Sunday, May 08, 2005


A good deal of talk over the past week about principles of evaluation, of selection, of taste. Of why we value some poets, some poems over others. Jonathan Mayhew defends distinctions of taste as the only distinctions worth arguing over; Casey Mohammad concurs, with a number of provisos:

“Some common-sense starting points: a) taste, personal or otherwise, is always cultivated by external influences, some of which at least can be traced and critically examined; b) accordingly, taste is never completely "personal" as such; c) just because it tastes good doesn't mean you should eat it.”

And then there’s Josh Corey's long-running defence of the “avant-garde” against, among others, people who argue that the term as he uses it simply means “the poetry Josh likes.”

Eric Selinger, ever the hedonist, gravitates to particular poems on the basis of the pleasure they afford, citing Zukofsky’s “test of poetry,” the pleasures it affords as “sight, sound, and intellection.” That emphasis on pleasure is something I suspect most of us share – we don’t want to read, after all, what we don’t on some level enjoy (although enjoyment, as Mark Wallace once reminded me, ought to be distinguished from entertainment). There are certain reading experiences that can’t be accomodated to any definition of pleasure I recognize – Hegel, for instance, or any sociology textbook; which is not to say some readers don’t take pleasure from the former. I find the Marquis de Sade a tremendous bore on the page (though interesting in theory), but I know he has a devoted readership.

And I, like Josh, am struck by Eric’s happy phrase “pleasures of character” – “a pleasure in the character I have to or get to inhabit when I ‘accept’ a work and read it well – and, conversely, that character can keep me at a distance from any given poem even when its pleasures of sight or sound or intellection beckon me across the great divide” – which I think might be turned back to its Greek equivalent, ethos, giving us “ethical” pleasure. This of course treads quite close to the politicizing of taste, or perhaps the uncovering of an ethico-political substratum we hadn’t recognized. There’s a vulgar way of doing this (Josh might recall one of his Cornell professors asking me, after a talk I’d given on biography, “What I’m trying to ask, Mark, is do you see your work as radical or reactionary?”), and then there’s a more light-hearted way, as in Eric’s “I don't want to be the reader of work like this: which means, I guess, that don't want to embody, even temporarily, the values and desires that underwrite it, and don't want to act the role, even briefly, of a member of its target demographic.” (What that shakes down to in some cases, one might guess, is “Do I want to be a black-turtlenecked Shprockets guest?” or “Do I want to be a tight-lipped commisar deciding who goes to the re√ęducation center and who gets shot immediately?”)

What I distrust in the end are programmatic statements of aesthetic value, blanket dismissals of entire segments of the aesthetic field – the “puritanism” I mentioned a few posts ago. Despite St. Theodor Adorno of the Wrinkled Brow’s scorn for “culinary” aesthetic evaluation, I still find the category of “taste” a useful one.

It’s obvious, as Casey points out, that anyone’s taste is a function of both psychological and sociological roots – that what “speaks to us” or excites us or gives us pleasure in particular texts is a function of the way our minds work (the way we process the world), our social and educational background, the particular accidents of our circumstances. (My own obsession with 17th-century culture, from Milton to the English Revolution to the 30 Years War, can probably be traced to the happenstance of being reared in a fundamentalist, King James Version-using church, and seeing the rather dreadful costume epic Cromwell – Richard Harris as OC, Alec Guinness as Charles I, a very young Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert – at a very impressionable age.)

But those backgrounds and accidentals are what make us human beings, after all. I find it much more interesting when Ron Silliman admits that he doesn’t really “get” sculpture than when he’s busily sorting poets into “post-avant” and “school of quietude” cubbies, like a printer’s devil redistributing type. And I love it when he admits to finding something admirable in Donald Justice’s poetry.

The 2 issues I keep returning to in my own narrow head:

1) The issue of categories – whether “avant-garde” or “post-avant” or “school of quietude” or “official verse culture” or (my own favorite) “School of Mark.” Anytime you trot out one of those terms, you’ve committed yourself to some degree of reductionism. Some categories have more historical validity than others – the Surrealists hung together, had something of a hierarchy, were a coherent movement; clearly most of the Language Poets saw themselves as part of some sort of “thing.” But the minute someone says “Language Poetry is…” or “The Objectivists were…” my heart sinks, because I know that once she or he’s gotten past the chronological and biographical data, something reductive is about to be said. (And yes, I’ve done it myself, lots of times.)

But that doesn’t mean that we can dispense with categorizing, with on some level thinking of poets and poems as being related to one another – not as long as there are so damned many poems out there to read, such a vast sea of written art that confronts us. In an ideal world, we might not need to think in terms of “this poem is rather like this other one I’ve read before,” or “poet X writes rather like poet Y but…” But that kind of thinking is really indispensible to making one’s way through what’s out there, and I suspect it’s part of our hard-wiring. And of course one can’t do anything like literary history without being able to set up at least provisional categories. But we need to keep those categories as provisional and disposable as possible. Yes, both John Lennon and George Harrison are (dead) ex-Beatles, just as both George Oppen and Carl Rakosi were once “Objectivists.” But those terms don’t help us much in comparing Life With the Lions and Cloud Nine, or This In Which and Ex Cranium, Night.

2) This very act of scrutinizing one’s own taste, of trying to figure out its foundations. Endlessly fascinating, I’ll admit: what’s the relationship between my own childhood obsession with busy, scrupulously detailed picture-books (Richard Scarry at his best, or Renaissance battle panoramas in which every last soldier is picked out in scary detail) and my long-standing obsession with long, intricately worked poems? Is my disquiet with badly-performed theater related to that repeated grammar school nightmare about having to deliver my class report sans trousers?

It’s endlessly fascinating, yes, but I’m not sure it’s endlessly fruitful, at least in terms of one’s own writing. Probably more salutary than its flip side, which is to take one’s own preferences – for coherency, incoherence, radical juxtaposition, workaday speaking voice, whatever – and to try to build a system out of them. To take on, that is, the old philosophical project of adumbrating an aesthetics. One always seems to end up casting the poets out of the republic altogether, or at least casting out someone you’d rather not lose, and then having to insert some inelegant patch into the program in order to cover that particular oversight.

So for the nonce – however long that might be (and the blog will be taking a vacation much of next week, as I head back to God’s country on some urgent family business) – I’m going to stick with what I suspect I do most convincingly, and what I enjoy most in others’ writing: wee bits of commentary on works that I find interesting, compelling, pleasurable, or stuff that’s failed to appeal to me – in interesting ways.

1 comment:

E. M. Selinger said...

I'd like to pick up on two things you say here, Mark, in addition to my long post in response (about "Pleasure and Gratification") over at Say Something Wonderful.

First, although I like Casey Mohammad's proviso that taste is never entirely personal--that it emerges from the confluence of education, class, social norms, etc., and individual idiosyncracy--I'm very suspicious of his concluding point: "just because it tastes good doesn't mean you should eat it." Why ever not? What evidence is there that "eating" the wrong poetry ever did anything bad to anyone? Mighty Casey strikes out on that point, unless he--or you, or anyone else--can point me to a case or two. (Supersize me, guys.) Why is it so hard to stop shaking that bossy Puritan finger, let alone that bossy Puritan groove thing? The better analogy is music, where, as Duke Ellington says, "If it sounds good, it IS good." Period.

Second point, about introspection. I agree that there isn't often much to be gained by dwelling on the personal sources of our tastes, except perhaps when you're writing the lead for an entertaining essay. I do think, though, that it's often very helpful to track down that training-in-taste that Casey speaks of. Think of how the old textbook "Sound and Sense" tried to school generations of students to tell "Bad Poetry from Good" and "Good Poetry from Great," or the various projects of rejection and recovery that critics (and poets) have engaged in for the last century or so. Such tracking, though, seems to me most useful only if it's done in the Freudian manner, to free us from repression, rather than to cultivate a new, putative "freedom" from cultural norms, which generally entails tugging on one of those scratchy black "Shprockets" turtlenecks and forgetting how to dance.