Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Contemporary Poetry Criticism

[Here's an excerpt from an interesting review by Olivia Cronk about two books of poetry. It's interesting that her friend got ill from Aase's poetry; in a book on postomdern Swedish poetry that came out a few years ago, one critic made the same claim, but then went on to analyze what made her ill and it was a pretty interesting essay.]

I am disturbed by the tendency of poets and readers of poetry to create false boundaries around their own curations and tastes; this seems, to me, a kind of deluding process by which the thinker justifies (and therefore preempts the need for expanding) her or his own ideas. Three months ago, Bookslut ran a feature in which a poet argued (among other things) that grabbing John Berryman over Jorie Graham on the way out the door was somehow an ideological position that she had to defend. The conflict here seems moot, a half-awake gesture. While teaching in a Creative Writing institute this summer, I listened to a guest speaker contend that there are currently just two kinds of poetry: Narrative (good, interesting, comprehensible) and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (bad, confusing, jibberish-esque). In his estimation, the poetry world allows a lot of confusing stuff to be published, and he would, of course, prefer to read and write “things that communicate” with the reader. A peer, in a very small poetry group, denounced an Aase Berg poem I had selected for an exercise; she said that she “would never read that again because it made [her] sick to [her] stomach.” In short, rather than identify the metaphorical landscape of the piece, she felt physically ill from the mention of eating guinea pigs (note: read the link to see the strange misreading present in such a literal reaction). A friend of mine was told, years ago, while attempting a friendly writing exchange with two classmates, that a poem’s job is to offer clarity; otherwise, they demanded, what’s the point?

The point is this: contemporary poetry, as the massive and unwieldy thing it is, should be encouraged to re-shape our realities. Why bother consuming information that simply reinforces the things we already know and feel? I am not arguing for canon-negligence or firmly placed camps (if “Narrative” and “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” are the only options available to readers and writers, then there is a serious problem). I understand that straight language and plainsong and the telling of stories in poems can provide edifying experiences, but I am not sure why we can’t also think aggressively (intellectually, imaginatively) about what is “serious” poetry (a notion I think I am stealing from Susan Sontag) and what my aforementioned friend calls “prose broken into lines.”

[The whole division into sense and nonsense (which is supposedly language poetry) is incredibly detrimental and reductive, and right now there's a prominent "third way", in between sense and nonsense, nevertheless based on this simplistic binary.]

[PS, here's a link to the Aase Berg poem. Also found in the book With Deer (Black Ocean, 2009).]


Blogger phaneronoemikon said...

awesomely good post!

6:54 AM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

Very well said!

Also, I don't understand why people are so opposed to poetry making them sick. They love to be made sick from horror films. Why not from poetry?

10:13 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

> encouraged to re-shape our realities

Straight outta Karl Rove.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You've left some pretty strange comments lately.


10:20 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...


Just getting into the spirit.


11:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think there is in general a distrust of a bodily response.


2:29 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Ditto what Johannes said about the bodily response, but also I think it has something to do with the fact that some people only enjoy the responses they expect to have from given stimuli. So they go to a horror movie to be "grossed out" and they read poetry to have "edifying experiences."

3:29 PM  
Blogger Kate Durbin said...

I am sure you are both right.

Personally, I cannot think of anything more politically terrifying than a bunch of people reading poetry and having edifying experiences (as opposed to vomiting and hyperventilating and having confused erections). But I suppose many of the readers of this blog would concur.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Aaron Apps said...

I agree that trite divisions are bad.

That said the elimination of care is impossible. People care about certain texts more than others.

I think cannon is generally bullshit. Not to say the texts are bullshit, but the constructs about their interconnection and value called "cannon" is bullshit when it is taken to have more value than a list of preferences on a facebook profile or whatever.

"The point is this: contemporary poetry, as the massive and unwieldy thing it is, should be encouraged to re-shape our realities."

I like this. Don't like the word realities (via reality and imagination... another trite dichotomy).

I'd like to point you to this little thing I wrote:



6:45 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Aaron -

I guess the thing that confuses me about the canon is how, while Modernist ideology has been on a rapid decline in literature departments, the canon has somehow stuck it out and remained as this lasting legacy of Modernist thought. As I understand it, the canon emerged as part of the New Critical model, which generally held that texts contained objective evidence of their greatness. We could tell whether a text was great simply by reading it for various cues that signified greatness, in other words. So the canon was essentially a list of these self-evidently great texts. But even the professors I've known who are coming from way outside a New Critical perspective still seem to accept, on a fundamental level, that the canon is a valid thing. The idea now seems to be that, if you can't fight the canon, you might as well shape it. So many of the arguments that occur in academia seem to be not for doing away with the canon, but rather for adding some underappreciated author to its ranks. This seems like such a spineless position to me.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I think the 'key' is to take the notion of there 'being a place' for many kinds of contemporary poetry and say as much while not having it just be lip service, that is to say, a way of saying you don't care for something while trying to sound like you're 'open-minded'.

I love Aase Berg. I love Berryman. The movie analogy--sure, let's run with it. Or music. Or anything, right? I like these different kinds for different reasons. If I want excess I reach for Lara Glenum or Aase Berg, if I want a particular kind of emotional engagement I can't even articulate (much less, I suppose, proceed to defend) I reach for Franz Wright. If I don't know what I want or don't want what I want I read something unfamiliar.

This is my point, I suppose, I like different kinds for different reasons, isn't that sort of how it goes? I've been frustrated by L=...Po but I've never felt it was gibberish. I think I hate these odd distinctions and 'camps' as much as anyone, though I'm equally hesitant to crown either one (or any others) as the 'serious' kind.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Canon goes back way further than New Criticism. Originally it is a religious term, I believe. But certainly "the greats of literature' goes way back too. At least back to before Literature departments, when literature was used to teach rhetoric. I'm not an expert on the history here but perhaps someone else who reads this can fill us in.

The New Critics did have a special place in modern canon formation, cleaning up the "excess" of the 1920s etc and pedagogizing a certain strain of modernism.

Yes, if the canon is a bunch of texts that are great without discussion, then I don't want a canon. And that's usually the way canon is used.


5:44 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

The canon saves time -- can't read everything -- and makes possible a universal conversation among the narrow tranche of people who receive an education in the canon.

Except: actually, the world might be less stupid if more people did try to read everything, or rather, read whatever reading leads them to, rather than what the right people say to. And: that universal conversation never really happened.

Except except: While there are no right people as such, it is useful to have an elder peer point texts out and be available to discuss them along the way.

Except except except: Good luck finding an elder who will treat you as a peer. It can happen, just as it can happen that you find an elder you're right to trust. But it's certainly not an automatic benefit of matriculating at a liberal arts college.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think the problem with canon - how Max is using it - is that it is imposed without discussion. Great Books. Outside history etc.

This is really my main point with all this stuff about kitsch etc - that kind of rhetoric is meant to establish refinement without any real discussion about the work.

I think canon as a site of conflict/discussion is good. People should argue why they like certain things and what they get out of it.

Lots of poetry I don't get at first but then I read something someone has written and I get a lot out of it. I hope that's true of everyone.

Ryan's position is probably a good one to have, but it should be recognized that all these texts do not exist on a level playing field, especially foreign texts (in translation even) are of course not given the same treatment as Charles Wright (of course, in Sweden Aase Berg is very popular while pretty much nobody knows who Charles Wright is).


7:12 AM  
Blogger Aaron Apps said...

There are lots of trite little poems that have nothing at stake in them. This has nothing to do with the size of the poem physically. This also has little to do with which “camp” the writer is in. The ‘experimental’ taken it the widest sense is something I prefer, as a poem that experiments takes a risk—the risk allows the poem to reach at being worth reading. I prefer that this remain a vague ‘thing.’
I think there was something true about the new critical effort of close reading… though, the reason for approaching the text closely is troublesome. If one finds a text that is great, one will want to spend a lot of time with it.
I suppose I think cannon should be exploded/leveled a bit. I like looking at those amazon lists where people throw together random texts they like. Sometimes they are trite re-presentations of Cannon, but, at other times, I think THIS is how cannon (small ‘c’) should be. Cobbled together sets of meaning from both minor and (supposedly) major literature.


8:47 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Jordan -

I understand that you're not exactly defending the idea of a "universal conversation," but nevertheless, I would say that the idea of a "universal conversation" is just as ill-conceived as the idea of a "universal language." Nobody seems capable of adequately explaining why we all need to be talking about the same things, developing knowledge of the same things, etc. The assumption seems to be that, without this, there is chaos, but I'm not sure anybody has ever supplied evidence of this fact.

Johannes -

I think canon as a site of conflict/discussion is good. People should argue why they like certain things and what they get out of it.

I guess what I would say is that I'm not sure why the canon has to be the center of this type of discussion. We can have discussions about what we like and why we like it without the canon being the locus of this conflict, can't we?

Furthermore, I would argue that this "benefit" isn't worth the price of admission. The canon may have been created in an act of critical thought, but it's clear that the end of canonicity is to shut down critical thought by placing authors/texts in a position of nearly inalterable "greatness." It may be all fine and well for academics to have these in-fights about canonicity, but meanwhile, actual students are coming up in lit programs with literally no idea why they're learning any of the material. I can recall several professors who clearly weren't crazy about some of the texts they were teaching, but who had acquiesced to "canonicity" and decided that the material nevertheless had some sort of inherent value to the students.

I don't mean to say that professors should only teach/pay attention to those texts which they already appreciate, but rather that the canon should not be this guiding hand that enforces drudgery and makes us call it "great."

While we may be able to resist this call, and "debate" the accuracy, quality, or whatever, of the canon, that kind of discussion will rarely, if ever, cause the canon to change, or relieve those without this luxury (i.e. those not taking university courses) of the canon's influence.

3:31 PM  
Blogger phaneronoemikon said...

order is already chaos.
reality is anything.

there is one example of life in the universe.

mind is squashed utterly
by non-mind
until it becomes a kind of pearl
of signification

a quasar of qeasy quasi-ration(ale)


consciousness is

1. a drunkeness
2. a sickness
3. highly localized
4. prone to category and str(i)ati
5. mortal yet useful ie

the fool becomes a fuel

life is a gas, man

don't wait until you "sag"

to |figure|
is out.

And just to satisfy the nattering nabobs of criticism

compare Deleuze's and Lyotard's

of the figure

which can be summ'd up
in the word


or fig-lure
to be lacanian

you boofin' choofsters,


5:13 PM  
Blogger Aaron Apps said...

What do we every mean by "great"? Do text need to be great? Why choose one text over another? I think it is better that they are great rather than half-assed. I want the whole ass.

I have to prefer this word (great) over the word enjoyable. That seems like it might be attached to a utilitarian idea of texts. I don't think they are that.

I try to mean something like joyful when I say great (which is contains both the good and the bad... see the joyous/gay science).

I also think great might mean 'wonder-full.'

Both of these are, for me, tied to care structures (see early heidegger). Fleeting little choices we choose along the way... what do they have to do with those things that we care enough about that we would shape our whole lives around them? What does a text need to have to make it worth spending more time with than a quick perusal? This surely can be different for different people. Sometimes a text is great but the reader doesn't realize it because they don't have a point of access into the text.

I suppose this gets away from "cannon," but how the reader approaches the text seems like the most important way to consider what cannon is... how/why should the reader approach the text? Dewey's educational models seem like they are structured around the student's cares. But then, when I see these models implemented in situations where the teachers don't really care about the students, they don't seem to be all that effective (regressive even). Though cannon in also shaped by things like racism and prudishness... hmm.


6:16 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...


I would have a conversation with you about the relative merits of having a conversation, but no one here can explain to me how that would have a chance in hell of working out, so I'll have to pass.

George Kennan

5:45 AM  

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