James Dickie: the problem with Criticism

James DickieWhen James Dickie was US Poet Laureate (in 1966-68) he devised a graceful letter declining to criticize unsolicited poems:

I do not criticize unsolicited manuscripts, because I believe that often an external evaluation of a poet’s work distracts him from his necessary spontaneity, and from the pleasure which he may derive from the creation of his work.

Indeed, it seems obvious that there’s nothing wrong with expressing your feelings in lyrical poems that might seem simple compared to the overwhelming richness of Shakespeare, say, or the cultural ornateness of Ezra Pound’s “Cantos”. A folk song seems simple compared to the massive complexity of a Shostakovitch symphony; a kite built and flown by a young girl seems simple compared to the overwhelming technical complexity and power of the Space Shuttle taking off.

But there’s a lot of worthwhile pleasure to be gained from singing a folk song, or flying a kite.


3 Replies to “James Dickie: the problem with Criticism”

  1. Extremely generous of Mr Dickey, the erstwhile Coca-Cola executive and only American poet ever to write boastfully of firebombing in Asia, to eschew the opportunity for deprivation of all those spontaneous pleasures. But then, was not Santa Claus also an American Southerner?

    The form letter puts on in mind of Edmund Wilson’s all-purpose (and infamous) rejection card:

    Edmund Wilson does not:
    — Read manuscripts.
    — Write articles or books to order.
    — Write forewords or introductions.
    — Make statements for publicity purposes.
    — Do any kind of editorial work.
    — Judge literary contests.
    — Give interviews.
    — Conduct educational courses.
    — Deliver lectures.
    — Give talks of make speeches.
    — Broadcast or appear on television.
    — Take part in writers’ congresses.
    — Answer questionnaires.
    — Contribute to or take part in symposiums or “panels” of any kind.
    — Contribute manuscript for sales.
    — Donate copies of his books to libraries.
    — Autograph books for strangers.
    — Allow his name to be used on letterheads.
    — Supply personal information about himself.
    — Supply photographs of himself.
    — Supply opinions on literary or other subjects.

  2. I had a feeling there was something a little … odd about Mr Dickey.

    Those things Edmund Wilson would not do… it just about covers everything.

    Perhaps why his star dimmed as he grew older and eventually passed on to that bourne from which no traveller returns. These days, I find I have to explain who Mr Wilson was, if I’m talking to anyone younger than myself. Where will it end?

    John Tranter

  3. You’ve never had to explain to me
    (I’ve never had to ask)
    why Edmund took a train to sea,
    and none took him to task.

    Seriously, I’ve never had to ask you about him, even if I am younger, and that makes me a rarity.

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