Thursday, December 07, 2006

What are critics for?

I wrote this as a comment on an entry in C. Dale Young's blog:

When I was at Stanford in the mid-eighties, the Stanford Daily's film critic was a man named Steve Vineberg (who, a quick Google search just revealed, is now a professor at Holy Cross). Almost everybody I knew who read is reviews hated them: he was extremely tough on everything, and he rarely seemed to enjoy any movies. (Sounds a bit like William Logan, actually.)

But I learned to appreciate his reviews. In the final analysis, it was not his opinion on a given film that mattered, but the fact that, when I read a review of his, I could tell whether or not I would like the movie. And this feeling did not depend on whether or not he liked the movie!

That, then, became the mark of a good critic to me: the sense that, if you read the critic regularly, you could learn to parse his or her comments and opinions so that they could be a filter for your own interests.

But I also have to admit that I am still not sure whether Logan is a good critic in that sense. His critical persona might be too much that of a curmudgeon.


Donald Brown said...

Hey, thanks for the William Logan link! I like this guy! Of course that doesn't mean I EVER want him to see one of MY poems. Jeeze.

But he's dead-on about things that distress me about our contemporaries too:

"The poems invent a past re- imagined through the wishful thinking of the present, in that theme park of the oppressed designed by modern academics."

I HEAR you, brother! There's too much ersatz social consciousness these days, sanctimonious, unimaginative, often just wrong.

"Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse."

This kinda thing annoys me too. No formalist myself, I do believe formal patterns should be adhered to if attempted. The lazy, sloppy (i.e. "innovative") attempts at form just make us all look bad. If you can't come close to John Hollander, get out of the game. "Professional but uninspired" -- couldn't have said it better myself.

"Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks."

This is nasty, but at least it makes you feel the pique Logan feels. And so much poetry seems to aspire to be blank where it can't be arch.

"You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.”"

So much poetry does make you feel nothing, nothing except that vague depression that THIS is published and praised, that a poet and probably several ms. readers and editors found complete want of verve, passion and conviction compelling. But I take exception with the Scarlett O'Hara comparison. I felt much more watching Scarlett deliver that line (and it gets referenced and parodied often in my family) than I ever do from most poetry. Such are the delights of the low-brow.

Mr. Mescalito said...

I won't be as verbose as DB, but I thought it was a good post.

Made me think.