How should we judge poetry? What makes it succeed or fail? Does the subject of a poem matter? Or should we judge by execution alone? Philip Larkin (1922–1985) gave this answer after an interviewer for the Paris Review mentioned that the poet and critic Peter Davison saw Larkin’s favorite subjects as “failure” and “weakness”:
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Philip Larkin in an interview with Robert Phillips in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike. To read the full interview, which appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of the Paris Review, go to the Paris Review site www.parisreview.com and enter “Larkin” in the search box.
Comment by Janice Harayda:
Some critics still judge poets and other writers partly by their subjects. For example, they may overpraise writers who deal with new or unusual subjects — even if the writing is awful — because the novelty makes the work appear original. Okay, all of you who knew right away that Larkin’s French quote translates to, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (and anybody else who wants to jump in): How do you think critics should judge poems and other works?
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.