Wednesday, January 23, 2013

you probably don't have an opinion on poetry

Following the second inauguration and the poem read by Richard Blanco, there has been a lot of joke-making and forced levity from the usual circles about poetry. (It says a lot about our times that people so often feel a burning need to be clever on command.) As you'd expect, making fun of poetry was a bipartisan activity. Personally, I can't separate my aesthetic take on that particular poem from my take on the day's politics, nor would it be intelligent to try, so I won't offer an appraisal. But it seems that poetry is being discussed in large part as a stand-in for a certain kind of culture, and that's interesting.

Now, I could easily write a critical take on all this. I read a poem that is better than 2,000 years old the other day and enjoyed it; you can make your own judgment about the longevity of the Downton Abbey recap you just wrote. But really, it's not necessary. Poetry-- like long-form fiction, orchestral music, abstract visual art, and difficult movies-- needs no defense. Poetry is to be enjoyed. If you don't enjoy it, don't read it. I read hand-wringing pieces about whether the kids these days are reading great novels, and I'm always perplexed. Who cares? I read them. I don't care about whether other people are interested, nor do I associate reading novels with virtue. It affects whether I'm interested in someone romantically and impacts whether I find someone interesting, sure, but outside of the aggregate impulses of friendship, why does it matter?

Where things become dicey is in the enforcement of dislike. Many people experience anxiety about media and culture they have a vague notion they're supposed to like. I am sorry that they feel that anxiety. They shouldn't! I think young people should be exposed to lots of different kinds of art and media, but once you're past the age of taking a curriculum, yuo should enjoy what you enjoy and not worry about the rest. But that doesn't excuse efforts to undermine other people's enjoyment. Depending on how charitably you read this piece, you can call this either the Dan Kois effect or the reverse Dan Kois effect: I consider myself a sophisticate, yet I don't like a certain kind of artwork, therefore I must undermine the very possibility of someone else liking it. This is uncharitable, and bound up with the endless signalling and personality assembly that underlies our digital media. Because I'm a masochist, I did a Twitter search for "poetry sucks" and "poetry is bad" and a few similar terms after the inauguration. The results were as you might expect.

(I would suggest that if as an adult you saying something that is indistinguishable from an eight grader complaining about his English teacher, you might reconsider.)

Now, I can't manage to occupy the headspace that would dismiss an entire medium; it's like saying "movies are bad." I haven't seen every movie so I can't say what all movies are like. You can certainly say "I don't like movies," and while I would suggest that you try a few more, it's your prerogative. And you can say "most movies don't really rise to a level of being good art." I've said the same about video games, in the process of defending them as an art form. But even with those more limited statements, you'd probably want to be vaguely familiar with the landscape. I mean I wouldn't want to say that most movies are bad if I haven't seen more than a dozen in the past year.

So my suggestion is that if you can't name five contemporary poets writing today, if you haven't read a collection published in the last five years, if there was no poem that could have been read that would have made you happy, if you don't have favorite poets-- you probably should just stick to "I didn't like that poem" or "I don't enjoy poetry." In that case, jam on; it takes all kinds. It's okay not to like things. The universalizing impulse is a problem, though, and likely not generated by an honest reaction but rather to be seen in a certain way by your peers. I would argue that if you know nothing about poetry and say that it's all bad, you don't have an opinion, a reaction, or a feeling. You have a signal.

11 comments:

Unknown said...

Harder than I thought. Only four living ones I can come up with off the top (I was an English major, but it was a long, long time ago)

Kay Ryan
Daniel Mark Epstein
John Ashbery
Philip Levine

I think it wouldn't be bad if every U.S. congresscritter was made to read Lowell's "For The Union Dead," giant finned cars and all.

Andrew Ivers said...

The point I would take you up on is that there’s little connection between immediate, narrow-minded reactions and whether or not people enjoy reading poetry or novels (or put another way, that it is wrong to have ill-informed reactions but that it matters little if people enjoy reading literature). I’m not sure if there’s data to back up this assertion, but I’ve found that reading disciplines the mind in a way few other endeavors can. It probably isn’t the only way to discipline the mind, but in my personal experience it has been a way both to broaden my awareness of diverse perspectives (present and past -- some very far past) and teach me to talk to myself in an honest and ongoing way. Reading -- seeing just how many other ideas and realities my own thoughts are up against -- has taught me the value of holding off on my own opinion until it has matured and been tested against others. The time spent alone with my own thoughts (and the ideas of those I’m reading) is usually the most productive in terms of contemplation and reassessment. I would argue this is because of the intense engagement and concentration a medium like the written word demands. (This is the reason I think reading is unique, but I have been talking about my own personal experience of reading here because I’ll at least acknowledge that it might not be the only way people learn, concentrate, reflect on ideas, etc.)

My question for you is whether you see a connection between the unpopularity (from what I can tell) of this kind of reading and the kind of ill-informed, emotional, knee-jerk expressions you’re criticizing. I personally think it does matter that reading -- not even complicated reading, either -- is not the same kind of pastime it was when baby boomers were growing up. I don’t really care if people aren’t reading much poetry, or complicated novels -- I think it’s fine to leave those to the people who enjoy them. But many adults and young adults don’t even seem to have reading -- sustained, focused reading of a single book or a long article or two, which is not the same as reading bits and pieces online every morning -- in their daily lives as a means of concentrating their minds and humbling them a little bit. I would much rather students be taught the value of this type of reading in and of itself (no matter the material) than be forced to contemplate certain types of literary writing only to end up resenting all book-reading.

Am I making a false connection between these two? This is something I contemplate often and I'd be interested in your take.

alkali said...

Per the comment by "Unknown", this was also harder than I thought. I think of myself as "liking" poetry but realistically poetry occupies less than 5% of my leisure reading, and I read a collection of new poems only every few years. I was able to name 5 living poets only after asking myself a few variations of "Is [poet first active in postwar period] still alive and working?" A.E. Stallings is the only poet that came to mind who is in my general age group.

It is true that one of the nice things about poetry is that you can zip back and forth in time a bit -- I recently re-read some Emily Dickinson, and over the past few years I read some minor 20th century poets like Phelps Putnam and David Schubert.

Anonymous said...

“I read hand-wringing pieces about whether the kids these days are reading great novels, and I'm always perplexed. Who cares? I read them. I don't care about whether other people are interested, nor do I associate reading novels with virtue.”

What’s that stat, like 40% plus of college grads never reading another book? Great novels, hell, any novels. I know this might sound a touch caustic, but as like, a fucking educator, one might think you’d care about the epidemic of illiteracy in this country. I’ve got news for you, Boilermaker, most college students in America can’t get their subjects and verbs to agree. Worse yet, this lurch to ignorance is all part of the plan. A dumb as rocks populace succored digitally is so much easier to manipulate. But, yeah, keep going on about how what you consume doesn’t define you, a parlor discussion among elites.

Chris Hedges discussed this a few years back:

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081110_america_the_illiterate/

Freddie said...

I care about their brains. Their emotive hearts belong to them.

The Poet's Soapbox said...

Maybe the real issue here is that (a) most people are not encouraged to try out different forms of cultural expression - for the majority, if it can't be downloaded straight into our smartphone and read off a screen, too much effort is involved in accessing it, and (b) people are not encouraged to think CRITICALLY about the media with which they're engaging. It's OK to engage with a poem/play/film/book/artwork and come to the conclusion that you hate it - and you can learn a lot about yourself and the world by exploring WHY you hate it. But that's a completely different thing from deciding you have a blanket dislike of every art form which takes a bit of effort.

I've got some sympathy for Anonymous's concern that this lack of critical thinking goes much deeper than just a tendency to blanket-dismiss the cultural arts. This may be just one symptom of a much deeper societal malaise - and one that happens to be quite convenient for the vested interests of the world. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the world's revolutionaries were also poets, novelists and playwrights.

Andy (who still can't believe he's just used the phrase "societal malaise" in a blog comment... :) )

Greg Sanders said...

Poetry-- like long-form fiction, orchestral music, abstract visual art, and difficult movies-- needs no defense. Poetry is to be enjoyed. If you don't enjoy it, don't read it. I read hand-wringing pieces about whether the kids these days are reading great novels, and I'm always perplexed. Who cares?

I think this argument might prove too much or may have larger implications. What do you think of mandatory humanities training via English classes in high school or the like. I think there's many good argument for optional classes, but if we don't care, should we just let people drop them and focus on other areas? Alternately, if you'd favor a no mandatory classes model, should we be encouraging students to take those classes even if they don't enjoy the material?

j r said...

"We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth."

Right, this minority of which you speak, the NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading iconoclasts (and whoever their right-leaning equivalent are), are our only hope.

This is precisely the reason that I've never bought into the idiocracy thesis. From where I sit, some of the most idiotic stuff I see is made and consumed by my upper-middle class, over-educated peers. This just seems like another way of enforcing a false-elitism and blaming everything on the proles.

Charles said...

"I care about their brains. Their emotive hearts belong to them."

I think that's an untenable distinction that involves a misunderstanding of what a human being is.

Anonymous said...

“Right, this minority of which you speak, the NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading iconoclasts (and whoever their right-leaning equivalent are), are our only hope.”

Yeah, that was soooo exactly his point. That the sheeple should be euthanized, clearing the deck so the intellects among us can have it out, ideally in riotous blog-fare. It couldn’t be that he was just pointing out and bemoaning an obvious reality, that our educational system is a colossal, mindfucking failure at all-but-elite levels or that this is what allows the machine to churn across the landscape unopposed.

Of course some of the most idiotic tripe is churned out by folks like Yggles and Ezra. After all, fellas gotta get paid. But Hedges is hardly Mencken (he of the "booboisie") or even Matt Taibbi carping about peasants.

Anonymous said...

"I care about their brains. Their emotive hearts belong to them."

"I think that's an untenable distinction that involves a misunderstanding of what a human being is."

But it must be tenable if one is to pose so artfully.