Monday, October 17, 2005

What use is a critic ?

In his review of Helen Vendler's new book 'Invisible Listeners': Overheard Speech in the New York Times, Langdon Hammer writes:

When did you last read a book of literary criticism? Not recently, most people who do not write criticism themselves will answer. Criticism today is impenetrable and irrelevant, since it is jargon-ridden and no longer interested in literature. Or so people have said. There may have been some truth in this caricature a few years ago, but the Age of Theory is over in America, for better or worse, and plenty of literary critics go on with their work. Take Helen Vendler, who has been writing about literature in lucid prose for more than 40 years. Her 'Invisible Listeners', a compact study of "lyric intimacy" in three poets, demonstrates, if you have forgotten, some of the best reasons to read literary criticism.

Anyone who has felt himself directly addressed by Whitman in 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry', as if the poet were present on the page and looking at us, will know what Vendler means by "intimacy" and be grateful to her for describing the sensation. That is one thing a critic can do for us - verbalise our experience of great writing. It doesn't undo the effect, but deepens it [. . .]"

When readers accustomed to the lyric doodles that Ashbery has published over the last decade encounter the riveting passages from 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' elucidated by Vendler, they may be startled to remember, or to realise for the first time, that it is one of the poetic masterpieces of the 20th century. (This type of reminding is something else critics can do for us.)

The kind of criticism which Vendler writes, is the kind of criticism I aim to write: the kind that reminds or elucidates... If you're interested in Vendler's book, you can read the first chapter on the New York Times website (although you probably need to register (which is free)).

On a sidenote, I'm going to be reading fewer novels over the next few weeks (certainly not one a day) as I spend more time reading Tolkien biographies. As a result I may not be posting to my Blog every day. I tell you this in advance so you don't start wondering if the novelty has worn off !


Kelly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kelly said...

I hear you, Michele!
I much prefer Vendler's style of criticism--in other words, I like when the criticism is about literature, not more important than literature.

Michele said...

That's what has always annoyed me about certain criticism - the idea that the literature is of less importance - which is a nonsense: what these critics have to write about if the literature didn't exist ?

I like Helen Vendler's work. One of her books inspired me mightily for part of my dissertation (the chapter on the American FWW poet Mary Bordem, author of The Forbidden Zone, whose poetry I compared to that of Whitman)... Hopefully by the time I'm less bogged down with other reading, Vendler's book will be available over here and I'll have time to read it !