In the age of Poetry Defended, where narrative dominates the public sphere, anyone with a computer can be an internationally acclaimed poet, millions of escapists worldwide stop their days for televised fiction, books take nations by storm, and artists are pop icons. Poetry plays an integral part in life and Poets have become the puppet masters of our enjoyment. The Cult of the Creation and Creator is upon us. Fiction is our common language and we connect fictionally when impossible otherwise. Though the deep-rooted hostility of French-American stereotype-hurling continues, for example, the French still love “Friends,” and America is on a first-name basis with “Amélie.” So while political and social dissent is very real and sometimes fruitful, the interpretive dissent of the Critical Reader, whose true function this essay will explore, is regarded as fruitless by both the Poet and the Activist. To the Poet, the Reader’s extension of his (the Poet’s) creative world is a rebellious and presumptuous deconstruction, an appropriation of meaning as dangerous to his world as nuclear testing is to ours. To the Activist, the Reader’s sincere concerns for fiction are trivial as compared to “real life” problems (like nuclear testing), and he hopes any Critical discussion will further his causes. The Critical Reader disrupts the peace of simple viewing, usually accepted as an affirmation of communication, by insisting on a philosophical mistrust of forms, extending the chain of signifiers beyond the one link, beyond the literal reading of text as reality role-playing.
Society has rather come full circle since the Philosopher banished the Poets from his Republic. The Poet has now become the Philosopher King, leading the perceiving world towards the blinding light of ideal forms as distributed by cable networks across the universe, while the position of the Critical Reader, Philosopher-like in her questioning of forms, is degraded to the former inferiority of the Poet. Because the Critical Reader does more than just watch and because she directs her critical activity at something other than the physical forms of this world, she is taken for a threat to artistic pleasure and social productivity.
So here develops a Defense of the Poet-Philosopher, the Critical Reader. Since I will be arguing for a personally rewarding approach to reading, I begin with the personal offense that instigates my reaction. Artists of every kind, the modern-day Poets, surround me still: I listen attentively each week to my father’s latest poem; I wake up each morning next to a writer and go to bed each night telling him my response to his latest work. I met this writer in high school, a boarding school for the arts, where the relationship of scholarship to art took a foreground, but every student, brilliant or otherwise, was first and foremost an artist, a Poet. Scholarship was immediately distinguished from artistry and the Poet arose tacitly as the true identity of the student. Thus, in that environment, to not be a Poet was to not have an identity, and those who did not express themselves through art had nothing to express. In choosing not to receive a B.F.A or B.M., I made up part of the minority of the graduating class; while a standard decision for many students elsewhere, it was a questionable one for a Poet. And while my bedmate is now first and foremost a Poet, I am first and foremost a Reader, a scholar to them. I thus find myself defending on a daily basis ‘soulless’ Poetics against the attacks of Poetry.
Critical Reading does not engage a representation of reality – neither the Poet’s fictional reality nor the Activist’s global reality – but rather culminates in the presentation of an experience, in which an equal exchange takes place between the Reader and another element, whether it be Text, Author, second Reader, or ‘Reality’.
I propose to outline just what I mean by Critical Reading in first discussing what it is not, in this way refuting the arguments of the Poet and the Activist, both of whom use these cursory definitions as their bases for superiority.
Critical Reading is not service to the Poet. The Poet often sees Reading as the entrance of the Reader into his created world in which she must always defer to him for meaning as to God the Creator; he is a (Biblical) “good” and (Kantian) “purposive” creator. Thus, the Poet is above the Reader in the sense that he is a creator and a leader (a master), while the Reader is simply a thoughtless onlooker to be coerced into following the Poet along his path through his world (like a slave). Though today creative fiction’s most popular manifestation is the television series, Critical Reading demands more than mindless observation. It demands thoughtful experience and a reinterpretation of that experience, whether in thought or action (as in critical writing), and one cannot form a true reinterpretation when an overly conscious search for the “approved” interpretation (i.e. the intention) eclipses any desire for an experiential reaction to the text in and of itself. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s Intentional Fallacy has been widely accepted as a valid accusation towards those who practice submission to authorial authority. The Critical Reader is not in a master-slave relationship with the Poet. Nor is the Critical Reader slave to the self-chosen advocates of the Poet, namely teachers with concrete answers and prevalent critical trends. Nothing stands between the Critical Reader and the text to filter or otherwise mediate her experience.
However, rebellious refutation of authority does not allow for the egotistical projection of self onto the text. So Critical Reading is not simply self-service either; it is not a reader-response to mock reality. The Activist sees Reading fiction as faulty in two ways: first, he assumes the Reader believes the text to be a representation of real events and that she responds to it as such, thus transferring onto fiction the awareness and response energy that should be directed at global reality; secondly, he assumes that, if not reading for the intentions of the author (which may be morally or socially progressive and therefore appealing to the Activist), the Reader must be reading for her own intentions, thus individualistically isolating herself from the opinions and needs of other ‘real life’ individuals and citizens.
To address the first assumption, I maintain that the Critical Reader does not confuse the world of the text for the global world. Though one may be inspired by or draw on the other, and though an author’s biographical details, not to mention his representational skills, may make it tempting to read fiction as non-fiction, a text is an object in and of itself, a presentation of something unique, rather than a representation of reality. It is thus that Plato’s accusation that Poetry is an art twice removed from ideal reality can be refuted: Poetry is physically a part of reality, not a representation of it in words. Were the Activist to step into an English class’s discussion of, say, Ulysses, he would be appalled at the level of emotion with which the students argue over the likeability of the fictional character Stephen Dedalus as if he were a Yale underclassman being considered for acceptance into their a cappella group. Being standard Readers rather than Critical Readers, they confuse fiction and reality, leaving themselves vulnerable to the accusation of the Activist.
To address the second assumption, that Reading is a solipsistic ego-projection that closes the Reader off from experience, all I can do is discourage this approach to Reading in favor of a movement towards the dissolution of ego and a meaningful relationship to the text, in which the Reader meets the text halfway, so to speak. I must admit, however, that a phase of egocentric reading is inescapable, especially in the years of young adulthood, and must be experienced. As a high school senior I executed a brilliant (so I thought) analysis of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan, the cold intellectual, was the true hero, rather than the romanticist Alyosha. Now rereading my Reading, it is clear my position as an “intellectual” surrounded by Poets led me to identify with and therefore heroize Ivan, reading into The Brothers K’ what I thought should have been the situation at this boarding school. “As the rebel, the middle child, the dynamic antithesis, and necessary evil, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov illustrates through contrary action a weightier, tempered version of the novel’s joyful truth,” I wrote, unknowingly referring to myself as the “rebel” and this time in my reading life as a “middle” time, a “necessary evil” (if we dare qualify with such moral language) in a movement towards Critical Reading. In reading for the ego, one not only ignores large parts of the text that don’t seem to apply directly to the self, but no meaningful relation is created. Like reading for authorial intention, reading for individual intention is a one-way exchange in which one takes all rather than giving all, respectively.
Critical Reading is a personal relation with and a reinterpretation of a text and deserves to be practiced by everyone, not solely a limited number of published Literary Critics. Intentional concerns (either for the self or other) and confusion of text for reality (or an imitation of reality) inhibits a Reader from being a Critical Reader. That is, failing prevents her from exercising a careful evaluation, a comprehensive understanding of a text that can be made available to her in the experience of reading. I am not defending here the authority of Theory, so the process of Critical Reading will not be outlined to facilitate instruction; rather I maintain the process can only be known first hand in the feeling of deep understanding and corollary experience of an otherwise foreign idea. In my experience, this relation can occur between the Reader and the Text, the Author, or another Reader (or Readers). I see myself as having succeeded in Critical Reading on only a number of occasions that I can count on my fingers. The Death of Ivan Ilych I read alone as a high school junior, one spring morning in the woods; a few hours later I was cold and sobbing, walking to the cafeteria, where, upon arrival, my state was questioned – I had just experienced a short story. Reading Kafka’s short stories and aphorisms aloud, late at night surrounded by empty summer camp cabins, passing the book from myself to another, I experienced the relationship of Text to two Readers. Samuel Beckett’s writing, life, and biography occupied almost a year of Critical Reading, in which I walked through his neighborhoods, saw plays, wrote about the texts on multiple occasions, followed a course on the play “Happy Days,” and discussed his work with others. This I feel is a great example of Critical Reading that amounted not to author-worship, but to the discovery and deep exploration of a textual world that connected the Critical Reader with not only the Text, but also the Author, the City, the Institution, the Medium, and other Readers.
Because informal personal research and experience cannot occupy the lives of all Critical Readers, I propose that Critical Reading be introduced to the classroom as well. Investment of a text with an emotional value attached to the experience of reading it must not prevent us from bringing that text to the classroom, known to some as the dissecting tray. Rather, it is specifically those emotionally-charged texts that need to be brought into the classroom in order to facilitate Critical experience. Though Critical Reading is a detailed and unbiased examination of Poetry, it more importantly refers to another meaning of Critical: the essential. Critical Reading essentializes Text through experience, which is then reinterpreted by the Reader and shared with other Readers, Critics, and Discourses.
Reading, like Poetry, is a creative art. Just as the artist perceives and reinterprets the world around him, to the delight of others, the Reader perceives and reinterprets a textual world. So why is the Reader necessarily a failed poet, as the Poet was a failed philosopher, conjuring forms twice removed? The Critical Reader is rather a creator in her own right, the missing link between Poet and Philosopher, experiencing and reinterpreting objects in reality, Poetry itself.