Friday, July 24, 2009

Limits as a provocation to speak out

... unlike the scholarly essay which must justify itself by bringing out a new aspect of a writer's work or correcting the inadequate interpretation of earlier critics, reviews are bound by no such rules. The reviewer is not only free but expected to take the book at hand as a chance to direct attention to central issues. As a critic he may speak to large matters of a poet's achievement, comparing the writer with contemporaries and predecessors in an effort to capture his or her distinctness. Under the confines of a thousand-word limit - or in more spacious situations double or treble the length - he can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly, in order to elicit something essential about his subject. The great reviewer Randall Jarrell put it most extravagantly in "The Age of Criticism" when he declared that "taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself - and sometimes, doing so - is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art."

-- William H. Pritchard, On Poets & Poetry (Swallow Press, 2009)

To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries - this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval.

-- T. S. Eliot

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