The Mind of the Poet-Critic

Introduction to Unrelenting Readers: The New Poet-Critics (Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 2004): pp. 11–23. © 2004. All rights reserved.

What you hold in your hands is an anthology, not a manifesto. And yet this book advances the claim that a new movement of poets has arrived on the literary scene. This movement is neither geographical nor generational, though all of these poets began their careers since the late Sixties. It is united neither by gender nor race; not by its practice of “form” and not by its conviction that the poem is a “field.” Simply and sheerly, it can be known by its devotion to critical intelligence. The poets in this anthology have one thing in common, which distinguishes them from their contemporaries: each of them is also a serious critic of poetry. Heirs of Sidney and Jonson, Dryden and Shelley, Stevens and Eliot, they subscribe to the Renaissance ideal of the literary career, believing that great poets are obliged to try their hands at all of the literary genres. For them one of the most important genres is criticism. Their allegiance, however, is not merely to an ideal of the career. Criticism is important to them because poetry is important to them. Criticism is another means for engaging in the labor of poetry. Despite the expansion and professionalization of creative writing workshops since the Second World War, and despite the fact that most of the poets in this anthology were trained in creative writing workshops, these poets do not share the belief in “creativity.” They do not believe that criticism is diametrically opposed to it, belonging to a separate right-hand “side” of the brain. They do not snicker that those who can . . . write poetry, while those who can’t . . . write criticism. They do not shudder that criticism is parasitical, a leech upon the body of poetry. Instead, they agree with R. P. Blackmur, a leading pre-war influence upon them, who declared that

the composition of a great poem is a labor of unrelenting criticism, and the full reading of it only less so; the critical act is what is called a “creative” act, and whether by poet, critic, or serious reader, since there is an alteration, a stretching, of the sensibility as the act is done.[1]In a phrase, the poets in this anthology are united by the conviction that poetry is a living whole. To neglect any part of it is not to practice poetry, but to fiddle with a hobby. Poetry cannot be the creative writing of it simpliciter. If poetry is only the writing of poems, then it is written badly, because it is written ignorantly. What is worse, to reduce poetry to the mere writing of it is to contribute to what troubles all lovers of poetry—its decline into cultural insignificance. Poetry is not only written; it must also be unrelentingly read. If not it is genuinely insignificant, for then it is the self-indulgence of sensitive souls. In loafing and inviting the soul, most contemporary poets have disdained the mind. The poets in this anthology are dedicated to undoing this neglect. In brief, they are committed to literature itself, literature as a whole. The ultimate goal of their movement is to return criticism’s unrelenting readings to the center of the poetry world.

Before these poets came upon the scene, criticism had been marginalized by the way it was pursued. In the years immediately following the Second World War, as one writer recalls,Literary criticism was enjoying a vogue. As Randall Jarrell said, some people consulted their favorite critic about the conduct of their lives as they had once consulted their clergymen. The war had left a bitter taste, and literary criticism is the art of bitter tastes.[2]A generation later, criticism had come to leave even more of a bitter taste in poets’ mouths. In 1981, for example, in the first issue of their magazine the Reaper, Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell—two of the poets in this anthology, just venturing out on their literary careers—pondered the relationship between poetry and criticism, and offered four conclusions:1. Poetry, more than ever, is harnessed by and subordinate to its criticism.
2. Criticism grows out of an arbitrary neurotic sensibility.
3. Critics are creating an exclusive audience for poetry, which consists only of themselves and the poets they promote.
4. When critics cease with explanations and turn to examples, more often than not, what they like is not good: they try to invent surprises where no surprise exists.
The true function of criticism had been lost sight of. “After all,” said the Reaper, “the poet creates and the critic analyzes that creation.”[3] In conceiving criticism in these terms, Jarman and McDowell were repudiating their education. Pretty much without exception these poets’ teachers were second-generation New Critics, and like any second generation, the critics had begun to dissipate their inheritance. They taught their students that the criticism of poetry is identical with the analysis of it; criticism is nothing more than explication. Young and disgusted, many student-poets of the time concluded that criticism was arrogant and even aberrant. Only someone who hated poems and considered them beneath him would want to spend a life taking them to pieces. After all, the poets of the previous generation—Richard Hugo, John Haines, Alan Dugan, Donald Justice, Robert Creeley, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Philip Levine, Gary Snyder, Charles Wright, Derek Walcott—had written little or no criticism. And so they were models as much in their rejection of criticism as in their practice of poetry. Moreover, the poets in this anthology, almost without exception, were trained in the creative writing workshops, which were founded upon a strict separation of the literary sexes—“the poet creates and the critic analyzes that creation.” (In 1976 the American Philosophical Society ratified the separation by reclassifying “creative arts” as distinct from the criticism of them.) Embittered by the New Criticism, many poets who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies could not imagine that criticism might be something more than explication: that criticism might be another way of enlarging a capacity for poetry.

The postwar vogue represented a betrayal of the New Criticism. Before the war, poetry, criticism, and teaching were nearly synonymous. What is now called creative writing, in fact, was originally a plan for bringing the three skills into one job description.[4] The first generation of poets to earn a living as teachers—Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Penn Warren, Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke, Charles Olson, Josephine Miles, J. V. Cunningham, Karl Shapiro, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell—was also a generation of critics. In a book that serves as a sort of “prequel” to the volume you now hold in your hands, R. S. Gwynn has gathered the forebears of the men and women in this anthology: an entire generation of poets who were equally devoted to criticism.[5] It is an open question, in fact, whether some of them might not have been better critics than poets (more memorable, more profitable to read). Some who were primarily critics, like R. P. Blackmur and Kenneth Burke, also wrote poetry. Even publishers like Alan Swallow and James Laughlin doubled as poets. Indeed, when a major new critic like Cleanth Brooks appeared on the scene, it was a bit unsettling if he were not a poet. To an earlier generation criticism and the writing of poetry were two aspects of the same activity, just as eating and conversation are two aspects of having dinner with someone. To the older poet-critics, in a word, the practice of criticism was humane.

The influx of poets back into criticism began around 1978, when the University of Michigan Press launched its series Poets on Poetry, edited by Donald Hall. Whether the Poets on Poetry were an improvement upon the bitter art of postwar criticism, however, is much to be doubted. While some poets turned to literary scholarship instead of criticism,[6] most of the Poets on Poetry engaged in critical practices that very nearly entailed the abandonment of criticism. They did not write a De Vulgari Eloquentia or an Apologie for Poetrie; they gave an interview. As Bruce Bawer observes,In one volume after another in this [Poets on Poetry] series, the interviews outnumber the essays; even extremely distinguished poets who have been publishing poetry for decades . . . prove on inspection to have produced a shockingly small body of critical prose.[7]Even when these poets wrote an essay instead of giving an interview, they were as likely to discuss their own poems—the circumstances under which something was written, where the inspiration came from, how many drafts it went through, the background and references—as to draw attention to other poets. And when they did get around to naming other poets almost invariably it was to praise them, and in the vaguest possible language (“the poems are alive,” they might say, “with rhythm and shape”). Contemporary poetry is a deluge of new books and magazine-pieces. A fulltime specialist struggles to keep up. Not to sift through the wreckage for what can be salvaged and not to submit new poetry to the test of an unrelenting reading amount to logrolling, a form of professional irresponsibility. But among the Poets on Poetry, criticism was only rarely a sustained act of mind. More often this criticism was a relaxing break from the day-to-day business of writing poems, a specimen of the higher gossip. And few seemed to suspect that this pointed to a fundamental defect in their work. The weakening of criticism among poets denotes a disdain of intelligence that will be obvious to anyone who has ever read much contemporary poetry.

The problem is that most poets now belong to what might be called the Creative Writing School of Literary Criticism. For “creative writers,” criticism (when it is thought of at all) is thought of as something that before anything else must be useful to them. The poet Robert Morgan complains for example that since the 1970s literary theory has had “no point of contact with the concerns of most working poets.”[8] The truth of this complaint is less telling than the assumption behind it. Apparently, criticism is supposed to have an instrumentalist or even vocationalist function, assisting the professional practice of poetry. Anyone who reads many Poets on Poetry cannot help but be struck by the absorption with technique, narrowly conceived. In its extreme forms such instrumentalist criticism overbalances into an almost compulsive attention to details. The poet John Matthias tells of a workshop that he took from John Berryman during a summer conference at the University of Utah in 1959. Berryman turned to Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat” for an example of a technique that could withstand close scrutiny. For an entire morning he concentrated upon the first sentence of Crane’s story, pointing out that it was written in iambic pentameter and repeating it over and over with varying stress:None of them knew the color of the sky.
None of them knew the color of the sky.
None of them knew the color of the sky.
None of them knew the color of the sky.
None of them knew the color of the sky.
What finally was the point of the lesson? Matthias isn’t sure, but “it was a marvelous display of pedagogical virtuosity and critical ingeniousness. . . .”[9] Someone else might be struck by the deliberation, the sheer effortfulness, with which Berryman carried out the exercise. It is almost as if he believed that, by fixing his attention microscopically upon one element, he could will the technique to yield up its secret. Of course this is a variation on the New Criticism’s practice of “close reading.” At the same time, though, it has drifted a good distance from New Critical practice, which was originally designed as a method for limiting the context of meaning to the text itself. There could be, it was argued, no knowledge of a text’s subject-matter that was prior to a close reading of it; the text was the whole context of understanding. In Berryman’s hands the context has shrunk to the scope of a sentence; there is no larger whole. And meaning is not at issue at all. The entire attention is absorbed by a technical detail. There is no answering of an argument with an argument, only with a formal analysis. A poet’s vision of the human experience is seldom understood as true or false. This criticism stares past the vision to the technical features of visualizing.

Now it may be objected that this is to overstate the case because, as a matter of fact, contemporary poets are deeply suspicious of technique. In an essay on him, Henry Taylor quotes William Stafford as saying that poetry isnot a technique, it’s a kind of stance to take toward experience, or an attitude to take toward immediate feelings and thoughts while you’re writing. That seems important to me, but technique is something I believe I would like to avoid.Taylor observes sharply, however, that Stafford tends to define technique in extremist terms with which few poets would ever agree:In one case, we have the desire to control absolutely every impulse, to work everything toward a predetermined effect or end; in another, we have a belief in rules. . . . The first method is obsessive, the second oversimplified and ignorant. Of course these ways of trying to write poems are doomed; and of course it is better to be ready for surprises. More conservative voices than Stafford’s have been heard to say, for example, that a poem glides on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove, or that poetry should come as naturally as leaves to a tree.[10]And yet Taylor is closer to confirming Stafford’s dislike of technique than he realizes. On Taylor’s own showing, poetry is something that glides and comes naturally; it is characterized by spontaneity; it cannot be controlled. No matter how badly someone wants to write a poem, it may still refuse to budge. Or the words may arrive when one is least expecting them, prickling the skin. Poetry cannot be written by an act of will. It is an attitude toward immediate feelings. Although he does not share Stafford’s dislike for “technique,” then, Taylor agrees that nothing must be allowed to mediate between feelings and the poem. His quarrel with Stafford is over terminology, not theory.

Some such romantic distinction between immediate feeling and rational mediation has a principled quality for many contemporaries. John Matthias advances another version, saying that poetry is at its best when it “seems to be demanded by the pressure of experience rather than just desired. . . .”[11] In an informational brochure, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop advances yet another: “Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. . . .” This is very nearly creative writing’s oath of office: while the mind can control the experience of poetry it cannot create it. Will, technique, rational control—these may assist a poet in developing his talent, but they cannot remedy an absence of talent. They belong to a different faculty of mind. To put it in readily familiar terms: there is a creative faculty and there is a critical faculty. Criticism is the deliberate and effortful part of a poet’s life, whether he criticizes another poet or his own work in successive drafts, after the furor has cooled. Hence the absorption with technique. Technique is rational insight applied to poetry after it has been created.

The poets in this anthology reject this romantic distinction. Unlike so many Poets on Poetry, they understand clearly that the problem facing the criticism of poetry is one of unrelenting evaluation, including how to develop a vocabulary for evaluation. Although it is sometimes said that all criticism is divided into two sects—that which treats a poem as something made and that which treats it as something said—the new poet-critics find this to be a distinction with no real difference. The only way to judge how well a poem is made, they are convinced, is to judge how coherently it says what it has to say. To their minds, poetry must always be evaluated in respect to its intelligence. Their commitment is all the more remarkable because evaluation is largely without friends in contemporary literature. In academic circles all evaluation is seen as a conspiracy to dominate via the articulation of criteria. The consequence is that the criticism of poetry has been shrunk to two genres, both of which avoid intelligent evaluation—that of professional courtesy among poets, and unsmiling exegesis among academics. The poet-critics in this anthology prefer actually to read poems, and they know that this involves the hard work of evaluation.

In the decades following the New Criticism, a time during which poets’ technique became their most important subject, what has gone largely unregarded are ideas. The new poet-critics are committed to sorting through contemporary poetry by means of evaluating it, usually in terms of its thinking. To assist their readers, they try to reduce another poet’s work into the simplicity of order. Now this doesn’t mean that they fall into the heresy of paraphrase, merely restating the “content” of poems in different words. The new poet-critics agree with Howard Nemerov that the purpose of too much superficial criticism is to turn poetry into prose as quickly as possible. The new poet-critics seek to translate the poetry not into prose but into a view. They are committed to ideas, not “themes.” The difference is this. A literary theme is like foam; it is without edge; it offers nothing for the mind to take hold of. Instead of jerking haphazardly from theme to theme, unstitching a body of work and spilling it into a miscellany, the new poet-critics provide a generalizing structure of thought behind the cataloging of themes. They are interested in the way a poet’s entire body of work settles over time into a point of view, a firm and unmistakable response to the totality of experience.

This is not to say that the new poet-critics are not vitally interested in the question of form. All fifteen of this anthology’s poets are adept at handling form in their own poems, after all. Most of them have, in one way or another, participated in the turn to “expansive poetry,” the New Narrative and New Formalism.[12] But when they discuss another poet’s form, they discuss the poet’s mind; its movement, its rhythm, its disposition. For them poetic form is a way of thinking. It is a sibling to logic, prayer, algebra, or chess—a means of discovering and putting in order the truth about a portion of the human experience. Although they are practicing poets, they do not confine form, as so many of their contemporaries do, to an instrumentalist function. They do not confuse it with technique. Formal analysis is a way of reading—reading unrelentingly, which entails thinking along with the poet as he writes. Formal analysis is also, if need be, a way of thinking against a poet, answering a bad argument with a better one. The good critic reenacts the writing of a poem in the reading of it, but in doing so experiences technique as the stamp of individuality upon its thinking, the unique manner in which another person modifies an idea in handling it. Reading necessarily includes evaluation, then, because the good critic discerns a poet’s individuality and assesses this poet’s technical decisions in light of what he or she is trying uniquely to say.

But for the poets in this anthology, formal evaluation, as indispensable as it is, is only part of a critic’s work. As in the past, the critical intelligence is also directed to two other primary tasks—a critical understanding of who the important poets are and a reflection upon the life of poetry. To sum up their movement while standing on one foot, the new poet-critics aim to redefine criticism as evaluation where “evaluation” is understood to mean not only the sorting and ranking of poets, but also the unblinking appraisal of poetry’s place on the map of human experience. To use the classical terms, the critics in this anthology evaluate poetry under three headings—poesis (the general art of poetry), poeta (the individual poet), and poema (the poet’s work, including its relationship to the culture at large).

And these are the three divisions of Unrelenting Readers. The first part of the book is given over to “The Art of Poetry.” Elton Glaser opens the volume by reconsidering, from the perspective of a working poet, the beginnings and endings of poems. His purpose is to demonstrate the importance of “Entrances and Exits” to the means by which poems think their ideas. Louise Glück sets forth the overriding purpose of poetry, a purpose that so many contemporaries are in danger of neglecting—the pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit involves the application of intelligence to emotion to separate the honest from the merely sincere. Emily Grosholz is also interested in poetry’s truth, but wishes to make clear that it belongs to practical wisdom rather than scientific knowledge—not a specialized truth, but an everyday one. In similar fashion, Jane Hirshfield associates poetry with memory and the spoken word, suggesting that humanity’s one account of the whole of its experience is to be found in poetry. Rosanna Warren links the larger theoretical issues in the first part of the anthology to the formal experiments of one poet by showing how W. H. Auden both plays upon and disenchants readers’ expectations for the classical alcaic.

The next section of the anthology extends the focus on individual poets. Rita Dove opens with a critical review of the whole of Derek Walcott’s poetic accomplishment (a review of his Collected Poems: 1948–1984). For her, Walcott is important because of his bold refusal to serve as statesman-poet in the tradition of Neruda and because of his formal authority and (conflicted) cultural authenticity. Robert Hass turns to another of his generation’s central influences—Robert Lowell. Hass discusses how political and cultural criticism are offered in ways purely poetic and dramatic, which again points to the larger moral purpose of poetry. Mark Jarman discusses a third pervasive influence, the eloquent and trenchant elegist Donald Justice, whose tonally complex poems, Jarman believes, are radically under-appreciated. Robert McDowell introduces the first note of disapproval, puncturing the balloon of John Ashbery’s over-inflated reputation by pointing to the pallid inconsequence at the core of Ashbery’s mannered discontinuity. David Mason closes the section by returning to Derek Walcott. For him, Walcott is a poet whose “new world” perspective is created by the twin desires to be part of a contemporary literature as wide as the world and a particular literature of origins situated in the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

Following Mason’s lead, the final section of Unrelenting Readers opens onto the larger world. The critics in this section consider poetry’s relationship to history and culture. Mary Kinzie believes “The Poet’s Calling” is to speak the truth and to recuperate the imagination’s capability to speak with stamina, variety, and valor. Rachel Hadas explores the limitations and strengths of a restorative poetry. Bruce Bawer examines the interview phenomenon and its substitution of entertainment for ideas. Dana Gioia asks “Can Poetry Matter?” He answers yes, but only if it is publicly celebrated, intelligently criticized, honestly praised, and joyously performed. Finally, Robert Pinsky observes that the activity of poetry, while it may not unite American culture, remains valuable as an expression of whole personalities: the minds that think poetry—both the poet’s and readers’ minds—and the bodies that give poetry its voice.

Pinsky describes the wholeness upon which this volume’s unrelenting readers insist. Again and again, the new poet-critics dramatize what has been lacking in contemporary American poetry: the whole personality, critical and creative, the mind of both the “creative writer” and the critic absorbed in one integrated calling. These critics are devoted to the whole of poetry: the ideas and the technique, the whole of the poet’s collected work. The new poet-critics celebrate and enlarge poetry’s place in our living culture.

[1] R. P. Blackmur, “A Feather-Bed for Critics: Notes on the Profession of Writing,” in The Expense of Greatness (New York: Arrow Editions, 1940), p. 302.

[2] Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (New York: Carol Southern, 1993), p. 31.

[3] Reaper 1 (1981): 52–53.

[4] For a historical account see D.  G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

[5] R. S. Gwynn, ed., The Advocates of Poetry: A Reader of American Poet-Critics of the Modernist Era (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996).

[6] E.g., Paul Breslin, The Psycho-Political Muse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Thomas Gardner, Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990); Wyatt Prunty, “Fallen from the Symboled World”: Precedents for the New Formalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Jonathan Holden, The Fate of Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991); Laurence Goldstein, The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994); William Doreski, The Modern Voice in American Poetry (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995); Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Lisa Steinman, Masters of Repetition: Poetry, Culture, and Work in Thomson, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Emerson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[7] Bruce Bawer, “Talk Show: The Rise of the Literary Interview,” in Prophets and Professors (Ashland, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1995).

[8] Robert Morgan, Good Measures: Essays, Interviews, and Notes on Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), p. 18.

[9] John Matthias, Reading Old Friends: Essays, Reviews, and Poems on Poetics, 1975–1990 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 176.

[10] Henry Taylor, Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992), p. 147.

[11] Matthias, p. 312.

[12] See R. S. Gwynn, ed., New Expansive Poetry (Ashland: Story Line Press, 1999).