Tuesday, December 15, 2009

and we all shine on..(or not)

Coming off a year of teaching in two MFA programs, one private workshop and several Colrain manuscript conference/intensives, I approached Stephen Burt's collection of essays (Close Calls with Nonsense, from Graywolf) in a rather more practical state of mind than I might have a year ago. Knowing how difficult it is for students to find the words to talk about poetry (including, maybe especially, their own), and knowing that the vocabulary necessary to articulate how a poem works or doesn't work takes time to learn, I admire Burt's well-articulated, incisive commentary on each of the poets he's chosen to examine. I especially enjoyed reading his remarks on Rae Armantrout, a poet I've liked—and truly enjoyed—for a long time, but whose "explainers" often seem more concerned with the project of language writing as a whole than with talking about the effects she alone achieves in her poems. For example, I've often laughed out loud reading her work, but not run into anyone who talks about her odd wit. Burt does. And, while he sets her writing in the context of the other language writers, he doesn't leave her reified there. In fact, his movement in each of the essays is from context—of time, place, poetic "school"—to the particularity of each poet, each poem he examines. This seems just right to me, and this is a great book for students of (mostly) contemporary poetry, one I'll certainly assign.

With Burt's essays in mind, I revisited the article by Matthew Zapruder ("Show Your Work!") wondering if Burt's work would satisfy Zapruder's call for a "new kind of criticism." It seems to me that yes, it does. It certainly answers Zapruder's invocation/provocation that critics need to "guide the reader past his or her resistance (to new poems)," or that they need to "write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Like Vendler (Burt's former teacher at Harvard), Burt's strategy as a critic in Close Calls is one of guidance and explanation, with the aim of bringing the reader into a state of ability to appreciate. In other words, the critic as teacher. But isn't this what critics have been doing all along (some obviously better than others)? Zapruder's call for something "new" in criticism again strikes me as a call coming from lack of knowledge. Vendler has been doing this for many years. For that matter, hasn't Burt? In fact, revisiting Praising it New—The Best of the New Criticism, a terrific collection of critical essays on and by the New Critics edited by Garrick Davis, reminds me that critics have been doing for decades what Zapruder says he wants done; that is, teaching the reader how to read new poetries. Yet, he's right, I think, in that there is a widening gap between poem and reader.

Maybe the explosion in numbers of those who call themselves poets and the resulting plurality of poetries in the last 10 or so years, while great for those who would be poets, has not been so great for those who would be readers. While Vendler has come round to Ashbery and Burt to Armantrout, for two "outlier" examples from a decade ago (and Burt to several others more recent), the rush of poetry toward less "graspability" is much faster and more widespread than any critic might hope to keep up with. Granted, the rush seen in journals and newly published collections, is mainly one of (to use Burt's term) epigones and not particularly worthy of attention, but—and here is where I differ with the strictly explanatory role of the critic—how can readers possibly know in such an onrush, what is worth paying attention to, if not through the evaluative function of criticism? I suspect that Burt's answer to this is simply that what he pays attention to is by definition, worth paying attention to, and that the critic is not (or should not) be in the "rating" business or, as he says, "placing poets in order of supposed importance, as if criticism were akin to constructing brackets for basketball tournaments, or (worse yet) to judging cases at law." Meanwhile, Zapruder oversimplifies what I see as the evaluative dilemma for critics by stating that "Critics can do one of at least two things. The first is simply to insist that something is good, or bad, and rely on the force of personality or reputation to convince people. The second is to write, with focus and clarity, about how the piece of art works, what choices the artist has made, and how that might affect a reader." Aside from the fact that one can opine that something is good or bad and rely not on personality or reputation but on critical thinking to prove the point (no insistence needed), and even if we imagine that anyone who decides to write about poetry has access to all poetry, has read it all, and has no preference for some poetry over others, is utterly "objective" about poetry, what would be the point of writing about one thing over another if not preference? And what is that preference if not a kind of rating?

There are many more books of poetry not noticed than written about negatively, so, obviously, preference comes into play, even when the preference is to negatively spotlight a book. Furthermore, choice is a preference and so in some way also a "rating," albeit a personal one: this book is worth notice, this one, by implication, is not. But if, let's say, something is worth noticing because it's receiving a ton of positive notice that the critic thinks is not justified, why not say so? Rather than avoid overt rating, I think more critical writing should do just that--evaluate. Guidance depends not only on learning how to read what someone says is worth reading, but learning how to see what's not worth reading, how to make distinctions between and among all of the possible things to read we are presented with constantly. I don't see how critics can abandon evaluation, not teach readers how to decide what's good, better, best. If an education in poetry does anything, it seems to me it should at least help poets not only to to say something about poems, but to evaluate them, to make distinctions between and among them and yes, to render a judgment on them. As with any field, there are practioners who are better than others—-more experienced, more talented, original, exciting, and so on. Readers—and students—are not helped by an avoidance of this reality. Learning how to form critical judgments vis a vis poetry isn't helped by simply taking on the opinion of the day, but by understanding how a critic forms his or her opinion. Learning how to think about a poem may lead to appreciation, but it also, necessarily, leads to evaluation. I don't see how these are separate ends, nor that they should be.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Poetry Rapture--Who's In?

If there were a poetry Rapture today and only the "best" poets were plucked out and taken up, would anyone notice? First, would there be more than say, five? And what would the criteria be for their plucking? Second, even if there were hundreds, I don't think their absence would make even the smallest dent in the current poet-population which, according to poet Seth Abramson, has swelled to nearly 50,000 practicing (writing and publishing) poets in the US due to the prevalence of MFA programs. This is a staggering number of people at least trying to be poets (and by that I mean published poets) and aside from the obvious question—-why are people aspiring to be poets, given that most will go into debt for a degree in poetry, a debt unlikely to be paid back by practicing or teaching it), and given that they are not exactly welcomed by our society or held in much esteem, and especially given that, according to a recent article in Newsweek, poetry readers are declining nearly as fast as the poets are being minted--I wonder about the role of poetry critic as evaluator. I think that a big part of what a critic (and I include book reviewer in that designation) should do is to at least state their opinion, at most make a considered evaluation of the work they want to write about. Just as an editor must finally decide on a poem or a manuscript for publication and have reasons backing up his or her decision that can be articulated (the basis of the Colrain poetry manuscript conferences), I think a critic should also engage not only in explication, but evaluation. This does not seem to be a widely-held view.

I attended the Harvard-sponsored (actually, sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room, newly headed by Christina Davis, who is doing an amazing job there) "Critical Contexts" last Monday evening, a discussion of poetry by critics Adam Kirsch, Stephen Burt and Maureen McLane. The critics sat in easy chairs, facing the audience and engaged in an open discussion of single poems first, then moved to more general discussion about the state of poetry and its criticism in America. Each presented a poem that they admired. Kirsch read Joshua Mehigan's "Spectacle" from The Optimist, an unrhymed sonnet, a moving and precisely rendered account of a fire sans sentimentalism or melodrama. Burt read a poem by Allan Peterson from his Juniper Prize winning book All the Lavish in Common, and Maureen McLane read two poems: "Mockingbird" by Devin Johnston, and a long poem by Okeana Kalytiak Davis The Lyric "I" Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfesssional Mode. Each critic then went on to describe why they chose their poems and what they liked about them. I appreciated Kirsch's very clear explication of, and considered remarks about, "Spectacle" and, though I'm not drawn to formalists as a rule, I made a note to get that book. I am already a fan of Allan Peterson (published him years ago in Perihelion and have followed his work) and Burt's description of why Peterson's poem worked for him also worked for me. I had serious doubts about both of McLane's choices which seemed to be calculated to show that she wasn't only into the post-avant-ish poem by Davis, but could also like a more traditional sort of poem by Johnston. I wasn't impressed by either poem on first reading/hearing and was glad she passed out copies of each so we could spend a little more time with them. Since I liked Davis' And Her Soul Out of Nothing very much, and have liked much of her work since, I was disappointed to see this kind of pointless and frankly, self-indulgent, kind of poem from her. It went on and on and ON and then went on some more, and after the third page of a list of banal declarative statements beginning with "I" ("i" thinks love is what wrong./"i" feels elizabeth bishop reprimanding "i"./.."i" thinks jude law probably doesn't know how to read."/"i" knows that no lover can be her "objective correlative", still/..) "I" felt pretty bored with the silliness of it all. Yet another of "those" poems designed to show how clever the poet is, how in-the-know about the usual poetic techniques and devices, how ironic it all is. So, as much as McLane wanted to maintain that even if Davis was merely "activating the language field" (whatever that meant) she thought it was a worthwhile, even entertaining, poem. Meanwhile, I was thinking that for every moment spent on such a transparent and self-indulgent exercise in "intellectualism," a moment was lost for some other, worthier, more exciting and interesting, poem. In fact, I felt rather like I was being subjected to something, not, as she may have hoped, opened up to a new way of perceiving. But what did she hope to gain by bringing us that poem? Maybe it was simply designed to get a conversation going in the audience. First questioner was Dan Pritchard, from The Wooden Spoon (and I was looking for him, hearing he would be there, and being an admirer of his blog, and not knowing he would be so young—and he was looking for me—maybe not thinking I would be so old ;-)— and, as it turned out we were practically sitting next to each other). Dan asked a question bearing on my own, as yet, unasked question: his was about the use of words "in some poems" that were not intended to "mean" anything—how did the critics apprehend and respond to such work, where words were mainly "aritifacts" and not meant to convey meaning or communicate? (i.e. Langpo and its spawn). All talked about intentionality, post-modernism, etc. (in other words, went, and very quickly, to LitCrit theory). My question was related, but a little broader—I wondered how they could evaluate poems (e.g. Davis'), either in relation to others using the same or similar strategies (Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe et al.) or in relation to a poet doing something altogether different (Mehigan, Peterson, Johnston, e.g.). I would take either one—I really just wanted to know how they dealt with the problem of evaluation. How do you determine when something is better or worse than something else when you don't know what "it" is? And if you can't evaluate, what are you doing as a critic? Burt's response was basically, the "dead mouse" school of criticism ("It's like when my cat brings a dead mouse and drops it on my doorstep—here, a gift for you, I hope you like it! That's how I feel about finding a poem to talk about and presenting it to you.") Ok. Thanks. I don't really like dead mice though. And are you bringing me one that, in your expert opinion, is better—-meatier, prettier, more intact—-than some other dead mouse? McLane claimed that "The proof is in the thing." But not this thing (Davis' "poem"), not for me. Kirsch was the only one who recognized what the question entailed and spoke a little about the problem of evaluation and the critic's responsibility—-was it, in fact, a responsibility of the critic? It hadn't occurred to me that it might not be. Clearly, though, not everyone who writes about a book of poems, e.g., feels a responsibility to evaluate it. Then what is the purpose? An extended endorsement? That's something I'm still thinking about.

Meanwhile, and coincidentally, a blog eruption on the same subject (sort of) occurred over at the Poetry Foundation web site. A poet (Matthew Zapruder) posted some comments about poetry criticism, and a lot of heat was generated there, including some from me. Mostly, it's the same sort of argument, with people like Michael Robbins and Kent Johnson (an inveterate poetry activist, seems to have a bigger view of all this, along with a sense of humor) along with some others, all lining up: we-like-a-poem-we-can-understand(the benighted literal-minded philistines) vs. we-like-a poem-that-we-can't-understand (the in-the-know, we are hip and you're not, "believers"). Every time I try to get to the actual kind of poem I'm talking about, you know, the kind that you can't read, and post it, everyone scatters away then returns with a theory in their mouths. Nobody wants to tell me what they think of the actual poem, only point to all the sources I haven't read re: post-modernism and its discontents. Oh well. I thought we were talking about poems, but it turns out that's never the case, and if I try to do it again, well. I don't know what will happen. I can hardly wait to find out.