Tuesday, May 14, 2013

literary criticism as a work of art

A few days ago, I wrote a piece here -- "taking poetry seriously" -- in which I bemoaned the dearth of writing about poetry. For me, there is more to poetics than writing poems. It's also about engagement with poetry as such. About a general enthusiasm revealing itself as prose about poetry. I'm talking about something looser, more informal than literary theory. I'm concerned with what a work means to a particular consciousness and the quality of language involved in evaluation. Whether or not a review was solicited by the poet or editor and not a spontaneous act of delving into is less important than the question: has a new and vital thing been produced within aesthetic space?

I came across a review by poet Gillian Prew of a book of poetry -- Abattoir Whispers -- by Michael McAloran. What I have to say will be a bit tricky, since I haven't read that book of poetry under review. What I have to say will be a review of a review. And a bracketing of the review from its material focus. I'm writing a review of a review because I'm interested in considering literary criticism as a form of art, as an aesthetic experience to stand beside the others: painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, film.

George Steiner comes to mind when thinking about exemplary critics of literature, but there's a problem. Although not irony laden or hitched to any theoretical formalism, Steiner is too "profound." He has an oracular tone of utterance. I admire and appreciate Steiner, but his writing is so weighty with allusion and metaphysical insinuation that it's rather oppressive at times. As far as an aesthetic impression goes, reading Steiner's "gigantism" is more like experiencing wind-swept Greek ruins than encountering a Van Gogh in a hushed gallery.

Although having studied philosophy, Gillian Prew doesn't swerve into exotic or superfluous dimensions when discussing a literary topic (in this case, McAloran's poems). She stays within the region of the discrete object under consideration. Her attitude conforms to an important aspect of aesthetic consciousness -- understatement. As opposed to Steiner's weaving of stratospheric penumbras, Prew elects a subtler approach. A new yet quieter aesthetic object results. Her commentary involves a confluent deepening and sympathetic illumination. Her avoidance of the oracular and the hyperbolic produces an inner harmonics of saying that appeals to the listening eye.

Hyperbole in literary criticism is as inappropriate as attaching roller skates to a pair of stilts. In both cases, instability, nausea, and wreckage would occur. It happens often that one will read a review of a minor poet in which that poet's work is praised with after-burner rhetoric. Orgasmic effusion, hot-air jargon. It's just too, too much! The genuine always has a subdued quality or coloration about it, a tonality of the real.

When considering literary criticism as one of the fine arts, what is the most significant thing to stress, the most appropriate to suggest? For me, it's this: literary criticism should, as should all works of art, create an aura of pleasure. Delight is what occurs in the observing consciousness during the aesthetic experience. It can happen in the blooming frisson of a Mozart serenade or in the excruciating darkness of a Shostakovitch string quartet. In both cases, an unconscious attunement takes place between auditor and object. The sympathetic vibrates pleasantly, even when the crux of the matter is bleak or horrific (aren't some nightmares rather wonderful?). What continually dreams in us beneath awareness might also dream -- magnetically -- toward  the work of art (in this case, a review as the artwork). Aesthetic experience -- even an aesthetic review of an aesthetic object -- is an affective experience, a possibility of relishing.

So...what in particular is going on with Gillian Prew's review of Abattoir Whispers?

I spoke above about a confluent deepening and sympathetic illumination. That is what she offers to the text (the excerpted poems). But something else occurs to me when reading her review. She opens a unique and peculiar space, one in which mood is not ordinary and language is elegant. The reader is almost entranced by the glowing rhythm and quiet artistry of these sentences. Beyond semantics, one finds himself amid candles and muted soliloquy. Within the mysterious relish of language opening up as an aesthetic environment.

I do hope you follow the link to read her review. For the pleasure of it.

If you've read Gillian Prew's poems, you will know that she is a word artist. This makes me wonder if literary criticism as an aesthetic experience is restricted to those who are creators of other literary art. History does show many instances of remarkable poets writing remarkable evaluations of poetry (and of other things). But I don't wish to verge off into wayward reverie. Surely, many non-poets and dubious poets also write exemplary reviews and fine commentary on general literary themes. But I still wonder. When a review achieves the level of an artwork itself, it's likely a good indication the writer's poems are worth experiencing.

Gillian Prew's webpage: gillianprew.com

Sunflowers -- Van Gogh


  1. I've admired Gillian's work for some time, her work grants me a shiver of recognition that I've not been able to articulate. To me, the critical recognition of art is nearly as necessary as its creation, it is as an antiphonal response or as a dance partner --who wants to dance the samba alone?

  2. The closest I have come in my musings on Gillian is as a synesthete: her work is shades of ivory and white and grey, minimal, disciplined, like a piece of Japanese calligraphy--from a distance it might appear simple, but the effort behind it--staggers.