Tuesday, November 17, 2009

William S. Burroughs, from "A Review of the Reviewers"

"Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition."

- William S. Burroughs, "A Review of the Reviewers"


  1. Some people might suggest that Arnold's thinking is just one opinion and is, in any event, outdated. I think to some extent, however, his first two points are particularly tempting: craft lies in the realm of intent.

    The effectiveness of the techniques a writer uses to achieve a particular effect can really only be assessed if one can discern from the work what the writer was attempting (a writer saying s/he was attempting such and such doesn't count). To use a classic example, one can assess the use of anapestic metre in Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" to represent the speed with which an entire army "Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!" If Byron's intent here was not clear then the swift moving rhythm of the poem would sound catchy but not be as effective and would therefore affect our interpretation of the poem's success.

    If intent doesn't matter at all then it seems the deliberate task of making art counts for nothing and the view that an artist channels the divine, or some such foolishness, takes precedance. This will, of course, lead to an elitist view of who's able to even benefit from creativity in writing this way (since it's not a choice that can be made, certain people will doubtless be excluded).

    There are perhaps other criteria for assessing value in a work and these need to be considered as well (if they can be outlined at all), but I think an analysis of intent should play some role in the critic's work. Not so much what is attempted, but the connection between this and how it is attempted.

  2. Thanks Stephen for your thoughts. Montreal poet Bryan Sentes in a discussion with me about aesthetic standards and poetic intentions suggested I go take a look at the Burroughs essay quoted above.

    Have you read Hayden Carruth's essay "The Question of Poetic Form" as he delves deeply into this territory. It can be found in Claims for Poetry edited by Donald Hall. Carruth argues form is both a poem's outward, observable materiality but also its inner form which he calls a poet's style which "manifests itself in the concrete elements of form: syntax, diction, rhythm, characteristic patterns of sound or imagery, and so on". He also uses the analogy of an apple. For Carruth, the apple's outward form is not what makes an apple an apple. What about its taste, scent, atomic structure, etc.? All of these things make an apple whole so why pretend this is any different with poetry. Assessing a poet's intentions may be difficult but I do believe strongly it should play some role in a critic's work or else we get just the same sort of dismissive reviews we have been stomaching already because poet A is not working in a tradition that reviewer B recognizes or else knows how to write about.

  3. Now that I've been outed as the source of Burroughs' essay, I think I need to clarify how I understand his position, relative to the two preceding comments. I would not think of this matter in terms of intention or inside and outside. What a writer is attempting is grasped by means of the poem, a more or less educated guess on the reader's part, oriented by the cultural conventions writer and reader share. To forgo this interpretive labour is either to judge a text one has failed to fully understand or to express a judgement of personal taste (at which point one should turn to writing restaurant reviews). Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it succinctly in his Truth and Method: "When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author's mind but, if one wants to use this terminology, we try to transpose ourselves into the perspective within which [the writer] formed his [or her] views. But this simply means that we try to understand how what [the writer] is saying [or the poet is doing] could be right. If we want to understand, we will try to make [the writer's] arguments even stronger" (292). In practice, then, a reviewer or critic, given world enough and time, must make the gesture of articulating just where he or she understands the work in question to be coming from; the reviewer may not and need not ultimately agree with the poem's orientation, but at least then it is clear(er) just where the critic's judgement is coming from. In this way, the reviewer critic serves a pedagogical and not merely a commercial function, enabling readers to expand their own appreciation of the competing schools of poetic composition.

  4. Great post, Bryan. Thanks for your insights.

  5. Bryan, the gesture toward understanding and articulating a poet's project is, as you say, quite integral. And it is an aspect of reviewing in Canada that I have felt lacking in general, and particularly in reviews in mainstream sources and those purportedly speaking at a national level. (ie not lyric poetry Canada which by nature of its name might be forgiven for only being interested in one kind of poetry...)

    Ironically my frustration is not so much regarding my own reviews--I feel quite lucky to have had very intelligent responses to my work in general. My frustration is more about reviews I have seen of other people's books, those I respect or just feel for simply because of the disservice done to their work.

    These voices are quite diverse, ranging from poets such as Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, Lorna Crozier, Erin Moure, Nathalie Stephens, Margaret Christakos, Anne Carson, all subject to reviews where the reviewer clearly does not understand the project at hand, or care a whiff for it, and rather than dealing with that possibility (and yes, it is possible), shifts the focus to fault in the writing, in some cases simply denouncing the writer outright. There is no one reviewer here--there is no one voice, rather it is, to my mind, a generally accepted style of reviewing we have become accustomed to. One that includes no such gesture toward making an effort of orientation.

    This approach, over time, suggests to audiences that there is a whole wide swath of poetry that is legitimately "not worth your time."

    That to me, is a problem.

  6. Sina, we seem to agree on the heart of the matter, namely that a review need make clear it understands what it's judging, whether to laud or condemn (or somewhere in between). The red thread here appears to be an impatience and distaste (if not disgust) for the kind of literary cultural vigilantism that indulges in either high-handed dismissal/denunciation or outright assassination, ignoring for the moment that sociopathic irritant of polemic for polemic's sake. It is perhaps naive if not downright utopian to imagine that the Canadian literati would or could be any more harmonious than Canadian society at large, or any society. Nevertheless, ideologues are ideologues, and the intent is the same, whether the weapon be an ice-pick, a jar of acid, a long knife, or a poisoned squib. And let's be clear, the matter here is not a question of mere differences in taste or the question of mediocre poetry versus good or great poetry. Those swaths of poetry you refer to are often cut down for more eugenic reasons. Nor does it follow that the "health" of our poetry or culture is not or can not be a concern. That being said, I have a hard time imagining the possibility of the kind of reviewing that would aspire to a variety of serious literary criticism given the constraints of the journalistic medium, whether general or literary. There is nothing approaching, e.g., the feuilleton of the Suddeutsche Zeitung possible on this continent. It would seem, to paraphrase Blake, who would do good must do it in Minute Particulars.

  7. below the spruce, I agree, why shouldn't some analysis of intent be part of engaging with a text? How evaluate a text's success without articulating its goals. Another way of respecting the context it comes out of. This is a basic approach in my workshop, and over and over again I have to remind my students to read the piece for where the author is going, not to offer advice to take the piece where they would like the author to go.

    Tough to do, as Bryan points out. I would be willing to take a more porous discourse, or even just the basic assumption of flexibility. And a more generous approach to different voices...even that would be good.

    As it is, we have the "if you don't like it, go elsewhere" or a conflation of complexity with being too soft, or lacking the balls to be negative. Any discussion is seen as asking the reviewer to evacuate his "ethical role" which, like most dysfunctional scenarios, is not up for public debate.

    The moral language should be a huge blinking warning sign. As should the trouncing of anyone and anything that dares have even a slightly different opinion.

  8. Some great discussion here on the nature of reviewing and perceived problems with the reviewing community in Canada.

    My earlier example of assessing the Byron poem can be applied to whole books of course and that is really what's being discussed here. What a writer is attempting to do in a work is integral to the reader's understanding of it. To my mind there can be no doubt that if a writer attempted to achieve certain effects and present certain thoughts on a subject then one mark of that writer's success is to what degree the work produced achieves these goals. We often like to compare poems that treat similar topics and in order to do so the objective of the writer is important in understanding how and why s/he did what they did. This will then allow the reader to determine the level of success attained. This is only possible when the reviewer understands the intent and the purpose for the techniques, tropes, etc that were used in the realizing of this intent.

    Negative vs postive reviewing is another beast. Understanding intent does not imply a positive review. If a writer's work falls far short of the original intent, as perceived by the reader, then a negative review may be completely justified. The issue is not whether a reviewer gives a negative or positive review, but to what degree the reviewer's intent is expressed. If a reviewer negatively evaluates a book's success by referring to aethetics of a school of writing that are incongruous with those of the books reality, then I believe there is a flaw in the assessment. It's much like test validity in teaching practice, you can not judge work on principles that do not apply to the writing of the work and the writer's intent. If this practice were followed, then every review of this sort would favour books by one school of writing and likely devalue others. This bias does not reflect a works success, but the merits of one aesthetic against another (battles which rarely show give on either side).

    The reviewer's intent should be to assess the book (as reviewers often say) and not the writer's opposing opinions regarding how writing should be done. It's not about the people, but about the book. Otherwise don't call it a book review. If these guidelines are followed, I believe reviews can be thoughtful, educational, and interesting to a reader.

  9. Stephen, I would love to see a reading of that Byron poem--if you feel like doing one for LH let me know. Otherwise, on your own blog, or elsewhere.

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments all. I do have more to say but I am off now for a few days...looking forward to further discussion here and elsewhere.

  10. 1. I am unsure, but do I detect two assumptions, here--especially in Steve's comments?

    First, the poet is conscious of what s/he's doing writing a poem, and the more conscious and conscientious the poet is the greater the poet's craft or power. Then the poet is a demiurge, related to the poem the way the Lord is related to His Creation, a Cartesian cogito absolutely transparent to itself, which is surely not so. This does not mean the poet, conversely, a la Plato, is a passive medium possessed by an utterly transcendent divine madness, either.

    Second, the poem is successful if it achieves its ends, its "effects." Well, even Plato knew "the text is fatherless": for better or worse, the words of a text mean more than the writer can foresee, both within the horizon of the text's composition and those of its subsequent reception. A text will always "err", go off rhetorical course, be received in ways the writer can never absolutely foresee or forestall.

    If my suspicions are unfounded and my remarks strike my interlocutors as pendantic, I apologize in advance.

    As to critical disputes: as I remarked in an earlier comment, I don't believe that the poetic literati in Canada will achieve a utopian harmony lacking in the society at large. Nor should reviewers, I believe, eschew or avoid conflict. Roman Jakobson begins his essay "Linguistics and Poetics" observing that "disagreement discloses antinomies and tensions within the field discussed and calls for novel exploration." "Dialectic", then, in the sense of agonistic discussion, the clash of opposing positions, enhances dialogue, disclosing, opening, and exploring the topic under discussion. Blinkered, high-handed dismissiveness or polemical posturing, of course, short-circuit this process of mutual discovery and novel exploration of a space the other side of, beyond, the agreement *and* disagreement of the dialogue partners or disputants.

  11. Bryan,

    You are right that a part of the "magic" we call great writing is the way in which it is perceived by others, those nuances and insights the writer might not even have noticed. As one writes there is a definite intension (the words don't place themselves on a page, the writer actively makes that happen, otherwise the author can scarce take credit). Editing and revising is intensional. The piece in the end is a combination of original and subsequent thoughts and impressions the writer has compiled and formed into a particular structure. If the reader finds an analysis of the piece that is at once different, but completely plausible within the poem's domain then something truly special has occured. A good line can "come to you", but I don't believe it is from any higher being than the writer's own experience and interpretation of that experience.

    As it relates to the success of a poem, I did not mean to suggest a poem is successful only if it achieves the writer's intention. There are varying degrees of both intension and adherence to it. Again there are things the poet might not have realized in forming the piece, but I believe this works together with the deliberate in determining a poem's value.

    You are, of course, right regarding critical disputes. Often something argued about is done so because it is valuable, it has significance to the people involved. This discussion can be positive as long as the means of assessing and arriving at particular points and criticisms strive to be just to the value of the work and the processes of good critical discourse.