On critical responsibility and best intentions

November 13, 2009 by · 31 Comments 

Two adversarial pieces about the nature of criticism caught my eye over the past few days. In the first corner, arguing in favour of critical relativism, is Chris Banks:

Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?

In the other corner, arguing in favour of aesthetic standards, is Brian Palmu:

Reviewing is highly subjective. It is not a soft procedure in order to find, at whatever compromising stretch, a go-between for author and reader. Such a “sensitive” approach is patronizing to both. The author can detail the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions, yet if those aren’t set down in compelling image, metaphor, voice, syntax, narrative, sound, organic structure, passion, mood, rhythm, tone (you know, those outdated poetic “vice”-devices, according to the “revolutionaries”), the words may better be employed in a prose essay, religious tract, political speech.

The differences between these two approaches are worth noting. The former suffers from what Wimsatt and Beardsley referred to as “the intentional fallacy.” In Wimsatt and Beardsley’s conception, the notion that a critic can ever have access to an author’s intentions when writing is wrong, because these intentions are always inaccessible to the reader of a text (and often, to the author of that text once the process of writing is complete):

One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem – for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.

So, when Banks asserts, “Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet,” he is essentially suggesting that critics must become diviners or psychics, transporting themselves into the mind of the poet at the moment of composition in order to tease out the nuances of intention. In his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton castigates I.A. Richards for suggesting much the same thing: “Richards had naively assumed that the poem was no more than a transparent medium through which we could observe the poet’s psychological processes: reading was just a matter of recreating in our own mind the mental condition of the author.” Eagleton expands on this a few pages later:

Even if critics could obtain access to an author’s intention, would this securely ground the text in a determinate meaning? What if we asked for an account of the meaning of an author’s intentions, and then for an account of that, and so on? Security is possible here only if authorial meanings are … pure, solid, “self-identical” facts which can be unimpeachably used to anchor the work. But this is a highly dubious way of seeing any kind of meaning at all.

Authorial intentions are a problematic place for a critic to locate meaning or worth in a poem, because they are unavailable to him, and the work itself is not sufficient to testify to what an author was trying to do in its composition (which is, of course, distinct from whether the author was successful in whatever it was (s)he ended up producing).

What the critic is able to access are the words on the page, which are open to judgment on the level of euphony, metaphor, originality, and any number of other standards that are distinct from a kind of fuzzy supposition about authorial intentions. The fact that a critic relies on this kind of objective standard in assessing a work does not deny the essential subjectivity of all criticism, which is something that Palmu accedes to in his comment. But whereas Banks argues that the poetic devices of “image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation” should be used by the critic to determine the extent to which a poet has managed “to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” Palmu rightly separates the devices a poet employs from “the most lovely sentiments, the most highly evolved spiritual truths, the most progressive social solutions” that the poet might wish to espouse.

No doubt there is a subjective element to any act of criticism, but there is also such a thing as a bad sentence. Experience has shown that there are innumerable ways to construct a bad sentence, and sloppy writers with the best intentions will nevertheless be guilty of employing them. In any critical discourse, a retreat into vagaries such as unfolding one’s human experience or transcending one’s circumstances is never an acceptable substitute for a careful analysis of a work on a line-by-line basis. Instead of asking whether the poem’s devices “break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large,” the critic should ask whether the poem is clichéd, whether it employs appropriate images or metaphors, whether its argument is valid, etc. Although in the abstract it sounds very noble to suggest that critics should subordinate their analytical rigour to a heightened sensitivity about what an author was trying to do, in practice this approach results in an abdication of critical responsibility.


31 Responses to “On critical responsibility and best intentions”
  1. LH says:

    I’m not sure I buy the binaries here, Steven. Sensitive = abdication of critical responsibility? How about really intelligent writing that queries what a poem is doing? Your post suggests that understanding is necessarily a weakness. Is asking a reviewer to be able to describe the project at hand really asking them to “divine”? I ask my students to do this every week in class. It’s very simple, what is the poem doing?

  2. Derek Catermole says:

    I was just thinking that there are indeed innumerable ways to construct a bad sentence, and when I want to see as many of them as possible in as short a time as possible, I come to blogs like this one. Y’all people spend so much time writing bad, boring prose about what makes good writing. Why do you bother?

  3. LH says:

    “Y’all people spend so much time writing bad, boring prose about what makes good writing…”

    I think you’re onto something here.

  4. PV says:

    I’m not buying the binary system either. “Critical relativism”? That really seems to be missing the point (intellionally?) by a rather wide margin, Steven. It’s about understanding that not all poetries and poetics are essentially subject to the same criteria. As for “aesthetic standards”… if you treat poetry like a system of weights and measures, you don’t end up with much worth reading, either creatively or critically.

  5. LH says:

    For the record, my comment was regarding the “so much time” spent discussing this, Steven, not that you are a source for bad sentences…it is kind of strange how much time is spent discussing this.

  6. LH says:

    Also for the record, when I made the above comments I had no idea that a very public debate had taken place on BookNinja which this post is clearly responding to without actually saying it. I’m surprised.

  7. Chris Banks says:

    Steven, I am in no way in favour of critical relativism as you well know which I think misrepresents what I was saying in my original post on Aesthetic Tribalism in Canada. Aesthetic standards are important but the problem arises when poets with severe to dogmatic aesthetic positions begin to review books by other poets who do not share those same stances. These reviewers scold the poet under review for poems not fitting the “form” they have preconceived already in their mind. They would do better to ask themselves first how did this poet put together the poems before passing judgment about their quality. This is what the American poet Charles Wright writes in his book Quarter Notes when he says ”all questions about the putting together of poems are questions about formal values, questions of form. To think “form” concerns only metrical patterns (i.e. rhyme and iambic meters—or trochaic or anepestic, etc.) is like saying a river isn’t composed of water because it has no salt in it; only the oceans are water.” Reviewers need to talk about both the formal values and the form of the poems if they are to be considered reliable. I think the two are inseparable and if you do not believe this and want to believe in some nostalgic quantifiable way to measure a poem’s worth by only looking at its outward appearance, form as the sum of its “effects”, and not also a poet’s intentions (i.e. formal values), then I am probably not going to change your mind. However, if you are not likely to believe me, then believe C.K. Williams who is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaches at Princeton University. This comes from his book “On Poetry and Consciousness” (you know, a book about something so nebulous as embodying one’s consciousness in poetry):

    “The new formalism is rather a kind of conceptual primitivism that seems to gather most of its propulsive force from a distorted and jealous vision of the literary marketplace; it calls for a return to the good old safe and easily accounted for systems of verse, with counted meters, rhyme and so forth.”

    That phrase ‘conceptual primitivism’ really jumps out at you, doesn’t it? It certainly does to me.

  8. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Actually, LH, the post is not a response to the Bookninja thread at all. It was intended as a response to my own rather conflicted feelings over the relativism I myself expressed in my recent comments about the new Anne Michaels novel. Had I intended to respond to the Bookninja thread, I would have done so on the site itself.

    Chris: Thanks for your comment. While I probably cling to a brand of formalism in my own critical responses (which is, I recognize, dreadfully out of fashion these days), I’d like to think that my own responses to literature are capable of adapting themselves to forms and approaches that I don’t personally enjoy. (I can, for example, appreciate the literary qualities of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, while also finding it a crashing bore.) Nevertheless, that is distinct from asking a priori, “What was author X intending when she sat down to write poem Y?” I don’t think it’s possible for a critic to answer that question. That is in no way to suggest that the only poems that have legitimacy are metrical, rhyming poems, or sonnets, or villanelles, or blank verse, or what have you – far from it. Put it this way: When I sit down to read The Waste Land, I encounter a poem that embodies a kind of horrendous anomie and despair at the way in which our modern urban landscape deadens humanity. Was that Eliot’s “intention” when writing? How are we to know? By what Eliot himself has written about the poem’s composition? Remember D.H. Lawrence’s admonition to trust the tale and not the teller. The job of the critic, said Lawrence, is to rescue the tale from the teller.

    Also note that none of these ideas is complete or immutable. I’m stumbling toward a theory of criticism and in many ways interrogating my own preconceptions and biases in the process. If I subscribe to any kind of “conceptual primitivism,” I can only hope that further reading and thought will result in greater sophistication. If, however, “conceptual primitivism” is code for criticism that is evaluative and based on aesthetic standards (that Crime and Punishment is aesthetically superior to The Da Vinci Code, to use an example that I tried out on LH earlier), I’m not sure I can be talked out of that one so easily.

  9. Alessandro Porco says:

    Eliot’s “intention”: it’s just a “rhythmic grumble,” he once said, winkingly, years later.

  10. LH says:

    Evaluative criticism. I see.

    Another member of the tribe.

    No, wait, I thought there were no tribes in Canada??

  11. LH says:

    Fair enough, Steven, re this post not being a response to the other.

  12. Finn Harvor says:

    A prose note here: since it’s become popular for writers from Brett Easton Ellis to J. M. Coetzee to heaven knows who else [[insert CanCon examples here] to add layers of meta-meaning to authorial identity, I suppose it is theoretically possible to argue that authorial intent is a valid critical concern — as long as said intent is also viewed on a meta level of critical discourse. The mind boggles, as does the attention span.

  13. Brian Palmu says:

    It’s simplistic and reductive to imagine a poet setting down her or his words with a specific intention or intentions. It eliminates surprise in the composition, and (usually) surprise in the reader. Many great (yikes! another evaluative word) poets, years later, say they’ve disovered things in their work that were totally foreign to them at the moments (minutes or years) of composition. Many others have appreciated the fact that readers have illuminated meanings in their poems they hadn’t at all seen when composing them.

    Ultimately, though, the focus is on the poem, not the author’s intentions. If many readers (not one or a few “hidebound, tribal” reviewers –gawd, the banal caricatures these adjectives bring out) cannot see the profound complexities, or even the fairly facile metaphorical tags, set out by the author, then perhaps the fault lies not with unsympathetic or unimaginative readers, but with the shortfall of talent or depth of the author. But that’s only a preliminary assessment, and should be a given. There’s a deeper problem with Banks’ argument.

    Chris Banks, above, denies “critical relativism”, but excoriates reviewers who either can’t or won’t see forms and approaches different than ones they favour themselves. This is an unfair charge. One can understand (for example) postmodern ironies, the intent behind language displacement, the cute self-referencing, the distancing of voice to create ambiguous statement or denial of closure, the typographic “experiments” in order to frustrate rhythmical expectation, and on and on …. Having understood that, one can then criticize the form not because of form itself (and form is ALWAYS tied up, in fact married, to content), but because the form is witless, precious, or needlessly opaque, and that the meaning isn’t enhanced just because it makes a virtue of postmodern “too cool for school” *ahem* “tribalism”.

  14. PV says:

    Is it intentional that a comment that begins by describing something as “simplistic and reductive” ends by making a statement that is simplistic and reductive?

  15. LH says:

    Really, the focus is on the poem? So why do so many reviews casually begin with the critic’s take on the larger landscape of poetry (usually the fault of the crazies, all the non-formal poets) and at some point talk about how this poem is either indicative of the problem or the solution? All of which the reviewer is the secret bearer of such private knowledge?

    Hilarious. The above strand of criticism would be fine, amusing even, in a mix of voices. Bring it on, diversity is healthy. I’m fine with that. But here in Canada this is verging on the norm. And an uninterrogated assumption of the norm as far as I can see.

  16. Brian Palmu says:

    Oh, and I should’ve added this: Banks’ charge of new formalism exclusivity against reviewers who’ve given him bad press is another bogus one. I love an effective poem submitted in closed form. But it has nothing to do with the form itself, in isolation from any and all other considerations. Richard Outram’s early work puts me to sleep; I’m always excited when reading anything of Cesar Vallejo’s. But then Banks likes the sight of strawmen being buffeted in current winds.

    Here’s another clue: I often “get” poetry I don’t like. That it’s boring (with quotes and reasoning from the poem(s), when appropriate), and/or inept, self-important, shallow, callow, awkward, feeble, sense-deprived, passionless, pointless, unmusical, is clear (TO ME). If another, or more, or many many more others, thinks it’s cutting edge, wise, and wonderful, I don’t bear them any grudge. In fact, I’m glad they love it. Why would I want to rain on their joy? One man: one opinion. Don’t like it? Turn the page. One of your many other admirers would (should?) surely be volunteering for long, illuminating reviews of your work, no?

  17. Steven W. Beattie says:

    “So why do so many reviews casually begin with the critic’s take on the larger landscape of poetry (usually the fault of the crazies, all the non-formal poets) and at some point talk about how this poem is either indicative of the problem or the solution?”

    Another function of the critic is to situate the work under consideration within (or against) a literary tradition. Good critics are aware of the way in which literature has developed, and the ways in which different authors incorporate (or buck) various traditions or tropes. That’s one of my problems with the culture of amateur reviews that’s so prevalent online. There’s often little sense of history. A critic needs to know, for example, that Romanticism arose in opposition to Enlightenment ideals and that the Modernists were reacting against the broad cultural certainties espoused by the Victorians. In the present, it’s difficult to read David Foster Wallace without at least a passing familiarity with Thomas Pynchon, and the stories of Mark Anthony Jarman are deepened if a critic is familiar with people like Donald Barthelme. If one function of criticism is to clarify an author’s achievement, surely this involves clarifying where that author resides within a literary tradition, since no novel, story, or poem exists in a vacuum.

    Is this the same thing as asking about the intention of an author in the act of composition? I don’t think so. A critic can detect echoes and allusions to other writers without going outside the text under consideration. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing these things out and suggesting whether, in the critic’s opinion, the author has used the tradition she’s working in successfully or not, or whether she’s staked out new ground in a way that’s interesting as opposed to merely facile or self-indulgent.

  18. LH says:

    Ooops. Sorry, tuned out. Was it all that droning on or did I just not “get it”? Inferior minds and all.

    Steven I have no problem with your critical writing. As you know I generally find your views to be of interest and engaging even if I don’t agree with your position in the end. Maybe part of this is you and we, are usually talking about fiction.

  19. LH says:

    Yes, we are in agreement: “If one function of criticism is to clarify an author’s achievement, surely this involves clarifying where that author resides within a literary tradition, since no novel, story, or poem exists in a vacuum.”

    What if it is the stated belief of a reviewer that said tradition is not worth seriously considering? What if the reviewer simply believes that tradition is wrong and evaluates the work according to that, and not the tradition it is coming out of?

    We’ve been enduing this for years in Canada. That is Chris Bank’s point. But I think we all know that.

  20. Not to make light of things, but I think it would be fun to give Brian, Chris, LH and Zach the same book to review. Give them, say, a 1000 words and a deadline and then post the works for us all to see and compare. I think it would be illuminating.

  21. I think that’s a great idea, Brenda. Q&Q pays $110 for a 350 word review and Arc pays $80 for 500 words, but I’d be willing to do it for $150.

  22. Oh, and please feel free to make light of things. Far too much gravitas in the air.

  23. I’ve been thinking on this and rather than pay us to write a review–who has the spare cash for that?–we should turn it into a good ol-fashioned agon. Each of us writes a review, we submit them all to Steven–or Brenda, no matter–who then passes them on to a judge of his/her choosing–whose name will be kept secret until the decision’s made–with no names attached. Whoever wins collects $50 from each of the losers. All reviews could then be posted on everyone’s blogs for comments, observations, etc. Money has to be put up front, of course, entrusted to whoever’s running the competition. I’m game, kids, whaddya say?

  24. LH says:

    Brenda, it would be good to see a review by you actually.

  25. In all seriousness, having the four main voices in this very public debate produce a piece of criticism on the same book would add another dimension to the conversation. In addition, it would be great to see an essay by each outlining what they believe essential to the writing of criticism/reviews and what they feel the issues are. Better yet, make it an interview with the same list of questions to which each would respond. It would be great to see a neutral party who is in the position to pay contributors, say The New Quarterly, take this on.

  26. Brian Palmu says:

    Brenda’s idea is a good one. I’m in! Only possible problem is ….. what would the book be? Hmmm …. I kid. I’m willing to review anything that labels itself poetry.

  27. LH says:

    Thanks Brenda. And again, sounds like a job for you. Really, why don’t you write reviews?

    What has my head shaking is that a simple little differing opinion should seem so, I don’t know, rare. Wow. For people who are all about tough-minded criticism it sure seems uncomfortable to have any other opinions out there.

    And who says this is the center of the debate? For the record, there are many more voices out there who have something to say.

  28. Brian Palmu says:

    I don’t see any “tough-minded critics” being made uncomfortable, I see a very few (apparently) nontribal commentors making broad-based claims without any nuance. I welcome disagreement and debate. Too bad you have nothing of substance to add to the back-and-forth.

    As for “other voices”, why don’t they step up? If not you, why don’t others grab the bit and take the review challenge? The silence is intriguing. Here’s your (or others) chance to have an alternative voice to the “male-dominated Eastern” reviewing establishment.

  29. Nor am I uncomfortable with other people having opinions. But when those opinions consist of allegations that I, Brian and nameless sinister others have ulterior self-aggrandizing motives for writing reviews; that we are unethical; that we are engaged in a “‘terra-forming’ process to acclimatize the Canadian poetry landscape to one more hospitable to the type of poetry they themselves write or to satisfy a personal vendetta” (sic, sic, sic); when editors who employ me–including the proprietor of this here blog, who has comported himself with remarkable restraint in the face of further off-the-cuff accusations–have been publicly called to account for their support of my nefarious schemes; and when the sum total of concrete evidence for all of these quite risible charges has been precisely nil, the line is crossed from opinion to insult–some would say libel, but I wouldn’t take it so far meself–and I’m sorry, LH, but it itches me funny bone, which is attached by various connective tissues to me typing fingers. I’ve ridiculed you and Mr. Banks because you’ve said patently ridiculous things. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect your miscellaneous mutterings, incoherent splutters and irate imprecations were the clever artifice of an internet prankster. I don’t want you to shut up, dear, I want you to keep on talking because when you talk it makes me laugh and laughter contributes immeasurably to my overall quality of life. In fact, right now I’m picturing the blood rise to your sable roots as you read this, and can barely keep myself upright in my chair, so moved to mirth am I.

    Now, as it happens, CNQ, that organ of formalist hate propaganda, is interested in publishing some version of Brenda’s proposed toe-to-toe. (You see, we actually have a bit of a track record of providing space for multiple points of view.) Contributors to the magazine are paid, so that takes care of the where-will-the-money-come-from problem. You and/or Chris–who has also, it should be noted, been published by Dan Wells–are welcome to come play in my yard, no strings. But I rather suspect you’ll continue to ignore and deflect these invitations. Something I’ve noted is that you and Mr. Banks share something in common, besides your time in grad school together: correct me if I’m wrong, but neither one of you actually writes reviews for Canadian serials of any sort, do you? Awfully easy to scold authoritatively when you’re at a safe remove from the scoldees, i’n’t it? Awfully easy to throw down the gauntlet when you’re unwilling to run it. A person should be forgiven for thinking that it might have something to do with classism: two white-collar teachers tsking the Grub Street, grey collar bad manners of a professional gambler and an unemployed railroad cookie-pusher. But by all means, feel free to banish such speculations to the realm of pure fiction. All you’ve got to do is say yes. A very affirmative word.

  30. Steven W. Beattie says:

    The proprietor of this here blog would like to make it known that he endorses free speech and the right of each side in a dispute to be granted an equal hearing. Having said that, if the comments in this stream (or any other stream on this site, for that matter) continue to devolve to the level of schoolyard brawling and hurled invective, I will shut the comments down. Fair warning.

  31. MP says:

    If I understand this correctly, LH says she doesn’t like the way that poetry reviewing has turned into a cage match, & the response is to suggest resolving the debate with a cage match?