William Meredith

The Reason for Criticism

Poetry Consultant's Annual Address, delivered at the Library of Congress, May 5, 1980. First published by the Library of Congress, 1982.

        I see the chief similarity between criticism and poetry as this: they are truest to themselves when their impulse is generous and catholic. If poetry is accurate praise, then criticism should aspire to be accurate praise of praise. The second part of this essay will introduce three of my own poems, in an immodest attempt to show a similarity between the two forms of praise. It will be anecdotal, when it is not downright chatty.
        Long before Randall Jarrell had condemned our age, in an essay of that name, as "The Age of Criticism," Robert Frost had said he never read criticism. His remark is reminiscent of a story from New Hampshire that dates from the early days of television. There's a little village in northern New Hampshire which I believe still closes its ballot booth early so that it can attract national attention as the first township to record presidential returns. In the first election after we had visible reporters, an NBC correspondent traveled there to walk the morning streets and interview citizens. The well-prepared reporter stopped an old lady and asked her if she would be willing to tell the TV audience how she had voted. He gave her and the viewers a little civics lesson, telling her that he knew the privacy of the ballot was a sacred thing, nowhere more jealously guarded than in New England, etc. The encounter seemed to puzzle the old lady, so that the question, along with the sententious democracy, had to be repeated. Then she said sharply, "Oh, I never vote. It only encourages them."
        I'm afraid Frost's refusal to read criticism bespoke the same exasperated irresponsibility. He once said that his idea of good criticism would be for two intelligent friends to sit to¨gether over a good book-it was Milton's Comus he gave as an example-and let the first reader point to a couple of lines and then pass the book to the second. This friend would read the passage over until he could, with conviction, nod. Then he would find another line or two that were similarly fraught for him, and pass the book back. Thus what had been said with genius would be partaken among intelligence.
        I take the meaning of this dry parable to be: what can be marveled at in a work of art is marvelous in its own terms, and that in the manner of Calvinism, either one marvels or one is cast out from marveling. Art resists criticism in the same way' it resists paraphrase. Thus Flannery O'Conner wrote, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way.       When somebody asks you what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story." The critic, Frost and O'Conner seem to be saying, can only point to a poem or story, or to a crucial passage in the poem or story. But many critics are like boring hosts who describe their self¨explanatory travel pictures, standing the while between us and the screen or perhaps even between the projector and the screen. It becomes clear that what they are really pointing at is themselves.
        "Criticism does exist, doesn't it," Randall Jarrell asks, as if to reassure himself that he is among reasonable people, "for the sake of the plays and stories and poems it criticizes?" And making the same assumption in The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden goes on to tell how the critic can hope to serve the work he addresses:

        What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he
can do me one or more of the following services:
        1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hith¨erto unaware.
        2) Convince me I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
        3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I should never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
(This third function is abashing. Few of us are comfortable traversing the mythical desert of Wystan Hugh Auden's ignorance.)
        4) Give a "reading" of a work which increases my under¨standing of it.
        5) Throw light upon the pracess af artistic "Making."
        6) Throw light upon the relatian of art to life, to science, to economics, religion, etc.
         I have come to love this intimidating definition of criticism because it assumes that the critic and his reader, whatever their inequalities, are both looking at the work as if it were I more interesting than themselves. This is the way I believe an artist looks at his work while he is creating it, and the critical insight is bound to profit from approaching the work in the same spirit. One would be embarrassed to say anything so obvious if one were not continually embarrassed by the vanity of criticism.
         In the same essay, Auden writes:

        "If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist has to learn to. be humble in the face of his subject matter which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier to say-"Life is more important than anything I can say about it" than to say-"Mr. A's work is more important than anything I can say about it."
        Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
        The injunction "Resist not evil but overcame evil with good" may in many spheres of life be impossible to obey literally, but in the sphere of art it is common sense. Bad art is always with us, but any given work of art is bad in a period way; the particu¨lar kind of badness it exhibits will pass away and be succeeded by some other kind. It is unnecessary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. . . . The only sensible procedure for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning for those he believes to be good, especially if they are being neglected or underestimated by the public. . . .
        Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.

        The only time Robert Frost spoke to me about my poems was at a luncheon in the dining room of the Westbury Hotel in New York, where neither of us was at home, between (his) trains. What he said was something like this.
        "Your poems are all right, I guess. But you may be getting tired of talking about yourself. It might be a good idea to look at some dramatic poems. There's not enough of that around now. You might want to look at Browning's monologues again, and some of Tennyson's, some of Robinson's. Maybe some of mine. Some things you can say better if you can get someone else to say them for you."
        I'd 'heard him say on another occasion, when someone had mistaken "The Road Not Taken" for a self-portrait, that that poem had been written to tea,se his shy and indecisive friend Edward Thomas. "Can you imagine me saying anything with a sigh?"
        And once he said, about "Mending Wall," that the neighbor farmer who says "Good fences make good neighbors"-that that character rather than the first person speaker was himself. "When I say me in a poem, it's someone else. When I say! somebody else, it might be me."
        "Everything written is as good as it is dramatic," he wrote in the introduction to his not'very dramatic A Way Out, the little one-act play he never allowed to be reprinted.
        Soon after our unlikely luncheon-I'm trying to suggest that the Westbury is excessively couth in ways neither of us aspired to-I was working on a poem about atoms. I had been sitting in on a freshman astronomy class, and Robert Bless, the very bright instructor, had said, simply in passing, that it was fortunate for the human animal that we had been fash¨ioned to the scale we were. If we had been only a thousand times larger, we would be able to triangulate, with our wide¨spaced eyes, and would have known from the start, by looking at the stars, that we were insignificant to an unnerving degree. On the other hand, if we'd been made a thousand times smaller, we would be able to see one another's pulsing atomic structure, which might have caused interpersonal mistrust even greater than at present.
        Well, I was manipulating this data as it affected intelligent, interesting, sensitive, and charming me, and the muse was not warming to our subject. It must have been in an exasperated attempt to use Frost's advice that I gave the poem away. I gave it to a fourteen-year-old high-school student, approximately one-third my then age. I put him in Beloit, Wisconsin, where I'd once spent a night. And I made him black. These three mystifications seem to have enabled me to dramatize a mystery which, in my own character, I was only managing to explain away. This is the poem.

                Walter Jenks' Bath
These are my legs. I don't have to tell them, legs, Move up and down or which leg. They are black. They are made of atoms like everything else,
Miss Berman says. That's the green ceiling
Which on top is the Robinson's brown floor.
This is Beloit, this is my family's bathroom on the world. The ceiling is atoms, too, little parts running
Too fast to see. But through them running fast,
Through Audrey Robinson's floor and tub
And the roof and air, if I lived on an atom
Instead of on the world, I would see space.
Through all the little parts, I would see into space.
Outside the air it is all black. ,
The far apart stars run and shine, no one has to tell them,
Stars, run and shine, or the same who tells my atoms
Run and knock so Walter Jenks, me, will stay hard and real.
And when I stop the atoms go on knocking,
Even if I died the parts would go on spinning,
Alone, like the far stars, not knowing it,
        Not knowing they are far apart, or running, Or minding the black distances between. This is me knowing, this is what I know.

        Robert Frost was generous to me in a number of ways. When the biographical pendulum swings, he will be known for quite a different man than the present vogue for monsters has conjured up. But "Walter Jenks' Bath" was a critical gift from Frost, a poem his critical insight had enabled me to find.
        He turned to me once when I was traveling to California with him-turned on me, if I wanted to read the body lan¨guage with which he delivered the question-and asked, in no context whatever, "You're not going to write about me, are you?" I replied defensively, as I do now, "Only to correct error, Robert."
        Here's an egregious piece of error-out of the herd, as egregious used to mean-of ungenerous criticism that's been roaming the literary savannahs since Frost died. Before I of¨fer it, let me quote civilized Randall Jarrell again, who inciden¨tally wrote some permanently useful appreciation of Frost. In the first paragraph of what he terms his complaint against the age of criticism, he said: "I will try to spare other people's [feelings] by using no names at all." I too refrain from identify¨ing the ill-tempered remarks I'm going to quote. Yet it's inter¨esting how Jarrell manages to call names anonymously, as it were. His language seems to rant ad hominem when he levels certain charges:

       Item: "A great deal of this criticism. . . is not only bad or mediocre, it is dull; it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humorless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodi¨cal, self-important, cliche-ridden, prestige-obsessed, almost autonomous criticism."
       Item: (Speaking of the way critics look down on the literary insights of creative artists) "In the same way, if a pig wandered up to you during a bacon-judging contest, you would say impa¨tiently, 'Go away, pig! What do you know about bacon?' "

       Item: "Many critics are bad, I think, because they have spent their life in card-indexes. . . . If works of art were about card-indexes the critic could prepare himself for them in this way, but as it is he cannot."
       We need this kind of name-calling, where error is turned. into allegorical drama. In quoting the two critical lapses, the two dreadful pieces of slanderous criticism, below, I hope readers will take them as allegories of the character any of us can become when he tries to write of that which he cannot praise.
        The criticism is followed immediately by my poem, which', intends a kind of appreciation of Frost's life and work. Both address the charge of lying. I maintain that in his life and work Frost understood that telling the truth is the difficult name of both games, life and poetry:

        It is not that Frost was cold, that he was a tyrant as well as a coward, that he could no more forgive a generous than a selfish act (the former a judgment, the latter a threat), that he treated his friends as if they were enemies and his enemies as if they were himself. No. The shock is that he was from start to finish, and in nearly.every aspect of his life, a successful liar. Exposures which to other men might have been the moral lesson and warning of a lifetime were to Frost merely hints that he ought to refine his tactics. To him, age brought only a new birth of vanity, new interests to protect, a thou¨sand new reasons for hoarding all the old deceptions. This makes him terrifying.
        Along with Whitman, Dickinson and Stevens, Frost has a place among the greatest of American writers. We know some¨thing about the lives of all these poets and they were all isolated souls, Dickinson was fierce in her detachment, Whitman trou¨bled by it, Stevens at perfect ease. Frost is really in a different class: a more hateful human being cannot have lived who wrote words that moved other human beings to tears. Filled with hate, and worth hating: after reading these three careful volumes, one feels that to stand in the same room with a man about whom one knew a quarter of the things one now knows about Frost would be more than one could bear.

                In Memory of Robert Frost
Everyone had to know something, and what they said
About that, the thing they'd learned by curious heart,
They said well.
        That was what he wanted to hear,
Something you had done too exactly for words,
Maybe, but too exactly to lie about either.
Compared to such talk, most conversation
Is inadvertent, low-keyed lying.

If he walked in fear of anything, later on
(Except death, which he died with a healthy fear of)
It was that he wouid miss peak himself. Even his smile
He administered with some care, accurately.
You could not put words in his mouth
And when you quoted him in his presence
There was no chance that he would not contradict you.
Then there were apparent samenesses he would. not
Be deceived by. The presidents of things,
Or teachers, braggarts, poets
Might offer themselves in stereotype
.But he would insist on paying attention
Until you at least told him an interesting lie.
(That was perhaps your field of special knowledge?)
The only reason to lie, he said, was for a purpose:
To get something you wanted that bad.

I told him a couple-to amuse him,
To get something I wanted, his attention?
More likely, respite from that blinding attention,
More likely, a friendship
I felt I could only get by stealing.
What little I'd learned about flying
Must have sweated my language lean. I'd respect you
For that if for nothing else
, he said not smiling
The time I told him, thirty-two night landings On a carrier, or thirty-two night catapult shots-
Whatever it was, true, something I knew.

        For more than six years I have been writing about Edward John Trelawny, the friend of Shelley and Byron who met those two men near to the time of their tragic deaths, and was associated with both of them even in death. He was an outsize and attractively outrageous man, and probably only the fact that I managed to survive, in character, a friendship with Frost emboldens me to keep Trelawny for an imaginary play¨mate. Before I am done, I want to do a series of poems about him and about his acquaintances there in Italy and Greece in' the 1820s. I have come to like and believe him. I believe he tells by and large generous truths about Shelley and Byron, the former of whom he idolized, the latter of whom he saw plain. That this is temporarily an unfashionable position will be made clear by the following quotation from a review of a recent biography of Trelawny:

        "Lies, lies, lies!" Edward Trelawny in his later years would shout when anyone else attempted conversation in his pres¨ence; and the widespread delusion that anyone really rude must be sincere gained him in his own day a reputation as a daring exposer of other people's pretences and hypocrisies. Most of his earlier biographers have swallowed whole his own unconscionable lies about his life story and his relations with Byron and Shelley. William St. Clair, in his new biography Trelawny: The Incurable Romancer, has not been taken in by his subject. He coolly demonstrates that Trelawny never became a picturesque corsair, but spent his whole time at sea as a suUen and unsuccessful midshipmen, never winning promotion in spite of his family influence, even in a period when other men could become commanders at eighteen. He shows that it was Trelawny's inept design of an unseaworthy boat that caused Shelley's death, and that Trelawny's much boasted intimacy with Shelley actually lasted only six months, and with Byron only eighteen months, and that many of his anecdotes about them are demonstrably untrue. He deflates Trelawny's only real-life romantic adventure, in which, by unerringly attaching himself to the most ruffianly and treacherous of the Greek guerrillas, Trelawny condemned himself to an inglorious part in the Greek War of Independence, and ended up with a shot in the back from a man whom he ought to have been shrewd enough to suspect.

        The Trelawny who emerges from this biography is rude, dirty, violent, revengeful, boastful, self-absorbed and totally untruthful; a resentful son, an unkind husband, a callous father, an untrustworthy friend, a rebel only because he hated authority, not because he had any genuine ideals or love of. repressed humanity. . . .
        For historians and biographers, the only useful thing to know about this odious man is that he knew two great poets and was a liar, so that what he says about them is untrustworthy.
        It is to Auden that most of us are indebted for the apropos thing C. G. Lichtenberg, otherwise an unread author to me, said. C. G. Lichtenberg said, "A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out."
        My poem seems to intend another, and I think a more accurate, account of Trelawny.

                Trelawny's Dream

The dark illumination of a storm
and water-noise, chuckling along the hull
as the craft runs tight before it.
Sometimes Shelley's laughter wakes me here,
unafraid, as he was the day he dove
into water for the first time, a wooded pool
on the Arno, and lay like a conger eel
on the bottom-"where truth lies," he said¨until I hauled him up.

But oftener the dream insists on all,
insists on retelling all.
                        Ned Williams is the first
to see the peril of the squall. His shout
to lower sail scares the deck-boy wide-eyed
and cuts off Shelley's watery merriment.
The big wind strokes the cat-boat like a kitten.
Riding the slate-grey hillocks, she is dragged
by the jib Ned Williams leaves to keep her head.
The kitten knows the wind is a madman's hand
and the bay a madman's lap:
As she scuds helpless, only the cockney boy
Charles Vivian and I, a dreamer and a child,
see the felucca loom abeam. Her wet lateen
ballooning in the squall, she cuts across
wind and seas. ia a wild tack, she is on us.
The beaked prow wrenches the little cabin
from the deck, tosses the poet slowly to the air--
he pockets his book, he waves to' me and smiles--
then to his opposite element,
light going into darkness, gold into lead.
The felucca veers and passes, a glimpse of a face
sly with horror on her deck. I watch our brave
sailor boy stifle his cry of knowledge
as the boat takes fatal water, then Ned's stricken face,
scanning the basalt waves
for what will never be seen again except in dreams,

All this was a long time ago, I remember.
None of them was drowned except me
whom a commotion of years washes over.
They hail me from the dream, they call an old man
to come aboard, these youths on an azure. bay.
The waters may keep the dead, as the earth may,
and fire and air. But dream is my element.
Though I am still a strong swimmer
I can feel this channel widen as I swim.

        I have intruded these last two poems because I think they make the point that even very impressionistic and oblique praise can enlighten a subject critically more effectively than the most attentive destructive act. It is interesting that the two reviewers I have quoted were both talking, in the quotations, not about the biography purporting to be under review but instead are reviewing the lives of the dead men.
        To be sure, the critic has responsibility to define and identify excellence, and this implies comparative judgments. These, too, are useful in proportion as they are generous. Comparison can be constructive. I will conclude with a paragraph of Jarrell's, where he wants to praise Whitman's genius for free verse, and to compare it with the limiting conventional prosody of one of Whitman's greatest contemporaries, Tennyson. Note the respect and affection-which amounts to praise-for Ten¨nyson that emerges from this nice comparison, intended only for the aggrandizement of Whitman. Jarrell has been quoting the "Song of Myself":

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship,       and Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was
       faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalked in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, we
       will not desert you;
How he follow'd with them and tack'd with them three days
       and would not give it up, How he saved the drifting company at last, How the lank loose-gown'd women looked when boated from
        the side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the
        sharp-lipp'd unshaved men; All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it        well, it becomes mine, I am the man, I suffered, I was there.

        In the last lines of this quotation Whitman has reached--as great writers always reach--a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd: these lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything that one can find to say about them. How anyone can dismiss or accept patronizingly the man who wrote them, I do not understand.
        The enormous and apparent advantages of form, of omission and selection, of the highest degree of organization, are accompanied by important disadvantages-and there are far greater works than Leaves of Grass to make us realize this. But if we compare Whitman with that very beautiful poet Alfred Tennyson, the most skillful of all Whitman's contemporaries, we are at once aware how much Tennyson has had to leave out, even in those discursive poems where he is trying to put everything in. Whitman's poems represent his world and himse much more satisfactorily than Tennyson's do his. In the past a few poets have both formed and represented, each in the highest degree; but in modern times what controlling, organizing, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman's, a world that so plainly is the world?