Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paul Vermeersch On Intent, Snark, and Missing the Point

A well-written and well-considered post from Paul Vermeersch on unfair reviewing practices.

"In critical discourse, engaging with "intent" has more to do with understanding how the poetry works within its given mode, understanding how a text has been assembled and reading it with an eye towards understanding its purpose, its message, and its content"(Vermeersch)

Nicely put. Unfortunately, you and Chris Banks misunderstand where I'M coming from. I agree with your broad definition above. But where do we go from there? I've stated on at least one occasion that I understand perfectly well many of the tricks of (to use just one recent tradition) postmodernism. I can understand what an author is intending when he or she substitutes one vowel in an anagram to alter the meaning at the expense of the original sloganeering author of the anagram. My questions of intent go far deeper than sussing out the procedure. What is the purpose for the rearrangement? In the case of my recent online review of Jeff Derksen's Transnational Muscle Cars, this one tiny example from it can't stir me to imagine anything deeper than to interpret it as pseudo-clever commentary on a banality. It's slight; it's easy; and, ultimately and ironically, it's witless. Did Derksen have a "deeper", more hidden meaning that needed to be ferreted out? I don't know. This is where I'm actually conceding power, as such, to the author. It would be arrogant and presumptuous of me to guess at a deeper meaning than I can realize for myself. If others are more intellectually nimble, all the more power to them. But for me, the effect is clear, but even were the intent clear, it does not mean that that's the end of the story, otherwise all criticism would be boringly descriptive (oh, wait, most of it already is). No. I get it, and it's uninteresting. But even if I don't get it, even if I say I do, it doesn't matter because it didn't speak to me. I need to be engaged and drawn in to it. The lack of communication goes both ways.

The other prism-extreme is opaque light. Many poets pride themselves on their difficulty, their multiple-voiced approach, or confusion of syntax, or missing connectives, or verbless auras, or gymnastic typographies, or fractured narratives which can't even be called narratives unless three words of a phrase can be considered a partial story. I can glean some of the clues through the poetical asides, but ultimately, the author wins the game because the expressed purpose is to frustrate expectation, story-to-meaning linear development, the authority of the lyrical "I". Again, that I can "get", but so what? There is (to me) no joy in the game, no revelation (despite it being explained to me in frequent prose splashes, which kinda defeats the game, it seems), no music in its enfolding, no elegance of voice or vision. But because so much of this is admittedly impenetrable (from the reader and author's perspective), the author gets to have the proverbial cake while eating it. Criticism, negative but also positive, is impertinent, gauche, ultimately futile. Where does intention end and "let's play 42 ambiguities", or better yet "fuck meaning", begin?

"For example, one would not (should not) measure a poem by E.E. Cummings with the same material yardstick one would use to measure a poem by Robert Frost, or whichever two dissimilar poets you might choose. The two poets have a different ethos, a different project, a different way of communicating, a different "intent" that is expressly manifest in their work."(Vermeersch)

Of course. This is elementary stuff. But you're conflating a reviewer's approach to one specific author to that of comparative and contrasting connections between different authors. I can dig up (or try to) the methodologies, devices, and meanings embedded in one author's single poem, but I would only bring another poet onto the stage in this line if similarities in those devices existed, or if the devices were similar but a curious difference in mood existed. Other reasons would also exist, obviously, but these two approaches are frequent examples in the reviewing canon. cummings used enjambments supremely, for example, whereas Frost was an increbibly subtle sound engineer. Well, obviously I'm not going to fault in Frost a staple of cummings, or vice versa. Again, you're simplifying my arguement, lopping off its limbs to fit a ready-made coffin. But I'm not yet fit to be buried.

"It's disingenuous to say a critic cannot, given a close reading, determine the functionality of a text, and from that, extrapolate its purpose and gauge that against the traditions it either draws upon or tries to subvert."(Vermeersch)

I don't have much problem with the above, but it seems as though only one side is being called to account here. Why don't we ask the author what the "intent" was? Should it always be a consensus of unambiguous clarity once the teacher-student exploration is finished with the classroom bell? And if the author has to successfully explain the dynamics where confusion once existed, is this not akin to a comic explaining an joke? If the meaning, method, and motive is transparent, is there an issue at all? The above quote, Mr Vermeersch, is rather a vague one, one lacking in context and specificity. Again, it sounds good, and I think I can agree, but it's just a starting point for conversation.

"If a critic understands the "intent" of a piece, for instance, he will not declare that a poem failed to be a sonnet when in fact it meant to be a lipogram, or vice versa."(Vermeersch)

This is blindingly obvious. None of the opponents of intentionality have made that leap.

"Only the most rigidly fundamentalist critical approaches disregard "intent" completely."(Vermeersch)


"I dislike fundamentalisms of any kind, and that includes both critical and aesthetic ones. In poetics, at both the conservative and radical ends of the spectrum, you have those modes that fetishize their own kind of formalism to the detriment of (or even to the exclusion of) concerns about content. (Vermeersch)

How do you come up with that conclusion in the very few non-ad hominem charges being made against the two reviewers on the "dismissive" side of this "debate"? I've repeatedly declared, and showed through my own criticism both on-line and in journal form, how content and form mesh, and at their best, marry. I won't dish out examples here since it'd be essay-length, but the record is there. Please feel free to peruse. (Oh, and before someone steps up and labels me with the convenient "snark" shut-up ploy, I unhesitatingly agree I've written snark when I think snark is called for. If an author insults my intelligence and good will by foisting upon me sloppy construction, banal suggestions, and muddy sonorities, I'll return the favour by expressing my displeasure for having lost a few hours or more of my time and imaginative capacity.) I've written snark; I've also written longish, finely-tuned essays. Guess which of the approaches is matched by books I like, and which is matched by what I dislike.

"When such fundamentalists bring their aesthetic ideology (their dogma?) into the critical arena, they end up measuring poetries against it that aren't compatible with their criteria. Holders of this position cannot help but commit the fallacy of saying, "the non-traditional is bad because it is not the traditional" or vice versa. They mistake the rationalization or the justification of taste with the application of reason and critical rigor."(Vermeersch)

You've successfully mounted your hobby-horse, and are now riding it out of the purview of the discussion. You're talking here in generalities. Of course there are those who are entrenched formalists. I had a Shakespearean prof at UBC who hadn't a good word to say about any poet since T S Eliot. But the brouhaha here concerns two specific reviewers, one of whom is typing these words. Everyone has preferences. It's disingenuous or hypocritical to say otherwise. How many poets or reviewers do you know who appreciate, equally, the work of Steve McCaffery and Richard Outram? I, broad-minded and semi-patient soul that I am, actually picked up a copy of one of the former's books of poetry. I stopped after 1 1/2 pages. Out of the over 100 books of poetry I read last year, it was only one of two I couldn't completely finish. At what point does big-heartedness and open-mindedness give way to masochism? I had a strong aversion, obviously an immediate one, to what I read. You're damn right it's about "taste" at that point. If that makes me narrow-minded, flame away. But I thoughtfully engage with all sorts of poetry: so-called experimental, formalist, avant-garde, free verse, anecdotal, light verse, occasional verse, epic, narrative, dramatic monologues, eclogues, plays in blank verse, prose poems, commemorations, elegies, satirical thrusts, maledictions, tributes, love poems, historical re-enactments, odes, odds and ends.

"So, according to Julavits, a refusal to engage with intent is a key ingredient in snarkiness. The critic is there to look clever and bitchy, and engagement with the books, and with literature in general, is secondary. Snarkiness is inherently self-serving, and generally at someone else’s expense. It’s selfish. I agree that this style of book reviewing has become all too prevalent in recent years. I believe that even if a reviewer dislikes a work, he can afford its author the dignity of treating it seriously."(Vermeersch)

See my comments above on why I write snark. If the author doesn't have the ability or sensitivity not to inflict ready-to-go poetry on an unsuspecting reader (reviewer, in this case), then I have the self-declared authority to return the favour by giving my honest opinion which, more and more in these days of runaway publication-distribution, involves harsh opinions on what I've just undergone.

What's really amazing about this whiny defensiveness is the differences of reactions with receivers in other artistic worlds. If someone sees a movie, no one will think anything about someone or many someones trashing the movie mercilessly. And we're talking here of huge productions: the highest paid actors, A list directors, all the budget needed, etc.... But when a reviewer snarks an obscure book of poetry, it's the big bad meanies who are to blame for not "engaging" properly with the "textual nuances and intentions". The reader has the right to express her or his honest feelings about what they've just read even if you think they're wrong. Another review will always come along, and if the book truly has worth and staying power, the snarky author will have proven him- or herself to be a petty bonehead, and the snark will be forgotten. It has nothing to do with scoring cheap points by being humourous and witty to show off. And that brings me to another beef the whiners have about reviewers. What the hell is wrong with some malicious fun? Gawd! Are we all so sensitive that wordy salvos can't be launched by readers offended by any number of reasons? Sometimes a book isn't worthy of an exhaustive negative review, and I'd think an author would rather prefer a brief snark than a detailed, damning negative assessment. The "snark is bad" crowd ask for more nuanced reviews. Well, then, find someone who's willing to (first) read the book, and then to spend the amount of time (freely given) to work laboriously to a long word-count on a book they despise. That's rarely going to happen. So positive reviews, by psychological and emotional agreement, will inevitably be more numerously linked to long, nuanced, painstakingly referenced work.

"and if he does not believe a work warrants serious critical attention, positive or negative, then why review it? Just to be bitchy?"(Vermeersch)

No. Because I read it. A snark is at times a valid response, an honest emotional response to what one has read. A general audience deserves to know what I think, even if such an audience is only largely imagined.

"This seems to go hand in hand with the fallacy that all insults are honest and all civility is phony, or that trying to hurt or demoralize people is a valid critical stance.
It isn’t."(Vermeersch)

I agree. But I'd much rather have someone call me silly names than to have my motives questioned, and incorrectly so, my emotional responses intuited in nasty and incorrect speculation, and my "careerist" propensities outlined in smug certitude. Such reactivity is hypocritical spirituality at its most nauseous.

Thank you for the chance at a more substantive discussion.

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