Comparative Criticism

I’m about to read C.K. Williams‘ book-length consideration of Walt Whitman, On Whitman. If it gets me excited—or makes me mad—how should I write about it?

Writing at the Tin House blog, J.C. Hallman makes an impassioned plea for a livelier, more metaphor-infused style of criticism, as opposed to the kind of “astringent” criticism preferred by Helen Vendler‘s review of the Whitman book. This seems reasonable enough at first glance: Writing should feel like a punch to the chest! Like a blast of cold air on a hot day! Like the shocking sense that the floor has suddenly disappeared beneath your feet!

Or something. I’m pretty bad with metaphors—any one I come up with tends to feel like, at best, an approximation of what it is I actually mean to say, not to mention awkward and contrived. (Comparing reading an influential piece of criticism to feeling like you’ve just noticed you’ve gone around all day with your shirt half tucked-in? Eh. I’ve long figured that much of what you’re paying for in an MFA program is the ability to write non-crappy metaphors.) So I can support Hallman’s idea in theory, while wondering if he should be careful what he asks for.

Truth is, Hallman’s attempt to walk it like he talks it by deploying lots of metaphors to dismantle Vendler’s piece isn’t especially effective. Vendler’s complaint about the Whitman book, best as I can tell, is that the author concentrates too much on his emotional reactions to the poetry, and less on the structure of the poetry itself. Hallman compares Vendler’s argument to a few things:

It’s as though someone has shown Vendler some sexy pictures and she’s decided to be grossed out by them.

[It’s] like saying it’s okay to watch porn, and it’s even okay to talk about it and write about it, but under no circumstances should you actually imitate the acts that get your juices flowing.

[S]he has become the aging schoolmarm playing chaperone at a middle school dance.

How many comparisons to an easily shocked crone do you think Vendler deserved to drive this point home? If you answered “three,” you’ll have Hallman on your side. But—at the risk of sounding astringent—it should be pretty clear that he’s making the same exact argument three times. That’s not better writing, let alone better criticism; that’s just overwriting. That’s not to say that metaphor itself is a problem. But its utility is as a way to bolster an argument, not be the argument itself. (A metaphor can only tell you what something is like. You still need a something.) A call for more metaphorical writing will probably make for some more colorful prose, but also prose that prefers to makes a noise about itself—which is more about the writer than the point the writer wants to make.