Poems against poetry.

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April 19 2005 6:41 AM

Poems Against Poetry

Slate's National Poetry Month celebration.

Many respected academic critics have written about the great poetry of William Blake, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And yet the respected critics who were writing when Blake, Keats, Dickinson, and Hopkins were alive did not celebrate their poems.

In the 20th century, poets now as widely admired as W.C. Williams and Wallace Stevens did not receive much in the way of official prizes and praises until they were quite old. Many prize-winners, laureates, and poet-celebrities of their time, celebrated by critics, are mercifully forgotten.

From these facts we can conclude either that today's critics are much wiser and more reliable than their equivalents of the past, or that criticism is a decidedly imperfect art. Possibly, today's critics and their choices are as unreliable as those of the past.

In the 18th century, the brilliant young poet Alexander Pope wrote a poem about critics and criticism in which he suggests that as awful as bad poetry is, bad criticism is even worse. Here is the opening passage of his poem:

AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgements as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?
Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the Seeds of judgment in their Mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring Light;
The Lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right
But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd;
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite.
All Fools have still an Itching to deride,
And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side:
If Maevius Scribble in Apollo's spight,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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