IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

I was googling the net for “new formalists” and came across a good article by John Holcombe called The New Formalism. I found the article brief but insightful – neatly summing up the pros and cons of the New Formalist poetic- most of it analysis and some review. There was one passage that tweaked me though. This was criticism of Richard Wilbur’s poem, The Things of This World, referencing a critique by Marjorie Perloff.

Criticism can generally be broken into three kinds – Analysis, Review & Literary Criticism.  There is a place for all three, but I usually prefer analysis because, in the case of poetry, it analyzes the poem on its own terms and teaches me how the poet accomplishes the art of poetry. Literary Criticism all too easily seems to veer into ideological or dogmatic criticism.

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn. Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget what laundry actually involved and looked like from a New York apartment? Wasn’t the St. Augustine-derived title, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World” more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world?”

I found Perloff’s original criticism linked in the footnotes.

Perloff wastes no time laying her cards on the table. Here is how she  begins: “This much anthologized poem provides us with an interesting index to Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties.”

This is no analysis. Perloff  appears only tangentially interested in the poem. From the outset, we know she wants to talk about: “Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties”. This is her world, the world of critical schools and theories, not poetry.  Such criticism can be its own art form  – using literature to create its own literature – but it exists in a sort of parallel universe. (Nowadays one must expend considerable effort to be truly conversant in the various critical paradigms.)

Literary Criticism, as I use the term, may be Feminists, Marxists, Postcolonial, Semiotic, Freudian; and while critics of the various schools may have many interesting and illuminating things to say about how they read poetry (and ultimately about themselves and their opinions), they sometimes have little or nothing to say about how the poet intended the poem. They don’t care and have said so. In most cases, their observations, while relevant from the perspective of a modern reader or performer, are entirely anachronistic in terms of the work being discussed.

Perloff’s analysis amounts to about one sentence: ” Its thirty lines are divided into six five-line stanzas, the meter being predominantly iambic pentameter (“Sóme are in smócks: but trúly thére they áre”), with some elegant variation, as when a line is divided into steps (see lines 4, 15, 18, 30), presumably to create a more natural look. A similar effect is gained by the absence of end rhyme, although there is a good deal of alliteration and assonance…”

That’s it.

And now that she has, almost flippantly, tipped her hat to the poem, she gets on with her feminist axe-grinding, telling us nothing about the poem but a great deal about Ms. Perloff. Here is one of her more pointed passages:

richard-wilbur-2“But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which “the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky,” the reality is that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan highrise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire-escapes under the newly installed TV aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.”

Perloff is excoriating Wilbur for writing a poem that is seemingly out of touch with the realities of cleaning laundry – the laborious, hand-chaffing, skin-cracking work of “Woman”. In short, she accuses him of being a male, self-absorbed (male avoidance) day-dreamer – out of touch with the realities of women’s labor – never mind that men have been known to do their own laundry. (Evidence must exist somewhere.) What’s ironic, though, is that she herself writes as if she knows better.

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

Probably? It’s a disingenuous argument. After excoriating Wilbur for being out of touch, it turns out that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about either! If she doesn’t know (and clearly she doesn’t) then her criticism is just as aloof as Wilbur’s so-called daydream. But not content to leave it at that, she adds: “shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings…”

I’ve lived in the city and I lived in the country. I’ve hung laundry out to dry. I’ve never, to this day, had  bird droppings on my laundry (which isn’t to say it never happens); and its never been grungy. If Perloff were probably right, who would hang their laundry out to dry? If it’s going to need another cleaning just for being hung on the line, why bother? What is especially absurd is that Perloff’s commentary has nothing whatsoever to do with the poetry. What point is she making? – that Wilbur is wallowing in male avoidance? So what? What about the poem?

Perloff’ self-serving disingenuousness continues. She writes, for example, : “those sheets seen… from Manhattan highrise windows…” Well, ok, but who said anything about highrises? Not Wilbur. He himself called it the “upper-story window of an apartment building“. But Perloff disingenuously and self-servingly interprets  this as a highrise window, all to make Wilbur’s poem seem ridiculous and unrealistic. Proceeding from her straw man, rather than the poem, she belittles Wilbur along with the poem. And to what purpose?

Perloff asks: “The poem refers to “rosy hands in the rising steam”–no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, an allusion to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” (AO 4), but where are the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had seen “lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms?”

Perloff’s question is trite. Yes, I suppose Wilbur could have written a poem about, as she puts it, a woman “who only dreams of better detergents“, but this is criticizing the poem for not being what it isn’t. (It’s also an ironically sexist comment.)

She might as well complain that the hammer makes a poor screw driver.

Perloff wants us to believe that Wilbur and his poem are aloof or as John Holcombe summarizes: an aloof conceit. However, the same could be said of Perloff’s critique. Wilbur didn’t set out to write the kind of poem she thinks it should have been. To spend so many words pointing this out is to say nothing about the poem – but much about Perloff’s own ideology and dogma. The best criticism would help the reader understand Wilbur’s poem on its own terms and in its own aesthetic milieu – a masterfully constructed conceit which many readers have enjoyed and rightfully praised. How did he do it? What can we learn from it? What makes the poem so moving to so many? – even in 1956.

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.