Rereading Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist, I came across a favorite passage. Wilde describes how his pleasure in viewing the Mona Lisa is enhanced when he remembers what the great critic Walter Pater wrote about it:
"Who ... cares whether Mr. Pater has put into the portrait of the Mona Lisa something Lionardo (sic) never dreamed of? The painter may have been merely the slave of an archaic smile, as some have fancied, but whenever I pass into the cool galleries of the Palace of the Louvre, and stand before that strange figure 'set in its marble chair in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as if in some faint light under the sea,' I murmur to myself, 'She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in the deep seas and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants..." (pp. 44-5)
For Wilde, Pater's mildly extravagant vision is a lot more exciting than the plain old Mona Lisa. And making that sort of appreciation possible, he proposes, is the job of the critic -- even if this involves disregarding the intentions of the artist. "And so the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is," he adds, "and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing..." (p 45)
In an act of provocation, Wilde ranks the imaginative critic higher than the artist. For, if artists/poets enhance life, the critic enhances their enhancement. In fact, Wilde insists that all great moments of creativity are deeply informed by the critical spirit.
The Artist as Critic
Echoing Matthew Arnold, Wilde sees art as a criticism of life. If the poverty of our conventional perceptions, to paraphrase Orwell, is boring, one solution some poets have offered to this problem is to willfully turn what they perceive into art. Here is Wallace Stevens, transforming what could be a standard natural scene into something resembling an abstract painting:
He walked with his year-old boy on his shoulder.
The sun shone and the dog barked and the baby slept.
The leaves, even of the locust, the green locust.
He wanted and looked for a final refuge,
From the bombastic intimations of winter
And the martyrs a la mode. He walked toward
An abstract, of which the sun, the dog, the boy
Were contours. Cold was chilling the wide moving-swans.
The leaves were falling like notes from a piano.
The abstract was suddenly there and gone again. (p. 270, lines: 4-13)
Is the Best Poem the One that Got Away?
There is a whole poetic tradition that agrees with Wilde about the imagined work being better than the realized one. Shelley wrote that "...when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet." (504)
But this makes you ask, why then even try to write a poem? Why not just imagine one?
One of the wittiest takes I've come across on such questions is a series of prose poems that ends Nick Piombino's Theoretical Objects. Titled "Explications", it offers something Wilde might have enjoyed: commentary on poems (I assume) that never existed.
Piombino starts this sequence off on exactly the right note. The second piece in the series offers an explication of an imagined poem on the utter impossibility of poetry:
Failure to Exist
The poet's implication here is that it is probably no longer possible to create a poem. This is made clear in the opening passage which depicts the impossibility of describing the most beautiful and touching aspects of what it means to feel. Speaking of an "ironic sun" and a "black hole of comprehension" the poet here dwells on a series of infinite parallels, digressions and reflections. "Passion evaporates into transparent calm" is a line which may refer to the exaltation implied in a poet's silence. "This isn't reality -- it feels too good" may be ironic or sincere. "Hatred follows hard on joy" may signal the poet's despair toward anything that can be said too directly. "Mostly movie stills," "false memories" "tiny sights" all refer to frustrating aspects of communication via images. "Life has been replaced by words, only silence moves me." Here the poet encounters chaos in the heart of the most meaningful aspects of private satisfactions." (163-4)
Getting It Wrong in Order to Get It Right
Now, of course, I may be absolutely wrong about this piece. It's possible Piombino has an actual poem (or something altogether different) in mind here. But even if I'm wrong, according to Wilde, I should be proud of my mistake.
For it would mean that in getting this poem wrong, I got the goal of poetry and criticism exactly right.