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  • Trains Of Thought And Afterthoughts
  • John Ellis

When I think about how this conference has gone, it’s hard not to begin with the fact that so many came. “We happy few” turned out not to be so few after all.* While I cannot be the most objective judge of a conference that I spent so much time helping to plan, it still seems to me that being able to listen, on two successive evenings, to talks of the quality of Bernard Knox’s and Stanley Crouch’s was a rare treat. Stanley’s talk had the effect that all first-rate criticism must have; it made those who heard it want to rush out and get the book to read or reread it. And I shall long remember Bernard’s anecdote about Aristophanes being subpoenaed, which was just about the funniest and most instructive story I’ve ever heard. Singling out any of the shorter papers is unfair, for I enjoyed all of them, but I have to say that poetry as a genre would not be lagging behind the other genres (fiction and drama) in our age if there were more people who could read poetry like Rosanna Warren.

Rather than commenting on how things turned out, I should tell you a little of how we wanted things to turn out, so that you can get your own sense of the relation between our intent and what actually happened. The one stark fact that faced everyone involved in planning this conference was that it was easy to say what we didn’t want to do—we could see examples of that everywhere—but deciding how to chart a new course was an altogether different question. There was one shape [End Page 197] we knew we didn’t want, but there were all kinds of possible shapes we could have chosen to replace it. The program as you heard it was in fact the result of many different trains of thought.

Take the panel on poets and critics; it might seem just a nice invention, but was actually the result of a studied train of thought. The most visible sign of what has gone wrong with academic criticism is that it is now largely written for and read by other academic critics. Academic criticism in the process has lost touch with the wider world of readers and writers. Academic critical essays have become a game played on campuses in an increasingly isolated and parochial world where they are heavily involved in matters of professional hierarchy and the place of individuals within it, but in very little else in the real world. The “poets and critics” panel was, in part, an attempt to begin to bring academic criticism back to the reality of readers and writers, to subordinate the unquestionable cleverness and intellectual ingenuity of academics to a common sense and realism that recently seem to have been in somewhat short supply.

The panel on how to read a book results from a quite different train of thought. Academic criticism has now assumed a forbidding verbal complexity. A highly elaborate verbal superstructure covers over the essentials of the situation—literature and its readers—to the extent that it becomes a barrier that obscures what is real in it. This panel was in part an attempt to cut through pseudo-complexity and to return to the basic elements of the situation. I might well have said “the basic theory of the situation,” since I’m always reluctant to concede theory to people who have no exclusive claim to it (as they imagine) but merely misuse it.1

The notion of “back to basics” really requires no justification. There is a charming story of a man who has played golf all his life, but each year goes back to his first teacher and says to him quite simply: teach me how to play golf. The teacher instructs him as he does anyone else who has never played the game, beginning with how to hold a club, how to stand, and so on. This might seem a rather obsessive habit—unless you know who this man is. One has to assume that this...

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pp. 197-199
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