On the role of criticism in poetry

Michael Schmidt’s StAnza Lecture, March 2006 , posted by Rob McKenzie over at PFFA.

Some points that struck me:

Criticism sets out to clear a space for what is new and unexpected, what may be difficult or … deceptively simple.

Schmidt believes this space at its best creates “a culture of reception” as opposed to a culture of “cheerleading”.

It is through the culture of reception that interested general readers find out about new books or rediscover old, writers see themselves reflected, recognisably, unrecognisably… We are talking ‘reader development’ in an early sense, appraisal and judgement intended not to sell the idea of reading, and therefore always recommending, but to make sure that new works and editions are valued, that the factitious, meretricious and merely conventional are identified as such. That culture has value only if it is informed and sets out to inform; if it takes positive and negative risks, and if it is willing to risk giving offence in the interests of truth … . Poetry’s mere cheerleaders do the art more harm than good. They are in a way the real censors because they discourage engagement, shrouding the poem in good will.

For him, the culture that produces “cheerleaders” is ultimately destructive to literature. It is, (he says “it was” because he hopes that it is passing)

a culture in which weakness was made to look like strength; narrow-mindedness and worse, narrowing-mindedness, praised themselves as common sense and were made to seem decisive, to cut the crap, to speak ‘with respect’. They forgot, … that the sense that makes poetry is anything but common. Ignorance is never enabling, nor is a little learning.


Tough words, but well worth noting. If you’re interested in more, go read the whole essay.

Thanks, Rob, for posting the link. I’m still reading, but I’m agreeing


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