Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2001
Subject: Re: "New" Poet / "values"
About your response viz. "quality" (points excerpted below)/"can't
judge ... brilliantly/worst poet imaginable"---
and to conflate that with your other thread abt. John Ashbery/James
John Ashbery had the reputation for being the most generous
poet anyone would ever meet.
(Harry Mathews brought out that obvious characteristic of John
Ashbery's, in an interview I did with Mathews in 1988.)
You couldn't show John Ashbery a poem he wouldn't like, wouldn't find
some good in.
And if he a priori found anything likeable/attractive about
the person, the poem was a shoe-in.
Any student of his, anyone who encountered him must've discovered this,
I think: there would be a single line he'd pull out, a single word
("It made me think how many times I read the word 'the' and yet
never tire of seeing it"!)
John Ashbery has even said, in interviews, that given a student who
writes in a style he personally doesn't follow or espouse, such as Confessionalism,
he supported the stud. in trying to write "better" Confessionalist
There are people, Millie, about whom it's proverbially cooed, "He
never said an unkind word about anyone." It's not a bad thing to
be approving, encouraging, and nurturing, ---especially where the students
Consider: the closer to an "ideal" any writer approaches
embodying (the case with John Ashbery, who is living paragon to whole
generations of imitators and admirers), the further that writer falls
short of a Still-Unattainable that's envisioned.
(Another John Ashbery interview where he said Wallace Stevens
used to scare him, because he realizes he'd never be able to write like
that, at that calibre.)
If you're a James Joyce scholar, what's the point in
even discussing or commenting upon anyone else's writing, since, on
some level, you know that the entire XXth century (pace Pynchon,
et al.) never did/will never reach that level of "command,"
Everybody's a shrimp, when there are giants in the earth.
Whatever mental list you can count off on your fingers --- don't give
yourself too long or cheat --- of English language poets you can name
from the pre-1900s millenium is probably about as many poets
who are worth reading that the language produces, and at that frequency.
But we know so many more contemporary poets than we remember past ones.
The odds of any poem or poet being "supremely" worth your
investment, on some sort of cosmic scale, are quite slim.
(And we know only Modernists. What were the libraries full of early
XXth cent. poetry that are never re-printed...? Should these people
have never been born?)
So, the rest is just your temperament speaking, how you
form judgments, whether you form judgments at all.
As far as your Emerson teacher from Atlantic, pedagogically there is
no evidence that "Spare the rod and spoil the child" works
better in creative writing classes or MFAs programs.
My education has closed me off to more poetry than it has opened
me up to. Indoctrinated taste seals off our capacity to take
How will red-pencilling a MS and writing "cliche'", "redundant",
"trite", and all the other cliché comments that
creative writing teachers are indoctrinated to make,
faster advance students toward some next stage,
than encouraging them to believe there's some kernel of possibility
that continued work (which takes place on their own, to
the degree a writer can tolerate solitude) and guided reading will advance
(In A Wild Salience, a student of Rae Armantrout's collated
the marginal remarks that Armantrout made on poems of hers in a writing
class that Armantrout taught.)
I think it's long since overdue to place "good," "bad,"
"worst," "terrible," etc., permanently under
erasure, banned, as terms--- not to enter into the sort of Flower
Children relativism you're talking about but
in order to see whether you/we can continue to make the same
judgments with more illuminating terms.
"good"/"bad" are universalized, the way
you're using them, when, in fact, in separate cases different criteria
are being exercised in the judgment.
("This poem isn't very good" = "This poem is using a
limited, 4th grade reading level vocabulary of one- and two-syllable
words, few more than five letters long"? = "This poem is using
a florid, Ph.D. level vocabulary that forces me to check the dictionary
every other word, if I am to follow any meaning, and I don't like
being reminded of what I don't know"? = "This poem is embarassing
frank about private matters and I'm uncomfortable having such hair-raising
intimacies revealed to me"? = "This poem is Mister Spock
Vulcan in its emotionless, impersonal neutrality and I believe it needs
to be humanized on some level to have some appeal to any earthling"
= "This poem is..."?)
The "bad" poet you describe who wrote in Gigi and Kristen
fonts on lavender and pink paper had a graphic impulse more like
a painter or visual artist,
and they might be more helpfully taught by being directed toward poetry,
like --- whatever --- Apollinaire's calligrammes, Robert Grenier's
caligraphic ink writing, Spencer Selby's collages, WILLIAM
BLAKE!, etc., where that secondary impulse could be cultivated into
fuller parity with the text.
Someone --- I forget whom (Blake?) --- said:
"There are no great poets in heaven."
---which I had to have explained to me by the commentator who quoted
it: hierarchies of taste or importance are not ultimately leveling,
a "superior" poem does not cancel out the appreciability of
a "minor" poem --- and poems appreciated at different times
for different reasons, in one case a sorrowful Celan miniature
because your woundedness is seeking out its spokesperson, on another
night Milton or Pound because you're more in touch with
your multi-leveled complexity and a sense of history/mythology and need
to be addressed from equally many planes, the next night a "saccharine"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning love sonnet because you are
lost in sentimentality and puppy love and at that hour can only understand
The pleasures of poetry are not homogeneous.
I think there really needs to be more openness toward the determinants
of transitory power that are influencing one's sense of "good"/"bad".
Study of women's poetry written in America before the XXth century
will be reduced to --- whom? --- a teacupful of two or three poets,
at best, unless the reader can transcend prejudices and unreceptiveness
around rhyme, meter, and sentimentality.
Annie Finch, whose project in other respects I sometimes diverge
from, was quite pioneering and recuperative in linking the resurgence
of "formalism" to pre-Modernist women's poetry,--- so that
by again reacquiring the lost capacity to read buh-BUM buh-BUM
buh-BUM buh-BUM "June"/"moon" poetry "breathes
life into" half the population of past poetry.
Your pink and lavender paper poet is much closer and ready for web
publication, where graphics matter more, than a pure 12 pt. Times Roman
P.S. James Merrill's influence is as strong or even more widespread
than John Ashbery's: you're not considering the counter-reformation
of New Formalism, to which Merrill represents a formalist torchbearer.