Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Nada and Jordan ask "when will psychologically-inflected readings make a comeback." I guess I feel they've never left. I mean, if you take a look at the (few) poetry reviews that (occasionally) appear in the big-name literary reviews, or at back-cover blurbs for big-ticket releases, they're still by folks like Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, James Fenton, and the like, who continue to depict the poem as the result of Freudian struggle or biographical surrogate.

Here's Vendler on Jorie Graham in the LRB:

"Even the most intellectual poets begin as children enthralled by the senses through which the world is made known to them. The subsequent obsessive adult drive towards representation, entangling sense and mind in a Gordian knot, poses the problem underlying poetic composition: how to make a third thing, a linguistic one, in which the senses represent mind, and mind re-creates the senses."

Or Fenton on Auden in the NYRoB:

"To be in love and wish your lover dead, to be in love and know that you have to conceal it, to be in the grip of a sexual obsession with someone you discover you dislike—all these humiliating experiences turn up in Auden's work, and it is worth noting that the humiliation did not begin with [Chester] Kallman. From the earliest of Auden's published lyrics we are invited to see love as transitory..."

These certainly sound "psychological" to me, although Nada and Jordan may have something else in mind. My point is simply that such readings, arguably, seem continually dominant rather than embattled. My problem with such readings isn't when they're psychological, but when they become reductively so, as when Vendler grounds her evaluation in a simplified, and universalized, image of the psychology of "the poet."

I understand what Jordan's saying about reviews that focus on language or form to the exclusion of, well, content. I suppose it may seem in some circles as if such gestures are seen as more beneficial to a poet's reputation than a biographical sketch. But I don't agree that this is a "general tendency" whose intent is to "grow the audience" by appealing to difficulty and snobbery. If it is the case, it certainly isn't working. I still think that these kinds of reviewing practices, whatever their risks, are a necessary counterpoint to narrowly psychological or biographical readings that romanticize the author but treat the work as if it weren't there at all--which can have a really devastating effect on work that doesn't quite so obviously offer up confessional pleasures.

A colleague of mine was recently doing a presentation on Mina Loy and lamenting the fact that the only major book available on Loy is a biography. Even for somebody like Allen Ginsberg, there are probably at least a dozen biographies available--but exactly one book of critical essays.

Perhaps this is the kind of non-psychological review Jordan's working against:

"Language, then, not mere naming, and, specifically, not naming things. In these poems, objects nor actions described as objects are not the primary substance. Or perhaps: everything is objective.

So events, in the world, this, themselves.

Coolidge's "Oflengths": The preposition as significant as verb or noun, presenting a world of relation--of it, on it, in it, between or among--here landscapes of particular situations, precisely centered on how we are situated."

But is this really any less psychological than an exposition of Coolidge's biography? The way it reads to me is, well, just differently psychological. Perhaps it's not a question of "psychological" and "formal" reviews, but rather a question of emphasis: sure, the author has a psychology, but so does the reader. And a review might be as much about charting the effects of a work on the reading psyche as much as about the writing psyche that produced it.

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