Enjoying Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism, edited by Garrick Davis. In his introduction William Logan cites the best advice I’ve yet read on how to criticize. It’s from Matthew Arnold: "…have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry." Not that other poetry must resemble the lines of your chosen greats. Rather the great should be used as a method, a yardstick, a gold standard against which the relative presence of quality in other, new works is measured.
Logan then follows through with this splendid flourish: " Beyond the holy trinity of race, class and gender; beyond the murder of the author (hardly the death of him); beyond jargon ridden, vatic, riddling "methodologies" fond of sophomoric wordplay and genial mystification… contemporary "theory" remains largely inoculated against the way poems work. In the end, it is a very dull way to look at poetry."
Despite its pretense of tolerance and dispassion, "theory" says Logan, is surprisingly judgmental. It wallows in the age’s prejudices, female over male, anarchy over order, etc. You can’t, he says, have it both ways. You can’t pretend to moral relativity and embrace such prejudices. You can’t, as certain obnoxious blog commentators do, attack criteria for judging literary value, and then argue for the superiority of one text over another without adhering to a set of your own. As Logan puts it "For a criticism that prizes non-conformity and "difference," theory proves alarmingly fond of orthodoxy."
Ezra Pound piles on later in the book in his essay ‘How to Read,’ with: "The first credential we should demand of the critic is his ideograph of the good; of what he considers valid writing, and indeed of all his general terms….He must begin by stating that such and such particular works seem to him "good," "best," "indifferent," "valid", "non-valid."
I’d only add to this: and then explain in detail why he has chosen what he has chosen.