Wednesday, November 01, 2006

November has come. Thanks to Mark, Craig, Jonathan, and Arthur for their comments on the poet-critic question. (All boys! Is there something inherently masculine about this kind of fretting over categories?) Certainly a big part of my interest in this question is professional: if I weren't an academic-in-training I wouldn't be quite as affected by the rather peculiar disciplinary demand of having to put my interests more or less in order. My list of "research interests" seems arbitrary to me, with a lot of overlap: Modernism, Twentieth Century, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, American Literature, Literary Theory, Critical Theory, Creative Writing. And where in there do I cram my love for Joyce and Woolf and Lawrence, or for Boswell's Life of Johnson, or Andrew Marvell and George Herbert, or Keats?

Love is the question (the answer?). While part of me instinctively accedes to the notion that the practitioner has insights unavailable to the non-practitioner, I fall back on my belief that poetry, more than other verbal arts, calls upon all its readers to become practitioners: to think and feel from inside the poem they read (especially a poem they read aloud). Lyric especially demands this, given how much it leaves out. Nearly everyone has at some time or other written poems (even if only between the ages of thirteen and seventeen) and feels the impulse to encode some momentary experience in memorable language; at the same time, the implicit demand of poetry that it be responded to with writerly impulses helps to explain why most people find poetry to be intimidating. Even if you don't buy this reading-is-writing argument, most readers of poetry will concede that it demands a different range of mental activities than prose does. But the question for me has always been: given that my most instinctual response to poetry is a desire to write, what sort of writing shall I do?

My purest impulse—the one resulting most directly from the stimulus of a good poem—is to write a few lines of my own. But I also have the choice of writing something more or less critical, ranging from sincere puffery ("You have to read this!") to close analysis and historical contextualization. The sort of writing called "poetics" divides and includes these impulses: critical writing intended to enable the production of new poetry. And when I look at the first draft of my Zukofsky chapter, for instance, I find I have produced something closer to poetics: a largely affectionate treatment of Zukofskyan pastoral that has stimulated my more global desire for what I loosely call postmodern pastoral poetry. My reading of Zuk helps me read for that impulse in other poets, and nudges my own work in that direction. Very useful to me as a poet—but as a critic, I must sit down now with a colder eye and rework that chapter to be more dialectical, more skeptical, about Zukofsky and pastoral both. The illumination my writing/reading accomplishes, if it does, will then be less personal and idiosyncratic, but arguably more useful for those less interested in furthering their own projects than they are in arriving at some clearer view of Zukofsky and his engagement with pastoral.

That's as near as I can figure it, for now. Further comments are always welcome.

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