Wandering through Amazon...as one does, I was surprised by some of the reviews of Seamus Heaney’s work. One “reviewer” dismissed it as boring and pointless, another said it was good but irrelevant, another complained that the later poems in the collected are “difficult to understand”.
I wonder what the purpose of such “reviews’ are for the person posting them. Does claiming a poet is “difficult” mean anything? Or saying “I don’t like this” say anything about the work in question?
Coleridge said the mark of good criticism is that it points out, for intelligent readers, qualities in the work they might miss themselves. Stating the obvious: telling someone something is bad when it’s obviously bad, or simply giving an unqualified and uneducated opinion, are both equally pointless.
Which makes me realise how rare good criticism seems to be. There are reviews, and opinions, and critical theory, there’s blogs and customer reviews, but not much in the way of the kind of criticism that sends you back to the poem or the writer with renewed interest or understanding.
Having just reread Graves, Richards, Elliot and Cleanth Brooks for work, before launching into the various modern isms, I miss their attention to detail, their wide reading and their knowledge. (In Graves’ case I love his sense of being obdurately wrong-headed and reveling in it). Reading Hughes on Wyatt and Coleridge, or Heaney on any number of poets, I learnt something that made rereading the poems a renewed pleasure.
Good criticism can be generous, or weirdly iconoclastic (Graves), but it all stems from a desire to understand based on the assumption that revelation may not be immediate. That patience and revision are as much the critic’s tools as the poets. And that being a careful reader is just as difficult as being a good writer.
When Mathew Arnold claimed that without great criticism you don’t get great art, he may have been right. The informed discussion of the questions: is this good, in what ways, why; how does it relate to what is before it and around it, seems essential if poetry as art is to develop. But criticism seems to have been replaced largely by theorizing. And while I like theorizing, it asks different questions which don’t help me as a writer.
Literary Criticism was always a well-informed conversation about a shared fascination. Sometimes it sounded more like a brawl in progress, but I wonder if writers, looking back on the start of the twenty first century, will see the failure to produce outstanding critics, as the way this period failed the next generation of writers?
The love child of the lack of well-informed, critical judgment is the modern Blurb. It always surprises me that people with reputations in the poetry world will trot out the usual clichés no matter how irrelevant. How many poetry books promise that in this new collection the writer redefines/renews language, will change/challenge the way you perceive the world, will reinvigorate/reinvent poetry, is a striking/startling new/original voice? You know the book does none of these things. Your disappointment is guaranteed.