A Letter from Sandra M. Gilbert

Although you may not be shouting “Amen, Sister, tell it like it is” after every sentence as you should be, you should at least recognize the pertinence of each sentence to us all -- poet, writer, genre, critic, etc. You may want to read it multiple times as I have enjoyed doing.

Sandra M. Gilbert, doctoral professor at U.C. Davis, may be one of the biggest names in that cross-section of feminism, poetry, and criticism. She has edited
The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and the Library of America’s Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories. Her collection, Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999, won the 2001 American Book Award.

Her letter appeared in this month's issue of
Poetry, one of the most consistently best poetry magazines since 1912, publishing T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland among other major highlights of poetry and poets in the twentieth century.

Thank you to both Sandra M. Gilbert and Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, for their permissions to reprint.

Dear Editor,

I applaud the lively dialogue on the place, purpose, genre, and gender of the poet-critic that you’ve aired in these pages (see “Is Anybody Out There,” [Dec]ember 2003 and “Letters to the Editor,” [January 2003]). As a poet, a critic, and -- yes -- a poet-critic (i.e., a reviewer), I’ve long been concerned about the declining visibility of those who are willing to do this kind of work, and over the years I’ve speculated in print on what I consider some sources of the problem. Indeed, I consider the position of the endangered species we call the poet-critic so dismal that I’m not sure we could assemble a large enough sample of these creatures to offer statistical evidence, one way or another, of Averill Curdy’s hypothesis that none of those extant are young women. And unlike some of your respondents I lament these declining numbers.

To be sure, I agree with Eavan Boland’s assertion that what’s most crucial for each poet is the “making of a critique,” which I take to mean the development of a personal poetics. Yet, with Emily Warn, I believe that one builds and brings to consciousness such a set of aesthetic assumptions not just through a solitary engagement with one’s own imagination but also through a scrupulous examination and appraisal of writings by others. That, as Mary Kinzie rightly notes, this activity can be perilous (“it does not make one many friends”) may be all too true. Since the advent of email, with its potential for rapid-fire response, my own reviews in these pages have as frequently elicited nasty cracks (in some cases virtual poison pen letters) as they have drawn warmly supportive notes of praise. Nonetheless, I don’t agree that “to lend oneself imaginatively to another sensibility” ultimately “exhausts and enervates.” On the contrary, when the sensibilities of other are as fine as many now responsible for new books of poems, the task of lending oneself to them seems to me not only inspiring but deeply educating. Just as I learn from the impassioned reading of poems I choose to teach, so I learn from intensive readings of the strongest poems I review.

What, then, has caused the phenomenon I’ve termed the declining visibility of the poet-critic? I’ve speculated lately that the problem can be explained through a study of institutions currently shaping much of our literary life: on the one hand, college and university English departments in which, for the most part, there’s a yawning gulf dividing those who theorize or “historicize” “texts” (i.e., critics) from those who produce poems or stories (i.e., “creative writers”); and on the other hand, a realm of literary journalism dominated by, say, Oprah’s Book Club along with newspapers (including the venerable New York Times) that seldom or never represent or review poetry.

It was not ever thus. To begin with my point about the division between critics and creative writers, just a glance at the contents of the relatively new Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism will supplement Averill Curdy’s allusion to a line of English-language poet-critics beginning with Sir Phillip Sidney by reminding us that this lineage continued through Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emerson, and Poe to Eliot and Ransom. In other words, it continued right into the middle of the twentieth century. When I was going to school in the fifties and sixties, in fact, the writers whose works we read when we read “criticism” were largely poet-critics. But as professional, high-cultural criticism moved into the university, it increasingly institutionalized and certified itself through the production of what we now call “theory” rather than through the practice of poetry. And similarly, as “creative writers” (aka poets and novelists) found jobs on campuses where they led workshops and instructed other writers in “craft,” they certified themselves through the productions of poems and novels rather than through the practice of criticism. And never, or hardly ever, would the twain meet.

Or, if the twain might meet, they’d do so in that realm of literary journalism I mentioned earlier. But as I noted, that realm is increasingly dominated by commercial media whose leaders have little or no taste for verse, to understate the case. That we poets, whether or not we also aspire to write criticism, are all too aware of our own marginality -- no, obscurity -- in the literary marketplace, was emphasized for me by the assumption articulated by Averill Curdy’s piece and in the comments of several respondents that we really only write criticism of poetry for each other. Noted Curdy, young women might be “too aware of the negative impact a critical review might have on their own relationships in the close-knit poetry world.” Added Kinzie, such reviewing doesn’t “increase the sense of community among writers.” Declared Brian Phillips, “the poetry world has become deeply uncritical of itself.” Concluded Peter Campion, the “ ‘Poetry World’ has become bigger and more diverse,” making it “easier for reviewers and editors to give up on aesthetic judgment.” None of these writers appears to believe that poetry might be of interest to anyone outside the “poetry world” or “community.”

Yet when Lord Byron speculated that the mind of John Keats, “that fiery particle,” might have been “snuffed out by an article” (of poetry criticism), he made his comment in the best-selling ottava rima mock-epic known as Don Juan. And when Eliot attacked Milton and celebrated the metaphysicals, his pronouncements soon became common currency, if not in the New York Times, at least in the hallowed halls of academe. Can those of us who inhabit “the poetry world” with passion and purpose transcend the insularity that has somehow been forced upon us? (Can we have forced it upon ourselves?) Or has an “interest” in poetry come to seem an outré hobby like stamp collecting or bird watching, only rather more esoteric?

Sandra M. Gilbert

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