Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Ideology of Critique

We keep returning to Jean Cocteau's plangent observations: We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.

And: When a work of art appears to be in advance of its period, it is really the period that has lagged behind the work of art.

And: Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically.

All these happen with regularity in the ferment that is poetry in transition. But Cocteau's comment about the tendency to judge the beautiful by what is familiar speaks not only to the rejection of the unknown in art, but also to entrenched ideologies and opinions about what is genuine and true in poetry criticism itself.

Is a cliché always bad in poetry? Almost always; but it can be turned to good and effective use, too. Where we have difficulties is with the ideology that rules of quality are absolute standards, and therefore objective. The problem is, while some aspects of poetry can be judged objectively—matters of craft are the obvious example—other judgments are often less objective than they claim to be. There is usually something else going on, whether or not it's openly acknowledged.

Does a reader's emotional reaction to a poem, positive or negative, obviate the critical faculty, short-circuit it so that bad poetry passes simply because people like it? This happens often enough, surely; it is surely true that a lot of bad poetry still stirs people to feeling. If this were not so, the manipulative sentiments expressed in greeting cards would be ineffective, and the entire greeting card industry would collapse.

But the reverse assumption, which can be seen often enough in poetry criticism, that any poem the reader has an emotional response to must therefore be suspect, on the grounds that emotional responses are themselves suspect, amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It ridiculously overstates the valid and honorable attempt to be as objective as possible in poetry criticism. The mistake here is not the attempt to be as objective as possible; the mistake is in believing one has succeeded.

All art has the potential to elicit an aesthetic, emotional, and transformational response in its audience. There are always both subjective and objective qualities in art, intermixed and blended. They can be difficult to sort out. While it is valorous to attempt to set aside one's feelings and look at a work of art as objectively as possible, in its context of craft, historical moment, and subject matter, etc., assuming that one has achieved total critical objectivity is a form of self-delusion. The critic who can admit to error and subjective opinion is the far more honest critic. Whether their assessment is right or wrong is also not the mistake; the mistake lies in believing one's own critical acumen is greater than anyone else's, which is hubris, and delusion. Not to mention, unprovable.

Even critics who are right most of the time must acknowledge that they can be wrong—because anyone can be wrong, about anything—or they are in deep, deep trouble.

Offhandedly rejecting one's emotional responses when undertaking criticism isn't the same thing as admitting a fondness for a really bad movie, or panning a novel because one ate bad shellfish for lunch. It is, or rather can become, a critical ideology that claims that the person assessing the poem must always be unemotional and objective. This is an impossible standard that, honestly, no one has ever lived up to. It allows absolutely no wiggle room for aesthetic appreciation. It removes the human response from the equation; in its worse extremes, it mechanizes the critical response (which it should never be forgotten is prompted by the aesthetic experience of witnessing or being confronted by the art itself) by banishing it and replacing it with a list of obvious criteria. They may even be valid criteria. But this approach to criticism takes valid criteria and turns them into a categorizable list of items to be checked off, to see if they fit. Too much of an emotional response? Check: must be a bad poem. Next!

Cocteau also commented: We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any definite recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be.

The artist can be as surprised by the art that appears as anyone. The artist can be quite alone, quite surrounded by bickering, with no rudder with which to navigate.

This can run in several directions, even conflicting ones. For example, what happens when a formalist poet suddenly discovers that a poem came out as free verse? How do they deal with that? Do they let it happen, and accept the results, or will they try to re-format the poem into a familiar metrical form that they are more comfortable with handling?

Or, what happens when a poet who is used to working in more "experimental" terrain, has become used to being vilified more than praised, generally if not universally misunderstood and miscategorized, who has become suspicious of most critique on the grounds that it no longer helps him or her grow as a writer—what happens when such a poet suddenly finds him or herself expressing a more conventional poetry, a less experimental form and language, and cares more about the outpouring in the poem itself than in its language and technical aspects of craft? (In other words, that had something to say, and just said it, plainly and simply, with very little artifice.) How do they deal with that? Do they accept it and let it happen, or do they fight against it?

And then, when they have become used to all their recent poems being rejected, even openly vilified and condemned as non-poetry, how are they to respond when the criticism comes back on this newest poem, a poem different from what they've been doing for some time, and this new poem is lauded, praised, highly touted, heaped with honors by one camp who thinks it's best poem of its type they've read in 30 years? while another camp says it's an aberration, and the poet has lost his or her self-respect, is pandering, and this is the worst thing the poet has written in years.

One the one hand lies a welcoming embrace, on the other a faux-objectivity that portrays cynical rejection as simple honesty. On the one hand a pleasure in the familiar in which critical acumen is not willfully set aside but perhaps is overruled in the moment, on the other hand a violent insistence on a continuity of innovation in which the sensual pleasure of just writing what you feel has become suspect. On the one hand Dionysus, on the other Apollo (but which is which)? On the one hand the pleasure of the text, on the other a dedicated dismissal of pleasure (but which is which)?

Who is the poet—who whirls suspended in the midst of all this—to believe? (And when did revising a poem become a choice between who you please, other than yourself, and who you piss off?)

What's endlessly fascinating is how both camps claim to be objective and unemotional in their assessments of the poem, while having diametrically opposed views of the poem in question. The poet is left with a situation in which no criticism is any longer useful, or even helpful, because it's become obvious that even those who claim to be driven by objective standards still wear blinders of taste and opinion that they are using to substitute for actual criticism.

Both camps would dictate to the poet what the poet "should" do—if only in avoiding the pitfalls of what they each think is bad in poetry. But a completely negative aesthetic, an aesthetic of avoidance, produces nothing. It's a shortcut to the abyss of acedia. Both camps would deny that they are setting boundaries around what they like and calling it "good," but that is what both camps are doing. This is political action disguised as literary crticism; it is of course nothing new in poetry criticism, which has been fighting between camps for a very long time indeed.

Who is the poet to listen to, if the poet has grown weary of the divisiveness of critical camps, and just wants to make poems?

Yes, I am referring to myself here. This has all happened to me in the past few days with this poem. It's been a hilarious exercise. Both of these camps, both of these diametrically opposed reponses were triggered by this same poem.

Who does this poet believe? No one.

An always-available option, of course, is to continue to write what you write, ignore everyone, and let them catch up to what you're doing, if they ever do. This is where Cocteau's comment is relevant, about when art appears to be in advance of its period. The solution is to just keep writing, and let the critics fall by the wayside. It is equally amusing when the camps revert to their usual party lines, if the next poem reverts to "normal."

The issue here for the poet is self-esteem, and retaining self-confidence in their own artistic process. Humility lies in admitting that they could be wrong. Self-esteem lies in not bending to every wind of fashion, even those you agree with; it lies furthermore in letting the art be the art, and in having the courage to take risks and make mistakes. Meanwhile, the poem itself languishes in a kind of limbo; attempts to revise it have been stifled by the conflicting responses; the poet might choose to set the poem aside, and revise it later, when he can hear himself think again, after the din has died away.

What is laughable, all around, is the utter lack of self-awareness (one might say, the breathtaking ignorance of their own internal asuumptions and filters) in each camp, in how both claim to be objective yet cannot see where they are not. Even where they are objective and accurate can now be called into question by their failure in this instance. So, I guess nobody's perfect, and no-one's right all the time. Critics least of all.

Beware of anyone who claims that they are right all the time: they are driven by an ideology of critique, and they are fundamentalists—even if you agree with them.

I suppose, in the end, none of it really matters. Lists of poets you like and want to promote as fellow-travelers are beside the point. Critical cheerleading is the most ephemeral game in town. It matters not at all, in the long run. The only real test is the test of time.

I don't know what, if any, of the art I have produced, or have yet to produce, will affect anyone in the future; nor am I likely to ever know. The truth is, it doesn't matter. Like any other artist, I have ambition for my artistic children, but—apparently unlike many other artist/critics I know—I seem to lack the essential hubris required to believe that I have already changed the world with my art, or will, for good or ill. I cannot know. That actually frees me up to not care very much about what the various camps say; it frees me to write rather than talk about writing. As much fun as it can be, the criticism is not the art. Some of the art will hopefully endure; criticism has always had a notoriously short shelf-life, and always will.

The result of such an experience is the artist's realization that critical approval is subject to fashion and taste, that critics who claim to be objective are never as objective as they think they are (even when they're right most of the time, no one is right all of the time), and that all that matters to the artist—all that can matter—is to keep making art. If you let what the critics think about your art rock you, deter you, steer you off course—either for approval or in rejection of approval—you will surely lose your way. The artist must maintain his or her own convictions, her or his own center, and not be swayed. Don't stop listening to opinions—but don't let them sway you, if in your heart you know what you are pursuing must be pursued. Even if, in the long run, what you are doing proves to be something you repudiate years later, it must nonetheless be given its head, and pursued—for now, if not forever. Both critical camps can be quite wrong about the progress and direction of your art—even when they are occasionally right about the details. It's your art, after all: it is no-one else's.

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17 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

It is being told what is beautiful that bothers me, from the bound feet of the Chinese to the Size Zero of the Americans. Both of these are artificial standards. A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman is a beautiful woman. This doesn't mean that an artificial form cannot be beautiful; Mozart's 40th does all right for itself as does Beethoven's 5th. Where, the question has to be asked, is the breaking point?

An appreciation of beauty is like an appreciation of good food. A pallet can be trained and so can the eyes and ears. There is also the truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it is not an absolute. Some people are willing to persist and train themselves to see the value in a style of writing whereas others are content with that they know.

I have been reading a lot about the various schools of poetry and the amount of squabbling that goes on and it irks me. Poetry is a natural thing. The man in the street who would be lucky if he could name half-a-dozen poets still talks about 'poetry in motion' and 'sheer poetry'. I get tired with the whole one-upmanship thing.

Does that mean you can't criticise a poem? Of course you can but all art – poetry, prose, music and the visual arts – is designed to illicit a subjective response, i.e. the creator of the work expects you to react to it emotionally, intellectually or spiritually; if it fails to reach you in a combination of these three then it is quite possible it is a bad piece of art, something a lot of artists seem to think doesn’t exist by the way. I'm not so sure you can look at a poem objectively and dispassionately. It's like assessing a sports car based on how it looks in the showroom.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the rich thinking in your comments, Jim. I find much to agree with.

I think that it IS possible to look at a poem objectively and dispassionately, but it's perhaps less commonly achieved than those who claim to be able to do so would like us all to think. I think the reality is that there is always a mix of subjective and objective. One does one's best, as a critic striving to be objective, to shift the mix towards objectivity, perhaps, but must always remember that neither total objectivity nor total dispassion are fully achievable. They're goals, but not destinations.

Matters of technical craft are more objectively assessed, for example—meter, rhyme, formal structure, etc.—which is why craft is teachable at all; and also why all they CAN teach you in the classroom is craft. Matters of layered meaning and depth are there to be found in a good or great poem, but not all readers will find the same things, or dive to the same depths. (This is why re-reading is so important to poetry; in a truly great poem, you will always find more than you knew was there, last time you read it.)

I agree with you that a major problem lies in the arena of someone telling us what to think or feel in and/or about the poem. I also agree that the mark of the aesthetic experience is that the work of art has caused a reaction in some combination of emotional, intelelctual, and spiritual responses.

I do think that there is a lot of bad art out there. I don't claim to have created no bad art myself; no honest artist can ever make that claim 100 percent of the time. I think a lot of bad art does meet the criterion not having elicited any response other than a shrug.

Where my uncertainty remains alive is in that area where a work of art does elicit a response of an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nature but you're still not sure if it's a good or great poem. Sorting all that out is where the balance of subjective and objective can be problematic. All I really want is honesty in critique, I suppose: if someone claims to be more objective than other critics, I damn well want to know their criteria for making such a claim, and what grounds they stand on. Assertion is not evidence.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Not to drag this out but if I can add a couple of additional points:

As for being objective, if we can return to my sports car example, you can take the car out for a drive and report on its handling, fuel consumption etc and leave out how you felt driving it but how a car makes you feel IS a selling point and to omit that crucial factor is to misrepresent the vehicle. But I agree, you can try and be objective.

As for bad poetry, I simply wish more people would have the confidence to stand up and admit that the emperor has no clothes on. There is a fear, a product of ignorance I believe, that makes us hedge our bets when we read a poem we don't get; we assume the fault has to lie with us. And this is something a lot of experimental artists play on. Experiments fail more times that they succeed but a lot of artists take the high ground and make us poor readers feel bad because we don't get it, as if they are incapable of making a mistake.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Feel free to drag it out, I find it a good discussion.

Your sports car analogy makes more sense to me now that you've added more detail to it. I've worked in advertising and marketing, and you're absolutely correct that how the (artistic) product makes you feel IS an important selling point. Hence my dissatisfaction with the critical camp that views emotional responses to poetry as inherently suspect in terms of criticism. They seems to want to believe that the ONLY valid critical response is the intellectual one. Obviously I disagree with that, and agree more with you: the emotion IS a selling point.

Reginald Shepard recently wrote here about the post-avant. In the comments thread, one commentator noted how he felt "conned" by some post-avant poetry. I agree that sometimes I feel I can see the scaffolding in some kinds of post-avant poetry, and my first response is, "Who are you trying to fool?"

I don't feel conned by most experimental art, though; I think most experimental poetry is sincerely trying to think outside the box. I admit that I might be biased about this, though, because I frequently have been tarred with the label of being an "experimental poet" myself.

So i don't totally agree that a lot of experimental artists play on the ignorance of the reader—but I do agree that some DO. i've written before on my blog here that obscurity merely for the sake of being obscure is without virtue in poetry.

I think the label of "experimental" is pretty much an admision that one will fail more often than succeed, which is what experimentation is all about—in the arts OR in science. Any poet who doesn't mind being labeled experimental must tacitly be admitting to this truth. Still, if we never take risks, we will definitely never discover anything new.

But I don't disagree that some insecure writers have used the label of being experimental as a cloak behind which to hide their insecurities and inadequacies.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

From the "this is too heated and personal a poem" camp, i have also been quoted the Wordsworthian dictum about poetry being emotion recollected in tranquility.

I've never been much for Wordsworth's dictum. I think it tends to over-intellectualize the writing process. Far better, it seems to me, to write at white heat, if the heat is there; one can always revise, compress, extract, detach later. But waiting till later to write the first draft can stifle and prevent the poem from ever reaching any level of emotional, spiritual or intellectual connection that will make the poem itself an experience, rather than being a poem ABOUT an experience.

There is a further paradox here that is based on a similar misunderstanding about what it means to write in the poem, of the moment, when the poem is ready to be written. This further paradox also obviates the Wordsworthian dictum (which, one might add, be preached but did not always practice himself).

The paradox is this: Other poems of mine, which are of a far more "experimental" style and language usage, such as Zuni II (which can be read here), were written at exactly the same white heat as was the ode to Walt Whitman. To me, the process was no different. The result is obviously different, in terms of style and content. But they "feel" the same to me, as the writer.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I would sincerely hope that all experimental poets have definite goals in mind when they do what they do. What I hate is when I need a specific piece of information to be able to make sense of a poem; my wife calls these 'decoder ring' poems and she writes a lot of them. She is always surprised when I need to be told the key; to her the solution is obvious.

To my mind anyone should be able to pick up a poem and get something out of it. Esoteric works, like Beckett's 'Whoroscope', that need footnotes are, to my mind, bad poems. (Bear in mind he never wanted to provide any footnotes at all). The same goes for a poet like Pound with his use of foreign languages. It's all very clever but since I never read the lines what is the point of them being there?

In this respect I am reminded of the scene in Play It Again Sam where Woody Allen tries to pick up a girl in an art gallery:

W - It's a lovely Jackson Pollock.

G - Yes, it is.

W - What does it say to you?

G - It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

W - What are you doing Saturday?

G - Committing suicide.

W - What about Friday night?

You can't talk about a Jackson Pollock objectively. What are you going to say? Great drips?

This scene I think is one way of looking at your Wordsworth quote. Admittedly it's the viewer who is the calm one. I think there's a lot to be said for dumping on the page and sorting and shaping what you find there later; that way you get the best of both worlds.

4:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I like the phrase "decoder ring" poems; other phrases I've used for similar poems are puzzle-poems or riddle-poems.

Great art resists being decoded, I think, and whenever some critic comes up with an apparently definitive decoder-ring solution someone else comes up with an alternative, sometimes contradictory, solution. (Lit crit is not well-served, I think, by the human desire to always find one, definitive answer, or meaning, or ultimate interpretation. I think sometimes that same desire is why some poets write decoder-ring poems.) One mark of great art is perhaps that it creates a container large enough to hold contradiction, paradox, and multiplicity. Most simple decoder-ring poems, once you've "solved the poem," you almost never want to read it again. Great poetry by contrast keeps calling you back to re-read it.

That's one reason I don't find much interest in puzzle-poems, riddle-poems, decoder-poems; it's not really a poem, the poetic form is just carrying the puzzle, the artistry is in the cleverness, and you don't ever feel compelled to re-read it once you've figured out the puzzle. This is in total contrast to great writing that might have a puzzle IN it, but the glory is in the writing, not in the puzzle. I don't re-read the Exeter Book of Riddles one-tenth as often as I re-read Raymond Chandler's collected novels.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

In terms of experimental poets knowing what they're doing, I dunno. It strikes me that a lot of poetry in that camp is making it up as it goes. "Experimental" is category poems get lumped into simply because they're unfamiliar, or don't make a lot of the usual, familiar connections that poetry is "supposed to" make. Which is why I keep coming back to Cocteau's comment about the tendency to judge the beautiful by what is familiar.

"Experimental" has often been used as a pejorative in poetry criticism. Others adopt it as a badge of pride. For myself, it's a label I've been saddled with a few times, but the irony is that when I write something UN-"experimental" I also get attacked, from the opposite camp. That's what set this whole thing off.

So, I come back to the point that I'll write what I'm moved to write—and writing for me is exploration, is discovery, is mapping the unknown. It's also shape-shifting, the attempt (successful or otherwise) to think within the skin of the other.

Perhaps "exploratory" might be a better word than "experimental," though, in regards to poetry. That might open more doors than it closes.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I've had this discussion before – experimental vs exploratory – and the answer is the same: explorers can get lost too and they don't always find what they're looking for first time, if ever.

Either way, neither experimenters nor explorers just wander off and hope to discover something wonderful by chance and neither should poets, they should be able to explain why they decided to arrange their poem this way or that, what their intentions were and then the reader can judge if they succeeded. However most take a hoity-toity attitude to cover up the fact that they just chucked the paint and the canvas and hoped it would all turn out fine in the end. Poets are not beyond explaining themselves and the one or two times I've asked poets to explain something they’ve written they struggle which is evidence enough to me that they don't know what they're doing.

Put one word in the middle of a page and a reader will try and make sense of it. He will live up to his part of the bargain. I would be more than happy to read a book of experimental poetry where the author prefaced the thing with an essay saying what he was attempting with these pieces. And that is the key word, even for more traditional poets like myself, in every poem we attempt to convey something to another person using words as a medium; success is not guaranteed. And it can only ever be an attempt because our readers add something to the equation/formula that we cannot predict – themselves.

As for whether great art resists being decoded or not I tend to take the view that truly great art is art that the man in the street can pick up and get, that it also has levels and subtleties that he may not does not make it any greater, simply cleverer.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Rus Bowden said...

Hi Jim,

The poet quite often is not aware of some of the valuable aspects to a poem he has written, so is certainly not the person to explain anything. Also, there are times an explanation can ruin a poem for a reader, as with this one by Samuel Menashe:

The Oracle

Feet east
Head west
Arms spread
North and south
He lies in bed
Intersected
At the mouth

The poet's explanation is in this article: Nextbook: The Minimalist. Given such an explanation, however, it may be, and probably should be, that the poem is greater than the creative process used. Books of poems contain just the poems, without explanation, and, often times, the poet can be either quite unauthoritative or purposely silent about why a poem is working on certain levels. It cannot be likened to splashing paint on a canvas, because the paint, as it were, needs to be flung through the poet's psyche forming the creation.

Take the issue of the displacement of Robert Frost's poems--that they have to do with poetry as well as the surface theme. He denied he wrote the displacement in, that his poems (to him) were about anything other than what was on the surface--but the displacements are too obvious. And so what else is there, yet unfathomed for the page by any yet-alive critic, about Frost's poetry--or anyone's?

Yours,
Rus

6:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, this is where we might differ somewhat. Demanding explanations is a rational-intellectual process, and only comes after-the-fact. For me, it can ONLY come after the fact, not during, and not before. Trying to impose it beforehand almost always makes for a stale, dry poem, for me. There remain a lot of mysteries. The way I write is intuitive, by contrast. After a piece has been written, I can tell you HOW, but I often cannot tell you WHY—why this, why now, why did it come out like that; that IS the experience that set off this whole rumination, after all—and I am content to not always know why, especially about a more visionary, spiritual, shamanic poem. I can tell you how it came about, what triggered it, even where certain imagery might have come from, but I cannot always tell you why it came out the way it did, as a whole. Sometimes I'm just along for the ride.

This extends even to technical elements of craft such as line-breaks and punctuation. The poem "tells me" the style and form it wants to be in as I write. I never sit down thinking "now I am going to write a poem in this form, in this style, of this length." All of that emerges from the poem as it proceeds. It emerges organically from the materials during the process of writing; in this it is more like sculpting, where the materials lead you. Ideally, you're "listening" to the materials as much as imposing your will upon them. (The usual exception being, "okay, this poem feels like it's going to come out as a haiku," so that's where I go with it.) The important point here is that I trust those feelings, those intuitions. I do not view the will as the most dominant force involved in writing a poem; for me, it's all about listening attentively, to hear what wants to emerge. Usually by the end of the first strophe I know what it's going to be; or the third strophe. Or not. I can be surprised as much as the reader—which is addressed by another of the Cocteau quotes I started this all off with.

Well, let me put it this way: Maybe I CAN do all these sorts of explanations, if pinned in a corner, but I don't value them as essential, or spend a lot of time thinking about them. Self-knowledge about one's own creative process is always valuable, of course. Again, though, explanations for me always follow praxis, they never direct it.

I go off making new trails, not following those on existing maps. Sometimes you have to MAKE new paths. To me, that's what exploring is about; what the explorer prepares is the provisions for the journey, but not necessarily the map; most of the classical explorers such as Burton or Stanley or Scott or Lewis & Clark, if we're really going to follow this analogy to its end, HAD no maps when they set out, or only very poor maps. One thing they did as they went along was chart the territory and make new maps.

I find that part of the problem around all the contentiousness in contemporary poetry, which we both seem to decry, is that these sorts of poetic explanations too quickly become defenses or justifications of rationalizations. I have no defense for poetry; it is what it is.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

A further thought, which is just a general thought based on prior observation, and is not directed towards anyone in particular:

It does seem to me, from observation and from when I've discussed this very issue with both poets and prose writers, that Rus is correct in that a lot of poets are downright inarticulate on the subject of explaining their work. It also strikes me that the demand for the necessity of explanation rarely comes from the poets, but rather from essayists and fiction writers. In other words, it might be a byproduct of fundamental mindset.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I don't demand anyone do anything but I think poets could do more to helping people get their work. In school we were presented with a healthy variety of poetry which we were shown how to interpret. In a lot of cases we weren't given the answers but we were given the right questions. A simple one I remember was being asked to focus on the word 'last' in the title of Browing's poem 'My Last Duchess' – was it 'last' as in final or 'last' as in the last in a sequence?

Then I left school having been exposed to nothing but British – and mainly English – poetry only to realise that, hey, the rest of the world was doing that poetry thing too. I discovered the Americans but I didn't get them and they didn't seem to want to help me very much. Basil Bunting's advice to other poets was never to explain: "your reader is as clever as you". No we're not!

I'm not saying that a poet needs to strip every poem he has ever read down to a carcass and display it for all the world to see but what would be nice if they went somewhere down that road some of the time. Let's take a simple example, let's say you want to publish an anthology of Imagist poetry. The good thing about Imagism is that they sat down as set guidelines as to how to write an Imagist poem. That being the case a preface to the book would be a good idea saying how one might read an Imagist poem. Of course, on reading what an Imagist poem aspires to be, you can then judge how successful the poets in the collection have been and not all them managed to stick to their own self-imposed rules.

When I see poems with odd layouts I want to ask the poets why and somehow the answer, "because it felt write" feels like a copout. A great example of this is E E Cummings with his unique formatting. I have never read yet anything that tells me how to read an E E Cummings poem. The usual answer is "out loud" which really doesn’t help me. I've just bought his six nonlectures on someone's recommendation but, on a quick scan, it doesn't look like it has what I'm looking for. We'll see. What I'm hoping is that he has rules that he applies. I'll be disappointed if there aren’t any.

Let's look an extreme example, the following untitled poem by George Swede:

Graveyarduskilldeer

I've heard this 'explained' as follows: "Here three words are spelled together not only to produce the richly resonant "double-haiku," graveyard/ dusk/ killdeer// graveyard/ us/ killdeer, but strikingly to suggest the enclosure (like letters by a word) of two or more people (a couple--or, perhaps, all of us) by an evening -- or some greater darkening." And that is great. Now the next poem I encounter by this guy won't seem quite so odd to me. That's all I need, a pointer to the mindset of the guy.

I'm not saying that "because it felt right" is a wrong answer but it can't be the answer all of the time. I've just posted a blog in which I include some of my love poetry covering the last thirty years and I intersperse this with a few comments. I don't go to any lengths to explain the structure of the works (it’s not that kind of article) but I could have. I do mention what was in my mind when I wrote some of them and what others thought of them. The poems don't need any explanation – I purposefully don’t write that kind of poetry – but I think it helps to put things in context. The poems have all done the jobs for which they were written, everything else is gravy.

My main gripe over poets who refuse to explain what they had in mind is that they are ignoring their responsibility to up-and-coming writers. I wrote an essay a while ago (I think it was published in Bonfire but don't quote me) which was specifically aimed at newbie poets and the whole focus was that technique is a necessary component of poetry as a compliment to inspiration and gut feeling. It was prompted by my daughter's reaction to some comments I made about her poetry. She is a fully paid up member of the it's-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is school of poetry and the idea of trying to order what she had dumped on the page was quite abhorrent to her. I get that because I used to be like that but I learned.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

While I do agree that a great deal of contemporary poetry is hermetic, and often seems to believe in obscurity for its own sake (which I have opine against here), I don't think the major issue is really about accessibility to the reader, or its lack. That is, I think it's not entirely the fault of the poets—although some poets are more complicit than others—there is also the issue of the undereducated reader. Face it, lots of folks got turned off to poetry by bad teachers in school—but that is not the fault of the poets, either. I have no problem asking the reader to think a little harder than they might want to, and I have no problem in having to go look something up myself, if necessary. That can be fun, actually.

While I agree that an avenue needs to be left open for the reader to get into the world of the poem, the poem IS a world, and an experience, and can surprise the reader into seeing the world in a new way. (I've said that so many times now that I don't know how else to convey the process.)

Because neither should a poet pander to an audience, and make it so simple that it's insulting to the intellect. This is the mistake that poets such Ted Kooser and Billy Collins make: they pander. A poet such as Robert Hass, who doesn't pander, writes poetry that is just as accessible but also contains layered meanings, some mysteries, and some richness; there are things left unexplained.

Ambiguity is essential to poetry, in the sense of ambiguous meaning that can be interpreted in more than one clearcut way—or it might as well be scientific prose, or essay. The point of poetry is that it is heightened or exalted language use; and it may or may nor be as easy to understand as the phone book. Poetry is not only about communication, or it might as well BE the phonebook—which it is not.

I don't think looking at extreme examples serves our purpose, because the truth of the practical aspect of understanding the poem lies in the middle ground. Neither the extremes of pandering, nor the extremes of hermeticism—which I agree that a great deal of contemporary so-called postmodern poetry such as Language Poetry, for example, is quite guilty of—serve the reader. Both actually underestimate the "average poetry reader," whoever the heck that is; and that reader is always in a minority, in terms of the overall literary landscape, and has been a minority for a very long time.

I agree that poetry might be improved by allowing the reader access to the poem, rather than by obscurity or hermeticism or insularity or in-group writing. But let's not overcompensate for those sins by writing a poetry that has only clear and simple meanings, doesn't cause difficulty for the reader, and is so easily digestible that it as easily forgettable.

Great poetry disturbs the reader's universe. Great art has always shaken up the reader. Great art isn't always NICE to the audience—and it neither should be required to be nice, nor is it necessary that it be nice.

It strikes at this point that you are insisting upon rational justifications for the creative process, in poetry in particular, and perhaps as a whole. It's fair to ask for that—but it's also necessary to remember that art-making is not a primarily rational and explainable process. In fact, it rarely is. Else, Leonardo's paintings would have no enduring grace, which they demonstrably do. So, the demand/request for rational explanations is probably never going to be satisfactorily met.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I feel no particular responsibility to up and coming writers. I felt no entitlement that my own mentors were responsible to me, as a young artist. I was on my own; I was an autodidact, and preferred to be. Since my freshman year in college, I have not taken a single creative-writing workshop or class; they don't interest me. (I have taught a few, though, always upon request, for reasons that I've never clearly understood; I have zero ambition in this arena.) If we clicked, my teachers and I, we clicked.

Responsibility is not the the issue: choice is.

My mentors chose me, and I chose them—because I liked them, because they gave me permission and guidance, because we enjoyed each other's company. It was only then that some kind of responsibility to maintain a mutually beneficial and pleasant relationship kicked in.

Choice is always paramount. Responsibility is an ethic, not a moral imperative.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

People can choose to be responsible or not I'll give you that. And by choosing to write a blog that does more than presenting your work and a take-it-or-leave it attitude you are providing opportunities for younger, less experienced poets to glean. The articles in 'Poetry Information' were not personal, they were not written to me, but I took them personally and to this day I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to fellow Scot Tom Leonard for his lengthy dissection of William Carlos Williams' poem 'The Locust Tree in Flower' because he explained what Williams was trying to do in this experiment (it's really not a typical Williams poem). You have no idea how long I sat in front of that ruddy wheelbarrow poem scratching my head and simply not getting it and feeling SO stupid because what is there to get?

I tend to be guided by the principle of what goes around comes around or maybe I remember how utterly confused I was as a young poet with only a smattering of knowledge of English poetry at my disposal trying to make sense of all this American gobbledygook. I desperately wanted to understand, to be a better poet but even some of the articles I did read were above my grasp.

You mention the undereducated reader specifically which is what I was at this time but it wasn't for a lack of interest in education, it was an inability to get that education once I had left school. And to be blunt I'm still anything but an expert on poetry in fact I just bought two whopping great volumes to try and familiarise myself with where poetry has been going over the last thirty-odd years because I've completely lost touch. I turned inward and simply got on with my own thing, I never joined groups or went to poetry readings (I never knew of any to get involved in anyway) and it was only with the advent of the internet that I started to take any interest in the outside world.

Should a poet pander to his audience? If that were the case Dylan would never have picked up an electric guitar; he had a good thing going there, why rock the boat? I agree that ambiguity is a technique available to poets in exactly the same way as rhyme is or metaphor or alliteration. It has its place. A poem riddled with metaphors can be very clever but it doesn’t necessarily make it a great poem. Likewise a little ambiguity goes a long way – it's seasoning, not the whole dish. I'm very fond of poetry that works on several levels so that there is an obvious 'meaning' that those-who-look-for-obvious-meanings can take away and be happy with and then there is subtext that those-who-like-to-dig-for-meanings can dig for. In this respect I agree with your view of the poem as "a world, and an experience."

The best poetry should make people think which is what I expect you mean by "disturbs the reader's universe". One of my poems is entitled 'Reader Please Supply Meaning' but really every poem I've ever written should have that as a subtitle. They're the ones who add the meaning. I provide the main dish if you like but they season to taste.

I am not advocating that we dumb-down our poetry to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there but if we expect people to step up we need to give them a leg up. One of my favourite authors is Samuel Beckett – I own everything he's ever written and that includes DVDs and CDs of all his plays – but he was notoriously difficult when it came to talking about his work and people have built careers around explaining him. I have a whole shelf of books about his work which I have spent years studying but I still struggle with most of his later prose works and frankly so do the experts. I have never read a decent essay yet on How It Is or All Strange Away. Am I saying that Beckett shouldn't have written them? Absolutely not. But if I'd picked up any of these pieces by a lesser author I wouldn't persist in trying to come to terms with them. His plays are a fine example of what I am on about. They have a surface appeal and a depth for those willing and interested enough to dig into them.

I absolutely am not "insisting upon rational justifications for the creative process," because for the most part I can't explain where my ideas come from but what we do with them IS explainable up to a point. I don't believe everything should be explained but some things should some of the time. Saying that "I did it because it felt right" is also a form of explanation because it stops me fretting because I don't know what you meant. A lot of people get frustrated by poetry because they see the meaning as the end of a poem. Tell me there's no 'right' meaning and I'll stop looking for one. Don't and I'll assume I'm an idiot for not getting it.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I completely agree with you about Beckett. I have been profoundly influenced by him, on numerous levels. I too have everything he ever wrote. (Although I don't as yet own the recent DVD series of all the plays, I do have everything on Ubuweb, plus a few more scraps.)

I've read a few essays about Beckett that approached making sense to me, but I have to agree that overall a lot of analysis completely misses the point. (I do find that actors and artists and composers have had smart things to say in essays re: Beckett. Perhaps that's a function of "artist speaking to artist," and is less formally an academic, hermeneutic, critical, literary-theoretical analysis.)

For myself, I find that everything there is to say about what Beckett was saying or doing is all right there in the texts, on display via action and phrase.

With regard to WCW's "The Red Wheelbarrow," I've gotten into numerous arguments with fellow poets when I dare to point out that there isn't all that much there. It's not nearly as deep a poem as many who worship WCW's legacy claim it is. I'm not alone in that take on the poem—but then, I come from a background in poetry that is more from Chinese and Japanese poetry traditions than from Milton and Pope. It possibly depends on context: I am used to taking the images as they are, whereas I find most poets who have been heavily trained in the history of English poetry have rather more to UN-learn than to learn, when it comes to WCW, a lot of Imagism, and so forth. It all seems very obvious to me, coming from the direction I come from, and not all that radical.

I'm strongly opposed to pandering to the audience. The main reason I'm opposed to it is because I think audiences are a lot more savvy than many writers give them credit for. An audience knows when you're trying to pull one over on them. Audiences are alert to being fooled or patronized—especially now, a century after the first Moderns. One of the lasting influences of Modernism on all literature, it seems to me, has been the emphasis on plain speech and clarity. When a writer is pandering, there is often a bad taste because you can tell they're being insincere. Audiences don't generally like to be deceived.

Beckett, even when it's obscure, is clearly sincere and meant to be just as it is, stripped down to the essentials. There is no filigree—except all there is is a kind of hollow filigree than anyone can see through, which is the point.

I don't think it's about finding the "right" meaning in art. I think it's that, as you say, great art have many layers of meaning which can be found. Sometimes the artist herself or himself isn't aware of some of layers till later. That's certainly true in my case. This is why ambiguity is essential—not for its own sake, no more than obscurity for its own sake is a virtue. But life itself is a complex, ambiguous, not always understandable or meaningful set of experiences and events—and great art mirrors that. The ambiguity comes from the complexity of life itself.

8:07 PM  

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