For any writer, the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge brings moments of poignant appreciation around every corner. Richard Holmes’ instructive biography of Coleridge is full of examples of the romantic poet bemoaning his own indolence, hesitation and lack of literary production. A typical diary entry from 1804: “A whole year has passed so completely, with scarcely the fruits of a month […] I’m not worth living […] I did not do anything! Not even any material, no internal stores – from aftermath!” We feel you, Sam.
The irony of all this is that, to a modern eye, Coleridge was an extraordinarily prolific writer. His collected works total about 15 volumes and include literary criticism, history, journalism and political polemics. Indeed, Coleridge’s prose writings, particularly his Biographia Literaria, established him not only as the first significant example of the modern literary critic in the English language, but also as the prototype of the poet-critic—a writer whose achievements as a poet are comparable to his ability to think about literature to write.
So why did Coleridge so consistently see himself as a failure? Perhaps because, while he was often able to produce streams of prose, he was never able to reach that level of productivity in his poetry. Many of his best-known poetic works, such as “Kubla Khan” or “Christabel”, were never completed to his satisfaction, and he often considered himself a poet who had never reached his full potential – a view shared by many of his peers and closest friends. In short, the first great English poet-critic was plagued by the fear of being too much a critic and not enough a poet.
Such questions of priority plagued the figure of the poet-critic in the centuries that followed. Most poets, of course, write criticism at some point in their careers, whether it be reviews of the work of others, explanations of their own poetry, or introductions to anthologies. But we tend to bestow the title of poet-critic on those unicorn-like figures who are adept enough to be recognized in both spellings—who, we might say, have their own voice, perspective, and style in criticism as well develop as in poetry. Indeed, the danger that seems to loom over the post-romantic poet-critic seems to be that the voice of the critic—analytical, argumentative, public—could overwhelm that of the private, introspective, and inspired poet.
The modern poet-critic par excellence is, of course, TS Eliot, whose pronouncements on poetry are as often quoted as his poetry. Modernism has produced poet-critics because it has so often had to explain itself and its novelty; Eliot’s famous statement that “poets must be difficult in our contemporary civilization” links poetic difficulties to the exploding complexity of 20th-century society.
Although Eliot’s achievement as a poet was relatively minor compared to some of his peers, his criticism helped bolster his status as a pre-eminent literary authority. If Eliot could be viewed as an innovator as a poet, his criticism—along with his social and political writings—could be conservative, even reactionary, helping to cement the idea of a literary canon and the idea of the critic as an Olympic arbiter (despite Eliot’s own wry warning in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” not to follow the rules of “dead critics”).
However, Eliot also offers another possible approach to the poet-critic: poetry as criticism, or more specifically, the idea of a poem that includes criticism. The Waste Land famously contains its own footnotes, which Eliot later ridiculed as “false scholarship,” but which help present the poem as a self-critical, self-reflective work, conscious of itself as a reflection on literature and the literary tradition. Here, too, Coleridge is a forerunner: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner contains his own marginal notes, which mimic the language of science but take on a poetic logic all of their own. Nor was Eliot the only modernist author to engage in poetic criticism: William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All intersperses poetry with prose that theorizes poetry and reflects on art, and Gertrude Stein’s lectures and essays often move in the same rhythms and repetitions like their stricter “literary”. ” is working.
Turning to contemporary poet-critics, I am less interested in poets who have managed to make themselves authoritative critics and trendsetters (Randall Jarrell is an obvious mid-century example) than in poets who have found paths have to blur the lines between poetry and poetry criticism. Charles Bernstein’s A Poetics provides an example of a book which, while presenting itself as critical writing about the “state of the art”, often complicates and undermines the authority of its own critical voice; the piece “Artifice of Absorption” is itself written in verse and blends the “public” voice of criticism with the “private” voice of poetry. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson offers a poetry reading by Dickinson that is both scholarly and deeply personal, even idiosyncratic, in a style that continues that of Howe’s own poetry.
What is the position of the poet-critic today? Changes in the literary market and the rise of academic creative writing have diminished the critic’s traditional role as intermediary between the poem and the reading public, although Stephanie Burt is a poet critic who fulfills that role admirably. Today’s poetic critic is more of a poetic scholar, someone who publishes volumes of poetry as well as academic literary criticism or theory. The poets Evie Shockley, Craig Santos Perez and Margaret Rhee are a few that come to mind from this generation of poet scholars; Her poetic and scholarly work tends to be distinct but complementary, extending her intellectual and critical interests to multiple areas.
At the same time, such scholarly poets engage in what I would call a larger movement toward the poem than criticism. Perhaps the most influential poet currently working in this direction is Claudia Rankine. Rankine has for many years pursued the critical goal of reclaiming lyric poetry as a political form by blurring the line between poetry and critical prose; Citizen moves both inwards and outwards, blending the essayistic, introspective, and polemical, while Just Us takes the form of science through poetic means, complete with footnotes and fact-checks. Like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or The Waste Land, Just Us is a book in dialogue with itself – perhaps the greatest achievement a poet-critic can offer us.