One of the first and most fundamental lessons I learned in my undergraduate philosophy classes (thank you, Dr. Healy and Dr. Harold!) is that there is a radical difference between things that are intrinsically good and things that are merely agreeable.
When I call vanilla pudding "good", I mean little more than that I happen to like it. I know perfectly well that someone else might not like it at all. That person may with equal justification call the pudding "so-so" or even "disgusting." De gustibus non est disputandum. But when I say that Jane Eyre is a good novel, I mean not only that I like it, but that it is really, objectively good. It ought to be appreciated as such. If someone were to say it's only so-so, I would think he's wrong. I would think that he lacks literary judgment; that he has a blind spot. I might want to try to persuade him to see it as I do.
With that insight—that the world is full of intrinsic values—came another one: namely that there must be lots of value out there to which I was blind. That the world was much richer, much better, and more beautiful than I knew. And with that came the longing to see; to be initiated into new spheres of value.
I felt this longing especially with regard to beauty. Before philosophy taught me otherwise, I had taken it for granted that beauty was in the eye of the beholder. "Don't talk to me about Bach and Beethoven, I like Queen and The Beatles!" But now, since the people I respected loved Bach and Beethoven, I was eager to get to know these composers and learn to appreciate their works. I wanted to love what was truly lovable. (I went so far as to throw out my entire music collection, so I could start over. A bit excessive, I know, but no regrets. My first purchases after that were Handel's Messiah and Brahms's German Requiem. The first choice was especially fortuitous, because its beauty is so accessible, even to beginners.)
But it is not easy to find one's way into a new sphere of value. Not all classical music is good, and I knew my personal taste was ill-formed and unreliable. What I really wanted was good teachers: teachers who could not only tell me what was truly beautiful, but also help me see and feel that it was so. In this context, I remember reading C.S. Lewis' Abolition of Man, and envying his students. This passage, in which Lewis criticizes the educational procedure of Gaius and Titius (two bad teachers) struck me especially:
In their fourth chapter [Gaius and Titius] quote a silly advertisement of a pleasure cruise and proceed to inoculate their pupils against the sort of writing it exhibits. The advertisement tells us that those who buy tickets for this cruise will go 'across the Western Ocean where Drake of Devon sailed', 'adventuring after the treasures of the Indies', and bringing home themselves also a 'treasure' of 'golden hours' and 'glowing colours'. It is a bad bit of writing, of course: a venal and bathetic exploitation of those emotions of awe and pleasure which men feel in visiting places that have striking associations with history or legend. If Gaius and Titius were to stick to their task and teach their readers (as they promised to do) the art of English composition, it was their business to put this advertisement side by side with passages from great writers in which the very emotion is well expressed, and then show where the difference lies.
They might have used Johnson's famous passage from the Western Islands, which concludes: 'That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.' They might have taken that place in The Prelude where Wordsworth describes how the antiquity of London first descended on his mind with 'Weight and power, Power growing under weight'. A lesson which had laid such literature beside the advertisement and really discriminated the good from the bad would have been a lesson worth teaching. There would have been some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together. It would also have had the merit of being a lesson in literature: a subject of which Gaius and Titius, despite their professed purpose, are uncommonly shy.
Had I come across that advertisment on my own, I would not have been able to say that it was "a bad bit of writing." But once Lewis contrasts it with those other passages from Johnson and Wordsworth, the difference was immediately clear, even to me. Imagine how much I could have learned, what an immense world of beauty and truth would have been opened to me, had I been able to take Lewis' class.
My high school (Dutch) literature teachers, I am sorry to say (I sure hope they will never read this!), were very much like Gaius and Titius. They taught me next to nothing about literature. Instead I learned some facts about the lives of the authors, or the controversies stirred up by a few books. Mostly I was subjected to the boring political views of the teacher, and to the ignorant but passionate opinions of my classmates. I had been an avid reader earlier in life, but those classes effectively quashed all my interest in books. (Incidentally, it was Katie, now my wonderful wife of 23 years, who rekindled my love of reading. I asked her for help, and she suggested I pick up the Chronicles of Narnia (in part because they were easy to read for a Dutchman) and Pride and Prejudice.)
But what's the point of these personal reflections? They were sparked by reading an old article (1991) by Dana Gioia, "Can Poetry Matter?" Katie and I recently heard him speak and recite some of his latest poems in New York, and both of us were enthralled. We couldn't stop talking about it during the 2 hour drive home. "Why, oh why," I thought to myself, "do I not read poetry more often?" And the answer, to be honest, is quite simple. I have no taste for it. Not yet anyway. But the event with Dana Gioia gave me hope that I might acquire it. It certainly made me want to try. But how? I have picked up poetry from time to time, but always end up discouraged. I don't get it. I feel the need for guidance, which is hard to find.
Which brings me to the article just mentioned. In it Gioia asks why, given the proliferation of new poetry and poetry programs during the last several decades, poetry has disappeared from the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life. What happened? He points in (partial) answer to the dearth of genuine criticism.
Poetry, Gioia says, has become a professional field of specialists. It has been absorbed by the universities, where making a career is paramount, and hence where frank criticism is dangerous. It is too easy to offend a person or party on which promotion, publication, financial grants, and professional standing depend. As a result, honest criticism has deteriorated into flattery. It used to be different:
Reviewers fifty years ago were by today's standards extraordinarily tough. They said exactly what they thought, even about their most influential contemporaries. Listen, for example, to Randall Jarrell's description of a book by the famous anthologist Oscar Williams: it "gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." That remark kept Jarrell out of subsequent Williams anthologies, but he did not hesitate to publish it. Or consider Jarrell's assessment of Archibald MacLeish's public poem America Was Promises: it "might have been devised by a YMCA secretary at a home for the mentally deficient." Or read Weldon Kees's one-sentence review of Muriel Rukeyser's Wake Island—"There's one thing you can say about Muriel: she's not lazy." But these same reviewers could write generously about poets they admired, as Jarrell did about Elizabeth Bishop, and Kees about Wallace Stevens. Their praise mattered, because readers knew it did not come lightly.
This kind of forthright criticism, unafraid to hurt feelings and step on toes, provided an indispensable service to the general reading public. And that is exactly what it meant to be doing:
The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments. In discussing new poetry they addressed a wide community of educated readers. Without talking down to their audience, they cultivated a public idiom. Prizing clarity and accessibility they avoided specialist jargon and pedantic displays of scholarship. They also tried, as serious intellectuals should but specialists often do not, to relate what was happening in poetry to social, political, and artistic trends. They charged modern poetry with cultural importance and made it the focal point of their intellectual discourse.
Anthologies used to be a convenient way for non-specialists like me to get their hands on some the best poetry around. One could rely on the discernment and candor of the editors to select and explicate the best new poems. But anthologies, too, have succumbed to timidity and flattery.
A clubby feeling also typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry. Although these collections represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the best new poetry, they are not compiled for readers outside the academy. More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include work by the poets who teach the courses. Compiled in the spirit of congenial opportunism, many of these anthologies give the impression that literary quality is a concept that neither an editor nor a reader should take too seriously.
The 1985 Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, for example, is not so much a selective literary collection as a comprehensive directory of creative-writing teachers (it even offers a photo of each author). Running nearly 800 pages, the volume presents no fewer than 104 important young poets, virtually all of whom teach creative writing. The editorial principle governing selection seems to have been the fear of leaving out some influential colleague. The book does contain a few strong and original poems, but they are surrounded by so many undistinguished exercises that one wonders if the good work got there by design or simply by random sampling. In the drearier patches one suspects that perhaps the book was never truly meant to be read, only assigned.
This sort of thing is a terrible disservice to the reading public, to the general culture, and of course to poetry itself. "By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art." Especially contemporary poetry and poets suffer. Older works at least have stood the test of time. One can hardly go wrong by picking up a poem that has been widely admired for decades or centuries. The effort involved in "getting" it is not likely to be a waste of time. (Though there, too, really good guides are both welcome and hard-to-find.) But who has the time and mental energy to slog through all the new poetry being written in the hope of happening on a few gems? How many of us have the skill to recognize them without help?
A receptive and appreciative audience for contemporary poetry (or any art for that matter) can't come into being without honest criticism and ruthless selection. And what is art without an audience?
So let's hope, for the sake of poetry, for the sake of ourselves, and for the sake of our wider culture, that a new class of visionary and rambunctious critics will soon arise.
In the meantime, do you, dear reader, have any poetry recommendations? I (but who am I?) recommend Dana Gioia's latest book, Pity the Beautiful. And I'll finish with these lines from the poem "Prophecy," to whet your appetite:
O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction.
Slow our heartbeat to a cricket's call.
In the green torpor of the afternoon,
bless us with ennui and quietude.
And grant us only what we fear, so that
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
we hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider's silken whisper from its web.
*If you are interested, you can listen to Gioia and others recite some poetry here.