Date: Sun, 15 Dec 2002
Subject: "good"/"bad" poetry
Although I used to vehemently
reject simplistic "good"/"bad" poetry distinctions
and interrupt conversation if they were used, I've somewhat mellowed,
and I find situations in which the terms make sense, ---especially since,
no matter how thoroughly one seems to have hygenicized one's thinking,
the occasion sure enough always arises where one slips into those all-too-basic
I think they're validly
operative (1) where they're spoken on an assumption of a shared understanding,
so that the terms serve as a form of short-hand for something that both
parties have a common basis for or where further elaboration was undertaken
in nearby texts that can be taken for granted as "Recommended Reading",
where "good"/"bad" are simultaneously translated
back into more extended ideas, (2) where they're used for reasons of
verbal efficiency, and a more accurate and detailed explanation would
prove too lengthy or unwieldly, or a "good"/"bad"
question is not the central point under consideration, so that casualness
of word-choice can be disregarded as peripherally trivial, or (3), their
most frequent use, where you're lacking the critical apparatus to make
more nuanced distinctions.
There are, to follow Nick
Piombino's metaphor, in fact numerous circumstances where standards
about "good"/"bad" meditation, free association
and prayer prevail. --- Some Orthodox Jews, for instance, hold that
any form of prayer that does not exclusively praise G-d but that asks
for something, a petition, is bad prayer or not prayer at all, that
it is a form of magic in its attempt to influence or compel the
deity. Similarly, the same and related prayer-communities reject idolatrous
prayer as bad. Prayer that is performed as a ceremonious, rote recitation
without affective involvement is rejected as "bad" in many
denominations. Or prayer that's done out of superstition. Etc. --- Meditation:
Korean Zen talks about "chich" (a word meaning the sound of
crickets), the chatter of the mind that meditation aims to quiet; so
that if meditation remained completely an ongoing opportunity for the
meditators to, in fact, be making grocery lists in their heads or planning
the weekend, their meditation would be regarded as "bad."
Or meditation, say, with the ulterior motive of gaining prestigious
social standing as a result of Enlightenment, rather than ending suffering
by it. Otherwise there would be no ~schools~ of meditation with teacher
and disciple. The teacher is there to help the disciple move away from
directionless, wasteful, "bad" meditation. --- And, along
with free association, psychoanalysis brings the concept of "resistance,"
the analysand's persistent attempts to refuse, hide, circumvent and
avoid the repressed material that would be a liberatory discovery whose
truth would alleviate symptoms. If an analysand's version of free association
stayed perpetually in a state of resistance, the analyst might eventually
be forced to terminate therapy since it wasn't "getting anywhere"
(Each of these "good"/"bad"
distinctions largely operate out of their own local cultural communities,---
which is where the notorious relativity of such criteria enters
poetry isn't necessarily intrinsically good/bad; but there is
a constant assumption about relative good/bad that underlies
poetry's institutions, even where "bad" would only be the
least superlative in a string of "good," "not as good,"
"very good," etc. The fact that magazines reject some
submissions comes out of a tacit agreement about "good"/"bad".
And book contests and awards are judged with implicit standards of "good"/"bad"
(The *Best* American Poetry).
issue is somewhat deflected by poetry communities' clannish tendency
to see "bad" poetry as principally the style of poetry being
written by opposing poetry communities. (Judgments against "bad"
poetry tend to be global and sweeping: Ron Silliman recently
wrote, "It is not that bad poetry cannot be written in the post-avant
mode - sign on to the Poetics List for awhile".)
I do find myself having
a feeling of "bad poetry" about certain writing that's closer
to my own sympathies, lately, though, in reading much "post-Language
Poetry" or second generation Language. It feels like: my impatience,
an unwillingness to read the poetry from beginning to end, a feeling
of deja-vu,"been there/done that"... My reaction is
probably a case of (3), above, a failure of my critical preparedness:
critical sensibilities that I'd learned or developed for reading 1980s
Language Poetry are somehow not able to re-articulate what's happening
when confronted by a simulacrum of 1980s Language Poetry; what
applies in one case somehow does not carry over to a near look-alike
that shares much the same features, ...although I can't yet say how
I know it's Memorex. In another area of fashion, its attempt at charm
would be called "retro".
I suspect that this sense
of "bad" ---using Language Poetry's own aesthetics (of a poetry
weighted toward the reader as the ultimate arbiter of meaning whose
~active~ involvement must complete the business of meaning)--- comes
out of the impression that the investment or meaning-making that I would
have to rise to the occasion to make would be ~greater~ (more time-
and energy-consuming) than the compositional investment that the writer
is displaying. (There's a problem with poetry-as-materiality-of-the-medium,
too, where the imminence of the materiality conceals or leaves out of
the picture the process that lead up to it, so that it becomes more
difficult to tell the difference between accidental and planned.) There
can be signals in the poetry that strike me as evidence of the hasty,
the underdeveloped, not thought through... so that it becomes completely
disproportionate and kind of absurd for a reader to go sweating out
on a limb over something that includes insufficient cues as to its own
intra-relatedness. I think of this as poetry that's "refusing to
meet me half-way". It's up-ended the desired ~active~ awareness
of the reader by turning the text into an overly passive magma.
Less generally, I also react
negatively ("bad") to the trend's frequent, gratuitous use
of abstract vocabulary (literally abstract, such as "irresistible
force", "restoration", "Statement and persuasion
/ An analysis of the physical aspects", or "actual improvement",---
taken for convenience's sake from a book recently mentioned on the List,
Laura Moriarty's Symmetry, a book with other strengths
and appeal which ---please don't pounce!--- I am otherwise not condemning
or dismissing wholesale) that I find doesn't alert me it's aware of
its own abstraction. Perhaps it moves from an under-examined surface
to depth too capriciously.
Foreground/background and field-&-ground become too blurred or dizzying.
Although it may still be achieving the "Language Poetry effect"
of jolting me into self-consciousness about my own participation, the
work itself doesn't seem to be demonstrating any conscious grasp of
the differences among jargons and dialects that it's employing.
I think I may have said
about Daniel Davidson something like, "If it is political
poetry, then maybe he was just bad at it." This "This
is bad" reaction may happen once intuition becomes faster
than analysis. After having worked through many, many prior cases, reaction
time speeds up and it takes less ("can tell in the first few lines")
to jump to a practiced conclusion that doesn't merit further apologetics.