True criticism

In the end, it’s misleading, and perhaps false, to speak of reviews as ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. A good review should contain both elements, judiciously balanced. We live in an age of shameless puffery. A good critic, a just judge, will resist this. But let’s face it: in the case of poetry (and of the novel, too, I suspect, though I’ve never written one), a wayward element can intervene, in the form of a sudden caprice, an unexpected impulse—perhaps even what Edgar Allen Poe named ‘the imp of the perverse’—and this gratuitous and quite unbidden whim can take a poem in startling directions. It can make a dull poem shine but it can also make a good poem falter. What at first appears queer or off-kilter or even downright loopy may be transformed over time into something unsuspected, unrecognized, before. The critic has to be alert to this possibility, rare as it is; has to allow, that is, that all his fine judgment, his confident logic, his unerring taste, may prove pointless. Our judgments may—and probably will—prove as perishable as the books they judge. This requires a special kind of humility: despite our best efforts, if the work is truly good, something will always elude our analysis. There’s a mystery here I don’t pretend to understand. Perhaps Emily Dickinson expressed it best:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!

Eric Ormsby, from “Fine Incisions: Reflections on Reviewing”, p. 120 in Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2011)

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful! I particularly liked the line ‘despite our best efforts, if the work is truly good, something will always elude our analysis’. This is, I believe, the fundamental truth of the Humanities, the Geisteswissenschaften. We are studying human beings, and human beings are only fully and completely known by their Maker.

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