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.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I think the worst critic is the academic: who knows everything about a poem except how to write one.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

The greatest irony in Letters today is that poets can't teach and teachers can't write.

Michael Gushue said...

"What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.

2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.

3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.

4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.

5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “making.”

6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc."

--W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

Joel Brouwer said...

Don, I think Auden's is addressing Clio, the muse of history, no? I've always valued that sentence as an indictment of poetry's disinclination to engage with the historical.