Poetically Speaking

A new book makes the case for bewilderment as a critical virtue

Brian Dillon
Illustration by James Gallagher

I hear, and i find myself tongue-tied.” Michel Chaouli’s Something Speaks to Me, in which the Iranian-born scholar of German literature and philosophy argues for what he calls “poetic criticism,” starts with a classroom “mishap.” While teaching Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Chaouli read out loud a passage he had chosen “because it seemed especially rich.” And then, he writes, “I found I had nothing to say about it. Nothing.”

If you teach literature or a related discipline, you may have lived (or feared living) such a moment, though improvisation is your stock in trade. What’s supposed to happen is that you set out at the start of a quotation, confident that the point you wish to make will come. Finish the passage, wait a beat, then start speaking impromptu. (“I can walk into a classroom now, pick up a book and start teaching anything,” a friend admitted to me recently.) You may, like me, have consoled yourself for this off-the-cuff habit by read­ing Heinrich von Kleist’s 1805 essay “On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts During Speech” and resolving to read aloud a little way past the passage you plan to discuss, beguiling the time: “I interpose inarticulate sounds, draw out the connecting words, possibly even use an apposition when required and employ other tricks which will prolong my speech in order to gain sufficient time for the fabrication of my idea in the workshop of reason.”

But sometimes no thought will come, and you have to retrace your steps. Let’s hear that again. This is what Chaouli did, repeating the passage from The Trial. But there the nothing was, still. What kind of void had he fallen into? Explaining why he revisits this scene in his book, he writes, “I soon felt, or perhaps hoped, that the scene betrayed something more than my own shortcoming, that being tongue-tied spoke to a shared condition, the condition of criticism, which we encounter in reviews and monographs but whose roots reach deeper and wider.”

Poetic criticism is instead a movement, an insinuation, a tendency.

Silences are not unexpected in the classroom—it is late in the day, or nobody has done the reading, the students fear their professor, or the other way around—and some are essential: No need to answer all at once—take your time and give it some thought. Beyond or below the necessary, reflective silences of the seminar lurks the more unnerv­ing quiet of a fundamental perplexity in the face of works of art or literature. It is out of this silence that something like a “poetic criticism” might start to sound: intimate, tactful, opaque, urgent.

a criticism that speaks from the abyss of initial confusion or incom­prehension—Vox clamantis in deserto—or perhaps fails to speak at all: this sounds like a version of the eighteenth-century sublime, a mind struck dumb before the work of art, as before the terrors or grandeur of nature. And there is a Romantic ur-text sounding throughout Something Speaks to Me. In 1798, Friedrich Schlegel was the first (as far as Chaouli is aware) to yoke together the words poetisch and Kritik, in a review of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), where Schlegel argues that the novel is in part a critical commentary on, or critical reworking of, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As a piece of poetic criticism, Schlegel says, Goethe’s book aspires to “replenish the work, rejuvenate it, shape it afresh.” The belatedness of the novel’s critical intervention, its parasitism on the original: all of this is overcome in Goethe’s own thought, invention, and language, which put into the world a new complement to the original text. As Chaouli puts it, the work of criticism “makes some­thing; it produces, which is just what ‘poetic’ means at root.”

If you wanted to figure out what criticism might be today or reflect on the failures of its contemporary styles and the publica­tions that contain them, you could do worse than turn to Schlegel’s Critical Fragments (1798–1800). Here is fragment 5: “Many critical journals make the mistake which Mozart’s music is so often accused of: an occasionally excessive use of the wind instruments.” (From which I take: a criticism that dawdles at its genteel ease until its word count is reached and a criticism that urgently wishes to have the last word are equally bad.) And fragment 114: “There are so many critical journals of varying sorts and differing intentions! If only a society might be formed sometime with the sole purpose of gradu­ally making criticism—since criticism is, after all, necessary—a real thing.” And what would this “real thing” consist of? In a move that can seem hard to detach from the banal or tautologous, fragment 117 has it thus: “Poetry can only be criticized by way of poetry.”

This last is a daring advance on the conventional idea that a piece of criticism ought to send us back to the work itself. A piece of traditional criticism may seem to shrink the gap between poem and critique, but ordinarily, a distance is maintained: criticism does not itself aspire to become a work of art. Schlegel, though, suggests, along with a certain strand in Romantic and subsequent thought, that the distinction between poetry and criticism, or between poetry and philosophy, might dissolve entirely, with poetry becom­ing a form of comment or critique and criticism succeeding to the function of poetry. But what form, what function? And if poetry is in this case already critical, what is the poetic remainder that is present in “poetic criticism”? This is something like the problem of the avant-garde: if it really existed, it would disappear.

poetic criticism—you know it when you see it, or rather when you hear it. It is not a program, or a genre, and it is not, in Chaouli’s telling, a thing in itself. It is instead a movement, an insinuation, a tendency. And you may encounter it not just in novels and poems but also in contexts remote from the obviously literary or aca­demic: in mainstream book or film reviews, pop-cultural commen­tary, sports journalism, or conversations with friends.

I must have heard it first in the early 1980s, in the pages of British music magazines, especially the weekly New Musical Express, where two young writers, Ian Penman and Paul Morley, were engaged in a project far stranger than the mostly leaden, merely florid, or weakly polemical interviews, reviews, and “think pieces” that sur­rounded them. Writing about, let us say, the latest record by Prince, they brought to bear the ideas of French intellectuals like Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes. Just as exciting as the ideas was what the NME writers were doing with language. Syntax, rhythm, tone, imagery—it was an explosive mix. Years ago, I tried to explain to Morley the effect his fizzing prose had had on me, but all I could come up with was this obscure formula­tion: that he seemed to be writing while writing. And when I subse­quently asked Penman how he conjured his spectral but indelible metaphors, it seemed he had never considered his writing in these rhetorical terms. The ambition, he said, was to write in such a way that you embodied, rather than described from a critical distance, the sound in question or the personality behind it. This notion that elements of one’s critical métier might come naturally was disquieting for those of us trained (as I was in the late 1980s and early 1990s) in self-aware methods of understanding culture and writing about it.

Chaouli, too, has a hard time speaking lucidly of the effect that his own canon of poetic critics has had on him. He writes of it as a matter of being seized, infected, or seduced. He is repeatedly drawn, struck, aroused, exposed—overwhelmed by a fierce passivity. He introduces his pantheon with a series of long quotations. There is Erich Auerbach on the absence of epithets in the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac: “In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the serving-men, or the ass, should be described.” And James Baldwin, declaring that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “achieves a bright, almost a lurid significance, like the light from a fire which consumes a witch.” Kenneth Burke on Othello as ritual of riddance or purgation, and art as granting us the privilege of attending our own funeral. Susan Sontag on the overweening urge to interpret a work of art, to make even the hothouse melodrama of A Streetcar Named Desire signify something about Western civilization: “Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.”

Some of Michel Chaouli’s best examples of writers doing poetic crit­icism are also the writers who fret most about whether they can do it.

When trying to write, Chaouli says, he will read a page of one of these writers “and wait for some of the electricity coursing through their words to leap over to mine. How crude, you might say, how instrumental.” But opening oneself to this energy or force is the greatest compliment, and not so much passive as making of oneself a passage: “If poetic making—hence also poetic criticism—has an essential mark, it is this: an infectious productivity.”

I am unsure about productivity, as I am uncertain about the urgency to speak about the images I love or words that I can­not forget. To write about these things does not feel to me like a rush to inform or communicate but instead like a desire to invent something alongside. To brush up against the work rather than importune it. This is a challenge—particularly when writing about literature, the temptation is to try and sound as if I know more than the text itself. But I was raised on critics who refused this dominion: from William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) through Derrida’s infinitely patient unmastering to Giorgio Agamben’s assertion that “the quest of criticism consists not in dis­covering its object but in assuring the conditions of its inaccessi­bility.” The patron saint of such renunciation is of course Roland Barthes, who supplies Chaouli with his most deliciously opaque example of poetic criticism.

What grabs Chaouli is a culinary scene from Empire of Signs, Barthes’s 1970 book about Japan, a scene in which food is a collec­tion of fragments, ordered but without hierarchy, that are subject to a subtle synesthesia:

Japanese rawness is essentially visual; it denotes a certain col­ored state of the flesh or vegetable substance (it being under­stood that color is never exhausted by a catalogue of tints, but refers to a whole tactility of substance; thus sashimi exhibits not so much colors as resistances: those which vary the flesh of raw fish, causing it to pass, from one end of the tray to the other, through the stations of the soggy, the fibrous, the elastic, the compact, the rough, the slippery).

It is hard to think of a passage in Barthes that better enacts his desire to turn everything into metaphor—everything, that is, that threatens to stiffen inside the rigor of the concept. “To substitute metaphor for the concept: to write.”

Though Chaouli does not quite come out and say it, this seems to me the aspect of poetic criticism to which he most read­ily responds, the thing that really speaks and seduces him. (As Chaouli says, the force of the Barthes passage lies not in its thesis but “in the grain of the adjectives, in the cadence of its sentences, in resonances with other passages.”) Metaphor makes something happen, sets the work in motion, speeds between the thing and us. It is not a matter of aesthetics, or not only. To find the right (there­fore slightly wrong) metaphor for a work, or some aspect of a work, to transform the thing argued into something instead made—this is a pleasure but also a political gesture. Democratic, you might say: to convey your point without flummoxing recourse to unfa­miliar concepts. But unknowing, confusion, and opacity also arrive in this metaphoric guise, and maintaining them is the poetic crit­ic’s most urgent and radical task. The critic must make a commu­nity of not-knowing—without, as Barthes says in his essay “To the Seminar,” any Socratic performance of knowing-unknowing.

there is curiously little in Something Speaks to Me about the language of literary criticism as such. Curious because terminol­ogy—“jargon”—is so often the aspect of academic criticism dis­paraged outside the academy. The charge against jargon is first, I suppose, that it works (or is even designed) to exclude or alienate the ordinary reader. And second, that this language does some vio­lence to the work itself. What kind of violence it supposedly does varies: it is sometimes said that jargon overinterprets, engages in a ruinous intimacy with the text, makes too much of it, and some­times that it operates at a hampering remove from the thing itself, reducing the particularity of art to the generality of theory.

A defense of critical jargon usually involves a comparison with other academic fields, chiefly scientific: if physics, for exam­ple—why always physics?—requires a specialized vocabulary, why not also literary criticism? This strikes me as entirely the wrong defense. Rather, as Agamben puts it, “terminology is the poetic element of thought.” Yes, technical terms may be defined, repeated, more or less settled in their meaning, but they are just as likely to remain opaque or ambiguous—their proper definition awaits or is endlessly deferred. The process or practice of defining and rede­fining those terms is the whole of the task. (A banal example: the student arrives knowing what a metaphor is; my job as teacher is to convince her that she really does not know, and nor do I.)

In criticism, the value of jargon lies not in its mastering or clarifying function but precisely in its obscurity. Jargon is the lan­guage of outsiders, thieves, and vagrants—a secret code for the dispossessed, a tongue in which to plot revenge upon speakers of the dominant language. Chaouli’s evasion of the tired and tiring problem of jargon, his refusal to make this the sore point in his quiet quarrel with the voice of the academy, seems the proper and principled move. Imagine a type of criticism in which terminolog­ical or theoretical excess reached such a pitch that critical jargon turned into pure poetry.

chaouli’s criticism never reaches such a pitch, and perhaps it does not need to. On the face of it, he is not really arguing for a wholly novel form of criticism, or even for experimentalism in crit­icism. But the thing he’s describing, which I think I recognize and to which I’m sure I aspire, is also a desire, a giddiness, an excess to which Chaouli, at least in this book, does not give in. A close listener who charts precisely what he hears, Chaouli still never swoons into song.

As soon as I write this I wonder: can I myself swoon into song, whatever I mean by that phrase? Always this anxiety: does my crit­ical writing ever leave itself behind and risk the sort of intimacy Chaouli here points to and champions? Perhaps poetic criticism is not something you can simply aim at and take steps (affective, con­ceptual, stylistic) to perform but instead a dream or desire. This is why some of Chaouli’s best examples of writers doing poetic crit­icism are also the writers who fret most about whether they can do it. (Barthes for sure, but also Sontag, recording in her diary an ambivalent envy of her friend Elizabeth Hardwick: “No ideas, but what music.”) Hard to do at the same time the worrying and the thing itself. It is one of the things I meant as a teenager when I thought of Morley writing while writing.

One habit that I think a poetic criticism would not indulge is the academic’s of signposting what one is about to argue and after­wards reminding your reader what you have done or where you have been together. This is not an empty convention. It is a way of writing that aspires to an oral (but not conversational) address and a formal intimacy between writer and reader as between teacher and student. At least some of the time, the ambition is to demys­tify, and by reflexivity equalize, the relationship between speaker and spoken-to. But the effect is often the opposite: the reader feels buttonholed or browbeaten, and professional self-awareness starts to seem like preening. Barthes, in “To the Seminar,” compares the turning-back of the teacher, revisiting the argument or journey of the seminar so far, to the ruinous gaze of Orpheus: “nothing is left but the institution, or the task, or the ‘psychodrama.’”

Chaouli is not completely liberated from a signposting that masquerades as unmapped adventure: “Let’s spread out what we have before us so we can pull it together again”; “Earlier, seeking to inch closer to the intimacy that prevails when I hear something speak to me, I gave some examples.” Rhetorical questions (who is immune from these?) frequently open his paragraphs, like arms widening at a surprise guest: “To learn the intimacy that leads me to poetic criticism, should I then sidestep distrust altogether? Should I abandon the procedures I have spent years honing and set aside scholarship, critique, and other techniques of detachment?” These reminders of his pedagogical presence are not just tics of the trade but also point precisely to this larger anxiety about the poten­tial loss of critical force and skeptical acuity. That is understandable. Still, we might wish for a more exuberant or exorbitant language and form for this unmastered and unmastering type of writing.

poetic criticism”—among all else, the phrase sounds like a way to dodge saying “creative criticism.” A formulation worth avoiding. While I was reading Something Speaks to Me I received an invita­tion to meet with a group of my academic colleagues and discuss their ambitions to shiver off the rigors of scholarly writing and aim for something more—what is the word? The word is usually “cre­ative.” Creative writing. Creative nonfiction. The creative-critical. (Or is it critical-creative?) I teach one and practice the other, but I find I am allergic to this vocabulary. I understand the urge toward the creative, I am keen to help if I can, and yet the heart does sink. My unease with “creative criticism” is something like my shudder at the phrase “personal essay.” That is, if you have to add the adjective then you have not understood that it was already present in the noun. Present but not necessarily achieved, or somehow isolable in order then to be reintegrated in a self-conscious show. A kind of snobbery turns me right off “braided” or “hybrid” forms and makes me think: your form is hybrid because you have failed to inte­grate its elements—in the end, failed to write.

My unease with “creative criticism” is something like my shudder at the phrase “personal essay.”

This is not a kind, adequate, or reputable response to the insis­tence on “creative criticism.” But creative criticism (scare quotes discarded) seems to me a fantasy now shared by academic critics and the rest of us who pursue antique métiers in their contem­porary, more or less online, varieties: journalism, the essay, belles-lettres. The difference is that the scholars looking to throw off their peer-review water wings still believe creative criticism is something you could set out to do and very possibly achieve, while those of us who freely sink or swim in the freelance lagoon know creative crit­icism is an impossible project. A criticism worth the name would mean consenting to live in this impossibility, to accept it even as it brings us to the brink of Chaouli’s dumbstruck predicament in the classroom.

Chaouli’s “poetic” gets closer than “creative” ever can to this vexing state—because of his insistence on action, not expression (or its boring pal, opinion). What did we want from criticism in the first place, those of us marked early on by its rigors and its lures? For sure, the drama of our encounter with works of art expressed, heightened, widened, made more precise—including aspects of our tentativeness or the work’s canny withdrawal. And in our own writing, a sense of putting something into the world afresh, an act of making to compete with the work itself, if only as tribute to its existence. But surely also something more, which Chaouli’s insis­tence on critical-poetic making also hits upon. Something more ambitious (and less sane) than the proliferation of attitudes, the understanding of aesthetic form or historical context, the skepti­cal or celebratory diagnosis of political import. It felt and feels as if criticism changes the world. Not could change or might change. Something speaks to me, speaks through me, and even though I do not know how to speak of it, carries on speaking.

Brian Dillon is the author of, most recently, Affinities: On Art and Fascination. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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