Archive for the ‘literary criticism’ Tag

Marianne Dashwood and the Nobel Prize Committee, or how historical comparisons are ahistorical

280px-Hammond-SS12The Véhicule Press Blog  has posted a short extract from Jeremy Noel-Tod’s upcoming book of criticism The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into British Poetry that’s woven a snarling thread on Facebook where it was shared. It’s a thread I don’t want to get caught up in, as what concerns me, the extract’s main rhetorical ploy, comparing William Cowper’s reputation to Seamus Heaney’s, has so far gone unreflected, and to remark the ironic ahistoricism of Noel-Tod’s gesture requires more space than a Facebook comment thread.

Noel-Tod’s point is that, because Cowper and Heaney are both “rural, reflective” poets who ironise “poetry’s grand manner with conversational self-consciousness and modest domesticity,” it is imaginable that just as Cowper’s reputation has waned, so might Heaney’s. Noel-Tod seems to present as evidence of Cowper’s status, either naively or tongue-in-cheek, the passionate enthusiasm of Jane Austen’s character from Sense and Sensibility (1811), Marianne Dashwood, almost “driven wild” by Cowper’s “beautiful lines.”

Noel-Tod’s historical comparison is risibly insensitive to history. It is two very different things to be a “rural, reflective” poet in early Nineteenth Century England and in modern Northern Ireland, as the relation between country and city and the nature of that country-side itself undergo radical changes over the course of the hundred-and-fifty years the comparison elides. It is equally two different poetic gestures to ironise the grand manner of England’s Augustan poets and to write in the aftermath of Yeats, whose cold, hard late poetry had already brought to earth the self-confessed Romanticism of his early verse. Finally, to imagine that a poet’s “reputation” in 1811 is comparable to a poet’s “reputation” in 2015 is to overlook among many, many changes the crisis of High Art thematized by literary Modernism. The problem with Noel-Tod’s comparison is that it seems to assume that history, temporal distance and the difference in context this distance registers, doesn’t exist:  his “Authors are in Eternity.”

The converse to Noel-Tod’s abstraction are those schools of criticism that would explain an author’s reputation in purely sociological or ideological terms, an approach that is no more true to its object than Noel-Tod’s. Marx, famously, raised the question of how art from historically and socially  distant cultures, e.g. Greek tragedy, can still possess undeniable aesthetic power. Neither appeals to some transcendent human condition nor the workings of ideology satisfactorily extract us from Marx’s quandary or the claims that art can make on us. What is interesting is precisely this curious power of art in and over time, a question of perhaps more value and promise than that of “reputation.”

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Why “you can’t teach writing”

“We never hear that music cannot be taught, painting cannot be taught, filmmaking cannot be taught. Writing is fraught with more industrial insecurities, I fear, than some of the other disciplines.”

Paul Vermeersch writes these two sentences in a passing response to “The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory”. The distinction that troubles him between “writing [and] some of the other disciplines” may be accounted for by some arts being more mediate than writing. Music, painting, filmmaking, photography, and sculpture, for that matter, all demand acquaintance with an instrument:  obviously in the case of music; brush, pigments, palette and other implements in the case of painting; and so on. Writing, however, appears to the layperson to require only literacy or in the case of oral language arts even only the voice. It might be objected singing and dancing are as immediate as the voice and body, but both seem special occasions of each, speaking and writing more basic, as thinking, the dialogue of the soul with itself or what one attempts to merely attend in meditation, appears to intimate. Of course the writer and writing teacher beg to differ:  the poem or story are not just thinking or talking; creative writing is an art or craft where language is the medium worked. No matter how spontaneous or plain spoken a poem, say, may appear—and even if it is in fact spontaneous or improvised—its language is organized in an artificial manner.

The very words “creative writing workshop” imply—and its practice is premised upon the assumption—that creative writing is a teachable, learnable craft. If the master is to teach the apprentice, they must share a metalanguage, a discourse that articulates the materials and practices of that art and that expresses value judgments. This discourse may be called a “poetics”, not of the theoretical kind typified by Aristotle’s Poetics—a description, analysis, and evaluation of the art by a non-practitioner—but more akin to Horace’s Ars Poetica, practical guidance of an acknowledged master offered to an aspiring neophyte. Ironically, while creative writing teachers will vehemently defend the artificiality of literary language, too often (in my experience, at least) they assume the language of their poetics is somehow natural and its value system intuitive. Worse, too often, precisely because the terms of their poetics is assumed to be natural, they assume it is as unproblematically shared with the apprentice.

Despite the distinction between theoretical and practical poetics, the practical language of the workshop is heavily indebted to the theoretical language of the English class, i.e., literary criticism. Of course, the corollary is also true:  the language of the master informs that of the teacher:  the poetics of Horace, Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Henry James are fed back in to the merely scholarly study of literature. But creators learn their terms in the classroom. Neither scholarly nor creative discourse can claim priority; they are mixed at the source, because the art of writing assumes what the ancients called grammar, literacy, and one’s taught reading and writing in school. Not only are the languages of criticism and creation impossible to disentwine, they are also diverse and relative. The notion of poetry as craft was energetically applied by the Russian Futurists before the Great War, for example, with their doctrine of “the self-sufficient word” and their emulation of the factory worker or craftsman, an approach summed up neatly by the painter Dmitriev:  “the artist is now simply a constructor and technician.” Their poetic, as articulated by their scholarly co-workers the Russian Formalist critics, spoke of “materials” and “devices” with a dispassionate, scientific technicality and precision that makes the terminology of most criticism or poetics seem quaint. This approach to the craft of poetry finds analogues in anglophone poetics, in the “bald statement” William Carlos Williams makes in his introduction to The Wedge (1944),  “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” and in creative writing pedagogy where the Russian Formalist concepts of “defamiliarization” and “device” are used alongside exercises in proceduralist composition in the manner of the OULIPO or present-day Conceptualism. That such poetics also find inspiration and conceptual resources in literary theory should not go unremarked.

Regardless of the impossibility of a purely practical poetics, the knotiness of poetics, criticism, and theory being snarled together, or debates about the merits of competing creative writing pedagogies, doubts remain whether writing can be taught. Such skepticism cannot be dismissed as easily as pointing out it depends upon an outmoded, questionable notion of genius. Who can deny that the increasing plethora of creative writing programs results in an increasing homogenization of literary practice? My own experience is telling:  every year I teach the latest Journey Prize Stories and invariably I find the creative-writing-school-trained jury members award first prize to the story worthy an A+ in a creative writing class while the edgy, lively work, worthy an A for Art, is overlooked, precisely because of the prejudices inculcated in the course of the jurors’ educations. What can be taught is technique, but technique without the natural gift of talent is merely mechanical or at best competent. The art of writing (or music, or painting, etc.) can be taught, but not what might make it Art.

That’s not typing, that’s écriture

Truman Capote famously quipped regarding Kerouac’s writing, “That’s not writing, that’s typing!” Happily, thanks to the heightened serendipitous dimensions of cyberspace, I happened on a closer reader of Kerouac, Clark Coolidge. One can mouse around the links from the original Jacket2 posting, but what caught my attention was Ron Silliman’s remark that

One test of Coolidge as a critic – you can find some other non-Kerouac samples as well on his EPC web page – is that he gets the importance of Visions of Cody, not just as a central work in the Kerouac canon, but quite possibly the Great Novel of the past century, right up on a par with Ulysses Gravity’s Rainbow & the best of Faulkner (who is not unlike Kerouac in that his best work often comes in passages, rather than entire books).

I’ve long admired Kerouac’s achievement in The Legend of Dulouz, his novels taken as one multivolume work, but I can’t recall having encountered anyone else who appreciated what happens when the novel taps into its original energies as the genre that is by definition novel, as “the genre that contains all other genres,” when the narrative becomes écriture and one doesn’t know what one is reading anymore, only that one is reading. I’m glad to have chanced on someone else who gets it.

Twits in the Twitterverse: Ellis, Munro, and the Nobel

One splash Alice Munro’s winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature made stirred a teapot tempest in the Twitterverse, proving again, if any further evidence were called for, just how anathema Twitter is to thought. To wit, Brett Easton Ellis tweeted “Alice Munro is so completely overrated,” then expanded on his judgement an hour later:  “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages….” The cacophonous reaction was as swift, overwhelming, and damning as it was puerile.

First, I unreservedly applaud Munro’s winning the prize and the well-deserved attention the award will bring to her oeuvre. What interests me is why Ellis, given the kind of prose he writes, might be moved to remark what he does about the regard given Munro’s writing and the character of the Nobel Prize.

Even a passing familiarity with these writers’ works prompts an initial answer:  Ellis is a satirist of modern, urban life, whose writing is intimately bound up with the present, sociocultural moment, so much so his novels have been adapted to the screen and subject to virulent denunciations. Munro, on the other hand, is characteristically described by The New Yorker magazine fiction editor Deborah Treisman: “Her work is very provincial in that it’s based in small towns and rural parts of Canada for the most part. At the same time, what she does with the characters in those places is show us their universality, their humanity.” The same CBC article goes on to sum it up quite nicely:

Munro… has been called Canada’s Chekhov. Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary.

Munro’s stories focus on striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. They revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.

Clearly, the ends and means of Ellis’ and Munro’s writing couldn’t be more different. However much resentment might be blamed for Ellis’s tweet, the terms of praise for Munro’s work are revealing and illuminate the second part of Ellis’s second tweet concerning the Nobel Prize’s being “a joke.”

Munro’s stories are praised for focussing on character more than plot, on her characters’ “universality, their humanity.” The universal humanity of these characters is revealed in their experiencing “epiphanies” that illuminate their and by virtue of their universality our little slices of shared life. The critical idiom here is hardly as spontaneously universal as Munro’s characters’ epiphanies. Rather, it’s the discourse of a conservative, humanist, classicist aesthetic, the same operative, for example, in Yeats’  and Eliot’s being awarded the prize (despite their respective dalliances with fascism and antisemitism) but not Joyce. The drama and prose of the late Thomas Bernhard remain second to none in their stylistic bravura and social and existential profundity, but they would never have been considered for the prize precisely because of their obsessive style, pitiless intelligence, and relentless truthtelling. Examples could be multiplied.

The most telling judgement is Munro’s being called “Canada’s Chekhov.” But the Chekhov invoked here is the tamed, canonized caricature of the writer

who amazed his audiences in the early 1880s. He was particularly interested in the absurd, and repatterned the anecdote and vignette forms of the popular press into innovative forms of writing:  pieces in the guise of National Census questions, a test set by a mad mathematician, a proposal to the board of a medical school, the twisted “questions and answers” of popular women’s magazines….

The smug propriety of the praise showered on Munro is arguably as shallow as Ellis’ dismissal and the subsequent brainlessness of the backlash to his tweet. The bitter grain of truth in Ellis’ second tweet is that prizes, however much they materially further even a deserving writer’s career, are perhaps more revealing of literary values than of a writer’s worth.

The Role of Scholarship in Contemporary […] Poetry

The Role of Scholarship in Contemporary […] Poetry

Johannes Göransson has posted over at the Montevidayo blog the first of some spirited observations and reflections on the role of scholarship in contemporary American poetry (and, by extension, Canadian, at least, though certainly with provisos…). His critique of PhD poets or those scholars who deign to approach contemporary poetry is one with which this writer (despite the blog’s name, Poeta Doctus does not hold a PhD…) is in some agreement…

We have to talk: Poetry on the Brink at Boston Review

This forum now on-line at Boston Review, though a little overwhelming with its nineteen participants, is exemplary of just what we could use more of, the more varied the participants, the better! Poetry on the Brink | Boston Review.

Everything you already know about poetry

A Canadian poet, whose disdain for Slam Poetry and Spoken Word is well-known, recently posted this clip on his blog under the title “‘Slam Poetry’ explained”:

Regardless whether you agree or disagree with the “pointlessness” of Slam Poetry, the clip does express a truth, but one more general, I think, than what the blogger or the clip’s writers had in mind. For what, exactly, is the clip mocking? One way of putting it would be that Spoken Word is a generic manner, one so stereotypical it is of no more importance to what is said than an accent.

However, it doesn’t take too much familiarity with contemporary poetry to realize that the same holds true for wide swaths of every school of poetic composition, whether “Official Verse Culture”, the present-day institutionalized Avant Garde, Neoformalism, or what have you. Indeed, it is precisely these characteristic, generic mannerisms around which their respective appreciative readers, reviewers, editors, publishers, and practitioners hover.

The problem is not any one empty manner but schematized production—and consumption—as such, whether of poems or Big Macs. What is rightly slammed in the clip is the vapidity cultured by the need to ingratiate oneself or one’s product, cultural or otherwise.

Maybe that’s why I HATE POETRY.

Reflecting on “Romanticism” we see ourselves

imagesI post below two passages from the Preface to Lacoue-Labarthe’s and Nancy’s The Literary Absolute, a study of twelve texts from the Athenaeum (Jena:  1798-1800).

The original French version L’Absolu littéraire appeared in 1978, the English-language translation in 1988, i.e., a solid generation ago. The francophobic likely to reject the volume out of hand might be more  circumspect  did they know the investigation carried out by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy parallels the equally generally unacknowledged thinking of the German-language scholars Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank and England’s Andrew Bowie. Those who find such matters too philosophical or overly-intellectual were already answered in the Athenaeum:  “If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as a destruction of pleasure were to think logically, then ‘wow!’ would be the best criticism of the greatest works of art….”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments, 57.

A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our “modernity” [or “postmodernity”]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.

Twin Takes on Canada’s Poetic Renaissance

I’m the first to agree with Rilke, that “Rühmen, das ist’s!” (roughly, “To Praise—that’s the thing!”), but, sometimes, praise isn’t what it seems prima facie, and that is surely the case with Russell Smith’s article on recent poetry in Canada, a thinly-veiled plug for Carmine Starnino’s forthcoming volume of criticism, wherein he lauds Starnino and The Walrus poetry editor Michael Lista for their “tough-minded” editorial and critical efforts, which, Smith maintains, have helped to culture an “unlikely renaissance”. Aside from its disingenuousness, Smith’s article deploys a questionable rhetoric and a squintingly narrow view of contemporary poetry.

First, Smith eulogizes Lista and Starnino for being “tough-minded” and “stern”; The Walrus “bravely publishes poems” under the aegis of “the truculent Michael Lista”; and Starnino, in his role as a “combative tastemaker”, has helped “purge” Canadian poetry of “a certain kind of weepy folksiness” Smith blames on the baleful influence of Al Purdy. One’s unsure whether Smith is writing about editor-critics, austerity hawk finance ministers, or Jean Charest in his late showdown with Quebec’s students. In any case, such Iron Lady bluster is as tiresome as it is empty.

Even more offputting and regressive than the right wing speechifying that echoes through Smith’s prose is the swaggering machismo of his rhetoric. Just a century ago the same words were invoked to banish the effeminate, dreamy sentimentality of Romanticism. The Modernist critics demanded forceful, hard, virile poetry in a bellicose criticism whose apotheosis was their recruiting the expression “avant-garde.” One would have hoped that after the intervening history such displays of cocky braggadocio would be too ridiculous to be indulged.

Ironically, where Modernist criticism might claim salutary effects, the “dense and intellectual”, “difficult”, “highbrow” poetry Smith praises Lista and Starnino for having whipped into shape is merely, in Smith’s own words, “narrow and exclusive”. He mistakes surface gloss for sophistication. How seriously can we take Smith’s judgement when, as his example of “playful, amusing, dazzling, or simply exasperating” poetry, he quotes the rather grammatically straight-forward lines “We leap magpie flat-footed, shriek obsidian / disbelief tidings”? Smith does, it would seem, as he himself admits, “think in a frustratingly direct manner”.

The poetry Smith is so dazzled by is merely the latest version of what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobelese” (an oblique contextualization of which can be read here), a poetry that springs, ultimately, from T. S. Eliot’s canonization of the Metaphysicals and the New Criticism’s consequent lionizing of “texture” and “complexity”. Anyone with the patience to scrutinize the kind of “tough-mindedness” Smith lauds will quickly find it  little more than a latter day version of the “narrow and exclusive” crotchetiness of F. R. Leavis.

How refreshing, then, to read another recent article by poet Matthew Tierney whose purpose, like Smith’s, is to share his excitement about the “fierce mojo” his contemporaries are working. Despite the ironically humble persona he adopts, the catholicity of  Tierney’s list of poets who make his “head spin” reveals him to be one of those “poets, it seems, who committed themselves early, read widely, and got down to it”. The sixteen poets he names (including Michael Lista) are mindbogglingly various, writing inventively from and out of (i.e. away from) every school of composition I know of that’s active in  North American English-language poetry, let alone Canadian.

Where Lista and Starnino, at least according to Smith, are “tough”, “stern”, and “combative”, Tierney proves himself flexible, charitable, and gregarious, qualities of mind not without their precedent praise. As one hero of American postmodern poetry and poetics, John Adams, put it:  “The Mind must be loose.” The looseness of mind Tierney exemplifies, the kind of mind I would promote, is not “narrow and exclusive”, but open to the chance community of vital makers it finds itself thrown among, quick to perceive and respect each their characteristic virtues and curious to understand and appreciate them.

Novalis, a poet/critic/thinker who worked his own “fierce mojo”, writing about the “narrow and exclusive” critics of his own day, put it well:

Reviewers are literary policemen. Doctors are policemen also. Hence there ought to be critical journals which treat authors with medical and surgical methods, and not merely find out the ailment and announce it with malicious pleasure. Methods of healing up to now have been barbaric for the most part.

A genuine police force is not merely defensive and polemical toward whatever evil exists—but it seeks to improve the sickly disposition.

—Miscellaneous Fragments, 113 (trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar); German original here 

RE: On ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’

Carmine Starnino has graciously and with characteristic gusto posted a reply to my more-or-less articulate, offhand gripe on ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic’. To facilitate conversation I have perhaps imprudently replied in the comment thread to Starnino’s reply. Interested parties are therefore, to satisfy their curiosity or chip in their own two cents, referred to the post on the Véhicule Press blog here.