To Criticize the Critic

The general condescending air of some aging poets – along with their guru-like statements about poetry – is nothing new. Such a stance seems cultivated, as though a right to condescend is earned through some hard-won refining of one’s critical palette; and such a stance tends to eschew difference, rather than to inspect difference with the patient curiosity of a respectful and active intelligence. In this respect, condescension is a sign of stasis, a sign that the power of knowledge is firmly within one’s grasp or understanding, a sign that becoming has little to do with process and much to do with product, a sign that one’s antennae have withdrawn and that one’s civilization has begun to atrophy.

The opening of Ron Silliman’s response to the My Spaceship anthology begins, to wit: “Is it possible to produce a quality anthology of poetry on a single theme? More dreadful collections of poetry have been organized around the idea of the thematic than anything else, it would seem.” Silliman’s “more dreadful” should give one pause here, for the phrase suggests that the collection of poetry he has in hand is indeed “dreadful,” but to a lesser degree than those that take the animal or the war-machine as a theme. When Silliman goes on to state that the editor “decided to up the ante some by requiring his new collection fit into the space of a chapbook,” he in turn suggests that the My Spaceship anthology finds its proverbial saving grace (an upped “ante”) in the chapbook form, i.e., not a highly inclusive and far reaching collection, but a more condensed and, thus, a more intense collection of pieces. In short, the chapbook form is particularized, whereas a general anthology is just that – general. If one views such a chapbook structure in terms of length, rather than making a distinction between structural particularization and generalization, then “the space of a chapbook,” and a “dreadful” chapbook or anthology at that, is all the better because there is less flipping to do.

And condescension is intimately connected here to “the flip,” so to speak, not only of pages, but of the intimacy of attention – or lack thereof – given to textual analysis as well. Silliman introduces Bill Corbett’s “When Mars Was A Candy Bar” with the explanation that “because Lamoureux isn’t the sort of guy to do anthologies on Corgies or faeries or childhood illnesses, the work herein is, shall we say, different.” Although tone is often difficult to detect in writing, the syntax here is relatively telling or, rather, it shows its hand before it ups its own ante. If the relaxed tone of “Lamoureux isn’t the sort of guy” didn’t condition the highly Englished “shall we say” of “the work herein is, shall we say, different,” then I wouldn’t hear flippancy in Silliman’s commentary on Corbett’s poem, the extent of which runs precisely three words, viz., “[t]hus Bill Corbett.” I would fail to hear anything flip about the word “different” as well. In other words, difference is looked down upon from a perceived moral height, as though Corbett’s poem is the so-called cake that the impoverished are allowed to eat.

Or perhaps Silliman would have “us” eat sherbet instead, but a less “dreadful” tasting one, of course. “So this pamphlet isn’t a home run,” Silliman offers, “but it does make for a tasty palette cleanser (yeah, yeah, mixed metaphors, tsk) after all the dense Olson I’ve been wading through of late & I’m totally happy to have it in hand.” The suggestion here is that the anthology is essentially lightweight, that it is no where near as “dense” or intellectually meaty as Olson’s prose – prose fit for the literary gentry to feast upon, apparently – and that, in turn, Lamoureux’s anthology is not serious enough for anything but a flipping through, followed by flippant and patronizing commentary.

Again, I can’t help but take the sentiment that underscores “I’m totally happy to have it in hand” as anything but biting sarcasm, especially after the double-positive parenthetical, which creates a negative, as well as Silliman’s dismissing “tsk.” “Think of it as a paper airplane” is the advice handed down to us from a great height, from the crown of the ostensibly hierarchical tree of poetry and poetics. Think of the anthology as a toy, a cheap form of entertainment for children that hardly flies straight; think of it as a small folded thing that amuses but for the moment; think of it as that which is disposable, as that which one can crumple up and throw away when disinterest sets in.

And I thought Silliman was a serious character.