What’s It All About?

Let’s talk about critics, by which I mean, people who are paid to critique the stuff others have created. Fiction, poetry, music, art, whatever. Something created out of nothing and then offered to a wider audience. Who are these people, or perhaps I should ask, who do they think they are?

Some are simply full-time critics. Many are also academics. They are the intellectual equivalent of butchers and car mechanics, taking things apart for a living, except that butchers and mechanics both perform useful services. But what about the literary critic who hoists a poem up onto ramps and proceeds to diagnose what’s wrong with it or what it actually means. Do we need them?

I need to back up for a moment. A Russian friend asked me to choose a couple of English poems for her to learn by heart. Having made my choice, I looked for online recordings to accompany the text. Natalya’s English is excellent but I thought audio might help with scansion. That was when I stumbled upon an interview in which an academic was explaining how we’ve all got Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken woefully wrong. Gosh.

Dr Orr of Cornell University was flogging his latest book. He had written a whole book on a much loved, oft recited poem which he felt duty bound to point out didn’t mean what it seems to mean at first pass. He particularly had it in for its final sentence: I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. Frost didn’t really mean that. No, no. Pay attention, dumbkopf. The poet tells you earlier in the poem that there was effectively no difference between the two paths. It was a coin toss. No biggie.

Are we any the richer for this insight? Do we need this kind of deconstruction? I don’t. A poem, like a painting, either speaks to me or it doesn’t. At first Dr Orr annoyed me, until I began to find his solemn pontification amusing. I’ll bet he’s not a lot of fun across the breakfast table. Then I was reminded of that delicious scene in Brideshead Revisited when Anthony Blanche gate-crashes the private view of an exhibition of Charles Ryder’s paintings.

‘Where are the pictures?’ he says to Charles. ‘Let me explain them to you.’

The Road Not Taken will be one of the poems I give to my friend. She can make her own interpretation of it. Another will be A.E. Houseman’s Loveliest of Trees, a poem every English child learned in school once upon a time, until schools stopped doing that kind of thing. I remain open to further suggestions. Nothing too long, mind.

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