Dispatches | August 22, 2012

Literary Critics

There’s an old joke in the world of poetry workshops where a typical workshop takes an Emily Dickinson poem to task: clarify this, make this more consistent, cut this stanza (seems repetitive?). It’s funny because it’s ultimately so unthinkable.  Not Dickinson. Not “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.”

It’s surely rare that a critic takes a Dickinson or a Shakespeare to task. You might be an outlier and prefer other poets. Or “My Life Had Stood” might not be your favorite Dickinson jam. But the thought of a critic actually getting in there and saying this poem does not succeed, this word or move is wrong—if we’re talking about the untouchables of the canon, the Shakespeares and Dickinsons and Blakes (“dark” and “secret”?—redundant?)—is preposterous, or seems so to most of us.

Why? Because it’s patently obvious that Shakespeare and Dickinson are great poets, geniuses; furthermore, that they’re geniuses who know their own minds and intentions better than we do. Anytime we take issue with an author’s work, we’re claiming, at least in a limited instance, that we know better. And heaven forbid we then suggest a revision!

And yet, I know: nobody’s perfect. Shakespeare and Dickinson—never mind the mystery of who they were and what they thought—surely made mistakes. And maybe it’s a critic’s job (a critic with incredible confidence) to point up those mistakes, those failures, to even offer (oh, but it’s too insane to say!) corrections.  Because there must be a limit to our worshipful regard. These writers aren’t really gods. Right?

Plus, here’s the thing about knowing better: our various schools of criticism are empowered by, operate by, knowing better: better than popular thought, better than past thinking, better than our poisonous western culture.

famous world poets.


One of my holy texts is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose.”  A great poem, right? Undeniable, right? And yet we can’t really say that. Challenging these monoliths makes the critical world go round. And though Bishop might be the best-regarded American poet of the 20th century, she isn’t as safe as a Shakespeare or a Dickinson. The window of time is smaller; we think we can know better what she meant and thought (or should have)—there’s ample evidence. And with evidence comes scruples.

Take Canadian critic Robert Boschman, who, in his recent eco-critical study of Bishop, takes issue with the end of “The Moose.” Now, anyone familiar with eco-criticism and “The Moose” might have seen this criticism coming: the moose is too nice, too consoling, too Romantically what western culture wants to make out of the natural world at the expense of the natural world: in a phrase (Boschman’s), too “like a park.”

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless…”
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

Eco-criticism, it would seem, can’t abide the moose that comes out of the woods and halts the bus in its dreamy divagation through the night forest of New Brunswick evoking an uplifting note of “joy” from us “all.” No, says Boschman, with that, Bishop fails us and herself (compared to other, more successful poems, like “At the Fishhouses,” which, with the untamable power of what he calls her “primordial sea,” advances the anti-human/western eco-critical agenda).

Perhaps what irks the eco-critic worst of all is that word “harmless.” Boschman seems eager to find in Bishop’s poems allegories for “nature” (in this case, the moose herself), a nature that should be full of indifferent—if not retributive—harm.

But Boschman does more than claim that the moose is too sweet. He also knows how the poem should have gone instead. Yes, the moose should have been a he-moose and not a she, and he should have caused the passengers to feel threatened and not joyful.

Where would he get such a notion? Does he dare so brazenly revise Bishop? He does. But he makes it like it comes out of her mouth—what she almost, could have, should have written. Because, you see, critics have a dug up a letter in which Bishop describes experiencing the confrontation between such a moose and such a bus. What happened, apparently, is that a she-moose was wondering down the road, the bus stopped, the moose walked off into the woods. While this went on, the driver related how one time a he-moose had approached his bus and, like in the poem, sniffed the hood.

Aha! Bishop’s poem, we see, is a mix of fact (she-moose) and fiction (hood sniff).

Boschman asks chidingly: “If it was the more aggressive male of the species that, in point of fact, sniffed at the engine, why change it?” According to Boschman, she “changed it” to “have it both ways”—that is to say, beautiful and terrible, “sweet” and scary. This, claims Boschman, amounts to “facile consolation.”

“The Moose” needs no defending here: it defends herself. But I’ll say this: there’s plenty of threatening, anti-social nature poems out there. Plenty of apocalypse. But earned, authentic hope and joy–dare I say, awe?–a poem both social and sublime: it’s the rarest thing and endures for a reason.

Eco-criticism opens up Bishop’s poem in several ways. For example, the “wending” tidal flow of the poem’s first sentence, and the interplay of natural descriptions with place names, are brilliant observations that help us better understand the culture of the poem. Indeed, I think it’s very important to watch a poem’s treatment of, and underlying assumptions about, the natural world. But it gets sticky when eco-critics judge the success of a poem, absolutely, on whether it advances the eco-critical agenda (even as they try to convince you that the poet is really, at her best, an eco-poet at heart). Especially “given the ecological crisis at hand in the form of a rapidly overheating planet,” I worry that critics get away with these kinds of readings all too easily.

Who you gonna side with?