On Stanley Kunitz and Michael Riffaterre
In the last few weeks, we've lost two major voices in their respective fields, Stanley Kunitz, poet, and Michael Riffaterre, critic.
Now I'm going to break one of the rules I set for myself at this site--I'm going to say something nice about a poet. Stanley Kunitz was the real deal. His poems were more stylistically conservative than I usually like, but it didn't matter because he had a pitch-perfect ear, an eye for detail that rivaled Elizabeth Bishop's, and, most importantly, a vision of the world that was inspiring and rare. He was one of those few poets who saw the world in a way that was utterly different than the way I do, and who convinced me that his way of seeing the world was something I needed to learn from--something that improved my life by occupying it for the brief but intense time spent reading his poems. His poems of sympathy for the natural world--such as "The Wellfleet Whale" and the two silkworm poems he wrote late in his life--are imprinted in my mind and always will be.
From everything I've heard and read, Michael Riffaterre was an admirable man, who fought with the French Resistance in World War II, but his attitude toward literature was deeply misguided. Often associated with French Structuralism, he was one of those critics that worked to detach the human element of writing from the writing itself, arguing that authors themselves have nothing to do with the meaning created by their art (except Riffaterre would have used the clinical term, "text"). As a scholar and critic, he expressed no desire to perform the useful work that critics can do: help other readers. Rather, he wanted to tell us that the way we read is wrong and that we needed to justify meaning against a pseudo-scientific model, based on a newly-invented and highly suspect discipline: semiotics.
Riffaterre hardly started this type of thinking, but as university professor emeritus at Columbia, where he had spent his entire academic career and exerted considerable influence on American attitudes, he was one of the movement's prime enablers. We've seen the results of structuralism: a jealous search for a kind of scientific model for reading, an even more odious movement toward "post-structuralism," and ultimately a disengagement of literary scholarship from literature itself. Luckily for us, that wave has long since shored itself against these ruins, as has its post-structuralist afterthought, and only po-mo apologists and "Language Poets" find this stuff in any way relevant.
Riffaterre and his cohorts' approach denied everything that's valuable about a poet like Stanley Kunitz--or, for that matter, like Blake, Whitman, Yeats, or even Stevens... any poet for whom individual vision was important. Let's hope this kind of thinking can finally be put to rest.