Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Do You Do With Such People?

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?


  1. Hey Chris,
    You say, "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...". What are you referring to? In what way is this symptomatic of academic criticism? What academic criticism? I haven't read the Blackburn, and you don't make me want to...but there are all kinds of academic critics out there that I don't find at all sinister.

  2. Hi Sina,

    I did not say that. Oates said that. I was still quoting Oates. But I agree with you. I do find all kinds of academic critics whose work deepens my understanding of modern poetry and I quote from them often on this site when I look at poems that I love written by other poets.

    However, I also agree with Oates that there is a new model of critic, academic or otherwise, who punishes the poet whose work is under review for not being a form of the critic himself and that this passes itself off as objective criticism and rational discourse. I find this especially true of poet-critics in Canada which is why I am a poet and not a reviewer.

  3. The first time I read it I thought it was all Oates, the second time it seemed to be you...
    Well, I don't know if you've had a chance to read through some of the interviews, but there are a wider variety of perspectives than are woven into the discussions that I've seen, particularly outside of Canada.

    Look at people like Aaron Kunin, for example, Michael Robbins, Maureen McLane and Stephen Burt, all academics...

    Perhaps we can move beyond the 1950s? And also back in time too?