Thursday, April 3, 2014

Puzzling over Value #4 Working up from the basement.

The logic of all this nagging at value is the unavoidable proof that all poetic value is contingent, and ultimately subjective.

What constituted good poetry for the Anglo Saxon Scop didn’t pass muster for the Middle English makar, and Wyatt’s courtly lyric was not Spenser’s ground for either the Fairy Queen or the Shepherd’s Calendar.  Coleridge and Wordsworth rebelled against their past, as did Pound and Eliot for whom Coleridge and Wordsworth were the past, and their standards of excellence in turn were rejected or replaced or adapted by others.

The major difference between ‘now’ and ‘then’, is that while the Scop could be fairly sure that everyone shared an idea of what a good ‘poem’ was supposed to sound like, since the end of the 19th century definitions of what constitute a good poem have proliferated to the point we’re at today where there are so many fragmented versions. No one should make the mistake of thinking that in music the same standards of excellence apply to all forms of the art. No one should assume the virtuoso on the concert platform and the kid in the garage band trashing three chords on an out of tune guitar should be judged by the same criteria.  But we do it all the time in poetry, talking as though it were homogenous. As if all poems were similar and all poets had similar aims and ambitions. 

 When Coker trashed Keats in the Quarterly Review, underwriting the attack was that by the generally accepted definitions of the time,  Endymion was not a good poem. The grounds of the judgment are there, in the judgment. Today there are so many different versions of what a good poem is that one writer’s idea of drivel is another’s award winning entry.

Doesn’t change the fact those definitions are contingent. (OED uses 2,4,6,7)

Anyone who doesn’t want to accept this is either willful or ignorant, or willfully ignorant.  Anyone trying to argue that there is some Platonic eternal aesthetic standard of truth or beauty or ‘Poetry” which exists outside  of time and language might as well believe all poets are beta androids from the Planet Zorg:  though the latter would be a much more interesting argument.

However, for a reader,  none of this matters. I enjoy The Shooting of Dan Mcgrew as much as I enjoy The Waste Land, or Briggflatts or the OE Wulf and Eadwacer. I like a great many of Kipling’s poems and if you don’t, I really couldn’t care.  I suspect Graves was right, these poems appeal to me for private reasons. I just cannot like Auden’s poetry: I suspect that says more about me than it does about them.

As honest subjective response there is no problem with a reader saying “I think Briggflatts is great” it says more about /I/ than the poem. The problem comes when the critic steps from “I think Briggflatts is great” to “Briggflatts is (or is not) a great poem”.

One of the ways literary discourse side-stepped this problem was to substitute ideological scrutiny for any kind of discussion of artistic value. Admittedly this makes a certain type of literary scholar feel good about himself /herself and side steps the equally difficult question: Why are you doing this? Identifying hetero normative discourse in 19th Century poems, or the presence of 17th Century standards in 17th Century poems passes as a meaningful activity in some circles.

But what happens to the person interested in Poetry as an art form who wants to ask or discuss: Is this made thing well made? Criticism is always “equal to, better than, less than”. But the question is equal to, better than, less than WHAT? And on which grounds?

I think the only honest way to go is to establish one’s own examples of excellence, and be able to verbalise what is excellent about them. In which case the conversation avoids Graves’ psychological function, and there is the honesty of  “I think this is a good poem because it meets my standards of  ‘good’ which are ….”


This would avoid so many pointless, heated arguments, the participants could see at the start that since their definitions of excellence do not match, it’s unlikely that they are ever going to agree about anything, and they can spend the time they would have wasted arguing reading the poems they like.

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