I came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on the poetry of D.H. Lawrence called “Candid Revelations: The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence” which was originally published in the first issue of APR in 1972 but republished in the same publication in January/February 2008. Given the ongoing nature of discussions surrounding poetry reviewing on this blog and elsewhere, I thought I would share an excerpt of what Oates has to say about formalist critics who approached Lawrence’s poetry solely through their own blinkered expectations of what poetry must be:
But critics, especially “New Critics” and “Formalist Critics” have not understood this: that there are many kinds of art, that there may be a dozen, a hundred ways of writing, and that no single way is perfect. Lawrence was exasperated by, but not deeply influenced by the stupidity of his critics; but it may be harder for us, reading an essay like R.P Blackmur’s “Lawrence and Expressive Form” (in Language as Gesture, 1954), to restrain our impatience. Blackmur states that Lawrence is guilty of writing “fragmentary biography” instead of “poetry.” It would have been unthinkable to imagine that the two are not separate….? need not be separate….? And what does “poetry,” that elusive term, somehow punitive term, mean to Blackmur? If we read farther we see that his definition of ‘poetry’ is simply his expectation of what poetry must be, based on the poets he has evidently read, and judged worthy of the title of “poet.” One needs the “structures of art,” which are put there by something Blackmur calls a “rational imagination.” All this suggests that the critic is in control of what is rational, and if one investigates far enough he learns that this critic is unhappy because Lawrence the “craftsman” did not often enough silence Lawrence the demon of “personal outburst.” Lawrence leaves us, therefore, only with “The ruins of great intentions.” I mention all this because it is symptomatic of academic criticism at its most sinister, since it assumptions are so hidden that one can hardly discover them. But when you do discover them, you are sickened: for you see that the critic is punishing the poet for not being a form of the critic himself, a kind of analogue to his ego. How insane! But it is an insanity that passes for rational discourse, “objective criticism”: a colleague of mine one stated that Moby Dick is a “failure” because it does not “live up to” the form of the “novel.” What do you do with such people?