The Oxford English Dictionary says – it’s the first definition for the word – that criticism is “the action of criticizing, or passing judgment upon the qualities or merits of anything: esp. the passing of unfavorable judgment; fault-finding, censure.” Q.E.D. Just kidding, it’s the second entry we’re talking about: “the art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic.” Very hedging. But its earliest citation for the word in this sense is Dryden’s remarking in 1674 that criticism, “as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant a standard of judging well; the chiefest part of which is, to observe those excellencies which should delight a reasonable reader.” So on the authority of Aristotle and Dryden and the OED, one could build a case for positive criticism. (What remains unclear, however, is the definition – nowhere to be found – of “reasonable reader.”) There’s a later citation from Matthew Arnold, who felt bound by his own definition of criticism: “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Score another point for positive criticism! There’s a more sanguine citation from Dowden: “to see things as they are, without partiality, without obtrusion of personal liking or disliking.” Sounds good – but who believes in such things as impartiality anymore? Who’d want to read criticism devoid of personal opinion?
I’m not a reasonable reader by profession, though I try to be in my spare time. As one of the editors behind the review that occasioned this roundtable, I’ll say upfront that we never know what a writer will say about a book until we read the finished piece; we don’t tell writers how to do their jobs. Like most readers, however, we’re tired of bland single-book reviews that are what Derek Walcott once called “oatmeal” – namby-pamby writing that’s supposed to be good for you, goes down easy, offends no one, and reiterates things that have been said before. It doesn’t follow that we prefer a negative piece; we’d rather have a piece that, whatever opinion it expresses, is well written. That said, a well-expressed negative opinion does have the advantage of eliciting one’s own opinion in return. (And we seldom get responses when we publish a positive review.) Joel Brouwer adds a useful caveat in an upcoming piece for Poetry: “A critic must be confident. But when his confidence hardens into certainty, he begins to constrict thought – his own and ours – rather than expand it, which is his job.” In any case, Guriel’s “necessary skepticism” isn’t the same thing as what Kent lauds as “derisive fare” – one can be skeptical without being derisive. So is Kent arguing that Guriel’s piece should have been less “decorous” and more derisive? What if Guriel is “curmudgeonly” but not really “satirical?” I don’t think such adjectives will do. Every critic reaches for a style, and readers will judge the value and success of the result. Beyond questions of style, “taunting and lampooning” doesn’t quite constitute “criticism,” salutary as those things may be.
More importantly: are we conflating two distinct genres here? Many people apparently think that criticism and reviews are the same thing, but I don’t: I’d call Craig Morgan Teicher a reviewer and Herb Leibowitz a critic. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and New Pages publish book reviews; New York Review of Books, Parnassus, and Essays in Criticism publish criticism. One isn’t better than the other, but they’re different. Critics shouldn’t be timid or obsequious; reviewers often are. So what exactly is the true “mode of criticism,” to use Kent’s phrase? Who should work in that mode? We’ll need to think harder about the difference between critics and (I can’t assent to the over-used expression “poet-critic”) poets-who-write-criticism. Kent suggests, with good reason, that the latter can be careerist sycophants, but this hasn’t been true of, say, Eliot, Jarrell, Geoffrey Hill, or William Logan, love him or leave him – so there’s hope.
Kent proposes a “substantially independent field of criticism” to “shadow” poetry. We do have an independent field of critics: readers! But what he means, of course, is a distinct discipline obligated only to itself. So this proposed field would consist of literary experts – the analogues of his Consumer Reports ladder-testers – rather than those for whom poems are actually intended: only the critics can criticize! Well, who would train and certify these experts? If there were a field of critics, we’d be back to careerist sycophants in no time! Kent consequently proposes that major publications (we can debate about the definition of major) revive the practice of unsigned reviews. But common sense tells us that it’s worth knowing who’s judging whom. The notorious (but accurate) Prof. Hale of Chicago famously denounced Pound’s Propertius as a bad translation – but it was important to know that he was a classicist. Anonymity weakens debate (as blog comments demonstrate), and is inevitably the refuge of scoundrels – that’s why the TLS and others quit the practice. As Samuel Johnson remarked, “every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick” – and no other name, if we take up Kent’s proposal. Also, I disagree that it could be “the job of editors” to guard against temptation and corruption among the unsigned: what guarantees that editors have more integrity than anybody else? I just can’t imagine a “self-censoring body of poetry criticism.” Instead, we’ll just have to rely on writers we get to know by name – and readers who are willing to differ reasonably with them. (At Poetry, readers are invited to argufy both in the magazine’s back-of-the-book pages and, as Kent has done, on our blog, Harriet.)
Maybe this is not an age of poetry criticism. These days, if you want to say something bad about someone, just hang the albatross of “New Critic” round his or her neck. Yet there was a time when poets – Pound, Eliot, Jarrell, Berryman, Schwartz, Ransom, Tate, Winters (and before them, Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson and others) – took on the burden of writing criticism as if the art depended upon it. That epoch possibly ended back when the twentieth century did. Partly it’s because greatness and authority have been discredited (OK, good riddance!), but it’s also because few who mentor younger poets convince them to write criticism – or set an example by doing so themselves. For the most part, critical writing has been outpaced by the kind of prose that goes up on blogs, and by the daily-dish chatter that gets vacuumed into interviews, memes, and other instruments of the intellectual shortcut. I love blogs, tweets, and my Facebook friends, myself, and don’t want to return to the musty uncut pages of the past. But if the age doesn’t demand excellence in criticism and reviews then heck, there won’t be any. And that excellence requires the skills, finely honed, of having, documenting, and articulating an opinion – positive or negative.
Read more responses here.