Not everyone agreed with Eliot. On either count. Several have argued differently about Milton’s style, explaining it in ways that makes it seem less “out there” and, consequently, more suitable as a model for others. Some also took Eliot to task for suggesting only poets (and of those, only the very best ones) are able to judge the work of a Milton or any other highly-regarded poet.
Probably the most famous example of the latter criticism came from C.S. Lewis, author of the The Chronicles of Narnia as well as several other works of literary criticism and Christian apolegetics. Lewis wrote a book about Paradise Lost in the early 1940s, just a few years after Eliot wrote his essay, and in his book Lewis makes a point of addressing Eliot’s idea to limit the number of those who are qualified to judge a poet like Milton.
Lewis disagrees with the notion that only the best poets are able to judge the work of the best poets, pointing out that if what Eliot is saying is true, then the great majority of us wouldn’t be able even to discuss the relative merits of the best poets. They’d become a secret group, in a sense, only able to judge one another, “an unrecognizable society” whose “mutual criticism goes on within a closed circle which no outsider can possibly break into at any point.”
Lewis admits that while it is true that “only the skilled can judge the skillfulness” of poets, “that is not the same as judging the value of the result.” In other words, while it probably does take a poet -- and a good one at that -- “to tell us... whether it is easy or difficult to write like Milton,” we don’t need to leave it to them to tell us “whether the reading of Milton is a valuable experience.”
Was playing a little PLO online and watched a hand develop in which a player in late position raised before the flop, an early position player reraised, and the late position player called. (I stayed on the sidelines for this one.) The flop brought two baby cards and two hearts, and the two players ended up getting it all in right there. The showdown revealed the EP player had K-K-x-x with no hearts, while the LP player had 8-7-6-4 with two hearts. The LP player ended up turning a straight on the hand and winning a nice pot.
Kind of typical, really. The guy with the kings obviously overplayed his so-so hand from out of position, and the late position player smartly played his speculative hand and got paid. A bit less typical was the way the guy with kings subsequently criticized his opponent’s play. Forced to sit out as he’d lost all of his chips, he typed “what were you thinking of?” The other player simply replied “donkey,” and the sore loser soon left.
To me, the less-skilled player had not only bungled the hand, but also clearly revealed how ill-qualified he was to judge the playing style of his opponent. I assume you’ve seen something similar in your poker-playing experience, and perhaps even demonstrated it yourself. I know I have. (Wrote about this phenomenon a little bit last week in a post about note-taking -- this idea of making hasty, ill-informed judgments about others’ playing styles.)
In the debate about poetry, I want to side with C.S. Lewis and say how wrong it is to believe only the very best poets are qualified to judge each others’ poetry. Seems silly to shut out most readers as unqualified evaluators and/or to suggest a poet like Milton is too different or grand or idiosyncratic to be imitated -- as though there is something dangerous about doing so.
I’m wondering, though, if Eliot’s argument does apply a bit more readily to games of skill like poker, wherein one really is asking for trouble whenever one tries to judge a more-skilled player’s style. (Or imitate it.)
Of course, when we are sitting at a table competing against a better-skilled player, we have to try to judge what he or she is doing, or risk frequently finding ourselves in uncomfortable, confusing situations. But we also have to be cautious, not jumping to conclusions about plays that appear strange or idiosyncratic.
I guess what I’m getting at here is a fairly obvious paradox of poker, one that has likely occurred to just about everyone who has spent any time at all thinking seriously about the game. Namely, that one of the most important tasks before you when you sit down at a poker table is to judge your opponents’ relative skill levels, yet one’s ability to make those judgments is necessarily limited by one’s own skill level.
You have to keep reading, though. Even if it is hard-going.