Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hyphen-ing

Josh Corey, in the throes of academic job-applying (you have my sympathy, Josh, especially since I'm on the other side of the table this year, chairing a recruitment committee), has been doing some personal postion/soul-searching, wondering about the way one functions as a poet-critic. After saying some entirely unwarranted nice things about me, he calls me by name:
there's another rift between poetry/poetics and criticism: as a poet, I am primarily interested in what enables my own work and the work of other poets I care about. When I read a poet like Zukofsky, I am looking for news I can use: techniques and themes and turns of phrase that Zukofsky made more possible. For me, one of poetry's primary functions is the generation of more poetry—reading is writing, or wreading in Jed Rasula's phrase. That's a fundamentally different attitude than that assumed by the critic, who reads in a more specifically interrogatory mode, and with a more or less specific ideological axe to grind. It's the old battle of Beauty vs. Truth, really. And the question for a poet-critic like myself has to be not, Whose side are you on?, but: How are these different modes of reading implicated in each other for me? Why am I hyphenated? How can this tension be productive for both kinds of work, both modes of questioning? Mark, you're a poet-critic. Care to address this question from your perspective?
Something I've thought about a few times over the years. First, in regards to some of the talk going on in your comments box, I agree that one doesn't have to be a poet in order to be a good critic of poetry – I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's comment to Boswell somewhere, the gist of which was you needn't be a carpenter to assess whether a table was well-made or not – but it helps.

It helps in a couple of ways. First, the committed poet almost always has the most basic piece of equipment needed for useful criticism – a deep investment in ("love of") the art itself, & that investment usually manifests itself in an immersion in poetry that one doesn't get in many critics. (I'm thinking at the moment of Terry Eagleton, a critic & thinker whose work I much admire, but who seems to write on poetry from the window of a speeding car – yes, I know, I haven't read his new How to Read a Poem or whatever its title is.)

More importantly, the poet-critic, who's reading as you say in this "predatory" manner, looking for tricks & tropes & techniques she can make her own, has a grasp of the poem from the inside, as it were, a perspective that one only rarely encounters in non-poet critics of poetry. That can be very enabling, tho it can also tend to blind one to certain approaches to literature – notably the sociological & the ideological – that themselves have great value.

[And such "inside knowledge," let's face it, is often vitiated if the poet doesn't have some sort of developed critical vocabulary in which to describe whatever insights she or he has into the work at hand. Otherwise, it all too often becomes a kind of shaggy emoting, an appeal to the lowest common affective denominator, & ends up telling one more about the poet reading than the poem read. Which is interesting at times, I guess.]
***
The line between invested criticism & advocacy is a fuzzy one, but my own experience in writing about poets has been this: First of all, I don't write about anyone whose work doesn't interest me, give me pleasure, provoke me to composition, and make me want to steal something. Life is too short to waste on writers I find irremediably alien or uninteresting as poetry. But like you I have fairly catholic tastes, so I'm happy to think about Zukofsky, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein and Geoffrey Hill or Ann Carson. I'm not really interested in debating sides of any Post-Avant/School of Quietude continuum, & am really quite uninterested in all such divisions except insofar as they bear on issues of literary & institutional history (a big "except," indeed).

And I have yet to read any poet who wholly satisfies me. (Perhaps Bunting, Blake, and Dickinson come closest.) Which means that every time I address a poem or poet, I feel somehow duty-bound to take both my enthusiasm and my dissatisfaction into account – which perhaps accounts for the "dialectical" impulse you so kindly attribute to my scribbles. In turn, one of my impulses in writing poetry is precisely to achieve (in MacDiarmid's words) "the kind of poetry I want" – tho of all of my dissatisfactions, that which my own work affords me is perhaps the strongest.
***
I've never found the hyphen in poet-critic personally problematic or anything less than natural; but it can be problematic in certain institutional contexts. Like in grad school, for instance, where I did the concurrent MFA/PhD track, & often felt that critical insights I'd arrived at by thinking about the poem as a poet were more or less offhandedly dismissed as non-rigorous (Cornell had a big Paul de Man woodie back then) or even "bellettristic." Since then I've often found myself hesitating over job application letters, wondering whether laying stress on my activities as poet would be a plus or a minus when I applied for a job in (say) American modernism. From the other side of the table, it's rather easier, at least where I work now: when we see a candidate with creative publications, we often think "hey, maybe we can get this person to pick up a section or two of undergrad CW!" In larger departments, where lines between Creative Writing and Literary Studies are more boldly drawn, I suspect it's problematic.
***
I'm least interested in poet-critics when they're most obviously "spinning" their own practice (Eliot on the metaphysicals, for instance). I'm most interested & moved when they're applying their own deep investment in the art to searching readings of things that aren't necessarily the most congenial or the most obvious reads for them, or when they're teasing out the self-contradictions in the works that have proven most influential for their own practice: Bob Perelman's Trouble with Genius is a fine example of the latter; much of Geoffrey Hill's is exemplary of the former.

4 comments:

Edmund Hardy said...

I;m not quite sure what you mean by 'wholly', Mark -

"And I have yet to read any poet who wholly satisfies me. (Perhaps Bunting, Blake, and Dickinson come closest.)"

I'm guessing you mean something like the recognisable textual signature of the poet as seen throughout their work, rather than "all their poems".

I think I'd be frightened if I found a poet whose work _always_ satisfied me completely & in every mood.

alex davis said...

Mark, your mention of Geoffrey Hill on the back of a previous post's reference to the "grim one's" Fors Clavigera reminded me of these lines of Hill:

Ruskin's
Wedded incapacity, for which he has been scourged
many times with derision, does not
render his vision blind or his suffering
impotent. Fellow-labouring master-
servant of Fors Clavigera, to us he appears
some half-fabulous field-ditcher who prised
up, from a stone-wedged hedge-root, the lost
amazing crown.

I'd tend to go along with that.

Mark Scroggins said...

Oh indeed, Alex -- I've got those lines starred in my own copy of Triumph of Love, as well. In a review of Speech, Speech! a couple years back, I speculated that the texture of Hill's recent work could be compared to either a) GM Hopkins rewritten by Bruce Andrews or b) Ruskin confronting the internet.

carlo said...

I'm so surprising because of the great way this man is thinking that should be because he's the best poet who I've read, he is very careful to refers to other poets. Sildenafil Citrate