Stephen Burt on the Impossibility of Poetry Criticism via The Critical Pulse

The Critical Pulse, Jeffrey Williams and Heather Steffen

“But poetry criticism should also be impossible: if a poem is any good it should exceed and complicate any statement that you want to make about it—the trick is to say things that are true nevertheless.”—Stephen Burt, “Without Evidence”

One of the contributors to The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics is Stephen Burt, who in addition to being a professor at Harvard, the author of several highly praised scholarly works, and a critically acclaimed poet, is also a frequent contributor to a variety of non-academic venues, including The London Review of Books, The Boston Review, and the Poetry Foundation web site.

Here is an excerpt from his credo, “Without Evidence”:

Asked to contribute a “critical credo” (a well-established minigenre, I discover, dating back to the old Kenyon Review) I realize that I don’t know what I believe. Or rather I know what I believe about particular works (poems, books of poetry), and only by generalizing, with some trepidation, from those beliefs can I make any guess about what I believe, or do, or know with respect to poetry, or to literature, in general.

Which is to say that either I walk around in an untheorized muddle, or else (as I prefer to say) literary reading and, hence, literary criticism are a habitual, accretive, impressionistic matter, that my habits of expectation and response (like those of earlier generations of readers, from whom mine differ in many particulars) have been built up over many small encounters, many cues and many chances to see how other people (teachers, friends, students, family members) read: these habits make up, for me (as they seem to have made up for earlier generations of readers) a more flexible and more interesting set of ways to respond, consciously and unconsciously, to a new text than do any ways that follow from explicit rules about how to read.

If this account seems “conservative,” or Burkean—being a defense of intricate, partly unconscious, partly unselfconscious, pretheoretical traditions and habits—it also permits an account of how those habits change; and it should sound “conservative” only in the sense that environmentalists and ecologists are also “conservative,” wanting to understand complicated and beautiful systems and also to keep them around….

Poetry criticism should be easier to write well than criticism in most other arts because the poetry critic can always give the evidence: we can insert a bit of the art itself in the midst of discussions about it so that our readers can simply compare, as they go, a piece of the artwork to our description of it. (Music critics can do the same thing, albeit not in print: on the Internet or on the radio.)

But poetry criticism should also be impossible: if a poem is any good it should exceed and complicate any statement that you want to make about it—the trick is to say things that are true nevertheless. (If you do not feel that your task is impossible to execute completely then you are doing it wrong or else you are discussing a very minor poem.)

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