On reviewing and criticism









Ecologists are conscious of the need to avoid bias in sampling when they carry out an ecological ((survey )). If they have to state the number of creeping buttercup plants in a field, it's not practicable to count all the creeping buttercup plants in the field. They have to sample, by counting, for example, the number of plants in 0.01% of the field and multiplying the number they find in the sample by 10 000. Their sample has to be random. They don't take samples from the area nearest the road, for convenience, or take samples only from the unrepresentative area which contains almost all the creeping buttercups.

Again and again, critics use distorted sampling and their ((surveys )) are flawed. As in the case of ecology, it's impractical to deal with the whole, even if the whole is far from extensive. Even in the case of a poem of moderate length, it may be impossible to discuss all of it adequately. Critics usually have to sample, but they may choose the 'best part' of a poem to quote and discuss in support of their case, or the 'worst part' to support an adverse judgment.

On the page which discusses 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney,' I quote Denis Donoghue on an exchange of views between F R Leavis and F W Bateson on the subject of close reading. In general, I'm sympathetic to F R Leavis's views on close reading, but of course close reading is usually not close reading of a whole but of a sample. Close reading itself does nothing to eliminate the problem of sampling. On the same page, I criticize Dennis O' Driscoll:

Dennis O' Driscoll, in 'Heaney in Public,' one of the essays in The Cambridge Companion, claims that 'Every idea is examined afresh, as every word is coined anew.' Every idea is examined afresh! Every word is coined anew! Are all these five words in 'Gifts of Rain,' 'could monitor the usual / confabulations' coined anew? Bernard O' Donoghue ought to have had a few words with Dennis O' Driscoll, and made it clear that this claim couldn't possibly be justified and shouldn't appear in any self-respecting book, and certainly not one published by the Cambridge University Press. The Press had its reputation to consider, and so did he, as editor, and as an academic at Oxford University. But he obviously didn't even notice that Dennis O' Driscoll was practising a form of 'automatic writing.' He was practising 'automatic editing.' '

This is just one sample of Dennis O' Driscoll the critic. Just one sample may seem conclusive, with no further need to collect further samples. This would be the case with a piece of sub-literate criticism of Shakespeare's Hamlet which began 'Hamlett is a krap play, everyone nows it whose seen itt.' There would be no need to read further. The one sentence of Dennis O' Driscoll would seem so poor that there's no need to collect further samples. Persisting even so, and reading the whole of his essay, 'Heaney in Public' in 'The Cambridge Companion' gives more extensive sampling, which qualifies the judgment formed from the earlier small sample: the essay as a whole is far better, but lacklustre in large part.

To provide more one than one sample of a critic's writing i{amplification}, that is, ('instantiates' {amplification} or 'is an instance of' {amplification}. To provide more than one brief comment, 'far better, but lacklustre in large part' and to provide abundant evidence for the comment also i{amplification}, in accordance with the thoroughness and comprehensiveness which I see as very desirable in criticism. But to provide sufficient {amplification} is often impracticable or even impossible and sometimes unnecessary. Here, my main objective isn't to arrive at as fair an estimate as I can of the criticism of Dennis O' Driscoll but to discuss sampling in criticism and to discuss [sampling in criticism] < > [sampling in other fields, eg ecology].

Even so, I extend sampling of Dennis O' Driscoll to discuss briefly a review by him, 'The Letters of Robert Lowell,' edited by Saskia Hamilton, in the U.S. Issue of the poetry magazine 'Agenda.' (Vol. 41 Nos. 3 - 4). It has a bearing on his own estimate of Seamus Heaney.

He writes, of Robert Lowell, at the beginning of his review, 'He was better than good, less than great' and refers to his 'Pungent phrase-making, forceful rhythms, crackerjack technique and a credible public rhetoric ... ' Based upon this small sample from the review, his own criticism here is better than poor, less than good. Again, {amplification} would be necessary to make the discussion adequate. Extending the sample to the next sentence gives {modification} of the original estimate. This is poor: 'Few reputations live on poetry alone; and Lowell's prominence owed as much to his deeds as to his words; he was jailed as a conscientious objector during the Second World War ... ' This is no way to estimate the reputation of a poet, and the 'deeds' are equivocal. Depending on the critic's view of pacifism, Robert Lowell was heroic here or deeply misguided. I think he was completely misguided. His pacifism lowers his reputation for me, but not his reputation as a poet. (In the same way, the reputation of the composer Benjamin Britten isn't modified for me by the fact that he was a pacifist too during the Second World War.)

When Dennis O' Driscoll returns to Robert Lowell as poet, he has severely critical things to say about him: 'Lowell was a willed poet more than an inspired one; so, a production line of habitual sonnets became an attempt to create an inspiration machine. The dogged, episodic, solipsistic poems he processed were dappled intermittently with brilliance, but monotonous and inert, crying out for divine afflatus rather than monkey wrench revision.'

This further sample of Dennis O' Driscoll again modifies my view of his work. Without providing {amplification} for what I regard as the critical strengths and weaknesses of this sample, on its own it would be enough to modify a critical opinion based on the sample I gave first of all, concerning the words and ideas of Seamus Heaney.

His view of the poetry, not the life, of Robert Lowell, is markedly different from Seamus Heaney's own. Seamus Heaney deals with the life and actions as well as the poetry. His account of the life and actions seems to me very acute - again, without giving {amplification}, but his account of the poetry seems to me to be based upon distorted sampling.

Quoting should be regarded as a form of sampling. It would be impractical, usually, to quote the whole of a poem or other literary work (and would often infringe copyright). Anyone new to the poetry of Robert Lowell would have a distorted view of his work from Seamus Heaney's quote-sampling. He quotes lines from 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket:'

When the whale's viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Wood's Hole
and Martha's Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ash-pit of Johoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
and hacks the coiling life out ...

Are these lines representative in their literary quality? Seamus Heaney could have done far more to address this issue, I think. In my own pages on Seamus Heaney's own poetry ... I try to ensure that my sampling is as fair and comprehensive as I can make it, given the {restriction} of space. This {restriction}, of course, is generally severe in its effects. It may allow only the most limited sampling and the most limited {amplification}, or none at all. But my view of criticism is that, subject to {restriction} of space, the critic should attempt to reduce unfairness so far as possible by, amongst other things, sampling as well as possible.

I don't address here one other matter which emerges from my discussion - the need to address contradictions. Contradictions play almost as important a part in literary criticism as the contradictions, of a very different kind, studied in logic. Seamus Heaney's view of Robert Lowell's poetry is so different from Dennis O' Driscoll's as to amount to criticism-contradiction.

On the page where I discuss 'The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney' I include this comment on Fran Brearton, 'I don't have an extensive acquaintance with work by Fran Brearton other than her essay in The Cambridge Companion, but enough to know that she can write very well, as in this review of Paul Muldoon (a much less important poet than Seamus Heaney, I think.)'