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 terms.

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" (= "bad").

(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 in.)

"Good"/"bad" 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).

The "good"/"bad" 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.