In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking

On Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless.


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 assistantsperfectly lovely people; they have my sympathieswith 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 responsibilityand the licenseto 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 generalitiesreligion, philosophy, politicsand so few dedicated to the cultivation ofand appreciation ofexceptions. 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 whounlike 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 evenin Orr’s casewhether 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 poetrypoems have a special relationship to language, poems have a special relationship with our inner selves, poems hold a special place in human societybatting 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 incorrectI don’t need them at allbut 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 orthodoxyany 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 whatfor mepoetry 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 beand, I’m sure, will bequickly 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.

Originally Published: June 8th, 2011

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...

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  1. June 9, 2011

    What a lovable piece! Gave me a genuine glow. And if that's not a
    good reason to read poetry and good supportive criticism...uh, am I
    starting to wax poetic?

  2. June 10, 2011

    Bravo. Lovable as a concept proffers a dynamic depth for the future of poetry. To be sure, Proust is Proust; however, criticism in this line of perspicacious collaboration certainly does shape, facilitate . . . .

  3. June 12, 2011

    Frivolous! He comes across the whole piece as a sort of literary agnostic in the church of poetry, unable to make definate statements about most things.
    Of course I only bother posting because I was hoping dude was not sarcastic about obscure elitist poetry being less admirable.
    Clearly his sarcastic statement is true, if poetry was more relatable more poeple would read it. But I doubt this matters as much to him as say maintaining snooty poems for those few obscure eliet poets and readers.

  4. June 13, 2011

    I find this all so frustrating. I tend to think that poetry needs no apologists; Orr's smug, "why bother?" seems more self congratulatory that tautological, in that whole vein of whining about what a burden it is to be poet/artist/hipster these days.
    Charles, on the other hand continues to agitate, even when the pot of stone soup seems to contain more and more pebbles and fewer and fewer ingredients that will not break one;s teeth.
    Where are the manifestoes? The poems (and poets) who seem to be more about the human need(s) to see, and say, and listen and only partially to understand? If you have to consider "why poetry?" then, to me, you have not, and never will, breathe the same air as Blake, or Sappho, or Wordsworth, or Ahkmatova, or Creeley,or Mandlestam, or Bernstein or anyone who uttered (and recorded)the choking sounds of their desire to be humans in a world with far too few preists of the unknown, purveyors of the impossible and witnesses to truths universally acknowledged.

  5. June 15, 2011

    Loved this! This new way of approaching criticism needs to make its way
    from the universities into the high schools.

  6. June 15, 2011
     Richard Sessions

    A beloved teacher once taught me: Those who can, do. Those who can't
    do, teach. Those who can't teach, criticize. What remains to be said
    about those who criticize critics?

  7. June 28, 2011
     Mark Grinyer

    Why do so many people seem so willing to give up on the idea that poetry (and, more specifically, poems) have meaning and are important to the world? Are we so lost in the nihilism and alienation of a pluralistic and technological age that we can no longer beleave in the possibility of meaning, social value, and yes, perhaps even truth in the creations of our modern and post-modern poets and writers? If what we do as poets, writers and critics is so solipsistic and valueless then why do we bother with it? I read poems because they have value to me, not just as intricate and satisfying machines made of words, but also, and most importantly, because they make me feel and think, taking me beyond the mundanities of my everyday existence and opening me to something more inclusive, humane and important than what I can find working day by day to earn my daily bread.

  8. June 29, 2011
     Johnny Foy

    This is one of the most vapid review essays I have ever read. Lovable criticism? Imagine the look on your research assistant's face when you ask them for a sampling of choicest grasses. By the way, since when do MFAs have research assistants? I'm guessing that exchange is some kind of anecdotal filler with absolutely no basis in fact. Word counts can be a pain. People: we will never have serious poetry criticism or a serious poetry culture in this country while discourse like poet Brouwer's continues to receive airing in such supposedly major and influential forums.

  9. June 30, 2011
     Kenneth Myron Bonnell

    The most intelligent comment I can make is that I read
    the entire article...and learned nothing. Critical
    review of my more than 200 poems and half that number of
    limericks would produce the same end. Mine arrive mostly
    uninvited. They're written down merely to rid my mind of
    them. However, since they exist, I twist 'em until they
    are most likely to cause a smile, a chuckle or, out loud
    delighted laughter. To others I happily leave pain and
    suffering...the latter cause by trying to figure out
    what the author is trying to tell me.

  10. July 2, 2011
     Mike Puican

    But criticism can be useful. What if we lower our expectations of what poetry criticism seeks to accomplish? Perhaps we look for it to simply give one person’s viewpoint about how to read certain poets and their work? I’ve learned quite a bit from poetry criticism. I’ve learned ways of looking at poems that have been useful beyond reading the work in question. There is so much new poetry, I read criticism to learn about new books, what their writers are trying to accomplish, and how that fits with the work that is being written today. I read criticism to learn about the ideas of the poet and the ideas of the critic. And from there I assign my own meanings and find my own pleasures.

  11. July 3, 2011
     Robert L. King

    What I find most vacuous about Brouwer's "criticism" is that he can purport to be a critic when, by his own admission, he has nothing to say about poems in general as opposed to this or that specific poem. Just as the education of an art object - a poem - begins with the education of the artist himself, the education of a poetry critic begins with an organized and structured theory of poetry, which Brouwer obviously lacks. Hence I see him as one who chimes in with those who would "dumb down" poems in order to make them appeal to a general readership, forgetting that a half-century ago lyric poetry appealed to the common reader because poets then understood the essentiality of having expressional power in word and verse to produce poems that delight the reader - poems that are the proofs of poetry. Yes, Frost; yes, Hopkins; Lear, no.

  12. July 17, 2011
     Louise Osborn

    Writing poetry is a solitary act, and reading poetry is a solitary act. I
    value criticism and discussion because it creates a sense of community
    I valued the comments about dumbing down ideas about poetry but
    also those that address mystery and uncertainty. I'm sure we can
    educate ourselves extremely well and never threaten the mystery.

  13. August 9, 2011
     Duncan Gillies MacLaurin

    Wordsworth did write 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.” But he attributed the sentiment to Coleridge, and we should too.

  14. November 28, 2011

    I found this to be an extremely well written and enjoyable piece. I appreciated discerning analysis of the two works discussed, and the healthy amount of skepticism that went into it. I particularly appreciated the metaphor of poetry as a raccoon, an indirect agent instilling feelings in our houses. Thank you for writing this article.

  15. July 29, 2013
     Brendan McEntee

    Reading this article, I question whether the author
    actually read the books or merely read book reviews.
    Typical post-modern piece: nothing can be said because
    nothing is knowable; language communicates nothing because
    we're not even sure of it's intent. All that's left is
    inertia and skepticism and a sneer for anyone who might
    dare approach the topic.