In a TLS review of Creative Criticism; Essays on the Unity of Genius and Taste (Henry Holt, 1917) by J.E. Springarn, Virginia Woolf says this:
"For how in criticism are we to go altogether without ‘rules’? Is not the decision to do so merely another rule? Although to feel is of the first importance, to know why one feels is of great importance too. There can be no doubt, however, that to be free to make one’s own laws and to be alert to do it afresh for every newcomer is an essential part of any criticism worth having. "
This quote tends to simultaneously support the differing points Zach Wells and I make during this exchange on Thomas Hardy. Woolf agrees with me that ‘to feel’ is of first importance’ and with Zach who says:
"I’m not so keen on “agreed upon evaluative criteria.” I think each poem has to be approached as freshly as possible. Having predetermined criteria for evaluation too easily throws one off the scent of something unfamiliar."
It’s easy to agree with this: open-minded acceptance. No preconceived biases or structures or holes to bang pegs into. Obvious as this is, however, it ‘s equally obvious that if conversation/ movement/a change in opinion about relative merit is to occur, if new thoughts or ideas are to be adopted, some agreement has to be reached on evaluative critieria and their relative importance. Poems aren’t like solvable math questions. No right answers; but rational judgment requires rules against which to measure value; courts within which to make better or worse arguments in support of likes and dislikes. Otherwise we’re only so many subjective sea-liners, blithely passing each other – regardless of how much horn blowing- in the dark.
My take: the emotional impact of poetic words takes precedence over any technical, lyrical virtuosity. That I am made sad by narrative, or wowed by words aptly placed (Keats, for example, was blown away by Spenser’s: ‘the sea-shouldering whale;’ I’m partial to: ‘For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips’) is more important to me than if they happen to rhyme; or if form happens to exemplify the tenets of a particular genre. It can of course be argued that the best poems achieve both, seamlessly, and that without tension between the container and the contained, neither succeed. Hard to disagree with this.