Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Four varieties of critic that get on our nerves
W.H. Auden's test for the critic:
Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle:
1) Long lists of proper names … ?
2) Riddles and all other ways of not calling a spade a spade?
3) Complicated verse forms of great technical difficulty … ?
4) Conscious theatrical exaggeration … ?
Michael Wood, in the LRB, comments:
‘If a critic could truthfully answer “yes” to all four,’ Auden says, ‘then I should trust his judgment implicitly on all literary matters.’ We can imagine taking this test quite literally, and failing it or passing it, or finding it ridiculous. But we could also think of it analogically. Then we would wonder what kind of critical interests were being sought and excluded, and we could look for examples, just as we are invited to describe our own idea of Eden. Again, in another very funny passage Auden evokes four kinds of critic he hopes a poet might not turn into: ‘a prig, a critic’s critic, a romantic novelist or a maniac’. The first is a person ‘for whom no actual poem is good enough’; the second manages ‘to deprive someone who has not yet read [the poem] of all wish to do so; the third finds a ‘happy hunting ground’ in the ‘field of unanswerable questions’, and the fourth has a theory that turns the poem into an endless puzzle. The parable here is a bit like Walter Benjamin’s notion of the story. What it’s asking for is not acceptance but adaptation: we are to find our own four varieties of critic that get on our nerves.
W.H.A. on poetry:
I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them,
Nor can I see a reason why you should.