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A Model for Criticism


ISSUE:  Spring 1982

R. P. Blackmur, Poet-Critic: Toward a View of Poetic Objects. By Robert Boyers. Missouri. $7.00.


Robert Boyers has written a subtle and rewarding study of R. P. Blackmur. He comments well on the central terms and concepts in Blackmur’s criticism, and he provides sharp and sensible examinations of the famous essays on Yeats, Eliot, Hardy, Lawrence, and others that are included in Language as Gesture (1952). He also neatly characterizes Blackmur’s poetry—he “sounds more like a man who wants to write poetry than like a true poet” (p. 9); and later he crisply answers those who complain about Blackmur’s glancing and allusive style—”What seemed to his intellectual opponents an inability to stick to the point of his discourse was a function of his insistence that the point was always a moving target” (p. 43).

But it is somewhat misleading to describe this book as being “about” Blackmur, since Boyers clearly has more ambitious (and polemical) aims. “Poetry in our time,” he contends on his first page, “has ceased to command interest even in the degree that it did fifty years ago.” Most “literary academics,” he adds, “read only critical and scholarly books” or else prefer to dwell in the rarified atmosphere of literary theory. No one seems ready and willing to focus on the words that poets use, perhaps because of a fear that keeping one’s eye “on the poem-text will be dismissed by most literary professionals as “practical criticism” growing out of an absurdly modest sense of the critic’s calling” (p. 20). With criticism in such a lamentable state and with the status of poetry “declining in our culture,” it should come as no surprise, Boyers asserts, that poetry is now “an art for practitioners only.”

As a “corrective,” Boyers argues that we should embrace the “early writings of R. P. Blackmur” as a “model of right thinking.” In these essays, Blackmur deals brilliantly with questions of form and technique, attending to “poetic detail” with marvelous skill and showing us that it is indeed possible “to establish a strong critical voice without in any sense challenging the priority of the poets and their work” (p. 11). By learning from Blackmur and following his exemplary practice, we can help to counter the disturbing emphasis on ideas, ideology, and theory in literary studies today—an emphasis that prevents us, in Boyers’ judgment, from truly responding to (and promoting the achievements of) “the poems themselves.”

Like Boyers, I greatly admire Blackmur’s critical writings; as Laurence B. Holland has recently suggested, Blackmur is “the most brilliant and durable” of the New Critics, and his understanding of formal structures in prose and poetry remains unsurpassed (Sewanee Review, Spring 1980). But I disagree with Boyers’ attempt to nominate this critic’s early essays as a “model” for us to imitate, however much I respect and continue to learn from them. In his desire to reform criticism, Boyers has been led, I believe, to misperceive or ignore certain aspects of Blackmur’s work, and to underestimate the shortcomings of his formalist analyses. In addition, Boyers is so impatient with the spread of literary theory that he does not realize that in his efforts to refute and overthrow it, he is in fact participating in it: it is not so much that he is antitheoretical as that he fails to reflect upon the implications of his own program for criticism.

The most serious misperception occurs when Boyers states that Blackmur “was attracted to systems and structures but was ever sensible of the human losses entailed in too thorough an absorption in abstraction” (p. 4). Here and elsewhere in his book, Boyers is anxious to defend Blackmur’s formalism against the charge that it pays too little heed to the “content” or “substance” of texts. Blackmur “was as interested as anyone else in ideas,” he maintains, “and was never inclined to ignore the substance of the” poem” (p. 44). But while this partially answers the protests advanced by Delmore Schwartz—who observes that “Blackmur is most often training his gaze on the form and quickly summarizing the substance in a general statement” (Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, p. 355)—-and others, it does not really address the main problem and if anything sidesteps it. Blackmur does approach ideas and issues of “substance” in his early work, as when he considers Eliot’s Christianity or Yeats’s private mythology, but he seems almost always to treat these as formal matters, asking, often pointedly and suggestively, how such beliefs can be expressed in literary structures.

This is not necessarily a reason for concern, for not all critics have the same “job of work” to perform. But it does become troublesome when Blackmur’s commitment to this kind of analysis causes him to omit crucial aspects of a writer’s work, or to make pronouncements about ideas and attitudes that border on the grotesque. In his posthumously published book on Henry Adams, for example, Blackmur offers rich and compelling accounts of the formal design of The Education of Henry Adams and Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres; the “form” of these two books has never been explored more powerfully and brilliantly. But nowhere does Blackmur discuss Adams’s racism, elitism, anti-Semitism, and overinvestment in certain myths about the pattern of history. So absorbed does he become in the form of Adams’s masterpieces, and so much does he identify with Adams’s story of failure and disappointment, that he loses his selfawareness about his own discourse and tone. “It would have altered only his exaggerations and nothing of his judgments,” says Blackmur at one point, had Adams

seen how the population problem of Indian and Southeast Asia under the impetus of a mild injection of artificial energy in the absence of Western resources suggests the need of a mechanization of sex there. Even war, in itself, no longer cuts population much in areas dominated by new forces, and its effect on race in Russia is doubtful. Further, inertia of race among the decimated Jews seems to have intensified. Thus Adams was righter than he might have thought (p. 251).

This was written just after the end of World War II, and it is dismaying that Blackmur can refer so casually to the “decimated Jews” without either examining his own historical moment or confronting Adams’s frequent attacks on Jewish bankers and moneylenders. In these sections of his book, Blackmur is not responding to “form” but is instead being captivated by it; he does not see that he is constantly translating all categories into purely formal ones, and hence describing people, events, and historical circumstances in ways that are misleading and often callous.

Boyers, I should point out, judges most of Blackmur’s later work, including his studies of Adams, as “unreadable,” maintaining that “he misconceived entirely the nature of his gift and, consequently, of his peculiar mission” (pp. 7—8). This “later” Blackmur style strikes Boyers as perverse, and he excludes any detailed discussion of it from his book. But perhaps Boyers accepts this distinction between the early and later Blackmur too easily, and ought to examine the continuities as well as the differences. In a real sense, the later style is the extreme but logical result of the choices made in the superb early essays on modern poetry. Blackmur’s development, I think, demonstrates the hazards of a particular type of formalist analysis which, as it gains in rigor and intensity, grows less and less mindful of the historical realities within which forms emerge and acquire coherence. From this point of view, Blackmur does not oppose trends in contemporary criticism, but appears on the contrary to prefigure them. It is no accident that Geoffrey Hartman and other vanguard theorists often refer to Blackmur in exalted terms; Hartman has even described him, in a phrase that is both memorable and obscure, as “perhaps the first of our witch critics” (Criticism in the Wilderness, p. 176). Blackmur writes a dense and difficult prose, is immersed in forms and structures, and often seems to seek refuge from direct statement in puzzling aphorisms, puns, and enigmas. He is a profoundly text-oriented critic, and he strives to make his own critical texts as creative and verbally inventive as the primary works he writes about. And this, again, is precisely what makes him so appealing to many critics and theorists today; as Hartman has noted, Blackmur’s writing, like Kenneth Burke’s, must be given “the same attention as we give to literature.” “These essays,” he adds in a revealing phrase, “approach the status of primary texts” (New York Times Book Review, April 5, 1981).

Despite their different emphases, both Boyers and theorists like Hartman agree in admiring Blackmur. And that is because both, whatever their opposition on some issues, share a desire for a higher formalism—one that goes beyond the standard (and flawed) New Critical model. Such a formalism thus would allow the critic once again to lay claim to his place as the man of refined taste and sensibility, able deeply to respond to and appreciate the “form” of the words on the page. Though Boyers and Hartman might disagree, I would suggest that they both find T. S. Eliot’s proposal for the critic (which Boyers in fact quotes at one point) to be an attractive one: “the only method is to be very intelligent.” And it is Blackmur’s superior “intelligence,” his special sympathy for and understanding of the language of texts, that makes him seem such a perfect embodiment of Eliot’s words. He is, as Boyers puts it, the “properly disinterested intelligence” (p. 11).

Yet we should be wary about this definition of the critic’s role and should see, in the excesses and distortions of Blackmur’s writings, the ways in which a “disinterested” intelligence can sometimes be far from admirable and exemplary. Faced with what Boyers describes as the decline of poetry, and concerned about the diminishing prestige of the humanities, many literary critics understandably rally around terms such as “form” or “poem-text” or “the poem itself.”

Despite many assaults on the New Criticism, its influence and appeal linger and are evident even when critics claim to transcend it: there is something that sounds compelling and sensible about a declaration to focus on the language of texts, the words on the page. But the play and place of forms can lead the critic to deny or misperceive the social, political, and other pressures that “form” the forms themselves, and may encourage him or her to regard all issues and ideas as wholly textual in nature. And to err in this direction would be, to borrow a line from one of Blackmur’s poems, to leave “things undone and bitterly incomplete.”

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