Friday, October 07, 2005

The Question No One Ever Asks

Here's something I've noticed: when I tell people I study literature and literary theory, people often ask me about my favorite authors, favorite novels, favorite poems or poets, favorite movies or directors, or even my favorite philosophers. No one ever asks me about my favorite literary critics.

On the one hand, this is entirely understandable -- I mean, when I'm really honest with myself, I'm way more interested in (and happiest and most comfortable taking about) literature or movies or philosophy too -- but on the other hand, it's a little disheartening, since it shows that literary criticism is really considered a specialist genre, something which professionals might find interesting but that most readers can do without.

For most people, criticism is most useful when the voice of the critic is mostly transparent or subservient to a work of literature -- like Cliffs Notes, or the annotations or introduction to a critical-historical edition. Then again, Harold Bloom's books are bestsellers and he's anything but that -- he's all personality and bombast, and decidedly so. But Bloom's books are popular in no small part because he mostly directs readers to recognizably great works of literature and spends the rest of his time bashing other literary critics.

Still, though, there are lots of great critics out there, past and present -- critics with insight and intelligence, who write beautiful and incisive prose, and who aren't afraid of injecting some of their own personality into their writing. It's possible that many people are looking for good criticism but don't know where to begin. I've mentioned a handful of terrific critics in these pages -- Stephen Greenblatt, Kenneth Burke, Jacques Derrida, and Louis Menand, among others. But there's oodles more.

For now, let me mention just one, my favorite critic of modern poetry -- Marjorie Perloff. Perloff has written so many seminal articles and books that I'll just mention a few: Wittgenstein's Ladder, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters, The Futurist Moment, 21st Century Modernism. She's officially emeritus now at Stanford but still seems to crank out a half-dozen brilliant articles each year and a new book every other year. I think she's the best guide to avant-garde and experimental poetry out there; she also writes in a way that's eminently accessible but always complex, penetrating, discerning. She's a terrific advocate for particular poets and brands of poetry, similar to Bloom, but much more expansive and progressive in her tastes. If you've ever wondered what the big deal about difficult 20th century poetry was all about, Perloff's SUNY-Buffalo page (above) might be the best place to begin.


Anonymous said...

Hi Timothy,

My name is David Cogger and I am a producer for Open Source, nationally syndicated public radio show based in Boston.

We're tracking the blogosphere with regard to Harold Bloom and his latest book, Jesus and Yahweh, and your blog post caught my attention.

We're doing a show TONIGHT at 7 p.m. EST with Harold Bloom as our guest. I would love to talk to you about this. Please give us a call if you have a spare moment. Or link to our Web site (below) to post a comment.

Thanks so much. I look forward to hearing from you.



David Cogger
Open Source

Gavin said...

Mr. Carmody, always the master of good timing, beats the NYTimes by a week.

Tim said...

I'm reminded of Frank O'Hara's "Personal Poem," recalling a conversation between himself and Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka):

we don't like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don't like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville

Well, when we're talking about the "grande dames" of poetry criticism, I don't like Helen Vendler so much. I like Marjorie Perloff.