In Praise of Literary Criticism

In Praise of Literary Criticism


I cannot be the only reader who misses fair, informed and detailed criticism of poetry in today’s literary press, and wonders with Paul Craig Roberts:

I do not know what role facts, evidence, or a desire to know the truth any longer play in American lives. This article conforms to my experience as a scholar, journalist, public policy maker, and corporate director.  The vast majority of people believe what they want to believe. Facts and evidence have little to do with it. People believe what serves their hopes and self-interests as they perceive their interests (often incorrectly) and what validates their emotional commitments. A select few can think independently, but their voices are usually drowned out. (1)

Or is tempted to agree with Anis Shivani:

The standard workshop poem is a narrative or associative slight effort, taking off from the quotidian, to rest in an uneasy or understated epiphany. There is also a language poetry subcomponent, but this has its own utterly predictable rules (the
language poets think the lyric and narrative poets are closet fascists, yet they are blind to own brand of conservatism.) . . . It is in the interest of the mystery of the guild to banish criticism altogether, and they have pretty much succeeded, reducing criticism to glowing, one hundred percent positive, 700-1000 word-blurbs masquerading as criticism in the back pages of literary quarterlies, if they are allowed at all. (2)

A world where everyone can write poetry, and millions do, is a healthy one, I’d have thought, even if we’re drowned in such productions and need critics to find authors that repay the time needed to understand and appreciate them. If criticism is not doing that job, however, or any job at all, then reviews will be suspect, which is probably the case today. No sensible purchaser of a poetry collection now trusts the reviews, even by well-known names, when a one hundred percent positive approval  applies regardless. We are in Weimar Germany: the reviews are only packaging, a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’  system of mutual promotion by poets.

Readers must consult their own experiences here, but I want to take the analogy a little further. Honest reviews or not, the real trouble begins when value has to be attached to the poetry productions, particularly when status, appointments and
money enter the picture, as they must when poets turn professional. Poems are a touchstone of how a society sees itself and so a form of currency: they are convertible, via various rules of reading, to experiences that are held to be significant, valuable or even life-enhancing. Poems are creations rather than balance sheets of experience, of course, but they depend on shared traditions of literary worth, and therefore on trust. They are underwritten by the assumption that the poem really does represent what the poet is prepared to accept as his or her personal statement, at least at that particular moment. Hence the difficulties with the ‘epiphany’, noted above: epiphanies can be very private matters and we have only the compelling rightness of the poem to persuade us that these epiphanies are not painless juggling with words or a simple seeking after effects. Hence also the difficulties with amateur poetry, not that the forms are passé but they versify responses that, expressed in the prose of everyday life, would be gauche and/or inadequate.

Returning to the first quote, Craig Paul Roberts is concerned with the US financial situation, which he sees as unsustainable, being based on fictions and banking sleight of hand, and not the production of socially useful goods and services. Money
in western societies is of course created ‘out of thin air’, by a paper transaction that supposes the counterbalancing debt that is created can and will be serviced:

All money is created when a bank loans it into existence. It is extinguished when the loan is paid off, but sufficient money to also pay the interest (bank profit) is not created. Consequently, there is always much more debt than money to pay it – scarcity is built in to the system. Numerous problems result, some obvious, some not. . . It requires perpetual growth at an increasing rate to sustain the system without implosion because of the inbuilt shortages of money. It inevitably leads to a debt crisis, as Ludwig von Mises postulated six decades ago. He called it a systemic crack-up – a global reset. (1)

Such resets, I’d suggest, resemble those periodic crises in literature: the Modernist movement, Postmodernism and language poetry, etc. when the old ways are declared no longer valid. Some older conceptions survive, but probably those (it
seems to me) where poems are:

a. are underwritten by real and useful conceptions, i.e. unlike the Fed’s money-printing exercises which rest only on confidence in the American dollar.

b. are the product of obvious gifts, expertise and effort — i.e. display competence in craft skills, and/or accreditation by publication in leading journals and a MFA qualification:  the guild system that Anis Shivani dislikes. (‘Court poetry’ might be a
better term, i.e. motivated by prestige within a select group than actually supplying anything generally wanted.)

c. address contemporary concerns, or what the literary world now sees as contemporary.

Behind these modest requirements bristles a host of difficult questions, as the Theory section of the site should have made clear. Rather than argue the points at length — discussion would take many pages —  I will take the difficulties as self-evident, and continue with the financial analogy. It is not market swings, inflation and recessions that cause social unrest, but the other way round, some economists now believe. Geoffrey Ingham, for example  (3) roots money in a socially constructed promise, and argues against today’s dominant school that sees money as a passive intermediary, an accounting or mathematical symbol annotating underlying realities. Four matters are inherent in that dominant conception. Money is firstly an enabling device only, not a driving force. Secondly, money exists solely to minimize the inefficiencies of direct barter: in other respects money is unimportant to theory. Thirdly, the value of money may be derived from economic concepts of value: those familiar diagrams of demand, supply, marginal utility and the like. Fourthly, the price of money is itself a function of money’s supply and demand. Readers will unfortunately have to read Ingham’s work — which is rather technical and needs a basic grasp of economic theory — for the arguments in detail and the supporting evidence, but the essential point is this: money is an entity in itself.

Poems too, I would argue, and our conceptions of poetry, are not merely annotations or re-orderings of experience, but have a real and independent existence. Language poetry and some forms of Postmodernism go even further: they do not hold a mirror up to nature but aim to be sophisticated entertainments whose value is generated by leading magazines — just as contemporary art relies on trust in a close-knit circle of critics, dealers and curators to recognize and maintain market value. Capitalism,  which allows all economic aspects of modern life to be monetized in ways broadly acceptable to electorates or ruling elites, puts a monetary figure to that value. Stability in such a system is therefore essential, and all beneficiaries (institutions, schools, magazines, blogs, etc.) have a stake in maintaining the status quo. Money is created by debt, and the promises to pay those debts are converted by a complex inter-linkage of private and social obligations to the central bank’s ‘promise to pay’: (i.e. to some consensus on what needs to be done to read and value poetry). (Literary) wars, social unrest and trade embargoes may weaken those obligations, and so lead to the periods of inflation, recession and deflation that become more common in an increasingly interlocking world of countries at different stages of development (i.e. to mainstream literary opinion among readers of varying  experience or reading skills). Older measures of value (gold and pre-Modernist poetry) have to be attacked and belittled because they stand as a reproach (the mine canary in Mitchell’s chapter) to current systems of belief.

What’s to be done, supposing even a little of this to be true?

1. Search for some bedrock of literary function, and not rely on a web of unexamined assumptions that must eventually collapse.
2. Emphasize craft more, basing it on centuries of tradition rather than current fads.
3. Promote literary criticism, accepting that an independent view will not always be welcome or persuasive.
4. Remember that criticism is an act of service, not promotion, and must therefore earn the trust of readers: critics have to describe responses as they experience them and not as the literary world would sometimes prefer.


1. Gold Wars by Kelly Mitchell. Clarity Press, 2013. Introductory chapter quoted in Gold Wars by Paul Craig Roberts in GlobalResearch, October 2013.
2. The MFA/Creative Writing System Is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing by Anis Shivani. Boulevard. Fall 2010.
3. The Nature of Money by Geoffrey Ingham. Polity Press, 2004.
4. The Decline of Book Reviewing by Elizabeth Hardwick Harper’s Magazine. October 1959.

Related Website Pages

Art as Purposeful Activity.
Sociology of Poetry.


One Comment

  1. Maybe this is off topic, but I don’t think the MFA program is so constricting as this post suggests. See Miranda Hill’s account on

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