1. Home
  2. Poetry Magazine
  3. Poetry and the Problem of Taste by Brian Phillips
Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry and the Problem of Taste

"When I say, then, that the current audience for poetry in America lacks taste, I do not mean to suggest that we have bad taste—that we like bad poems. I mean, instead, that we have fallen into a kind of insensibility, a sort of intelligent numbness, which is both a cause and a consequence of the poetry culture’s lingering anxiety."

"Taste" is a contradiction; the word is no sooner brought to mind than it begins to oppose itself. We cannot think of it as pure individual preference—Julia's taste in music—without simultaneously indicating the mass of opinion and attitude, also called taste, from which the preference is set apart; and we cannot think of it as the mass—contemporary taste in painting—without feeling the quick surge of our own taste, our freedom to disagree. Spoken of as a kind of personal preference, taste seems to imply an impenetrable subjectivity, our acknowledgment of the obscurity in which our likes and dislikes originate; but this is always opening onto the idea of a norm, of an external standard of worth, as we see at once, for instance, in the concept of "good taste." Spoken of as a kind of collective preference, taste itself becomes the norm; but it does so, paradoxically, only as the aggregate of so many individual tastes, so many clouds of subjectivity.

Taste's instability, its internal jostle of meaning, is of enormous interest to poetry, because it reveals how, at the level of everyday language, we cope with the uncertainty that pervades our aesthetic experience. The best way to see this, I think, is to consider the idea of taste at its historical point of origin. In its role as the concept describing aesthetic preference, taste began to glimmer into steady existence around the start of the eighteenth century, at a moment when the idea of aesthetic value was undergoing an extraordinary change. This was when psychology began to challenge classical precepts and God-derived hierarchies as the key to the study of beauty, when writers such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Burke, influenced by the empiricism of Locke, began to speculate about the actual operation of the mind in the midst of aesthetic experience. (This sort of speculation had been visible, among generations of Neoplatonists and Aristotelians, only at stifled depths.) If the old way of thinking asked what qualities of the artwork made it beautiful, the new way elegantly asked what qualities of the mind made the artwork appear to be beautiful. Beauty experienced a rapid inward turn. When Joseph Addison wrote about "the pleasures of the imagination" in 1712, the idea was considered, if not revolutionary, at least strikingly new. But by 1757 David Hume was only repeating a familiar axiom when he wrote that beauty "is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them."

The danger of this approach was that once beauty had been removed into the mind, there would be nothing to keep it from becoming relative, from even becoming capricious. If beauty could only be known by a feeling, then beauty was little more than a feeling itself, and anything that gave rise to that feeling could be called beautiful. Our basis for judgment and comparison, our ability to converse meaningfully about our aesthetic experience, would be dimmed by privacy. (Hume writes that "each mind perceives a different beauty.") Eighteenth-century writers were ready to accept that not everyone would see beauty in the same places—this was merely obvious—and, going further, that there was something ineffable, even mysterious, in beauty's manifestations. But they were not prepared to sacrifice the conviction that there was some fixed point, some common element of our aesthetic experience, that would make it possible to discuss the attributes of aesthetic value as though they existed outside our private experience. Surely it was one of our first instincts, in the presence of something beautiful, to feel that its beauty transcended ourselves, to feel, indeed, that it was universal? To surrender that instinct, it seemed, was to surrender everything; Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, went so far as to argue that an experience that has led one to say "This is beautiful to me" cannot be called an aesthetic experience, because the personal restriction has annulled the idea of the beautiful.

What was needed was a compromise, a way of stressing the inwardness of aesthetic experience that would allow beauty to keep some trace of its objective form. The ground for such a compromise existed in another idea that was gaining currency throughout the eighteenth century, the idea of human nature. If human minds were structurally the same, if they were like one another in essence, then their similarity could give aesthetic judgment a functional objectivity. Where your mind perceived beauty, mine would likely perceive it too. Beauty would exist only inwardly, but it would do so within a mental order whose consistency from one mind to the next would give it an abstract character, ensuring that it was experienced in largely the same way by everyone. The promiscuous variety of human life made it difficult to describe this order with any great clarity. But it could be approached through metaphor: writers such as Hutcheson and Shaftesbury began to speak of a "sense of beauty," drawing an analogy between the mind's faculty of aesthetic perception and physical senses like sight. If we were to think of the mind as perceiving beauty the way the eye perceived color or the ear distinguished pitch, then the problem would be, if not solved, then at least very craftily sidestepped. Beauty would have an essentially subjective being, since, like a sensation, it would be a phenomenon of perception; but it would also have an objective being, because the sense could be assumed to have the same operation in everyone. (The sense could be weaker or stronger, of course; and it would be affected—to what degree was a matter of debate—by factors such as culture and climate.) Moreover, because the basic metaphor of physical sensation suggested the existence of something external—something, after all, was being sensed—beauty kept a shade of its old presence, a kind of residue of its being, outside the self. The later conception of beauty as a spirit moving across the face of the world (it was seen this way by Shelley, for instance) has some part of its beginning in this eighteenth-century escape.

That it was an escape, that it was logically ambiguous, that it treated beauty, waveringly, both as the sensation and as the thing that was sensed—all this mattered less than that the metaphor cleared a way forward. The idea of the "sense of beauty" (it quickly, of course, began to be thought of as "taste") was instrumental to the great 
fusion of contradictions that took place in eighteenth-century aesthetics. We see this already, for example, in a lively little work called "A Dissertation Concerning the Perfection of the English Language and the State of Poetry," published by Leonard Welsted in 1724. Welsted argues that the beauties of poetry are "rather to be felt, than describ'd," that they lie "too retir'd within the Bosom of Nature" to be explained by "mechanic Laws." But he insists at the same moment that poetry is objective, is "a Science of Reason," differing from the other sciences only in that, in order to perceive its truth, one must be endowed with a special perceptive power—which he calls "Taste or a Faculty of Judging." Taste is what allows us to feel the beauties of poetry and to glimpse their hidden order at the same moment; it allows us to unite the subjective with the objective in a single perceptive act.

A long way down in this, we can see the glimmering of a great deal of subsequent thought. We can see the gleam, too, of some of our own assumptions about the nature of aesthetic value, which frequently still bear the mark of these centuries-old polarities. If we ask ourselves, today, whether beauty exists in the rainstorm or the man at the window, whether it is in the stained glass at Chartres or the minds of the people below, we answer yes four times. If we ask whether our experience of beauty is intimate and known only to ourselves, we feel certain that it is; if we then ask whether we share it with other people, we feel certain that we do. We believe that some works of art are greater, or deeper, or truer than other works of art, in a way that goes beyond our private reactions to them; and yet we know that the principles that make them so are impossible to define. Obviously these positions cannot all be accurate. But in our lived aesthetic experience they appear so completely and so naturally twined together that we can hardly begin to separate them. They are all instinctively present to us, and since losing any one of them would diminish our experience of beauty, we need some way to maintain them all.

No less than in the eighteenth century, then, we are trapped behind unanswerable questions; and no less than in that time, we rely on ideas like taste to set us gently free. For as we use the word today, taste rather wonderfully seems to assume that all these possibilities can be true—but true flexibly, true in changing ratios, and thus true with a kind of modesty that allows each separate meaning to retreat in circumstances where it does not apply. It is because of this modesty that we can sustain the idea of "good taste," with its suggestion of a shared standard of value, at the same time as we declare that there is "no disputing about taste," thus effectively denying that such a standard exists; and can do so, moreover, with the sense that taste in the one case is the sibling of taste in the other, that they share the same root system, so to speak. And it is because of our ability to sustain this sense that we are able to speak of beauty as though it existed outside us (which is still, after all, the normal way to speak about beauty), even as we cherish our own deep predilections.

Seen in this way, taste seems less a problem to be solved than a vital kind of negative capability—the capability within an audience that allows it to combine the subjective and the objective in a single aesthetic experience, and thus not only to distinguish between the good and the bad in aesthetics, but to sustain a multiple notion of what the good and the bad can be. This is an ability of critical importance in our effort to develop a complete relationship to a given form of art, which is why, when we think of taste in a broad sense, we think of what it makes possible, and not what it forbids. Its very contradictoriness contains propulsive cross-currents, like the cave of winds in Virgil. An audience with a strong capability of taste, drawing from its sense of beauty as objective, can softly enforce a realm in which real discussion is possible, in which a common scale of value licenses the sharing of enthusiasms and disappointments; we see this in almost every crowd on the way out of a movie theater. Drawing from its sense of beauty as subjective, the same audience can feel the existence of a private realm where the norm of value does not reach, where idiosyncrasies freely flourish; anyone who has loved a work of art but felt that it was not, finally, very good has experienced this reservation. And the versatility of taste is such that these realms pervade one another even when they are at their most distinct; in this way we are like the citizens of a border town who no longer notice in which language they are thinking.

How taste comes into being, and what influences preside over its birth, are questions about which a great deal has been written. An equally interesting question, and one that has received far less attention, is how taste occasionally dies. For it ought to go without saying that the capabilities of taste are not present to the same degree in every art audience; they will sometimes, with regard to one medium or another, seem to weaken, to shrivel away. This phenomenon is always strange. It does not, for instance, appear to be strongly related to the popularity or the prestige of a given art form: taste is often intensely present in the tiniest aesthetic subcultures on the Internet, while the audience for, say, contemporary orchestral music, far more prestigious in itself, appears largely bewildered in taste's absence. Indeed, during the last hundred years it has been the most institutionally prestigious art forms that have lost the most from their supply of taste, that have seen taste thin around them like an expiring atmosphere; and a great deal of the brittleness that we currently sense in these arts is surely related to this.

What happens when the relationship between an audience and an art form begins to fail? A kind of obscurity, something felt but not quite formulated, overwhelms aesthetic judgment. It becomes difficult to say what is good or bad, and worse, what one likes or dislikes. Somehow these questions appear unconnected to what is actually happening. The atmosphere fills with the bad air of theories. Conservative outcries are feebly raised, in response to no evident controversy. Discussion shies from the work of artists, withdraws to the question of survival, the ominous question of the future. What will the way forward be? Irving Howe wrote that all literary revolutions begin in an assault on a standard of taste. Where will the next one begin, if the standard of taste is a vapor?

Where, indeed? In poetry at the present moment there is something like this fissuring, something like this failure between audience and art. Anyone who has spent time with contemporary American poetry must be at least vaguely aware of this; the anxiety that dominates the culture of poetry in this country would be impossible to miss even if it had not been, for many years, the subject of intense deliberation. Anxiety has pressed on the poetry culture for so long that it has become virtually a constitutive element of it, has succeeded finally in fusing itself to the logic by which the institutions of poetry operate. The sense of an ongoing crisis has given the white light of urgency to the activity of poetry's professional infrastructure, the complex of publishers, grant foundations, authors' groups, and writing programs whose efforts have increasingly assumed the glamour of emergency response. ("Any donation, large or small, will make a difference," says the website of the Academy of American Poets.) Even the occasional indignant declaration by some leading poet or critic that there is no crisis in poetry seems, in the present climate, to contribute to the sense that there is one: when Robert Pinsky attacks the idea of the "poetry gloom," he is really acting as the poetry gloom's best publicist. Anxiety is so widespread in the poetry culture that the odd denial can be taken as a mere tic of the mechanism, like the stroke of the second racket that, in Samuel Johnson's famous metaphor, keeps the shuttlecock in the air.

But anxiety why, and for what? Most familiarly, of course, we hear that poetry has lost its social relevance, that it no longer "matters" in American culture at large. This premise was capably developed by Dana Gioia in his influential 1991 essay "Can Poetry Matter?"; more recently, John Barr offered in this magazine a variation on the same idea. According to the most common version of this line of thinking, poetry has broken off from the main body of the culture and has become a distinct subculture, what Gioia calls "a small and isolated group," of interest only to those who engage in it. Starved of a general readership, poets are writing only for other poets, like shortwave radio hobbyists who build elaborate machines on which they can only reach each other. In these arguments we always find some mention of the rise of creative writing programs, which have funded poetry's withdrawal into the irrelevance of the academy, and some mention of the continuing influence of Modernism, with its lordly indifference to common comprehension. Poetry is seen as something essential to the mental life of society that has become alien to the mental life of society; to bring poetry back to society, and vice versa, is therefore the proper course. Because this position generally underlies the most public attempts to "save" poetry—often these are ambiguously combined with efforts to "celebrate" it, as we see in National Poetry Month—we might call it the position of the poetry activists.

Opposed to the poetry activists there is of course another group of writers and critics whom we might call the anti-activists. This group holds that the obsession with relevance, the obsession with "mattering," which is essentially an obsession with audience size, necessarily has a vulgarizing effect, and that the real crisis facing poetry is therefore not the indifference of society but the debasement that results from making an appeal to society that treats poetry like any other marketable product. J.D. McClatchy expressed this position very neatly when he recently accused the Poetry Foundation of wanting to "promote poetry, the way you'd promote cereal or a sitcom." Where the activists are concerned with poetry's public role and with its influence on the culture, the anti-activists see themselves as curators of the private experience of reading, concerned with its depths and mysteries, with its autonomy in the larger cultural sphere. They want poetry to remain aloof from the degrading triviality of mass culture; poetry's isolation, its decent separateness, is in their opinion one of its tangible assets. By this understanding, the poetry institutions are like hospitals that kill their own patients; in their fixation on expanding poetry's readership, they compromise the qualities that make poetry actually worth reading. Selling poetry to a society that prizes instant gratification and easy self-fulfillment, they infect poetry with those attributes, and force complexity, depth, and inventiveness even further out of sight.

In 1973 Lionel Trilling delivered a lecture called "Art, Will, and Necessity," in which he argued that a new anxiety had come to dominate our experience of art:

Art, we might say, exists for us through our crisis of belief in its potency. We experience it not through pleasure, as men did in former times, but through anxiety—through our uneasiness over its status and over its chances of survival, and through our sense that we do it injury by holding false ideas about its nature and about the ways in which it works for our good.

Whether or not we agree with the full extent of Trilling's observation, with regard to the culture of contemporary poetry it has a deep specific accuracy. Anxiety about poetry is indeed divided between those who are uneasy "over its status and over its chances of survival" and those who sense "that we do it injury by holding false ideas about its nature and about the ways in which it works for our good."

What is interesting about this conflict, which is the central fault line in the poetry culture today, is that both sides are conservative movements that essentially long for the same past. Both are moved by what might without much exaggeration be called the idea of a golden age, by the idea that the present for poetry is the moment after a fall. (Trilling writes of pleasure as having belonged to men "in former times.") Both sides see the restoration of lost virtues as poetry's best way forward. Where they differ, of course, and appear to differ significantly, is in the virtues they want to restore. The activists look back to a time when poetry had an engaged audience and was held in high cultural esteem. The anti-activists look back to a time when poetry possessed a dignity and seriousness which the present-day activists have threatened.

But for all the sharp disagreements they have occasioned, these qualities are not at all mutually exclusive: indeed, in the happier past as it is imagined by both groups they would certainly be seen to coexist. (As they coexisted for Tennyson, say.) In fact, this is largely a quarrel over emphasis, one in which each side is willing to sacrifice one quality (a committed public, a private depth) only out of an overriding eagerness to recover the other. And in this it is possible to see the way in which the problem for American poetry is really a problem of taste, the way in which the power of intuitive judgment, and the kind of aesthetic experience it makes possible, is really what is felt to have been lost. The language used by both sides is at times strikingly indicative of this. The activists' emphasis on "public dialogue," which has often explicitly connected the renewal of audience interest with the aesthetic renewal of poetry (John Barr makes this connection, for instance), frequently sounds like a longing for taste in its objective aspect, for the possibility of shared aesthetic categories that would allow the experience of poetry to be discussed in common terms. And the anti-activists' emphasis on private aesthetic experience is even more conspicuous in its appeal to the subjective aspect of taste, to the swerve of inner response that defines one's personal reaction to a poem. James Longenbach has written that poetry's expanding audience "has by and large been purchased at the cost of poetry's inwardness." And Richard Howard has urged that the only way to "save" poetry is to restore it "to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes our only authentic pleasures."

This is why the conflict in the poetry culture so often feels like a single solution that has begun to attack itself. The moment that both sides wish for is the moment when, regardless of the size of poetry's readership, the capabilities of taste were strongly present within it, meaning that poetry, which now so often seems to come to us from across a watery distance, could be strongly present as well. Both sides want to recover the fragmented idea of taste, in other words, but each has committed itself to an advocacy of only one of the fragments. Since the subjective and the objective aspects of taste need one another in order to function meaningfully, the poetry culture has begun to resemble the man who wants to reach the middle of the lake but refuses to use the boat and the oars together.

What, today, is the category of aesthetic judgment that a poem can aspire to reach? Two centuries ago we might have confidently answered "beauty"; one century ago we might have answered "beauty," but stammered. Today beauty seems a long way to one side of almost all poetic practice, and no similarly authoritative concept has come along to replace it. "Originality" and "authenticity" are not really aesthetic categories; and of the series of prevalent metaphors portraying a poem as a kind of functioning machine—the model of "aesthetic dynamics" and of poems that "work" or "don't work"—we can best say that they are useful for discussing a poem's arrangement of parts, but do not in themselves lead to complete aesthetic judgments. To ask whether a poem "works," which is the approach taken by a great deal of contemporary criticism, is only to invoke a broad idea of psychological effectiveness ("this poem does something to me") and not necessarily to develop it into any general aesthetic conclusion. Readers, of course, are free to pursue this development in a thousand individual ways; but the absence of any centrally important, 
general aesthetic category means that they will do so within an overall 
cacophony: that readers of poetry, since their ideas are not developed with regard to any common point of reference, will always to some extent be talking past each other.

We are living among the consequences, in other words, of what has been a profound weakening over the last two hundred years of the objective capability of taste. The long banner of the eighteenth-century empiricists, unfurling through Romanticism, through democratic individualism, through Freudian psychology, through the work of the Modernists and the work of the postmodernists, seems finally to have reached its point; in the figuration of our thought the individual subject is almost completely paramount. There is now virtually no sense among poetry readers of a fixed and commonly accessible standard of aesthetic value, either as a set of widely accepted critical principles or as a sense functioning intuitively among readers (such as still exists, for instance, in the film audience or the audience for popular music). If we have any shared sense of aesthetic criteria, in fact, it is probably the one derived from the Wordsworthian precept that every author must create the taste by which he is to be enjoyed: the sense, in other words, that poems must succeed on radically individual terms, that the poem itself proposes the rules by which it becomes valuable. But surely this is the point at which the objective standard of taste ceases to resemble itself, the point at which it becomes subjective. The idea that the poem can "succeed" objectively, but only on unpredictable individual terms, essentially treats aesthetic value as a form of inner response, one that can be given the appearance of objectivity only by the critic's reasoned analysis of his own reaction to a poem. I know that a poem by, say, Mark Ford is good, because I like it; and I can validate my liking by persuasively analyzing its rhetorical features, its slippery narratives, its form. We are always in a sense reverse-engineering the poems that have produced in us the feeling of encountering aesthetic value. But because we do not associate aesthetic value with any general quality—each poem, again, having to succeed on its own fresh terms—we run the risk of merely furnishing more or less complex explanations of the workings of our own subjective taste.

And what of subjective taste? Has the weakening of the objective construction of aesthetic value in poetry been accompanied by the strengthening of subjective preference among individual readers? In fact there are many signs that the opposite has been the case, that the loss of a sense of a shared standard of value has left readers of poetry somewhat numbed in their own preferences. There is something oddly anonymous and neutral in the expressions of enthusiasm one encounters for contemporary poetry, in book-jacket blurbs, for instance; one often feels as though it is the system of poetry itself, or some aspect of the poetry culture, that is being approved of, and not any poet or poem. There are no aesthetic controversies in poetry as heated as the controversies that routinely arise around poetry criticism, and one frequently comes across confessions by readers of poetry journals, this one included, that the first thing they do upon receiving a new copy is to turn to the reviews. Does this not suggest a certain unconscious frustration among readers of new poetry, a sense that basic problems of aesthetic judgment must be addressed before they can entertain the possibility of new aesthetic experience in poems? Robert Frost famously wrote that a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom"; what does it say about our present relation to poetry that we need to find wisdom before we can look for delight? There is a phrase in Lowell: "beginning in wisdom, dying in doubt."

Another sign that subjective taste has weakened in poetry is the very obsession of the activists, who feel that poetry has become a subculture catering entirely to its own needs. This idea has prompted a long train of bullet-point-riddled essays advocating various means by which poetry could be rescued from its subcultural ghetto and restored to the culture at large. But poetry is not, and never has been, a subculture; at the moment it more exactly resembles something that tried to become a subculture and failed. One of the defining characteristics of a functioning subculture—one, that is, which is successfully satisfying the needs for which its participants turn to it—is that its members are indifferent to, possibly even embrace, its lack of popularity. We see this in every field; in the anxiety of the indie-rock audience when a cult band signs with a major record label, for instance. It is only when a subculture fails to satisfy the needs of its members that, like a fringe political movement, it begins to covet adoption by the outside world, as though this could provide a meaning that it is incapable of generating for itself.

When I say, then, that the current audience for poetry in America lacks taste, I do not mean to suggest that we have bad taste—that we like bad poems. I mean, instead, that we have fallen into a kind of insensibility, a sort of intelligent numbness, which is both a cause and a consequence of the poetry culture's lingering anxiety. The presence of this numbness, demonstrated by the widespread concern for what other people ought to read, is what leads me to conclude that in poetry the uncertainty of our aesthetic experience has overwhelmed our relationship to the art; that, in other words, the capabilities that I have described as belonging to taste have dissolved until we find ourselves unable to form intuitive aesthetic judgments, unable to know the ground on which such judgments could legitimately be formed, and thus adrift in an indifference that we ritualistically pretend is something else.

There are a few questions worth asking here, even though their answers lie outside the scope of this essay. The first is to what extent the problem of taste influences aesthetic trends within poetry, and vice versa. That is to say, does the weakening of taste in the poetry audience demonstrate merely that poems are no longer written in a way that can produce pleasure for a large number of readers? (Certainly there are many forms of art for which taste remains quite present.) Or is it the case that the deeper intellectual difficulties that have interfered with taste in the poetry audience have produced a similar interference in the work of contemporary poets? I have written as though the problems facing the poetry culture were a long way off from the aesthetic difficulties facing individual writers, and I think this is true in the sense that the issue of what kinds of aesthetic experience are conceptually possible precedes the issue of what kinds of aesthetic experience poets are actually attempting to create. But the problems facing the writers of any period are no doubt significantly involved in the condition of taste as it exists among their readers, and it would surely be interesting to consider in what ways this is true today.

There is also the question of what is to be done, of how taste can be restored to poetry. But on this point I shall simply have nothing to say. The poetry culture has seen enough bullet-point lists, and everything about the present situation suggests that it will engulf all deliberate solutions. We are living in a moment that is historically unprecedented in the degree to which everyday experience is dominated by aesthetics; as a result we participate in, even take for granted, a variety of aesthetic forms that would have seemed insane in the late nineteenth century. And yet the vocabulary with which we describe our aesthetic experience has become more and more problematic; has, if anything, dwindled, so that the widening of our experience has been accompanied bizarrely by a narrowing of the concepts by which we comprehend it. (When was the last time "sublimity" was a relevant idea?) Even beauty, which is still our only single word for aesthetic value in general, has in its sense of harmony, order, and right proportion become less and less pertinent to the kinds of aesthetic experience that are likely to provoke us to respond. And I suspect that this points again to the problem that we find reflected in taste—that we still rely on a pre-Modern aesthetic vocabulary, one which reflects an arrangement of concepts that predates the eighteenth century, to describe forms of aesthetic experience that are in many ways quite new. This also suggests why the problem of taste is not likely to be solved in an essay whose concepts are limited by precisely that vocabulary. The solution, for poetry and for criticism, must lie in some form of conceptual renewal; and in this effort one poet, speaking to us beyond words, will have more success in finding the way through than a hundred diligent critics. We can describe the hedges, we can draw the map of the maze, but it is beyond our power to identify the exit. If there is a hidden door anywhere, it will be up to a poet to find it.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry and the Problem of Taste

Other Information

  • Browse Poems