October 2011
Lisa Levy

Is This Any Fun?

Emersonian Pragmatist and Prescient High-Low Cultural Critic Richard Poirier Believed That Reading “Dense” Literature Was Like Manual Labor, or Having Sex

Discussed: Grad-School Lingua Franca, Fiery Jeremiads, T. S. Eliot’s Romantic Troubles, Pernicious Meanings, The Dismissal of Linguistic Skepticism, Damnation by Éclat, Bette Midler, The Metaphysics of Sexual Commerce, Heavenly Blow Jobs, Delicious Catty Streaks, Grief That Teaches Nothing

I. Getting to Know Dick

When I signed up for Richard Poirier’s seminar at Rutgers in 1996, it was out of obligation. As an American-literature grad student (“Americanist,” in grad-school lingua franca), I was expected to take Poetry and Pragmatism—a course decisively bound to the modernist project, with a syllabus that included William James, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—even though I had come to graduate school to study the works of the early settlers, fiery jeremiads and captivity narratives, sentimental novels and transcripts of witch trials. But the ethos of the Rutgers Americanist demanded I expand beyond my specific interest zone; since there was so little American literature, we were expected to be fluent in all of it, from Winthrop to Updike.

I do not think Dick—everyone referred to him as Dick—particularly enjoyed teaching our class (named after his 1992 book, Poetry and Pragmatism, also on our syllabus), though he was a bit of a ham. He had the weary, bemused quality of an old vaudevillian during his final run. I was also not any kind of teacher’s pet. That role was assigned to a vapid yet good-looking boy who left the program to go to law school after completing his MA. While his student, I didn’t really appreciate Dick’s genius. I grew frustrated when he went on tangents, and kept a tally sheet of his favorite detours: King Lear, Balanchine, The Equalizer, speculation or specious facts about the sex lives of writers, some of which turned out to be true (“T. S. Eliot couldn’t give it away!”). There were flashes of brilliance, to be sure: a charged passage of Stein’s “Melanctha,” Wallace Stevens’s poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” incredible readings of Emerson. Once we talked for an hour about the word impudent in Emerson’s essay “Experience”: its punishing, punning, sexual overtones (the root is pudendum, Latin for “that of which one ought to be ashamed,” commonly used to refer to the vulva). The sentence in which it appeared—“The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness”—might as well have been a motto for the class.

As it turned out, mine was the last graduate seminar Dick ever taught; he semiretired soon after to concentrate on his other activities, mainly the journal Raritan (now edited by Rutgers historian Jackson Lears). When Dick died, in 2009, I found myself recalling him fondly, and I started reading more of his work. By then I had left academia, but the lessons I found in Dick’s work apply more to me now, as an independent scholar, than they might have if I had stayed. Dick insisted, “Writing must not be simple. Yet most commentators on the literary, political, or cultural matters treated… give every impression that writing is somehow easy, that words can somehow be set into place and counted on not to move.”Words for Dick were wonderful yet slippery, multivalent, gateways to all kinds of allusions and illusions. Elsewhere he wrote, “Literature is now the process of telling us how little it means.” But he was gently joking, as no one held the literary in higher regard than Dick, though no one was also more willing to puncture categories—Dick was prescient in the ways he anticipated the invasion of popular culture into high critical discourse and the ease with which he wrote about the most complex works, past and present, without jargon or cant—to challenge authors, and to try to find the proper place for the works he loved, literary or not.

II. Neutrality Is Power

Richard Poirier was born in 1925, a working-class kid from Gloucester, Massachusetts, the son of a fisherman. He served in the army in World War II, then attended Amherst College on the G.I. Bill (where Robert Frost, whom Dick claimed “knew more Latin than Eliot and Pound put together,” was a member of the English​department faculty).He did his graduate work at Yale (under New Critic Cleanth Brooks), at Cambridge (under the formidable F. R. Leavis), and at Harvard. He describes his time teaching at Harvard in the last chapter of Poetry and Pragmatism, a chapter called “Reading Pragmatically: The Example of Hum 6.”

“Reading Pragmatically” is an excellent introduction to Dick’s literary theory, which he would likely call “a plea for reading.”

Reading can be a civilizing process, not because the meanings it gathers may be good for us—they may in fact sometimes be quite pernicious—but because that most demanding form of writing and reading called literature often asks us to acknowledge, in the twists and turns of its language, the presence of ancestral kin who cared deeply about what words were doing to them and what they might do in return… Good reading and good writing are, first and last, lots of work.

The natural clarification is what is meant by “work” here. In Dick’s mind work is what writers do, what readers do, what critics do, and what piddly little graduate students must be taught to do. “Do your work, and I shall know you,” he would bellow, quoting Emerson’s words from “Self-Reliance,” sometimes hitting the seminar table for emphasis.

One of the goals of “Reading Pragmatically,” and of Dick’s work in general, was to revise the lineage of post–World War II literary theory as well as to make criticism a more rugged pursuit.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Lisa Levy is a writer in Brooklyn. She blogs at deadcritics.com and tweets at RealLiveCritic.

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