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Criticism as obsession

On his blog, the poet David Clarke described part of the strange business of reviewing poetry:

This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm.

Writing criticism involves a strange reading, as Clarke describes: not just reading, not re-reading, but staying with the book even thereafter, coming back and back to it, holding on with begrudged compulsion. It’s completely odd behaviour, in that all the normal reasons for reading a book are exceeded or depleted, and yet the book is still there, needing to be read again and again to keep it from fading. Its capacity to thrill or excite, to surprise or repulse, are gone, and, if they’re required to account for themselves, must be pulled up and reanimated. The ridges and furrows of the text, its form and features, are exaggerated with each repetition, swelling it all out of proportion.

Insight is hard. Writing is hard. Expressing something useful from the monster you’ve made of the book is hard, and harder especially when you suspect you may, even so, have something to say.  During composition often one’s own critical writing feels at best impoverished and at worse a sham. You return, then, to the book, again. It becomes a grim obsession, akin to the madness of expecting different results from doing the same thing. The glimmer of any fleeting idea you thought you might have becomes a trap, and so you’re  stuck there with only the book for company, like cellmates.

You chase and then lose your train of thought, like this. You call an end out of impatience, like this.