Criticism will be love

I think Lynn Emanuel has joined my list of favorite poets. I would like to point you to “April 18th, the 21st Century” from her collection Noose and Hook.  Sadly, what exists on the Web is  “The World Outside: A Letter to Baudelaire about Walter Benjamin”; this seems to be identical except for the title and some odd lineation, which may or may not be Emanuel’s doing.  So until you can get out and buy the book, go ahead and read the linked version.  My commentary follows.

the first class compartment of my mind

LE establishes a tone of what my old teacher Tom Clayton called “low seriousness.”  He talked about this playful earnestness in Shakespeare, in an article whose title (“At Bottom a Criticism of Life”) he lifted from the dour Matthew Arnold in a notably nocent act of quotation.


I am no one but the
insatiable identities descending upon me

This seems like an example of the project LE describes in another poem (“I tried to flatter myself…”): she “tried to bury alive in a landslide of / disparagement ego and subjectivity…”  This attempt to dismember the self is a characteristic postmodern project, but Emanuel, despite the help of.Gertrude Stein, has to admit defeat: the I is “still here” at the end of the poem.  And in our current poem, for all the ways that we animate and are animated by the words of others, everybody–Baudelaire, Benjamin, the I that speaks and the I that reads–is treated as a human individual.  For which I am grateful.


I am in love with
Baudelaire because of his interest in

As you might suspect, the ‘quote’ from Atwood is also a paraphrase.  There are probably better furniture references in Baudelaire, but this one comes to mind–it is the second stanza of his famous “Invitation to the Voyage”:

Gleaming furniture,
Polished by the years,
Will ornament our bedroom;
The rarest flowers
Mingling their fragrance
With the faint scent of amber,
The ornate ceilings,
The limpid mirrors,
The oriental splendor,
All would whisper there
Secretly to the soul
In its soft, native language.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.  (Tr. William Aggeler)

Read the whole poem here, especially if there is French on you.  I wonder, by the way, if there is an echo of the refrain when Emanuel speaks of “the ease, the comfort, the respite.”


No quotation is innocent. Every quotation
is an act of ventriloquism. Every ventriloquism
is an usurpation.

Nice.  “Usurpation” is a bit strong, but the interesting thing is that it is by no means clear who usurps whom, as when Benjamin puts on his Du Camp sock-puppet and momentarily is possessed by Du Camp rather than the other way round.


as Walter
carries forward the great cross of
his love for you, as he is nailing himself to
his love for you, at the height of his

Tue surrealist Andre Breton once said, “Criticism will be love, or it will not be.”  I don’t really know what he meant (does this make the quote more or less guilty?), but I do think he was right.  I could go on about the mountains of desiccated theory and analysis that do nothing but bring the universe closer to high-entropy heat-death (and get someone tenure), but if you’ve done any time in grad school, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, you’re well out of it.

I also cannot help thinking that this wonderful dramatization of the critic’s activity is inhabited, in its lavish, obsessive parallelisms (which continue later) by the ghost of Walt Whitman.  Just wanted to call your attention to the way LE repeats her figures with little variations and extensions.  Oh, and note the double-entendre of “Passion.”


there lives the envy and sorrow of a man cut off from the
possibility of another’s experience

Whether or not it applies to Benjamin, this sums up a million acts of stingy criticism, including pretty much the entire critical oeuvre of T.S. Eliot.  I suppose that I too have disparaged writers when I felt that they seemed to be at a party to which I was not invited.


I, on the other hand, am perfectly aware that you adore me because we
adore so many of the same things–furniture, women’s dresses,
recreational drugs

“La critique sera amour” indeed; this is what you call low seriousness.  I love, in particular, the idea of LE introducing Baudelaire to the miracle of hair gel.  It is all the more shocking when the poem’s final turn reminds us just what the outside world was for Benjamin, on the run from the Nazis in 1940.

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2 Responses to Criticism will be love

  1. zumpoems says:

    Thanks for the post on Lynn Emanuel!

  2. Pingback: Best of 2011, Bookwise-speaking | lippenheimer

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