Richard Poirier in the 1970s
Richard Poirier, who was a strong influence on my early work as a critic — and continues to be so to this day — always argued for the difficulty of reading, or apprehending any work of real quality. As Alexander Star put it, in an appreciation of Poirier’s life in The New York Times,
“Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.
This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else. He reminds us that we should never be complacent about the glories of the canon, which is made up of texts as frustrating and unfinished as ourselves. And he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by ‘what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.’”
Poirier, as Star reminds us, famously compared The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the work of Alexander Pope, and he also was instrumental in creating the first film studies classes at Rutgers University in the mid 1960s, where I cut my teeth as a lecturer and writer. He also made sure that people like Susan Sontag came in to do guest lectures, and insisted on quality in every aspect of his work, and in the work of others. In short, he was a Renaissance man, but at the same time, he deplored dilletantism; whatever one did, one had to master. For as Jean Cocteau put it, “A work of art should also be ‘an object difficult to pick up’. The less it’s understood, the slower it opens its petals, the later it will fade.”