Saturday, November 26, 2005

Poets as Heroes (Not)

Some people have commented on Ira Sadoff’s recent essay in APR on William Stafford, believing that Sadoff crossed the line with some “mean-spirited” criticism (William Logan Lite) of Stafford’s poetry. What interests me is what we mean in general when we say that negative criticism “crosses the line.” I’d say we mean criticism that crosses over from criticizing the poem to criticizing the poet.

There’s nothing wrong with harsh, even viciously mocking, criticism of a poem. Hey, sometimes it’s fun! And you can learn something from making smart, nasty fun of John Ashbery or Sharon Olds or even Wallace Stevens or Yeats. After all, if you haven’t read Mark Twain’s hilarious and merciless skewering of James Fenimore Cooper, you haven’t lived. “Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse.”

When criticism turns into ad hominem Swift Boat-style attacks on someone, though, that’s something else. Of course it’s a fine line, and critics probably shouldn’t self-censor themselves anymore than poets should. Twain pretty much said that Cooper was a total idiot, after all, and the world would be a poorer place if he hadn’t said it.

On the other hand . . . I think it’s crucial to maintain the line between the writing and the writer. How often we cross that line! How often we say, “What a courageous poem!” as if the poet were some sort of moral hero for writing it, and implying that so many other poets are cowards. And often when someone accuses a poem of sentimentality, they’re really accusing the poet of personal shallowness, not just having written a flawed poem.

I think it’s a mistake whenever critical judgments of writings turn into moral judgments of writers. Some of Emily Dickinson’s profoundest poems were turned into sentimental drivel by editors who unforgivably changed her punctuation or added a syllable to even out the rhythm. It proves how thin the line is between the profound and the sentimental.

Sometimes an embarrassingly sentimental poem can be revised into an electrifying poem by changing one word. The point is: the same person wrote the electrifying version and the sentimental one. You can’t go from judgment of the poem to judgment of the poet. For one thing, it makes poets too determined to write “courageous” poems, or “compassionate” poems, or “honest” poems, and they forget about just writing good poems.

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