Monday, March 09, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Poet as Critic

In putting together the latest Dedalus Press publication, Flowing, Still : Irish Poets on Irish Poetry, I found myself wondering once again about that strange two-headed creature, the poet-critic. Though a considerable number of Irish poets have written on Irish poetry, one of the most active of Irish poet-critics, Dennis O’Driscoll, typically remains skeptical of the dual impulse.

“Insofar as poets deign to notice the work of other poets—staunchest allies and fiercest enemies aside—it tends to be for the purpose of stimulating their own creativity or as a spring-board for discussion at poetry workshops. When poets shortlist friends and faculty colleagues for honours and awards, it is because this is the only contemporary poetry they genuinely care about. Since you can’t award the prize to yourself, better to present it to someone who offers camaraderie and perhaps power than to grapple with the aesthetic of a poet whom one hasn’t met and who wields no clout.” (Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams: Selected Prose Writings, Gallery Books, 2001).

David Wheatley, among the most active of the younger poet-critics, in an essay entitled ‘None of us likes it: On the poet-critic’ (Dublin Review, Spring 2002) also finds himself wondering about the uneasy relationship between the two roles, though for a different reason:

“Poet-critic: there is a temptation to read the hyphen as a subtraction sign, as if every brainwave of the latter robbed the world of the former’s next villanelle or sestina…”

Wheatley goes on to draw distinctions between the writing of criticism per se and “the occasional bout of reviewing”, the latter not automatically leading to the former. “[T]rying to decide where rapid-response journalism ends and a leisurely essay begins,” he suggests, “can be a sensitive task”. Towards the end of his essay, Wheatley cannot but admire Gottfried Benn who wrote a “brilliantly dismissive” response to his own collected works: “I would be amazed if anyone were to read it; I feel quite remote from them, I throw them over my shoulder like Deucalion and his stones; maybe their distortions will turn into human beings, but whatever happens, I don’t care for them.”

Even so, for all the attendant dangers and obstacles there are many examples of poetry criticism from practicing poets, including that of the poets just mentioned, that do offer access into unfamiliar work or a fresh approach to work one might already know. Readers may be right to mistrust blurbs, and even despair at the lack of depth in a great deal of what passes for poetry reviewing, but O’Driscoll’s distinction between categories of response (“A review is read before the book, criticism afterwards”) suggests that criticism has at least the possibility of being uncontaminated by the desire to promote and may yet play a meaningful role.

When John Montague contributed a review of Thomas Kinsella's The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland (Carcanet, 1995) to Poetry Ireland Review 47, he began by acknowledging one aspect of the difficulty, but then went on to reveal a major benefit to readers.

"I undertake this review reluctantly; contemporaries do not (or should not) review each other, except for a leg up or a strategic snarl, if you feel the other has been getting away with murder. The old adage that dog does not eat dog has some truth, indeed some dignity, but there is the reverse truth that no one else has access to part of one's life like a contemporary."

In Montague’s second point lies, of course, the truth about most poets who write about poetry, Irish or otherwise: they do so out of interest, curiosity, passion. (To do so hoping for profits, or hoping to keep—let alone make—friends would be a double folly.) Irish poetry may have international ambassadors, and indeed a number of global champions, but in the relatively small subset that is ‘Irish poetry’, Irish poets would seem in the main to believe that, however it might be defined, ‘Irish poetry’ is something bigger than themselves and take some solace, if not pride, in the visibility of the work of colleagues and fellow writers on an international stage.

The perhaps inevitable tangles of loyalty and grievance that surface on occasion are hardly unique to Irish poetry: one might mention, by way of illustration, Byron’s famous dismissal of Keats as “a tadpole of the lakes” or Keats’ concerns about Wordsworth: “Are we to be bullied into a certain philosophy engendered in the whims of an egotist?” or, to complete the circle, Wordsworth’s opinion of Byron: “Let me only say one word upon Lord B. The man is insane.” Romantics, indeed. With some notable exceptions (perhaps material for a future bestseller?), and despite Samuel Johnson’s suggestion to the contrary, the Irish (or Irish poets, at least) in the main speak relatively well of one another.

“In contemporary Irish poetry,” as I suggest in the Introduction to Flowing, Still: Irish Poets on Irish Poetry, “one might argue that negative response is more likely to come in the form of silence or absence rather than in direct application of any critical apparatus.” The absence of so many practicing poets (many fine poets among them) from the record is a continuing cause for concern and suggests that little has changed in the twenty plus years since a questionnaire to find Ireland’s most neglected poet (Poetry Ireland Review, No. 20, 1987, ed. Dennis O’Driscoll) saw Anthony Cronin nominate himself. One imagines that a great number of Irish poets, had they Cronin’s courage (and dark sense of humour?), might today do likewise.

Aside from his/her own interior tug-of-war, in the outside world the poet / critic might be said to have two major problems to confront: (a) how to say anything new and truly worthwhile about the major figures on the landscape, and (b) how to keep up with the great numbers of mid-career and emerging poets whose work would likely benefit from a sympathetic close reading but for which readership is understandably limited. Confronted with such challenges, it is a wonder (and to my mind a cause for celebration) that there are any poets at all who devote even a part of their creative efforts to the reading of the work of others.

-Pat Boran, March 2009

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