05 April 2007

Louise Bogan

[After a lifetime of reading Helen Vendler's poetry criticism, I find it refreshing to go back and read her predecessor, Louise Bogan, who was not only a fine critic but also a fine poet. It's more than refreshing to read what Bogan wrote (cf. A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation) in 1940 about R. P. Blackmur]

R. P. Blackmur, author of the Expense of Greatness, is a good critic because he is serious, and has both sensibility and intellectual subtlety. He has, it is true, in a marked degree, the faults of these virtues. . . .

Although he can be completely wrong on matters situated on what he himself would call “the periphery,” Blackmur is frequently beautifully right in matters situated at the center. . . .

Blackmur, however, has serious lacunae in his special knowledge. And he carries an impeding, almost crippling, amount of extra baggage in the form of a whole critical vocabulary taken over from the moral philosophy so popular in English and American universities since the last war. If Blackmur made a determined effort to throw out of his vocabulary such words as “synergical,” “sordor,” “anterior,” “quotidian,” and most especially, “heuristic,” it would be all to the good. The terms from moral philosophy, too, tend to reduce some of his passages to pure Swahili . . . And they are not native to Blackmur's cast of mind; when he lets himself go he tends to think in images. This philosophic apparatus, moreover, is manipulated, often, with a kind of swank unbecoming to a sincere critic.

As his perceptions, for some reason, are likely to be good or bad in alternation, his courage, too, often wavers. He can be courageously offhand and even — surprisingly — flip in dealing with obviously bad poets; on the other hand, he treads rather carefully, mincing every statement into the minutest segments, in order to get around saying something directly damning about someone who, by reason of established position or what not, is not quite attackable. Using his own methods alone, he can be triumphantly right and revealing, in the case of T. E. Lawrence (this essay, in spite of its almost impenetrable structure and style, is the best in the book), while remaining incomplete and even biased in the cases of Yeats and Hardy. . . .

A perusal of some intense, personal, non-philosophic criticism, of the sort contained, for example, in Flaubert's Correspondance, would do Mr. Blackmur a world of good. French criticism of all periods might help him to overcome the more annoying — to the reader — coils and tangles of his subtlety. But he is on the side of the angels, and only needs more impatience, more courage, and perhaps ten more years of varied experience and wider reading, to make him a critic of imposing stature and of the first order.

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