Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive

I don’t share in ritual contempt for literary criticism as an enterprise—how could I and still bear to live with myself?—but having spent too much of the summer engaged in a massive review of several critical fields, I feel annoyed about the whole endeavor. English Departments are full of brilliant, passionate people but most of them aren’t using their publishing powers for good: shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences? Dull writing is The Big Awful. If you can’t be consistently fascinating you should at least be clear and concise, and few of us meet that bar.

My peeve this week, though, is how every critic fondly dismisses the previous critic’s naïveté. Oh, Frye, he’s so naïve about genre. Oh, all those guys, they think literature is mimesis. Silly theorists. Here’s how things actually stand… I find myself wanting to answer with a manifesto claiming naïveté as my personal philosophy just to save everyone the trouble. It’s okay, Future Critic. I already know I’m benighted.

I really am doomed to be so damned. I’m writing a book about twenty-first century poetry, arguing that it’s all (well, often) speculative fiction or perhaps fantasy. Definitions of the latter tend to include the words “possible,” “knowable,” or “reality”—I can promise you this because I’ve read ALL OF THEM—with the frequent co-stars “strange” and “uncertain.” Fantasy is literature preoccupied with the question “what’s real?” or its corollary, “what are the rules?” Its arch-nemesis, according to various explainers, is sometimes realism and sometimes science fiction, both being arts invested in plausibility, whereas fantastic literature proposes that everything is more mysterious than we thought. I prefer “speculative fiction” as a term to “fantasy” because it suggests a useful kind of blurriness, potentially including straight-up genre books as well as all the crossover territory, but for most people it’s so blurry it doesn’t mean anything, so I may have to give it up. The working title of my book is Poetry’s Possible Worlds and since June I’ve drafted four chapters of a projected dozen. I’d like to sketch out the whole monster in the next thirteen months, but I’m burnt out right now and I teach full-time from September through May, so we’ll see.

I realized in early July: oh, I’m writing literary theory. Which is stupid, because I have a limited tolerance for reading literary theory; the gist is often interesting but the nuances make me sleepy. And sleeping through chunks of Jameson or Todorov is bound to make me extremely naïve.

Worse: I can’t even use the butt-covering jargon du jour. Poetry’s Possible Worlds is also a book about reading. It’s aimed at anyone with some interest in, though not necessarily deep knowledge about, contemporary poetry. Each chapter begins with a poem quoted in full. Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter with each poem before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses. The chapters add layers to those responses by telling stories about the personal contexts of my own readings—yep, that means memoir—as well as fiddling around with exegesis and what-it-all-means argument (a.k.a. theory). I think twenty-first century poetry is absolutely worth reading. I’m selecting focal poems with variety in mind (national and aesthetic diversity as well as diversity in race and gender), but my most important criterion: I have to find each poem powerful, and imagine it could detonate powerfully inside readers who don’t recognize allusions or linguistic fashion statements.

Anyway, you can see why I really need next week’s mindless beach vacation. The chapters are not very long (4000-4500 words each) and the writing has been really fun, but it taxes every resource at my command. The style is essayistic—driven not only by arguments but motifs and lyric association—and I’m including a scaffolding of endnotes, at least for now, to keep track of the sources influencing me most. I’m getting feedback as I go from my spouse, a fiction writer who’s really good at macro/ structural considerations, but mostly I’ve just been charging ahead like a maniac. I’ll probably send a couple of chapters out to lit mags that publish creative nonfiction with a critical bent, but I’m not ready yet. I need to be quite sure of where I’m going first. Plus, creative writing just needs more fermentation time as text than the writing that appears in scholarly journals, which is really just a delivery system for ideas—the sentences need to be balanced and elegant, with no clumsy transitions, and that takes multiple rounds of scrutiny.

This is the most urgent book I can think of to write at this moment. Caring so much about it makes the work harder. I know my argument is idiosyncratic. Some people will think I’m diminishing poetry, or fantasy, or both. Others will find huge blind spots in the poems I include or neglect. There will be too much criticism for some readers, too much personal crap for others. The experience of writing it reminds me more of poetry composition than criticism-writing, in large part because of the driving terror. After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it? Who knows if you’ll ever have readers, so you have to imagine them and forget them. You have to please yourself.

6 responses to “Poetry as speculative fiction; or, being naive”

  1. I like this: “After all, if something about the jostle of the words in a poem doesn’t delight, confuse, or outright alarm you, why are you writing it?” That sentiment (the “why are you reading it” version) ought to work for readers as well. Although “confuse” maybe would have to be changed–there’s too much fear of confusion with poems!


    • Yeah! I value that experience of panic, of not getting it, because it’s a necessary step towards a new insight, but there’s a sweet spot where difficulty is concerned. Too much, and you give up entirely.


  2. If your book is half as well written and interesting as your blog, I think you’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve been having to wade through some very dull works of literary criticism for my PhD, but I also encounter the occasional gem. For example, Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry by Bryan Walpert, who is actually my supervisor. It’s very engaging and thoughtful, and not reductive at all (as you say, many critics dismiss everything that comes before). I am glad I didn’t read it before starting the PhD as it would have been very intimidating!

    I’ve had to basically call previous critics in my field naïve or limited in their ideas or readings of certain poets in order to create a clear occasion for my thesis, a gap in the research that it could fill, whereas the reality is much more blurred. What I enjoy is the dialogue between fields and critics; it provides many ways of looking at a poem and accessing the poem. That, for me, is the point of all this talk! As you say, “shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences?” I find that it tends to be about proving one theory or another, and to do that others have to be disproven. It’s almost like science in that way, and I am not sure the model works for literature. And it seems somewhat pointless. Even focusing three years of study on a tiny area of a tiny field, I’ve only reviewed a small percentage of the literature out there. I can’t really be sure of any statement I make about the field ecocriticism, because it is so huge and nebulous. Theory and criticism is inherently a combination of subjective and personal writing, but in dialogue with other theorists and writers. That is what it should be.

    I like the term “speculative fiction” for contemporary literature (and as someone who writes a lot of prose poetry, for poetry). I think that many postmodern poets are concerned with perception, illusion, language, and distance, and that creates a lot of room for fertile speculation by a reader. What is real? What is known? Anyway, your book sounds very interesting and thank you for writing this thoughtful blog. Good luck.


    • Thank you! I think one reason feminist criticism was so important to me as I was beginning my career was a sort of sisterliness in it. It taught me to ways to build on other critics without knocking them down–coral accretion rather than clear-cutting. But I find myself more drawn to advocacy than moderate proposals now…


  3. I see this is old by now (I was led here by Ann Michael’s reference to you: http://annemichael.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/irritation-explanation-interpretation/)
    But I still wanted to comment. I love what you have to say, especially this: “shouldn’t criticism persuade others that reading and thinking about literature are intensely rewarding experiences?” That idea, that we should love reading books and that literary criticism should at least in part be about this love, is perhaps the mother of all dismissed-because-naive positions. But if we get away from it, what is the point of English departments?

    I wrote about this in more detail here: http://www.theunpackagedeye.com/why-have-english-majors/

    Thanks for the post!


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