Poetic Criticism and the Art of Ekphrasis: the writing of John Ashbery, Peter Schjeldhal and Ben Lerner


Roaming the ever-widening gulf between the worlds of literature and visual art, the poet critic has rapidly become an endangered species. Focusing on three such poet critics – John Ashbery, Peter Schjeldhal and Ben Lerner – I will consider the debates surrounding this particular breed of art criticism that is, to use the words of Baudelaire, ‘entertaining and poetic, not coldly analytic’. I will relate such arguments to those surrounding ekphrasis; a literary mode deemed on occasion as superfluous as the poet critic who engages with it. Lacking formal educations in the visual arts, poet critics have long been ‘swatted by academics’, and their writing even deemed ‘fustian’. I will question whether poetic criticism deserves such disrepute, or whether it should in fact be considered a literary art form in its own right whose revelatory potential has been overlooked. 

It becomes evermore pertinent to explore the underestimated potential of poetic criticism in our digital culture saturated with disposable and disposed information – both verbal and visual – which has resulted in the deterioration of quality standards and, worst of all, social and cultural indifference. Rather than filtering this information overload, art criticism (or commentary) increasingly only adds to it. It is for this reason that I argue ekphrasis – far from an outdated literary mode confined to Homerian epics or Renaissance poems – acquires new relevance now thanks to the poet critic, who, operating at the margins of an increasingly corporate art world produces more than just ‘information’, for their very material is language, passion style and life writing.

March 2016

4,234 words

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