Friday, 30 June 2000

From a letter

By David Lloyd.

You put me on the spot here, John, but I'll have a go. At one level, what I mean by the self-consciousness of the critic is that process of self-second-guessing that can afflict someone who habitually writes criticism when coming to the writing of poetry--the problem of stumbling too soon over the relation of one's own writing to others' writing that can become a certain kind of guardedness that inhibits discovery, of the crushing weight of knowing too much at the wrong moment or the distraction of too many uncalled for distractions on the horizon. But at another level, it's about what I think critics do--and what I love in good criticism--which is to bring back to self-consciousness analytically the multiple vectors that get condensed into a poem in the process of writing. That's why there seems to me something silly in recent attacks on the "interdisciplinarity" of contemporary criticism: untellable forces press in on any writing and they can be of any kind, historical, social, environmental, intimately personal or utterly general, so in principle any knowledge of any kind may be relevant to what gets fused into the poem. But the constellation that the poem forms isn't necessarily analytically available to the poet at the moment of writing, though entirely available in another sense. I don't suppose a poet can ever know too much (which is one of the perils of specialization, academic or otherwise, which is that it exhausts the energy to be widely curious), but I've always thought that Lacan's borrowing from Aristotle on chance as a way of describing the operation of the unconscious's openings and closings makes a pretty good figure for poetic intention. Lacan invokes (in Four Fundamental Concepts for anyone who wants to pursue it) the notion of tuche, which is a chance event that depends on an intention to bring it about: what occurs occurs not as the end result of what was preconceived but as a side effect that could not have occurred without the initial intent. Writing poetry is deeply intentional, rarely "inspired", but the product of constraints and focus, and yet the most "inspired" discoveries are often effects that come as if by chance. Writing is at once deeply conceptual through and through but, to assume an all too Kantian hat, never determined by a concept. In the moment of writing, certain kinds of self-consciousness, of which I doubt the critic's self-consciousness, which is the analytical version, is the only one, can get in the way of that process of tuche.

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