The Peculiarity of Areté

Craig Raine writes entertaining criticism, and it entertains rather as a fictional trial — Anatomy of a Murder, or the TV series Shark — entertains. I hedge with ‘rather’ because Raine gives us half a trial: the prosecuting counsel, his witnesses, their interrogations and the judgement. Proceedings proceed without defence or jury, and you kind of know whos going to win.

The recent Areté, Issue 24 (I’ve been following since 17), is something of a family affair, with contributions from Nine Raine and Raine’s wife (my wonderful teacher), an interview with Robert Craft that we presume Raine conducted, and an essay on Margaret Atwood, by Raine but published under obvious alias* (no doubt to add flavour to the contents page). I don’t criticise the nepotism, because I’ve an inkling how hard it is to find good critical prose (let alone poetry), and I’ve no concern with Atwood, whose Oryx and Crake I read like a thriller, forgetting everything but the sci-fi visions for which I’ve a manly weakness, and reading whose Empson Lectures, Negotiating with the Dead, felt like an enactment of its title.

What bothers me is Raine’s cattiness. Making a point, he tends to begin with embattled patience, the unworded tonal claim of adjourned scepticism (e.g. ‘Paulin was keen to promote the centrality of scansion and subtle aural echoes in the life of poems. Harriet Harvey-Wood was quick to intervene’), which has the sound of a lawyer with quiet sarcasm laying out a case he means to dismantle. And in this ‘Our Bold’ it’s a just dismantling. Unfortunate, then, that its anonymous writer ends with:

You might have expected Paulin to point [Harvey-Wood’s scanning mistake] out. But he was too polite. He is known for his politeness – nearly as famous for that as for his ear.

How does this square with Areté’s motto?

The great men of culture have laboured to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive […].

This ‘Our Bold’ divests knowledge of Harvey-Wood’s ‘uncouth’ error, but invests to conclude in an ad hominem irrelevancy, whose harsh and ugly sarcasm I hope editor Raine did not mistake for wit.

The issue’s second ‘Our Bold’, ‘Hombre di Muchos Dientes’ (‘Man of Many Teeth’, I think), tries out on James Wood the same sequence of judo moves. There is patient arrangement of evidence (‘But we are getting ahead of ourselves’), then cursory summing-up. As ever in Areté, quotation is generous:

Wood [in his New Yorker review of Exit Ghost] set out to praise the late prose style of Roth as ‘spare, pragmatic prose’. He contrasted this with the early, ‘literary’ prose, ‘with its tidy images and plush images sewn in the right places’. His example of ‘plush images’ came from The Anatomy Lesson (1984), the description of a cancer patient: ‘There was a hole in her cheek the size of quarter. Through it Zuckerman could see her tongue as it nervously skittered about inside her mouth. The jawbone itself was partially exposed, an inch of it as white and clean as enamel tile.’ We think this is ‘spare, pragmatic prose’. The similes are not striking. They will do. Wood finds rather ‘Flaubertian precision and coolness’ – a verdict we could go along with, were it not that Wood’s argument also requires the three sentences to be ‘literary’.

I hope you can hear the tone I’ve tried to describe. It’s hard to catch: teacherly, by its method of offering (‘we could go along’) and reservation (‘were it not’) haughty perhaps, clipped; with spice of condescension. But the point itself is underargued: for in his eagerness to project a tone, the writer poses past several questions that needed addressing. Is not ‘Flaubertain precision’ ‘literary’, for example? Is not ‘skittered about’ — though not a simile, there’s no reason to limit discussion to similes — striking, and incidentally cannot ‘spare’ prose be striking? Does not Wood’s quotation exemplify very well his own definition of ‘literary’, which is ‘tidy images […] sewn in the right places’, with ‘as white and clean as enamel tile’? Does the writer therefore dissent from Wood’s definition?

It gets worse.

When Wood comes to the latest prose of Exit Ghost, the new plainness, apparently, also manifests ‘subtle poetry’ – ‘by using ordinary words in unexpected ways, or by mobilising cliché. Here is Wood’s example: a retired man in Florida is ‘a suntanned little endurer with steel-grey hair [their bold]’. Wow.

Wood, who is more suggestible than most, reads this dull sentence and sees ‘this Floridian in all his wrinkled longevity’. Well, Roth did make rather a thing about his skin tone.

This manifests, in ‘apparently’ and ‘Wow’, sarcasm that’s unsubtle to adolescent degree (‘Not!’). ‘Wow’ and ‘dull’ are all we get by way of evaluative comment in a piece that explicitly criticises another critic’s way with evaluative comment. The writer betrays himself dead to connotation. It actually supports Wood’s point to imply there’s nothing in Roth’s sentence that literally denotes wrinkled skin. If the brilliance of ‘little endurer’ is lost on him, I’m at a loss to explain it. But, gnomic in kind, I’ll dole this out: literature is what you don’t say.

To quote the rest:

Wood’s other example is a phrase describing a young rival: ‘savage with health and armed to the teeth with time.’ You may think this is run-of-the-mill, undistinguished, frankly slack.

Well, disabuse yourselves. James Wood can explain how this is ‘wonderful’. ‘It is wonderful to take the cliché “armed to the teeth” and combine it with the abtract word “time”, producing a hovering suggestion of a second cliché, this one having to do with old age, being “long in the tooth”. In this novel, and in this phrase, short in the tooth means long in the tooth.’ Wood’s own prose here is talking briskly, amplifying itself, refusing questions, talking over possible objections. Questions like ‘what would “short in the tooth” mean?’

Wow. ‘You may think’? I don’t think; you could persuade me, but — slackly? — you haven’t tried. (‘[R]un-of-the-mill’ may be an ‘unmobilised’ cliché.) It’s extraordinary how Areté’s second-last sentence describes its own piece, indeed itself, with ideal aptitude. I wouldn’t even defend Wood here: the reading is far-fetched and, yes, too ‘suggestible’ (‘armed to the teeth’ is mobilised by nothing but alliteration [‘with time’], which Roth loves and for whose sake he drags in the cliché). Inexplicably however Areté gives us, in mooted criticism, a rhetorical question whose answer is clear. Why, ‘short in the tooth’ would mean ‘young’ like Richard Kliman, who is ‘savage with health’.

Somewhere in Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works, he writes:

You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors details that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things that now seem wonderful.

While from Areté 24 we learn that ‘Close reading […] can expose the close reader’s frailties.’ Perhaps the close reading which this ‘Our Bold’ conducts has exposed what its writer tends, serenely or sarcastically, to miss.

*I say this ignobly to cover up my oafishness here: I googled ‘Anne Elias’ and her institution, ‘the University of Featherstone, Ohio’, in every variant, realising the oversight only when a correspondent pointed it out.


PITCH endorse

Were those tenterhooks starting to sting? Apologies, readers, but when as much is riding on your preference as on ours, to decide conclusively the angle of your dangle is tricky, and the decision to advertise that decision trickier still.

It took something wonderful to dislodge us, Library of America Hart Crane and all, off the drystone wall of vacillation — to push us arse-first into certainty's well.

On Saturday, during his Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech, which was at the same time a victory speech and a condensed recital of policy, Mr Obama said:

We also have to make sure we are not having teachers teach to the test, because I want our students learning art and music and science and poetry and all the things that make an education worthwhile.

Poetry's no afterthought here. Mr Obama incants his list in rousing crescendo: therefore I take it
it is rhetorically implied that the first importance of poetry in his pledge finds recognition by its ultimate place.

With this in mind the PITCH review, formerly indeed a blog of conservative allegiance, endorses the cause and resolves to assist the campaign of Mr Barack Obama. Raus, versifiers, and sing him to his seat!

Edit. Via MSNBC, we read:

Tom Buffenbarger president of the machinists' union (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) was the the latest in a string of Clinton junkyard dogs unleashed upon Obama.

[...] Channeling Howard Beale from the movie Network, he yelled into the microphone, "Give me a break! I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius- driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak! This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine. He's a poet, not a fighter."

It's true Pushkin died in a duel. But what of Hart Crane, and the fussing gendarmes he lamped, before one conked him with cowardly baton?

If Buffenbarger's poetry is articulacy, and entails a faculty to win arguments with feelings (the power to combine two senses of the verb, 'affect'), Hillary Clinton is perhaps discovering that such is all too earthly a weapon.