Tag Archives: literary criticism

Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life

“A writer surrendering to a text is performing an act of love, but precisely because it is not self-love, it is an act that acquires authority as it acquires knowledge … The writer can give herself over to the text only by being conscious, at every moment, of the text and of the possibilities of the text. She reads the page as she writes it. That is the reading that transcends all critical readings. She reads what the page has to say to her, and she responds attentively, and the page responds, and in this dialogue is the creation, as if the Logos were to demand of us an answer to itself.”
from ‘Authority’, Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life by Kelly Cherry (BkMk Press, 2009)
“Poet, memorist, fiction writer, and critic Cherry has assembled a lissome and winning retrospective collection of essays on writing, reading, and life,” writes Donna Seaman in her starred Booklist review. “Piquant essays on family history and her coming-of-age are deepened by reflections on beauty, art and vocation. In fresh and enquiring portraits of exceptional southern women writers – Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary Ward Brown, Bobbie Ann Mason – Cherry explores the nature of a literary life.” Library Journal writes, “Cherry explores the craft of writing, tracing her own development from rebellious college student to award-winning author of 19 books … Cherry’s story will prove inspirational to aspiring writers as will her critical essays.”

Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry is the author of nineteen books of poetry, novels, short stories, criticism, and memoir – including Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life and The Retreats of Thought: Poems – eight chapbooks, and two translations of classical plays. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South, and her collection The Society of Friends: Stories received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award in 2000 for the best short story collection of 1999. For her body of work in poetry she has received the Hanes Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has held named chairs and distinguished visiting writer positions at a number of universities. She and her husband, Burke Davis III, live on a small farm in Virginia with their two dogs.
Order Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life (BkMk Press, 2009) here or here.

Consorting with Angels

“The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty, passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”.” 
– Deryn Rees-Jones, Consorting with Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005)
Read more about Deryn Rees-Jones, Consorting with Angels and Modern Women Poets, the companion anthology to Consorting with Angels.

An Experiment in Criticism

“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
– C S Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

It’s not what you write about but how you write about it

Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007).  Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said:  “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
Larkin replied:
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are.  Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où  sont les neiges d’antan?”  Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with.  A good poem about failure is a success.”

Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation.  These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo.  What is poetry, if not personal?  Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable?  It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste.  A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter.   How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line.  Vive la différence.

Joyce Carol Oates

March 5, 1973.  “[…]  How is a writer to contemplate his critics?  To ignore them, to take them very seriously, to pick and choose among them?  It would be a pity to banish all criticism simply because some of it, or most, is worthless; there are very intelligent, sensitive people writing criticism today.  But just as I don’t read student evaluations of my classes at the University (having been astonished and embarrassed at what I did read:  praise for all the wrong reasons), I think it’s a good general principle not to read most of the criticism and reviews written about me …”

– Joyce Carol Oates, The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973 – 1982 (Harper Perennial)

Camille Paglia on the selection process for Break, Blow, Burn

Break, Blow, Burn, my collection of close readings of forty-three poems, took five years to write.  The first year was devoted to a search for material in public and academic libraries as well as bookstores.  I was looking for poems in English from the last four centuries that I could wholeheartedly recommend to general readers, especially those who may not have read a poem since college.  For decades, poetry has been a losing proposition for major trade publishers.  I was convinced that there was still a potentially large audience for poetry who had drifted away for unclear reasons.  That such an audience does in fact exist seemed proved by the success of Break, Blow, Burn, which may be the only book of poetry criticism that has ever reached the national bestseller list in the United States.

Read Camille Paglia’s lengthy article in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics here.