THE TEN GREATEST POETRY CRITICISM TEXTS (OR, WHO NEEDS POETRY?)

We shall  proceed more or less chronologically, though it’s tempting to go the way of David Letterman and work up to: “and the Number One Poetry Criticism Text is…”

1.  The Poetics—Aristotle

The ultimate rule-book.  Learn these rules, then break them.  And learn this: Aristotle was the abstract philosopher, Plato the grounded and practical one.  If you ‘get this,’ you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion and heartache.  If you like rules, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

No critic today could write “this must” and “this is impossible” about such fundamental things, but it is good somebody did—for now we can blame Aristotle for “Quietism” and those neanderthals who sell, and everything else. 

2. The Republic—Plato 

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Plato and Aristotle is that they weren’t German.  Both are clear. The practical nature of Plato—who dared, without a shred of sentimentality, to put poetry in the context of society—is inescapable.  Randall Jarrell, John Dewey, and Helen Vendler are pumpkins next to Socrates.  If you haven’t digested The Republic, (or the Symposium, or the Ion) you can’t have a conversation about art or literature; you’re blowing bubbles.

3.  Vita Nuova—Dante

Yes, it has a lot of poetry—good literary criticism usually does.  It also has a story and mystery and passion and zero academic pretense. Beyond all that, it’s a guide to writing intelligible verse.  Dante is the passionate combination of the soul of Aristotle and the body of Plato.

4.  The Sonnets—Shakespeare

Irked by the didactic nature of these poems?  Let your eyes be opened.  We reveal here the long-lost secret.  This famous sonnet sequence (Auden is wrong; it does have an order) is Literary Criticism at its very highest— perhaps the greatest ever written.  Study this book.

5.  Essay on Criticism—Pope

Enlightenment jewel of Literary Criticism.  A fountain of wit. It will sharpen your musical ear, too. Poetry never sounded so coldly sublime.  Criticism never sounded so warmly effusive.

6.  A Defense of Poetry—Shelley

Forget all those other defenses. This one has defensive backs who weigh 300 pounds. Romanticsm deserves a soaring document like Shelley’s—the Wordsworth School (O treason!) would clip Shelley’s wings with socialist-tinged pedantry.  Don’t let it.

7.  Philosophy of Composition—Poe

Like all great great criticsm, this document is a shadow created by divine poetry too bright to read. Lurking behind Criticism is the Poem, lurking behind the philosophy of Plato is the poem of Plato, lurking behind the created is the creator, known only in the space between them. Those who indignantly sputter (and they are legion): “B-b-but P-p-poe can’t say that!” reveal themselves as sheep. Poe is damned for being too formalist, too abstract, too mathematical, just as Plato is, when both are, in fact, the most practical critics we have. America’s Classical Restraint is demonstrated for the world by Emerson’s quiet attack on Poe in his famous essay,”The Poet.”

8.  The Sacred Wood—T.S Eliot

Pre-Raphaelite Criticism comes to fruition in this document of High-Church, Harvard-educated, Anglo-American, Arnoldian, anti-Romantic, French Decadent Modernism.  Eliot is the most concentrated and toxic drink of the literature of decay. Rimbaud’s dying Romanticism sickens us after a while with sweet excess; Eliot, however, flatters our institutional pride; Eliot is the devil as the well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman; Rimbaud’s decadence we can finally keep at arm’s length, but Eliot worms his way into our intelligence; cunningly selective, he is a finishing school for academic slyness, a how-to guide for freezing-out the passionate past with New Criticial hypocrisy.  The undergound streams of Poe and Emerson combined to create a weird Third: a strange specimen of hostile suavity.  Eliot is the pendulum swinging from ‘the sugar of poetry hiding the medicine of learning’  to ‘the medicine of poetry hiding the sugar of learning.’  (The smart ones keep clear of this pendulum entirely.)

9.  Poets In A Landscape—Gilbert Highet

Archaeological criticism—the plain approach to Criticism is exemplified by this sweet evocation of poetry as stories of people in history, in this case, 7 ancient Roman poets. A classical scholar, professor Highet, who translates the poetic examples in this book, was born in Scotland, and was a beloved teacher at Columbia from 1937 to 1972. While his colleagues were exploiting the rise of the Creative Writing business model, or indulging in Nietzchean, Deconstructive, post-Modernist frenzy, professor Highet made an excursion to Italy and wrote this beautiful book, which treats poetry as the result of not only the structure of the Latin elegaic couplet, or the relation of Catullus to Caesar and the woman who broke his heart, but the very surrounding air.

10.  The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—W. Jackson Bate

The document of self-conscious Modernism—by an 18th century expert aware of how belated Romanticsm and Modernism really are. (Beating Harold Bloom’s far less readable Anxiety of Influence to the punch by several years, he made Bloom belated, as well.)  If the modern sensibility is a guilty evasion of the past, if Modernism is nothing but the paranoia of that evasion in the scream of a butterfly, The Burden of the Past is the reasonable antidote to this anxiety.  This little book (a collection of four lectures, in fact)  is so sane and broad in its approach, and unites so many authors and eras in its universal theme, that it will substantially increase anyone’s literary I.Q. in one or two readings.  It’s one of those books in which you’ll feel the need to pick up a highlighter, but it will be useless, because you’ll end up highlighting every line.

10 Comments

  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    June 25, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    The burden of the past. Past torment.
    terminates the nihilism,
    in a particular impossible:
    excised
    by a frontal extinction
    that no-one understands.
    these terrible, terrible themselves
    grew happiness – yr new green disinfectant.
    obesity comes with that, and square fashion.
    Just born, you fear you see a bog in your bowl life. You panic.
    Eruption: shop for everything, reality, the ordinary life. That’s anorexic.
    Situation: unhappy. Focus: loose the whole for spots, accrete these crystal mothers.
    Another body: leather-bound bones with no age-rings in. I was born of bone
    civilizations. The self edge centres this striation of a world, some inside of an outside I don’t own. An alter-illness mimics happiness, some rectangular life. I – that which means
    is bad conscience in-itself. Because not spontaneous: being. Least of all has fingers: it grew out a bulimic man.
    underweight, inhuman, a certain kind of puke. Reasoned separations exist in you: sliced through. Open segments of yourself, I am shopping-there, seeming:
    dislocate: sickness segments
    I am this negativity
    Existence
    So you fly into girl car
    an alienated total son
    mind, refer yourself to a bowl
    of drowned cake
    the form I take
    for many years, mind
    refer yourself to a few people that you hate
    escapes its depths in those ashtray eyes
    Plagued by what exist within it
    Broadly, cold fields, many
    Its style is
    Lengthy endless, excess of an endless overrun, this cosmical accidental, this inner drift of mind who, grasping, says itself in a death echo
    Carpet violence. Drugs, Anyway, I [emotional full stop]. against screaming: he’s not influential enough. Dreaming. Required. Revolted borne, arbitrary beautiful. my fashion: an infinity of psychiatrists. Ambulance world: to that beautiful pathological return – internal return, that aiming at loss, singing into its knees, needed, standing, doing, with it: body, lost bomber, the industrial above.
    I have argued, nothingness: a standpoint. She death: the circumstance of utensils. Death driving into them: no-will. The thing of the original birds. Becomes the end of why.
    Splattered in precepts: you cannot emerge out of these paradoxical concepts. Dead statements jabbed into your heart-world: they have wanted this life: the original birds.
    They demands spontaneous blankets, because they are anorexic. The tyranny touch: there. Just off this impulse pulling me to my feet off into the inertia, I am money. No conveys. All things: size no.
    Costumes: less original than glass. That horror of these pasts. Bulimia. It walks itself within the law. Walking inspired by the shudder of life, baulting. You’d quiver as if lived through.
    This bad freedom shut up with indifference. The accommodating syndrome: life dies standing
    up.
    bulimia.
    Visitors: someone unsteady as intellect open to doubt, walkway. They are like the old
    bulimia.
    Aggressive.
    Available to lips, heard more soma than person. Imagined: not even parallel. The given think: a carpet of grown seeds. They offer a blanket for everything over you, now you can place yourself in an I centre of your own. Weights align in it. Understand: you exist fixed up in in painpoints, sound has changed into time, projected as life. The golden intellectual is the immutable afraid. Life lines stretched to the last: three sided actualities, content postponed, capitulated.
    Short angry mothers, therefore amazement at floors. Striving fat woke up not loved, in the mirror of an island worker. No psychiatrist lies.
    The little other in a you-language: put it away for the architects. Smiles.
    Control. A pulse shoots into the sand hand. Hits the brick wall economy of dead hands.
    I – the restricted you in Arian language registers binding all I see, illuminating just what to say. Running understands its world through its feet: striving, hands, lead into pathological activity and colostomy bags. Remember clothes: particulars, tying the idea to the anorexic.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 25, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Aaron, you are sooo Grand Guignol. Why don’t you stop climbing to the tops of trees and setting yourself on fire, and come down and have a reasonable conversation with the rest of us? Tom

  2. Bill said,

    June 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Thanks for the recommendations, Tom. I remember thinking Coleridge was one of the few critics whose work really mattered, but I couldn’t tell you why at this point.

    Aaron, I hope your dissertation reads like this. All work and no play…

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      Bill,

      Biographia Literaria
      Is a potent work and a map of a
      Romantic psychological fen
      Richly muddy—but I chose but ten.

      Tom

  3. Nooch said,

    June 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I’ll be sure to collect all ten —
    On the shelf they’ll look so pretty —
    If I never get ’round to reading ’em,
    Well, more’s the pity.

  4. Bill said,

    June 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    ha ha!

  5. February 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    There’s always a job for an engineer,
    A bonanza for any technician;
    We scour the country far and near
    For the boys who are good at addition.
    Money’s no object, we rush to bestow it
    On science and people equipped to know it—
    There’s always a job for an engineer
    (But nobody wants a poet).

    If you know your way round an atomic pile
    Or the brain of a giant computer;
    If you’re clever at guiding a guided missile
    And can tell if a neutron is neuter—
    Forget all the rest, boys, skip it, stow it,
    Iambic pentameter? Who wants to know it?
    There’s always a job for an engineer
    (But nobody wants a poet).

    Marya Mannes

    http://members.wizzards.net/~mlworden/atyp/wordenreport.htm

  6. Jaime Vers said,

    February 9, 2013 at 6:54 am

    A plus B, in other words, can’t simply be combined so as to constitute a new C (the hybrid). Formal choices are never without political implications. Still, Swensen and St. John were at least making the effort to forge an aesthetic consonant with the moment. With the publication of Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011), the very idea of such a project has disappeared. In her Introduction, aptly subtitled “My Twentieth Century of American Poetry,” Dove quite candidly admits that “Although I have tried to be objective, the contents are, of course, a reflection of my sensibilities; I leave it to the reader to detect those subconscious obsessions and quirks as well as the inevitable lacunae resulting from buried antipathies and inadvertent ignorance” (p. l). One surmises from the table of contents of this chronological survey that Dove, from her perspective as a woman of color, has included many more minority poets than is usually the case, but even in the case of poets of color, her choices strike me as oddly arbitrary: Harryette Mullen, one of the finest African-American poets writing today, gets less than a page, while other experimental black poets like Will Alexander and C. L. Giscombe are not included, and, more surprisingly, neither is the prominent Asian-American poet John Yau. The Objectivists, themselves outsider poets of the midcentury– primarily Jewish immigrants (Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi) or, in the case of Lorine Niedecker, a working-class Midwestern woman– are simply written out the canon, as are such West Coast outsider poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Spicer.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 9, 2013 at 7:11 pm

      Jaime,

      Your issue with Dove’s anthology is of no issue. Vendler said there were ‘too many poets’ in the Dove. Every voice, style, and region is represented in the Dove.

      It isn’t as if there are no poets from the South, when Poe complained of Griswold’s anthology—even though Poe was in it; I don’t hear poets included in Dove’s anthology complaining about anything, but then Poe was especially selfless.

      If you include Spicer and Oppen and Zukofsky and Reznikoff and Niedecker and Yau and Giscombe, who do you then leave out?

      Seidel? Franz Wright? Marilyn Chin? Strand? Hass? Collins? Erdrich? Nye? Sheck? McHugh? Harjo? Kay Ryan? Dunn? Dobyns? Doty? Silliman? Pinksy? Oliver? Lorde? Gerald Stern?

      Paul Laurence Dunbar?

      Would anyone who wants those poets you mentioned to be included give a damn if Dunbar were not included? No, they wouldn’t.

      Yet Dunbar’s poem “Life’s Tragedy” is a magnificent poem—and it would be sneered at by the ‘experimental’ crowd.

      Would you want to eat food coming out of the kitchen labeled ‘experimental?’ I wouldn’t. In poetry, ‘experimental,’ is code for failure. Unless these ‘experimental poets’ flatter themselves they are closer to science than cuisine.

      Is the Mullen poem that is included a treasure we can’t do without? Really?

      I don’t see the issue at all.

      Tom

  7. February 10, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Life’s Tragedy

    It may be misery not to sing at all
    And to go silent through the brimming day.
    It may be sorrow never to be loved,
    But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

    To have come near to sing the perfect song
    And only by a half–tone lost the key,
    There is the potent sorrow, there the grief,
    The pale, sad staring of life’s tragedy.

    To have just missed the perfect love,
    Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
    But that which lays aside its vanity
    And gives thee, for thy trusting worship, truth—

    This, this it is to be accursed indeed;
    For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
    We count our joys not by the things we have,
    But by what kept us from the perfect thing.

    Paul Laurence Dunbar


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