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Journal, Day One

By Kwame Dawes


On NPR today, I heard a gender medical specialist (whatever that is) say that men, after age 30, begin to diminish in their capacity to understand verbal communication or to even interpret body language or facial expressions. Like their sexual capacity, this skill diminishes with age. My assumption is that by age 70 men have no ability to understand a thing that anyone is saying to them. Women, she pointed out, are quite the opposite. Their verbal skills keep growing. Men, on the other hand, become increasingly more dogmatic, more doctrinaire and less interested in discussion and extensive dialogue around feelings.

This idea bothers me. It does for two reasons. For several years I have hoped that I would become far more dogmatic about my tastes in many things, but particularly poetry. I had hoped that as I grew older, I would be able to speak with absolute authority about what is a good poem and what is not. Indeed, I anticipated that by age forty, I would be able to write reviews in Poetry with the kind of assured confidence and doctrinaire articulation that I see in many of the reviewers. “This is a bad book of poems,” “This is a great collection of poems.” Or most impressive: “This is the greatest collection of poems written in fifty years.” A reviewer once wrote of me, “he writes poetry the way it ought to be written.” I was flattered, but I have never trusted that statement because I can’t imagine who could have the kind of authority to be able to say, without equivocation, that so and so writes poetry the way it ought to be written. But I have secretly hoped that I would one day be able to make such statements. So the news that my maleness will aid and abet this dream of mine seems like good news. The problem is that rather than grow more doctrinaire about my ideas of what is good poetry and what isn’t, I have become far less assertive and decidedly uncertain. Am I a man?

The second reason the idea bothers me, ironically, is that I would hate to think that my capacity to speak with authority about poetry would be merely a by-product of my genetic make up—my biology, if you will, and not because I have learned over the years what is good poetry and what is not. In other words, it may well be that all these men who speak with such assurance about poetry are merely very male folks who have stopped listening to other people, and who have lost the capacity to really dialogue and understand what others are saying. This is not a promising basis for wisdom and understanding.

But it is more complicated than this. Yesterday, a woman returned a book I had let her borrow after a workshop I conducted in Columbia, where I live. It was one of the 130 books I had been sent when I was judging the National Book Award in 2003. I took the whole business of judging these collections seriously. I read each book with care, making notes on the poems and on sheets of paper. After reading the book, I would write two “reviews” and a score on a sheet of paper. The first review was a straightforward assessment of the work, pointing to some of the strengths, and really, relying on a gut feeling to drive me. I would note the poems that really impressed me and include a page number in case I wanted to go back to see the genius work again when I was making my decisions. These “reviews” were rollicking, free flowing, and quite forthright assessments. No one else was going to read them so I said what I felt like saying. The second review was an odd thing. I played the game of cricket seriously as a young man and I have long felt that the game could serve as a metaphor for just a whole lot of things. So the second review treated the book as an innings by a particular batsman (namely the poet). I would describe the quality of play, the authority or lack thereof in the shots made, the athleticism, the attitude behind what was happening on the field. I even gave the book a score, using cricket as the metaphor. So a stunning book would have scored 130 or even 200 hundred runs. But not all centuries were the same. Some could be edgy, full of missed chances, and quite uncertain for most of the way, but they had done nothing so tragically bad to cause them to lose their wicket (or be out). I would even include details about the number of scoring shots made and that kind of thing. If you don’t know anything about cricket, much of this will not make sense. But with some imaginative work, you could imagine using golf as a metaphor for the book or some other sport. Cricket batting is a very individual activity, even if the game is a team sport. The battle between the batsman and the bowler is as impressive as that between pitcher and hitter in baseball, but in cricket, an innings could last as short as a minute and as long as three days. While it is possible to imagine an epic in a cricket innings, one can’t think of baseball hitting in those terms. Perhaps pitching, but not hitting. So for each book, I wrote a batting report on the “innings.”

When the woman handed me the book, she thanked me and added that she had read my notes and had agreed with everything I said. I smiled and panicked a bit. I did not mean for anyone to see those notes, but I now wanted to see what she had agreed with. I was startled at how doctrinaire and very, very vicious my notes on the work by this poet were. I mean, I was scathing. I called her work pretentious, noted that it embarked on a project that justified itself by the fact that it had classical allusions, but that the work did nothing with the allusions. I was so astounded by how cruel I was and how clear I was about how much I did not like this work.

I did not recognize myself. My cricket commentary was more entertaining, but equally scathing. In retrospect, it was all quite amusing and clever, but I started to ask myself whether I have been only pretending that I am not doctrinaire about what I know about poetry or what I think about poetry. Maybe I have just been polite because of fear, or polite because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But there was another possibility: I was direct and scathing in my private notes because I had made a pact with myself that I would select these books on the basis of a gut response—regardless of what drove that gut response.

The truth is that I do not yet trust that my gut response, even when supported by everything that comes in my gut, like my learning, the thousands of books I have read, the thousands of poems I have read, the many opinions I have heard about poetry, my own peculiar discourses in life—the music I listen to, my faith, my fears, etc.—and all the things that make up what is in my gut, is entirely trustworthy as an authority.

I have been around long enough to know that poems that don’t move me, that don’t engage me, can be viewed by others as simply brilliant and amazing. Does this mean that we must return to the very comforting and wholly useless idea of beauty being located in the eyes of the beholder? That relativism would argue that there is no absolute authority, no absolute meaning and there is no absolute way to even speak of taste. Yet even the greatest purveyors of such a liberal and democratic view do not buy it for an instant. After all, so little would get done in the poetry world. Anthologies would never be published, prizes would never be won, journals would have to stop doing business, and MFA programs would have to close down.

Of course, the polite among us have arrived at another way of dealing with this matter that allows us to be both doctrinaire and open at the same time. We are up-front about bias and set out the parameters of our tastes while allowing that others can hold to other tastes. In fact, recently, I heard Susan Ludvigson say something that I have heard again and again about poetry publishing in this country and in the U.K. She said, “It is pure.” What she meant was that without the pressures of filthy lucre, the pressure to make money, resting on the poetry publishers, such publishers are most likely to be pure in their decisions because they make selections purely on the basis of art, and on the basis of quality and hardly on the basis of sales potential or anything crass like that. These publishers publish what they value. They don’t anticipate making money off their sales, and so they will publish purely for taste. Hence, “pure.” The hope is that there will be enough editors with enough varying tastes to ensure that all kinds of poets are published. The problem with this idea, however, brings me back to what I started off talking about. There is a sense in which the purity of tastes is refined the older folks get and if they are men, it is even more refined into an inability to listen to or to engage with anything anyone else is saying. Thus, the very premise of tastes grows narrower over time, until there is little room for it to embrace change and other voices that may emerge.

I realize now, that my problem is not so much that I don’t have opinions, but that I want to remain open to discovering more about what other people are seeing in their art, and I want to be able to engage with their art in ways that might enrich my own sense of art. Which is why I get deeply suspicious of and impatient with those reviewers and critics who seem to speak with such authority of what is brilliant work. More often than not, they are bluffing. More often than not, they have not read enough to grant them that authority. More often than not, when they do attempt to justify their judgment, what emerges is so thin and so unconvincing that you wonder how they arrived at such an authoritative posture.

I did not plan to begin my blog with something that one could call un-authoritative and largely uncertain in its conclusions. But I am writing this week about the things that continue to swirl around in my mind, as I do all the things that have do with poetry. I write poems. I read other people’s poetry and tell them what I think of the poems. I judge contests. I teach poetry and assess the poems of my students. I program readings and major festivals and I make decisions about who should read and who should not. I edit my manuscripts. I decide whether I have any poems worth salvaging or not. I read my work at many events. I charge people for my readings, suggesting that my poetry is worth what they pay me. I get calls from people who just want me to hear them read a poem to tell them if they should stop writing or continue writing. I run a statewide program that is premised on the notion that everyone should write a poem at least once and should always read poems. Given all these things I do, I am constantly faced with this question of what is good poetry and what is not. I have my opinions, but I remain less doctrinaire than I imagined I would be at this stage of my life and my maleness. Perhaps I am too anxious. I may soon become quite doctrinaire. After all, I know that reggae music is the only great music in the world. Only fools would think otherwise. So at least in some things, I have evolved into quite the man.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 10th, 2006 by Kwame Dawes.