I understand the impulse to talk about poems. Poems are objects in the world. They appear on bus kiosks, in magazines, on makeshift stages in coffee shops, at weddings, in classrooms. They exist, like raccoons. We see or hear them. It’s natural to want to talk about our impressions of them, and what they’re up to. “This poem is confusing me.” “That’s one big damn raccoon.”
It’s harder to talk about poetry. Poetry is a subject, not an object. You can’t see poetry; you can only see poems. Poems are poetry like raccoons are nature. It isn’t nature that’s made a nest in your attic and given birth to four more mewling natures, batting their little black claws at the air. Poems, not poetry, have baffled you, or made you laugh, or reminded you that, in the words of Holderlin, “The flock of swallows that circles the steeple / Flies there each day through the same blue air / That carries their cries from me to you.” I have over time developed some methods for talking about what a poem is doing. I have no idea what poetry is doing.
Still, I’ve wished I had something to say about it, something synthetic, something that would transcend particulars, something useful. But each time I’ve tried, my thesis has either gradually widened until it became absurdly unwieldy or self-evident, or narrowed to such a point that I’ve realized I was once again writing about an individual poet’s practices, or even an individual poem’s practices. I have driven crazy several research assistants—perfectly lovely people; they have my sympathies—with insane requests: “Get me everything you can on the history of sound!” on the one hand; “Find me other poems that do what this poem does!” on the other. As you can imagine, not much has come of these efforts, but I’ve kept trying to come up with ideas, going “back to them as to a wife, leaving / The mistress we desire,” as Ashbery puts it. Actually mistresses, plural; here serving as a metaphor for poems.
Wordsworth wrote that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” I have a masochistic reverence for that line; it seems to promise the poet both unceasing toil and perfect liberty. I sometimes also enjoy substituting “poem” for Wordsworth’s “author”: every poem has the responsibility—and the license—to create the taste by which it, and it alone, is to be enjoyed. I like poems, and one of the things I like best about them is their insistence on their own particularity. We have so many mechanisms for the manufacture of generalities—religion, philosophy, politics—and so few dedicated to the cultivation of—and appreciation of—exceptions. I probably can’t write about poetry because I don’t like poetry.
And so when I recently received two new books about poetry by Charles Bernstein (Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions, University of Chicago Press, 2011) and David Orr (Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, HarperCollins, 2011), I felt both envy and dread. Envy because here were two people who—unlike me!—have things to say about how to read poems in general, as opposed to this or that specific poem. Dread because I know it’s supposed to be my task as a reviewer and critic to identify the (inevitable) exceptions to whatever general claims these authors will make.
To my surprise, however, I found that both of these critics are quick to disclaim any interest in making broad assertions about how to read poetry, or even—in Orr’s case—whether there’s necessarily any reason to read poems at all. Both authors insist, in fact, that no such assertions are desirable, or even possible. Describing a poetry course he teaches, Bernstein writes, “In the Wreading Workshop, disagreement is encouraged as a way of generating exchange rather than as an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Disagreement is not a means to a consensus … dissensus is the goal….” Elsewhere, Bernstein suggests that “concentration may be an obstacle to the sort of ambient reading that is a fundamental prerequisite to accessing the experiential dimension of the poem. Without access to this dimension, analysis is worthless: it may say something about the “idea” of a poem but cannot engage a poem’s inner life.”
For his part, Orr concludes his book with a chapter entitled “Why Bother?” He takes the question seriously, reviewing several familiar arguments for the sweetness and usefulness of poetry—poems have a special relationship to language, poems have a special relationship with our inner selves, poems hold a special place in human society—batting them away one by one, and finally concluding with a series of epic shrugs:
So what are we left with? Perhaps nothing more than the realization that much of life is devoted to things that in the end don’t matter very much, except to us…. This isn’t to say there aren’t reasons for us to love the things we love…. But those reasons are difficult to describe in the way that it’s hard to describe what red looks like, or how one’s relationship with a child or parent feels. The same is true of poetry. I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems, or to write them; I can only say that if you do choose to give your attention to poetry, as against all other things you might turn to instead, that choice can be meaningful.
So for both Bernstein and Orr, poems have “inner lives” and are capable of “coming to life” as we read them, and there are reasons to love them. All this would suggest that poems are, as a class, inherently meaningful and appealing. But Bernstein is committed to the idea that any effort to understand those meanings is not only doomed but misguided, and Orr arrives at the underwhelming conclusion that if poems happen to appeal to you for some reason, then they will appeal to you for that reason.
Both authors appear to be practicing criticism as tautology. The meaning of a poem is that we ask ourselves what it means. If the poem is valuable, it’s because it is. Orr approvingly quotes Italo Calvino’s conclusion to his essay “Why Read the Classics?”: “The only reason one can possibly adduce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.” Such an argument seems easily defended, but also irritatingly easy, and I can foresee it eliciting one of two perfectly reasonable reactions from readers. The first would be to get peeved and demand that the critic stop pussyfooting around already and tell us what he thinks we should think, so that we can agree or disagree with him and get on with it.
The other possible reaction would be similarly suspicious, but more sympathetic. Well, OK, we might say, if the only thing criticism can tell us for sure about poetry in general is that it can’t tell us anything for sure about poetry in general, shouldn’t we just read poems and skip the criticism? What use is poetry criticism at all?
The answer depends on what you mean by “use.” If you’d like poetry criticism to answer your questions about poetry, then no, it isn’t useful. As Bernstein writes, “There is no key that unlocks the mystery of how or what or why a poem means or becomes.” But criticism can be valuable without being useful in a utilitarian sense. It can be fun, for example. Tricky. Distracting. Diverting. Suggestive. Inventive. Alluring. And, crucially, open to interpretation. In short, it can be “useful” in much the same way poems are “useful.” As with poetry, even when criticism thinks it’s being polemical, that doesn’t mean we have to read it that way. We permit ourselves, as a matter of course, to read poems crosswise; the poet can stand before us and tell us her poem is about the dangers of nuclear power without for a moment shaking our belief that it is also, and just as importantly, about the beauty of clouds.
Roland Barthes writes, “Critical discourse … is never anything but tautological: it consists in saying ultimately, though placing its whole being within that delay, what thereby is not insignificant: Racine is Racine, Proust is Proust; critical ‘proof,’ if it exists, depends on an aptitude not to discover the work in question but on the contrary to cover it as completely as possible by its own language.” In other words, criticism occurs in the delay between the moment you turn your attention to Proust, and the moment you turn your attention away again. Proust is unaffected by this process. Proust is Proust, and the poem about the dangers of nuclear power is the poem about the dangers of nuclear power. Does this mean that criticism should despair, bemoaning its incapacity to affect the object of its attention? Or might it mean that criticism, freed from the responsibility to “discover” Proust, might revel in the enjoyment of “covering” Proust with “its own language”? If so, it would follow that we could choose to read criticism with goals other than identifying the critic’s argument and judging it correct or incorrect.
You may be thinking all this sounds like a lot of ivory-tower horseshit. That may be, but beneath it lies a simple and straightforward concern. I worry that contemporary readers and writers of poetry and poetry criticism, a constituency you’d think would be capable of being in uncertainties and eager to dwell in possibility and all that, are too often too quick to judge one another’s ideas right or wrong. I don’t want to oversimplify Bernstein as having nothing more to say than “difficulty and experimentation are good; accessibility and received forms are bad,” and Orr as having nothing more to say than “if you gave poetry a chance, you might like it!” I propose that we greet simplistic and reductive rhetoric not with more of the same but with lenity and mischief. I propose that the next time someone tells you that blogs, Twitter, critical theory, Garrison Keillor, the AAP, the AWP, the MLA, the MFA, Billy Collins, publishing conglomerates, obscurity, accessibility, John Ashbery, hip-hop, online publishing, Charles Bernstein, David Orr, or anything or anyone else is “killing poetry,” you proffer your responding deposition in the form of a spear of summer grass. I propose we desert our posts in the poetry wars and wander off in search of more creative and intimate ways of interacting with criticism.
I don’t need Bernstein’s or Orr’s critical positions to be correct or incorrect—I don’t need them at all—but I want them to be . . . oh, let’s say “lovable.” (I choose the term in part because it’s embarrassing, vague, and dorky; criticism marked by cool, clear confidence is exactly what I’m trying to discredit.) By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself.
And are these books by Bernstein and Orr lovable? They are. Each ends with passages I find strange, ambiguous, and open to interpretation, and so, to my mind, lovable. Indeed, the extent to which each book’s closing contradictions can be engaged but not resolved is precisely the extent to which each is lovable.
Bernstein’s closing essay, “Recantorium,” takes the form of a poetic jiǎntǎo, or self-criticism, in which he ceremoniously renounces caricatured versions of every position he’s propounded over the years.
I was wrong, I apologize and recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised. I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion. And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line.
This is obviously sarcastic, and it would be simple enough to dismiss as merely that. But what else is it? Weirdly, both very silly and very serious. The piece’s form invites us to imagine the existence of a poetry secret police, torturing a false confession from Bernstein as he sits tied to a chair, perhaps in Ted Kooser’s toolshed. That is, of course, ridiculous and bathetic, maybe even offensively so. But at the same time, the piece’s relentlessness, and its use of such heavily charged generic conventions, create an intensity of purpose, even a sense of desperation, so that as it goes on, it seems to me less a comic bit and increasingly a critique of the very notion of aesthetic orthodoxy—any aesthetic orthodoxy. There’s an odd and subversive seductiveness to the essay. I would, at some points, find myself agreeing with an accusation Bernstein had leveled at himself, and then realize that he had, in a sense, trapped me, since to fall into complicity with his false confession is to put myself in the position of the totalitarian. “Recantorium” is easily read as one-dimensional and partisan, but with some critical investment on the part of the reader, it can be read much more satisfyingly as a kind of parody of one-dimensional partisanship.
Orr’s book also ends with a series of moves that seem designed to confound. After coming to the inconclusive conclusion I’ve already quoted—“I can’t tell you why you should bother to read poems”—Orr turns to the personal, relating his own initial encounters with poems and what he found pleasing about them. Then he gets really personal:
My father died of cancer in March of 2007, as I was beginning work on this book. He was sixty-one. It’s difficult to type those sentences for many reasons, not least among them the fact that I’ve been a book critic for over a decade now, and almost always find myself cringing during the inevitable fetch-me-a-tissue moment in any personal essay or memoir. Still, throughout this book … I’ve tried to suggest what a relationship with poetry actually looks like, in both its limitations and strengths. I’ve described it as a private pleasure and occasional irritation that can’t be easily justified in public terms. Having said this, I’d be falling short if I didn’t try to offer some sense of what—for me—poetry has proven it can and cannot give.
In the subsequent pages, which end the book, Orr tells a tale that seems to epitomize the feel-good argument for poetry. Orr’s father has no interest in poetry, but does require speech therapy after a stroke. I won’t ask if you can see where this is going, because I know you can. It gets even better, though. Not only does Orr use poetry to help his father through the therapy, he also discovers that the heavy stress patterns in the poems of his first choice, Gerard Manley Hopkins, are too challenging; that Robert Frost is “a little better”; and that an illustrated edition of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” is both the most useful and, for Orr’s father, the most pleasant. So Orr assures us that poetry is pointless and very likely not worthy of our attention, and then appears to deliver a brief not just for poetry’s usefulness but also for preferring accessible poetry to difficult.
These gestures could be—and, I’m sure, will be—quickly dismissed as shallow by some, and just as quickly embraced as touching and life-affirming by others. (I can almost hear Scott Simon’s voice downshifting with emotion on NPR’s Weekend Edition: “Can you tell us what poetry meant to you in those last days with your father?”) But don’t both those options seem sadly rote? What if we eschewed them both, and instead resolved to take seriously the inconsistencies Orr dramatizes and declines to resolve? What does it mean that his effort to make a case for poetry collapses, but his argument for a poem—“The Owl and the Pussycat,” no less!—succeeds? Orr must be aware that by telling his father’s story, he’s risking charges of sentimentality; might the fact that he tells it anyway comprise an implicit argument for the virtues of courting embarrassment in your relationship with poetry? By making questions like these available to his readers, Orr ensures the lovability of his criticism. By asking them, rather than jumping to pedantic conclusions, we can show ourselves to be loving readers.