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American Poetry Critics and Literary Memory

The poetry critic of the New York Times, David Orr, gives us a capsule overview of “novelist-poets” in a July 20th article:


“The club of novelist-poets is distinguished but tiny. Thomas Hardy is the founding member, Herman Melville and D. H. Lawrence take turns at the reception desk, and loitering at the door are talented contemporary (or near-­contemporary) writers like James Dickey, Margaret Atwood and Denis Johnson.”


There are several things to note about that paragraph. It says a lot about Orr, and American literary criticism in general.

One: It is Anglophone. Thomas Hardy the “founding member”? Besides the fact that Melville lived before Hardy, shouldn’t we recall those benighted, non-Anglo 19th-century writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Victor Hugo? (I’m giving him a bye on Rabindranath Tagore and Vikram Seth; one can only demand so much.) The Anglophone bias is further evidenced by the exclusion, among “near-contemporaries,” of the late South American writer Roberto Bolano; this is doubly inexplicable, because Bolano has been getting a lot of press during the past half-decade in American literary circles. Which dovetails with the next point.

Two: Its sense of literary history is governed by contemporary literary fashion. (Or in Orr’s case, not even that, seeing as he excluded Bolano.) This is the underlying reason for the exclusion of Sir Walter Scott, author of the once-immensely-popular poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel as well as the Waverley novels like Ivanhoe. Similarly, Rudyard Kipling, the youngest Nobel Laureate for Literature in the prize’s history (he got it at age 42), isn’t very popular these days, mostly because of his politically incorrect views (which were a lot more complicated, by the way, than the pro-Empire jingoism which “post-colonial” scholars sometimes attribute to him). So Kipling doesn’t get a mention, but Hardy does. In fact, Hardy is the “founding member,” even though Melville antedates him—surely a poet-critic like Orr should have known better than to pursue this metaphor. I mean, it falls apart before the sentence is halfway done.

Ah yes, you’re saying, but he’s writing for the New York Times, he has limitations on column space, he can only be so comprehensive, so exhaustive in that format! Well, that leads us to point number three: It is timed to the publishing industry. Now, I have enough insight to realize that this blog post itself has been prompted by the publishing industry at one remove: a book of Nabokov’s poems get published, David Orr writes about it in the Times, and I write about David Orr writing about Nabokov’s book of poems.

In fact, the Times probably wouldn’t publish a freestanding essay about Nabokov’s poetry, prompted by nothing in particular; it will devote column space to it only if there is a new ware out there. It has no interest in literature, all of which exists, as Eliot once noted, simultaneously, in a kind of perpetual present-tense. It is interested in books. Fine. That is a noble interest, and the more people writing about poetry in major media outlets, the better. Really a poetry critic in the general-interest setting is is not trying to generate desire, the way advertisement does; he or she is notifying a small subset of readers who would be interested in that kind of thing that such-and-such a book is out there. Hence the very appropriate term “notice.” He is also giving it Prestige, which is the equivalent of both readers and money in the poetry world.

So the question is—is that the primary function of a critic? Most poets (and certainly most publishers) would say yes, reviewing one’s contemporaries and contemporary books of poetry, as Orr and his kind of critic do, is a major duty of the critic. Isn’t that what criticism is, fundamentally? Review-writing? Maybe write a longer-form discussion of contemporary poetry, like Orr’s own Beautiful and Pointless or Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense. Make sure it’s written “accessibly,” with a hey-it’s-not-that-scary, this-stuff-is-cool tone, even as you’re explaining to an indifferent public the abstruse conventions of a marginalized art form that has in some circles convinced itself of the artistic value of impenetrability. What else, what else? Maybe take some time to edit an anthology. Maybe write a book about a few select 20th-century English-language poets….

Helas moi! I have been spoiled by the likes of George Steiner and Northrop Frye. These are my synoptic critics, my historian-theologian-philosopher-critics, my grand investigators of the Grand Sweep of Literature, my broad-minded, polyglot literary thinkers. (Cf. the second essay about George Steiner to be published in KR, “George Steiner, Last of the Europeans,” forthcoming in the Fall 2012 print issue. This “essay” is actually…a review of Steiner’s latest book, The Poetry of Thought. You see I am a creature of the times. Do I condemn myself? Very well, I condemn myself.)

Anyway, after I can’t go back to these well-meaning public faces of poetry criticism, these day-traders of literary reputations, these columnists. (As a side note, Steiner wrote a prodigious number of reviews for The New Yorker—but he was, as the author of After Babel, Real Presences, and a dozen other mind-blowing volumes, so much more than a reviewer. He was a literary thinker first, a commentator on the literary scene second. With most contemporary American critics, their literary thought arises out of their commentary. The Platonic Form from which this kind of “critic” derives is Ron Silliman.)

All is not lost. My hope for the future of American literary criticism is a younger critic named Adam Kirsch, who is more than just the sum of his tastes. He does some excellent thinking on Darwinian aestheticians at The New Republic—he is a book reviewer feeling his way back, steadily, to the tradition of old-school, synoptic literary thinker. He has very few models for this in his own generation or the generation between his and Steiner’s. Steiner himself turned a gajillion years old this year, and may the Muse of Criticism (who is also the mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne) bless him with a gajillion more.