“To A Critic” by Timothy Murphy (published in Volume IV Issue 1 of The New Formalist) is very interesting because it is a response poem. It was obviously written (am I assuming too much?) in response to a deleterious remark from a critic in regard to one of the poets mentioned in the piece or to poets in general, yet we don’t need to know the specifics to appreciate the poetry. Its audience is probably somewhat limited by the topic to people who are close to the critic/poet relationship on one side or the other though it might be appreciated by anyone in a similar type of antagonistic relationship such as actors, singers, and other performers. The pertinence of the Yeats quote was unclear to me. It is on the same subject, but the poem does not reference it in any way that makes it necessary to the understanding of the poem. It seems to be there just for show value.

Even though I am not familiar with a single one of the referenced contemporary poets, I don’t feel the lack at all. In fact, I am now going to have to seek out and read “Western Elegies,” “A Thing Well Made,” and “Musical Chair” if I can get my hands on them. The specificity makes what might be just a rant become more than a rant. For the poem is very expository in tone and style, a lecture to an unseen critic for whom we almost feel sympathy. Yet I, for one, am right there with him, lecturing that critic as well. I could substitute any specific poets in place of Hope, Wilbur, and Hecht, and conjure the same images. It is simply the specificity that matters.

The poem is written in iambic trimeter, with many anapest and trochaic substitutions. These substitutions come slightly too often to be acceptable especially in such short lines. The poem’s rhyme scheme is unusual, having the form abcbac in each stanza, but is consistent and works well with the movement of the poem. The trimeter moves the poem along quickly, rant-like. Form and content are well matched.

2 thoughts on “Poetry: ‘To A Critic’

  1. Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and A. D. Hope. Hope was Australian, and never widely available this side of the big pond. The other two are still writing, both in their 80s, and writing some of their best work. Wilbur, besides his own poetry, is known for his translations of classical French theater. IMNSHO, he has had no peer for 30 years.
    I disagree with your comment about substitutions in short lines. Three and four beat lines are natural and easy to recognize as rhythmic units even under extreme stress (think of nursery rhymes, rap, cowboy poetry, folk song) but the longer pentameter has a harder time. One has to learn to hear IP, and even skilled readers sometimes lose the meter when there are many substitutions.

  2. Robert and Mike,
    I think what Mike says makes sense from a practical perspective–I’m talkin’ ’bout the ear. What Robert seems to be assuming is something that most students end up with: ways of reading that are dependent on a notational system. It’s a system that really makes little sense for the ear, which unlike that notational means, can take in and account for all kinds of variation, nuance, flexibility and, well, beauty of sound. Trying, as we must do when studying, to put all that into a systematic patterning designated by some kind of adequate system is a challenge! Unlike musical notation, prosody notation is just not as handy as we’d like. Which I think is what you were getting at, Mike (in some ways, but by all means, please go on to add or clarify here).
    Best,
    chris m

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