T.S. Eliot once wrote that in his view "Probably, indeed, the larger part of the labor of an author in composing his work is critical labor; the labor of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative. I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism; and. . .that some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior." (Eliot means not that such writers should be judged superior because they manifest this critical faculty, but that it is the possession of this faculty that has made them "superior" in the first place.)
Eliot is himself perhaps the most distinguished example, in the twentieth century at least, of the "poet-critic," the "creative" writer who also feels the need to write literary criticism, as if the creative act of writing poetry is not quite finished unless it is accompanied by some critical analysis that goes beyond the kind he ascribes here to the writer performing such analysis on his own work. (It should be said that Eliot has been accused, with some justification, of writing criticism that ultimately works to confirm the kind of poetry he wrote, even when ostensibly writing about other poets. This does not make his criticism less valuable to us now, however.) There have been many such poet-critics, especially in British literature: Dryden, Johnson, Pope, Coleridge, later Eliot, Empson, Auden, and others. In American literature such "poet-critics" have often enough been novelists: Henry James, Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, among living writers Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Updike, very recently writers like Jonatham Lethem and Michael Chabon.
Some think that "creative writers" ought to refrain from writing criticism, especially in the form of reviewing their colleagues and potential competitors. However, Eliots's statement explains why poet-critics ought to be encouraged to engage in literary criticism: they know best of all what is really required of poetry and fiction for it to be aesthetically and intellectually credible, "crafted" in all the best senses of the term. In fact, in today's literary climate, where few literary critics who both respect literature and wish to write about it in generally accessible terms are actually to be found (or have a forum in which to do it), the criticism of practicing writers might be the most important available source of sound critical judgment.
In my lifetime, the most distinguished "poet-critic" has been, in my view, William H. Gass. Although he has published at least two works of fiction, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and The Tunnel, that stand up to the work of any of his contemporaries, he has also produced half a dozen collections of critical essays that will surely endure as among the best criticism to appear in the second half of the twentieth century. The day his "Collected Essays" appears will be a notable one in American literary history.
Although he is a fiction writer and not a poet, his criticism may in fact be the best example to be found of criticism as poetry. In this he exemplifies Eliot's claim that the critical and the creative are, in the best writers, inextricable. This is the beginning of the first essay in Gass's first critical book:
So much of philosophy is fiction. Dreams, doubts, fears, ambitions, ecstasies. . .if philosophy were a stream, they would stock it like fishes. Although fiction, in the manner of its making, is pure philosophy, no novelist has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extractions--the soul's escape from the body, for instance, or the will's from cause. And how thin and unlaced the forms of Finnegans Wake are beside any of the Critiques, how sunlit Joyce's darkness, how few his parallels, how loose his correspondences. With what emotion do we watch the flight of the Alone to the Alone, or discover that "der Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist," or read that in a state of nature the life of man is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short' . . .
Novelist and philsopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds. Worlds? But the worlds of the novelist, I hear you say, do not exist. Indeed. As for that--they exist more often than the philosophers'. Then, too--how seldom does it seem to matter. Who honestly cares? They are divine games. Both play at gods as others play at bowls; for there is frequently more reality in fairy tales than in these magical constructions of the mind, works equally of thought and energy and will, which rise up into sense and feeling, as to life, acts of pure abstraction, passes logical, and intuitions both securely empty and as fitted for passage as time.
Few writers of criticism are able to combine such a compelling and frankly "superior" prose with correspondingly apposite critical insights as does William Gass. To this extent, I would not hold him up as a model. Gass's example, as well as Eliot's, does illustrate, however, that the "poet" and the "critic" can coexist comfortably. More importantly, poets and novelists might learn from them to less reluctantly admit that the creative work to some extent requires the "frightful toil" of the critical. At the same time, critics, perhaps especially critics who are not themselves "creative" writers, ought more often to acknowledge that this toil is only compounded in the labor performed by poets and novelists. It is not a simple matter of unsightly "expression" being confronted with the "handsome Absolute" of critical judgment.
As a critic, however, Gass is generally not concerned with making and justifying judgments about the superior and inferior in works of literature (although judgment is always implicit) but with carefully, and, in his singular, luminous style, insightfully explicating those features of the texts and authors he admires that will help other readers share his admiration. At other times his essays are essentially exercises in aesthetics, although the aesthetic explorations are always grounded in specific practices or specific writers. Few literary critics are able to combine deep erudition, critical discernment, and a keen aesthetic sensibility as does Gass, and few offer readers such an opportunity to enlarge their own understanding of and sensitivity to expressions of literary art.
To a degree, Gass’s criticism seems an extension of his work as a fiction writer, a critical elaboration of the assumptions underlying it and the methods animating it. But Gass’s critical impulses are too generous and his focus too thoroughly on the dynamics of literary creation in general for his essays to be taken as a collective apology for his own style-centered, formally audacious fiction—although certainly it does provide critical support for that sort of aesthetically challenging writing, both in fiction and in poetry. Moreover, it is also the case that in Gass’s reading, “aesthetically challenging” is more or less identical with the “aesthetic” per se, so that in describing and delighting in the writers who are the subjects of many of the essays, and in contemplating the devices and strategies available to the literary artist, Gass has been engaged in a lifelong project of alerting us to the presence of aesthetic beauty, however “difficult” or unconventional. He is one of those critics, in fact, who has endeavored to keep the very notion of aesthetic beauty alive at a time when it is often viewed with skepticism as “snobbery” or “elitism.”
Gass is not a snob, although he may be an elitist, but only in the sense, as he puts it in “The Test of Time,” that he belongs to the””unorganized few. . .who sincerely love the arts.” He—and those of us who would like to be there with him—does not declare allegiance to this group because the arts make us better people or superior people or more refined people but because what they provide is good in itself: “There are those for whom reading, for example, can be an act of love, and lead to a revelation, not of truth, moral or otherwise, but of lucidity, order, rightness of relation, the experience of a world fully felt and furnished.” If great works of art and literature “teach” us anything, they teach us “immersion.” For Gass, “they teach me that the trivial is as important as the important when looked at importantly.”
“The arts” in their individual forms thus are worthy of attention when they can be “looked at importantly” through an immersion in their well-wrought particulars. In “The Test of Time,” Gass focuses on two writers, seemingly very different kinds of writers, but who both nevertheless enlarge our perceptions through their renderings with words. In Walden, Thoreau perpetually brings the pond and his experiences there to life:
[W]e, as readers, are not brought to Walden Pond in some poetic time machine. We experience Walden as it passed through Thoreau’s head, his whole heart there for us to pass through, too, his wide bright eyes the better to see with, the patient putting together of his prose to appreciate. Of the pond, the trees, the pain, the poet may retain—the poet may retain—through the indelibilities of his medium—moments which, in reality, went as swiftly as a whistle away; but he will also give them what was never there in the first place: much afterthought, correction, suggestion, verbal movement, emotion, meaning, music. . . .
Hopkins would seem to be the more obviously suited to Gass’s aesthetic ideal rooted in detail and sensuous sound, and indeed he is valued for these qualities, even as they failed to satisfy Hopkins himself: In poetically brooding over whether there is a way “to keep back beauty. . .from vanishing away,” Hopkins, writes Gass, “said it was ‘yonder,’ in effect, up high in the air, as ‘high as that,’ when all the while he knew where it was: it was there under his forming fingers; it was in his writing, where the real god, the god he could not avow—dared not worship—worked, wrote, writing his rhetorical regrets, putting his question so perfectly the proof was in the putting.” In Hopkins’s poetry
They, those things, the terrible sonnets, every one, were composed, brought by Hopkins into being, not when he was down in the dumps, not while he was Hopkins, but when he was a Poet, truly on top of the world, the muse his mother; and the poems supplant their cause, are sturdier than trees, and will strip the teeth of any saw that tries to down them.
Both Thoreau and Hopkins in their own ways contest the passing of time by summoning, through the strength of their writing, a kind of eternal present, invoking the “rule that reads: never enter time, and you will never be required to exit.” Gass assures us that
It was lovely to be on Walden Pond at midnight, fluting the fish, but lovelier and more lasting in the verbal than in the fishing lines. It is painful to lose faith even for a moment or see a row of crudely hewn trunks where your favorite rustic scene once was, but mutilation’s sorrow is inspiring in the reading, although we realize the poem does not soften the blows felt by the trees.
“The Test of Time,” first given as a Woodrow Wilson Lecture, is perhaps a kind of summary statement of Gass’s aesthetic philosophy, but it is very much the philosophy that informs Gass’s criticism taken as a whole. He is among those few critics who have persisted in defending the aesthetic integrity of literature in an era when literary criticism has increasingly come to regard the aesthetic as an embarrassing frill or an outright impediment to the enlistment of literature in various ideological agendas or in a program of social or moral improvement. Although Gass is a very different kind of critic than Harold Bloom, who is more interested in the psychoanalytic origins of works of literature than in their immediate aesthetic effects, Gass nevertheless shares with Bloom, if not a belief in “literature as a way of life,” as Bloom puts it in his most recent book, then certainly a commitment to it as a supreme human achievement and experience. And while Gass perhaps does not quite pursue “an erotics of art,” as Susan Sontag once called for, his appreciation of both prose and poetry usually emphasizes the pleasure of attentive reading receptive to the sensual qualities of language and the dynamism of the imagination at its most engaged.
Perhaps Gass occupies as a critic a space somewhere between the aesthetic purity of Sontag’s notion and the explorations in poetic genealogy performed by Bloom. He doesn’t assume that works of literary art will be harmed by efforts to “interpret,” as long as such interpretation does justice to the aesthetic integrity of literary art, but his own efforts are focused more on the tangible properties of texts than are Bloom’s considerations of the deeper sources of literary creation.
Although Gass’s essays are ultimately too voluminous, varied, and too occupied with identifying the value of other works and writers to be regarded as a critical justification of his own fiction, they nevertheless do help us to gain perspective on Gass’s fiction, in which he too asks readers to “immerse” themselves in description and detail as revealed through the rhythms of his prose and the vigor of his language. Combining an intensity of style and a preoccupation with form, his fiction always impresses on the reader’s attention its arrangements and figurations of language, as Gass’s own effort to refuse to “enter Time.” In this way the essays perhaps form a mutually reinforcing complement to the fiction, the one adeptly practicing what the others eloquently preach.