"Those who read only the inset verse quotations here may adequately estimate whether this book has anything to say to them." So writes Robert von Hallberg in the introduction to Lyric Powers (2008). "The case I make is no stronger than the poems my claims support," he continues. "Other critics make compelling arguments for quite different views of the art of poetry. If the poems that support their arguments are superior to the ones that support mine, I concede defeat. Even a clever argument supported by routine art should hold no authority among literary critics. However, if I have the better poems, I probably have the better arguments too." The poems he cites are by, among others, Ronald Johnson, August Kleinzahler, Langston Hughes, Robert Pinsky, Rae Armantrout, Johnny Mercer, and Paul Celan.
In the context of contemporary academic criticism, these claims are extraordinary, even irresponsible. Von Hallberg blurs the line between taste and argument. He attempts to transcend and renovate academic standards. His tone is moral, yet he ignores the central concern of most humanities departments: social justice. He speaks to scholars and intellectuals, yet undermines their role as arbitrators of value. In an age of academic specialization, he reads across languages, periods, genres, camps. His canon is unrecognizable as such. Good poems are good arguments, yet much more. They are forms of affirmation--expressions of orphic desire or civic belonging. They are utopian--charged with a belief in the power of words over the inertia of history. They are sources of pleasure.
Lyric Powers heightens a tension between poetry and the university that, in different guises, informs von Hallberg's work from his early Charles Olson: The Scholar's Art (1978) and American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980 (1985) to the present. Academic disciplines thrive on doubt, not affirmation. They promote abstraction and generalization, not luminous detail. They value critique, not accommodation. (Paradoxically, the one institution to employ poets is also one with a structural insensitivity to their art.) The tension dates to Plato's banishment of poets from his ideal city. Today, the academy resolves the tension in more sophisticated ways. Adorno provides an important model: poetry is an index of social relations under capitalism--its forms of affirmation attest to a general attenuation of social life. As poets attempt to escape or assume power, they illuminate its effects. This approach is secular and skeptical, able to match the resources of particular poems to the values of the academy. But it has a price: intricacies of voice and place tend to get lost in the amplification of general truths.
Von Hallberg does not try to resolve this tension between poetry and the university, but engages it. (As the humanities have changed over the last forty years, so too has the nature of this engagement.) His criticism is pragmatic, attentive to poetry as a living art and to its vexed relationship with the institutions that support it. His heroes are Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold, and his examples are Yvor Winters and Donald Davie, both of whom taught at Stanford where he did his PhD. Despite their many differences, these critics all value poetry as the most vital human artifact. (Unlike these critics, von Hallberg is not also a poet.) In American Poetry and Culture and Lyric Powers, he plays Johnson in an age of camps and partisans. He practices a rigorous catholicism of taste, identifying and defending what he sees as the most important writing of the period. …