My Perverse Critic: Marbeck Valerian

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

Apparently Patrick White used to build himself up into a state about bad crits of his books. However, the vegetation in his garden, and across the road in Centennial Park, did not turn yellow from an excess of spleen, and Patrick kept on writing. White knew bad crits were inevitable but, after dragging The Tree of Man out of his asthmatically-wracked body back on the farm that Kylie Tennant once called Frog Hollow, I don’t guess he was exactly ecstatic to read A. D. Hope’s final reference to his prose style, in a now notorious review, as ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’. White often had this kind of reception. Later success only encouraged some to thwack away even more. Hal Porter described White’s autobiographical Flaws In The Glass as ‘high-camp mysticism and low-camp waspishness’. White returned the favour, calling Porter ‘a sac of green pus throbbing with jealousy’. Fun in its way, and a predictable stoush of the kind familiar to literature the world over. [See Angela Bennie’s Crème de la Phlegm Unforgettable Australian Reviews The Miegunyah Press 2006, from which the above examples are taken, for more examples of Australian arts criticism.]

The old, old story. Artists make the art and put it out into the world. Its fate is indeterminate, whether well received, given the silent treatment or scorned. Anyone who gets into a life in art and thinks it is going to be any different for them is being hopelessly naive.

Marbeck Valerian is my imaginary name for all the critics one is going to come across who will misunderstand work, misrepresent it, or land on it like an Exocet missile and proclaim it the best thing since sliced bread, probably the worst fate of all.

Eduard Hanslick, origin of Wagner’s Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, doyen of music critics in nineteenth-century Europe, simply could not connect with the contemporary masterpieces that were set before him. All the learning in the world can’t help a critical sensibility out of the impasse that comes when a mind thinks itself attuned to the spirit of the times. Which in Hanslick’s case meant Brahms. Wagner, Bruckner and Tchaikowsky were beyond him—Bruckner 8: ‘At long last, the Finale—which, with its baroque themes, its confused structure and inhuman din, strikes us only as a model of tastelessness . . .’ I suppose you can get some entertainment value out of this kind of criticism. But when your reading audience starts looking forward to seeing who, say, to take two names from the past, Kenneth Tynan or Auberon Waugh are going to eviscerate in their weekly column, something has gone askew in the relationship between artist, critic and audience. Part of the problem arises from the thinning dividing line between reviewing—one person’s opinion—and criticism, which is meant to be a more considered and analytical overview of cultural product.

Hanslick was wrong from the start, to quote someone who got into troubled waters through pride. However, this is really the way it must be. And why should art have an easy time of it? The teacher, the nurse, the miner and the police constable are not going to have an easy time of it. No. The poor and the oppressed are certainly not going to have an easy time of it either, pace the look-at-how-I’m-suffering-unlike-the-rest-of-the-world tone of some confessional verse. What is so special about artists that they should be given a dispensation from the vexations others encounter, when journalists can be murdered for simply trying to write the truth? The history of art is prolix with attacks on great works of art and grotesque misreadings of its nature. It would be the shortest of perspectives to expect anything else. The ideal, the aesthetically beautiful, must have swum through muck before it has a chance of landing on calmer historical shores. Metaphorically, art is always swimming the Hellespont in its Byronic aspiration towards the sublime, or the nihilist’s sublime denied. Carping criticism is just one of the many hurdles to be faced along the way, hurdles that change the perspectives with which we look at the art we admire, or the art we do not like, or do not understand.

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word ‘poetic’ is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse’s patchy visitations. ‘Poetic’ is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public’s indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer’s efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It’s true, as Robert Hughes has said—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout. That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. Then there are zealous attenders of conferences on Bakhtin and Benjamin who duly proceed to force-feed any perceptions they might have through the mindset of their heroes. More than a few may as well come with ‘agenda approaching’ branded on their foreheads for all the subtlety used to spruik friends or pet theories. Some see it as their solemn duty to spend a lifetime rubber stamping status quo fodder. What to say about the opaque wall of French deconstructive criticism that towered briefly across the literary landscape. So-called New Criticism, Pound’s boosterism, Leavis’ purple prose about Lawrence . . . and so on, and on. Personally, I can’t think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly.  However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that’s even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ and ‘All art is quite useless’ are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.

So, merrily we roll along, as the musical has it. Well, good criticism is important. We must have it, along with the self-serving or blinkered kind. The rare piece of literary criticism that proclaims the arrival of something important is notable only for its scarcity. Poets who write poetry criticism—and there are a lot who have, or do—are on difficult ground. In The Undiscovered Country Poetry in the Age of Tin [Columbia University Press 2005, 343] William Logan calls John Berryman ‘a brilliant critic’—which might very well be true—but I would much rather Berryman wrote less criticism and worked on his poetry more.

Just as well art finds its own timeline, which is not criticism’s.

Marbeck Valerian may be your long-term friend. His/her misunderstandings are the seeds from which art begins its proper journey through time’s unpredictable mangle.


          The Artist’s Agony Aunt Replies

Brobdingnag into Lilliput doesn’t go—
Work that out early if you want to keep
Your gold estate
From predations by those CEOs and phonies
Who’ve risen to the level of baloney.

Art is more important than their blather,
But only you and the happy few will know
Why you’ll be intransigent and stroppy
When they’re expecting parrot words to serve
For beauties and their furies here conferred.

Art cannot wait for being understood
When blood has, by the Muse, been dispossessed.
They’ll want you to sell short your better part
For slaps on the back and lower ranks of things
Where they have dumped their burden without wings.

For all the money, politics and kudos
Others have for meaning in their lives,
When summing up a goodness that survives,
The gift of art, however hard or strange,
Is worthy of a life none with you may change.

Written 1996