Saturday, December 4, 2010

profuse, even if inaccurate

I was on the plane before I had time to read a book again, and the book I read was Henry Treece's Dylan Thomas. "This," says the flap inside the cover, "is a fully revised edition of the first full-sized critical work on Dylan Thomas to appear." The revised edition came out in 1956; the first edition came out in 1949. Thomas died in 1953, riddled with bronchitis and pneumonia. "His stanza patterns, though individual, are usually uniform, and his use of balanced alliteration and half-rhyme is unoriginal," writes Treece. "His technical innovation lies rather in his vocabulary, in his imagery, which affects the reader primarily and principally through the emotions."

Treece pitches up and down between praise and condescension. He writes like a man who wonders if his opinion might be unpopular. He thinks it might be -- he isn't sure. He hedges. He says: "Such exciting rhetoric and imagery grow out of a rich and profuse, even if inaccurate, word-sense." The book is filled with bits of business like that "even if inaccurate" -- the good opinion being modified and qualified before it can take its final shape -- the whole thing muffled, or puzzled, maybe, or baffled, as the writer keeps coming up against the idea that Thomas, a simple poet to like, is a difficult poet to write about. Treece's evaluations can be heroic, "He rolled [words] on his tongue as a lesser spirit might roll a wad of chewing gum," but afterwards he pulls back. A paragraph later he's calling Thomas' vocabulary "limited."

And these qualifications do seem to me to be pullings back, not simply continuations of the critic's opinion, because one tone follows the other, regularly, all the way through the book. There's a pattern to Treece's criticism and it goes like this --

1. Dylan Thomas was a natural, musical poet, unique, a genre of one,


2. Dylan Thomas was underdeveloped. Dylan Thomas was unadventurous. Dylan Thomas kept using the same repertoire of tricks

-- stated over and over again in different ways, this one see-saw rocking away under everything else -- such as -- the comparisons between Thomas and the Surrealists, the examination of Thomas' debt to Gerard Manly Hopkins, and the consideration of Thomas as a prose writer. I came away from Dylan Thomas believing that Treece's one great discovery was this: he could not deal with Dylan Thomas. He couldn't dissect him, he couldn't praise him, he couldn't dismiss him, and so his decision to write about Thomas trapped him in a cycle of movement that pushed him forward and back, first, the poet is good, then, and yet the poet is not good.

Treece (I thought, reading) is smart enough to see the bind he's in, he wrestles with it, he keeps trying to banish it, he comes at it from new directions, he sees other people wrestling with it,* and he's still caught in it. He doesn't have Thomas, but Thomas has him.

The next book I started was Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, with its theories about thought, about the human habit of sorting information into categories so that it seems united and can be judged. "But we can reduce all acts of the understanding to judgments, so that understanding may be represented as the faculty of judging." And looking back through the lens of Kant, it occurs to me that Treece's problems might be described mathematically. The critic has approached his book with a critical sense that divides writers into x and y. A poet who writes in a certain way is sufficient and admirable and should be discussed in certain critical terms, and this is x. A poet who writes in certain other ways is insufficient and must be discussed in certain other terms, and this is y. A critique shouldn't =0 but x+y=0.

Treece can come up with endless ways to turn Thomas into a y -- "His stanza patterns, though individual, are usually uniform, and his use of balanced alliteration and half-rhyme is unoriginal", his vocabulary is "limited," he is unadventurous, he is passive, he refuses to be influenced by Hart Crane** -- and yet he is also an x. The two categories shouldn't coexist but in Thomas they do. He is neither sufficient nor insufficient. Then how can Treece discuss him? The answer is this see-saw.

But as I read the Antimony of Pure Reason section of Kant's book I concluded that a better response would have been this: stop trying to find ways to answer the question, Is Dylan Thomas x or y, and ask yourself instead, Is this an answerable question?

On the evidence of Dylan Thomas you'd have to conclude, No. Treece could have escaped his trap if he had begun the process of evaluation by questioning his own understanding of criticism. What is criticism? How does a critic sound? What do they think? And should he try to mimic them or not? (His book is a failure of mimicry.) Would it help him to reach his goal? What is his goal? I, Henry Treece: what is my purpose here, as I think about writing Dylan Thomas? I am not a critic, I am a man with an aim; I am Henry Treece. (Drums and trumpets.) Now what? (Matthew Arnold: "to have the sense of creative activity is the greatest happiness and the greatest proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.")

My Everyman copy of Pure Reason is a revision by Vasilis Politis of the 1887 translation by J. M. D. Meiklejohn.

* "He had the critics confused too, for, whether or not they approved of his work, its force demanded their consideration."

** a weird moment. In summary:

Treece: Dylan Thomas has been influenced by Hart Crane

Dylan Thomas: No I haven't.

Treece: Ssh.


  1. In Arizona. Again, sorry I didn't make a date to see you before we left, but things went haywire.