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This report is taken from PN Review 99, Volume 21 Number 1, September - October 1994.

Letter from New York Rachel Hadas

In 'Matters of Poetry', her 1993 lecture at the Library of Congress, then Poet Laureate Mona Van Duyn spoke eloquently of the overstuffed condition of poetry criticism in the US these days:

who has not read the gorgeous, inflated rhetoric of praise in a review and then suddenly burst into laughter at the quoted passage the critic has been talking about, the bad, flat, inept lines that provoked that incandescent praise?


In the same week that I read Van Duyn's question, I happened upon two other passages that concatenated elegantly with her point, the one anticipating, the other exemplifying it. First, Gibbon wrote in 1762 in his diary (he had been reading Longinus)

Till now I was acquainted only with two ways of criticizing a passage: the one, to show by an exact anatomy of it the distinct beauties of it, and whence they sprung: the other, an idle exclamation or general encomium, which leaves nothing behind it…


Longinus showed Gibbon a third way, as the passage goes on to explain. But the 'general encomium which leaves nothing behind it' - the ludicrously incandescent praise Van Duyn mentions - is alive and well in a recent letter to PMLA, the official organ of the Modern Language Association, in which phrases like 'elegiac ambiguity', 'a wry sense of the anxiety of influence', and 'melancholy resignation' are slathered over a poem typical lines of which include 'O,I don't give a shit', 'the guy ...


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