Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2001
Subject: Re: "New" Poet / "values" [Niss]


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 Merrill---

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 poems.

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 are novices.

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," architecture, diction.

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 in.

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 them toward?

(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 simplistic,...

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 font poet.

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.