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OLM Favorites: Aid in the Labyrinth

By (December 1, 2017) No Comment

As I sit down to write, I feel the need to apologize. After all, Randall Jarrell wasn’t very fond of critics, although he was one. Or rather, he wasn’t very fond of criticism, which he felt had become far too influential, supplanting in the eyes of the reading public the very stories and poems and plays that criticism was meant to serve. The world in which he lived and moved, a world in which no one would admit to having really read Moby Dick until he had read a critic’s account of it, was a flattened, saddened world. And while Jarrell might have thought of essays like this one – criticizing a critic – as necessary correctives, the very fact that they were necessary would have been cause for lamentation.

For Jarrell lamented his age – the “Age of Criticism,” as he termed it in his essay of that name – in which critics had ceased to be humble in the face of works of art, both great and minor:

Once, talking to a young critic, I said as a self-evident thing, ‘Of course, criticism’s necessarily secondary to the works of art it’s about.’ He looked at me as if I had kicked him, and said: ‘Oh, that’s not so!’(I had kicked him, I realized.) And recently I heard a good critic, objecting to most of the criticism in the quarterlies, say what real criticism did: what it did, as he put it, was almost exactly what people usually say that religion, love, and great works of art do. Criticism, which began humbly and anomalously existing for the work of art, and was in part a mere by-product of philosophy and rhetoric, has by now become, for a good many people, almost what the work of art exists for: the animals come up to Adam and Eve and are named—the end crowns the work.

Humility, for Jarrell, was a prerequisite to good criticism. First, because too lofty an attitude might – to the extent that writers paid attention to the critics (which they did, and do!) – end by distorting or even stemming the tide of poems and stories with which the critic was concerned. “Why stick one’s neck out so far for so little,” and create a work of art, when that work is almost certain to be damned with faint praise, or just damned altogether? Jarrell quotes Elizabeth Bishop saying, of the criticism-freighted journals of her day, “After I go through one of the literary quarterlies I don’t feel like reading a poem for a week, much less like writing one.” Much safer to stand back and write criticism than to make an almost necessarily imperfect work of art.

Mostly, however, critics should be humble because they are nearly certain to be wrong. “Art is long, and the critic is the insect of a day.” Their fondest darlings may be left in the dust by the judgment of history, while the same writers they disdained are considered geniuses by all the critics’ grandchildren. Consequently, as Jarrell wrote, “a great deal of the best and most sensible criticism of any age is necessarily absurd. . . . Goethe and Schiller thought so little of Hölderlin that after a while they wouldn’t even answer his letters.” Criticism is only the reflection of individual taste, and bears no greater claim to authority than that. I cannot tell you which poems will be read by the public in fifty years; I can only tell you which ones I will come back to.

For this reason, Jarrell was deeply suspicious of both the increasingly academic nature of criticism, and its systematization, of attempts to turn it into a scientific discipline by which the critic could definitively reveal which works were great and which were bad. Criticism should be “written by a reader for readers, by a human being for human beings,” he wrote, but he found that “a great deal of [it] might just a well have been written by a syndicate of encyclopedias for an audience of International Business Machines.” And the end result was that rather than write stories, poems or plays, young intellectuals settled down to increasingly “blinkered, methodical, self-important” dissections of them:

Chances are that it has never even occurred to the young critic to write a story or a poem. New critic is but old scholar writ large, as a general thing: the same gifts which used to go into proving that the Wife of Bath was really an aunt of Chaucer’s named Alys Persë now go into proving that all of Henry James’s work is really a Swedenborgian allegory. Criticism will soon have reached the state of scholarship, and the most obviously absurd theory—if it maintained intensively, exhaustively, and professionally—will do the theorist no harm in the eyes of his colleagues.

This increasingly “Alexandrian” sort of criticism might have been a harmless fad of the academy’s, but such work appeared not in scholarly publications, but in literary ones. Beyond this, Jarrell observed (and this was in the 1950s!) that the “reading public” didn’t read as much or as widely or as joyfully as once it did. Jealous of its time, distracted by television and more, readers turned to critics in order to know what books to read, such that most of what they ended up reading was criticism. “It is criticism, after all, which protects us from the bad or unimportant books that we would otherwise have to read; and during the time we have saved we can read more of the criticism which protects us.”

Perverse incentives, there, for the critic! All his cultural capital lies, like the Wizard of Oz’s power, in preventing anyone from peeking behind the curtain. Before that curtain, the critic is a wise guide to whom timid readers flock, nearly omniscient in his ability to discern the worthwhile from the worthless. Behind it, he is a bespectacled man from Peoria, and no different from anyone else. Even Jarrell could hardly blame the critics of his age for the fiction in which they conspired with the public – that there was a wondrous, timesaving way of reading only the good, the right, and the beautiful, and that was by listening to the critic, that authoritative source. Of course, Jarrell did blame them. Reading is not meant to be so narrow an exercise, nor to be approached with the same mixture of weariness and civic duty as making sure one eats enough fiber. And to Jarrell’s mind it was the critics, if anyone, who should know that.

Jarrell hoped that a critic was a creature borne from a love of reading, a love of art. He observed, nonetheless, that a great many critics gave “an odd impression about reading, one that might be given this exaggerated emblematic form: ‘Good Lord, you don’t think I like to read, do you? Reading is serious business, not something you fool around with in your spare time.’” What a sad discipline, critisicm! Not only does the critic stand between the reader and the writing, like the clowning Wall between Pyramus and Thisbe, he ends up getting in his own way. Jarrell writes that a true critic – and no critic is true all the time – is “an extremely good reader – one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read.” And why should you want to show anyone anything about that, if not out of enthusiasm for reading itself?

Jarrell was not around for the 1980s, when English departments were gripped by the desire to squeeze everything ever written through the Derrida-Foucault-Baudrillard Play-Doh Fun Factory (which I escaped by being under the age of twelve at the time– I don’t think anyone’s deconstructed Anne of Green Gables yet), but he saw enough of like-minded gobbledygook in the formally-minded new criticism of the 1950s. “It is perpetually tempting to the critic to make his style and method so imposing to everyone that nobody will notice or care when he is wrong.” As a result, “the plagues of Egypt couldn’t equal all the references to Freud and Jung and Marx and myths and existentialism and neo-Calvinism and Aristotle and St. Thomas that you’ll sometimes see in one commonplace article.” Here again, the critic acts not as a guide to the reader, but as a wedge separating the reader from the work, confusing him, convincing him that reading a book is a difficult and dangerous undertaking. “In literature it is not that we have a labyrinth without a clue; the clues themselves have become a worse labyrinth.”

Well then, what is a reader to do, and what a critic? Jarrell suggests that both realize that the reality of the critic is the bespectacled man from Peoria, and not the wizard. The reader might try venturing into the world of literature without “a white hunter, native guides, and a $10,000 policy … bought from the insurance-machine at the airport.” He could read a story instead of a review, a poem instead of an analysis, and without being close-minded about it, attempt to have some conviction in his own taste. The critic, meanwhile, should remember that “critics exist simply to help us with works of art.” The reader and the work of art should be foremost in his mind – he writes for them, and not for the glory of criticism. He should “admit what he can’t conceal, that criticism is no more than (and no less than) the thoughtful and disinterested judgment of a reader, a loving and experienced and able reader, but only a reader.”

Did Jarrell himself admit what he couldn’t conceal? I first read Jarrell’s reviews and essays at least a decade ago; coming back to them was a happy experience. In “The Age of Criticism,” Jarrell writes that a critic should “disappear in the quicksand of his own convictions,” and he himself wrote a personal, personable criticism. In the reviews collected most particularly in Poetry and the Age, enthusiasm is the better part of his criticism, but his bread never wants leavening. When he sees what he likes, he is quick and effusive to point it out, but without slavish euphoria. When he doesn’t like what he sees, it is more in sorrow than in anger that he writes. He can be irritable – the quick-witted nearly always are – as when calling out Muriel Rukeyser for telling, not showing:

Are the questions pure and fiery? Always, in such poetry as this. The rhythm of every last word is crying: “Don’t ask questions – lie back, child! Don’t you want to be moved?” Yes; but more than this, and more specifically than this. Tell us the questions and we can see whether they’re pure and fiery. And—and it’s all so familiar . . . Miss Rukeyser almost asks us to be unjust to her, to treat her as an orator, not a poet, and to quote to her Kant’s crushing paragraphs (in the Critique of Judgment) about the difference between oratory and poetry.

It isn’t a hatchet-job, though. Elsewhere in the same essay, he praises Rukeyser’s original imagery and “considerable talent for emotional rhetoric.” She’s not a bad poet, he seems to be saying; it’s that she’s good enough to have written a better book than this.

In reviews of work he likes, he suffers the same fate as anyone attempting to convey an enthusiasm – everything you can say boils down to “well, it’s really very good.” The adjectives of English are much better equipped for disdain than delight, and while Jarrell goes to some lengths to explain what he favors in, say, Frost, the results are not always entirely persuasive. I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile myself to his view that Frost’s “Provide, Provide,” is an “immortal masterpiece,” but I certainly have given it more and deeper consideration since reading Jarrell’s take than I would have ever done otherwise.

Jarrell’s greatest talent might have been not for persuading you to his view, but for persuading you that there might be something in what he found beautiful, useful, or important and that – this is key – the only way for you to know would be to read it. I found myself pulling many books off my shelf, re-reading Frost, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell. And I even took a chance on a totally unread book, mentioned in passing in “The Age of Criticism” and another essay, “Poets, Critics, and Readers” – Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Before re-reading Jarrell’s essays, I hadn’t the least desire or intention to read Kim. Having done so, I am happy – I haven’t read such an unexpected book in ages. Unexpected in its themes, characters, and execution – like the White King with his ham sandwiches and hay, I don’t say there’s nothing better, just that there’s nothing like it.

Kim was unexpected also in its provenance. To read a book because it was mentioned favorably in an essay, in a piece of criticism, may not seem terribly odd at all, but it is odd for me. I subscribed for several years to the New York Review of Books, and I don’t think I ever read a book reviewed there. Rather than aid my reading, the New York Review seemed to get – there’s that Wall again – in the way of it. I don’t know about “disappearing into quicksand,” but Jarrell doesn’t get in the reader’s way; he aids.

And so, I suppose I need not apologize after all. For all I know, it is still an “Age of Criticism,” staffed by critics that “resemble one of the robots you meet in science-fiction stories, with a microscope for one eye, a telescope for the other, and the mechanical brain at Harvard for a heart.” But I have tried to write this piece as a reader, for a reader, and as a human being for other human beings. And if it persuades you not to view Jarrell as I do, but to pick up his essays and see if you agree, then, as Jarrell said, “the article will have been worth writing.”

Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poetry, Applies to Oranges, is available from Ugly Duckling Presse. She lives in Washington, DC.