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.