Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Jordan remarks of my post yesterday that it "posits a Bernstein vs Vendler critical environment," which sounds like a retro-80s, poetry-wars-official-verse-culture-langpo-rebellion kind of thing. I guess I'll have to plead guilty on that one, though it wasn't my intent. I wonder, though, if we've come so far that the pendulum really needs to swing back in the other direction. I actually admire Jordan for being able to live in a poetry world where Helen Vendler is not a poetry critic, but I guess it's not quite so easy for me to simply dismiss that mode of reviewing as irrelevant. If I'm reading Jordan's non-post right, Charles Bernstein isn't a critic in this world either--and the idea that we should just read Bernstein's criticism as "deliberately speaking and writing to obscure the point," rather than speaking and writing differently, is really troubling to me. (I hope that this isn't Jordan's definition of poetry either...) I didn't mean to suggest that Bernstein's review was a study in object relations in Coolidge, but rather that Bernstein's review reminds us that there's a mediating psychology between us and the poem (and its author).

I've always found reviews that dwell on the poet's biography or psychology faintly oppressive, perhaps because they too easily lead to a concept of privileged genius; what such criticism seems most interested in is the idea of "the poet" (a person born, not made) and the uniqueness of her/his soul, rather than in poetry. I think it's what allows critics like Vendler to focus on a very few contemporary poets as *the* poets, universal in some way, rather than the vast and confusing field of work out there. I suppose I've always hoped--for my own sake, I guess, as someone hardly secure in his credentials as a poetic soul--that poetry was a bit more of a meritocracy than that.

I remember once when I was in college being at a literary magazine meeting. We were discussing submissions--ostensibly anonymous--and I was arguing against a poem that I felt was mediocre. Another member of the board was opposing my position with increasing indignation. Finally she said: "This poem is by X" (naming the author). "And X is a GENIUS." End of discussion.

That said, Stephen Burt's review of Rae Armantrout, which Jordan cites as a possible example of a return to the psychological, seems pretty unimpeachable to me. The review starts off with what we might think of as a sketch of family drama:

"You're in the family kitchen. Mom and Dad have been arguing—no, fighting—for over an hour, louder than TV. As you overhear them (you can't avoid it) you realize that anything either parent tells the other can be reinterpreted, misinterpreted, and turned against its speaker. In the meantime, TV commercials invite you to reinterpret their endless pitches."

But Burt makes very clear that this is "not a history but a fable, designed to help new readers comprehend—and enjoy—Rae Armantrout's strange, original, and corrosively self-critical poems." It's a psychological hypothesis rather than biographical determinism. Burt's done his homework, and sketches in useful details about Armantrout's life and influences; but the psychological drama continues to be in what's happening among the words on the page.

I guess I just want to expand the idea of the psychological beyond the reductively biographical. Nada's question today is right on, I think: "Does psychology come out of structure or does structure come out of psychology?" At the risk of sounding like a rank New Critic, when we read a poem the structure is all we've got, and psychological criticism would seem to me to be some kind of careful correlation of that structure with both the (presumed) psychology of the author and the (present) psychology of the reader.

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