"The automatic equation of radical style with liberal politics and conservative style with reactionary politics is a historical myth that does little justice to an agonizingly ambiguous reality."
The Rest Is Noise by music critic Alex Ross - which is where I got the above quote - is a good book for poetry readers to read. In my line of work I hear an awful lot of fussing about "kinds of poetry," variously - and frankly, rather unconvincingly - defined. It's as if in the world of contemporary American poetry one ought not to be eclectic, one has to take sides. Even if you don't do those things, you're made out to stand for something. If this is news to you, so much the better: most readers wouldn't have any reason to care about this kind internecine debate which, like all things, must pass. Yet there are a few things worth noting in all this, and I think Ross can bring a bit of useful clarity to the general reading and experience of poetry.
The quote I've transcribed, for instance, reminds us that we can read poetry without worrying about what stance imputed to it by critics, teachers, and editors. I don't have to worry about being called a right-wing nut if I persist in liking, quoting, and learning from Robert Frost, say, or Robert Lowell, or Philip Larkin; and I don't have be called a language poetry theory guy if I adore J.H. Prynne and feel illuminated and challenged by Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman. In between, somewhere unclassifiable, lie Hopkins, Dickinson, Crane, Ammons, Helen Adam, Charlotte Mew, May Swenson and a host of other envelope-pushers... and there are poets who seem orphaned by categories altogether: George Gascoigne, Thomas Lovell Beddoes... Bill Knott. Well, I don't want to push this too far. Paraphrasing Ross, just because some great poetry has been rejected, it does not follow that any rejected poetry is great.
So: what are the criteria for the "best" poetry, let alone "great" poems? Do we even need criteria? I suppose we do, or there'd be nothing for editors and teachers to do. But what are the criteria readers have? Let me propose just one that I hope won't be too irritating. As I've hinted in my previous post here, poetry can be prized for taking up lost causes, though some lost causes (we still read Virgil and Pound) are better than others: the causes of the disappeared and disadvantaged, and of the dead. As the late Mahmoud Darwish put it, every beautiful poem is an act of resistance. There are dozens of other such criteria, ranging from taking the top of your head off to supposedly "making nothing happen" to giving pleasure and... well, you can pick any you like. In the end, no categories or definitions suffice, and that's because measuring achievement starts from being dubious whereas poetry itself arises from ignoring expectation and positively surviving through its own locutions. Are poets (let alone editors) the unacknowledged legislators of the world? That depends. As Hannah Arendt observed, the most conspicuous feature of those in authority is that they don't have any power. You're the reader: you be the judge.
I didn't have Frank O'Hara on my little list, above. I'd say that O'Hara and W.H. Auden have always been my favorite poets - as a reader, that is; I don't judge poems I see by their standards, or really, by any standards at all. I just like those two poets and suppose I always will. The recent publication of Mark Ford's version of O'Hara's selected poems (which perhaps replaces, though it doesn't necessarily supersede Donald Allen's earlier one) elicited some controversial questioning of that poet's reputation. But what's reputation got to do with it? We're back to the myth of positioning poets, placing value upon their work, without accounting for the ambiguity of the act of reading. There's a good reading of O'Hara's work in Edward Mendelson's essay in the September 25th New York Review of Books. Mendelson notes that O'Hara "was too modest to admit that he believed his [avant garde] friends' desire to 'produce art' - to confront an aesthetic crisis instead of a moral one - was their limitation." Mendelson, taking a fresh look at O'Hara, compares his tone to Larkin's, his elegies to Milton's, and relates O'Hara's ironically intimate powers of observation to Dante, for whom every object "that has profound value in itself is obscurely but profoundly connected to everything that has similar value." And so it's no surprise - though most of us who think we know about poetry will feel surprised - that Mendelson finds in O'Hara's poems such things as loose hexameter, subtly varied trimeter, tightly controlled spondees followed by the trochee and dactyl and other traditional techniques. It will rile some to be told that "when O'Hara wrote to entertain his avant=garde circle, he was not so much sharing with them an inner artistic logic as giving them the means to congratulate themselves on being avant-garde."
original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-esthetic, bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!
its definitely not 19th Century, it's not even Partisan Review, it's new, it must be vanguard!
("Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's")
Being avant garde was dismissed by Baudelaire as suitable only to those who think collectively, Mendelson points out, "not to those for whom, like O'Hara at his best, the only truth is face to face." When a group or coterie disappears, it has nothing left to say. Poems might stick around for a while, for any number or reasons, or perhaps for no good reason at all. This means we can read poetry without the anxiety - the noise - of punditry or ideology of any stripe. We meet poets on our own terms - that is to say, as human beings - not quite face to face, but page to face. There is justice in that, justice for all: real poetic justice.