Thursday, April 23, 2009

We clearly have a problem! (Or: Happy "World Book Day")

Beliefs are not to be respected just because they are beliefs. Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes “abuse” clearly have a problem. -- Terry Eagleton, in Commonweal [!]; full essay here.

On the other hand... The pigeonholing (e.g. "quietist", "SoQ," "post-avant") poetries-not-poetry approach that echoes round the po-blogosphere these days is surely related to the decline of literary criticism as a responsible practice of poets themselves and even of our so-called critics - who today are mostly bloggers-cum-book-reviewers writ large. Why do we accept "touchstones" instead of ideas?

Stay tuned for a roundtable on negative and other criticism (including yours truly) at Mayday magazine, debuting on May 1st; list of participants here (though see Kent's comments, below).

"Over the years, the voice gradually turned into a hipster’s cutting, sarcastic instrument, often so elliptical as to be incomprehensible." -- Aram Saroyan

Pictured: The flat earth, with martyred "Quietist"


Henry Gould said...

It would be interesting to do a survey down through history to measure the percentage of criticism which opens its argument with a complaint about the delcine of literary criticism.

Michael Robbins said...


Henry Gould said...

I'll take your word for it, Michael. Thought it was more like 99.8%, but who am I to quibble.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Don, that Mayday list is not quite complete: Bobby Baird, former Editor of Chicago Review, reviewer for Bookforum, Slate, CR, other places, is a late addition. (Joshua Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon were not able to contribute.)

Most everything is now in, and the 30-odd responses constitute a tremendously interesting gathering of commentary.


Henry Gould said...

The thing is, though, I tend to agree with the sentiment. On the one hand, we have a system of academic sponsorship of professional poets, which for all its sophistication, tends to relieve poets from the necessity of addressing a general audience in propria persona. On the other hand, we have the opportunism of "innovation" and "new media", a febrile scene which actually has very little to do with the making of authentic poetry.

But I'm curious, Don, as to what you mean in this context by "touchstones". I understand the reference to Matthew Arnold. Are you saying that the current focus leans to heavily on surface elements of style, snazzy one-liners, etc.?

Jordan said...

No Houlihan or Logan?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jordan,

Oversights there, I fear, though Logan gets mentioned plenty in the responses (largely in reaction to a comment I make about his reviewing).

My own question: *No Davis?* I seem to have asked a "Davis" to take part, but alas...



Don Share said...

Henry, the word comes from Arnold, but also from a blog entry Silliman linked to about Seth Abramson's desire to step away from discussing poetics; you can read it here:

I am yes indeedy saying that the current focus is on the superficial, but also on posturing and several varieties of intellectual short-cuttery.

Henry Gould said...

Here's an interesting precis on Arnold as critic, which describes how he shifted away from a more comprehensive (& classical) idea of poetic values, to this idea of touchstones ("great passages").

But your (anonymous?) bloggiste seems to have further narrowed the notion : he defends the squirrely hyper-cataloging of "new poetries" as a helpful form of "touchstone".

Gosh, in this hectic age of ours, it sure helps to have well-stocked & sorted grocery aisles.

Henry Gould said...

& then I forgot to give the Arnold link. Here it is :

Anonymous said...

Not trying to be a butthead, but that's a mighty white list y'all put together. Masculine and white. Soi-disant canon-making! Harumph!


michael robbins said...

I heartily recommend Walter Benn Michaels's The Trouble with Diversity as a cure to adolescent obsession with how many white people are in a given room.

Anonymous said...


The list is what it is after people were queried. Naturally, not everyone invited was able to participate. Since you raise the issue, I can tell you that roughly 40% of those asked were women. The respondents were given a pretty short deadline (Mayday magazine launches on May 1), and a number of people simply didn't have the time or inclination. Also, for what it's worth, there was more general "diversity" in the pool of people queried than is reflected in the list. So under the constraints of time, this is how things sorted out. I think you'd have to agree that it's a pretty impressive gathering of talents and minds--and diverse, certainly, "poetically" speaking, something that's reflected in the responses. Hope you'll still check in.