Some Good Literary Criticism I Read in 2015

It seems strange to discuss “the Best Literary Criticism of 2015,”—a year in which, it seemed, the professionalism of the discipline itself was being called into question. Writers asked “Is Everyone Qualified to be a Critic?” (and answered yes). Another critic extolled the virtues of know-nothing criticism.

Despite this seeming affront to the profession, 2015 was a year of thoughtful, compelling, and innovative criticism, so I’d like to take a moment to point out what were some of the highlights for me.


Poetry and The Metaphysical I

Dorothea Lasky

From Wave Composition

This is no tired discussion of the “the lyric I”: Lasky offers a fresh and compelling take on the role of the first person singular in poetry: “The best gift that a poet can give his or her I is to allow it to be its own cool animal. An I that is a wild thing, a mercurial trickster that resists all definition.”

Decomposition as a Spiritual Value in Poetry

Dobby Gibson

From The American Poetry Review

A meditation on decomposition and the poetic process: “A poem is provisional, composed as it is largely of the act of its own undoing. The lines break.”

On Middlebrow Formalism, or the Fallacy of Imitative Form Revisited

Stephen Cushman

From Southwest Review, via Poetry Daily

Cushman argues against the notion that in good poetry, “The sound must seem an Echo to the sense,“ as Pope famously put it. Cushman urges us to move away from “an interpretive contortionism that insists on twisting sound into an auditory allegory of sense” and attend instead to “the intricacies of auditory design as ends in themselves.”

Theory of the Lyric

Jonathan Culler

Book, published by Harvard UP

Required reading for every poet. Culler brings a lifetime of reading and thinking to the topic, and he is equally good as a close reader and as a theorist. Reading this was enlightening and humbling: there just aren’t that many people on this planet with Culler’s exhaustive knowledge and insight.

Culler explains that the impetus behind the book is “critical”: “Current models falsify the long tradition of the lyric and encourage students to think about lyrics in ways that neglect some of the central features of lyric poetry, both past and present.” Culler’s goal is to present “a more accurate and capacious account of the lyric.”

Vanishing Point

Karl Ove Knausgaard

From The New Yorker

An ethics of the novel: Fiction as the antidote to the generalizations we use to avoid empathy with others.  The piece includes a fascinating aside on Paul Celan. “If there is an ethics of the novel, it lies in the zone where the other moves between the definite and indefinite.”

The Art of Slowness: Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder

Tony Hoagland

From The American Poetry Review

A detailed investigation of Zapruder’s “artfully clunky syntax, his irregular lineation and the way his extended sentences unspool their way down the page…”

The Art of Close Writing

Jonathan Russell Clark

From The Millions

An essay on “free indirect discourse” in fiction. I appreciate the playfulness of Clark’s approach (the entire essay is written in close third person) and I’m a sucker for technical discussions of literature, especially ones that examine multiple instances of a specific technique.

Write Like a Cow: On Taking Craft Cues from Your Subject

Nancy Geyer

From Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction

A close reading/”craft essay” on Lydia Davis’s brilliant story, “The Cows.”

Susan Howe, Poet in the Academic Zone

Robert von Hallberg

From Lana Turner

Von Hallberg argues that Howe’s poetry and critical work serves as “a wake-up call to the academy,” revealing the creative possibilities of archival research and historical explanation. 

By the way, last month New Directions republished Howe’s The Birth-Mark (1992), a collection of essays on early American Literature, and published The Quarry, a new book of previously uncollected essays. 

Lines of Sight: Visual Art in Asian American Poetry

Micael Leong

The Asian American Writer’s Workshop

An introduction by Leong followed by a mini-anthology of 9 visual poets, each represented by full poems or substantial excerpts, and accompanied by lots of images. This sort of criticism may seem less sexy than theoretical musings or polemical diatribes, but it’s essential work, beneficial to the poets it discusses as well as the new readership it brings to them.

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poetry and Poets

Helen Vendler

Book, published by Harvard UP

In her introduction, Vendler offers a succinct but accurate description of herself: "I’m a critic rather than a scholar, a reader and writer more taken by texts than by contexts.” I don’t share Vendler’s enthusiasm for some of the poets she discusses, but I don’t read her to confirm my prejudices. I read Vendler for the same reason (I suspect) many watch sports: to see how she handles the challenging situations she encounters and to marvel at her skill.

Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Carl Phillips

Lisa Russ Spaar

From The Los Angeles Review of Books 

Focusing on Phillips’s second book, Cortege (1995), and his most recent, Reconnaissance (2015), Spaar explores how Phillips’s language embodies his poetics of unknowing: “Both collections use simultaneous flourishes of artifice and a stripping away of any baroque foliage to create a nakedness, a clearing that in Phillips’s works often takes the form of a field or vista, a wake or aftermath…”

Equipment for Living: Poetry’s complex consolations

Michael Robbins

From Poetry Magazine

Every generation, it seems, must have its apology for poetry. This is ours. “One way poetry helps you to accept perpetual unrest, to arm yourself to confront perplexities, is by reminding you that you’re not alone (a not coincidentally common refrain in popular song). This just in: everyone you love will be extinguished, and so will you. But this can be said of every person in the universe. You’re not special. Men and women have been living and dying for a long time, and some of them have left records. Those records won’t eliminate your fears; they might help you to live with them.“

Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi os

Derek Mong

From Kenyon Review, via Poetry Daily

I’d meet a Milton scholar who had never heard of Johnson… .  I tried to describe Radi os (a sustained erasure of Paradise Lost) to him in earnest, but kept leaping into my different theories for how best to understand the book. More so than with any other poem I admired, I didn’t know where to start.

This essay then is a series of starting points for a reading (or rereading) of Radi os

Mong’s piece is playful, fun to read, and thought-provoking. Literary criticism so often aspires to be the final word, whereas Mong seeks to initiate a conversation.

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