We are at a loss: we don’t know what to call ourselves. The name, ‘Critical Poetics’, approaches our purpose and function, but does not quite encapsulate all that we do.
From the Greek ‘poeisis’ meaning ‘to make’, we understand ‘poetics’ as ‘the creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these; a theory of form’ (Oxford English Dictionary). And we understand ‘critical’ as ‘occupied with or skilful in criticism’, and ‘criticism’ as ‘the art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work’ (OED). But we do not wish only to critique artistic works, or the process of creating these works; rather, we also want to explore the ways in which we can engage with these works, how we can interact and play with them, and how, in that interaction and play, we can create our own texts. How can our criticism be as creative, as dynamic, as innovative and poetic as that which it analyses? And how can our creative works also offer a critical intervention? Are we critics first and artists later, or vice versa, or both at once? Does it help us to focus on the border between the two, or could we simply dismantle it? If our writing is at once creative and critical, and if we are concerned less with division than with unity, what name might we give to what we do?
We’re not the first to grapple with these questions: in ‘The Critic as an Artist’ , Oscar Wilde, for example, examines this tension in the debate between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest. Ernest bemoans the existence of art criticism: ‘Why should those who cannot create take it upon themselves to estimate the value of a critical work? What can they know about it?’ he asks (Wilde 2003, p.859). The ‘antithesis’ between the creative and the critical, responds Gilbert, is ‘entirely arbitrary. Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name’ (p.866). He continues, ‘Each new school, as it appears, cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces’ (p.867). In their introduction to Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide, Stephen Benson and Clare Connors point out that Wilde ‘makes the strong claim that criticism is necessarily inventive’ (Benson and Connors 2014, p.24): without critical thinking there is no creation. Their anthology, they state, ‘does not propose to do away with, even less to sidestep, this demarcation’, but rather to ‘test its workings and its reach, and to imagine innovative forms for the taking of sides’ (p.24). And they are not alone; our endeavours in this field are indebted to the recent work of writers and scholars including Rachel Blau du Plessis, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Susan Howe, Nicholas Royle, John Schad and Sarah Wood—and many more that we cannot here name.
The question of naming returns with the question of ‘taking sides’: are we with Ernest or Gilbert? Are we interested in creative criticism or critical creativity? Should we attempt to efface the ‘demarcation’ between the two? Perhaps we could look to texts by Wilde, Royle, Derrida and Cixous as impossible spaces formed of debate and experimentation—texts that both explore and perform this dialogue between the creative and the critical. The waywardness of the name Critical Poetics – the way that it won’t quite do what we command it to do – suggests that it says as much about creative-critical thinking as any other. To leave this debate open and ongoing is perhaps the best and most exciting direction for our practice and research. In her essay, ‘Unmasked!’, Cixous describes writing as ‘a free traveler along edges and abysms’ (Cixous 2005, p.174); stepping along demarcations, tip-toeing at the limits, Critical Poetics explores these intersections and borders and, in so doing, it discovers new directions for writing. This research group invites scholars and practitioners who are interested in writing as departure and adventure to join the conversation.
Stephen Benson and Clare Connors (eds), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
Héléne Cixous, ‘Unmasked!’ in Stigmata, trans. Keith Cohen (Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2005), pp.109-14
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as an Artist’ in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Hamlyn, 1963), pp.857-98