Monday, August 11, 2008

not mere rhetoric


What does it mean to be a poetry critic? Should a poetry critic also be a poet? Aren't all poets critics by necessity? After all, poets think about their work, how to best revise it, how it might work differently and so forth. Even when proceeding by pure experimentation, poets will figure out what they've done once they've done it. Many, if not most, poets are also teachers. How do they teach poetry without analyzing, comparing, discussing and evaluating, then articulating their thoughts to an audience? Some poets are also editors, requiring them to make judgments of work submitted to them. How is this done if not by thinking critically about poetry, seeing the poem as an aesthetic object and attempting to understand and articulate, if only to oneself, how and what it is doing?

At the Harriet Blog, DA Powell sees a separation between poet and critic while Reginald Shepherd argues for their natural, if not inescapable, coupling. I agree with Reginald. Books get reviewed, submissions accepted or rejected, and seminars and poetry workshops conducted all on the basis of thinking critically about poetry. There is hardly a way to be a poet and avoid teaching it, writing about it, talking about it, blogging about it, etc. Everyone's a critic as they say, and nowhere is this more obvious than in poetry. But isn't poetry criticism a separate field of knowledge? What constitutes poetry criticism as a discipline, where and how is it studied, and where does it fit in the field of poetry? What training should a poetry critic have? These questions are being provoked as I read the terrific Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism, a newly-published anthology of the writings of the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis. I am struck by the intellectual depth, rigor and commitment to poetry and truth these critics had.

After another, related, reading, "The Shakespeared Brain", an article by Phillip Davis, I did some research on rhetoric, its history and terminology. Useful in writing and also in criticism, the study of rhetoric seems to have gone the way of studying grammar. Perhaps the brain studies described by Davis will inspire more study of the way language usage affects thinking, and rhetoric will return as a hot new field of study. A few years ago I proposed an alternative course of study for an MFA in poetry that doesn't include writing a poetry "thesis" or taking workshops, but instead would be an MFA in Poetry Criticism—comprising the reading of and thinking critically about, poetry, with a minor focus on writing your own (and maybe a major focus on rhetoric!).

17 comments:

Alfred Corn said...

You would think this would be a no-brainer, Joan, once you consider how many poets have written criticism: Horace, Dante, Sidney, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats (in his letters), Arnold, Yeats, Valery, Apollinaire, Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Max Jacob, Pasternak, Borges, Auden, Lowell, Jarrell, Rukeyser, Bishop, Berryman, Walcott, Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Adrienne Rich, Heaney--well, the point is clear.

One problem I see with contemporary experimental poetry is that no one seems to have developed a practical criticism. Writing about these poems, how do you distinguish a good example from a bad one? In fact, doesn't post-structuralist theory regard such distinctions as illusory/indefensible anyway? What it seems to come down to, in reviews I've read, is just taste: "I liked (or didn't like) this book." As long as we have no criteria for sorting out good from bad, the focus of attention will be sheerly arbitrary, based on alliances and media coverage. Not a good situation.

Joan Houlihan said...

Alfred, yes. And that one problem—i.e., that no one seems to have developed a practical criticism for contemporary experimental poetry—has enormous ramifications. Without any criteria or distinctions, we are faced with the conclusion that all such poetry is equally good (or bad)—a conclusion that makes it impossible for poetry readers, teachers, students, critics and editors to find a way to articulate an appreciation for such poetry; to make a case for it to be read (or not), and to distinguish between what's worth reading and what's not. Instead, out of necessity, it is dismissed. Such dismissal only fuels the notion of an "outsider" or "post avant" community filled with poets who feel neglected by the so-called mainstream and nowhere is this clearer than in the blogs. On any given day, on Silliman's blog or Lime Tree or many others, there is a universe of poets and poetry that derives its energy from the idea of rejection by the "mainstream" (as if there is one, monolithic, "establishment" of poetry) and creates an alternative reality that is both unassailable and impenetrable because, like a religious cult, it has no understandable principles of reasoning, only beliefs. It seems that any questions or debate designed to elicit some clear ideas about the poetry will only be personalized or shouted down. I've tried to discover some cogent thinking on contemporary experimental poetry because I love poetry. All kinds. And I would love to hear some clear and reasonable articulations of why certain experimental poems are revered by the avant-garde communities, but instead I get either hostility or utter nonsense in response. My latest foray into trying to discover something I could reasonably agree or disagree with was in Reginald Shepherd's discussion on Poetry Criticism on Harriet. One of the participants there, Michael Robbins, a bright young PhD student, seemed willing to at least discuss some ideas with me. Ultimately though, when I asked for him to provide an example and analysis of an experimental poem, I got this:

by a I
of to
on no
we or by
a I of
to on
no we or

The writer's analysis of the poem: "To paraphrase T. S. Eliot on the Metaphysical poets, the idea and the metaphor become one. The idea of a subject formed by language is spatially established as the metaphor of an “I” surrounded by and sensible only in the material context of syntactical elements. With the important exception of the word “no,” which can be a noun, an adjective, or an adverb, every word in this poem is either an article, a preposition, a conjunction, or a personal pronoun—and the personal pronouns are those of the first persons singular and plural. Most important, “a,” “or,” “by,” “of,” and “to” are paradigmatic materials with which syntactical relations are built. The pronouns “I” and “we” are embedded in a network of syntax, are seen to be relative to linguistic connections: those that establish one thing’s position relative to another (“to,” “by,” “of,” “on,”); those that propose alternatives among things (“or”); those that negate relations among things or indicate lack (“no”); and those that specify cases of things (“a”). They are situated within a social context of language that, the poem seems to suggest, constructs the very notions of selfhood (“I”) and community (“we”). This is because syntax not only allows access to subjectivity (without syntax, we could not place ourselves in any kind of higher-order relations to the world) but to community (without syntax, we could not enter into any kinds of higher-order relations with others). Syntax allows us to differentiate ourselves from and situate ourselves with regard to everything else. That syntax is a finite system capable of infinite combination is cheekily alluded to in a kind of parody of poetic refrain: the poem consists of nine words which are, beginning in line four, repeated in order, though with shifting lineation, as if to emphasize that we are always performing variations on and with the same basic materials.
Crucially, there is also, on Coolidge’s reading, a privative dimension to our syntactical situation. While asserting the linguistic formation of the subject and simultaneously exposing that formation by eschewing the establishment of normative syntactical procedures, Coolidge also seems to stress the illusory nature of the connections and affirmations language allows us to institute. He seems to imagine syntax as a social context, yet the poem is composed of syntactical parts separated by expanses of empty space. Its syntactical relations are implied rather than actual, and there are no verbs, as if to imply that language locks us in, that we cannot escape its determining structures. Where there is no action, there can be no agency, which could explain the lack of any conjunction besides “or”: most significantly, “and” is missing, the conjunction of inclusion, abundance, and choice. These absences are thematized in the most striking omission, that of “yes,” whose presence logic would seem to call for, given the presence of “no.” Coolidge’s minimalist poem, then, contrives with only nine words and eleven letters to argue that because of our origin in language, whose non-identity with meaning and truth is well-established, negation and disconnection are our lot. Like much Language poetry, Coolidge’s work displaces or decenters—situates—the universal, univocal, agentive subject by insisting upon its contingency as a linguistic construct."


Since it was proffered in good faith, without a hint of satire, I accept that the writer believes a) the Coolidge construction is a poem, and b) that he (the writer) has said something cogent about it. This is where things usually break down for me and I leave the discussion, because, well, what is there to say? The writer seems to believe that we merely have different "tastes" in poetry. In fact, I am incredulous that he finds this Coolidge construction of any interest, I haven't the slightest idea what he is talking about in his analysis, and I suspect the reverse would also be true if I analyzed a poem of my choosing. This is not a question of taste. When I hear that I should be more tolerant, that everyone likes something different in poetry, and to each his own and so forth, I imagine it's how a scientist must feel when they are exhorted to be more open-minded about UFOs or Creationism. It's not a question of taste. It's not a question of open-mindedness. There's a fundamental disagreement re: what constitutes reason, even reality. Yes, the situation is not good. One might even call it dire.

Thanks for your comment.

Joan

Alfred Corn said...

Right, Joan, it's hard not to split your sides and roll on the floor, but--. My view: the word "poem" isn't an honorific, only a generic term. I don't question that the Coolidge text is a *p*o*e*m*, that's the generic category it falls in. Likewise, when Duchamp upended a urinal and entered it in a show as a sculpture supposedly made by R. Mutt, sure, it was a sculpture, one that has sustained a lot of commentary. But how good was it? Not even in the running with Matisse's "The Red Studio."

Don't you feel even a little sorry for the crtiic who wrote this commentary? I'm not saying there is a total disconnect between the Coolidge text and what he says about it. Yet, when you think of the world out there, "so various, so new," as Traherne put it, when you think of what ravishing beauties language is capable of creating, isn't it sad that people are willing to spend long hours in their library carrels working on the critical equivalent of a crossword or Sudoku puzzle? Well, it's their right. But maybe we should just follow Vergil's advice to Dante, as they peep over the brink of a ditch in Inferno: "Non ragionam di lor. Guarda e passa." ("Let's don't discuss them. Look, and pass by.")

Joan Houlihan said...

Thanks for your comments, Alfred. My responses follow.

--Right, Joan, it's hard not to split your sides and roll on the floor, but--. My view: the word "poem" isn't an honorific, only a generic term. I don't question that the Coolidge text is a *p*o*e*m*, that's the generic category it falls in. Likewise, when Duchamp upended a urinal and entered it in a show as a sculpture supposedly made by R. Mutt, sure, it was a sculpture, one that has sustained a lot of commentary. But how good was it? Not even in the running with Matisse's "The Red Studio."

I like that--not an honorific. Ok, so let's say *p*o*e*m* is just the category it falls into (although there is the matter of who puts it there--can anyone say something is a poem or does it have to have any special defining qualities? I think it has to have certain properties, otherwise anything is a poem if I or someone else says so--but I'm not going there just yet), and let's say also that the Coolidge p*o**e*m* is in the tradition of dadaism, which it is. In that case, it's a cliché because what Duchamp did for art, and Stein did for language is what Coolidge and his ilk continue to do ad nauseum. It's like a joke you can't stop someone from telling for the nth time. ("I got it the first time!!") Or worse, it's a joke that starts off differently so you think it will have a different outcome, but no--here comes the same punch line. I suppose the art world is pretty sick of elephant dung and glasses full of crucified urine at this point, and perhaps such are also seen as clichéd descendents of R. Mutt (I still love that name, though ;-), but unless (and this is what I was hoping for) the commentary that goes with the Coolidge bit is meant as an r.mutt-ism of the poetry criticism world, then it's simply more of the same um…...elephant dung, isn't it?

--Don't you feel even a little sorry for the critic who wrote this commentary?

Yes, I do. It makes me sad, definitely. Then it angers me--who is teaching him this? Does he have to go to airports and chant and sell flowers too? But it's also sad when I get my hopes up that someone will finally say something that enlightens me about such work. Then they open the door and the amazing specimen is shown: elephant dung again!? phew.


--I'm not saying there is a total disconnect between the Coolidge text and what he says about it.

They are a matched set, no doubt.

--Yet, when you think of the world out there, "so various, so new," as Traherne put it, when you think of what ravishing beauties language is capable of creating, isn't it sad that people are willing to spend long hours in their library carrels working on the critical equivalent of a crossword or Sudoku puzzle? Well, it's their right. But maybe we should just follow Vergil's advice to Dante, as they peep over the brink of a ditch in Inferno: "Non ragionam di lor. Guarda e passa." ("Let's don't discuss them. Look, and pass by.")


Yes, it is their right, and no, we don't need to look. I just wish they would stop complaining so loudly about not being noticed and discussed by those who pass by.

Michael Robbins said...

Jesus wept.

First of all, I'm not so young.

Second, feel sorry for someone else--please! I feel sorry for people who have such narrow definitions of poetry that they're put in the position of imagining their opponents must be brainwashed or deluded.

And if you'd like to have a discussion about "real" poetry, Joan (according to your definition), I'm more than capable. I can assure you no analysis you write is going to strike me as bizarre. I have reviews coming out in Poetry magazine of Frank Bidart, Ruth Stone, Reginald Gibbons, & Marianne Boruch -- not an "experimentalist" in the bunch. & I have a poem coming out in The New Yorker, which is not, last I checked, a bastion of "post-avant" cultism.

Do you imagine that I haven't read Dante? Or Horace? Or Donne or Milton? Do you imagine that I sit around complaining about "official verse culture"? As I said on Harriet, I am decidedly not in Silliman's corner. His view of poetics as either/or is as anathema to my way of thinking as yours is: you two complete each other. I'm interested in poetry, me. Philip Larkin no less or more than Clark Coolidge. I am profoundly grateful to be writing at a time when such inane dividing lines as you & Silliman perpetuate are becoming more & more irrelevant.

It just amazes me that because yr criteria for poetry don't allow for the possibility that Coolidge is writing it, you can't see that someone who takes it seriously doesn't have to be sold on the cult of the avant-garde, with its petty distinctions & dismissals. But maybe now you can stop grouping me with Silliman & other like-minded boneheads.

Joan Houlihan said...

Michael, I know you are not to be grouped with Silliman et.al., and I knew it as soon as you decided to engage in an actual dialogue with me on Harriet. I'm not even sure what my definition of poetry is, I have yet to formulate it completely, and may never manage to do such a thing, but I do know it's not narrow since, like you, I read widely and appreciate many different kinds of it. My reaction here is to your putting forward the Coolidge poem as an exemplar of its kind and your assumption that your analysis would somehow clarify to me why you think it is exemplary. So, while I'm grateful that you made the attempt to back up some of your assertions with an example, your conclusion that we merely "disagree" about, or have different "tastes" in, poetry, is something I have to reject. Of course, poetry, like all art, is in the realm of the subjective. And of course, taste is subjective. But to say that any combination of words can be poetry if it is declared as such (as with the Coolidge poem you cite), and that it is all just a matter of taste is to say that the word "poem" has no meaning (why not call them "clouds" or "chairs"?) and that no poem is better than any other poem. Do you believe that? I don't. So the difference between us is no simple difference of taste and is even more fundamental than a division into what I might think is a poem and what you might think is a poem. The difference is that you seem to believe that anything declared a poem is a poem, that all poems are of equal worth and that any differences among and between them are matters of "taste." I don't believe this. Furthermore, I don't think a lack of ability, or willingness, to make distinctions of worth is the same as broad-mindedness.

In any case, I apologize if you've been offended by the this blog entry and wish you well. Feel free to respond if you like.

Michael Robbins said...

I'm not offended, just exasperated that the only way you can find to engage ideas you don't understand is to compare them to Creationism or Ufology.

To allow that Coolidge's poem is a poem is not to abandon criteria. I seem to have more capacious criteria than you, but that's not to say I have none. Nor is it to abandon judgment. There are plenty of poets I think are quite mediocre or worse: Ted Kooser, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Edward Hirsch, Ruth Stone, Sharon Olds - I could go on, & often do, with argument, at length.

By your lights, are Hugo Ball's sound-poems poems? How about Khlebnikov? The Coolidge poem is an extreme example of a certain kind of poetry, & part of its purpose is to call into question the criteria that lead you to cast its defenders as relativists. But it is dependent like every poem on its context. Had it been written in the seventeenth century, I daresay it wouldn't have been a poem, but a random grouping of words. My argument that you & Alfred have such fun with, as if it were a Scientologist tract (& please realize it is a brief excerpt from a 40-page paper, & that its purpose is to explain what the poem thinks it is up to, not to endorse its view of language), is precisely an endeavor to show that it is not a random grouping of words, & that partly because it doesn't exist in a vacuum - it must be read in line with Brooks's "Its place in the historical context simply cannot be ignored" (& against other precepts of Brooks's).

One important recognition about that context is that modernism happened. A poem is not the same thing after modernism that it was before. Art changes & evolves, & if our criteria don't do likewise - if we read & judge poems using criteria that are no longer adequate to artifacts whose development is in part a response to those very criteria - then at the very least we are going to miss quite a lot.

It seems to me you & Alfred are simply baffled by much of what is going on in experimental poetry, & the question about whether R. Mutt's urinal was any good demonstrates that the bafflement arises in part because you completely miss the point. A readymade just is not to be judged in the same way that a conventional sculpture is. And that - not relativism - is why I somewhat inaccurately characterized our differences as disagreement. We begin with different criteria & different premises. I think that modernism changed the rules. You continue to play by rules I think have been rendered toothless by developments in the arts that are by now a century old. Let me be clear: you can reject modernism, you can reject its rewriting of the rules, you can insist on the value of the rules it displaced. But you have to do so from an understanding of the context - & asking "how good is it" about a piece that was never meant to be judged outside its context as a kind of fuck-you to museum-culture (whatever judgment you may make about that gesture) indicates an inability or refusal to come to terms with the context.

Michael Robbins said...

P.S. Did I ever attribute our differences to "taste"? If so, a rare lapse, but I don't think I did. I said we disagree, yes - about what a poem is, among other things. & let me just add that if you're not sure what the definition of poetry is, then you shouldn't be so sure Coolidge's piece isn't a poem.

Anyway, that's all - just please don't respond with further condescension ("who's teaching him this?" Christ, I'm in my mid-thirties & have been teaching my own classes for over a decade).

Joan Houlihan said...

Michael, in order for me to understand and seriously address what you say, I need to know only two things: 1.)You make the claim that you have standards re: poetry ("There are plenty of poets I think are mediocre or worse"). Please share your standards for making judgments about the worth of a poem. 2.) Since saying what a poem is not is so infinitely expandable as to be useless (a poem is not a tomato. Agreed. A poem is not a shoe. Agreed. etc.), it would serve our discussion better if you could say what you think it is, or at least give some broad outlines, e.g. " a poem is any group of words not demonstrably generated by a random process regardless of its effect on a reader" or maybe "any group of words" (because your POV may be that a poem can consist of words generated by a random word generator).

We can begin a useful conversation as soon as you provide those two pieces of information to me.

Michael Robbins said...

Well, but no one (to my knowledge) is proposing that a poem is a tomato. Discussing what a poem isn't should presumably be limited to reasonable, informed propositions about poems that have actually been or could conceivably be made & taken seriously by at least some reasonable, informed people. I can see value in that, as for instance I do not agree with Barbara Hernstein-Smith that

"A poem is not merely a verbal artifact, an aesthetically engaging organization of linguistic elements; for those elements are also organized syntactically, according to the same principles that determine their selection and sequence in ordinary discourse, and even the most syntactically dissolute contemporary poem affects us at least partly through the symbolic or conventional properties of words."

Or rather, I agree with that, most of the time. But limit-cases such as Coolidge or Khlebnikov force me, once again, to rely on context more than upon any particular set of "broad outlines": for me, intention & reception are crucial. Coolidge's poem is a poem because it is a verbal artifact produced with the intention of producing a poem, but also because it is a verbal artifact recognized as & accepted as a poem by a community of informed readers. One (intention) without the other (reception) isn't sufficient - although there can be a huge lag time between intent & reception.

There may well remain some begged questions in there, but I'm something of a nominalist when it comes to poems: I'm not at all sure there is a kind called "poem" but I am acquainted with thousands of poems.

Whether a given verbal artifact granted the title "poem" is any good is of course a different matter, & one whose explication flummoxes me more. These lines by Edward Hirsch -

I keep thinking of him as a wild fledgling
who tilts precariously on one wing
and peers back at me from the sudden height
before sailing out over the treetops -

are bad because they rely on clichéd imagery & language: the metaphor of boy-leaving-home as bird-leaving-nest is wincingly stale, while the stock language is right out of a beginning MFA workshop. (Of course he is tilting "precariously," of course the height is "sudden," of course he "peers back at" the speaker, of course he is "sailing" over "treetops.")

A poem like that is a demonstration of how & why a poem can be bad (indeed, I often use it for this purpose in my own workshops). It is more difficult to say what is so good about this:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

But I know that it is very good indeed, & if pressed I could find some generalizations about its language & rhythm that might go some way toward saying why.

Neither of these cases, however, provides criteria of much use when evaluating certain types of experimental poetry. (Although some experimental poets - Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Tom Raworth, Jeremy Prynne - are capable of a sweeping lyrical beauty as well as of a formal, abstract dryness that seems deliberately "anaesthetic.") In such cases, different criteria come into play. With a book like Coolidge's Space, for instance, I think rather than asking whether it takes the top of your head off or whether it is technically masterful or filled with beautiful imagery, you have to try to understand what the poetry is trying to do, & then ask yourself whether you are interested in what is trying to do - in the ways of thinking it is trying to instantiate or the forms of social space it means to dramatize. Michael Fried's attack on the minimalists is useful here, for he saw that it was the entire situation in which the art object was viewed that counted - the experience, not the piece itself. You don't have to think this is a good way to produce art (he didn't), & you don't have to think the art so produced is any good (he didn't), but you have to recognize that you can't judge it using the same criteria you might use to evaluate a picture by David, say.

I realize that I have not exactly answered your questions, & that I might not be able to formulate definite answers to them. But I will say that one of my standards is that I don't think that, for the most part, boring poetry is any good (although there are many kinds of boredom, & some of them are useful). I find Language poetry, for the most part, boring, & for that reason I avoid it, except for its more lyrical incarnations (Rae Armantrout is a great poet). I'm interested in it largely because it is important to the development of other poets I love, not because I think most of it is any good.

But, you see, "boredom" isn't an objective quality of anything. If you can illuminate the matter any, I'd be glad to hear it. You asked for "standards for making judgments"; do you have any that are less jerry-rigged than the ones I stumbled through above? Winters's "Preliminary Problems" remain problems. And maybe I can sign on to his claim that "judgment [is] a unique act, the general nature of which can be indicated, but which cannot be communicated precisely, since it consists in receiving from the poet his own final & unique judgment of his matter & in judging that judgment."

Joan Houlihan said...

Michael, thanks for these thoughts. Since I need clarification every few lines here, I'll just go through in a line-by-line fashion.

Well, but no one (to my knowledge) is proposing that a poem is a tomato. Discussing what a poem isn't should presumably be limited to reasonable, informed propositions about poems that have actually been or could conceivably be made & taken seriously by at least some reasonable, informed people. I can see value in that, as for instance I do not agree with Barbara Hernstein-Smith that

"A poem is not merely a verbal artifact, an aesthetically engaging organization of linguistic elements; for those elements are also organized syntactically, according to the same principles that determine their selection and sequence in ordinary discourse, and even the most syntactically dissolute contemporary poem affects us at least partly through the symbolic or conventional properties of words."

Or rather, I agree with that, most of the time.

---Fine with me. I think this is a good and workable definition.

But limit-cases such as Coolidge or Khlebnikov force me, once again, to rely on context more than upon any particular set of "broad outlines": for me, intention & reception are crucial.

---These two poets are not comparable in any way to me—should we talk about why? Or just stick to talking about the problem a poet like Coolidge poses? The lyrical, musical, soft surrealism of Khlebnikov is not a limit-case to my mind, since it has such obvious and identifiable "poetic' qualities.


Coolidge's poem is a poem because it is a verbal artifact produced with the intention of producing a poem,

--So I can construct an acrostic puzzle, and simply by calling it a poem, make it so—or do I just have to convince a certain number of readers it is a poem, or..? Do I have to believe it myself too, or is it ok if I just convince other people?


but also because it is a verbal artifact recognized as & accepted as a poem by a community of informed readers.

---This "community of informed readers"—how is that defined? By number or kind or both?


One (intention) without the other (reception) isn't sufficient - although there can be a huge lag time between intent & reception.

---Ok, I buy this. Ashbery's the obvious example of lag time here.

There may well remain some begged questions in there, but I'm something of a nominalist when it comes to poems: I'm not at all sure there is a kind called "poem" but I am acquainted with thousands of poems.

--And that's fine, to give each "artifact" the space and time needed to "prove" its existence as a poem. However, it's not necessary, since so much work has been done by readers and critics before us. Just as science builds on previous discoveries (otherwise we are compelled to build our world anew each day), we can surely depend on thinkers who have studied these problems before us, and build on their knowledge, yes? For example, the definition you put forth above will do. But if you think there is no such thing as a kind called "poem" we're already in trouble trying to talk about it.



Whether a given verbal artifact granted the title "poem" is any good is of course a different matter, & one whose explication flummoxes me more. These lines by Edward Hirsch -

I keep thinking of him as a wild fledgling
who tilts precariously on one wing
and peers back at me from the sudden height
before sailing out over the treetops -

are bad because they rely on clichéd imagery & language: the metaphor of boy-leaving-home as bird-leaving-nest is wincingly stale, while the stock language is right out of a beginning MFA workshop. (Of course he is tilting "precariously," of course the height is "sudden," of course he "peers back at" the speaker, of course he is "sailing" over "treetops.")

--Agreed.

A poem like that is a demonstration of how & why a poem can be bad (indeed, I often use it for this purpose in my own workshops). It is more difficult to say what is so good about this:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

But I know that it is very good indeed, & if pressed I could find some generalizations about its language & rhythm that might go some way toward saying why.

--Agreed—but the idea of context must come into play here—end-rhymed lines are hard to take nowadays. Among his contemporaries, who wrote in rhyme and meter, Yeats was a stand-out, and he acheives greatness in retrospect and in context. If he were sumitting work today to most journals it would likely be rejected for the end-rhyming alone.

Neither of these cases, however, provides criteria of much use when evaluating certain types of experimental poetry.

---And therein lies the big gap, a gap that gives all "experimental" poetry the same power—or no power. It is seen as a School of Disquietude or some such and dismissed. Or seen as the Cool Poet's School and embraced completely by all who would be cool. No distinctions are made on either side—because no one knows how to make them.


(Although some experimental poets - Susan Howe, Michael Palmer, Tom Raworth, Jeremy Prynne - are capable of a sweeping lyrical beauty as well as of a formal, abstract dryness that seems deliberately "anaesthetic.") In such cases, different criteria come into play.

---Yes, but I think they are the same criteria because they are poets who are at least loosely connected to the same range of criteria as all poets.


With a book like Coolidge's Space, for instance, I think rather than asking whether it takes the top of your head off or whether it is technically masterful or filled with beautiful imagery, you have to try to understand what the poetry is trying to do, & then ask yourself whether you are interested in what is trying to do - in the ways of thinking it is trying to instantiate or the forms of social space it means to dramatize. Michael Fried's attack on the minimalists is useful here, for he saw that it was the entire situation in which the art object was viewed that counted - the experience, not the piece itself. You don't have to think this is a good way to produce art (he didn't), & you don't have to think the art so produced is any good (he didn't), but you have to recognize that you can't judge it using the same criteria you might use to evaluate a picture by David, say.

--I don't know much of Coolidge, I admit, and I don't know Space. The examples of his work that I've seen (mostly on Ron's blog) seem like doodles, crossword thingies and acrostic word playing. That's a long way from being "technically masterful or filled with beautiful imagery" but it's not only being left cold by it (which I am), and it's not simply being asked to accept that something is worth my reading time (which it's not), but the implication is that it's worth anyone's reading time (which it's not). My opinion, of course, but nothing so far has convinced me otherwise. The idea of art/poetry as not merely product, but experience, is an idea I'm familiar with and I was delighted by it when it was something new and surprising to me (e.g. the artist who made exact replicas of five, ten, twenty and 100 dollar bills, each a work of art but that could also be perceived as counterfeiting, and whose entire "product" included trying to use the bills he created to trade them for goods and services, not as money, but as art objects (telling clerks and waiters these objects would be worth something someday) then he had these transactions videotaped, and the inevitable arrest for passing counterfeit money, then the trial also videotaped—the entire project extending for months and culminating in a debate with a judge as to the nature of counterfeit vs real.). These idea-driven projects have one drawback: they are based on a concept and that concept always turns out to be: a challenge to everyone's idea of what art is. ho hum. Only if the challenge itself is artful and surprising in itself (as with the artist making his own "money" and calling into play the idea of money vs.art among other things) does it seem worth doing. Otherwise—well, it's been done! Yes, words are arbitrary and culture-bound and merely signs we agree on, etc, etc. So what? How "experimental" is an experiment that is continually being done in order to achieve the same result?


I realize that I have not exactly answered your questions, & that I might not be able to formulate definite answers to them. But I will say that one of my standards is that I don't think that, for the most part, boring poetry is any good (although there are many kinds of boredom, & some of them are useful).

--Boring poetry is boring, yes.


I find Language poetry, for the most part, boring, & for that reason I avoid it, except for its more lyrical incarnations (Rae Armantrout is a great poet).

--Agreed. And I liked Armantrout when I first came across her work in the 70's. I can't classify her as a "language poet" it seems like an insult.


I'm interested in it largely because it is important to the development of other poets I love, not because I think most of it is any good.

---Well, that's fine, and there's always dross and we need to build the poetry nest with various bits and pieces, but sometimes readers would like to know who to avoid as the ones who are merely practicing and skip right to the ones who have mastered the art. In the realm of "experimental" poetry there's hardly any way to tell the difference, thus it is all either dismissed or embraced depending on ideology rather than critical evaluation.

But, you see, "boredom" isn't an objective quality of anything. If you can illuminate the matter any, I'd be glad to hear it. You asked for "standards for making judgments"; do you have any that are less jerry-rigged than the ones I stumbled through above? Winters's "Preliminary Problems" remain problems. And maybe I can sign on to his claim that "judgment [is] a unique act, the general nature of which can be indicated, but which cannot be communicated precisely, since it consists in receiving from the poet his own final & unique judgment of his matter & in judging that judgment."

---I don't have definite "standards for making judgments" about most of the poetry we would agree to call "experimental," no, but I am always in the process of developing them on a local, poem by poem, basis. I am especially stymied by imitation experimental poetry—the kind that is produced by beginning poets. The influence of experimental and language poetries has spawned a generation of poets imitating experiments. It's a true hall of mirrors (if not a house of horrors ;-). Abandon all hope…etc.

Michael Robbins said...

Just a (very) quick comment before I try to digest what you've written here: you write:

"end-rhymed lines are hard to take nowadays.... If he were sumitting work today to most journals it would likely be rejected for the end-rhyming alone."

--& I wonder, again, if we're living in the same poetry world--& not simply because I just had an end-rhyming poem accepted at the NYer (I swear I'll stop mentioning that), but because of the poet who accepted it, who is maybe the best poet writing in English (don't bother asking me to defend that), & whose work is full of remarkable end-rhymes, often rather Yeatsian for obvious reasons.

& he's hardly the only one; Lisa Jarnot's new book is full of end rhymes. & Karen Volkman. I think the days when rhyme/meter were seen as evidence of bourgeois-rationalist instrumentality are pretty much over. The end-rhyming might be done nowadays with a different awareness & signification, it might be looser, more playful, & differ from Yeats's practice in a thousand other ways, but I don't think it's dead. Indeed, I think it's experiencing something of a renaissance.

Michael Robbins said...

Fisking (q.v.) is my least favorite form of criticism, mainly because it decontextualizes what was said in its relation to what else was said. But since you do it, I'll indulge.

>>These two poets are not comparable in any way to me

Not in any way? I thought it was Coolidge's lack of referentiality that you objected to. They're obviously very different poets, but that's why I brought Khlebnikov up in the first place - to see if you accept him as a poet what it is that his work has that Coolidge's doesn't. So musicality compensates for nonreferentiality? I had Khlebnikov's zaum writing in mind, but probably Kruchenykh would be a better example.

>>This "community of informed readers"—how is that defined? By number or kind or both?

How could this be defined in advance? This is precisely what I'm insisting on: that what constitutes a poetic community or, indeed, a poem is discoverable in practice only, & is open (as the reception of Lyrical Ballads reveals) to objection, struggles over the redrawing of boundaries, &c. Need I say that I do not refer to a group of three high-school boys in Lafayette who have just discovered Rimbaud? You yourself appeal in the next breath to "readers & critics before us." I don't then ask you if you mean any reader or critic whatsoever (my student who thought the preposition in the title "Ode on a Grecian Urn" meant the poem was to be imagined as written on the urn itself? she's a reader! did you have her in mind?), because I assume that we are having this discussion - that critics have these discussions - within certain bounds of what Arendt called "common sense." There are criteria that govern interpretive communities, they've been explored. I daresay if you wrote an acrostic puzzle & called it a poem no one would pay any attention to you, & if you got a few members of your family to agree it was a poem, it would have exactly zero relevance. Reductio ad absurdum is a mug's game: as I said, nobody is claiming a poem is a tomato.

>>we can surely depend on thinkers who have studied these problems before us, and build on their knowledge, yes? For example, the definition you put forth above will do. But if you think there is no such thing as a kind called "poem" we're already in trouble trying to talk about it.

But that's my point! What a "poem" is has changed (& changes) over time. You might think you can isolate essential features, but plenty of the thinkers you appeal to would have insisted on others that later thinkers realized were not in fact essential (meter, for instance). And if you'll read some Nelson Goodman, for instance, you'll find that there is a great deal to be gained from talking about instances of things & seeing what sorts of features usually generalize across them that cause people to incautiously group them under a single kind.

>>sometimes readers would like to know who to avoid as the ones who are merely practicing and skip right to the ones who have mastered the art. In the realm of "experimental" poetry there's hardly any way to tell the difference, thus it is all either dismissed or embraced depending on ideology rather than critical evaluation.

You beg so many questions in this passage, particularly about ideological foundations of reading practices, that I tempted to locate our differences here. You seem at times to actually believe that evaluative criteria have some chance of being objectively valid. Surely you've read enough criticism of experimental poetry to realize that evaluations are being made all the time? Coolidge writes:

I think I wrote a poem today but I don't know well.
Though well do I seize the trees shake but am not given pause.
The lights are every one of them out, we see it all so well.
Nothing is taken care of, everything lies.
Everyone rise.

I think that's a good poem, & I have reasons for thinking so. I don't know what the poem's ideology is, & I don't assume I know what ideological presumptions I bring to bear on it. Marx defines ideology this way: "They do not know it, but they are doing it." Nobody's "above" ideology, especially people who position themselves as anti-ideological. Do you feel you can trace every last assumption you bring to the reading of poetry & reach the unvarnished truth of the matter?

And can I say that there are important reasons for reading poetry that have nothing to do with whether it's any good or whether one "likes" it or it gives one pleasure? Don't you think there is a value, for certain readers, in knowing as much as possible about the tradition(s), cultivating knowledge of the history of poetry & poetics? Scientists don't need to know the history of science to work on theoretical physics: we know Newton was wrong about gravity: but some physicists read Newton anyway. Harold Bloom thinks Robert Lowell is a horribly overrated poet (he's wrong, but whatever) but I bet he's read every word Lowell ever wrote.

Your description of the performance piece w/ the counterfeit bills sounds nothing like Coolidge's work to me, or like any poetry I know. It might make a similar "point," but it hardly makes it in anything like the same way. One reason one enjoys experimental poetry, if one does, is that one enjoys seeing interesting things done to & with language: words, phonemes, morphemes, graphemes.

>I am always in the process of developing them on a local, poem by poem, basis.

Well who isn't? This is, again, my point. So I'm not sure why for the last week I've been giving this very answer to your question "Please share your standards for making judgments about the worth of a poem," or why you felt it necessary to ask it in the first place before we could continue our discussion.

Joan Houlihan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Corn said...

This probably won't be the caboose on the train of thought being developed, but I should say that I perceive a difference in Joan's and my views. Joan, you still do want the word "poem" (or "poetry") to serve as an honorific. I still want to use the term generically: a "poem" is any verbal text so designated by the author. Hence there are "found poems" much in the way that Duchamp's urinal, labeled as a sculpture, became one. One of the things worth remarking about that work of "R.Mutt"'s is its demonstration of the truth that intention is the basis of genre. I don't say the work isn't sculpture or that it is worthless: just that it is less effective or good or moving than Matisse's =Red Studio= and many other works of that period.

When it comes to the present moment, I accord any author the right to name any verbal text a "poem," just as I retain the right to say, by offering coherent arguments, that it isn't a good poem.

The frutiful discussion comes when you attempt to establish a practical criticism and state the criteria we may or should use to evaluate texts.

For me the practice of art is connected to the conviction that I am free; and if I am, others must also be. Yet what we see all the time is the effort to lay down ironcast laws that say what you can't do now, for example, use end-rhymes. I say you can if you want to, and you take your chances with an audience, some of whom like end-rhymes and some of whom don't.

Maybe it's time to ask ourselves why we should consider a Yeats poem "good" if we are aware it would never be accepted for publication today. If it's good, it deserves publication; if it doesn't deserve publication, it isn't good. Myself, if someone sent me a sonnet that was as good as Shakespeare's, I would publish it.

We've seen over the past hundred years the deployment of a monstrous form of censorship every bit as stifling as the Soviet insistence on "socialist realism." The modernist bible leads off with the dogma "Make it new" and goes on to lay down the law in a thousand ways about What the Contemporary Poet Is Permitted To Do and What Not. It astonishes me that, in a country so convinced of the value of artistic freedom, everyone docilely accepts this kind of censorship. It's sort of like, "Be free, and write my idea of what freedom is, or else you're in big trouble."

Joan Houlihan said...

Alfred, I agree with your statement: "the fruitful discussion comes when you attempt to establish a practical criticism and state the criteria we may or should use to evaluate texts." I hope to get there in my lifetime. For now, I feel I have established it (a practical critisim) for myself, but the harder part is to articulate it. For now, I am happy to accept what you propose as the working definition (a "poem" is any verbal text so designated by the author) since it is broad enough to cover just about everything, including a spate of letters on a page, and it frees us to talk about evaluative criteria. The only drawback I see is that there is no way to compare kind with kind, so we are left with the equivalent of apples and oranges, Clark Coolidge and Geoffrey Hill, and so veer inevitably into the realm of "taste"—another difficult area. Maybe we could discuss how to evaluate poems that can be, however loosely, grouped together? In this way, at least, we're talking about the same genus, if not species, of poem—and, in many cases, we'd be talking about hybrid poems—but hybrids of what? I'm not sure how to go directly to evaluating something, some "verbal text," without first deciding, however broadly, what it is. I don't want to be left holding an eye chart in one hand and a sonnet in the other trying to determine which is "better."

To your point about freedom, yes. About end-rhyming, what I said was: "end-rhymed lines are hard to take nowadays.... If he [Yeats] were submitting work today to most journals it would likely be rejected for the end-rhyming alone."
There is no iron-clad rule that one cannot write end-rhymed lines these days, is there? If so, who made it? As far as I know, you can write anything you want—I know I do. I assume some poets will continue to write in rhyme and meter and I personally have no iron-clad anything to say about that. I'm only stating the fact that MOST journals I know of would be LIKELY to reject it for the end-rhyming alone. Some journals would not, and some journals encourage only or mostly end-rhymed and metered work (e.g. "The Formalist"). But that's about publication, not freedom to write what and how you want, isn't it? As an editor, I am less interested in end-rhyming poems than I am in poems with looser or more unpredictable sonic texture—internal assonance and consonance, e.g. Why? Because there is a predictability to the end-rhyme form, it has been done, and done magnificently, by Yeats, Shakespeare and so on. Yeats already did Yeats better than someone else could do Yeats today.

"Maybe it's time to ask ourselves why we should consider a Yeats poem "good" if we are aware it would never be accepted for publication today. If it's good, it deserves publication; if it doesn't deserve publication, it isn't good. Myself, if someone sent me a sonnet that was as good as Shakespeare's, I would publish it."

It's an interesting observation. But first, I have to disagree with this: "If it's good, it deserves publication; if it doesn't deserve publication, it isn't good." Publication is not the measure of a poem's worth. How could that be true? On the flip side, people often say to me things like: Brigit Pageen Kelly thinks my poems are worth publishing, or Heather McHugh or [insert famous poet's name here]. My answer is: do they run a journal? A press? If not, it's nice that they feel that way, but an editor might not. I think we can safely agree that a poem's worth is not determined either by publication or by a famous poet's blessing, yes? This is where the criteria for a practical criticism must come in.

Now, about the Yeats poem: we say something is "good" or "great" because it transcends its time, etc. and yet—-there are reasons I think it would probably not be published (except in some formalist mags): 1. everyone is already familiar with what Yeats did; building something as good as, or better than, something that already exists is neither as interesting nor as much an accomplishment as making something original—even by using the existing structure to do so (for example, I like poems that are "ghosted" by rhyme and meter;
2. end-rhyming, especially coupled with familiar meter, is a signal to the reader/editor that the poem is likely to be as familiar in its content as it is in its technique and/or that the poet is stuck in another century and the poem suddenly has a hurdle to overcome; 3. since it is not in the "costume' of the day, it has an aura of the museum piece however lively it may be. Most editors don't want museum pieces.

About the "new censorship"—I don't feel that way, not at all. I think there is an enormous freedom in poetry right now—in fact, it is what got us to this conversation in the first place! How do you develop a way to deal with all the poetry out there, how to know what's worth your time to read? On a very practical level (see my entry on publishing, above), there is simply too much poetry to deal with. Editors who read lots of manuscripts do develop working criteria, and this is something I've been able to demonstrate definitively to people in my manuscript conferences, but it's another matter to try and develop some evaluative criteria in the abstract. But it's worth trying.

Thanks for commenting.

Alfred Corn said...

Well put, Joan. And of course I don't think all published work is good or all good work published. I said that good work deserves to be published and bad work doesn't. Which explains why the assertion (worth testing) that most journals wouldn't publish a poem with end-rhymes doesn't carry much weight with me. Granted, most of the contemporary audience prefers unrhymed poetry. Most of the audience of the 19th century preferred Felicia Hemans (a rhymer if there ever was)to Whitman. It takes a while to sort these things out. One reason why journals might not publish metered and rhymed poetry is that very few who attempt it can master it. The failure is just so damned obvious. Now, it's harder to detect failure in a poem that makes up all its rules as it goes along. That is why we most definitely need to get down to brass tacks where poetic value is concerned, set up some guidelines and explain why those guidelines are important. They involve larger questions such as, What do the arts in general and poetry in particular =do= for us? Why do we go to them? Once we know that then we can begin to say why some works succeed and others fail. Cheers.