Literary Criticism Is About Analyzing and Understanding Literature, Not About Criticizing It

by Tina Blue
April 8, 2001

          Over the past two weeks I have posted three articles in a series that focuses on analyzing certain poetic strategies in Rebecca Henry Lowndes'  free-verse poem "Song for a Seeker." In the first two articles ("Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes" and "Further Analysis of 'Song for a Seeker'") I dealt with structure, sound patterning, and allusion in the poem, and in the third ("Why an Autobiographical Poem Is NOT Autobiography") I discuss the issue of whether an autobiographical poem should be read as autobiography.

          Although this series of articles analyzes a specific poem, my purpose is not primarily to study that particular work--though I hope my treatment of "Song for a Seeker" does enhance your appreciation of the poem. My main purpose has been to use Lowndes' poem to illustrate some of the strategies available to poets, and to demonstrate what makes a free-verse poem poetry rather than just oddly arranged words, random thoughts and feelings, or funny-looking prose.

          In this, the last article of the series, I am going to point out what I consider to be a flaw in this excellent poem.

          Before I do so, I want to quote Alexander Pope's long poem An Essay on Criticism on the matter of fault-finding:

          A perfect judge will read each word of wit
          With the same spirit that its author writ:
          Survey the whole, nor seek slight faults to find
          Where Nature moves, and rapture warms the mind . . .
          Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
          Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be.
          In every work regard the writer's end,
          Since none can compass more than they intend . . .
          Most critics, fond of some subservient art,
          Still make the whole dependent on a part . . .
                                                                      (233-36; 253-56; 263-64)

          This point is important, because too many people think that what a critic does with literature is criticize it. But anyone who is primarily in the business of pointing out supposed flaws in works of literature is more properly called a kvetch than a critic. To critique a work of literature is not to identify flaws, or even to judge the relative quality of the work, though sometimes a critic does end up doing one or both of those things.

          The point of literary criticism is to get under the hood of a work of literature, in order to understand both what it means and how it achieves its meaning and effect--i.e., the sort of thing I was doing in the first two articles in this series.

          What I am saying is that the critic analyzes and interprets, and his purpose is to understand a work of literature on its own ground, not to complain about what it isn't or what it doesn't do.

          On the other hand, even wonderful works of literature may have noticeable flaws. To prove that point in the second article in this series, I indicated lines that I consider to be real clunkers in two otherwise extraordinary poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The fact of Hopkins' brilliance and the greatness of his work does not mean that I am unable to see past the aura of reverence that surrounds that work.

          Of course, the presence of a flaw does not mean that a poem's excellence is destroyed, anymore than a blemish destroys the beauty of a well-formed face. And (I can't emphasize this enough) as readers, we should be more interested in what works in a good poem than in what does not work, though noticing a poem's flaws is certainly instructive, both for readers and for poets.

          The only real flaw that I find in "Song for a Seeker" is the use of "who" to describe "a trove, / a lode untapped, / of mettlesome rare cut" that the persona has unexpectedly "descried." "Who" is the pronoun for human beings, but at this point in the poem the concept of treasure is still too nonhuman, even too inanimate, too support the use of "who."

          I do not consider grammatical incongruity to be a flaw in a poem if it doesn't undermine the poem's effect, but in "Song for a Seeker," the "who" does not slip by unnoticed. It calls attention to itself, forcing us to consider its appropriateness, and the effect is like that of an unexpected speedbump. It jars, and thus it undermines the effect of the image and the narrative.

          Of course, Lowndes chose that pronoun deliberately, to emphasize that this treasure was a person--a man. And since the next lines are "who / bestowed on me a random smile, / a guileless gift of / candy and the / thoughtless stray remark," you can see why she felt the need for "who," to enable the transition from "trove" and "lode untapped" to a person, capable of smiling, offering candy, making remarks.

          But that is a bit of a problem, I think, because that transition really is difficult to make, and the "who" makes the gap even more noticeable. How could it be rendered less awkward? I don't know. Nevertheless, I do think a smoother transition from the metaphor to the man is wanted there.

          Now, some readers might actually feel that the "who" in that context startles them into a freshness of perspective, rather than jarring them out of the developing mood of the poem. And I am quite sure that some readers did not even notice the pronoun. (Of course, if they didn't notice it, then they were probably skimming the poem, as if it were nonfiction prose rather than poetry.)

          But I did notice it, and it did bother me. My guess is that it was at least a momentary stumbling block for several of the poem's readers. I also feel quite certain that none of those who were bothered by it were sufficiently troubled to worry about it for more than a couple of seconds, and that it did not mar their overall enjoyment of the poem.

          If you haven't read the poem already, I hope you will take the time to read it now.

     What do you think?

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