The Death of Literary Criticism

Introduction: An Anecdote

Fifty years ago, when I was completing my tertiary education in quite another subject 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 with a silly display of the obvious. 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 extracted from the respected books, papers and studies that he'd 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.

death of literary criticism book cover

Of course appearances had to be kept up. {17}  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 www.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.

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. (When analysed, the multifaceted references compromise the authority of the text). 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. All the same, 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 place erudition of a high order, often mountains of such erudition. To this treatment the poem may be securely anchored when it's admirably clear and successful, as are many of Prynne's early poems, but only tangentially so in the later and much more opaque work. (Prynne's problems are not theory, I suspect, but the falling away from early promise that afflicts so many poets. The novel association continues, but the associations seem more private and arbitrary. )

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:

: Nakkouch, T. 2012 Comparative Literature and the Question of Theory 1

: Siraganian, L. 2011 Wallace Stevens’s Fascist Dilemmas and FreeMarket Resolutions

Many papers are much less technical. Let me give just one of the 16,182 papers currently available on Ezra Pound in Academia.edu.  Mark Byron's Chinese Poetical Histories in Ezra Pound and Gary Snyder {1} is a fascinating paper, engagingly written in the best academic manner and displaying a wide knowledge of Pound scholarship. But does the paper really accomplish its stated intention?

But adopting the notion of historical poetics as delineated by Yopie Prins (2), in short, where attention to the histories implied in poetic form and genre is matched by inquiry into their specific applications through close reading I will show how these exemplars in each poet's career not only embody historical arguments in their creative repurposing of antique materials, but enjoin their readers to understand how such poetic interventions in history produce their own histories, demanding a complex double vision: East and West, ancient and modern, poetic composition and critique. This results in the kinds of critical reading practices to which Simon Jarvis refers in his own programme of historical poetics, where works of art are records of a historical process of thinking-through-making and puts the historical moment of poetic composition into play with poetry's architectonic forces, histories of genre and form, and histories of reception.

I’d have thought not. Gary Snyder’s Chinese wasn’t sufficient to properly elucidate Wang Wei’s Deer Stockade,  {9} for example, and I’m not sure that Byron reads Chinese if he can write, ‘Chinese prosodic convention, where articles do not appear separately but are implied in the context.’ Lack of articles is not a poetic convention but a feature of the language. We are still looking at Chinese poetry through Modernism’s eyes, without understanding how the poetry actually works. {10} It is a good deal more than  metonymy (images substituting for thing meant, generally mood creation through evocative examples), or ekphrasis (transferring the visual into the literary domain). Bluntly put, we really want to know if the Pound or Snyder translations are any good, and, if so, how? Do they penetrate the essence of Chinese poetry in any illuminating way?  Is the resulting east-west aesthetics they or Modernism developed a useful one? On all these key points the paper is silent. The excellence of Pound's and Snyder's performances is taken as a given.

Personally — when written sensibly — I find all such papers to be agreeably thought-provoking, but they generally say little on the poem as such, or on poetry as an art form. Arguably, much of the contemporary 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 a Postmodernist poem, it will have no emotive appeal, and therefore, to be frank, 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. {11}

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. Often the commentary entirely overshadows the original poem. On something very slight are built vast structures of significance, as though, once accepted into the canon, quality becomes irrelevant, and the good, bad and indifferent of an author's work are all suitable material for extended study. Perhaps not unrelatedly, many blogs and web sites register a growing discontent within the academic community at the declining standards of research, job opportunities, and standing of the humanities, most particularly in English.

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 {12} 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 apologize 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. {13} 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? Or just how things work in the real world, that all communities are held together by members who never forget that it is through the community that they individually maintain their status, influence and earning power? Any substance to those views would be most unwelcome, but what is the alternative — that literary world has collectively lost its critical faculties? Or that informed taste, academic pieties aside, was always subordinate to careers, syllabuses and the book trade?

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} Writers are notoriously partisan in their affiliations, without it necessarily limiting their gifts, I'd have thought, 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 {14} and remain so.

For anyone whose time is limited, which is most of us, reviews are essential. We need to plan our reading hours constructively. 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

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.
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 pleasing or even acceptable 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 unhelpful, preventing the obvious being said. 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 and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.