Know Your Critics

If only because our poets travel in spirit as well as body, there is no approved “Canadian Style”. With arts travel grants, Writer‑in‑Residence programs, conferences, plain wanderlust, and now the Internet, we crisscross the nation. Reading each other’s books, literary journals, and e-zines published coast to coast, how can we help but be influenced by varying aesthetics? Across place and time, we can incorporate whatever works for us into a poetic voice uniquely our own.

Nonetheless, certain would-be critics, whether responding in workshops or publishing reviews, suffer from tunnel vision, unable to see beyond literary practice within their immediate circle or locale. Some years back, I was astonished when one even insisted before an entire class that closure was no longer “allowed” in poetry. How readers were to know when a poem had ended—or not—he never made clear. To insist such a singular view is The Truth is going too far. As Ezra Pound admonished in The ABC of Reading: “You don’t sleep on a hammer or lawn mower, you don’t drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn mower and a sofa cushion?”

After all, is a given poem meant as “serious” literature or light verse? Is it aimed at a literary journal or an in-flight magazine? Is the author a neophyte or well seasoned? Was the piece presented as a class exercise only, or as a completed work seeking publication? Such knowledge can temper a critic’s comments. In a Prairie Fire interview, Patrick Friesen complained, “The poem, to start off with, is not a theory of criticism, and I find the ass‑backwards approach of formalists plain irritating. These people have forgotten that the writing comes first, and then—if you’re so inclined—you can develop a theory of interpretation.”

Moreover, each subgenre within poetry has its own conventions. For example, the haiku in English, often standardized to 3 lines, 17 syllables, evokes a moment of wonder by skilfully juxtaposing concrete details—without “poetic devices”. In contrast, lyric poetry relies on imagery, as well as on the aural effects of onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, and consonance to enhance emotional content and please the ear. It is in these terms—how successfully the poem works within its own aesthetic—that a critic from one spot on the literary landscape can deal with the work of poets from anywhere else.

Otherwise, if a critic displays too limited a concept of art, why listen? Unless intentionally designed as a sonnet, villanelle, or other set form, a poem is not a box into which words must fit in some pre-approved way, but a meaning that curls and winds from an individual writer’s imagination, finding its own best form. “It is the critic’s first duty—prior even to his duty of stigmatizing the bad—to welcome everything that is good,” wrote Matthew Arnold. Fine writing flows from one’s voice.

The “for‑or‑against‑us” mentality of blanket negative criticism can be devastating to the young writer searching for a voice. Fashions change, cliques die. Neither offers a basis for lasting aesthetic judgments. When a poet sets off on the wings of fantasy, the question is not whether fantasy is an acceptable mode of composition, but if that specific creation convinces in its own right. In a Harper’s article, “Excellence in Poetry”, Hayden Carruth summed up: “Functional completeness, the combining imagination, the presence of original sensibility and style as the embodiment of authenticity: these are the ideas to hang onto.”

To these criteria, I would add: substance, spark, and proficiency in one’s craft. By craft, I mean not whether the writing is Postmodern self-reflexive, or Black Mountain projective, or Steam Punk explosive. Instead, I am talking about the elements that a poet should be able to manipulate skilfully enough—imagery (simile, metaphor, personification, symbol), metre, free verse rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, and consonance, sequence, line and stanza breaks, and patterning—to bring into being the final result she or he wants. These are basic building blocks by which the value of the writing can be tested. Take no critic seriously too narrow to address them!