Well; I’ve been trying to make a start on this wretched thing for about an hour now, my thoughts being continually distracted by the movie 500 Days of Summer, which is on in the background. I sometimes leave the TV on when I write, in the vague and somewhat ambitious hope that some of its bleating will subconsciously infiltrate my writing. I know that John Lennon used to write songs in this way: fragments of advertising jingles and catch phrases for cornflakes making their way along the soporific waves into his work. It doesn’t seem to be going as well for me, though perhaps comparison to John Lennon is a little self-defeating. He, for example, was even able to turn an instance of extreme writer’s block into a great song: Nowhere Man. There is one line in this song which commands particular attention: Lennon, writing of the nowhere man, that is, himself: ‘He doesn’t have a point of view/knows not where he’s going to’. I’d like to discuss with you today the implications of this little vignette for the amateur critic of the written word, giving special study to the criticism of poetry. Beware that, though this isn’t very long, I may stray from the course a little; you have been forewarned.
Lennon’s observation is acute, for surely the most torturous aspect of writing is having to contrive opinion. Orwell writes splendidly on this, as have others. Indeed, it seems that writers have partly been able to escape from this mire by contriving opinion on the act of contriving opinion, a fact which impresses on us only the desperation of writers (or perhaps their expedience). For me the process goes a little like this: having read a book, or essay, or poem that I am obliged to write about, I will sit and nitpick the text for a time before scribbling some quibble or two down on paper. These little criticisms are not so much considered diagnoses of the writing’s ‘problems’, but rather hurried attempts at keyhole surgery: I fumble in the dark for some grasp on whatever tumour it is that I’m so convinced is there. In the end I will find something, albeit bloody and largely useless for the purpose of demonstrating any malignancy in the work. Starting with this small and impotent thing, I contrive ad hoc criticism of the piece, making sure to meet all requirements of my assignment.
Rarely then do I have much to say about the merits of a text, for it is much easier to find faults with someone’s writing than to laud it. Any praise is usually couched in such ambiguous terms as ‘successful’, or ‘effective’: words equivocal enough to yield to most interpretations a reader is likely to bring to the table. The term ‘successful’ is especially useful, for it implies that the writer is actually engaging in a far more practical act than writing, as if instead he is baking a cake or building a chair; the chair is ‘successful’ if I am able to sit on it without its breaking, and any man who proclaims it a success is not likely to be questioned much: his assessment is as good as anyone’s.
(A little aside: you will have to pardon my frankly excessive use of household objects as metaphors. In the above paragraph alone I mentioned tables, cakes and chairs. There is some explanation for this: I work part-time as a carpenter’s lackey, building decks, tables, chairs, wardrobes, etc. My job mainly consists of passing tools to burly men, buying discounted Powerade for drinks breaks, and feigning knowledge of either Rugby League or the merits of hex shanks; forgive me for bringing my work home with me.)
Of course, unlike most chairs, writing is not always merely functional. It is difficult to say with great conviction that any piece of writing is successful without first presupposing some criteria against which to gauge its success. A political pamphlet may be considered a success by influencing popular opinion; instructions on how to roast chicken may be considered successful depending on the tenderness of the chicken. And as for a poem? Let me say first that it is not my intention here to discuss art theory, whether success be beauty, beauty success; this is more than we need to know at present; let us content ourselves for now with shooting for meaner ground. Certainly one could argue that a poem is successful (I think the popularity of poetry speaks for that), but this is not the point I want to elucidate; you see, it is not that it can’t be shown to be successful, rather the fact that it isn’t often done so very easily.
I feel that people sometimes struggle with poetry because they are never quite sure as to what purpose it serves. My dad is like this; he claims that he simply ‘doesn’t get it’, supposing not only that there lies hidden beneath the words a ‘secret’ worth getting at, but also that there must be some obscure cipher which unlocks it. It is understandable then how we come to believe that poetry demands something of us, a response, a reaction, an opinion: always there is that lingering sense of compulsion to have a point of view. In this way poetry can be perplexing, for without purpose the degree of its success is hard to quantify. It is better thus to conceive of the study of poetry as being without a single and primary purpose: it should not seek to solely edify, solely instruct, nor solely serve as a font of reflections on beauty or beautiful things; rather it must embolden the soul of all to, in the words of Yeats, clap its hands and sing, for this divine tune need not accompany a game of musical chairs, where all hasten for a seat and one poor laggard is left standing.
So, all should be privy to the delights of verse, and none should feel any compunction about lacking special opinion or insight into it. Enjoy it if you can, and if it’s not your thing, so be it. If you do not expect anything from poetry, it will expect nothing from you, and thus you will be freer to disgorge its pleasures. As a student of literature and criticism myself, I am dimly aware that this piece may have been written in the full spirit of self-denial: the pressure to contrive a point of view is tedious indeed. Perhaps I simply yearn to be on the other side of the wall, such as when Alice comes across the little doorway leading to an enchanted garden. But I am, as she was, simply too big for the thing; sadly it will only accommodate my toes. If you happen to be on the same side as myself, let me know, for together we may cloister ourselves from the gloom of criticism for a time and peer through that little door to freedom, fancying ourselves the happier twins of a dark hour.
For those interested, here is Nowhere Man by the Beatles:
And here is George Orwell's essay on ad hoc criticism: Confessions of a Book Reviewer (though it is mainly to do with financial incentive). It is quite short.