" and "regret." Myself, I wouldn't have picked these targets; I'm even more irritated by those poets who boast about how earthy they are, how funny, how at one with the body. But the strength of McHugh's argument lies in her African examples. They are, in fact, utterly unselfconsciously "physical" and "practical" in their approach to the great subjects, without sacrificing one jot of poetic complexity or of deep, vulnerable human feeling. They suggest the direction McHugh has wanted to go in her own poetry, which is sassy without ungenerosity, yet intensely philosophical (and does not quite avoid tossing its own sop to nostalgia). McHugh is a unique presence, as poet and as critic. She manages to be on both sides of the issues she worries so much--the side of scepticism and endless play, and the side of devotion to unreachable Truth. But to let her put it in her own words, from the essay on Valery:

We write in time: and though the time of the timeless ideal has given way to a fashion of chance, of flaw's fatality, nevertheless time's current is alternating: a flame and a worry, a flourish and wane. It comes and it goes: as Plato says, we owe the god of health a sacrifice.

(p. 52)

I don't think I could have come up with two better examples of what the poet-critic does, for both communities, than these the last year has flung me, almost by chance. They challenge both groups, in effect, to deepen their perspectives. To the intellectual community at large, they recommend forgotten realities--"tragedy" and "fate" in a time of poppsych optimism, "the present" in the age of Deconstruction. To the community of poets, that affirm that literary standards exist but are never a matter of "paint-by-numbers." Such standards are, rather, radical, in the sense of a root reexamination of the relations between subject and object, poet and reader.
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Author:Williamson, Alan
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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