A year or two ago, Geoffrey Hartman urged literary critics to declare their independence. They should not regard criticism as an activity secondary to the literature it addressed, but as an art in its own right. Think of Pater, Valéry, Blanchot. Hartman's advice seemed bad to me, and I preferred to abide by T.S. Eliot's assumption that the aim of criticism should be 'the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste'. But I have to admit that the matters of current interest to critics are miles away from the current practice of poets. Critics worry - or declare, often in high spirits, that they are worried - about the disability of language, about representation and its discontents, the crisis of meaning and value to which Post-Modernism is supposed to be a desperate response: but the poetry I read shows no sign of distress on those scores. Poets are writing under different assumptions: that language, whatever its difficulty, is good enough for the job, that the belatedness and indeterminacy of sentences are nobody's problem but the critic's. These poets take it nearly for granted that you can make sense by making connections, one experience with another, and that the main problem is to find a style of being present in the poem. The teller is in the tale, and the artistic effort is to make sure that his presence there is neither assertive nor apologetic. A preoccupied sense of crisis is not obligatory.
LRB 7 February 1985 | PDF Download