Friday, January 22, 2010

Whitman, Whittier, and the fire.

There's been quite a bit of discussion lately within the Internet division of the poetry community about the nature of criticism as it relates to poetry.

I'm not sure I'm wise enough to add much beyond what I've already said in various comments. I don't feel up to quoting Deleuze in a good way. This isn't an attempt at a thoughtful philosophical argument.

I wanted to react to one point. Isn't there always one point? In one of the comment threads, a way of thinking went like this: I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the critics who trashed Whitman when he first appeared.

Well, me neither. If only for the reason I would have turned out to be wrong. I hate being wrong.

But on the other hand, I'm really glad those negative criticisms existed. Weren't they part of making Whitman who he was?

I don't mean Whitman the man, or even the poet as part of the man. I mean Whitman as the poet in the world. The great new voice which came from outside and changed the face of writing.

Can something important happen without a reaction? Poetry isn't completely atypical. Poets work in relation to each other. They stretch within and beyond the prevailing norms. Critics help set and codify the norms, note them as they move-- perhaps several steps later than the poets themselves. Sometimes they spot the true paradigm shifts. Sometimes they don't.

Emerson got it. Whittier didn't. But would Whitman have Whitman without other poets wanting to throw the books into the fire? For a game changer to exist, there has to be a game to change.

If there's no need for negative criticism today, doesn't that scare you? It terrifies me. It might mean we've evolved to a more wonderful place. It might mean there is no mainstream. That nothing poetry does *matters*. Did poetry die with the modernists?

I don't know.

I stand by my feeling that discussion of any kind is better than silence. Naturally I prefer treatment of writing come from a place of genuine empathy and love for the work. But shouldn't that go without saying?

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