Criticism | Hiding Light Under a Bushel Basket

Hiding Light Under a Bushel Basket

© 2017 Vernon Miles Kerr

Luke 11:33 | “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.”

Even for an agnostic, a lot of wisdom can be gained from the Bible.  A lot of wisdom can also be gained, about writing, by reading good literary criticism.  When I read the poet A.E. Stallings’s recent piece in The American Scholar about the passing of poet Richard Wilbur, I was so impressed with it, I immediately wanted to go read more of his poetry.

Her lush description of how Wilbur’s art inspired her desire to emulate it inspired me to want to emulate her effectiveness in writing criticism. Her description of her youthful impression of Wilbur reading his poem, “The Juggler” is a case in point.

“No doubt I did not fully appreciate the elegance and sprezzatura of this poem-performance—its stanzas of patterned line lengths and pure and off rhymes, the philosophical conceit, its mix of elaborate syntax and everyday statement, its precise etymological use of “resilience”—literally to bounce back—jostling with one-syllable exclamations like “whee” and even “damn.” Possibly, I thought, with the innocent bravado that is somewhat necessary in a young poet, I can do that too. Wilbur had a way of keeping all the balls in the air, winking at difficulty while making the performance seem effortless. Yet nothing is glib—even clapping becomes strange, clumsy in view of the juggler’s (and the poet’s) legerdemain—a battering of hands.”

But Stallings’s article also engendered a tinge of sadness, thinking that neither her words, nor poetry in general will probably ever be enjoyed by a very broad swath of the general public.  I left the following comment at the end of the article:

“As all good criticism does, this piece provides a wealth of learning about the subject being discussed. In this case it’s a lesson in poetics by a great poet, about a great poet. I’m struck though, by the irony that such morsels have such a narrow audience, and that the general public, unlike a hundred years ago, has little or no knowledge nor exposure to the exquisite subtleties of good poetry.”

But there are excellent resources for reading and learning about the art of Poetry.  In addition to The American Scholar, another great resource is The Poetry Foundation where years and years of Poetry Magazine issues are available to browse—free for the asking.  Sadly though,  one has to have that narrow and, today, very rare interest in poetry to take advantage of these goldmines.

Why does the world of Poetry seem so inward-facing, today?  Is it a change in emphasis in  the American primary and secondary educational systems—toward the materialistic— that has resulted in young minds no longer developing  a taste for poetry?  Or does the world of Poetry itself deserve some of the blame—if not by deliberate design, then by neglect, and self-satisfied mutual admiration, as my Bible quote hints? At least art galleries, filled with paintings and sculpture, are open to the public—and theater marquees shout the easy access to the dramatic arts.  The art of poetry today, however, seems to be encompassed by a wall of intellectualism: geniuses preaching to the choir. Even the tagline in The American Scholar’s newsletter The Scholar Connection, linking  to this excellent piece in their magazine—while true—is still telling:

“From One Genius to Another”