The Easy and the Hard

Let us all agree with Marjorie Perloff that we should “come out openly against the self-regarding sludge that passes for poetry in the commercial and media world.” But must we come out against it with the self-regarding sludge that passes for so much poetry criticism, a sludge in which even some of Perloff’s points are mired? Without doubt—unless we can mark a sharper line, cut a broader firebreak, between the easy and the hard.

Not the difficult—the hard, because nothing is easier than being difficult. (In these remarks I am being difficult.)

What, then, is easy?

It is easy to arraign something called the Establishment. It is easy to announce that “Poets of the digital age have turned to such innovations as ‘transcription, citation, recycling, reframing, grafting, and mistranslation and mashing adopted in the visual arts and music . . . as long ago as the 1960s.’” Surely it was longer ago than the 1960s that Eliot said “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal,” that Montaigne wrote, “Among all these borrowings I am content if I can steal one or two?”

Tarring nouns such as “creativity,” “feeling,” “experience,” “sincerity,” “poetry,” and “expression” with scare quotes is easy.

It is easy to festoon one’s pronouncements with garlands of proper names: McCaffrey, Bok, Hawkey, Wolf, Goldsmith, Place, Bergvall, Dworkin; Pinsky, Hass, Glück, Strand. Shorthand with a broad brush surrenders legibility.

It is easy to spice the air with terms such as “avant-garde,” “conceptualist,” “ellipsis,” “indirection,” and “intellectual-political engagement” as though they were self-underwriting denominations of value.

The want of precision can be easily supplied with a bewilderment of glazed and fussed-up confections: “verbivocovisual,” “(cubo-)futurist,” and “ironic neo-avant-garde.” (“How fine our distinctions,” wrote Lowell, “when we cannot choose.”)

Thwacking at Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry is deliciously tempting, arguably justifiable, possibly merited, and lately the Sport of Queens. It is also easy.

So go ahead, it’s easy: Arouse my tendency to smugness, my fart-huffing self-satisfactions, my neutered machismo, my scenesterist hipsterism, my fawning sophisticate ostentations, my bien-pensant sighs at the State of the Art, my craven pander of that rent-boy The New, that arsenic-whited courtesan The Cutting Edge. I'm the bobble-headed nodder at the roof-top reading, the installation, the événement. I’m all afroth for factitious partisanship. Admit me, pretty please, to the Right Order of Authenticated Badasses. For a day-glo wristband I’ll blow any bouncer. It’s easy. So am I.

What, though, is hard?

Charity is hard. Charity is hard because it is not what you think it is. It is neither indulgence, nor the coddling of fools, nor the incubation of mediocrities. Charity is partly hatred and mostly wrath, because every act of love dissevers itself from all alternatives. The critic’s charity is the hardest because it acquaints me—ensnared though I am in an incestuous ménage with my likes and dislikes—with the greatest stranger: what I should love. The critic’s charity is the hardest because it teaches me how I should love this stranger, in spite of my lassitude, my encysted contentment with the familiar, my surrender to the rictus of contempt. The critic’s charity is hardest because it wipes the smirk off my face.

The critic’s charity begins with the acknowledgment that “there is no end to the vanity of our calling,” or as they used to say in the 1960s “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” Only then, paradoxically, can the critic respond to Pound’s injunction to “Pull down thy vanity.”

I have pointed here to a dreadful likeness between the complacencies lamented by Perloff and those that animate her essay (and to a lesser extent her exchange with Matvei Yankelevich). I have said that the critic worth the name acquaints me with what I should love and how. And how will she do this? It won’t be easy.