Saturday, April 3, 2010

Peter Makin and the art of good criticism

So I looked up Peter Makin, or his work, having been annoyed by the footnotes to Bunting on Poetry.(see Bunting On Wyatt several posts ago) I still don't appreciate Makin's editing of that book, but his book about the shaping of Bunting's verse is fascinating reading.

Here is a fine reader, nagging away at the simple question: how good was this man's poetry. And if it was good could it possibly be great and if it were great how can that be verbalised. Like the illuminations of the gospels he discusses, it's slightly obsessive, and bordering the fringes of a gentle lunacy, but like the illuminator, the final product is clear sighted and impressive.

He begins with the poems; not the theory or the poetics, and reads carefully. And he takes on the objections to his method.

And you begin to realise, if you had been living on the moon had had never stopped to think about it before, how difficult is that question: is this a good poem? How hard it is to answer it. But he performs the fact that it can be answered: not neatly in a five second sound grab or some kind of trendy slogan that could be assimilated into the next best selling "how to write a poem". He swerves, backtracks, takes Bunting to task, stops to marvel, finds faults, but all the while heading, if not inexorably, more like Graves' flying crooked Butterfly, towards an answer.

Observing what he calls “ ‘the seduction scene in Briggflatts’ he states “This scene does without a great deal of what we might expect to find in such a description.”…
Comparing it to a scene from The Rainbow he writes; But the addition of detail would add nothing if the centre, the essence, were poorly conceived. With a mass of denotation-like the venetian painters with all their skill in modelling-a writer may only make clearer his weakness. Bunting’s scene is cut down to a few flat planes. They undress; he runs his fingers though his pubic hair; they talk through the night; she washes him. From these sections, we infer the solidity that is needed”

(Peter Makin (Bunting: the shaping of his verse. 1992 p 225/6))

(I’d have thought that "thatch of my manhood’s home” was hers, not his? but the freedom to dissent here is part of the effect of the style. The fact we might see it differently doesn't detract from the success of the suggestion. It may even be a criteria that measures the skill of it.)

How much detail is too much: how much too little? What is admirably terse; what is too private?

Good criticism illuminates the text it discusses and for the would be writer, forces an encounter with hard practical questions.

And Makin does a good job of showing why so much of the Stanley Fish ("is there a text in this class/How to recognise a poem when you see one") style of approach to poetry, for all its sometimes enjoyable pyrotechnics, is a facile dead end. Both for the reader and the writer.

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