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“Rag and bone shop” table surface in my studio

The New York Times Book Review last week had a simple headline: “Why Criticism Matters”. The editors set the stage by describing our current age as one where opinions are “offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones”—by anyone, anytime. So in that context it is reasonable to ask where the serious critic now sits in the cultural flow. “Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?” Six critics were asked to explain what they do and why it matters, with Afred Kazin’s view of criticism as a tether point:

The critic, Kazin wrote, “is a thinker, and it is the force . . . of his thinking that gets him to say those things that the artist himself may value as an artist, the reader as a reader.” He “is not an artist,” Kazin asserted, “except incidentally.” Yet the critics Kazin commends all wrote in a high and even virtuosic style.

I found the essays remarkably varied, some more successful than others. My favorite was by critic/poet Adam Kirsch. Here’s a passage worth remembering from his essay:

If you are primarily interested in writing, then you do not need a definite or immediate sense of your audience: you write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three…Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called “common readers,” still exists. If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it. But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience. Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold’s is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.

What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom. Or maybe it’s just that, as a poet, I am all too used to making excuses for the marginality of a kind of writing that I continue to feel is important. Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.

A similar statement could be made about painting, about the visual arts that actually produce that rarefied, old school thing called an artifact. I resonate with Kirsch’s point of view, paraphrased for those of us who are visual art makers:

What matters is not exercising influence or force, but painting well—that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.

Open and ready: Art smart guy Jerry Saltz

I am off to New York City for a couple of days and will return to Boston on Friday.

In the meantime here’s just about the best message I’ve received in a long time. This wisdom came to me from Jerry Saltz, someone I hold in the highest regard.

Any time I’ve read your blog I’ve really enjoyed it.
Way to go.
Join the fray.
Two rules:
1. You can be mean to or attack me anytime you want; you may not be mean to or attack anyone else (you may, of course, disagree to your heart’s content).
2. Keep it short.

Thank you,

As always, right on.

How much can you know about a movie, a book, a poem from a snippet, be it a trailer, the first page, the first few lines? Joan Houlihan in Contemporary Poetry Review makes the case that the quality of a poet’s work can be determined with some accuracy by “previewing” a poem’s first few lines.

Her bottom line could be seen as an extreme position:

As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free, and that readers will “sample” poems and make any buying decisions based on these samples. Readers will become sophisticated enough in their own judgments, or tuned in enough to trusted recommenders wherever and however encountered, and soon the disappearance of reviews in mainstream periodicals won’t be missed. It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place—we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a “mixed tape” of poems we love, or a subset of poems by a favorite poet. The packaging and distribution mechanisms are already in place; we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.

She employes her poetic critiquing skills on four recently published poetry volumes—Word Comix by Charlie Smith, The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab, Blind Rain by Bruce Bond and Trust by Liz Waldner. While you may not agree with her assessment of these four writers, I found the article worth the read. The poems of the last two, Bond and Waldner, particularly interested me. More of them to come.


Now this is a great title for a book: What Are Intellectuals Good For? And the first thing that came to mind is the now legendary episode of the Simpsons where an oversized donut falls from the shop’s marquee, lands on the fleeing villain and saves the day to which Homer responds with his signatory dumb assurance: “Donuts. What can’t they do?”

Who knows what an intellectual even is anymore. In this no-brow cultural climate it has become a term that can mean just about anything. But for Maureen Corrigan, this new book by George Scialabba speaks to the dwindling population of freelance thinkers and provocateurs. I heard her review on Fresh Air yesterday and was both charmed and compelled.

From Corrigan’s review:

Some years ago, when, at last, I’d finished my belabored dissertation and got my Ph.D. in literature, a relative of mine “congratulated” me by asking: “So, are you making any money now?” It’s that kind of attitude, the all-American pragmatism that needs to attach a bottom-line value even to ideas, that prompts the title question of George Scialabba’s new collection of essays and reviews: What Are Intellectuals Good For?

The national tendency to equate the term “intellectual” with “ineffectual” hits Scialabba where he lives. Scialabba is one of the last of the free-range eggheads, a nearly extinct breed of public intellectual not affiliated with think tanks or ivory towers. Granted, he graduated from and has long been employed by Harvard, but as a clerical worker, not a faculty member. In his free time, Scialabba writes, acutely, about literature and politics and ethics.

I first came upon his byline in The Village Voice in the 1980s, and once you read one of his lively and learned review essays, you are always looking for more: These days, you’ll find him in The Nation or The Boston Review or in those little avant-garde journals like N+1 that celebrity public intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens have left behind for the greener pastures of Vanity Fair and Hardball.

This new Scialabba collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, has been published in a beautiful paperback edition by the tiny Pressed Wafer. No one could expect it to be a stealth best-seller. But if you’re at all interested in 20th century thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Dwight Macdonald, William F. Buckley, Ellen Willis and Christopher Lasch to name a few, and in the larger question of whether the world would be poorer if they’d never written a word, then you’ll find Scialabba’s ruminations here invigorating. In fact, just reading Scialabba’s collection will make you feel smarter — even if it’s not clear if that kind of smarts has any direct social utility.

Scialabba tries to get a handle on just what intellectuals do for civilization, by delving into the work of Great and allegedly Great Minds. In that latter category, critic Edward Said comes in for especially droll and scornful attack because of what Scialabba sees as the damaging legacy of his writing: that is, inspiring this current generation of academics into deluding themselves that they’re carrying out political work by teaching, say, post-colonialist critiques of Paradise Lost. If intellectual work matters, Scialabba implies, it has to matter in ways that run deeper than delusionary self-puffery.

Lionel Trilling is one such thinker whom Scialabba prizes for something beyond the obvious. In his shimmering appreciation of Trilling, entitled “The Liberal Intelligence,” Scialabba says: “Though nearly everything Trilling wrote had an ultimate political relevance, almost nothing he wrote had an immediate political reference.” Later in the essay, Scialabba tries to clarify what he means by that riddling statement by linking Trilling with the great Victorian culture critic Matthew Arnold and demonstrating how both men saw literature primarily “in its moral aspect” — as an agent for teaching “discrimination, receptiveness, patience, magnanimity.” That pronouncement surely serves as part of Scialabba’s answer to what intellectuals — or at least some of them — are good for.

But that pronouncement wouldn’t carry much weight with my bottom-line-only relative and his millions of fellow citizens. Truth to tell, the audience for writers like Scialabba and the journalists and thinkers he admires here was always relatively small. Even in their post-World War II golden age, the New York Intellectuals — Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald and the rest of that crowd — weren’t speaking to a fraction of the audience who was tuning into I Love Lucy. That’s why it’s something of a miracle that an independent public intellectual like Scialabba has managed to hang on.

If you’re one of the fit-though-few whose brain doesn’t go into automatic snooze mode at the mention of the word “intellectual,” his pieces here are a pleasure to read — supple, accessible and wide-ranging. Writing enthusiastically about the work of journalists Alexander Cockburn and I.F. Stone, Scialabba says that, while they didn’t “create monuments of unaging intellect … they hemmed in everyday barbarism a little.” That’s a fine way to sum up Scialabba’s own achievement: He’s not a household name, his essays and reviews won’t rock the world, and I doubt that they’re making him a whole lot of money, but to those of us who follow his lonely patrols around the perimeter, his work hems in the everyday barbarism of mental laziness and moral evasion, just a little.


To read more by and about George Scialabba, visit his blog.

My interest is ongoing in the poetic mastery of Jorie Graham. Thanks to several readers, especially my friend Pam McGrath, who have responded to many of the issues raised about her work in the Anders essay that I posted last week. (See below for that three-part posting.)

In the spirit of of giving her more recent work a bit more airtime, here is an excerpt from a review by James Longenbach of her latest book, Sea Change, from the New York Times. In the last paragraph he addresses Graham’s proclivity to perpetually reshape the course of her work, a quality that Logenbach compares with two other favorite poets, Ashbery and Glück:

For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.

Such poetry succeeds as grandeur; it fails as portentousness. In “Sea Change,” Graham traffics in large statements (“the / end of the world can be imagined,” “fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef”), but at times her thought can seem muddled, her diction puzzlingly imprecise, as when she writes that love is “like a thing floating out on a frail but / perfect twig-end.” How do we respond to a poet who is certain about the Great Barrier Reef but evasive about what stands before her eyes?…

Why would a poet feign the inability to find the exact word for the thing at the end of a branch? Are a poet’s errors of perception comparable to the mistakes that raised the temperature of the Gulf Stream, forcing a plum tree in Normandy to blossom out of season?

Rather than answering such questions, Graham asks them, leaving herself vulnerable; what is intended as open-endedness may also feel, again, like portentousness. But the fact that some aspects of Graham’s work are more fully realized than others seems, while not uninteresting, oddly beside the point. What matters, as with Ashbery and Glück, other poets who perpetually challenge the terms of their own achievement, is the shape of the career — not only what she has done but what she will inevitably do next. There will be “a time again in which to make,” Graham writes, “the imagined human / paradise.”

Alfred Kazin (Arnold Newman/Getty Images)

I’ve only read a few essays by the heralded critic Alfred Kazin, but what I have read I found brilliant. A new biography of Alfred Kazin (by Richard M. Cook) was reviewed by Brian Morton in the Sunday New York Times. Some memorable gems are worth highlighting:

A representative essay by a New York intellectual (Philip Rahv, say, or Irving Howe) is a nimble and intricate blending of literary and political analysis. A representative Kazin essay is something else. His essays often start in the same place — he could tease out the delicate ties between art and politics as deftly as anyone — but then he’ll take a sharp turn, striking off for a territory of reverence and rapture, of awestruck contemplation of the sheer mystery of being alive. In an essay on Thoreau’s journals, seeking to capture Thoreau’s uniqueness as an observer of the natural world, he quotes Simone Weil’s remark that “attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” In an essay on Emily Dickinson, after examining the poem that begins with the line “Because I could not stop for Death,” he comments: “To write of death with this wonder, this openness, this overwhelming communication of its strangeness — this is to show respect for the lords of life and death. This respect is what true poetry lives with, not with the armed fist of the perpetual rebel.”

“Attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” Simone in one of her moments of genius.

Morton knew Kazin personally and isn’t altogether convinced that Cook “gets” who Kazin was. I love the following passage in that regard:

The biographer attributes the critical indifference that met the 1984 publication of “An American Procession,” Kazin’s account of the literary scene from Emerson to Fitzgerald, to “the risks incurred when a critic relies wholly on his own personal impressions and reflections,” rather than on the work of other critics. The book, Cook continues, “is a very personal work. Kazin keeps other critics out to get more of himself in. He insists on being alone with his writers — one-on-one, writer-to-writer, taking their measure according to his lights, his experiences, his prejudices.”

Coming upon this passage, the reader may be tempted to deface the margin with a comment like “What the hell should he be doing?” Being alone with writers is what any good critic does, what any good reader does. It was precisely through his deeply singular, deeply personal relationships with “his writers” — Melville and Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson — that Kazin produced such indelible criticism.

In his essay “The Writer and the University,” Kazin himself made this point as well as anyone ever has: “Above all, the writer does not work with anyone; he is not a collaborator, he is not cooperative; and it can be to his very peril as a writer if he sacrifices the excruciating precision of his vision.” It’s hard to understand why a biographer who does not instinctively rejoice at the example of a critic who “insists on being alone with his writers” should have wanted to take Alfred Kazin for his subject. For Kazin, you could say, being alone with his writers was “prayer in its supreme form.” At times, one almost gets the sense Cook is embarrassed by Kazin. If this is so, it’s easy to see why. Kazin was passionately “personal,” passionately excessive; he was a virtuoso of the art of going too far. You can see it even in the titles of some of his books. The volume of excerpts from his journals, for example, is called “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.”

Excess. A “virtuoso of the art of going too far.” Now that’s an approach I can relate to.