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.


Steve said...

But you're NOT "so old."

You ask, also, "And are you bringing me one that, in your expert opinion, is better—-meatier, prettier, more intact—-than some other dead mouse?"

Yes, I am, or I think I am, otherwise I'd keep hinting. That's what it means to be a critic/ housecat.

Joan Houlihan said...

Keep hunting, you mean ;-). But I also like "keep hinting." Thanks, Steve.

Andrew Shields said...

I've seen the problems you're addressing here called the "poem" vs. "poetry" problem, the difference between those who are interested in poems and those who are interested in poetry. But I like the way you use the comparative evaluation of poems as a way to get out of that impasse: not "is this a good poem" or "is this good poetry" but "when you compare these two poems with similar poetic goals, which one is better."

So keep asking that question; it's a good one, and folks who can't answer it ... well, they are folks who can't answer a very important question.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Who is Lynn Hejinian?

Ohhhh, you must mean Lyn Hejinian---the one who just got a Guggenheim.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Personally, I think you kicked butt over on Zapruder's post. The funny thing is, nobody ever actually explained why TKOP was worth our time. That, I think, was somewhat telling.

Dan Wilcox said...

Seth Abramson's estimate (50,000) is way under the mark, but then his bias is showing by basing this estimate on MFA programs. These programs are just clever marketing techniques for schools, pitching their mostly worthless programs to the upper-middle class. I suggest that a more meaningful estimate be based on a review of a combination of uppity poetry journals, zines, self-published chapbooks & attendance at poetry open mics throughout the country. This would clearly put the number of actively writing poets in the country in the millions.
I've heard many wonderful poets with a MFA (i.e., Mighty Fine Ass) who never stepped on the green of Academe.

Gary Esolen said...

Joan, I have been looking at your blog and other writing available on line and at some of the responses. As I think you know I agree with you about the state of contemporary poetry and its little subculture, and I admire your courage and clarity. I think that some of the obscurantists reveal themselves very quickly in their vituperation--if the poems they seem to like might intimidate by being inaccessible, their rants reveal just how vague their thinking is and how imprecise and unimaginative their language. Keep up the good work. I have some projects that I want to talk to you about, so expect to hear from me soon. Thanks

James Adams said...

Joan (and all previous blog posters on this topic), as a poetic novice, but someone trained in professional fields which demand quantitative analysis, I am often struck (even more) dumb by highly regarded poets and poetry critics who fail to state their evaluative standards. And yet so surely and cavalierly pass judgment on poetic pieces upon which they have spent 25 seconds.

"Better" is quite a word. The Editor's Preface to Against Agamemnon: War Poetry 2009 attempts to address this:

"We should agree generally with the requirements of great poetry enunciated by one of America’s best war veteran poets and poetry critics, Karl Shapiro. His wonderful book of essays, In Defense of Ignorance, states perfectly the objective standards for “better poetry”: (1) originality, (2) suitable intensity, (3) applicability, (4) ability to transport, (5) re-readability, and (6) contemporaneity. Shapiro was poet enough to let himself be immediately mocked by the imaginary god of letters he argued with in his essay “The Unemployed Magician”:

These are nice big terms to hide behind, said the god. Is that what you tell your students?

To tell you the truth, Sir, I am reluctant to tell them what I really think. It would not fit in with the curriculum.

A normal state of affairs, answered the god… "

The academy, including the poetic academy, exists to apply both quantitative and qualitative analysis to its various fields. At least, that's what they imply to their funders.

My inexpert experience in the field of poetry, especially in dealing with "big poetic names" and "well regarded presses", forces me to conclude the poetic field lacks sufficient rigor. Overworked editors cannot see new things, and become dismissive of work they do not understand within those self-same 25 seconds. This is human, all too human--but neither professionally critical, nor academic.

How unfortunate. In the fields of science, most major discoveries and advances are by accident, made while painstakingly looking for something else. Most of my poetic colleagues agree with me it's who you know, not whether you have "better" poetry.

R. A. Davis said...

Cutting to the core, it seems to me that much of modern poetry's woes--especially its narrow audience--can be traced directly to the fact that most successful poets are tied to academica. In so many ways this limits one's audience (Billy Collins is an exception). It also shows that artistic "theories" proliferate via a kind of academic incest, allowing the poet to converse with fellow academics about his/her work as exemplars of "theory"--when in fact they wrote their best stuff in a mind-state where theories have little effect. Editing of course involves the other hemisphere, where theories abound, and one is then constrained to talk about their work almost solely in terms of theory. Load all the "theory" about an Arnold poem on one pan of the balance, and on the other place a single poem called "Dover Beach" and all those theories about it fly up and vanish into air.