My four years at Oxford sharpened my critical capacity. Those one-on-one tutorials taught me how to dismember or defend a stance on a text. However, they also blunted my creativity and enjoyment of reading.
At the time, I was surprised to find so few tutors were also writers, but I later realised that their constant deep analysis of the relative virtues of existing texts inhibited their capacity to create: when committing words to paper they were only too aware of their own deficiencies. One Spanish lecturer even struggled to bring himself to publish his critical articles, such were his demanding standards.
As a reader, meanwhile, my time at Oxford changed the way I approached a text. In my teenage years I’d fallen in love with books for the way they captivated me. Oxford took that away. I was no longer captivated. Instead, I was coached to assess a text’s value from the first word.
I do worry that many critics (and poet-critics) have fallen out of love with literature, and that’s why I left academia as soon as I’d finished my undergraduate degree. Almost twenty years later, I’m finally capable of letting a text wash over me once more, before stepping back and taking it apart.
However, there’s also the opposite end of the spectrum. Writers who haven’t developed a critical eye are at a severe disadvantage when looking to improve their work. All poets should write reviews, not necessarily for publication but as a way of getting to grips with their own views on verse. It’s all very well for us to state that we like or loathe a book, but the key is in coherently putting our arguments down on paper. Learning to do so will make us better poets. It’s a question of striking a balance.