Don’t Call It a Comeback
I don’t want to use this space to address each point Kent Johnson makes. Some is wise common sense, wiser coming from Kent. Sure, criticism should be more ruthless and pitiless. “Fawning, toadyism” is part of Kent’s stinging characterization of today’s all pervasive, careerist variant of the-thing-itself. If the production of such alternative, “negative” criticism (in some “first appearance” sense) requires anonymous reviewing, ok; I think of Lana Turner, a journal I edit with Cal Bedient, as something like a forum for generous as well as honestly hostile reviews. I, too, like Kent think that Pessoa should be a challenge to our thought about contemporary poetry criticism. (A more relevant post-romantic and critical precursor for this discussion may actually be Robert Schumann’s journal of music criticism.) Criticism with respect to a verbal art has a different relation to its object than in film, art, or music criticism; words are not negotiating the incommensurability of another medium’s material form. Poetry criticism, as writing, is closer to the art itself in terms of its situation. This is not some incidental thing, nor is it an example of the impoverished social condition of poetry in our American peace. (Pound: “Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.”) Film criticism is not film, nor music criticism music, but criticism can effectively be literature, hence the other meaning of the appellation “literary” criticism.
Kent proposes the example of Peter Campion’s review of Jeff Clark as negative, and interesting, criticism,—and here we run into the problem of Kent’s conception of negative criticism (which I have to hyperbolize a touch); it is anything that doesn’t praise a work: a simple no, a dislike. Wild with ressentiment like so many of the reviews that hazarded a capture of Clark’s Music and Suicide, Peter Campion’s wrong-headed method (though he’s got a good liberal imperialist’s sense of metaphor) was wrong about the book. The latter is pardonable, the former less pardonable. Rather than address what I’ll suggestively call the history of an aesthetic mode in poetry, Campion merely dismissed the mode as such. Alas for Campion, Sun Ra will not be country rock. (Incidentally, Campion writes a warm bath verse of savory, sugary comfort, like Jason Guriel’s poetry, like most poetry published in widely distributed journals or magazines (APR, Poetry, Paris Review).) My point is simply that this type of skeptical criticism (ensnared in the bad opposites dislike and like) that Kent seems to propose recalls Hegel’s conception of abstract, empty, or “mere” negation. In an enigmatic passage of his Phenomenology, Hegel notably cautions, “the exposition of the untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative procedure.”
To this mere negation Hegel famously opposes a determinate negation, “one which has a content.” I take this to mean a critical method that negates a work by becoming the proper exegete—of the work’s untruth and truth, its ideology and aesthetic concept, respectively. This critic should grasp the immanent criterion of the development of an aesthetic mode as it crystallizes in a given new work; this task would make such a critic particularly sensitive to the emergence of developments within existing poetic forms and to the emergence of new modes of poetic activity. Ergo, even if I disagree with a critic’s standpoint or position, I should be able to recognize the work I’m looking at in the description; it should be clearly visible as the product of the art’s historical movement. In this way, polemics ensue as two interlocutors mutually apprehend and dispute the meaning of the historicity of a phenomenon. The hallmark of such a critical style is a certain type of ambiguity: seemingly prosaical restatement of the aims, formal contours, and possibilities of a work resembles a stingingly understated criticism.
Let’s suppose I’ve discussed what criticism is. What should poetry criticism do? I think this is the spirit of Kent’s letter. A passage from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory illustrates the essential point of the problem of indeterminacy in criticism with respect to what it should do:
This [the problem of indeterminacy in criticism] is obvious to artistic praxis, and theory should follow it much more closely than it has. Thus at a rehearsal the first violinist of a string quartet told a musician who was helping out, though himself not actively playing, to contribute whatever critique and suggestions occurred to him; each of these remarks, to the extent they were just, directed the progress of the work ultimately to the same point, to the correct performance.
The poet, the violinist who has briefly set the fiddle down, offers some form and motif comment crosscut with the depth of a “historicophilosophical theory of art.” This correct understanding of a work, the critical apprehension of a work, is the one offering both exegesis and new lines of action for the art in not only this instance, but the next instance, the future of the poet’s work. What should be aimed at is the unwritten poem of the poet, which is to say, criticism should encourage art’s own historical movement. In sum: when writing negative reviews, it helps to be correct, as the future of the art is at stake. Anyone writing criticism today might suppose what Barbara Guest did in her short, late poem, “Supposition”:
You are willing
to pass through the center
composed of independent poetics.
To rearrange rhyme,
while you gather its energy.
Read more responses here.