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Michael Scharf

Poetry Criticism: What is it for?

A paper delivered at a conference titled "Poetry Criticism: What is it for?" - speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America

This piece is 1,500 words or about four printed pages long

You can read Kristin Prevallet's response to the conference in this issue of Jacket, and other papers from the panel and some discussion with the audience in Jacket # 12.


Criticism takes place in specific contexts, and poetry criticism has always operated within shifting numbers of them. To give a familiar recent snapshot:

In journals like Shark, Tripwire and the Poetics Journal, criticism is the process by which the avant-garde articulates some of the assumptions behind its formal and conceptual experiments, in order to further their development, interpretation and elaboration within a loosely bounded community. In academic-based journals like Contemporary Literature or Modernism & Modernity, criticism is a process of picking out and naming concepts or constructs that go unspoken within a work; of case-making for canonical or cultural-historical inclusion; or of theoretical meditation. Most of it is of interest only to the 35,000 MLA members, and the writers who mimic them when they leave the room. In the tabloid APR, name practitioners reflect from a made-guy distance for the edification of poetic aspirants and rivals, and it is a form of criticism. Standard procedure in the literary quarterlies is that a stable of regulars slowly and methodically destroy interest in a particular line of work, and that is criticism.

For the New York Review of Books, poetry criticism, when it actually appears, takes a form that comes closest to actual journalism, in that its condensations and interpretations are intended for a subculture of professional readers, content people, and other bookish types, who use it to keep up with the most significant of a bewildering array of titles. This is the stage where the ideas in books slough off their mortal coils. If this were France, the ideas would move from the New York Review to larger-scale media, and integration into the bouillon de culture. Here, we have The Nation and The New Republic, which serve slightly different readerships than the Review, but which don't really have the broad demographics to lead an engaged populace in debate. The New York Times might have a shot a doing so, but it has seemingly retired from literary politics .

One reason that the Times and other papers don't cover poetry is that journalism, to a greater extent than ever before in terms of the arts, is market-driven. Journalism has basically ceased to fulfill one of its main democratic functions, namely the timely condensation and integration of artistic ideas of the good life into journalistic projections of the zeitgeist. We've never had a large-scale intellectual tradition like France's, but we have had periods where art and art criticism mattered, and made news. Visual art and fiction have significant value as commodities, so the papers do a decent job of keeping potential investors informed. But since poetry can't generate the kind of ad pages that other arts and entertainment can, coverage has declined as editors are forced to maximize profits at the back of the book. Editors are simply not assigning the kinds of pieces that would give writers the opportunity to think through, in front of a general audience, the cultural significance of different poetic practices.

This was not always the case. As professors Perloff and Vendler have pointed out repeatedly in their work, critical fashions are cyclical, be they academic or journalistic. In the more than 35 years since Susan Sontag called for an "erotics of art" to take the place of hermeneutics, we've seen the ascendance of all kinds of "loving descriptions" of poetry under the warring signs of deconstruction and belle lettrism. And although Sontag's piece specifically abhors criticism that "assimilate[s] Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture," historicism famously made a comeback beginning in the 1980s, and cultural studies has adopted many of its methods for the present moment, trying to untangle some of our more virulent contradictions. Sontag's own critical practice has embraced art's political possibilities, as has most art criticism. And a great deal of academic work on poetry in the last ten or so years has been politically centered.

Yet poetry journalism has not followed suit, particularly in the literary quarterlies and in general circulation organs. For the most part, it has followed a course parallel to that of the majority of MFA programs, which have responded to market demands for professionalization by promulgating, in Aristotelian fashion, fixed ideas of what a poem can and should do in order to be a poem. The lure of poetry grants, writers colonies and teaching jobs convinces many poets to accept a credentialized vision of poetry as the only means by which they might live as artists, which in turn forces poetry journalism to function as if covering a trade. In part to keep people from feeling dirty, poetry itself is usually seen as having force on something called "the level of art," which is somehow removed from other kinds of interactions, and is not necessarily politicized. The focus is on pleasure, and the means by which it is produced, rather than on the ways in which aesthetic choices can be seen as having effects beyond atomized psyches.

For today's avant-garde - and of course this idea has its roots in the 1960s and before - poetry is an action, an attempt to participate in the creation and elaboration of our moment, and not something that can ever be removed from the world at large. By contrast, bad readings of Robert Lowell have left us with lyric as the highest discourse of the self as a discrete, unique psychological entity. So while canonical poets, modernist and otherwise, meet what Steve [Stephen Burt] has called the "traditional lyric goals" of voice and closure while leaving their texts open to language's own trajectories - to forces outside of the self - most other poets cannot and do not, and fall back on the self as a conceptual priority. Books of poems that embrace this self tend to sell better than books that don't, and helping people get it onto paper has quite literally become a business. This is fine with market-based journalism, which has a language in place for talking about the work, and a fixed set of values to apply to it. Thinking about how to adapt what goes on in Shark, Witz, Aerial or The Germ is never an issue, because literary journalists do not need to know what those things are in order to get the job done.

But the paradoxical result is that poetry journalism has lost its relevance. Much of the best poetry of the last forty or so years abandons those traditional lyric goals along with the field (or market) that maintains them in mostly debased form. By siding with the private self, journalism may be serving its most reliable market, but it is copping out of its most pressing challenges.

An effective language for the large-scale communication of recent alternatives to lyric poetry has not been developed, in terms of linking this work back to the cultural situations with which it is engaging. I think this is much less true within the academy, but the time delay involved there is too great, and the language employed too specialized for quick cross-over. If literary journalism is to regain its relevance, it must beat the time-lag of academia and the literary quarterlies; it must be open to work that does not have pleasure as its overwhelming priority; and it must, with Plato, see poetry for what it is: a force within the public sphere, whose impact can be heightened via effective criticism.

So how could this come about? Perhaps by way of a further twist on Aristotle. Recall that in the Poetics, "character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kinds of things a [person] chooses or avoids." To apply this insight to the lyric and its off-shoots, we can substitute the term "rhetorical gesture" for character. And I think reading poems for rhetorical gesture above all else, including pleasure, is the key to producing a relevant poetry journalism, one which can handle poetry in all its forms.

Reading for rhetorical gesture is not unrelated to New Criticism. It means identifying and taking apart the decisions - formal and conceptual - made by "the poet," and, somewhat differently, "the author" in putting together the poem. It takes these decisions to be actions in the world, which can be evaluated just as one would evaluate the behavior of characters, which is to say, lovingly, forgivingly, but with the knowledge that their play is as real as anything else, and can be sifted for ethical and political force, even as their language exceeds their uses of it.

Aesthetic decisions have become one of the few places where one might oppose the incursions of capital, which works to maximize the number of decisions of all sorts taking place within the market. The years immediately following the publication of "Against Interpretation" famously saw the "dematerialization" of art as a resistance to its co-optation. Poetry, tracked by Marjorie Perloff, Charles Altieri, Charles Bernstein, Steve Evans and many others, has been quietly (and not so quietly) following suit, via a sustained attention to the mechanics of its production and dissemination. It's time for us to recognize this tradition fully, and to use it to nudge the collective poetic unconscious back towards ideas, and away from preferences - not so that we can turn art into culture, but so that we might allow poetry an active role in imagining public life.

Michael Scharf is a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and Poets & Writers magazines, and the editor and publisher of Harry Tankoos Books. He is the author of Telemachiad, a Harry Tankoos chapbook.


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