James Wood – 2009 Awards

Literary Critic and Novelist James Wood Opens the 2009 Awards Ceremony

Custom dictates that an after-dinner speech should be amusing, but I want to talk briefly this evening about a serious subject: I mean the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. Most of you will know that the post is currently vacant, following first the withdrawal of the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, and then the brief appointment and resignation of the poet Ruth Padel, under scandalous circumstances: anonymous packages containing information about Mr. Walcott’s sexual harassment of students were mailed to Oxford academics; and Ms. Padel, though at first professing blameless ignorance, seems to have had a hand in the dirty tricks.

The field is wide open.

I am using this speech to announce my candidacy as the next Professor of Poetry at Oxford. You may ask what my qualifications are. You may ask, but I may not tell you; and besides, I rather resent the implication that one must have qualifications. For the record, I have written a few poems over the years, and I fancy that some of them are quite good, better indeed than some of the so-called verse being so lavishly hosannaed tonight. Let me share with you something I wrote at the age of ten; it was published in my school magazine above my name:

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I’ll be honest and admit that my father helped me a little with this poem. When I look back, its diction seems a bit old-fashioned, and that half-rhyme of “eye” with “symmetry” seems lame. But it wasn’t long before I was sounding edgier, more modernist. Here is what I wrote, again with my father’s help, when I was fourteen:

Come in under the shadow of this red rock
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

I still think that’s a pretty good effort for a fourteen-year-old and his zoologist dad to have come up with. On arriving in Toronto yesterday, I sat down, this time without my father’s help, to pen this short lyric:

Toronto, city of maples stretched across the sky,
And the vivid ghost of Northrop Frye,
You do not lie, you do not lie!
What jagged extremities you pose:
In summer as warm as Karachi,
In winter as cold as Kiev;
The home of Michael Ondaatje,
And lately, Michael Ignatieff.

It is true that I’m better know as a critic than as a poet, but I am what Wordsworth called his brother, John – a “silent poet.” And if everyone’s a silent critic, everyone’s a silent poet. The other day, The New York Times carried a reader’s letter from someone called Anne Tolstoi Maslon. Apparently, Ms. Maslon is a novelist. Usually, when The Times runs a letter from someone who is a published writer but not an especially famous one, a descriptive assertion in italics follows the name, using the formulation: “The writer [i.e. of this letter] is a novelist/poet/playwright.” I was struck by the letter from Anne Tolstoi Maslon, because in her case it was followed by the line: “The writer is the novelist.” Not a novelist, but the novelist. I mean no disrespect to her work, but I have been unable to find any fiction by Anne Tolstoi Maslon. Now this set me thinking. If Anne Tolstoi Maslon, buoyed no doubt by the prestige of her middle name, could simply assert, “The writer is the novelist,” why could I not submit my candidacy to Oxford, thus: “James Wood. The critic is the poet.”

Of course, I have other qualifications, too. I am an accomplished teacher, a mellifluous lecturer, and have no known history of sexual harassment. (A foolish plagiarism charge brought against me and my father a few years ago was thrown out and declared “frivolous.”) I am younger than Christopher Ricks (the former Professor), and thinner than Susan Boyle (also rumoured to be interested). Every poet who has a go at the Oxford job needs a campaign team, and I am here to announce it: my father, still going strong at 82, will be my chief of staff (he has also generously agreed to deliver one of my lectures at Oxford); one of the Griffin Trustees, Robin Robertson, will be in charge of the day-to-day running of the campaign; and the Griffin Trust has very kindly offered to pay for the considerable costs – thank you, Scott.

We are able to laugh at all of this because the Oxford débacle offered the spectacle of serious people acting foolishly. It was painful, not least because it allowed journalistic mockery of two worlds easy to mock: academia and poetry. Britain’s increasingly anti-intellectual culture was delighted to find that indeed, the fights within such worlds are all the fiercer because the stakes are so low. How hilarious, to be squabbling over a few lectures, a few thousand pounds!

Would the journalists have laughed in the same way if novelists and not poets had been squabbling? I doubt it. For poetry has suffered a crucial shrinkage of respect: I mean the disappearance of serious mainstream poetry reviewing. Finding a poetry review in a popular newspaper is now like trying to find classical music on American radio – one faint station can be heard on FM, maybe, but the reception is lousy, and it is always Mozart anyway. The New Yorker, where I write, used to employ Helen Vendler as a regular poetry critic; now it is rare for that magazine to devote 4000 words to a poet. The New York Times employs a poetry reviewer whose last long piece was about the verse of Clive James.

What has consumed the space? The great, fat, greedy monster of the novel, which sucks all the vital nutrition away for itself. The big prizes – Griffin excepted – are for novels, the big advances are for novels, the author interviews are for novelists. Fiction is business, poetry isn’t. (Years ago, novelists used to speak of having a novel “accepted” by a publisher; now they talk about “selling” it.) Suppose Geoffrey Hill publishes a new collection. He will get reviewed, of course, but at what length and with what seriousness? But when Ian McEwan publishes his new novel, he can expect 20 to 30 reviews in newspapers and magazines, many of them searching essays of several thousand words.

There are at least two effects of this shrinkage. One is that, pragmatically speaking, poetry has less muscle, less heft, less public presence, than it should have. “Not bad, for a poetry reading,” is how people talk, already twisted into a cringing posture of self-disrespect. The second is that the crucial function of criticism – to explain texts – is not going on in the world of poetry. The middleman – the critic – has been capitalistically excised, and the poem and its audience stare at each other across a vast ignorant space. Recently I heard the poet Robert Pinsky and the thriller writer Elmore Leonard on the radio. Pinsky had just reviewed Leonard’s new novel. (Tellingly, we can’t imagine Leonard reviewing Pinsky, for that would seem, commercially speaking, like the master dressing his own valet.) Pinsky said that some of Leonard’s prose had the compression of verse, then asked the novelist if he read much poetry. No, was the reply – it’s too difficult to get into.

The longer poetry is absent in this way, the harder it is for it to find its way back into popular comprehension and respect.

There are things we can do. Prizes like the Griffin are important – valuable in themselves, they also function within the marketplace to give poetry a bit of a swagger, like carrying a piece. We must lobby – polite word for shame – literary editors to carry more poetry reviews (I myself intend to start writing poetry reviews at The New Yorker). We should embarrass our novelist friends – why is it okay to be up on David Foster Wallace but not on John Ashbery?

Poetry waves a flower in the face of a highly utilitarian age. That great secular hybrid, pragmatic evolutionary psychology and neuro-aesthetics, is busy telling us that art is a slightly puzzling evolutionary superfluity. Art is defended as “cognitive play,” crucial for the evolutionary development of homo sapiens. Art, for such people, must always somehow be justified. But poetry sings the song of itself, and offers a musical gratuity. Just as no one should have to justify, in pragmatic terms, playing the piano or listening to Bach, so no one should have to justify reading Keats or Wallace Stevens. And I am not making the weak case that poetry evades or exceeds such pragmatic cost-counting, but that it challenges such utilitarianism, makes it doubt itself. It faces down the enemy.

Poetry can justify itself, of course (as music can), and might do so thus: poets guard the language. They are the archivists, the philologists of the language, alert to what Virginia Woolf called “language with roots.” I find that poets are routinely better versed (the pun is instructive) in the history of their art than are contemporary novelists. Think, for a second, of how important at present this guardianship has become. In the last few years, there has been nothing less than a war on words. On the one hand political euphemism has been rampantly deployed (“collateral damage,” “waterboarding,” “rendition,” “stress procedures”); on the other hand, those skilled in verbal nuance have been derided as prissily “professorial” (President Obama was routinely mocked during the election as a mere “man of words”), and the very inability to use language with precision has been held up as a mark of authenticity (George Bush, Sarah Palin). And just as Orwell feared, there has been a direct link between a shifty and immoral use of language and a shifty and immoral politics. Poets have a public function just as much as a private one.

When Robert Lowell published his book of free translations, Imitations, Vladimir Nabokov, a literal translator, was enraged. “How would Mr. Lowell like it,” he asked, “if I translated his fine phrase ‘leathery love’ into Russian as ‘the large football of passion…’ ”

There has been a lot of passion, poetic passion, on display here tonight. Once all this is over, and the wine glasses have been cleared away, and the winners have banked their cheques and the losers pawned their sorrow, let us punt that large football of passion across the field and into the enemy’s goal.


James Wood is a literary critic and a novelist. He is said to advocate an aesthetic approach to literature and is noted for coining the term “hysterical realism”. Many consider him to be “the best literary critic of his generation.”

Born in Durham, England, he was named the winner of the British Press Young Journalist of the Year Award in 1990. He served as a judge for the 1994 Booker Prize and is an editor at large of the Kenyon Review. Wood’s reviews and essays have appeared frequently in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, where he is a member of its editorial board. He has taught at Boston University, and Kenyon College in Ohio. Currently he is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and a literary critic at The New Yorker. He and his wife Claire Messud, an American novelist, live in Somerville, Massachusetts, with their two children.

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