Poetry and the Problem of Standards

“Building my work, I build myself.”

–  Paul Valéry

“Thought tends to collect in pools.”

– Wallace Stevens

Ordinary readers, literary editors, and some English professors confront an inescapable question of judgment: In principle, is it possible, faced with an overwhelming body of work in print, to cull out excellent poems in the way one can cull out fine diamonds or superb soufflés? Consider the matter carefully: the diamond expert knows the criteria for excellence with great assurance; he can spot an exceptional gem quickly when it comes before him, and his criteria do not change. He may never find an ideal diamond, but he can tell you what it would look like. Similarly a chef who knows her craft can enumerate the qualities of an ideal soufflé and can tell you the precise ways in which any given actual specimen falls short.

But most of us who work with poems, if we are honest, find the matter a bit more complex.  We’re good at recognizing the really bad stuff, and we’re often able to locate the pretty decent stuff, though many of our colleagues will disagree on particular instances even then. But we’d be hard put to define an ideal poem, and we’re sometimes flummoxed by a poem that approaches things from a completely unfamiliar angle, uses a logic we can’t grasp, or eludes paraphrase though we respond viscerally to some of its lines.

Why should this be so? We can imagine many reasons, including the great range of types and styles of poem, the changes in language and expectations over the centuries, and the disparate and competing aesthetics among practitioners in our own time. But none of these really gets to the point, which is that the relation between the poem and its reader is fundamentally different from the relation between a diamond and a jeweler or a soufflé and a gourmet. Once they have learned the fine points of their respective vocations – a process that admittedly may take years – both the jeweler and the gourmet are in possession of a fixed body of knowledge that will not alter, regardless of the number of diamonds or soufflés they encounter. But the literary person is in a different, more precarious position: a very good poem changes the observer, enlarging his understanding and his imagination, just as it changed the poet who wrote it.

You do not hold a poem up against a crystalline paragon that has always existed in your mind (though you may recognize instantly that a given poem fails to achieve something a similar poem did superbly); instead you examine the new associations a poem has provided you with (assuming it has) and decide whether they expand your mind, your self, your equipment for dealing with the world.[*] This may not be an instantaneous process. A new poem may leave you intrigued but baffled. You may love certain details, find the rhythms seductive, but lose the thread of the argument or suspect the poem of slipping into irrelevancy at points. Only over time does it sometimes happen that you come to see how the disparate parts of the poem draw together previously unassociated perceptions to create a more comprehensive understanding of, and response to, the world in which you function. We might in fact propose this as a defining characteristic of any art: an encounter between the observer and the work is inherently unstable because it changes the observer, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

Given that we can know only retrospectively that a particular poem was a decisive experience for us, how can we hope to determine, even in theory, what we ought to be looking for? One might equally well ask, how can we determine what sorts of friends we should choose? And the answer is similar: we look for friends (and poems) whose general characteristics we tend to admire on the basis of disposition and past experience. Sometimes we are disappointed, sometimes we are rewarded, and very occasionally we are astonished. In the latter case, if we are so fortunate, we’re forced to enlarge our notion of what a friend – or a poem – can be. We are altered by our discovery.

It is if course possible to find something you weren’t looking for at all and to be bowled over by it. Serendipity does not happen often in either the social or the literary realm – but when it does it can be a life-changing experience, the more so because it expands the mind and spirit in ways one did not anticipate and was not seeking. Surprising conversions have come about at such moments.

I don’t mean to suggest that the daily lives of literary people are romantic and filled with sudden illuminations; for the most part they are as full of drudgery and disappointment as anybody’s. But they are qualified by the two-edged faculty of responsiveness. Responsiveness to the world at large, and responsiveness to well expressed perceptions of that world, both their own and those of others. I say two-edged because while the responses are sometimes those of delight and enthusiasm, they can also be of horror, pain, or deep suspicion. And just as some personalities are oriented toward a more ironic, skeptical, or stoic view of the world, while others cultivate a reassuring and consoling attitude, so some readers of poetry will gravitate to the likes of Franz Wright or Kay Ryan while others will seek out poets in the mode of Mary Oliver.

* * *

But if readers are changed by their experience and therefore constitutionally incapable of determining a priori what a great poem ought to look (or sound) like, how do we account for the existence of anthologies, freshman English syllabi, or any other areas of agreement, however imperfect, on the notable poets and the notable poems of this or any previous age? Barbara Herrnstein Smith in her book Contingencies of Value does a nice job of showing the logical untenability of absolute standards in aesthetic matters. She is equally effective at showing that relativist postures likewise offer no help in negotiating the various cultural debates or – more practically – in guiding us toward a canon that we can pass on to the young. What she does not manage to do is to account for the existence – albeit in rough form – of any canon at all.

The model for acquiring sophistication in the realm of literature is not – or not strictly – the learning of many details and nuances of the art, as is the case in, say, medicine, but rather the process of maturing as a personality. It is an old and familiar story: a young person is raised by her parents, learns values and styles of interaction from them, perhaps objects to some of these while embracing others, and eventually goes out into the world (which may include a university), where she has new encounters and choices to make. Some of the choices involve persons to associate with, adopt as mentors or friends, or now and then reject. Some associations prove valuable for her later enjoyment, understanding, and at least partial mastery of the world, while others have negative effects. As time goes on she acquires intuitions about which associations will likely be rewarding and which probably spell trouble. If her personality is of another sort, she may seek out trouble and shun comfort. In short, she is able to steer herself toward influences she senses will reinforce tendencies in herself that she values. And the more such encounters she has, the more complex and nuanced her personality becomes, and in turn the finer her intuitions become about other potential influences in her life.

This is true not only of human associates but also of books, music, and other aesthetic encounters – and for the same reason, namely that such associates alter her mind and personality in large and small ways and thus affect the kind of life she will come to lead. At certain junctures she may make choices with a very clear intention of enlarging or enhancing a certain aspect of her life. So far I am describing the unremarkable – but in some ways quite miraculous – life course of a single individual. But it is also noteworthy that, unique as are the influences and choices comprising this woman’s experience, they are sufficiently similar to those of others that as she matures she will very  likely find a community of like-minded persons to whom she is drawn. And with them she will discuss  attitudes toward child-rearing, movie preferences , politics, other friends, books, perhaps even poetry.  She will not agree with all these people on all these matters; in fact frequently there may be vigorous disputes, sometimes backed up by cogent arguments but more often  not. Yet out of these encounters a set of shared preferences begins to gel, even though nothing like unanimity prevails or ever could.

What of the people our friend cannot find common ground with? For surely we see that if she is a cultural conservative – who prefers classical music to heavy metal or political compromise to revolution – she will be less happy among natural rebels, contrarians, and social or cultural anarchists. They will find their own comrades, and their preferences in many areas, including the arts, will be markedly different. Thus we would expect to find sets of preferences clustering around congeries of people who loosely fit certain descriptors: traditionalists, anti-traditionalists, experimentalists,  synthesizers, avant-gardists, and so forth. Obviously these are potentially overlapping categories, and a few works of art succeed in appealing to several of them at the same time. But reasoned debate among the proponents of one aesthetic versus another is generally impossible because the proponents are championing some of the deepest elements of their personalities, those by now almost hard-wired preferences and responses that define who they are and who they wish to become.

We poets and critics are therefore in a peculiar situation where no one’s expertise is definitive, where many people  argue with passionate intensity, where no one can be proven wrong, and yet where the art of poetry remains, in the words of Willa Cather on a different subject, battered but not diminished. A few weeks back the New York Times ran a series of columns by Errol Morris on anosognosia, the inability to know what you do not know. It is by and large a dismissive term, applied to people who are so inexpert in a particular field that they fail to recognize their own inadequacies. The writer speculated on the reasons why people would subject themselves to the possibility of ridicule, failure, or even incarceration by claiming expertise far beyond their abilities. And when we’re talking of medical quacks or fanatics who choose to represent themselves in courts of law, the phenomenon can indeed be baffling. And it’s disturbing in the case of incompetent doctors or bad lawyers, who simply are not up on the best thinking or techniques in their profession but are unaware of that. But think of poets … We disdain the book club or teaparty poet, yet there’s hardly a poet worth the name who doesn’t try, every now and then, a task he has no assurance he can accomplish – a task whose magnitude he doesn’t even fully grasp. And similarly, an educated reader or critic approaches each new poem with the awareness, if he’s honest, that it may elude him – that he may fail to penetrate its essence, if there is one. He pits himself against it like a snake wishing to swallow a rat, hoping he can enlarge himself enough to encompass it.

The truth is, I believe, that each of us as an individual reader and critic is inadequate to the task at hand. Solitary though it may seem, poetry is a communal exercise, in which readers inform each other, passing on insights about particular poems, pointing out poets or poems others might have overlooked. Sometimes a technical comment can open a door, as when one says, “See how the line break at just that point injects a fine suspense into the poem and lends that much more force to the following line.” Other times nothing so precise is needed; a reader simply says to another, “Look at that! Isn’t that amazing?” And we grasp the point, if we’re receptive, and grow in the process. Editors, therefore, fallible as they are, perform the crucial function of putting poems before readers that might otherwise have escaped them.

It is hard to deny that many fine poems escape editors too. They face large quantities of unvetted material, with limited time to scan it and make a decision. A good poem often must be read more than once to convey its secrets, but editors encountering unknown work can afford to read each poem only once at most (sometimes a few lines are enough to merit a dismissal). So an unknown poet has a very narrow opportunity in which to make his case. A poet known to the editor may be given more indulgence, but even then excellent things will be missed.  Many poets can tell stories of poems rejected, even by editors who knew them, that later became anthology staples. And it must be recognized that editors have multiple loyalties. They honor excellent writing, but if they care about survival they must also have due regard for the taste and patience of their readers. Readers, even those who think of themselves as open to new writing (and there are precious few of those), will tolerate the totally unfamiliar only so far. Beyond that, most crave the reassurance of an accustomed voice – especially one backed up by a familiar name. Such an attitude is quite consistent with the self-development process I described earlier. So it’s both easy and necessary for an editor now and then to drop back into a comfortable groove.

There is nothing wrong with this. But because we are all conditioned by our circumstances and our peers, editors might profitably perform – perhaps once a decade – a useful mental exercise. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down a dozen salient characteristics of the typical American poem of our time. (I say “American” poem because a British poem will be rather different, and so will a Canadian poem. It would behoove us to be aware of the differences.) It will be hard to do this. Probably we all feel we could generate such a list for the first decade of the twentieth century, and likely for periods twenty years later and twenty years after that. But it gets harder as we get closer to our own time because we’re aware of so much detail and because it’s hard to see what we’re taking for granted. That is the point of the exercise: to become aware of our expectations, to examine them, and to decide whether they limit or enlarge the kinds of poetry we are receptive to.

What I hope this discussion has done is to give flesh to the two epigraphs with which I began: for a poet, building the work is indeed building the self, and conversely, for both poets and readers, the process of building the self entails the assembly and assimilation of many works. That is how the mind is developed. But minds inevitably seek out and feed off other minds. Because they do so with discrimination – drawing close to some and avoiding others – communities emerge, schools form, and thought tends to collect in pools. I am not suggesting that this process moves us toward some superior status, let alone a consistently admirable and immutable canon, but it does change us. And the act of criticism, like poetry itself, serves in its highest form to make us more self-aware, even if it cannot bring opposing camps to the same table.

[*] This, I submit, is what Yvor Winters was driving at when he claimed that a poem, and the reader’s response to it, constituted a moral judgment.

About Jan Schreiber

Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic. His books include Digressions, Wily Apparitions, and Bell Buoys, as well as two books of translations: A Stroke upon the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems and reviews have appeared in the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, Agenda, the Formalist, and many other publications, as well as on-line journals and anthologies. A song cycle, Zeno’s Arrow, based on seven of his poems, was composed by Paul Alan Levi and premiered in 2001.
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  1. First, what on earth is a “tea party poet” and why should all good poets and critics disdain such an individual? What does national politics have to do with any of this?

    I don’t take issue with the author’s idea that writing poems or creating art builds the self. I don’t think that is what is driving his argument here. He seems to want some universal and easily applicable standard or (software?) program for judging a poem. Though I wonder, if he encountered such a thing, would he like it.

    The fact that food and restaurant reviews are two separate substances, and poetry and criticism are not, though they are not exactly the same language either, does not mean the reader or listener of a poem cannot respond with a refreshingly simple response to a poem, like a meal.

    “Oh, what a delicious poem!” Or: “What a delightful and tender tercet!”

    The probelm with so many poems is that they offer very little pleasure. Pleasure is something most sophisticated people understand. They know what turns them on and what does not. Pleasure evokes a simple response, an “ahhh, yes,” if you will. If a poem pleases us, other considerations such as form need not matter. All we have to do in response to such a pleasing experience is convey it to the author, details to follow.

    This may sound too simple, and the author might well reject it in favor of an endless conversation that accomplishes little. Then again, maybe not.

  2. One gets to a diamond with a lot of digging; with time and sweat. And then there is the work of bringing the diamond out of its potential and surface (think of Michelangelo’s “Slaves” in their embryonic awakening); the measuring, the eye of the cut, the steady hand, the first touch………Elizabeth Bishop has such a diamond: “The Fish”. Such poems are an art unearthed.

  3. One of the biggest issues I find with contemporary American poetry is that there is just too much of it being published…and most of it bad, or as the above wrote, “offers very little pleasure.” A recent statistic read that over 1000 books of poetry are published annually in the United States, and mostly by new or unknown poets. Over 1000! Although I am happy to see more doors are opened to poets but this presents an incredible problem. For one, no one has the time, proclivity or stamina to digest so many volumes. Second, its very possible to read 100 volumes of bland poetry and miss the truly valuable gems. Its not to say excellent writing is not being produced, but with so much garbage out there, it truly is like finding needles in haystacks, unless of course, you stick to authors you are familiar with (and like) and follow their publications.

    My third contention is the overwhelming idea/fad etc. that just because you write poems, you should publish them. I have never met a writer of poems who at one point or another desire to publish his/her writing or aspire to some form of publication. Or even worse, when this or that poetaster’s material is read by the layman, that said layman immediately respond by saying, “You should publish this!”

    I find this third issue to be the most troubling. Bad poets are reading bad poetry and since their are commonalities in their both writings, immediately the idea is birthed that “I too should publish my poetry.” If people (who know better) would have more cojones to tell another writer that his personal scribblings are great on his napkins but unfortunately are not fit for publication, perhaps less bad poets would make it into the market. I am all for opening more opportunities for new and established poets but I wish there was a better bullshit filter.

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