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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

When poetry and criticism overlap (On Criticism #3)

written by the Judge. This article continues a series we started last year in December - here are links to part one and part two. Originally I meant to write a fourth and final part as well, but that one proved to be a bit hairy. It might resurface in the future, more likely in a different form. And I have no idea who Martin Lyell is.

We mentioned in our previous articles that there are two main agendas in criticism. In one of them, criticism functions as a consumer guide, informing the reader about the price, quality, category and nature of the object. Though this agenda informs, to a greater or lesser degree, reviews of almost everything, poetry criticism does not share in it at all.

The other main strand of criticism goes by the name of ‘cultural criticism’ (roughly, at least – I don’t want to start haggling with people about the precise definition and/or schools of ‘academic’ cultural criticism). This is the type of material you find in the more intellectual sites; in its purest instances, it shows no interest at all in the question of whether an item of representation is ‘good’ or not. Instead, it is dedicated to a process of analysis, breaking the text down into its constituent parts and revealing its many layers of signification. This is something very different from consumer guidance. In it, the critic is undertaking a process that the reader does not have the means, or perhaps the time, to do in person. The critic exposes him/herself to the work of art multiple times, absorbing it, looking at it in the light of different possible readings, and taking the time to research the history and references behind it; s/he is not simply reporting his/her response to the text (‘I enjoyed it’, ‘I found it boring’, etc.), but providing a new, contextualised and researched interpretation.

The primary role of this type of criticism is to extend the ideological discussion beyond the work of art itself. For many people, the experience of seeing a film ends when they walk out of the cinema. But for those with a deeper interest, engaging with a film means opening a discussion, one which is internal as much as it is social, and one which does not end after the first viewing, but rather furthers itself in many different platforms. It is, among other things, part of an ongoing desire to educate oneself.

None of this should come as some kind of novel or innovative description to anyone who knows a little bit about criticism, and it would probably not be worth writing an article about the ‘intellectual’ register were it not for the one thing that makes poetry criticism unique in this context. To put it concisely, the role of poetry criticism overlaps with that of poetry itself – more so than it does in any other art-form. What do I mean? Well, let us consider a few of the functions of intellectual criticism.

Criticism must educate the taste of the reader, not simply cater to it. It must give a voice to those who do not have one, and this includes any type of minority group; it must also point out instances in which they are being discriminated. It must make us aware of the agenda that lies behind a text, so that it must reveal both the dominant ideology and the language that said ideology uses to manipulate our preferences, choices and actions. It must provide the dispassionate perspective in a forum which may otherwise be steered by interest, money and power. Finally, it must bring our attention to smaller artists or works of art, which demonstrate promise and quality but do not have the means to promote themselves on their own.

With the exception of the very last line, everything that has been said of criticism could be said of poetry as well. Certainly much of it could be said of art in general, but it is especially true with poetry, which has a unique contiguity of form with its criticism. While film reviews are usually not made in film, and music reviews are not put down in song (though that would make for an interesting scenario), literature and literary criticism both express themselves through language. Novels are alike to their reviews in that they’re both predicated on language, but even then, the novel is essentially defined by a narrative – and that’s where it irreparably divorces itself from the review.

Poetry, by contrast, has – in purely formal terms – very much in common with criticism. In both cases, we are dealing with a compact expression of thought, communicated through language. Thus, anything that a poetry review can do, is also something that a poem can do. The opposite, however, does not hold true – though poetry already does everything that criticism can do, criticism most certainly cannot do all the things that poetry can do; and in this sense a poem can be much more than an expression of thought (it can also express, for example, emotions, values and beliefs).

From this point of view, the fact becomes of special interest that poetry is also the most self-referential of all arts. Contemporary poetry overflows with citations, paraphrase and intertextual objects coming from other poetry, both ancient and modern. In fact, often the game is precisely that of figuring out how a poet’s apparently simple statements are in reality a clever critique of other, more established modes of poetry (see the many modes and subtexts of love poetry).

In other words, to a certain extent poetry already reviews itself. This poses a convoluted challenge to the critic – how do you place your review in a discourse that is already reviewing itself? There is no straight answer (alas). A critic must always enter into a dialogue with the collection under scrutiny – and it is in every sense of the word a dialogue, in a way which, as we mentioned, no other art can replicate. But the best way to lead (and eventually report on) that dialogue is something that depends on the individual critic as well as the particular collection. It also depends on who you’re writing for and where your review is going to be published. Though this is not something I personally like to read in other people’s articles, I’ll have to say it – for this particular question, there is no right or wrong answer.

That said, although the challenges posed by the overlapping of poetry and criticism have no universal solution, there is also at least one way in which this idiosyncrasy helps us. Poetry and criticism are both responsible for providing social commentary; thus, poetry criticism is almost meta-criticism, inasmuch as it is an (ideally) socially engaged response to an (ideally) socially engaged response. This is helpful for a very simple reason: it means we can use some of the same standards when reading poetry that we usually apply to criticism.

You can say that a film is ‘entertaining’ or that a game is ‘fun’, but you wouldn’t really say such things of a good review (except perhaps hatchet jobs, but those are a special case). Instead, what seems to matter in a review is that it is informative and well-researched; those of an excellent review, that it challenges preconceptions and shows things in a new light, that it demonstrates an original, independent approach and that it is engaged with the world in which it takes place. All of those things should be true of a good poetry collection as well.

So, even though you may sometimes be a little put back by a collection’s ability to incorporate whatever argument you’re trying to make in your review, you can also use this to your advantage. If you are uncertain whether a given type of praise is adequate for a poetry book, run this little test. Ask yourself, ‘is this something that I would also say about a good piece of criticism?’ If the answer is no, as it would be for colourful but purely descriptive adjectives (this collection is ‘musical’, ‘scintillating’, ‘eclectic’, ‘sparkling’, ‘exciting’, etc.), then it might be a good idea to reconsider what type of argument you’re making.

This is not something that always and necessarily holds true, of course, and it’s not like those adjectives should be banned from reviews or anything. But it’s an amusing detail to be aware of, as it only really subsists in poetry criticism, and sometimes it can help to make things clearer: if you are building your review entirely on the descriptive terms, then you’re probably just writing film / game / music criticism that happens to be about a poetry collection. And this is something very different from genuine poetry criticism.

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