Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism 4: Subjectivity

Discussions about criticism and critique are, according to some critics, bound to remain problematic, beacuse they are riddled with subjectivity. For example, when we say I'd like to read some good writing, which seems a reasonable request, defining what good writing is becomes the problem. Attempts to establish objective criteria, beyond issues purely of form and craft, about poetry have been proposed, for example: poems that win poetry competitions and awards; poems that have stood the test of time; fame of one sort or another. Let's look at these afresh.

I agree that subjectivity can be a problem—but only to a point. I can never agree with the final thrust of arguments that end up saying all critique is a matter of (subjective) taste, because this is a position which ends in total subjectivity, total solipsism. Total subjectivity is a cop-out, critically, because what it ultimately does is prevent us from ever generating any sort of criticism, ever, beyond back-slapping congratulations and luke-warm plaudits. It is a viewpoint that completely paralyzes any attempt at genuine criticism before it can even get started. So, even though there are subjective elements to critcism, throwing our hands up in despair, because it's all "subjective," gets us nowhere. We must proceed as if there are genuinely objective aspects to criticism; and there are.

Beyond the purely technical aspects of a poem, one of the chief objective criterion is durability; another is pulling the reader in to experience the poem themselves; another is freshness. This is not to say that any given reader's assessment won't contain some level of subjective evaluation—but it is also never totally subjective, or we'd all be solipsists living in our own little universes, and never talking to each other. The truth lies in the middle. Whitman and Dickinson both wrote bad poems, as well as great poems (I include vanity and ego-based self-indulgence amongst my criteria for what makes a bad poem), but their greatest poems do endure, and have endured. The test of time is something more than merely a subjective assessment of a poem's quality—because a great poem will continue to speak to the human experience, as long as we are still human.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the first-person love poem, as an entire genre, is inherently banal and clichéd, at this stage of the game, because everyone has written 5 or more of them (myself included) since time began. The problem is that the subject matter itself—the personal response to being in love—has become banal, predictable, and clichéd, simply because the vast majority of the poems executed on the subject, which serve as models for later writers, are banal, predictable, and clichéd. Nothing recycles a cliché like a topic that everyone has always written about.

Are there good first-person love poems? Certainly. They are, however, in the tiny majority. Is it possible to still write a good first-person love poem? Yes, although here one is less certain. (I'd like to think that the few love poems I've written are different enough to stand out from the pack; but that could be wish-fulfillment.) The challenge is immense, because of all the existing baggage around the topic and the weight of zillions of bad poems on the topic. In order to be fresh and new, on this topic, a poet is going to have work at their maximum potential, transcend their own limits, and achieve a very high standard—which might not be worth the effort, for some, and for others might not be achievable.

Shaky ground shouldn't scare off anyone attempting to do criticism, even in this post-modern era wherein all the previous terra firma camps and -isms have been called into question. The lesson the existentialists sought to teach was not that there is no meaning, and the universe is absurd; but rather, that meaning is generated by us, from what we decide to give meaning to, and that it is worthwhile to go on even if the universe is absurd. (Samuel Beckett: I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on.)

I think that if all we can do is pat each other on the back, if critiquing is too hard, then we might as well not bother; in which case, via self-fulfilling prophecy, there will in fact be no standard of criticism other than subjectivity. But I reject the notion that encouragement is the be-all and end-all of criticism, because as humane and pleasant as that is in theory, in practice it leads to a lot of bad poetry and a lot of even worse criticism. Not least of which is the rise of therapy-poems and journal-poems, which have come to dominate the confesional lyric genre, and which badly suffer from the aforementioned sins of vanity and self-indulgence.

Another difficulty with "objective vs. subjective" in criticism is the tendency on the part of many critics to forget that there is a continuum of points between the poles. In other words, more positions than the absolute-and-total positions of complete objectivity and subjectivity exist. Subjectivity and objectivity always mix together, in varying degrees. Finding that point on the continuum where a poem can be examined more objectively than most might be a difficult challenge, but I for one think it's worth the effort. Otherwise, everything really is subjective, and we might as well all take our marbles and go home. Which would be a shame.

i think it's true that a good poem is a created world that is "as pure, honest, unique, and meaningful as one is capable of making it." But that too is an objective standard towards which one can aspire—at the very least it's a more objective standard, simply because many people will agree with it, and pursue it as a poetic value. (Concensus reality may be squishy, but it's one of the few criteria we have, as a cognitive species, for creating objectivity. As the existentialists say: if there is no meaning, create your own meaning.)

Different worlds, different doors, have different rules, and the world a poem inhabits needs to be understood and honored and respected. This is of course also why formalist rules, and prose-grammar rules, do not apply to all poems, all the time. (A truth many neo-formalists can't imagine, and don't allow themselves to explore.) The joy of discovering a new world, a new way of seeing the universe, is its own reward. That a diversity of viewpoints and disagreements exists should not be a cause for paralysis and despair (the perils of subjectivity), but a cause for celebration (the joys of diversity). Thank the gods not everyone agrees with me about everything! Otherwise, what would there be to talk about?

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Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Good post. The middle ground, and not the pure object/subjectivity, is definitely the correct place to be. Also:

"On the other hand, it can be argued that the first-person love poem, as an entire genre, is inherently banal and clichéd, at this stage of the game, because everyone has written 5 or more of them (myself included) since time began."

True (y'know, maybe some of Shakespeare's sonnets seemed better back then), on the inherent banality and on the fact that everyone has written five or more (guilty already, at 16!). Anyhow, I'ma link this up~ You might consider putting these PoCaC articles together and sticking them on Cosmoetica.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, Dragoncave is all about compiling various articles, rewriting them, and compiling them together. If I get to the point where I feel like something is finished, I'll do that.

Thanks very much for the comments. They're much appreciated.

10:24 PM  

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