26 mar. 2006

At the risk of boring my primary constituency, poets who aren't necessarily academics like I am, these are my criteria for a critical, academic article. This is what I try to achieve when I write, and the criteria I apply when refereeing an article for a journal. The article must address a critical problem of some significance, demonstrate critical primacy, and speak with an original voice.

Problem The article must first address a significant critical problem. That is, it cannot be merely informative or descriptive, but must make an argument. For me, the critical problem usually involves a paradox. For example, we know that Creeley's poetry was influenced by Pound and Williams. Yet, in comparison to their work or Denise Levertov's, his poetry is not strongly visual in the same way. A paradox is like a wrinkle in the fabric of our expectations, or a distance between what most people think about a particular writer and what is *actually* the case. I had an interesting talk with Mark Halliday: his perception of Thank You was that it contained many difficult poems that did not make sense on the surface. My perception of it was the opposite. Of course, when we got out the Collected Poems I saw that we had both overestimated the proportion of "easy" and "difficult" poems in the book, overlooking the ones that did not confirm our previous bias.

The critic must feel that the problem is of some significance and make a case for this significance. Does literary history change if Creeley is not a visual poet? Maybe it does. Maybe not. There has to be a non-obvious consequence that makes a difference for something else.


The critical article cannot repeat what has been said before. It cannot argue an obvious thesis, that Levertov derives her line-breaks from WCW. It has to take into account what has already been written and enter into a critical dialogue with it. Even if not much has been written about the topic, there must be some demonstration of the gap in the critical literature.


The critic must speak with voice of her / his own. It can't be the application of an already existing critical discourse. The critical voice is the authority--not the literary theorist to whom the critic is beholden. Nobody else could have written this article but him / her / me / you.


I haven't said anything about theory. That is because the presence or absence of theory in the article (i.e. references to specific works by "name" theorists) is not directly relevant to these criteria. For me, the theory will usually be more implicit than explicit, simply because I have my own voice, more or less. Barthes is not theoretical because he quotes other theorists or presents abstract ideas (although he does do this too) but because his is an interesting mind dealing with critical problems. I find my own ideas more valuable than applications of Derridean theory, say, to a particular text. The silliest idea in my head is worth more than the most profound idea in someone else's head (Frank O'Hara, as paraphrased by Kenneth Koch). This is not arrogance. It is the starting principle. Why should you listen to me if I'm simply a less accomplished version of someone else?

Good academic criticism has to be extremely imaginative. It should convey the same excitement we get when we read Barthes on LaRochefoucauld. I hate "imaginative" criticism where I feel the critic is simply making things up. After all, making things up is pretty easy to do. That's cheating, in my mind. You can't say you'd "rather be interesting than right." You'll end up being interesting in a kind of dull way. If you stretch out a little bit, you have to have the smoking gun, the piece of evidence that makes your argument not only possible or plausible but probable. We've had students who seem to have the "spark" but can't quite put things together in a cogent way. I've been that student myself.

Bad criticism is bad because there are not that many people who can do all of this and put it together. Ever read a plodding, descriptive dissertation, where the dissertator seems to be merely going through the motions? He is not incompetent; he deserves the doctorate and a place in the profession, perhaps.

For myself, I feel that I need to have something for the formalist reader and something for the cultural critic at the same time. That is, if I'm writing about poetry there has to be something interesting going on in what I'm saying about the poetry, as poetry. At the same time there's got to be some other point beyond this as well--some reason for you to care even if you don't care about the poetry as poetry.


Don't bring your second-best arguments to Bemsha Swing. I don't have much tolerance for that.

5 comentarios:

Tony dijo...

Actually, Jonathan, this post touches me in a way. Would you mind sending a backchannel email?

Jonathan dijo...

What touched Tony at 2 a.m.? I've emailed him to find out...

Thomas Basbøll dijo...

Hi Jonathan,

Like I say, you're an inspiration. You just inspired this.


Jonathan dijo...

You're inspring yourself, Tom B.

Andrew Shields dijo...

2012: are these still your criteria? I assume so, but would you change these points in any way now, six years later?

I got here from Thomas B's post in response to this.