Since I have recently provided a list of the books of poetry that most influenced me as a developing poet, and since I believe that thinking about what one does as a poet is crucial to such development, I thought it might be useful or at least interesting to discuss some of the critical works that have been most valuable to me as a writer. Again, this is far from a list of all the criticism I have found interesting, important, or useful, but only of those works that have been most formative.
Theodor Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society”
This fairly brief essay gave me a way to conceive of the relationship of poetry and the social in other than thematic terms. In Adorno’s thesis, the lyric both bears the imprint of social relations and embodies a utopian moment. In my writing and reading I have tried to remember both poetry’s social culpability and its reproach to society. “For the substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal by virtue of the specificity they acquire in being given aesthetic form...immersion in what has taken individual form elevates the lyric poem to the status of something universal by making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed.”
W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays
Auden’s humanity, humor, down to earth good sense, and amazing breadth of knowledge were an inspiration to me, as was his sense of the relationship of criticism to poetry: that the poem always comes first, and last. “Whatever his defects, a poet at least thinks a poem more important than anything which can be said about it, he would rather it be good than bad, the last thing he wants is that it should be like one of his own, and his experience as a maker should have taught him to recognize quickly whether a critical question is important, unimportant but real, unreal because unanswerable, or just absurd.”
Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984
I am obviously not a Language poet, though I do write poems made out of language. But, while I hardly agree with all their conclusions or positions, the Language poets’ insistence on questioning settled assumptions about poetry as an aesthetic and social practice (except, of course, the assumptions on which their own interrogations were based) was invaluable as a reminder that in art nothing is to be taken for granted. “In talking about language and thinking I want to establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form.”
R.P. Blackmur, Form and Value in Modern Poetry
The New Critics are much maligned today, for reasons which have more to do with literary fashion and ideology than with any attention to their actual work. But this little mass market paperback collection of essays on modern poets (selected from his larger volume Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry) was a model to me of what careful attention to a poetic text and all its connotations meant, of how the word “funest” in Stevens’ poem “Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds” could open and flower when closely examined both in itself and in the context of its line, its phrase, and the poem as a whole. “Good poets gain their excellence by writing an existing language as if it were their own invention; and as a rule success in the effect of originality is best secured by fidelity…to the individual words.” Intelligent, well-informed close reading has never been superseded as a means to experiencing and understanding a poem.
T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose
I single this book out since it collects most of Eliot’s best-known essays, but I include almost all of his prose, except the religious and social commentary. Eliot was my first example of the seriousness and rigor with which poetry could be, must be, discussed. His idea of the objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” which can embody an emotion, thought, or state of mind, is still infinitely useful to me, as is his insistence that what matters is “significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.” “What happens [while the poet is writing] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable.”
Allen Grossman, The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers
This visionary book of poetics, especially the Summa Lyrica, “a primer of the commonplaces in speculative poetics,” was a salutary reminder of the demands that poetry places upon us as readers and writers and the impossible but necessary aspiration, to save the world by means of words, that it calls us to. “Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world...Poetry functions as a machine for producing immortality in the form of the convergence of meaning and being in presence.”
Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the Nineteen-Sixties
This book helped me conceive of Modernism in broader terms than the Anglo-American literary world. Hamburger explores the meaning of Modernism in Euro-American poetry at large, its slendors and contradictions. “The necessary interrelationship of beauty and truth in poetry remains tantalizingly paradoxical…; for the ‘literalists of the imagination’ have been brought up against the knowledge that the peculiar truth of poetry may have to be rendered by fictions, or by what, literally, amounts to lies; and absolutists of the imagination have been brought up against the knowledge that ‘it must be human.’”
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
This book made me realize just how much there was to know if one were even to try to be a good poet. I dedicated myself to Pound’s reading list for several years, though I confess that I still cannot read Sappho or Cavalcanti in the original. He also provided a salutary reminder that “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good writing…is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one…specimen with another.”
Ron Silliman, The New Sentence
As Eliot might have written, I am not Ron Silliman, nor was meant to be. But in the Nineteen Eighties, besides helping me think through the meaning and uses of syntax, this book was more broadly illuminating as a concrete demonstration of the ways in which structuralist and post-structuralist theory could be of use to the practicing and thinking poet. “Every mode of poem is the manifestation of some set of assumptions. It’s no more foolish to be conscious of them—and their implications extending into the daily life of the real world—than it is to actually have some idea how to drive before getting behind the wheel of a car.” I would add, though, that the poem, though conditioned by them, is not defined or determined by these assumptions, and can even transcend them. But they must be recognized.