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Field Notes 5: Criticism

Started by Field Notes, January 25, 2014, 07:34:48 PM

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Philip Rowland

Re. reply #68 from Jack Galmitz:

For what it's worth, Jack, I wasn't presuming anything about what you were or weren't aware of, in connection with the Riding Graves passage; just took a thought you posed as a question as such. And as I wrote, in quoting I wasn't subscribing to their view of "dead movements" -- agree that there's nonsense in that -- but was trying to focus on what struck me as interesting rather than nonsensical in their argument. Okay, what was meant as a side-note has taken us off-topic, so enough of that.

All the best,


Thank you Philip for the gentlemanly response.
Frankly, the only reason I felt some ire was because I had just been discussing Pound and what I took as his Excellency's haiku in the Metro.
And, I have to admit to having miffed the fellow who wanted me to read a haikuist's essay on whether or not Pound's poem was "actually" a haiku.
So, I took your remarks as further flurries of bullets over my head.
Actually, I was glad to read Riding in particular- you are quite right, she does illustrate her point the better of the two.

Philip Rowland

I'd add to Richard's mea culpa, in reply #67, re editorial style of presentation of haiku having perhaps to do with to its future as a genre, that this can be seen as a (creative) kind of criticism -- with a role to play in haiku criticism. Whether, for instance, a normative 3-line haiku appears among similar haiku or juxtaposed with a long-lined short poem in stanzas with a title may affect the kind of attention you pay to it. The change of pace will give you pause; the formal differences might make you consider the choice of form -- its appropriateness or limitation -- more carefully than you would otherwise; at the same time you might read with a keener eye for what the two poems have in common, how they relate thematically and play off or deepen one another. On a larger scale, this may touch on a new sense of poetic community (or commonality), which may in turn shift the critical mindset or frame of reference.

Don Baird

I would greatly appreciate keeping the topic "on topic" and in particular, to refrain from personal attacks and/or sarcasm.  I understand that it can be quite easy to become a bit riled up in the heady game of differing opinions.  But, honestly, we cannot (and shouldn't) "go there".

The posts have been amazing; your opinions have been carefully structured and well thought out.  And, I'm positive that the folks following along are enjoying your diverse opinions and posits - enough for someone to ponder for years (already).

Thank you all for the tremendous efforts you have offered.  But, lets rein in just a bit to keep this at the professional level we're used to.

Thank you,

Peace . . .


I write haiku because they're there to be written ...

storm drain
the vertical axis
of winter


At this juncture, after all is said, which excellence are we discussing. The Greek and Roman conception? The Japanese, referred to I believe as Shibui.  Since we are talking about an art that many or some feel should be modeled after the original wouldn't it be wise to differentiate cultural, historical standards for what excellence would mean in the context of a 21 Century Japanese poetic form and what its original meaning was for the Japanese in the 17th Century and earlier? Or is it perfectly fine to simply use our discretion and our personal understanding of what is meant by excellence to address excellence as an issue?  Will the starting point not wholly influence the result of the response?  What do you think?


Just one further observation. And this is on point, on all fours as they say.
If we take the prominent theory of language as propounded by De Saussure in the early part of the 20th C and continued as ground for the writings of Derrida, Barthes, et al, how are we to ever define excellence or rather recognize it outside of a language system.
Okay, so we stay within language. That's fine.
But the most telling thing De Saussure said was that language was arbitrary, unmotivated, meaning there was no natural relationship between the sound-image, the idea, and the thing referenced thereby.
Words were negative; that was their essence. What he meant was that all words and their components are what they are because they are not something else. When we read or hear we distinguish difference, not sameness. What this entails is that language has no positive existence.
If there is no positive existence to language and its components, then we can only understand excellence as not not excellence.  Which is fine, but different than giving a positive spin to excellence and then finding positive examples of it.
With this in mind is excellence in haiku whatever is not not excellent and if so we would have to have examples of the not excellent, but this would lead us, would it not, in a circle, because not excellent derives its meaning from what it is not, which is excellence.
So? Please continue on with your examples, examinations, opinions, judgements, and so forth.

Richard Gilbert

Phil, an intriguing series of thoughtful steps, from:
Quote... re editorial style of presentation of haiku having perhaps to do with to its future as a genre, that this can be seen as a (creative) kind of criticism -- with a role to play in haiku criticism.

QuoteWhether, for instance, a normative 3-line haiku appears among similar haiku or juxtaposed with a long-lined short poem in stanzas with a title may affect the kind of attention you pay to it. The change of pace will give you pause; the formal differences might make you consider the choice of form -- its appropriateness or limitation -- more carefully than you would otherwise; at the same time you might read with a keener eye for what the two poems have in common, how they relate thematically and play off or deepen one another.

QuoteOn a larger scale, this may touch on a new sense of poetic community (or commonality), which may in turn shift the critical mindset or frame of reference.

This last especially interests me, in that you are grounding the "larger scale" of "a new sense of poetic community" and potential "shift [in] the critical mindset" in the particular: the smaller-scale experience of reading poems -- qualitatively unique experiences of aesthetic savor or arrest (e.g. "the change of pace will give you pause") -- something mentioned earlier, in determining excellence. An editor may (with permission) willfully re-arrange lineation and layout (and create sequences), as a creative act.This has rarely been done in the haiku genre.

Earlier quoted was "glazed with rain/water/ /beside the white/chickens" whose layout remains striking (sense of breath and space, objective breaking of syntax). Today, was reading WCW's "Young Woman At a Window" A) as part of a two-poem series; then examining the two published versions of the poem: 1) Version 1 and 2) Version 2.

How charged the same poem becomes when it follows "The Raper From Passenack" (pub. 1935; definitely not a "chicken" poem) in A) (and note the 3-line/disjunctive "haikuesque" style of "The Raper's" stanzas); how differently 1) & 2) read from each other. Each its own universe. (I note WCW's signature lineational style -- one rarely applied to haiku/sequences. Martone sometimes lineates similarly -- I often reflect on WCW, reading him.) This, by way of example.


In the visual arts this " (creative) kind of criticism" that Phil and Richard are talking about is called curating.
A curator absolutely shapes how individual works are understood by controlling the context in which they are seen. A curator is analogous to the role of an editor in literary terms. Though, very often, in the visual arts, curators write catalog essays for their exhibitions, so they in fact function overtly as critics.  I can recall several exhibitions that have entirely revamped how a particular artist's work is seen historically.

Curating is an art-form in itself, more difficult than it might seem. Inspired curators make connections between works and between artists that highlight the intrinsic properties of individual pieces or, of one artist's oeuvre in relation to another's.  Or as Phil says, "shift the critical mindset or frame of reference." I think NOON and Lilliput Review are a great examples of this for the reasons Phil and Richard have commented. The editorial/curatorial process of a group of poems/artworks always shifts the connotations of individual works, as in the example that Richard gives of placing two WC Williams poems side by side. 

Unfortunately, there has been a trend in the visual arts for curators to want to take center stage for career building purposes—the curator's name is increasingly the first thing one reads on an  exhibition announcement.  So, on the flip side of thoughtful curating are shows that are more about building a roster of art-stars organized rather lazily around some trendy topic. In other words, the driving force is not really the work itself and the curator has not done the research, or does not have the background, to justify their curatorial premise. When done poorly, it seems that curators are frustrated artists who want to have their own show. Of course one can decide not to submit work to a given journal if one feels the way things are put together are lower than one's quality standards, though in the visual arts, curators often become the gate-keepers to all kinds of things like grant funding, access to collections, etc. etc. So, I have mixed feelings about this whole thing, because curators--and many editors-- in the end, have the upper hand in a power relationship.

However, that said, I would so welcome more journals--or presses-- that concentrate on short poetry and include haiku and tanka as part of a diverse mix of approaches. Perhaps these efforts could produce issues that juxtapose a handful of poets along with a critical essay, or pick a theme to curate around, again with a critical essay examining that theme. (Richard, your Natural Night).

Mark Harris

I'm continuing some ideas offered by Richard and Phil on frames of reference, and Eve's more recent comment posted on 3/4/14:

Eve's analogy with visual arts curation provides a lens through which we can examine the topic of authorship and readership. Yes, the way curators, and the institutions behind them, frame the scholarship that accompanies an exhibition speaks volumes. And the way pictures are arranged on the wall, the juxtapositions chosen--as a museum preparator, that process is familiar to me. We seldom have much time to install exhibitions. Years of planning end in a motley crew hanging and lamping the production within a few days. Despite the power relationships, which are of course real and sometimes grudgingly accepted, something wonderful happens then. When it comes to the layout of the art, the best laid plans are usually discarded, at least in part. We'll look at a wall, say "this isn't working" and then change it, as a group, each of us playing a greater or lesser part.

Who is the author? Where does the power reside? Not so clear.

All that brings my mother to mind. When my sister and I were young, she used to read aloud to us. From picture books at first, and later novels, trilogies and longer series. She's a born performer and had a way of inhabiting the characters and also the authorial voice. She made those books come alive! I remember listening with bated breath, experiencing whole literary worlds through her adult, slightly alien perception. Disbelief was not entirely suspended; I would read along over her shoulder, and my own interpretation paralleled hers.

When I read work by critics and editors with a talent for sharing their love of poem and text, I feel I'm being read to (and read along). Criticism as creative act: I can only imagine that's not easy to accomplish without taking too many liberties, and yet the results of picking "a theme to curate around," as Eve puts it, can be stimulating and fun. If we're looking for a model of a critical work curated around a theme, my first thought is of Hiro Sato's One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English (Weatherhill, 1983).

Richard Gilbert

'Literature and Society: The Vanished Debate'

Continuing on the theme of criticism in relation to the poem, the self (oneself), the author, institution, canon (&c.). With a focus on the question of talent. Just below, are seven prescient paragraphs by Martin Amis, elucidating Robbbins' perspective, though with greater scope (from a British perspective it hardly needs mentioning). I'll place the "FN5 'linking'" replies after the Amis quotation, to illustrate connections within this ongoing thread. Do you find Amis accurate, relevant, illuminating here?

"Foreword," Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000
Winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle award for criticism.

Quote[The 1970s] now seems unrecognizably remote. I had a day job at the Times Literary Supplement. Even then I sensed discrepancy, as I joined an editorial conference (to help prepare, perhaps, a special number on Literature and Society), wearing shoulder-length hair, a flower shirt, and knee-high tricoloured boots (well-concealed, it is true, by the twin tepees of my flared trousers). My private life was middle-bohemian — hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson — or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about W.K. Wimsatt and G. Wilson Knight, about Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye, about Richard Poirier, Tony Tanner and George Steiner. It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilization. Everyone concurred. Literature, we felt, was the core discipline; criticism explored and popularized the significance of that centrality, creating a space around literature and thereby further exalting it. The early Seventies, I should add, saw the great controversy about the Two Cultures: Art v. Science (or F.R. Leavis v. C.P. Snow). Perhaps the most fantastic thing about this cultural moment was that Art seemed to be winning.

Literary historians know it as the Age of Criticism. It began, let us suggest, in 1948, with the publication of Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture and Leavis's The Great Tradition. What ended it? The brutalist answer would consist of a single four-letter word: OPEC. In the Sixties you could live on ten shillings a week: you slept on people's floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper — about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, a bus fare cost ten shillings. The oil hike, and inflation, and then stagflation, revealed literary criticism as one of the many leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without. Well, that's how it felt. But it now seems clear that literary criticism was inherently doomed. Explicitly or otherwise it had based itself on a structure of echelons and hierarchies; it was about the talent elite. And the structure atomized as soon as the forces of democratization gave their next concerted push.

Those forces — incomparably the most potent in our culture -have gone on pushing. And they are now running up against a natural barrier. Some citadels, true, have proved stormable. You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.

Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon.

Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth's poetics; it will come from a challenging study of his politics - his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious 'valorization' of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the Internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic — or at least a book-reviewer. Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of the sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody's feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else's. This is the new credo, the new privilege. It is a privilege much exercised in the contemporary book-review, whether on the Web or in the literary pages. The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature.

Probably some readers are getting the impression that I think these developments are to be deplored. Not so. It is the summit of idleness to deplore the present, to deplore actuality. Say whatever else you like about it, the present is unavoidable. And we, in the Seventies, were frequently ridiculous, too, with our Fallacies and our Seven Types (and Leavis's besieged intensity was ridiculous. His shaping embarrassment, however, was to nominate as his model for sanity the person of D.H. Lawrence). Emotional egalitarianism, for example, looks hard to attack. I honour it, in a way, but it has to me the pale glow of illusion. It is Utopian, which is to say that reality cannot be expected to support it. Then, too, these 'feelings' are seldom unadulterated; they are admixtures of herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchinesses, and everything else that makes up a self.

One of the historical vulnerabilities of literature, as a subject for study, is that it has never seemed difficult enough. This may come as news to the buckled figure of the book-reviewer, and to the literary critic, but it's true. Hence the various attempts to elevate it, complicate it, systematize it. Interacting with literature is easy. Anyone can join in, because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual sensitivities come so strongly into play; not surprising, either, that the discipline has rolled over for democratization far more readily than, for example, chemistry and Ancient Greek. In the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy. This isn't the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don't.

Let me run, for a while, with an extended simile. Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone twenty-four hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, nowadays, then he's likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.

Thematic links, back through this thread:
Eve Luckring wrote (Reply #1 on: January 25, 2014):
"I appreciate criticism that makes me think about an artwork/poem, or an artist's/poet's body of work, in a new way. Usually this is because the critic puts the object of discussion in context of something bigger:

--the histories that surround the work,
--the formal attributes of the work in relation to other poetry/art (of the past or present),
--the social/cultural context that the work intersects with
--the life experiences and artistic/philosophical inquiry of the artist/poet

A good critic has to be very well informed.
. . .
I think only a very small percentage of the "haiku community" has interest in the type of more scholarly criticism I crave. This makes me sad because I feel this type of reflection and contemplation--thinking about how something works and the contexts that surround it-- can help deepen our relationship to what we do."

Mark Harris wrote (Reply #27 on: February 13, 2014):
"Years ago, I went to art school to study painting. Art handling was a way to pay the bills at first; all these years later, here I am still doing it. It's good work. To hold a Rubens, a Maya chocolate drinking cup, or an Albers in my hands can be a thrill. And to share them with the public, that's also a thrill. . . . Painting is dead, people have been saying ever since [cf. c. 1961, Albers, the height of Modernism], and yet it never quite does die. "

Eve Luckring wrote (Reply #36 on: February 19, 2014):
"It fascinated me that Grenier was removed from the latest edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, presumably to make room for some new additions, or..."

I wrote in reply to Eve (Reply #37: February 22, 2014), linking to an article on the evolution of (mainly) poetic criticism within succeeding eras, with a focus on the contemporary moment (a new major anthology):

Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, by Paul Hoover, ed.
Review by Michael Robbins (July 2013):

I commented: "This essay ably demonstrates not only excellent criticism, but also some of the reasons why criticism is vital in arts culture. Within are longstanding issues in contemporary criticism: canonicity, institutions (& -alities), academia, in-groups, posturing, poetry versus ideology."

Mark Harris commented (Reply #83: March 07, 2014) ("...continuing some ideas offered by Richard and Phil on frames of reference, and Eve's more recent comment posted on 3/4/14"):

"Who is the author? Where does the power reside? Not so clear."

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