The Death Of Literary Criticism

Introduction: An Anecdote


A thousand years ago, or so it seems, when I was completing my tertiary education at Exeter, a cautionary tale was given to candidates sitting Finals in English. There had been a student, they were warned, who'd wrecked his chances by a wanton display of honesty. The examination paper had asked for the usual critical assessments of the literary figures then in vogue. Everyone knew that these assessments, however individually expressed, would be material regurgitated from the respected books, papers and studies that an undergraduate would have read as his tutor directed. Everyone knew what this material was, and where it came from. And everyone knew that the material had its strengths and weaknesses, which the student should understand and indicate. But, unfortunately, this student, our latter-day scholar gypsy, instead of incorporating the material in cogent essays of his own, simply jotted down the references that applied — author, title, date and summary — and added a connecting thread of argument. Do not follow his example, the candidates were told. The man was failed.

Of course appearances had to be kept up. Nor were original views expected of undergraduates, since these were unlikely to be penetrating or soundly based, and so would only muddy the water. Like all academic subjects, English had an accepted body of knowledge, and a preferred method of extending that knowledge. A long apprenticeship in scholarship, through a PhD and then modest submissions to learned, peer-reviewed journals, was the way to go, and would indeed be scrutinized at each application for employment.

The Literary Article Today


These thoughts have been with me when reading the exceptionally useful material that readers may like to consult for themselves on Academia.edu. {1} I started with Terry Eagleton's How To Read a Poem, {2} by no means a simple or introductory work. And perhaps not even a usual one these days. Under the opening chapter, entitled The End Of Criticism, Professor Eagleton explains:

'I first thought of writing this book when I realised that hardly any of the students of literature I encountered these days practised what I myself had been trained to regard as literary criticism. Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art. Since many of these students are bright and capable enough, the fault would seem to lie largely with their teachers. The truth is that quite a few teachers of literature nowadays do not practise literary criticism either, since they, in turn, were never taught to do so.'

(For readers wanting more, I should add that, after analysing as introduction a popular Auden poem, Professor Eagleton goes on to assert, 'I have argued that literary theorists may safely plead not guilty to the charge of having sabotaged literary criticism'. But that's not the charge, I suggest, but rather that modern critical theory does not illuminate poetry in any helpful way. So while Professor Eagleton certainly applies close-reading throughout the book, the sensibility remains that of the academic and not the practitioner or poetry lover. Each poem's diction is placed in its socio-historic settings exceptionally well, but the readings don't generally reach into the beating heart of the poem, to what really counts.)

But, continuing our theme, that dearth of literary criticism seems borne out by papers and articles on Academia.edu, even those hailing from earlier times. Some papers are purely factual — the correspondence between leading poets, the social movements of the times, the scattered bibliography of non-English poets — not riveting material but often essential to proper understanding.  But the remainder is not generally literary criticism. Nor is it critical theory proper, an assessment of theory from larger viewpoints or disciplines. What the papers generally do is take for granted the status of leading names, poets and theoreticians, and then write deft, intriguing and carefully attributed accounts that weave in critical theory and poetry texts into a coherent and engaging whole (much as contemporary poetry itself is inclined to do).

Let me give an example: Matthew Hall's J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic as it appears on the Academia.edu site. {3} The paper is intricately written, and starts with a brief history of Postmodernism, which places Prynne in context. Then, to give a flavour of its style, come the following, densely-written lines, to which I add the bracketed explication, summary or query. The numbers refer to Hall's extensive references:

'Prynne's lexical, historical, scientific, philosophic and poetic references add to the obfuscation of a singular identity within the poem. (Wide reference prevents any single meaning being drawn from the poem.)
 
The proposition of reading a text with this multifaceted complexity forces the reader into a structural analysis of history, time, etymology, transcendental philosophy, prosody and the overlaying sources which compromise the authority of the written text. (The multifaceted types of references have to be analysed).

Each of Prynne's poems resist cohesive exaction and align themselves within the possibilities of expression. 5 (These references in Prynne's poems cannot be extracted as a fully coherent statement but only one of possible directions).

The Marxist literary theorist and Cambridge Lecturer Drew Milne establishes the reading of Prynne within a definitive framework designed to extol implicit expressions of knowledge, as well as to enable the communication of tacit knowledge presented within the poem. (Reading the poems is controlled by implicit structures and understandings).

Regarding Prynne's poetic works, he writes: Language is understood as a condition of possibility rather than a site of communicative action. (Language is a possibility rather than a sure means of communication.)

 The decisive issue is whether the recognition of expressive contradictions can mediate its inclusion within determinate structures of communication and not remain trapped within the fundamental presuppositions of language which encode experience. (Can the structures of language, where the presuppositions encode experience, allow such contradictions of expression? In short, can Prynne's contradictions still communicate?)

Prynne's late-modernist writing places itself at the cusp of transgressional traditional representations of knowledge and creates from the poem an open field of inquiry. (Prynne's poetry spearheaded such breaks with tradition, and made poems an open field of enquiry i.e. they do not 'close' on any particular meaning.)

Adorno states that: 'form [is] the sediment of content'; (N.B: this has to be seen in context: Adorno notes how often myth and irrationality have controlled the western narrative, and that these past 'forms' will persist to influence the future. {4})

and in a separate argument that, 'form seeks to bring the particular to speech through the whole'. 6 (Adorno regards authentic works of (modern) art as social monads. The unavoidable tensions within them express unavoidable conflicts within the larger sociohistorical process from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist's struggle with sociohistorically laden materials, and they call forth conflicting interpretations, many of which misread either the work-internal tensions or their connection to conflicts in society as a whole. Adorno sees all of these tensions and conflicts as "contradictions" to be worked through and eventually to be resolved.{4})

 These statements replicate Olson and Creely's thought, that 'form is never more than an extension of content, (As the earlier, breath-based, open-form Black Mountain School of Poetry asserted.)

 and thereby an examination of this form can produce meaning. 7 (If of course the previous assertion holds, i.e. we forget that the Black Mountain School was a largely abortive experiment.)

And so on for several pages. But once the convoluted expression is straightened out, Hall's interpretations of Prynne's work become perfectly sensible. These are not controversial positions among Postmodernists who believe art is inextricably bound up with the larger issues of society.

The same paper is much simpler written on the Australian site.  {4} Again Prynne is placed in context, but with more biographic and bibliographic detail. But we still get such things as:

'A typical characteristic of a Prynne poem contextualises the subjective in a fragmented form and strands him at the periphery of the communicative framework. Prynne forces subjective instances of remembrance and communication towards indeterminacy. Late-modernist poetics represent a resistance to the singular expression of the self, which is based on a denial of  early modernist narrative traditions. . . The overlay of images and thoughts preclude the reading of a consistent series of ideas and forces the reader to dissect frameworks of definition so as to make cognisant the tacit knowledge of the poem. The overlaying matrices of information which typify the formal structure of Prynne's poetry signal the necessity of connecting each word's outlying referential sources to breach the meaning of language as it is used within the poem. The poetic images of Prynne can, if not fully, be partially unveiled through unearthing the sequences of the naturally occurring interconnections and polyvalent elements in such images.'

Which is probably being said is that 1. Prynne fragments the poet's utterances, making expression and memory into indeterminate things. 2. In this way, late Postmodernism reverses the Modernist pre-eminence of the author. 3. The play of thoughts and images preclude any consistent reading. 4. The reader nonetheless tries to make sense of these thoughts and images, constructing ways in which they could be true, and these ways, or structures, are in some sense what the poem is about. 5. The individual words nonetheless retain some of their usual references (i.e. meaning), and these references disrupt our sense of the poem's overall meaning. Nonetheless, 6. Prynne's poetic images can be broadly grasped by understanding the often complex ways these images function outside the poem in everyday use.

Again, put in plain English, the interpretation is not outlandish, but we do need to see examples of these features to check that we are understanding Hall's comments properly. Unfortunately, as is often the case with more challenging Postmodernist exposition, such examples aren't given, anywhere in the paper, so that matters remain theoretical.

But Hall does urge us to work hard on Prynne's poetry, adding: 'The reader is given the task of establishing an influential portion of the text, and uncovering the references codified and coexisting within their reading of the poem and the contextual, socio-historical references which constitute and define the object of study. 9 It is my obvious contention that to begin to understand Prynne, one needs to work at it, with some rigour: assiduously reading and rereading lines, words and phrases until units of coherence start to form. Readers should be asked to side with Reeve and Kerridge, who ask us to 'read on, beyond the sense of impasse' 10 and expect moments of severe frustration as ideal and even necessary.'

Again, surely, Hall will provide an example that does indeed succeed in identifying a meaning or meanings beyond the initial frustrations. But again no, we're only given the Reeve and Kerridge reference (N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, Nearly Too Much : The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 1995), which (in the one chapter available as Google books, Lyricism) {5} spins out the significance into exceptionally wide readings in the European tradition. The poem discussed, The Wound, Day and Night, taken from Prynne's 1969 The White Stones, is an attractive one, indeed beautiful, but also one that, alas, shows Prynne has no intellectual grasp whatever of his geological material. The poet is singing about what he doesn't understand. Moreover, even on the mundane textual level, it should be noted, Tim Love finds problems with the simple logic of poems and exposition. {6}.

But suppose we put these difficulties aside, and continue with the paper. Section II starts:
 

'The incursion of patterns of travel, trekking, and nomadological pathways invariably register with the reader in reference to Odysseus, Dante, and Gilgamesh, but there are also numerous instances in which this work should be read against modern mythological and epical works. Prynne's nomadic poetry and the sense of exile it imbues in the reader establishes the poems as resting points or contingent moments of thought and reflection. These poems act as a gathering place for a personal assessment of concepts of distance, loss, and the desire to return home.'

This is a large claim. Because Prynne references a wide range of material, the poems take on an epic character. But do they? Critical ingenuity may find all kinds of allusions and references, but an epic poem is more than neat weaving together of wide-flung allusions. The section continues:

'This desire to return to 'sacred origins' is implicitly unified with the Heideggerian concept of poetic dwelling, as has been highlighted by most modern critics. The late-modernist aspects of Prynne's work often read his work exclusively through modern epics such as Pound's Cantos, Olson's The Maximus Poems, Dorn's Gunslinger, and Zukofsky's "A". Equally important to the structure and meaning of Prynne's poetic is its placement against the writings of Wordsworth. The patterns presented in Tintern Abbey represent a preliminarily established form of a personal, philosophical and imaginative epic of which Wordsworth never completed, and of which The Prelude, Recluse and The Excursion represent portions.'

Now the paper is coming perilously close to name-dropping. In fact, of course, as I've tried to show, Prynne's poems are not that difficult, at least the earlier ones, being only exercises in extended but incomplete association. {7} Poets can write as they please, surely so, but dressing matters up in abstruse theory only lays us open to charges of hyperbole and pretence.

The paper now shifts to Olson's Maximus poems:

'Olson embraced throughout The Maximus Poems caused him to relapse into acts of comparison, which detail the natural and human realms but leave the actions of men as impotent to enact change. Olson began to stress that 'at root (or stump) what is, is no longer THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us — and the terms of what we are.'14

'Anthony Mellors states that Maximus, the Herculean figure of Olson's The Maximus Poems, 'represents a shift from the isolated lyric ego to a universal poetic self which embraces both the specific facts of history and the archetypes that supposedly underlie and give spiritual meaning to those facts [and objects].'15 Olson fought for a syncretistic unifying system as a means to 'stay in the human universe and not to be led to partition reality at any point in any way.'16

'Prynne also makes an appearance in Olson's Maximus Poems, appealing to Olson to accept the responsibility of his poetry to make a political statement. Olson's acknowledgement of Prynne's request and relapse into the naturalist system of writing disengages him from the political implications and concretises his position as a naturalist, purposefully removed from the situation.'

The paper continues for another two and a half pages of densely-written (but nonetheless interesting) text and ends with 38 references.  It would take far more time than I have available, or the reader probably patience for, to comment in detail on Matthew Hall's paper. But the approach should be clear. It is one in which the poetry under review becomes a peg on which to hang an erudition of a high order, often mountains of such erudition. To this treatment the poem may be securely anchored when admirably clear and successful, as are many of Prynne's early poems, but only tangentially so in the later and much more opaque work. (But the problem is not theory, I suspect, but the usual falling away from early promise that afflicts so many poets.)

Lest the Prynne articles be seen as a special case, we should note a similar preference for speculative approaches over detailed reading in many other papers on Academia.edu. A few examples taken at random:

 : Darcy, A 2017 Melancholy in Contemporary Irish Poetry: The ‘Metre Generation’ and Mahon. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings, 5(1): 4, pp. 1–26, DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/c21.13
: Nakkouch, T. 2012 Comparative Literature and the Question of Theory 1 https://www.academia.edu/36606817/Comparative_Literature_and_the_Question_of_Theory_1
: Siraganian, L. 2011 Wallace Stevens’s Fascist Dilemmas and FreeMarket Resolutions
https://www.academia.edu/577135/_Wallace_Stevenss_Fascist_Dilemmas_and_Free_Market_Resolutions_

Personally — when written sensibly — I find such expositions to be agreeably thought-provoking, but generally saying little on the poem as such, or on poetry as an art form. Arguably, much of poetry under review is not poetry at all, moreover, but fragmentary expositions on personal observations, semantics and theories of meaning — interesting no doubt, but better tackled through traditional philosophical discussion. If we can't understand the poem it will have no emotive appeal, and therefore, to be blunt, cannot be art. There are also difficulties in conflating shape and content, as the Black Mountain School and its descendents in the newer poetries wish to do. Readers can find more in my Background to Critical Theory. {8}

But how are these papers so different from, say, The Theological Structure of the Faerie Queene or The Romantic Agony of yesteryear? Because they don't illuminate the text, but simply take sections as departure points for wide-ranging reflections — reflections which display sustained reading, erudition and respectful acknowledgement of other workers in the field, but which bear only tangentially on the text as a literary artefact. Once accepted into the canon, quality becomes irrelevant, and the good, bad and indifferent is equally suitable material for study. Perhaps not unrelatedly, many web sites register a growing discontent within the academic community at the declining standards of research, job opportunities, and standing of the humanities.

Literary Criticism Proper: The Tower Magazine

But if academia has largely abandoned literary criticism, that ancient and necessary craft is still continued in the small presses. Tower Magazine has collected 50 of their reviews in a free pdf document, where the editor {9} allows himself some sobering conclusions.

Honesty isn't wanted, or even acceptable. 'I have,' Peter McDonald writes,'a fairly large file of reviewers' emails (more of them from recent years) that apologise for not being able to review this or that book, on the grounds that it is a poor one, and that its author, or his or her publisher, would never forgive any reviewer who pointed that out. I, of all people, can hardly say such fears are groundless. The rise in the academic industry (maybe a better term would be the guild) of 'creative writing' has also, I suspect, helped to tighten lips: might not a 'bad' review, after all, be taken as a declaration that some (doubtless expensive) practitioner was not fit for their post, or worth the cost of their courses? Would lawsuits be far behind?'

Reviewing is today indistinguishable from marketing. McDonald again. 'Much of what passes for critical discussion of contemporary poetry is (and for some time has been) merely a form of recommendation, one that tends to the hyperbolic. I do not believe that reviewing should be a form of professional networking; but I have to acknowledge that here the facts are against me. In time, all the hyperbole proves corrosive: it should be no surprise that, the higher the volume of praise from reviewers and prize juries, directed in predictable ways to a consistently small circle of predictable names, the less a general reading public feels inclined to tolerate contemporary poetry.'

And that market is small. McDonald: 'the audience for a review of contemporary poetry is not only tiny by comparison with that for other kinds of writing, but also made up largely of other poets. . . And poets - as literary history, not to mention common sense, should tell us - are not signed up to many disinterested conceptions of literary culture and critical discussion. They are, on the contrary, interested in often the most heated and intense ways: as vigilant guardians of their own art and its aesthetic (if we want to put it grandly), or as querulous and thin-skinned careerists (if we prefer and I don't recommend this a blunter way of putting things).'

The Tower reviews are not in fact scathing, but often models of their kind: balanced, engagingly written, providing a decent impression, both of the work under review, and the reviewer's own expectations and preferences. I find the earlier reviews better than the later, but most seem far more charitable than the work really deserves, big names though their authors are.

Particularly of interest are the two reviews of Seamus Heaney's work. The first, of District and Circle by Stephen Burt, is somewhat perfunctory and evasive. The second, of Human Chain by Maria Johnson is celebratory and, in places, vacuous (Heaney is 'committed to a sonorous poetics of sound and sense, deeply attuned to the aural design of design of poetry, and so it seems fitting to find him preoccupied here with how the the ephemeral quality of passing sound can be harnessed perpetually and in a poem that deploys the sound pattern of alliteration to create a memorable sound-world of its own . . ') No so, thinks Kevin Kiely.  Heaney writes terrible clunkers. {10} Dr Kiely's book is not scholarship at its best, and doesn't pretend to be. The book is more an extended pamphlet, written in a bad temper, where the literary criticism is too savage and general to be called close reading. But much of Heaney's poetry does indeed seem, I'd have to agree, to be pedestrian, poorly crafted and too much drawn on that farm he left as a teenager.

But there is a larger point. Heaney has been praised by our leading critics, the most distinguished on both sides of the Atlantic. How has that happened? Because they're incompetent, have sold out to commercial interests, or are happy to see in Seamus Heaney the personable character needed to carry the banner of contemporary poetry? Any truth in these would be most unwelcome.

But there is worse. Heaney disqualifies himself as a contemporary poet, Kiely argues, by not appreciating Sylvia Plath sufficiently, and by finding little in William Carlos Williams. But here I must plead sympathy with Heaney. I can't myself find the pure fire that Kiely applauds in Plath's work, and WCW's poems seem pretty negligible, important though their form became, as I have indicated on this site. {11} Disagreement is common in the literary world, but this seems something more. Has modern poetry become so much a religion or act of faith that dissent and proper argument are no longer permissible? And if the leading critics are praising what are clearly faults in Heaney's work (readers can do their own searches), are any views in the literary world to be taken seriously? Is it mere opinion, the blind prating to the blind?

As I've mentioned elsewhere, reviewing has become perfunctory, a packaging for marketing purposes, where the review bears little relation to the poetry itself. Some promotion is to be expected, but can the Bryn Mawr review of  Horace, The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets really start with 'These are good times for fans of verse translations of Horace's Odes'? {12} I was fairly incredulous {13} and remain so.

To someone who lacks a local bookshop or university library, reviews are important. Postmodernists may well believe that language is inherently deceptive, but before we nod our heads in agreement we should remember that the real world does function with an imperfect language, and does so reasonably well. Ambiguous situations are clarified by examples, and potential misunderstandings are sign-posted and headed off. What sometimes escapes literary theorists is how managements in all walks of life — in commerce, industry, law and scientific research — constantly require briefs that are well-researched, unambiguous, succinct and compelling. Bankruptcy would follow if they were served by Postmodernist productions. Agreements are likewise scrutinized by lawyers because the most innocuous clause can fatally damage the good intentions of the parties concerned. In short, experience makes nonsense of theory. In its own way, therefore, does not poetry of any description need some purchase on a world valid to its readers if that poetry is to mean something to them? And should not our literary academics understand that a little better?

In Summary

This page hardly makes for happy reading. What I suggest is happening can be summarised as:

1. The developments I noted twenty years ago in TextEtc.Com are coming to fruition, supplanting the older standards and approaches. Such developments were probably inevitable, academia constantly needing new grist to the mill. In detail, we find:
: poetry has increasingly become 'just another text', the starting points for abstruse reflection.
: literary study is now more speculative and theoretical, catering for a smaller market and requiring wide reading and considerable mental agility to be understood.
: older standards are seen as outworn, restrictive and/or elitist.
: serious poetry has become even more intellectualised and campus-bound.
2. Academic studies are only marginally useful to the practising poet — no more, probably, than gallery catalogues are to painters or program notes to musicians: 'true', they say of the text, 'but how, exactly?'
3. Literary criticism continues, but is more the preserve of the small presses. Much is written by poets for other poets, doggedly optimistic and narrowly partisan.
4. The general public has largely given up on contemporary poetry.
5. The greatest casualty is seen in poetry translation, where today's translators lack the verse skills to create acceptable or even pleasing renderings.

Nonetheless, criticism is still vital to the heath of poetry, enabling poets to understand their craft better and audiences to get more from their reading efforts. It may not be entirely coincidental that standards in contemporary poetry have fallen as the older practices of literary criticism have given way to speculative theory.

In its wilder flights of fancy, that theory is not only doubtful, but corrosive, preventing sensible returns to tradition. Indeed the very strategies employed to shield Modernists from damaging assessment and comparison — often by championing the importance of novelty, image, and indeterminate language — may be tacitly guiding poetry into yet more fragmented subcultures, at odds with popularity and common sense.

References


1. Academia.edu.  http://www.academia.edu. Search with keywords and academia.edu.
2. Eagleton, T. (2007) How to Read a Poem. https://www.academia.edu/10876591/Eagleton_Terry_HOW_TO_READ_A_POEM_
literacy_criticism_2007_
3. Hall, M. (2009) J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic. https://www.academia.edu/31463089/J.H._Prynne_and_the_Late-Modern_Epic
4. Hall, M. (2009) J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic. http://cordite.org.au/essays/matthew-hall-j-h-prynne-and-the-late-modern-epic/
4. Zuidervaart, L. (2015) Theodor W. Adorno Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/
5. .  Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne - N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge. Google Books.
6. Love, T. (2009) "Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne" by N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge (Liverpool University Press, 1995) http://litrefsreviews.blogspot.com/2009/01/nearly-too-much-poetry-of-jh-prynne-by.html
7. Holcombe, C.J. (2018). Serious Postmodernism: The Poetry of Prynne and Ashbery http://www.ocasopress.com/seriously-postmodernist-poetry.html
8. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) Background to Critical Theory. http://www.ocasopress.com/critical-theory-background.html
9. McDonald, P. Tower Poetry Reviews 2004-2014. https://www.academia.edu/23859697/Tower_Poetry_Reviews_2004_2014_selected_
and_introduced_by_Peter_McDonald
10. Kiely, K. (2018) Seamus Heaney and the Great Poetry Hoax. CreateSpace.
11. William Carlos Williams. http://www.ocasopress.com/william-carlos-williams.html
12. J.D. McClatchy (ed.), Horace, The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets.  Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.05. http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2003/2003-03-05.html
13. Holcombe, C.J. (2014) Horace: The Odes. New Translations by Contemporary Poets. Review. http://www.textetc.com/blog/horace-the-odes-new-translations-by-contemporary-poets/