Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 35, November 2013—Reviews Issue)

Virginia Konchan

1.What are the goals of the critic of poetry?

The goal of a critic of poetry is to be more than just a critic of poetry: in the words of Matthew Arnold, “a disinterest endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is thought and known in the world.” The education required to be not just a discerning but persuasive critic is both scholarly and experiential, and fueled not only by reading and writing, but explorations of other art forms (in practice and appreciation), travel, friendship, love, adventures in gastronomy and wine—as well as the history of literary criticism.

My treasured source text in the history of taste (Voltaire’s Encylopedié), suggests the capacity for discrimination is a distinctly modern idea (sensation as embodied in an idea, or ideology). Growing out of the loamy soil of belles lettres, neoclassicism, and Romanticism came a new theory of literature as its own medium (demarking the literary from the extra-literary as well as the “non-literary,” i.e. pulp fiction or comic books), and the academy soon rose to the challenge with the institutionalization of literary theory (structuralism, New Criticism, deconstruction). Contemporary critics, in a glutted marketplace, should, I think, be versed not just in the texts they interpret but the history of literary criticism (I agree with Eliot that to honor tradition is to commit yourself to art’s highest potential) as well as, in true Renaissance style, other disciplines (e.g. political economy).

I would say the goals of a critic are essentially Kantian: to argue persuasively for a critical standard (universality) for literary works, while demonstrating literary taste to be subjective (as are the critical reactions thereto) and individual works as irreducible to even the most compelling critical lens (idiosyncrasy inhering in language’s “flawed words and stubborn sounds”).

The importance of a vital body of criticism accompanying literary production can’t be underestimated in a disjoined marketplace of ideas (liberal democracy’s valuation of freedom of expression being analogic to illimitable and therefore value-free—or, a volatile price index—the free market). A transparent public discourse is contingent upon an equally transparent body of cultural, political, and literary criticism and in order to avoid censorship (the expression of negative judgment, for a critic, or in writing satire), excellence of craftsmanship and of criticism can and should involve critiques of self, other, and world. The standards for critical judgment have long been reification into “objectivity” and are inseparable from the weight of progress narratives: however, the golden ratio or standard for art and criticism is not a definition or theory, but the living example herself, and the historical value (commercial or cultural), or shock-value (DuChamp’s urinal) of the work the artist or critic makes.

As John Stuart Mill said in 1869: “As mankind improves, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” An interesting counterpoint was made by Benjamin Kunkle in his 2012 N + 1 essay “Politico-psychopathology: Neurotocrats vs. the Grand Old Psychosis”: Kunkle argues the dream of “uncontestability” doesn’t take into account the extent to which citizens in a post-literate or media-saturated age are impeded in their ability to formulate rational thoughts, successfully interpret images or sieve through ideological fodder.

If it’s true that men die miserably every day for lack of what is found in poems, the tertiary goals of a critic would also then be to help readers learn to read closely—to literally “make sense” of semiotic or semantic language—and, if deconstructing texts, to reassemble a meaning (again, whether for one’s own understanding, or because one wishes to assert a hierarchy of values).

The trick is not to over-identify with any doctrine, esp. the thematic keynotes of New Criticism (the danger of allegorizing the work or attempt to create a “key to all mythologies” like the witless Causabon in Middlemarch)!

2.What’s your take on all the positive reviewing that happens of new poetry books?

Is that a misnomer? Should there be more negative reviews?

Jacob Silverman at Salon blames the “clubbiness and glad-handing” of literary culture for its current state of insular criticism: an anemic mix of “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm.” Yet, the middle ground to critical dispositifs of aesthetic disinterest (Sianne Ngai) and disgust (Simon Crichley) can, at the other extreme, quickly result in interchangeable, blurb-like criticism (boosterism or plot summaries rather than persuade or inform). Today’s whitewashed criticism, hand-in-hand with aesthetics of boredom, flarf, and disinterest, stem from the disconnections of a technocratic state, and our disinvestment in meaning and originality since the advent of reproduction, mechanized, and pop art: vastly different from the disinterested aesthetics of Kant, who equated interest with “instrumentality” (using people or aesthetic objects to serve our utilitarian or ideological ends). Claiming that only animals should be “interested” agents, he believed the rest of us should treat others, and art objects, as ends in themselves, not means to our ends, thus preserving the autonomy of another’s soi-disant “self.” If pleasure (or ecstasy) factors into disinterested aesthetics, it is from a safe remove: moving from “disinterest” to judgment and discrimination is necessary in order to take pleasure from art and exercise critical opinions, with regard to our personal response to an art work (unlike pain and oblivion, pleasure and meaning are differential).

The following quote, from Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, is apt (if caustic):

One sign of the general danger of this social group [upper-class Londoners at the turn of the 19th century in Henry James’ The Awkward Age] is that they are careful to praise and show affection . . . rather like denizens of Hollywood or the members of a large group of chimps who perform submissive behaviors so as not to alienate one another.

Avoiding one’s truth, or a universal truth, to maintain group relations is a problem not just for critics, but socialized humanity (particularly women, taxed historically with maintaining harmony and mirroring others rather than asserting themselves): fear, though, is not conductive to challenging art (Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” satirizes with hilarity the cultural maintenance of mediocrity and the status quo). The culture industry manufactures more than just consent, Adorno and Max Horkheimer remind us, in Dialectic of Enlightment (1979): it offers up the “goods” (art, culture, media, religion) but not the means to produce, critique, or take pleasure in them (how could we when our very “selves” are part of the manufacture).

3.What are other critics overlooking these days?

In the work of poet-critics and art critics I admire (Roger Fry, David Sylvester, Michael Fried, Katherine Kuh), I see a generational tendency to literalize Jameson’s “always historicize” (not speaking to the work outside of its societal contexture), and follow a certain script in the genre of criticism, not approaching the writing of the object in media res or with an element of spontaneity, and a lag time between the marginalization of a new form of representation (in genre, by a minority voice, or form) and its recognition as an actual intervention in art history other than as ghettoized “outsider art.”

The bohemian credo l’art pour l’art (attributed to Théophile Gautier’s writings in 1835 and reinforced by Poe in 1850 who expressed that the poem was written for the poem’s sake) was presaged by the Enlightenment thinkers’ distinction between les beaux-arts and les arts utiles. This distinction is perhaps best articulated by Jacques Rancière when he said that an art is emancipated and emancipating when it stops wanting to emancipate us. This argument that art “works” or achieves aesthetic autonomy when it stops interpolating with the reaction of the reader/spectator is the axis around which intentionalist criticism, most notably heralded by Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood” revolves (“The object, not the beholder, must remain the center or focus of the situation; but the situation itself belongs to the beholder—it is his situation.”)

Spectator culture and reader-response criticism reigns (passive reception of art, an inattention to craft, and the “burden” of evaluation transferred from author to reader, or critic to market, in late capitalism) when we forget art has a purpose, and is communicating, even if the purpose is to describe a phenomenon exceeding language, or to communicate the inability to mean (in language, between languages, or through image, movement, sound).

4.Who are the critics that you return to? Who do you wish to emulate?

I value a jouissance of criticism, based in not just vaunting one’s pride of place in literary circles (Bloom’s horror, and Jonathan Lethem’s ecstasy, of influence) but a genuine passion for one’s subject or object (Maggie Nelson’s Bluets). Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes are critics of this order, for me, as well as select writings from Helen Vendler, on Stevens and Dickinson. Vendler attempts to show the intrinsic tendency toward logic in poetry and to create what she did not find in previous criticism: an interpretation that is “guided by the poem as an exemplification of its own inner momentum.”

The work of Ngai and other affect theorists who advocate contemporary disinterestedness (what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”): Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings and her writings contemporary aesthetics (“The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” and “Merely Interesting”) expand her investigation not of the monstrous but the trivial: the newest order of avant-garde aesthetics. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Large Bad Picture” and Benjamin’s Arcades Project are among works that bridge the gap between high modernism and post-modernism: the bricoleur represents a recuperative force for modernist art, given that “bad art” fails to have a life distinct from contingencies of the spectator’s world. The criticism of Heather McHugh, Oren Izenberg, Marjorie Perloff, Lisa Siraganian, Chris Nealon, Michael Clune and Joshua Clover are among other the critics I admire, for their creation of signposts (Perloff on the post-lyric) interpreting our cultural moment in the corporate state (hemorrhaging of state funding for the arts and the bankruptcy of fiat aesthetics happening in tandem with ever-loftier conceptualisms), while reinventing new tropes to guide us. Clune’s Writing Against Time explores the effort to create an image immune to the erosive effects of neurobiological time: Clune links this search to the “addictive object” of psychoanalytic theory, in the form of literary hauntings (Proust’s Vinteuil sonata) that, if mastered, could break the chains to a recursive pattern or reading.

5.How do you handle what many have deemed a glut in contemporary poetry and how do you keep up with what comes out?

Short answer: I strive to understand what I value, and why, rather than trying to become as well-versed as I can in the ever-widening field of contemporary lit. Identity politics and the cult of personality (to which the popularity of memoir attests) in literature may be the malady of modern criticism today, but as we are all part of the problem, the only cure is to continue to write, read, make legible (in reason and form) communicative works, and continue to treat, as an act of mutuality, the work of recreating (naming) the world.

6.What advice do you have for critics and poets new to review writing who’d like to get started writing book reviews?

My reviewing journey included, and still does, texts on aesthetics and the history of judgments of “taste” (Kant, Pierre Bourdieu, 17th century Spanish Jesuit writer Baltasar Gracian, and also the gastronomical writers: M. F. K. Fischer’s Consider the Oyster; The Gastronomical Me, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste). I would look into this history (in the West and beyond), find a few historical precursors (Jonathan Culler, Julia Kristeva, Noam Chomsky) and contemporary critics whose readings you enjoy by reading contemporary critical essays and reviews (Boston Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Believer, LA Review of Books), and go to literary readings to hear the rhythms and sounds that appeal to you and to which you have an aversion, to familiarize yourself with your aesthetic beyond (somatically and intellectually) initial perceptions. When ready, select a book from a press you admire (Canarium’s and Wave Books’ catalogues would be auspicious places to start!), and begin the critical quest, to be both mirror and lamp.