Monday, April 3, 2017


What I’m after is a form of autobiography via criticism, or vice versa, or both. The specifics of my life as the basis for my access to the ideas I promulgate, but those ideas, taking their reference from the world around me—via reading, listening, watching—become a critical encounter with how art shapes a life. Not as an artist, but as audience. How collective that achieved view will be may be the problem, for most readers. The unique position of the speaker must include the reader in the thought, even if never consciously speaking for her at least necessarily speaking to her. Let’s call it, as a joke, a “speaking likeness,” for my words—in a manner of speaking—will shape my thought and my thought will, if well-expressed, find its “likeness” in a listener.

What has long been clear to me is how lazy I am. To work at something doesn’t suit me much. The “one-on-one” relation has always engaged my sensibility best. I like an audience but I don’t trust its collectivity. A roomful of individuals is hard to conceive—hard to address—as “one.” And yet—in teaching—that’s what comes to hand: the points to be imparted have to assume minds ready to receive them. And yet most of my necessary learning was gained by reading, not listening to the oral explanations of others. Though putting things into words, mostly in exchanges between or among a very few, played a significant part in the later stages of my education. What set me apart, in college, was that I was older and had already made up my mind about many critical matters, based on my own exposures, and wasn’t solely taking my cue from or repeating the teacher. Also, I read more—had read more—than was assigned. It’s hard to find an audience of such ready youth today and yet one must imagine it, if only to break silence and speak.

I hope I’ve got past seeing criticism as “somewhere to dump all my negativity” (though sometimes I am still tempted). If so, that began in earnest in college, when I wrote with a will to the intelligence of the professor of the course, and continued into all the critical writing I’ve done since. And, yes, sometimes I presumed myself to be explaining something even the prof—to say nothing of a general audience—missed or failed to appreciate. In the writing found in literary journals there is much that is too glib or too personal to suit my taste and yet there is much good writing and many good ideas. The trick is to avail oneself enough of the collective voice so as to get a hearing but without simply uttering the same ideas already received. It’s not novelty one wants so much as necessity. But that’s hard to account for if one’s only real struggle is against time. “Necessity” in such a case may stem from nothing more than wanting to put the record straight, to have one’s say, to color the air while it lasts. So be it.

Which, of course, pretty much describes my sense of the lyric, of poetry as simply a way of saying. The necessity of poetry—of poetic speech—has always been, for me, an approximation of a state of being—more than a state of mind—a way of knowing what is happening “where the meanings are,” as Dickinson has it. But the meanings, as my voice will have it, are always struggling to be indicated. There’s no simple task of calling a spade a spade because language is already fabric or sound or machine or wave; it’s never just a tool or a task. We inhabit it, we wear it, we imbibe it. We put it to uses, but those uses, in poetry, become highly selective, furtive, questioning. But questioning is no way to write a lecture or essay or review. One must use language for the task of clarifying and rendering, of explaining and arguing, of defining and making distinctions, of, maybe, charming and amusing, but not remaking the terms for the sake of wayward intention. Still, something in the waywardness of intention is what I would keep in my essays and, now and then, when a work merits it, in my reviews. Sometimes—and I want to trust this more and more—it’s the leap one makes from a given jumping-off point that matters, not the path one took to arrive there.

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