It’s odd – when I’m working on legal writing sometimes I benefit by switching gears, working on non-legal writing, then moving back to legal writing. Other times it seems I’ve a fixed amount of words in me, regardless of the format. I have an insane amount of non-legal (mostly poetry) writing to get to and a handful of open offers for publication of whatever eventually tumbles out of my head. These seem, if anything, to slow my process down even more. Go figure.
To crawl out of my head and stagger towards some poetry news:
M. Ayodele Heath is teaching a free community poetry workshop in Atlanta under the auspices of GA Tech. If you have the knack to write, look into this. Ayodele is a class act and thanks to the McEver chair, will be able to (without starving) share his knowledge and spirit with the writing community of Atlanta. The McEver chair is such a great resource for the city’s literary community.
In non-poetry news, The Imbrolio has passed the bar!
In other poetry-ish news, Seth’s been berating David Lehman’s Best American Poetry 2006 on his blog and elsewhere. I’ve been pressed somewhat reluctantly into the role of Billy Collins apologist before, and while it’s not a role I regret taking on, I think it’s time to take a slightly different tack.
I don’t disagree with Seth’s criticisms as far as they go. Seth’s proposals are structural and seem equitable; they fine insofar as they’d address what is becoming a sort of perennial anxiety over the BAP.
However, his suggestions don’t address a problem that I’ve been chewing on for many years. Now seems as good a time as any to air it on the blog. Basically, I'm troubled by the lack of a publicly accessible vocabulary for meaningful critical praise (of poetry). I think this lack of a critical vocabulary (and hence critical discourse) is one of the major root causes for our difficulty in discussing what is “good” poetry, let alone what is “the best” poetry - and so we tend to argue by various proxies, such as the equity of publication oppertunities in the hopes that the poetry market would begin to balance itself were everyone's starting chances equalized. To apply this to the context of the BAP, wouldn’t it make more sense to be able to quickly show just why the “nepotistic” poems in the BAP were clearly not as good as PoemX, left out of the BAP which accomplishes X, Y, and Z? We could then criticize the editors for not doing a good job, rather than trying to hardwire equity/transparency into the process.
In a nutshell, the critic used to tell you what was good and bad about a work of poetry and whether or not you should read it. Then comes deconstruction and post-modernism, poof go the standards, and we’re stuck with a kind of weird critical stance that flops between the hyper-mushy gloss and the exegesis-for-thesis. (Yeah, Yeah, I know, but it’s a nutshell, ya know?)
Anyway, what we currently don’t have is someone(s) who is able to consistently articulate the unique beauties of a poem or a collection of poems. Actually, that’s not true – we have a number of people who can do that, have done that, here and there, mostly without response. What we don’t have is a significant web or print presence that consistently tenders these types of positive criticisms and/or sustains discussion about what poetry accomplishes. Instead we have mostly harsh criticism pointing out the defects in work, personal backbiting, and critiques of publication practices, not (tellingly, I think) a public dialogue on the *merits* of the poems themselves. (I don’t mean to impugn Seth’s hard look at the politics behind BAP publication – it’s necessary to ask these types of questions).
I suspect it’s pretty close to an emperor-with-no-clothes situation. Some of the most vehement critics of this or that practice (rightly so, perhaps) are themselves unable to articulate, in a positive fashion, what they value in another poet’s work. While this does not render their criticisms invalid, it does leave something of a void in the sense that the conversation never seems to progress into a normative discussion of, for example, what *ought* to be considered BAP and why. When there is endorsement, it’s usually just that (and usually an endorsement of the poet, not the poetry) – there’s seldom a sustained effort to criticize, in an open eyed and positive way, other poets’ works. I suspect this lack of an ability to critically praise is endemic in the poetry community.
It’s really a shame. If you think of almost any other kind of narrative art (using narrative in the loosest sense): music, movies, novels, plays, etc., there’s a kind of seamless ebb and flow of critical discussion which touches on what people like and find excellent, and don’t like and find trite or boring. There’s too little of that in poetry. Perhaps the workshop model impedes developing this kind of dialogue. Then too, perhaps the few positive examples (late career glosses, craft-focused surveys or "how to" essays) limit us. For many reasons (too many to go into here) I think that the English Lit./exegetical type of responses aren’t quite what we need to fill the gap as they’re often too dense, jargonish, and seek to emulate the hard sciences in tendering a unique point about such-and-such. I’m thinking of a more down-to-earth kind of dialogue – again, like the kind you could find if you open the local arts paper and read a review of a play or a film. A piece of writing you can walk away from with some basic idea of “what the poem/book is like” and some guidance on the question of: “do I want to seek it out?”
In any event, I’ve been wrestling with this problem for a long time but few people have responded to my bringing it up.
If anyone has any thoughts for how we could begin to establish a commonly used critical vocabulary/dialogue, I’d like to hear them.