125. The Chisel

How poetry can break open pop criticism.

By Douglas Wolk
Poetry Media Service

Criticism: I, too, dislike it. It’s what I do for a living, though—I write about pop music and comic books, mostly. I don’t tend to write about poetry, not because I don’t love it but because I’m not an expert, and I always have the sneaking suspicion that it’s impermissible to be a casual reader of contemporary poetry, much less a casual critic. From the outside, it seems as though either you’re an active citizen of the poetry world 24/7, or you’re allowed, grudgingly, to visit for an hour on the first Friday morning of the month.

Still, I rely on poetry, not just for pleasure but as a peculiar sort of professional resource.

Poetry and arts criticism seem to have a few points of conjunction, particularly concision. Contemporary arts criticism, and especially music criticism, is in practice very heavily focused on short reviews. And by “short” I don’t mean 400 words—I mean 200 if you’re a lucky writer, or 130, or 100, or 75, or 40. That’s what most magazines and commercial websites want to run right now. The need to stuff actual criticism (the kind with ideas and insights and arguments) into that length represents a severe formal constraint. Who better to turn to for inspiration than poets, the people who perfected the formal constraint as creative tool?

It’s rarely a direct inspiration—although one night, long ago, I wrote a dozen 50-word live-music previews for the Village Voice and slipped a Rilke quote into each one. (I don’t think anybody noticed.) The constraints of poetry aren’t just the thousand tricks that have names, although those are fun and helpful in nonpoetic contexts too; the severest constraint is the hyperconcentrated language that makes poetry poetry, the way every word and phrase has to carry enormous weight to keep the poem from buckling. Gerard Manley Hopkins or Lucie Brock-Broido can say more in 50 words of poetry than most prose writers can say in 1,000—many first-rate poets’ language is overwhelmingly hot and dense, and it makes me want to try to follow their example.

The other professional use I have for poetry is as a sort of chisel to try to break my brain open. The way I think about art tends to be very linear—analytical, specific, more about the trees than the forest. That’s useful to me, in some ways, but it’s also not how art functions. And it’s only part of how good writing about art needs to function, because in order to be something more than a mere description, criticism needs to deepen its readers’ own perceptions and reactions; it needs to go someplace they wouldn’t have gone on their own.

A lot of the poems that mean the most to me are the ones that are faster and bolder than logic, that defy straightforward paraphrase and explanation but create an indelible effect or sensation—the ones, in other words, that I am least equipped to write about but can read and reread in the hopes that I’ll be able to pick up their charge as if it were static electricity. I first got that feeling when I read John Berryman’s Dream Songs as a teenager and forced myself to memorize a few of them. (I can probably still reconstitute the one that begins “I am the little man who smokes & smokes.”) My impulse, the first time I read Berryman, was to try to make all the pieces fit neatly, to turn everything into a coherent narrative; eventually I realized that there was a lot of pleasure in not-quite-understanding, too. I get the same kind of buzz from Sappho’s fragments, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, even Aram Saroyan’s minimal poems.

But the book of poetry I’ve found myself returning to most often is Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, partly because its project of drawing connections between ethnopoetics and a not-quite-so-contemporary-anymore avant-garde is intrinsically pretty cool, but mostly because it’s still revealing its mysteries to me. I can open it to any page to feel its language’s incantatory potency radiating straight up into my head, and it almost always leads me to some kind of insight or inroad into whatever other art I’m grappling with. That’s not what it was made for—reading poetry for its problem-solving utility seems like using a marble sculpture as a hammer—but it works, and I’m grateful for that.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo Press, 2008) and Live at the Apollo (Continuum Books, 2004). He writes for several publications, including the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Wired, and the Washington Post. This essay originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Poetry magazine and is available at http://www.poetryfoundation.org. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation.

© 2009 by Douglas Wolk. All rights reserved.

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