Story About the Story: An Interview with Sven Birkerts

J. C. Hallman

Sven Birkerts is the author of many books of essays, including, most recently, The Other Walk. His contribution to The Story About the Story I, “On a Stanza by John Keats,” first appeared in Birkerts’ The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry. He directs the MFA program at Bennington University. Birkerts has nice things to say about the new volume, and we were thrilled when he agreed to share a few of his thoughts about the nature and state of creative criticism. 

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Sven Birkerts: If by “creative writers” you here mean poets, novelists, playwrights, etc.—expressive makers—then no.  Their obligation, insofar as they have one, is to bring the clearest focus and freshest innovative impulses to bear on their own work.  That, if anything, is the alternative given to the critical assumptions.  The greatest challenge these days for any artist these days is to create work distinctive enough to reach a reader and make a difference, and any traffic in polemic and aesthetic distinction-making can only reduce the artist’s available p.s.i.

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism?  That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?

SB: Such a big question, so many factors.  The most persuasive answer is the familiar one: that to be considered as an academic discipline the study of literature had to keep pace with the increasingly specialized and rationalized procedures of other disciplines.  Departments being what they are, competition being what it is, fear of irrelevance growing by the day as our society entered the brave new digital world—there was nothing to do but theorize and then rationalize the theorizing, until the expressions of the literature became mere pretext.  There was no viable public platform for a powerful non-academic counter-thrust.  Print venues—reviews and magazines—have been in decline for decades; the energies of the culture have become ever more centrifugal—they are fragmented, siphoned off into blog niches.

JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?

SB: This relates closely to the previous question.  I found a great freedom in the fact that I was not in academia, that I could respond to works I read without adjusting my sails to whatever wind was just then blowing.  I did not have to vet my diction to make sure it was appropriate to my discipline, nor did I have an implicit mandate to consider what my colleagues X and Y had written on the matter.  The downside was that when I did enter an academic setting to read or talk, I was quickly and expertly made to feel that my ideas, interesting as they might be, were in some deeper way beside the point.  To counter my alienation, and the despondency I felt whenever I was in these settings, I found myself going back to the fount—reading the prose of critics who wrote before the time of orthodoxy.  I took such confirmation from writers like Randall Jarrell, Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, Erich Heller, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, and sui generis poet-essayists like Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney

JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?

SB: Passion and independence.  The true work—-that which is to be criticized, considered—is original in the world.  It addresses the enigma of private and public existence in its own terms.  Any criticism, if it is to matter, has to understand what those terms are and to reply in kind.  Criticism should continue the game, not look to finish it. It should identify and promote—and, yes, question—the impulse.  It should give the reader an honest sense of its excellences, invoke its relevant precedents, evaluate its successes and failures in the light of its intent…Writerly criticism is, at heart, celebratory. It is most often written out of the writer/critic’s desire to explore or publicize; it has less investment in the take-down.  Though sometimes the take-down is wanted.  When the claims—and public influence—of something ersatz, contrived, and opportunistic—get out of proportion, when correction is wanted.  But then the criticism is undertaken not so much against as on behalf, as a way of reminding the reader that value can be—must be—assessed.

JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days?  If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?

SB: Books and literature are in crisis, absolutely—as are all of the other expressive arts.  By “crisis” I mean that their public presence and impact have been grievously reduced in the last decades, and their practice is more and more determined by economic (commercial) forces.  In the digital reordering of the world, which is happening so fast that we can’t even draw a bead on it, the perceived importance of subjective individualism—or, to turn it around—individual subjectivity, is becoming ever more negligible, and the logic of systems is overtaking every sphere of life.  Literature has always addressed that “I,” that self.  How we write about literature must take this striking loss of influence into some account; its ulterior aim should be—through passionate response to expressive works—to serve what has become, ever more obviously, the opposition, to seek thereby some redress of balances.

JCH: Your essay “On a Stanza by John Keats” (included in The Story About the Story I) ends with this observation:

“When we turn up the most uncanny effects in his lines, therefore, we have every reason to believe that his deeper ‘Muse’ put them there, even if he did not.”

This, I think, is a literary way of expressing a distinction between the conscious mind and the unconscious, or subconscious, mind.  How, then, does this distinction impact the long-standing debate over authorial intention?  Is a writer’s “Muse” him or her?  Does a writer have “jurisdiction” over whatever flows from the deeper self, or is the “Muse” a way of logging on to the collective mind?

SB: Clearly, yes, the “Muse” is the unconscious mind, and its energies, materials, and “solutions” absolutely belong to the writer. Those contents may have affinity with the contents of other peoples’ psyches, but they are not, I don’t think, part of a universal aquifer. A writer’s work, drawn significantly from that inner place, is her own. This is in part because those energies and images are filtered, mediated, and shaped by craft, by the shape-making sensibility, which is conscious, the product of discipline and training. The unconscious intends what it will, but the work that results is always the result of collaboration. The writer does not have “jurisdiction” over what emerges from the unconscious, but is fully responsible for its public presentation.

JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?

SB: Sontag on Benjamin, “Under the Sign of Saturn”

Brodsky on Auden, “To Please a Shadow”

Heaney on Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Fire i’ the Flint”

Blackmur, “Tennyson’s Scissors”

Geoff Dyer on Rebecca West

Elizabeth Hardwick, “Bartleby in Manhattan”

Andre Aciman, “Letter from Illiers-Combray” (Proust)

William Gass on Gertrude Stein

Cybthia Ozick on T.S. Eliot

George Steiner, “The Hollow Miracle” (German writing after WW2)

Durs Grunbaum, “A Little Blue Girl” (Rilke)

Lopate on Emerson

Tom Sleigh on Thom Gunn

James Wood on Geoff Dyer (fun)

Heller, anything from Disinherited Mind (Mann, Nietzsche, Rilke)

Kenner, Anything from Pound Era

Davenport, on Charles Olson…

Brad Leithauser on Haldor Laxness

Wyatt Mason on Javier Marias

Michael Chabon on Finnegan’s Wake

In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.