Tag Archives: Criticism

Current Reading

In a sense, poems are not even fair. For instance, they do not always assert what they mean. And the same for pictures. A reader must get meaning through an action, through an act of response. And there are endless combinations of irony possible, and reversals, and second thoughts, and adjustments. Images and words put near each other begin to interact. What a poem says, it keeps on saying, with variations, to any being who keeps on saying and judging too, in his own way.

“Introduction to ‘Since Feeling is First'”, reprinted in Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation by William Stafford

This, of course, reminds me of Emily Dickenson’s “Tell the truth, but tell is slant”:

All truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind

Once I thought of that, my mind went wandering, tossing this idea about. It isn’t coincidence that I used the word tossing, as Stafford wrote about bouncing ideas — and poems — off of backboards! I look forward to reading more essays in this collection; when I start up again, I’ll be on page 9!

Welcome to the Sunshine State

Its got a good beat & you can dance to it

Scene: Dick Clark, any day, the mid-60’s through the mid-70’s. You could have found me watching American Bandstand. I would sit in front of the TV, watching teens dance, observing their actions, studying their clothes, listening to the music, hoping to imbibe whatever it was that made one “cool”, something so unobtainable to me that I didn’t even know how to describe it. I suppose it is still that way: like jazz or pornography, you know it when you see it. But I can’t define it.

Rate-a-record was my favorite part of Bandstand. Two selected kids would listen to a record and then rate it. It was the part I was afraid to leave the room during commercial for fear that I would not return in time.

“Its got a good beat and you can dance to it”.

Yet, Rate-A-Record always disappointed on some level because I did not understand the opinions. In seeking “coolness”, I wanted to have the clues so that I too could rate records and know whether they were good or not, if they were worthy of some unknown-to-me, yet still subscribed to, teenage rating system. “It has a beat….”

I never learned to dance.

Sometimes, I think I feel the same way about performances that I attend. Last night, husband and I went to a chamber music concert. T knows far more about music than I would ever care to know. Yet, I enjoy going to hear music performed. After the first piece, he asked me whether I liked it. He went on to comment about how unusual a portion of the piece was for that type of music — let’s just say it was an adagio, or something like that, because it would have made as much sense if he used the word fettucini. My response could only be some equivalent of “It had a beat and …” I nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders.

At intermission, we stopped to talk to a professor I have known since I was 19. Frequently, we see him at this particular concert series, and we often exchange stories of what musical or theatrical events we have seen recently. Since this was the first concert of the season, it was the first time we had seen Bill since we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances in NYC last summer. “What did you think about the plays?” he asked. “I loved them” was my husband’s exuberant reply. But he quickly followed up with this: “But what do I know? I’m not a critic.”

In many ways, his response was much like mine was to him earlier regarding the violinist. But, whereas I simply said that I couldn’t discuss the music using his critical tools, it seemed to me, in retrospect, that he may have been apologizing for not having the equivalent theatrical and literary tools with which to assess. I could be wrong — we did not discuss it afterwards — but today I’m thinking about how often, as an audience member, it is easy to fall into a trap where we either only give the unsupported “I liked it” or we don’t comment at all because our experience seems less meaningful than that of a “real” critic.

How do you rate something if not on some internal continuum ranging from “Hate it” to “Love it”? I’m not talking about critical analysis but rather viewer — or listener — analysis. How do you talk about books, or theatre, or music, or art if it isn’t on how you respond to it?

I had intended to write about the plays I saw in New York last summer, but each time that I began to write, I felt that I couldn’t describe the experience in appropriate terms. I think what was stopping me was that I felt that I needed to do a critique of the performances. And I lacked the vocabulary and the expertise to do that. Besides, of the seven plays I saw, only two of them were not in their closing weeks. What was the point? It wasn’t as if I would be recommending these to someone who might choose to attend.

But maybe the point should be something else. It isn’t like the critics always review things in ways that are meaningful to me as an audience participant. Before we went to the RSC plays, we read several of the reviews. One that stands out was that King Lear was described as being a pretty good Lear for someone who hadn’t seen it before. What does that mean? Would I expect something different if I had seen Lear three or four times? Lear was the one play in the series I didn’t see. I knew when he returned from the theatre, because we had joked about the review, T would say that it was pretty good…for a beginner. The reality was that he still didn’t know what that reviewer had meant, but he did enjoy the performance. Likewise, I enjoyed the four RSC plays that I saw (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Ceasar), and although I can tell you which was my least favorite was Julius Ceasar and that Romeo was my favorite — even though as a play I like As You Like It better — I don’t know that I can tell you why in any sort of way that isn’t outside of my experience. Maybe I can tell you something more that “Its got a good beat…” but, like any theatrical performance, it would be up to each person who sees it to know whether she can dance to it.

>Reading Like A Reader

>Last year, soon after it was published, I started reading reviews and blog posts about Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them”. It seemed that there was no middle-ground: either the review/blogger loved the book, or he hated it. I had seen the book in the store before I had read discussion of it on-line and I had been intrigued by the title. But, I felt like I didn’t need someone to tell me how to read, so it was placed back on the shelf. Later, after reading so many items about this book, I did buy a copy because I wanted to read Prose for myself.

I read the first four chapters soon after I got the book. I put the book down after those four chapters and didn’t pick it up again until I read Dorothy’s post a few weeks ago about it. Litlove and Stephanie also wrote about it recently. Since I was on a spree to complete several in-process books over the holiday weekend, I picked this one up & started it where I left off.

There were marks and comments in the margins of the first few chapters — obviously I had reacted to reading the text — but I could not remember anything significant about the book. That should have told me something about this book. I began reading it determined to complete it, and did so. Now a week later, I struggle once again to remember something distinctive in this book.

Prose’s book doesn’t cover anything that someone with more than one or two introductory classes in literature shouldn’t have already learned. This could be an additional text for a beginning creative writing class. She dissects texts to offer up examples of fine writing, starting with the basic unit — words — and working her way through sentences, paragraphs, narration, etc. Some of the works she cites inarguably are examples of fine writing. Some of them, for the avid reader, are not unfamiliar, and one can appreciate Prose’s efforts to find such wonderful examples to support her points.

Yet, I don’t think that I learned anything new from this book. Her book may be a guide to an aspiring writer, but I think that it would have to be one who hasn’t yet studied much about writing.

Is it for readers? I don’t think so. I think that people who are avid readers do not need an instructive text on how a writer might approach creating a literary work. Aspiring and beginning writers might benefit. In the early chapters Prose writes about how a close reading of a text is beneficial to the writer. In fact, she suggests that this could be a better approach than a writing workshop.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Prose writes about how it is reading that taught her to how to write, not writing classes. She says that the writing workshop is beneficial to learn to line-edit, but it is from reading that she learned how to write. I’m not sure why, in the initial chapters, she tries to advantage the reading of good writers over writing workshops. If such workshops teach one how to line edit, isn’t that also what a close word-by-word reading would do by example? Can you do one without the exposure to the other? Is this really a dichotomy that should exist?

More importantly, does this really matter to the “passionate reader“? I’m not sure that there is one way to read a work. I think that even an unschooled reader, that is one who hasn’t been introduced (is indoctrinated too strong a word?) to literary studies, can certainly enjoy a work of literature without needing to be able to dissect the manner in which the writer developed the character. One can read a short story by Chekov (Prose discusses his work extensively) and enjoy the pleasure of reading a story, perhaps connecting to it on an emotional level. On a different level, the same reader could reflect on how Chekov crafted his story, analyzing the way in which it was built, the seemingly effortless technique used to develop his characters. This leads to a different appreciation of the story and a deeper understanding of Chekov as a master craftsman of the short story, but does not necessarily reflect a closer — or better — reading of the text. This is just a different kind of reading of the text. Prose is right that would-be writers should study the examples of well-known authors and their works in this manner, but I don’t think it is a necessary approach for “people who love books”.

Then again, maybe I only think this because it took me nearly 20 years after earning my Masters to detox from the academic bs that had tainted my enjoyment of reading. Sure, I can discuss works using the terms of literary analysis and criticism — and sometimes I do in this blog. But, sometimes, there is just a sheer joy in reading and it’s okay to say “Wow! That book was great!” because that’s all that needs to be said.

>Spending a few hours with Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours

>Following a long nap — a perfect past time on a snowy cold day — I sat down to browse through a book I picked up a few months ago, Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems. Oliver writes in the forward that this collection, published in 1999, is of poems and essays that reveal herself, “to offer something that must in the future be taken into consideration by any who would claim to know me”. But, Oliver warns, it is not a work that is chronological or opens up secret matters of her life and heart. Rather, she writes, it is like “parts of conversation, or a long and slowly arriving letter…natural in expression”.

One of the essays in the book is about Robert Frost. Other essays deal with Poe, Hopkins, and Whitman. In a brief essay, she writes convincingly about Frost as a poet who on the surface appears to be writing about how all is right, yet subtly reveals that all is not right. His works are lyrical and perfectly formed, Oliver states, but the meaning behind the form defines an ever-present discomfort with the world. Oliver writes:

So often is seems Frost is about to float away upon a lilting cadence, or barge away in some desperate rage, and then he reins himself in; there is the wondrous restraint, the words that are rich and resonant: dark and deep. And there is also that other restraint: the impending rhyme-match and the line length that must reach, not never overreach, its companions…. Whatever the painful and unresolved interior of the poem, the poet has kept his balance, and we can too. Balance, restraint, steadiness, a controlled and reasonable tongue, and an eye that never fails to see the beauty of things whatever else it sees — these are victories. Whatever disappointments and woe Frost felt, he rocked him way through them and made the perfect cages of his poems to hold them.

This renders “the woods are lovely, dark and deep” in a different perspective, doesn’t it?

In another essay, titled The Swan and preceding a poem with the same title, Oliver writes of her rules for acceptable poems:

Every poem I write…must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose…. I want every poem to “rest” in intensity. I want it to be rich with “pictures of the world”. I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy….

I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact.

Following this brief essay is the poem The Swan. Oliver writes that it has some of these qualities, but in fact it has all of them. To quote a few lines (unfortunately, I don’t know how to reproduce the indentions as published):

Said Mrs Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company —
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.

I think that Oliver is absolutely correct on this requisite interaction of the reader with the text. And it isn’t limited to poetry alone. She writes: “The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture, listened to from an uncomfortable chair, in a stuffy room, inside a building…The point is not what the poet would make of the moment but what the reader would make of it.” Oliver succeeds in meeting her standards for a poem with “The Swan”. It indicates “a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy” and it also rests with intensity and causes the reader to think about the non-flat, non-linear miles in the arc of a life and to contemplate what are the gestures which honor that.

My experience with Oliver’s poems has been limited. I’m not sure that I’d recommend this book as the starting point for someone with no exposure to Oliver, but it does provide a glimpse into Oliver as a writer without bogging down in memoir-esque trivial details, revealing too much about the writer that might persuade one to confuse the writer with the speaker in her poems. Nor does it overwhelm the reader with theory or explication that might send one fleeing rather than to the nearest volume of Oliver’s poems to read more from this gifted poet. Mostly what I like about this book is that it provides insight into how a poet regards other poets’ works as a reader as well as how the poet envisions readers of her own work.

>When I look at the stars, or mountains, or a wildflower, or the sea


Litlove wrote a few days ago about Religion and Spirituality and whether the two can be separated. Can one be spiritual, while being an atheist? was the question raised by a work she was reading. There are some interesting comments to that post; you should check them out. I started to post this as a comment on her blog, but I quickly realized I had more to say than a blog comment would allow. As I read her post, I started thinking about a book I read a few months ago, Simple Christian by N.T. Wright, that I have yet to write about here. One of the things I’ve been gnawing on since I read this book was Wright’s outlining of different categorizations or concepts about God and I think it is relevant to the discussion at Litlove’s. This post is not meant to be a commentary on Wright’s apologetics as expressed in this book, but I do think that the classification is useful for my discussion of the question Litlove posed.

Here’s my distillation of classifications Wright cites in his book:

  1. The pantheist looks at God as being everywhere, and everywhere, therefore, is God. This is a belief that everything contains at least a spark of divinity.
  2. The panentheistic view is one that everything may not be divine as such, but exists within God.
  3. The belief that God (or gods) and humankind occupy two distinct and firmly separated spaces.
  4. The belief, found Wright says in classic Judaism and early Christianity, that Heaven and Earth are NOT coterminous and that God makes his presence known on earth.

Wright actually considers pantheism and panentheism to be variations on the same theme, but I see them as decidedly distinct. I think many adherents of Christianity, while not labeling themselves as panentheists, often misconstrue that all things are within God, rather than being created by God. I think that this is produced by the faulty logic that says “God is good, therefore all things created by God are good”. As Wright points out, this falls apart when you consider evil. I cannot believe that evil doesn’t exit, but I’ve yet to get my head around how to explain its existence, even in terms of my belief in the existence of God. Maybe the existence of evil is part of the mystery of God, but I cannot see it as a part of that which is divine.

Wright discusses the belief that the godly and the human are separated by a wide gulf in both the ancient Greeks as well as the 18th century Deists. This belief, Wright writes, is quite cozy and comfortable for the well-off, but not so much if, like most of the world’s population throughout history, one lives in despicable, deplorable conditions. This view, Wright points out, is prevalent both among those who call themselves Christian and those who identify as being agnostics. It is, he suggests, a view of a God who just “shrugs his shoulders” at the plight of the world. This view, I think, can leave one wondering, when one marvels at the beauty in the world, what the point is. Although often throughout my life I’ve believed in the distant god-figure, it does seem to be a position that is bound to leave one bewildered at one extreme, angst-ridden at the other, if one follows through to the logical end of the philosophical argument that a god would create a beautiful world and then pretty much just ignore it.

It is the last categorization around which Wright frames Simply Christian, detailing this concept in terms of the ancient Israelites, who saw this overlapping of the Godly and the Earthly manifested in the Temple. This idea of God’s presence in the world provides a framework that I hadn’t considered previously, not that I haven’t recognized before what I would call God’s presence. I can best describe it as a Venn diagram, where Heaven is the space where the sphere of God or the Godhead overlaps with humankind’s sphere of existence. Obviously, in terms of Christian theology, one can talk about how the “Temple” of the ancient Israelites has been replaced with the temple of Christ. But, I’ve most often heard Christians talk of Jesus Christ as the temple as being the bridge between heaven and earth, not as the intersection. I like this idea of intersecting, overlapping spheres. It makes more sense to me in many ways and brings a different perspective to the idea of communion and relationship with God and others, to the metaphor of God’s kingdom on earth, and to the concept of eternity, with God being outside of time. It is this intersection where ethics makes sense in the Christian tradition; by doing what is right (following the rule to love God and love your neighbor has yourself) we are brought into relationship with each other and with the Divine.

So, how does this relate to Litlove’s question? (Go read it now, if you haven’t yet & want the rest of this to make sense.) I would say that spirituality within atheism cannot exist. What is it that one would be trying to attain through the atheistic meditation on nature of which Litlove’s French philosopher wrote? I understand the mystical feeling that many get when they commune with nature. When I behold beauty in the natural world, I experience a spiritual connection with nature — and with God. But it is just one way. It is not the only place I find that Godly/Earthly intersection. It is more difficult — after all, when was the last time you were betrayed by a flower, had an argument with a tree — but we should be able to find that same kind of communion with people as well. When we just look for the mystical in nature, we don’t find God in all of the Divine’s dimensions, and we overlook how we have gaps, divisions, wide gulfs that seem impossible to bridge, with our fellow humans.

Spirituality is different than religion; one is the continuing path to understanding the godly, the other the organized corporate practice of worship and the codification of beliefs, including how one individually should seek and follow a righteous, ethical and spiritual path. Meditation, for some, may be a part of that journey, but I can’t conceive of it as being separate from spirituality. When one meditates upon beauty as found in the natural world and finds it a spiritual experience, one need to consider whether they are communing with the Divine as nature, with the Divine within nature, or nature as a manifestation of the Divine.

Litlove wrote: “So what I think this French author is doing is taming and domesticating the mystical experience, trying to make it into something pocket-sized and practical….[B]ut if there is a God, then I can‚’t help but feel he‚’s bound up in what we might refer to as Glory, as a form of beauty and awe that exceeds the quotidian imaginings of humanity, and that nourishes our sense of excess and the extraordinary.” I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think that the point of such a mystical experience, as the French atheist posited, is to understand our place in the whole of the cosmos and to accept life as is. As BikeProf commented on Litlove’s post, such a position simply finds different words to express the same experience.

As another commenter on Litlove’s blog, Mark, wrote: ….some merit to spirituality in a purely aesthetic sense, but I’m not sure if it‚’s not missing an essential quality of religion – duty“. In the context of ethics, I think this is also true. Apart perhaps from ethical questions regarding the right use of natural resources, I don’t think that meditation on the aesthetics of nature will inspire ethical thinking. Is the sense of awe and of being part of a universe bigger than one’s ego something that will evoke the mystical in the midst of nature when nature is destructive — wild animals seeking and killing prey, the tornado or hurricane or blinding snowstorm relentlessly unleashing its unyielding destructive and random power? How many of us in Western society, living far from Indian Ocean fishing villages and not having considered the potential reality of a tsunami, were not bewildered by the death and destruction of the 2004 Asian Tsunami? I can’t believe that awe at nature’s power at any level spurred the humanitarian outpouring following that event. Although such destruction can make one question the presence of a benevolent and loving deity, one would not find the answer to why such things happen — or the right thing to do — in nature. One doesn’t need to appreciate the aesthetics of the natural world to know that the ethical thing is to help one’s fellow human. While humanitarian help does not necessarily need to be an act brought about by religion or spiritual awareness (and often it is not), I am doubtful that aid to someone in need is done because of an ethic found by meditating on the beauty of nature.

Putting aside all of the arguments about how evil has been perpetrated in the guise of religion throughout the centuries — the examples are not limited to just one religion — I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with looking at religion as something that humans have outgrown because we have laws to support a common ethical standard. If that were the case, wouldn’t we have moved beyond the horrors that are constant throughout history: poverty, war, tyranny? How many humans are really in communion with others? Such an arguments suggests that we are not only more knowledgeable about ourselves and the physical world than our ancestors, but also that we are wiser. To believe so is not wisdom, but foolishness.