Rancor, Dismissal, and the Failure Rate of Poetry

An examination of the cultural dialogue of poetry.

Take 1
Over the weekend I met with Stephanie and she pointed out a section of a Billy Collins essay in which he agreed with a friend of his who had recently determined that “83% of contemporary American poetry” being written today was simply not worth reading. This is a bold statement to make, but one I’d hazard to guess that many poets writing today would make on their own behalf as well. Although we’d never agree on what constitutes that mystical 17% of “good” work, we can all agree that it does seem these days that only a small percentage of what’s being written seems to really speak to this.

Please do not read this as me agreeing with the way Billy Collins has chosen to structure this argument. The statement in question is excertped from Collins’s introduction to his Best American Poetry offering for 2006, an introduction conspicuously lacking a discussion of what Collins perceives as good—as all previous editors have done. Collins states simply the poems in the anthology are poems he “likes,” and I would actually admit that this rationale is good enough for me: after all, why empiricize something inherently subjective? Who among us could sincerely enumerate the intangible listing of qualities we respond to in poems? So, Billy, I understand where your sentiment comes from. But I think you’re making dangerous statements.

Take 2
I was directled by C. Dale’s blog toward a discussion of Dan Chiasson’s poetry reviews as reviewed by Bill Knot (go here to get caught up). Knott takes Chiasson’s seemingly insubstantial review standards to task by interrogating Chiasson’s need for and choice of an “accessible poet” who could be enjoyed by students of poetry as well as the “average reader.”

What struck me here wasn’t Knott’s argument, but the rancor and dismissal with which both he—and, apparently, Chiasson—reject the work of other poets. Is dismissal the strongest, sharpest tool in the critic’s toolbelt? It would seem so.

Take 3
I remember a while back there was a big buzz among bloggers regarding response to a Mary Oliver poem that concerned a dead, deformed kitten. The conversation that erupted on the topic gleefully tore the poem apart. Some poets offered thoughtful revisions of the poem from their own aesthetic; others mocked and ridiculed Oliver’s unfortunate, Degrassi Junior High-like subject matter. Here, too, the conversation was less about the topic and more about the mode of communication: Oliver and her poem became as violated as an African zebra unzipped inside a circle of ravenous lions—they weren’t just feeding, they were relishing the kill.

The Moral of the Story
I recognize that, at times, I’m just as capable of this kind of horrifying display of rhetoric. Any time I have to put on what a coworker recently alluded to as the “Crazy Gay Guy Hat” (but in her own case, the Crazy Feminist Girl Hat), I spout this kind of rancor. It’s not fair, and I’m growing increasingly more and more concerned that instead of furthering a critical discussion, the medium becomes the message: the rhetoric bears more weight than the argument contained therein.

Stephanie and I talked at length about another essay, this one by Tony Hoagland, in which the rhetoric relied on qualifiers to move toward a conclusion or consensus. Instead of delineating poetry succinctly, Hoagland relies on statements like “I value ____ in poetry,” which to me seems a much more honest and constructive response. The other conversations do not wear their values on their sleeve; in fact, few of the examples noted above clearly describe what their values even are.

When we write from the perspective of sincere criticism, of mutual understanding, the dialogue is more effective. To say 83% of American poetry isn’t worth reading, Stephanie said, isn’t as effective as discussing what makes the other 17% valuable. I thought it a brilliant remark: why do we, as poets, move first toward shutting out what we don’t value rather than what we support?

All this delineation is slicing a small pie into smaller and smaller pieces. I’m not saying we need to like each other. I’m not saying, per se, that we even need to value each other. I’m saying that the base level of respect among artists must be: You have a right to do your work your way. We will all have our visceral responses, yes. We should. It signifies our investment level in an artform that is often undervalued or overlooked.

But what does this poetic rancor accomplish other than—essentially—making some people feel bad while others feeling better about themselves? If I constantly listed the poets I read whose work had little impact on me, I’d have little else to say. But it’s important to me, in this blog, to support the poets whose work influences me, who are doing things that amaze and surprise me, and to me, that discussion has more overall value for us as artists. Why are we focusing so much on the things that don’t work when the world is full of significant things, wonderful things that deserve our attention and focus?

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