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This review is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

POSSUM, ABBA, AND THE HORROR OF POPTHINK Ronald Bush, T. S. Eliot, A Study in Character and Style (OUP, New York) £17.50
Judith Moffett, James Merrill, An Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press) $26.00

The staple academic critical work remains much as it was fifty years ago or more, with its emphasis on a writer's work as expressive of and conditioned by his life, a life seen as a story with a clarity of structure no real life could possibly have. Such continuity is remarkable considering how often these assumptions have been under attack, and although it is tempting to be optimistic and see this as the persistence of a properly amateurish, liberal-empiricist tradition of criticism handed down from the distant past, that would be a misreading of the situation. This staple fare has been made widely available through the growth of the Ph.D. thesis which sees literature in terms of problems to be solved, this in turn being based upon the kind of discussion literary works receive in the classroom. Since genuine criticism depends upon experience, maturity and insight, a tradition of inexperience, immaturity and smart handling of debating points is the opposite of what ought to exist, but is just what we have. Scanning poems for problems, then solving those problems in the naive terms of literary history or by crude psychological guesses based on that unreliable assemblage of bare fact, incomplete private papers and gossip which is a writer's biography, may provide some kind of education in rhetorical skills but is not the way poetry can be properly approached. When this is given the appearance of rigour by painstaking research carried out to high professional standards, something pernicious comes into ...


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