Friday, February 26, 2010

Around About

Give poetry critics their due. In the midst of an ever-dwindling audience here are people not only prepared to read your poetry, but to take what you do seriously enough to talk about it. How they talk about it, the terms they use, the energy and insight they bring to their reading is entirely dependent upon their understanding of their craft. But it remains a matter of public record: when they could be doing something else – like mowing the lawn or enrolling in Reiki courses – someone chooses instead to write about your glosa, your use of the hendecasyllable.

More impressively, they do so while resisting the poet’s inclination to subvert an instinct most people take for granted: the simple desire to know what things mean. Critics trade in explanations, poets do not. While the poet may rightfully ignore any effort to press her about what she means in a poem the critic is under a different obligation; the only mystery is why so many settle for writing about whatever ill-defined, ephemeral effect a line of poetry has on them instead of its underlying meaning or truth.

Instead, a rough “gloss” will do, invariably made up of large, rather vague abstractions that really don’t tell us anything about anything - like the one we encountered last week when a reviewer discovered new poems “that are not only haunting for their language, but also for what they tell us about humanity.” When the writer uses the word “about” here, her failure to unpack whatever qualities of “humanity” she says exists in these poems makes it clear she doesn’t really mean it. She can’t tell you what these poems are about. She can only offer us what most reviewers offer - a gesture towards, an approximation of, truth or meaning.

Jacques Derrida tells us there’s a reason for this. Even a cursory glance at your OED reveals that talking “about” anything is hampered by basic etymology. Far from reflecting our capacity for fixed meanings the word “about” is defined variously in over a dozen entries as “around”, “circular”, “on every side", "nearly",
“approximately”, “in a circumlocutious or winding course”, and “less definitely.” Only one entry defines “about” in the sense that we’re discussing it here, as “touching”, or “concerning” the constitution of particular things. So, as much as you believe you can say what a poem is about, your ability to identify very precisely what that something might be is impeded by the imprecision of language itself. Or as a quantum theoretician might put it: you can’t fix something using tools that appear broken, unfixed, uncalibrated.

Our position is made even more precarious by the fact that most poems are themselves largely meaningless, which is only to say that they’re less concerned with providing fixed, indelible, memorable meanings than they are with producing a handful of salubrious effects, a wash of meaningfulness as in “I found that poem to be really meaningful, but what it means to say precisely, I can’t tell you.” It’s this expectation that poets now write to and to which critics have become inured.

An example of this can be found within the pages of a review by American poet and reviewer Joshua Mehigan in last month’s issue of Poetry. It’s plain to see that Mehigan likes the poems in Stephen Edgar’s History of the Day very much. He makes two very strong statements at the beginning and end of his review: Early on, he says these poems “yield meanings sharable by reader and writer...a brand of mystification that leads to some very satisfying eureka moments”; the poet, he concludes, “modulates his language in the service of meaning.”

Testing these propositions against the rest of the review you’d be forgiven for concluding that meanings are actually few and far between in Edgar’s collection. Mehigan discusses Edgar’s “radical zoom” technique, his abstractions and his use of “Thought-provoking references…to Beaumont and Fletcher.” He details Edgar’s use of science to take poetry “into territory untrodden by most poets,” a large statement mostly undercut by the science-as-poetry industry that has sprung up all around us in recent years. Edgar’s “mastery” of rhythm and meter, his irony, a veiled suggestion to his “aplomb” - it’s all there. But “meaning”? “eureka moments”? Hardly a whiff.

The closest we come to heightened feeling in the presence of newly discovered meaning is following Mehigan's partial citation of the poem “Succes de scandale”, surely the best part of the review:

The annelids, the giant dragonflies
With wings of sunlight peeled from the water’s surface
Stretched tight, incinerated sauropods
Among the ferns that saw the holocaust
Unfold and ripple like a hot aurora
Pouring from heaven and, in pits of pitch,
Attempts at deer like bottled specimens
And smiladons appended by their fangs
Deep in the black museum – all wasted effort.
The feather in the shale like a pressed flower
In a book of verse, a fetal hunch of bones
Delivered from the rocks: unshockable,
Completely ill-equipped to get the point.

The poem makes me want to go out and buy the book; the review does not. Instead, a strong, artful poem is summed up this way: “Edgar’s perspective, vast or miniscule, conveys something important about his worldview. There is nothing starker than that of nature, or more sublime.” That’s it. Forgetting that reviews are not just vehicles for carrying poems, but for explicating them, Mehigan opts for a large, overworked abstraction that far from showing his excitement about the poem pins a flat, uninspired gloss on the thing every bit as dead as the specimen on an entomologist’s wall. It’s the closest we come to the meaning Mehigan promises us is in the poem - meaning better suggested by the poem itself, than uncovered by the critic.

Some, likely poets, will say this is as it should be. Others, notably critics, will say the writer has fallen down on the job.
Coming up: an interview with one of Canada's foremost poets, Patrick Lane.


Harold Rhenisch said...

I think this is a pretty narrow view of 'meaning'.

Is not what you are talking about a translation of meaning from one mode to another?

Your point about vagueness in reviews is well-taken.

There is room for a much expanded view of the a poem's relationship to discourse.

Criticism could, I think, learn from that.



Conrad DiDiodato said...


I've always held up Eliot as my idea as the model critic: he who both criticizes and writes with great acumen and sympathy. But I don't think the incentives to do both exist anymore. As you say, it's unfornutate that critics today, perhaps all too mindful of the dwindling number of poetry readers and unwilling to give it the effort it deserves,will resort to a "gloss" method and offer a sort of 'template'writing. And they do it because they mostly can.

With the exception of annoying gadflies like me I don't see a lot of readers who'll make the critic accountable for every idea they put forward. With zero tolerance for sloppy or disorganized or self-interested thinking. Your "humanity" example is a case in point. Imprecision of language may be an obstacle but language is only a tool: it's a critic's cognitive syntheses and insights into the workings of language in poetry that matter and that require some effort. It's also the critics job to make meanings appear even in the most challenging texts. The demystification requirement is crucial (as you say).

There's a lot at stake in a literary genre that's attracting fewer and fewer numbers: the critic's most unpardonable offense is "to fall down on the job".

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Harold. Actually, my definition of meaning is fairly broad here, embracing both denotative and connotative meaning within the line and the poem as a whole. My main points are that critics have a tendency to refer many times in a review to "meaning" without really unpacking it or wallow in large obscure abstractions. We need to ask ourselves what do we mean by meaning and how important is it in our experience of the poem.

I agree that how we talk about poems needs to be expanded. Part of the challenge is finding the vocabulary which enables us to do this. That's a central problem not just in reviewing, but in ordinary conversations about poetry. We could do an entire writer's conference on this alone, it seems to me.

David Kosub said...

Quite right, Conrad. We need to make critics more accountable. To do that we need to become more accountable as readers, by encouraging closer readings of both poems and critical commentary.

Diane Reid said...

Criticism of poetry's alive and well in *Canada*, fellas.

Coach House, Rosewood, and Freehand are among publishers who've used/are using my Canadaeast reviews on their home pages.

If we're to engage new readers,critics must strive for fairmindedness--clear, concise,intelligent, and balanced reporting.

When they're summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, and recommending, critics need appeal to general (not just sophisticated)audiences.

Diane Reid

Bryan Sentes said...

In lieu of a too long comment I am tempted to leave, I direct interested parties to piece by Marjorie Perloff (a scholar I am NOT wont to often agree with) concerning the dilemmas facing the reviewer who would be substantial. I draw your attention especially to the section "Poetry Degree Zero"

Conrad DiDiodato said...


references to one's own work is not proof poetry's "alive and well" anywhere. The argument is a bit smug, self-serving and not all that atypical in Canada. Perhaps you could post a review of yours and let us have a go at it.


Perloff's review/essay (whatever it is) is the usual academic's take on poetry (on any topic, for that matter): a smattering of ideas buried in titles and names, with only the weakest interconnectedness visible anywhere between idea and idea. As somebody once said in a "Time Lit.Supp":"scholarly names to provide fig-leaves of respectability".

Harold Rhenisch said...

Entire branches of criticism have become art forms. Where does that show up in reviewing?

Where is the Canadian Baudrillard? Or Eagleton?

The British tradition? Oulipo? Dub? 20th Century tradition? European tradition? French? Canadian? In Canada all traditions are problematic. There is no universal tradition. As long as critics are picking and choosing from a grab bag of choices, a tradition of understanding will not occur.

Bad logic, as in: 'Canadian poetry looks inward; Canadian poetry is not read in the rest of the world; hence Canadian poetry should transform itself to be like the poetry of the rest of the world.' A that is repeatedly made. Nowhere does anyone question that international world. They should. It is unhealthy.

Class & privilege. Show me the contemporary middle-class north american poets who write poetry that acknowledges that the supports that allow it to exist within its academic and intellectual context are dependent upon some other, probably not middle class, kid killing other kids in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Quotation. Many poets and critics are quoting everywhere they go, quoting poets from 500 years ago as if the meaning of the text were the only meaning, as if the poem were not written in a particular context, out of a particular personal and universal history. Context matters, especially at the level at which one sits down to write, or at which one pulls out 'meaning'.

Aesthetics. The dominant aesthetic mode in North America is that of the contemplative act. In other parts of the world, it is not. If we don't negotiate this territory, any discussion of meaning is really a discussion of acceptable modes of meaning within the limits of a particular social group. Some will be affirmed. Others will be repressed.

Translation. Rilke gets quoted willy nilly, yet the Rilke is German is not the Rilke in English. Also, the translations are English or American. We are reading American poems, pretending they are German, and pretending that the language is Canadian. This wrecks havoc on the tradition, and on language. The comprehension of what words do in a poem gets lost. "Meaning" becomes a parlour game.

Bullying. One vocal critic has a review in which he trashes Musgrave. His business. That he does so by making an emotional statement, without evidence, and then using his emotional statement as a previously-proven brick in his argument is offensive.

Length. Magazines want short reviews.

Audience. Explaining the tradition to explain the subtleties of the poem is: Zzz.

Audience. An audience unaware of these issues finds them uninteresting. No 'meaning' transpires.

Audience. Different audience, different review. There is no universal. Let's talk about that.

Opinion. We live in the age of opinion. A whole day of the conference could be spent trying to find a path through that swamp.

Crap, as in "One has to wade through the crap." There are many bad books. How many enemies does one really want to make?

Ignorance. I've suffered through too many discussions of romanticism, presented as if the movement were an English phenomena without political and social roots and consequences on the continent. How can "meaning"ful discussions in a multicultural society take place without multicultural context?

Colonialism, as in: "In many parts of Canada, "Canadian Literature" is a force of colonialization."

Myth, such as: there are new and old Canadas with new and old poetries. There's one country, folks, with many traditions. If that's not the case, there is only the maintenance of the country by force. Do we want a Stalinist literature? Let's talk about that. I'll start: I don't.

Another is ... oh, I could go on all day. :-)

See what fun we could have?



Harold Rhenisch said...

That's just the thing, Diane.

There are many audiences, but no prescription works.




Bryan Sentes said...

Conrad: sigh: a most uncharitable glance at the Perloff piece: I will not defend in detail its argument or claims (see my earlier post re my usual relation to Perloff), suffice to say that it dares at least to distinguish between criticism and reviewing ("Grub Street and Ivory Tower"),a distinction (one of many) that needs be made if we are to THINK about his matter, not to mention she takes up concretely the claim (in the US anyway) that poetry reviewing has been disappearing. Her observations concerning the language of reviewing, that amateurishness will NOT do, is perhaps not unlaudable or unworthy of consideration, either, wot.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Bravo, Harold!

You're asking all the right questions. My favourite part:

"Length. Magazines want short reviews.

Audience. Explaining the tradition to explain the subtleties of the poem is: Zzz."

David Kosub said...

An interesting, if somewhat scattered discussion, guys. Thanks.

Diane, that critics "must strive for fairmindedness--clear, concise, intelligent, and balanced reporting' goes without saying, so I’m not quite sure what point you’re making.

While I've made my case, both in this week and last week's blog, as to why I believe poetry criticism is not what it could be, not just here in Canada but elsewhere, your case for why it is in good shape seems insufficient (your own contributions notwithstanding).

I'm even more curious about this "not just sophisticated audience" you're citing. Who are they? What do they read and why do they read it?
Bryan, the Marjorie Perloff piece was very good. Thank-you. I was struck by several things she said, not the least of which was that "poetic language is never simply unique, natural, and universal; it is the product, in large part, of particular social, historical, and cultural formations. And these formations demand study." It seems to fit in with the general agreement reflected in the comments made here today on the importance of context. More than that, though, it raises the bar in terms of what critics/reviewers should understand about the history of poetics before they set pen to paper.

Perloff also takes time to subject some reviewers’ remarks to a close reading (i.e. Harris’s review of Maxwell’s poetry), something I’ve endeavored to do in my blog entries this week and last. Commenting about the news media is a small cottage industry in the U.S. Why not put those who presume to write knowledgably about the work of poets to the same test?


Bryan Sentes said...

Damned tootin' Harold, thanks for scratching the hide of this beast!: "oh what fun we could have" were there world enough and time, and a place/space to seriously discuss these matters (why I made a point of meeting you when you were last down my neck of the woods)--Can't do it on a blog comment thread, really, for that would turn the blogger into a listserve moderator & listserves are too "noisy" and therefore dissipate any sustained conversation. Literary periodicals tend to be each too dogmatic to allow for the free range a serious critical discussion requires (think Arc and Open Letter). In any case, if criticism and reviewing might have a function over and above serving the culture industry or more perversely personal needs, it is an educational one, to culture what Whitman called that great audience for great poetry, never mind poetry at all (and who, really, wants to go back to Victorian days listening to the Pater Familias read Tennyson or John Greenleaf Whittier?)...

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I agree: listserves too noisy, Arc, Open Letter too exclusionary (I cringe at the thought of Frank Davey, once one of Canada's great 'otherstream' voices, turning as 'mainstream' as he has)

But a quality blog can do it, a site for real meaningful intelligent literary discussion: Silliman's proved it. Where's Canada's version of a Silliman-type blog? Would one be even possible?

I also applaud Henry Gould's "Plumbline School" blog to which I belong, posting my own posts directly from there and getting reactions/criticisms almost always instantly from other members (though lately it's been slow).

David's blog has potential to become a real forum for 'critical' (I emphasize 'critical')and informed discussion on the contemporary literary scene, or perhaps a place to discuss in- Canada issues only.David can perhaps invite bloggers to join his site (a la "Plumbline School") and get the discussions going!Who knows: something interestingly unexpected (like a markedly different vision of CanLit)can result from this in future.

Just a thought.

Bryan Sentes said...

Conrad: thanks for the nod to the Plumbline School blog, the kind of virtual space I didn't know one could set up so. As to Silliman's blog: does ANYONE discuss anything there? It's always struck me as a kind of clearing house of links as compendious as the man's books! It is as well fairly catholic and cosmopolitan, of course unavoidably Americanocentric, but often with Canadian (and other content), one of the virtues of the Web, it is a nation unto itself, in a way...Now if there were only a solution that "world enough and time" conundrum...

Diane Reid said...

"Give poetry critics their due," argued David, for they "could be doing something else." Point well taken.

Thanks for the Perloff link. I laughed my guts out when I read MP's take on "rural menace."

Yours truly (who works evenings in the hospitality industry)does her best to promote the craft we love. Perhaps others would do so with a little encouragement, a word of thanks.

Only poets read reviews? I'd argue otherwise. As Perloff points out, poetry still has cachet; people have gifts to buy; what's more, those with leisure time are often eager to learn more about what they may have ignored in school.

As David's reaction to the _Poetry_ piece affirms, reviews in literary journals as well as in the popular press can hurt, as much as help, the cause of poetry. It's disconcerting that lit mags would publish such drivel; Perloff evidently agrees.

My thoughts concerning Perloff's discussion: Helping non-professionals understand what's going on is vital--gives the reviewer credibility. Readers, buyers, writers, publishers: critics help them all. "Knowledge, equity, and candor" (Francis Brown)rightly remain the critic's chief tools.

Fenton's dismissal of Ashbery was uncalled for--says much about F's character. I'd decline an assigned interview if I felt a desire to trash it. That said, poets are experts in writing between the lines, no?

I'd argue with Perloff's "regressive Romanticism," her pooh-poohing of room-of-one's-own garden moments. She right, though, about bringing a "sense" history and theory to the critical table; that poetry's the product of particular times, places, cultures.

Poetry's cultural capital: Did any of you catch the Olympic Games opener?

To address each of your points:

(a) Conrad, my reply concerned criticism, not poetry. Self-serving? A harsh accusation on such little evidence. Use this Google entry: "Daily Gleaner" and "Diane Reid"; click on Pages from Canada. What's up is still making money for Canadaeast.

1. Jeramy Dodds 2. Wayne Clifford 3. Patricia Young 4. Kathy Mac (Fernwood entry); 5. James Langer (The Daily Gleaner Mobile entry).

The two Word articles (the Wayzgoose entry)are worth examining: I interview McKay and Compton, among others, on place.

McCluskey and Sawler? Novels. Google's link to Sawler is misleading, as you'll see if you click on it. A more complete publishing record for yours truly is located on the ProQuest database (access via any public or university library).

(b) Harold, audiences are composed of individuals. We address different eyes, ears, and other body parts according what the listener, reader/viewer brings to the text which, of course, varies from moment to moment.

The best "prescription" for engagement is variety (pitch, pace, colour. This brings me to your work. I've great affection for it. When will you be visiting Poets' Corner?

(c)David, critics need remember that someone's spilled tears, blood, maybe more in giving of themselves. Have we not seen reviews more about the reviewer than the work itself?


Please snip the following: I've not blogged before now, have GoogleMail only at work. Is your email option secure? May I send a photo by attachment? /dar


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