C.R. Nº 7: "...
The State of Criticism - a look at the
"Contemporary Poetry Review"

- Who is this unmasked man?

C.R. 1 | C.R. 2 | C.R. 3 | C.R. 4 | C.R. 5 | C.R. 6

When one takes the time to consider how poetry and its criticism have grown over the centuries, harnessed to each other, and advancing always in tandem, it seems almost self-evident that poetry is indeed ever in need of that bridge of criticism to consolidate its relevance and relate it to the world of actual readers. Consider Aristotle, the first theorist of literature. His brief Poetics is, for all practicable purposes, Genesis. It still haunts the assumptions of contemporary critics: questions of decorum, proportion, plausibility; notions about the mechanism of catharsis and mimesis, all derive from this thin volume; but even more important is the fact that, as Richard Janko tells us in a 1996 lecture, "Unlike Plato and his predecessors, he distinguished clearly between criticism of poetry as the servant of politico-religious concerns and criticism of poetry as studied in itself." It is this approach, more than anything else - that poetry was to be studied "in itself" - that makes Aristotle's example (indeed, his practice) so unceasingly modern. But it also establishes very early on the notion that poetry merits study in the first place.

It was the resurgence of the classics in Renaissance Europe, through scholarship, translation, paraphrase and other forms of appropriation, that provided intellectual viaticum for the development of a modern criticism. But modern criticism of literature, which, in the first instance (and perhaps the final one) was criticism of poetry, discovered its ideas before it discovered its means. Neoclassicists applied an Aristotelian repertoire to contemporary concerns, not only to dramatic poetry, but also to the lyric as it gradually uncoupled itself from its musical setting, and to the epic as it reinvented itself along modern lines. But in the earliest cases this critical activity was all embedded in the texture of the poems themselves, before beginning to be taken up explicitly in prose. It is startling, really, to consider what a young thing English prose is. Even as late as the early 16th century, Thomas More opted to write his classic, Utopia, in Latin because not only was English still a long way from achieving its present status as lingua franca, but its syntax was considered too unwieldy and its lexicon too underdeveloped for the expression of such philosophical subtlety as the catholic humanist Sir Thomas entertained.

To my mind it is Dryden, at the end of his career, who gives us the first inkling of what English prose would become capable of, the sinewy durable period cutting to the chase and plunging ahead with a kind of raucous conversational momentum. Unlike the crisp architectonics of the Latin sentence, English found a way to displace rhetoric with the modern spontaneity of the London street and communicate directly to its middleclass reader, supplanting scholarly remove with demotic propinquity, and freighting large thought and individual sensibility in the same syntactic package.

Much of the contemporary criticism of poetry is laced with dread. The academic critics of poetry have disappeared down the rat holes of theory ...

Poietikos for Aristotle was, of course, a metonym for the Epic and Dramatic Arts. However, this hardly challenges the pertinence of his critical categories and conventions to the criticism of poetry from the Enlightenment to the present day. The real problem today lies in the fact that study "in itself" has become anathema. That is, what is under threat are not Aristotle's assumptions, but his practice. Poetry requires its critics to be close, criteria-minded readers. Sadly, few of the critic's traditional attributes are in much currency at the present time.

Much of the contemporary criticism of poetry is laced with dread. The academic critics of poetry have disappeared down the rat holes of theory, and the professional reviewers, those who still write on the subject, devote singular amounts of energy not toward elucidating poetry's excellence as formal expression (perhaps - it might be said in their defense - because it's the rare poem that reveals any), but toward a rearguard defense of poetry as a poor exiled practice wandering about in search of a home. And various are the homes the critics like to construct.

Adam Kirsch, one of America's most visible younger critics, is a perfect example of this pigeonholing of poets, though he blames everything on the poetry of the day, and not on the critics themselves. In 1998 he launched a New York Times review of James Tate's Shroud of the Gnome, with the notion that "the modernist temper is gone; poetry has to a large degree resumed its 19th-century role as a comfort and consolation, a retreat from the rigors of the world." He tells us that Tate's poems are "deliberately difficult", but only "on the surface". And he bemoans the eclipse of "the harsh truth telling of Frost and Eliot". Tate, we are informed, is after moral uplift, not exactly Hallmark style, but uplift nevertheless. Via the typical patchwork of context-thin quotation, the critic reduces one of America's most intractable poets to a simple equation: in each poem a blistering run of linguistic pranks, sleights and syntactic alchemy earns the poet the right to slobber at the end.

    "Tate has earned the right to express naked emotion. Self-pity, of course, yearns to be told that everything will be all right. And that is just what Tate tells us, usually in the form of a homily at the end of a poem."

To believe that Tate is all about constructing an elaborate po-mo façade just so that he can give us a sermon at the end of each poem requires something of a leap of faith. It's not so much the fact that this is such an unlikely conclusion, as that the argument seems so arbitrary. It could be applied, with as little success, to many poets, Frost and Eliot included. One finally has to ask, what does Kirsch want when he complains that the modernist temper is gone? Of course it's gone; it's over a hundred years old already! We come away with the sense that Tate has stumbled into the maw of one of Kirsch's pet a priori gripes, and that an array of quotations have been filched from the book just to prove a point. Poets beware! This is gorilla reviewing at its best. By the end of the article he has wrested Tate into his imagined legion of neo-Victorian comforters.

While Kirsch is full of certainty and definition, Clover is puzzled and hedging. Clover ruminates over the end of something that Kirsch is already naming as new.

Casting from the opposite bank of the same pond, Joshua Clover, in the VLS, recently felt compelled to raise similar questions about Kirsch's own lately published volume of poems: "the book also begs the question beggaring contemporary poetry: Is the experiment over?" Sounds rather like Kirsch on Tate! More significantly though, Clover goes on in the same review to see the end of experimentation in America's master of innovation himself, John Ashbery, interpreting the last line of one of his recent poems (Then I became as one who followed.) as "a tacit admission his innovation is ended…". Like a lot of contemporary writing on poetry, this conclusion is too pat, and dodges the palpable complexities of evaluating achieved poems. One doubts whether a given line from any Ashbery poem could be read as a "tacit admission" of anything; this conclusion entirely misses the firing patterns of Ashbery's aesthetical nerve system. After all, at another moment, in the same collection the poet admits: "I am the way certain persons are / who never tell you how they are…"

While Kirsch is full of certainty and definition, Clover is puzzled and hedging. Clover ruminates over the end of something that Kirsch is already naming as new. Here is how Clover describes this no-man's land, between the end of the experiment and the beginning of poetic entropy:

    "we haven't managed to come up with a criterion beyond experimentation (though raw marketability seems to have done well in the fine arts). It's to the point where all contest-winning versifiers, but for a few stray formalists and identity politicians, fancy themselves experimental. What this turns out to mean is at best repeating the once new gestures of last century, and at worst a sort of labored idiosyncrasy."

This argument conflates the process of poetry with its reception; the poet at work on the one hand, and the critic at work on the other; or, if you will, experimentation as a creative modality, and experimentalism as a critical and culturally defining category. But poems worthy of the name never proceed from ambitions that are ulterior to process. In this sense, they are experimental by nature. Robert Frost-a formalist poet in the midst of a modernist revolution in which free verse became the dominant method-still describes the writing of a poem as a kind of experiment, an improvisation, the poem itself, like a block of ice melting on a hot griddle, dictating the direction the poet must follow. When faced with contingency of this nature, the poet, of whatever ilk, is, by definition, experimental.

Ironically, the contemporary poets best who best drive home the point that poetry is experimental by nature, are, like Margaret Hacker, working in traditional forms. Her sonnets and villanelles represent anything but a retreat à la Kirsch "from the rigors of the world". Others like Henri Cole, Paul Muldoon and Justin Quinn (who happens to be a regular contributor at CPR), while they might not be patently experimental, "repeating the once new gestures of the last century," as Clover has it, are certainly revolutionizing sensibility, not to mention that endless possibilities inherent in poetic form. Pasternak - another revolutionary poet who trucked in traditional forms - would have been at home among their numbers.

What then is in the offing, what, according to our most visible critics of poetry, lies beyond "experiment"? Well, Billy Collins's new volume recently prompted Mary Jo Salter to blithely inform us in the New York Times Book Review that "Thousands of Americans are walking around right now with Billy Collins poems in their heads." And why is this? We find out by the end of the review that it's because they comfort us. "Comforted by that now familiar phrase as the poem closes, you also know you've had your mind freshened, robbed of a few complacencies." - poetry as a kind of Robin Hoodish exercise in complacency-redistribution, I guess.

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To date, I've not come across a more dauntless stab at this general addlement than Contemporary Poetry Review, www.cpr.com , edited from the Monterey Peninsula in California by Garrick Davis. He proposes -from way out there in Monterey - nothing less than a re-education of the so-called literate public, to teach it to appreciate the rigor that is central to both the production and the reception of the best poetry of an age.

Davis is deadly serious about his task. In fact, if anything is missing in his approach, it's humor; there's an almost cultivated lack of it. But CPR's feat is to have brought to readers a journal wholly devoted to the criticism of poetry. This must be unique in the annals of publishing. The result is that - beyond gathering together a small band of judicious and discerning critics with an array of interests (most of them poets themselves) - broader issues pertaining to poetry and its reception in general that were hitherto diffused in the rough and tumble of contemporary arts commentary, are here brought into sharper focus. One comes away feeling that there really is a coherent and vital debate going on.

The best literary sites come, perforce, with strong editors who claim to be unaffiliated, non-aligned, ecumenical, apolitical and devoted to writing that is - as the CPR "mission statement" claims - "clear, spacious, and free of academic jargon and politics," all of which causes their readers to instantly rout about, like hungry boars in a farmer's hedgerow, for the hidden agenda, the bias, the religion, the cabbage patch.

His real urgency stems from the unabashed conviction that readers - sheep that they are - are in need of a certain direction that can only be provided through the more traditional practices of exegesis, interpretation, and evaluation.

Davis's particular ambition, just a scratch beneath the surface, is to roll back three decades of an increasingly meta-critical approach to poetry to a golden age when poems were still something that could be talked about sensibly, as rule-based procedures which occasionally touched the sublime. On offer: a return to a critical posture that is actually exegetical, tough-minded and based on consistent assumptions. Davis imagines a kind of antediluvian period of purity, a pre-professional, pre-corporate age before poetry and the critical culture to which it gives rise became homogenized and channeled into self-perpetuating university driven programs in which the careers of individual writers were more important than the qualities of a given literary culture. His reasoning: (and this is clearly evidenced by the questions he asks in his interviews and in his emboldened ars critica "The Breakdown") that current critical approaches to poetry (everything from the flyweights of the mainstream press to the theorists of postdiluvian academe) have now dead-ended.

His real urgency stems from the unabashed conviction that readers - sheep that they are - are in need of a certain direction that can only be provided through the more traditional practices of exegesis, interpretation, and evaluation. By drawing an Arnoldian line in the sand, Davis wants to force our hand.

    "The breakdown of criticism in letters is general, as I have said, but its effects on poetry have been particularly acute. For poetry depends upon critical praise, on the purer classifications of taste rather than on popularity, to advertise the best that has been thought and said. True poets depend upon critics to advertise their difference from their inferiors…."

What I think is important to point out is that Davis's preoccupations are shared across the spectrum. Both Clover and Kirsch - as baffled as the one, and circumscribing as the other is - are expressing sentiments similar to Davis's. Indeed, even Ashbery, in his recently published Norton Lectures, Other Traditions, (Harvard University Press, 2000) would seem to concur with what Davis says about the relationship between poetry and criticism. Here is the way Ashbery has it in his lecture on Laura Riding: "Yet poetry is also somehow incomplete without the external completion of it by a reader/critic…" The idea (that rigor, guidance, and mediation are the critic's chief tasks) is illustrated below:

    "….And Riding's intimidating astuteness as a critic of poetry is certainly enough to give one pause. In 1927 Riding and Graves collaborated on A Survey of Modernist Poetry, an influential work whose exceedingly close textual analysis helped lay the foundations for the New Criticism. Their aim was to mediate between the new poetry and the "plain reader," though it is soon evident that the plain reader had better watch his step. They began by subjecting a poem by E.E. Cummings, "Sunset" to an alarming battery of tests, after which they pronounce it sound."

Implicit in the Graves-Riding critical practice, as Ashbery describes it, are three axioms. One: that poets, especially the "new poets", are on a different plane than "plain readers". Two: that the critic is a mediator-a didact-and a feisty one at that. And three: poems should respond to critical criteria, and whether they do or not is tested through close reading.

Davis, in his keynote CPR essay, "The Breakdown", addresses, as Graves and Riding did before him, what is perceived as a state of critical decadence, and he outlines a similar set of corrections. He blames this on a combination of ill prepared readers and a glut of bad books. His doomsday first two paragraphs are worth quoting in full.

    "We live in an age awash with bad books. This fact, though that statistical non-entity the average reader may be unaware of it, constitutes the greatest crisis facing literature at the end of this century. It has for some time been axiomatic among critics that the sheer volume of new works has effectively silenced their profession; it is simply impossible to cover or recommend or dismiss the desideratum of even narrow disciplines. In the commercially negligible realm of poetry, nearly 1,000 new collections appear annually. In such commercially viable forms as the novel, the number is probably ten times that. Before such a paper deluge, which drowns even the professional critic, what hope for the average reader? The critic already knows what everyone else is learning, and that is Gresham's Law exists, and applies to print.

    "Having survived the ideological schisms of the 1930's, the culture wars of the 1980's, and all the morasses of the decades in between, it seems rather strange that writers should ultimately be defeated by themselves, or more properly, by their numerical proliferation but such is the historical situation facing us today. For all the talk of new technologies, of televisions and computers, what we are witnessing is the ultimate development of an antique--the hypertrophy of the printing press."

We almost expect Davis to continue upping the Swiftian stakes here, and provide us with recipes for stewing excess poets. But he doesn't, he goes on to explore the rigorous absence of a relationship between poetry and the current mass market, linking this to the incestuous ingrown tribe of scribblers proliferating within their village walls where there are "no recognized laws, no standards". Because poetry has spread formlessly it has become "the form that everyone may attempt." Davis's call here is for serious criticism to stand in to avoid the worst.

Davis imagines a kind of antediluvian period of purity, a pre-professional, pre-corporate age before poetry and the critical culture to which it gives rise became homogenized and channeled into self-perpetuating university driven programs in which the careers of individual writers were more important than the qualities of a given literary culture.

One Lit-zine, however, is not going to single-handedly revive a more traditional critical culture. As William Logan points out in his interview with CPR's editor, a readership for poetry is historically wed to education and cultural acquisition. At one point in his interview he reminds us "it takes labor and education to read most of the poetry of the present and almost all poetry of the past." He continues in the same vein a bit later on:

    "Some argue that the poems of Sharon Olds or Billy Collins attract readers who graduate, by slow and childlike steps, to a poetry more demanding. Perhaps there have been a few such readers, scarce as glass slippers. But readers satisfied by such poetry are not likely to look beyond it, and not likely to be satisfied when they do. Poetry must fall on prepared ground, and most readers have not read enough poetry to be prepared."

If Logan's assumption, that there is a dwindling stock of serious readers of poetry, is correct; and that despite the plethora of MFA programs, their patterns of augmentation resemble population growth rates in so-called advanced western societies: ie., zero and sometimes negative; then those who are left, plus the few "glass slippers", will certainly bask in the cyberian halls of CPR.

Lest anyone be deflected by what seems at times a rather high-minded tone, don't forget that, in the final analysis, the urge to write poetry, or the knack for pulling it off, and the always highly personal project of reading it depend in only oblique ways on the period one lives in, and the caliber of one's education. Perhaps a better way to say it would be that poetry and its criticism is comprised of a wide range of registers but which are arranged in an utterly non-hierarchical fashion. Nor can poetry itself be codified within the prescriptive mechanisms of a critical peerage. In all frankness, had this particular reader, when he first came across modern poetry, been held to the standards found loosely inscribed in the subtext of CPR, he might never have been speaking to you about them now. That's the wonderful paradox of poetry. In the midst of an ever-evolving industry designed to sell it, explain it, perpetuate it, and justify it, poetry still seems to have a healthy disregard for all that. Perhaps that's what keeps the critics and readers alike so interested. It's because it's so hard to get.

Martin Walter Earl

Some Notes on Martin

Martin Earl lives with his wife Luísa in Coimbra, a small city about two hundred kilometers north of Lisbon. He was raised in Duxbury Massachusetts and lived in New York City during the early eighties before moving to Paris in 1984. In 1986 he left Paris to live in Portugal, and has been there ever since. His book, Stundenglas, was published in 1992 in East Berlin by Edition Maldoror. His poems, essays and translations have been published in magazines in America, the U.K. and Ireland. Some of these include Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Metre, PN Review and Irish Pages. His work has been translated into French, German, Portuguese, and Swedish.