Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter Nicholson on Auden, and against the "Poetic"

The Auden centenary is coming up, and Peter Nicholson has posted his poem, "Asking Auden," from 1984 at 3 Quarks Daily (seems we're in a linking-to-3QD mood over here). He's also posted a short essay with some reflections on the function of criticism, specifically poetry criticism. The highlight for me is the following:

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word 'poetic' is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse's patchy visitations. 'Poetic' is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public's indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer's efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It's true, as Robert Hughes said in Australia recently—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout. That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. . . . Personally, I can't think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly. However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that's even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. 'Poetry makes nothing happen' and 'All art is quite useless' are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.(link)

(I had to look up "falls the shadow, Cynara". Did you?)

I like Nicholson's general point here. While good criticism can be helpful and insightful, it's almost never really "authoritative," partly because even benchmark critics have their own spots of extreme idiosyncrasy, and partly because every reader brings an essentially unique combination of taste, experience, and intelligence to the text at hand.

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