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.
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch, and was
faithful of days and faithful of
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
How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the
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?