Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Don't Get Literary Criticism

File this under "old news", but I'm just getting around to it due to some recent reading that reinforces my old prejudices.

A couple of years ago at the Absolute Write poetry forum we had a thread about critique vs. criticism. Now I enjoy poetry critique, but I've never really liked literary criticism. I contributed to the thread, including this:
Criticism, on the other hand, is evaluating completed poems and comparing them to some standard that the critic holds regarding poetry. We might not state the standard, but it's always there in the background.
To this a most learned lady replied, a professor of some sort, obviously highly educated, also very sure of what she says. Her reply to the above was:
Be careful about conflating the common use of criticism with literary criticism; they are not the same. Literary criticism, and critical theory, are ways of reading texts that are interpretive, rather than evaluative.

One way of thinking of criticism is to look at it as a reader attempting to find personal meaning in a text, to discover how, and why, a text (a poem, a song, a novel, a letter, an advertisement) does or does not "work" for that reader.
Which brings me to the reading I did that finally spurred me to write this post. At the Chicago Publishers Row Lit Fest in June, I picked up the book The End of the Poem by Paul Muldoon. There were drawn from a series of 15 lectures Muldoon gave at Oxford University in the first decade of this century. Now I don't know Muldoon, had never heard of him before. But the book was marked down from $17 to $4, I liked the title, the TOC looked interesting, and so I bought. About two weeks ago I finally got it out of the bag and began reading it.

This is a book of literary criticism, I guess. Muldoon starts out evaluating Yeat's "All Souls' Night", which he ties line by line to various works of Keats, and to other works of Yeats. He looked at lines, structure, even the date it was written, and showed how this line and that line Yeats had borrowed from Keats, and how he was signalling that he was borrowing from Keats. At the end of the lecture/chapter, I found myself more confused than elucidated.

He then went on to Ted Hughes' "The Literary Life". He evaluated this one all right. It appears to have been about an encounter Hughes and Sylvia Plath had with Marianne Moore in 1958. The poem definitely seemed to be about a real encounter, and hence at least somewhat or maybe entirely autobiographical. At one point Muldoon wrote:

I want to concentrate in this chapter on that aspect of the phrase "the end of the poem" connected to the notion of there being "no barriers" between the poem and the biography of its author—including the hinterland of the letter, the journal, the gossip column....
In addition to this, Muldoon does this same line by line (not every line, but many of them) tying of the poem to other works by Hughes, by Plath, by Moore, and others. I reject this idea that the poem must be autobiographical. That's what he seems to be saying in the quote above. Why must every poem be autobiographical? Why must a poem by a poet be tied to other poems by the same poet? Can he/she not have works totally independent of each other?

Muldoon moves on the Robert Frost's "The Mountain", a poem I discovered three years ago and fell in love with. Muldoon, however, butchers it in his evaluation. The name of the mountain is Hor. This, he says, is a lot like hoar and hoary, which connote white and cold things—frost. Thus Frost is cluing us in to his name through naming the mountain Hor.

Give me a break. Is this what literary critics do? No wonder I never liked it. Could frost never mention ice or frost or cold or white or hoary without some over-reaching critic say it has to be about his own name, and hence autobiographical? This whole the poem must be autobiographical and must be tied to the rest of the poet's body of work and must be tied to poems that poet might have read and must have borrowed from disgusts me.

Give me critique any old day. Literary criticism and me have parted company, and I suspect we will never rejoin, unless those guys who met to define it meet and change the definition.


Gary said...

Taken to extremes literary criticism certainly could be ridiculous. However, given that a work is created in the context of an author's experience, why should it not have linkages to other works and life occurrences ? Especially for poetry, which economizes on words while expressing emotion, allusion and cryptic references give it some depth. "Roses are red, voilets are blue" verse is boring. Some readers like the search for meaning in multiple facets and layers. The great poets construct there works so well that both the casual reader and the critic find it appealing.

David A. Todd said...


I know literary criticism is something you think highly of. Perhaps with time I'll come to embrace it a bit more, but not if most literary critics follow the path Muldoon did. I reject that every poem is autobiographical. Some may be. Some may draw upon the life experiences of the poet though not be strictly autobiographical. Others could well be off the wall, and have nothing to do with the poet save for the research he has done.

So long as Muldoon holds this autobiographical mandate position, I won't be taking much else of what he says seriously. I certainly won't believe that every time Robert Frost has something cold in a poem that he is making a play off his name.

I'll be making a couple of more posts on this, though I sit there with Muldoon's book and look back on what I've read for statements I feel are idiotic, and I can't focus on them.

Meanwhile, I'm open to suggestions of a work of literary criticism to read that you think was done well. Not a "how to write literary criticism" piece, but a piece of criticism itself.