The State of Criticism

William Logan

The State of Criticism lies somewhere between New York and New Jersey. Its wetlands and rocky shore have long been scarred by chemical factories and oil refineries, close to waste ground whose rusting signs announce, “Bird Sanctuary.” Shore birds flock there, the guidebooks say; but no snipe or plover has been seen in living memory. That hardly matters, since the state bird is the vulture, which flourishes; and the State of Criticism is widely celebrated for the quality of its carrion.

I’m wary of conferences, or round tables, or conference calls on the State of Criticism, because I’d rather be writing poetry than writing criticism, and I’d rather be writing criticism than criticism about the state of criticism. Randall Jarrell remarked, sixty years ago, that the “ambitious young intellectual . . . buys himself a new typewriter, rents himself a room, and settles down to write . . . book reviews, long critical articles, explications.”* Rather than risk writing poetry or fiction, that is.

It is, alas, no longer true. The ambitious young intellectual buys himself a laptop, rents himself some friends, and settles down in Brooklyn to write poetry, poetry, and more poetry. He blogs, and tweets, and puts his new poems on Facebook. Everyone loves him. Everyone whispers in his ear how brilliant he is. Meanwhile, magazine editors complain that if you ask poets to write a review, they fall all over themselves making excuses. There’s no way to clear a room faster, at that endless cocktail-party that is poetry, than to announce that the last man standing will have to write a review of it.

It’s not that poets lack opinions. Get to know a poet and he’ll eagerly tell you that A is shockingly overrated, B hasn’t written a good poem since Nixon was impeached, and C won the Pulitzer because his best friend was a judge. Poets are violently opinionated (not that you’d know this from reading the reviews they so rarely write), but they’re nocturnal animals—their opinions come out only when the lights go off.

It never occurred to me until far too late that poets could be unhappy about a review—I mean a serious review, one that spoke to the various flaws of a book, as well as to its occasional virtues. Let’s face it, the vast majority of books published since Gutenberg invented his movable type and Caxton inked up his press in England have possessed few virtues and all too many flaws. Even if you refuse to review the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, and the wretched refuse of the trade, the remainder are still books unlikely to be read or remembered a decade later. Perhaps every year two or three new books appear that will grace a shelf awhile, and every five years or so some sod writes a book worth reading in a century.

The critic’s job is to point out which books those are and give some coherent reason why, or fail to do so. I have written about the wrongheaded reviews of brilliant books. Many critics saw, with a high degree of accuracy, what the poets were doing in Lyrical Ballads, or Leaves of Grass, or The Waste Land; but they thought what the poets were doing wasn’t poetry. The failure was not in their eyesight but in their taste—or their philosophy.

Given how critical poets are, why don’t they write more criticism? Even if you make the usual arguments—that criticism is woefully ill paid; that criticism interferes with those narrow shop-hours the poet is open for business (the poet might as well padlock the door, those days he’s scribbling reviews); that, since criticism is so rarely like lust, few poets can muster the desire to write about poetry—even if you rally the old apologies, you haven’t mentioned the one poets rarely speak of, that writing criticism is a mug’s game. If you write a bad review of X—indeed, if you write a good review of X that isn’t quite as good as X deserves—why, X will be delighted to be your enemy forever. You also incur the lifelong hatred of X’s bosom friends, and his beloved mother, and his distant cousins, and his dog. (No review could ever be as good as X deserves, so all the X’s of the world feel.)

A reckless young poet may be cheerfully willing to endure the wrath of X; but sooner or later he will find himself applying for a job or a grant or hoping for an award (something foolish poets do every day, and some not so foolish), little knowing that X’s friends have been sharpening their knives a very long while. The one truth of criticism is, the wounded bear never forgets.

Poetry, at least for a few years, is kind to that minor Machiavel, the literary politician. The glad-handing hail-fellow-well-met sort who kisses babies at every whistle-stop, keeps in his back pocket a little patronage to hand out, and praises older poets to the skies usually thrives until one day he dies quietly in office and is promptly forgotten. The rewards of poetry may seem meager enough, yet I’ve heard that a certain poet in the Ivies makes $300,000 a year, and that another at a rich Southern university makes $250,000. I’ve been told that a young poet whose first book was rapturously received, and whose criticism has stung a few, has been unable to find a job. The poet who didn’t need to write criticism would scarcely see much advantage to doing so.

The critic is a Diogenes in a world where everyone else is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. In that utopia that is poetry, all the poets are wonderful poets—no, brilliant poets, so brilliant your eyes hurt to look upon them. Every book a poet writes is better than his last. Every word the poet speaks is engraved upon marble walls lining the leafy boulevards of the utopia of poetry, and if not the boulevards then no worse than a palm-lined avenue nearby. (In the utopia that is poetry, work crews day and night build more broad boulevards and more sunny avenues, even if no one actually lives there, for the utopia of poetry bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the village of Potemkin.) The poets cover their limbs in velvet robes and top their heads with golden crowns. Like heads of state, they never carry money, for in the utopia of poetry everything is paid for by the utopia of poetry. They travel in golden carriages, though these may look like pumpkins to everyone else.

In the utopia of poetry, no auditor is ever permitted to inspect the GDP or the national debt, for the major export of the utopia of poetry is poetry. It may not sell very well; and there are countries that want no more of it, that will never again ship sugar or slaves or rum for a little poetry, or even a great lumpish heap of it. No matter, because it’s widely known that the citizens of this utopia are perfectly happy to eat poetry, and drink poetry, and give each other gifts of poetry; and somehow they thrive and beget baby poets who run about unclothed until they too are old enough to don the velvet robes and grip the golden tiaras.

In the utopia of poetry, every poet wins every award every year. It’s simply not true that all the poets are better than average. No, each is unique, more unique than anyone else. Every poet is getting better and better. The one question banned in the utopia of poetry is who pays for the utopia of poetry. The utopia of poetry runs a deficit every year yet every year somehow produces more poetry. It is said that when Stalin wanted to run a country, he first consulted the poets.

But enough. That is the world of which most critics of poetry write, and the only thing that distinguishes most critics of poetry from a publicity department is that the critics often write for free. Indeed, they’re so widely known for their charity, even poets who don’t write criticism often stop now and then to scribble a blurb or two. I have always suspected that those who write blurbs never read the books they recommend, because there is nothing more threatening to the utopia of poetry than to read the poetry. The definition of a blurb is a “brief recommendation by an author more famous than his subject, a compliment that moves everyone to tears though no one believes a word of it.”

Then there is that other sort of criticism, the sort PhD’s write while they’re waiting for the tenure-track jobs rarer than the ivory-billed woodpecker, the criticism that speaks of “liminal surfaces” and “transgressive interrogation” and “free-floating something-or-others”—the sort of criticism no one but a PhD would read and no one but a PhD would write. I feel sometimes like a traveler who, every time a stranger from the land of theory opens his mouth, runs in the opposite direction. Those who love that language love that language, though it seems so badly translated out of some arcane dialect of Ruthenian that the shifts and dodges and crotchets that make poetry interesting are no longer interesting.

It’s worth remembering that the world Randall Jarrell complained of in his essay—it was called “The Age of Criticism”—was often wonderful. To go back seventy or eighty years to Partisan Review and Hudson Review to see what Blackmur or Empson or Jarrell himself was writing is to be astonished. When literary magazines come thudding onto my porch now, there are criticism and reviews enough; but the criticism is rarely equal to what was published two or three generations ago, and the reviews—oh, oh, the reviews, having overdosed on high-fructose corn syrup—make earnest cases for books so dull the quotations beg you never to read another line.

These days, with the internet open at all hours, there is more criticism than ever and more poetry than ever. If the criticism published in magazines has often been bad, or bad enough, the criticism on the internet has rarely been good, or good enough. Opinion you will find in Maecenean abundance, opinion with all too much enthusiasm and all too little taste or judgment. A few of these critics are rabid, most are rhapsodic; but the usual sins do not attract the rare virtues. On occasion, you will find a reader dogged with purpose, one who scours the poetry carefully, has an idea or two, and who can write a few sentences that don’t make your eyes bleed.

Such critics, in the old days, would have written for magazines and been paid; and they will thrive writing criticism on the internet for free. I am glad for them. They are obviously men and women of leisure. For a poet, the only reason to write criticism is the excuse it gives to think about poetry. No doubt critics write criticism for different and often perverse reasons, but I write to find out what I have to say. I am too lazy to have any other excuse.

As for the State of Criticism, rumors that it is severely depopulated are exaggerated. It isn’t true that the factories are about to close or that the cities have declared bankruptcy to relieve themselves of the burden of paying pensions to retired critics. It is patently false that the leaders of the State of Criticism have stored their wealth in Swiss banks under assumed names. It is still a fine state, welcome to all. If I sent you a postcard, it would say, “Wish you were here.”

* Poetry and the Age, 74

WILLIAM LOGAN’s most recent book of poems was Madame X (Penguin, 2012).