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Poets Also Bite--World Poetry Project

Updated on January 17, 2012
Harold Bloom, the cantankerous, elitist critic of our times
Harold Bloom, the cantankerous, elitist critic of our times
Matthew Arnold, one of the great critics of the Victorian era
Matthew Arnold, one of the great critics of the Victorian era
Thomas Phillips, Portrait of George Gordon, Lord Byron
Thomas Phillips, Portrait of George Gordon, Lord Byron
John Keats
John Keats
Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose idea of politics was to send balloons bearing atheistic tracts over the water to Catholic Ireland
Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose idea of politics was to send balloons bearing atheistic tracts over the water to Catholic Ireland
Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert
Jon Stewart, America's most trusted newsman
Jon Stewart, America's most trusted newsman
Three writers in the library, a stock photo
Three writers in the library, a stock photo
Sappho and Erinne
Sappho and Erinne
King George III
King George III
The future King George IV, when he was merely regent in George III's madness
The future King George IV, when he was merely regent in George III's madness

Greek literature flourished, and in its flourishing created a new profession, that of the critic. What is a critic, and what do they do--or more to the point what should they do? The answer to this question requires that one take a position on the nature of Art and its relationship to society, much as a critic's profession draws them to answer the same question. If art is merely a private pursuit without public ramifications or a real effect on the society in which it is produced, than a critic need not bother with the moral aspect of art, nor demand that the artist ally himself to his nation, his class, or some other corporate body. If art is private and personal, than it may be judged solely for its aesthetic qualities and for the individual production's successful or unsuccessful representation of an ideal, a reality, or point of view. This is largely the relationship we have with art today. It is a form of serious play engaged in by a few, out of their generosity or compulsion displayed to the masses, but without real power to influence or change society at large. Art is amoral, and we can afford it that luxury because we do not believe in it.

What if, however, we did believe in art? If art is a public substance, an expression of essences belonging not to the artist, but to the community, and, therefore, capable of producing, instigating, and embodying change in society, then art is not amoral at all, it is not personal nor limited in itself. Then, art becomes dangerous in the degree to which it becomes powerful. Only when the expression is more important than the person does censorship, the morality or immorality of the art and the artist, appear a valid avenue of criticism and public action. And, to be honest, this privileging of expression over form, of content over style, is often productive of bad art, whether it is the protest poetry of the latter twentieth century, often heartfelt but seldom enduring as art, or the pap produced to support passing political regimes. Only when art is a public substance is its suppression considered worthy of attention and effort. This attitude towards art also remains with us, but primarily among those who are not influenced by art, who steadily and studiously ignore it. It is present among those who are alive to the influence of one form of art, the art of propaganda with its direct messages and commands for action, but are not experienced in the consumption of other types of art, the very complexity and possible subtleties of which make them uncomfortable and suspicious: dictators believe in the power of art because they believe in the power of the poster and the slogan, not because they believe in the power of poetry.

Of course, there is a middle ground, and that is where most of us live. Art is powerful, or can be powerful, in its effects upon an individual in combination with and dependent upon a multiplicity of other factors, some obvious and some less so. It is not guaranteed, and is, indeed, rather unlikely, that a single piece of art or a single artist, regardless of their impact upon one individual, will be an engine of revolution. Art is powerful in its personal effects, and virtually powerless in its effects on society, on politics, and on the human condition, save as it may form a talking point or an illustration within a social, political, or humanitarian argument. In the public forum, art is the fodder of other machinery.

As I read critics and their productions in my search for new books, I often find myself at odds not with the role of the critic, but with the pettiness of the critics. From the populists I hear the proof of popularity, that a book must be good because a number of copies of the reviewed book have been sold and the author has previously been on the NYT best-seller list. This seems a rather ridiculous measure of merit to me, though it may be an accurate reflection of transient tastes and trends. Squabbles between authors, what Byron thought of Keats, or Shelley of Byron, are seldom, if ever, accurate reflections of their work as authors; relating them to me does not help me decide whether their poems are worth reading, regardless of whose side I may be on in their personal feuds.

In deciding whether to read a book, there are a few things I need to know, and the rest is chaff: How is the author's formal technique--poor, passable, superb? What is the subject of the book? Is that subject handled with knowledge and insight, or addressed in clich├ęs and insipid conclusions? Is the treatment given the theme or subject innovative, or does it follow a route I am familiar with? (By no means does this imply that innovation is always necessary or even desired. There is comfort in genre fiction, in formula, as many authors, including a few I enjoy myself, have illustrated in their careers.) As a bonus, I might be intrigued by the author's relationship to other authors as a stylist, what influences are detectable in his work and where they lead, and to some further information on other works in his corpus. In a wide-ranging review of an author relating him/her to broader themes and movements in the history of literature, I will expect to find aesthetic judgments and formulations, supported by judiciously chosen texts and examples, illustrating connections and disjunctions between authors with similar subjects, rough contemporaneity, or any number of other possible points of commonality and/or separation.

As I read in World Poetry some ancient Greek poets writing on critics, I find that the problems with criticism are not new, but have stood thousands of years. Euripides, for example, was famous for his plays in Athens, and widely known throughout Greece due to that success, but he dies in Macedonia, driven away or self-exiled from the rivalries and contention among the artists of that city. An old man, the playwright of passion was torn apart by wild dogs, as if nature had turned critic. There are stories that arouse my suspicions because they are too perfect, and so I doubt this one for its seamless irony, but it is fun to tell, and so I include it. However, the Greeks we will be discussing in the rest of this post are not ironic dogs, but poets speaking of critics and of other poets.

If I had time to do the research, I would include Aristophanes and his comedies in this section, but I do not, and so I leave his criticism of poets, philosophers, and society to your own efforts. Making sense of Aristophanes is a lot like making sense of Dante in the modern age; to truly understand what he is saying, you first have to know to whom he is referring. Dante placed people in hell for both public and personal reasons, but if you do not know who they were, it is hard to understand why they are in hell at all, or what their position in the Inferno expresses. Aristophanes ridicules and satires persons well-known in his Athens, but little known in our America. I suppose for present purposes our closest approximations of Aristophanes are Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

We begin, then, with Sam Hamill's translation of Cydias (c. 400 BCE):

Beware. There are fawns

who, facing the lion,

die of fright just thinking

the lion might be hungry.

This does not apply only to writers, but it is a useful bit of advice for writers nonetheless. The critic, or even the audience, may be in a hungry mood, and what is written may be torn to pieces rather than received with acclaim, but the fear of rejection, of abuse, must not be allowed to silence the artist. If it does, the artist will never realize his/her potential: the poet remains unpublished and untried, the novelist remains silent, the musician remains unheard, and the art is likely lost forever. Fear destroys artists and their art as surely as it destroys any other endeavor. Artists must be brave.

Sam Hamill also translates Antiphanes' (388-311 BCE) "A strange race of critics". Here we have the artist attacking the critics with derision, casting them as the ones who cannot do and so are left with the ability only to dully explain or to spitefully attack.

they perform autopsies on

the poetry of the dead.

Sad bookworms,

they chew through thorns.

No poet's too dull

for them to elucidate, those who defile

the bones of the great.

Antiphanes claims for the artist an abode apart, elevating him above his audience and those who would explain, or question, him. It is an ancient strategy for deflecting merited as well as unmerited critiques.

Antiphanes remarks point to those of Callimachus (c. 300-240 BCE) in his "Prologue to the Aetia", translated by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Raynor, in which Callimachus addresses his hostile critics with a hostility to equal their own.

The malignant gnomes who write reviews in Rhodes

are muttering about my poetry again--

tone-deaf ignoramuses out of touch with the Muse--

because I have not consummated a continuous epic

of thousands of lines on heroes and lords

The critics, Callimachus says, object to him because he has not conformed to one form of poetry among many possible forms, deriding him for failing to write an epic, while ignoring the beauty of what he has written and the failures of the epic, in which lines of beauty and delicacy are swamped by story and lost.

We are the poets for those who love

the cricket's high-chirping, not the noise of the jackass.

Callimachus, then, is a man of song, not of story. He would sing, not orate and bully. Therefore, the Muses smile upon him in their slender beauty, and he remains blessed despite the shouts of the critics.

What would poetry be without the feuding and spite of poets for one another? Euenos (c. 50 CE) speaks against it:

Snatch not for your hungry young

One who like yourself has sung--

For it is neither just nor fit

That poets should each other eat.

The sport is too amusing to be left alone, however. Rivalry and competition, to be recognized as better, even the best, is too compelling. Theocritus (c. 300 BCE) writes of Hipponax in "Epitaph: Justice":

The poet Hipponax lies here.

In justice, this is only fair.

His lines were never dark or deep.

Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep.

Aristophanes of Byzantium (257-180 BCE) reminds us in "On the Advice of Praxilla" translated by Sam Hamill "poets also bite". It is the negative of Poseidippus' (c. 310 BCE) positive view of the immortality art creates for man, that one will be remembered, but the artist decides the content of that memory. Poseidippus in "Doricha" testifies to the immortality Sappho created for her beloved:

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,

will make your name a word for all to learn,

And all to love thereafter, even while

It's but a name; and this will be as long

As there are distant ships that will return

Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

For the ugly memorial, an immortality of malevolence, Shelley comes to mind, with his "England in 1819":

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--

Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who

Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--

Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,

But leech-like to their fainting country cling,

Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--

Both are testimonials to the power of poetry to make permanent what is merely transitory, and thus to the personal power of the poet.

Writers and critics do not change the world, though they would both like to possess such power, as would we all, certain that it could be better, or, at least, that it could not get much worse. But poets, essayists, novelists, and historians have this over the rest of us: their opinions and their representations of reality are given permanence through the written, or remembered, word. The ephemeral opinions of the bar-room and the coffee-shop, the water cooler and the bus stop, are not eternal, but the ephemeral opinions of the poets, the novelists, the writers, are.


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    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      This is so awesome and interesting and full of history and so full of knowledge. thank you for writing this. I did not know of the feuds this writers had among themselves.

      Voted way up