Developing "Soft Eyes"

In the 1952 essay “On the Crisis in Literary Criticism,” Theodor Adorno decries the tendency of critics to “operate with readymade linguistic clichés,” since they are often “accompanied by an incapacity for original experience of the phenomenon itself.” It is, he continues, “as though everything is perceived through a schema of rigidified phrases.” I share much of Adorno’s skepticism about readymade critical schemas. Describing poetry in terms of binaries such as innovative / traditional, disjunctive / narrative, or marginal / mainstream is certain to repress some element of a poem. It is likely, too, to lead to thinking that obscures important connections between poets: Robert Duncan and James Merrill, for example, are both occultist poets, but despite this important commonality, they are likely to be placed on opposite sides of any of the critical binaries above.

At the same time, critical binaries can be every bit as expressive as they are repressive. They express a great deal, for example, about the people who deploy them. It wasn’t so long ago that Ron Silliman’s post-avant/school-of-quietude dichotomy was commonplace. While Silliman insisted on the neutrality of the phrases, and stressed his admiration for certain poets in the school of quietude, the terms were loaded with judgments. “School of quietude” might almost have been called “school of avoidance” or “school of complicity.” The connotations of the terms in a critical schema reveal the critic’s agenda every bit as much as the connotations of economic terms—“free enterprise,” say, or “late capitalism”—reveal the ideology of a political thinker.

I am no nominalist, ready to chuck out abstractions as inherently meaningless or misleading. Contemporary poetry is a vast field, and if we hope to grasp something about it, we’re going to have to fall back on abstract schemas of one kind or another at some point. One approach to the problem is to develop critical models that move beyond binaries. Just over a decade ago, David Kellogg pointed out a suggestive path for how this might be done in an article in Fence called “The Self in the Poetic Field,” where he proposed locating poets simultaneously on two axes, one running from tradition to innovation, the other from concern with the self to concern with community.

Another approach is to remain promiscuous with our binaries, to take a dialogic approach, allowing different dichotomies and schemas to illuminate the field as best as they can, all the while being careful not to become overly attached to any one critical model. It is probably a good idea, too, for critics to have what a detective in the HBO series The Wire called “soft eyes”—that is, a gaze that sees not just what we expect to find, but the telling details our expectations lead us to overlook.