The poets sees beauty and articulates it. The critic must be beauty. The latter, of course, is the infinitely more difficult job. When one disparages the poet, one curses one’s own eyes, but when the critic is the object of derision and ridicule, well, then one curses beauty itself. It is the mark of a civilization in decline that ignores its poets. It is the mark of a civilization gone insane that ignores its critics. Still, it may be the best thing for a critic to be born, when critics are irrelevant. Then, he can keep beauty all to himself. And the poet who discovers this and writes, as if in private correspondence with beauty, is luckier still. He and the muse are intimates, and the critic is like a girl before a mirror as amazed as she is loved.
Will anyone know how painful it is to review a mediocre book of poems and to try to sound enthused? Only the critic, genius unparalleled, understands. He sees mere glimmers of what he’d like to see in those young men and women, who, in parallel lines, utter the almost unutterable, however badly, however cruelly, however sad. It is as if he would stand naked before each and say, Okay, if you must, I will. But the poet, self-absorbed, immoral, incorrect, forgets his obligation, and the critic – because he believes in duty, loyalty, honor – listens and speaks reverently about what the poet takes for granted.
It is the first disappointment the critic remembers best. For me, the disappointment was the smallest thing, a trifle. This is true of every other critic I have polled, too. Perhaps a beloved dog died unexpectedly. Or a promise his father made couldn’t be kept. There will not be a camping trip this year. Or maybe his mother, who was an otherwise lovely woman, showed him a face he doesn’t recognize, and so he withdraws into himself. And what does he find there? He finds that, when he casts his light on the walls of the cave, some of the failures and disappointments have been redeemed. The mother he trusted and loved is alive again. She smiles. His father is great and tall. His dog bounds and leaps and barks for him to play. The poet finds these things waiting for him, too. But he stays, while the critic appraises and returns to this imperfect world, where he must make due with what is and not what might be.
The sadness I feel reading the work of the newest poets stems from a longing, not that they should try something different, but that they should cease to try. For the newest poets seem to me the most faithless lot. Each poem says the same thing: there is no truth. God forbid a man decline to accept this idea before it be proved! It is the critic’s duty to believe where the newest poets have ceased to believe. The critic must, therefore, rely on faith. But hope, which is the totem of the newest poets and – as Eliot reminds us – is always hope for the wrong thing, the critic must do without. There is no hope for the critic or the poet, but there must be truth otherwise both poet and critic are as useless as they, always ironically, claim to be. The sadness I need to feel isn’t the longing of an unrequited lover, one abandoned at the station, but of the lover whose object is feckless and fails to make good on even the most superficial promises though still he loves.
Any talk of the spiritual in poetry reveals a lack of understanding. It is forgivable for the poet to misunderstand his work in this way, and say, for instance, that he searches for the god within or the divine spark. But for the critic this mistake is the worst of crimes. He should know better. He can’t afford to be charmed by pretty ideas which make him feel comforted or elated. If Hamlet teaches us anything it is this. We must be on our guard against the poet’s spells. Shakespeare knew this, and that is why he is the most worthy poet. That is, he is most worthy where he is no poet at all. Shakespeare the critic writes Hamlet. Hamlet is the poet in Shakespeare exorcised and, ultimately, sacrificed. There is one exception to this, and it occurs in Hamlet’s last line, where he reaches an apotheosis, which can only be characterized as critical. Strangely, it is here, where he is clearest, that he is most misunderstood. Horatio, once sober minded, steals the scene, and tries to out-Hamlet Hamlet. We would do better to stick to the Hamlet revealed to us lately than believe flights of angels or a solider’s drum ought to follow the prince to his grave.
When I was a boy, about eight or nine, I remember going to a seaside resort with my father – this was after my parents divorced – and, though it was late fall and all the shops were closed and most of the restaurants, we had a fine time together, and it was then I knew everything would be okay. When my father returned me to my mother, because she had sole custody, they kissed goodbye the way old friends kiss. It all seemed pleasant enough. That is the night I became a critic because I knew that, however much love draws people together and causes them to make terrific vows, it is not love that makes all well. It is something else, and one could see it clearly, if one had eyes to.
It is as if the poet were wooing his critic. It is as if the poet were lost in the desert and, knowing only semaphore, must flag down rescue from an angel passing overhead. This is the critic. It is as if the poet were a child in a fairytale, and the critic an actual child, safe in his bed. It is as if the poet had climbed a mountain to find the critic – untattered, untorn – had arrived there first. He shares his camp. It is as if the poet were a thief, and the critic one who judges and forgives. It is as if the poet were a gambler – raving, mad – on a lucky streak, and the critic the house that always wins.
The poet says that art holds the mirror up to nature. So we can assume – all thinking people can assume – that anything under the sun may be appropriate poetic material. And I agree with Thoreau who claimed that we are thoroughly degraded because we cannot speak simply about necessary functions of human nature. The difference I would add is this: that we cannot speak simply and without euphemism of the highest and best functions of human nature either. The problem, as I understand it, isn’t what the poet reflects upon then, but to whom he presents the reflection. As long as he skirts his responsibility to the critic, his poetry will be degraded whether he speaks of the highest of the high or the commonest of the common.
If it is true, and I think it is, that a poet’s best assets are his eyes and ears, then it must also be true that a critic’s best are his tongue and finger. Why? Because when the critic points, at the world or the work of art, his tongue follows fast to judge. This judgment reaches an ecstasy in the best critics. It is more difficult, then, to be a mediocre critic than it is to be a great poet. It is more godlike to point and utter, as if to agree with all creation, This is good, than it is to merely ape the sounds and patterns one’s sensorium takes in. I might say that it is the critic who creates the poet’s eyes and ears, but that goes a little too far; however, it is true that the critic develops the poet’s senses, and defines and refines what one calls taste.
To whom does a poet address his work? Perhaps the more essential question is: to whom ought a poet address his work? The literary critic must be considered first, even in a love poem, above all others. When the poet says, for instance, “my love,” or “mother,” who is listening? Who might answer? It is rare that a poem is read well unless by one appropriately schooled. The job of the poet, then, is to address his poems to the proper audience, and the job of the literary critic is to grow enormous ears like an elephant. Therefore, when the poet squeaks even as slightly as a mouse, the critic might hear the notes, transcribe them, nod and understand.