While she and DL are traveling, Stacey has asked me to blog for a week; I jumped at the chance. The past month on BAP has been pretty fertile; I've particularly liked recent posts by T. R. Hummer, Katha Pollitt, and Elena Karina Byrne, along with DL's quote from W. S. DiPiero's notebooks, and his own teaser first paragraph from his intro to the new BAP anthology. The quality of the writing has been high, thus rather intimidating, but I'll plunge ahead bravely and add some thoughts in various posts about poetry criticism, teaching creative writing, and random thoughts about contemporary poetry/poems.
The thing that intrigues me about our poetry criticism is that we are so extreme, although when you think about it, why shouldn't our criticism reflect the cultural moment, one of the most divisive in our history? I've long thought that Calvinism's basic tenet, that we are either saved or damned, not only outfitted us to be perfect little individual engines of capitalism, but also gave us our deepest sense of identity. I'm no sociologist, but I'm guessing that most or all humans have a built-in sense that we're better than the guy or tribe down the block; still, they have things we like, so we trade with them, maybe we fall in love once in a while, or have festivals where we get drunk together. We never let go our suspicions of them, nor the feeling that in some essential way we're a little bit better than they are; but we get along, make deals, coexist. It's only in the three great monotheisms that the people down the block are traitors to the human, and absolute emanations of evil; and as Americans, our legacy is we're the most saved of all; chosen, in fact.
It seems as if we're forgetting how to coexist; I'm not taking a high road here: I'm as bruised and bitter as anyone else. But I was struck the responses to Shaindel Beers's poem posted here on 9/1, both in support of the poem and lambasting it.
First things first: we can all choose to like or dislike this or any poem; the crux is, what will be our standard of praise or blame? An email friend of mine--I won't reveal her name--wrote to me that the poem was "dull sentimental prose" and that the "two sane responses are shouted down in the town meeting." That's strong, of course, but it holds the seed of discourse; it brings up aspects of the poem that can be discussed: perhaps the imagery is trite or unclear; perhaps the rhythms are too prose-like for some sensibilities; perhaps the manipulations of sentimentality are present. What about the contributions of the "two sane voices"? They declare the poem "babble," "not sufficiently literate," "adolescent," "hackneyed and vapid," "trite." I think the difference here--the reason that these responses don't admit of discourse--is that they are of a convinced other side; there's no room for argument, discussion, here. Beers is obviously damned, without recourse, let alone discourse.
And that very well might be, but the jury is still out if this kind of sneering is all we have as a rebuttal witness. I think my comments here are mild, but real--that is, honestly offered; but someone reading this might demand that I take a stand on the poem. I find merit in the poem, but I question some things. For example, is the word "geniuses" in the first line ironic or not? Much depends on that. It might seem obvious that it is, but absolutely nothing in the poem indicates that the parents are even smart. They seem utterly devoid of self-awareness, generosity, or entry-level skills of parenting. Yet "smartness" seems a lynchpin of the poem; and the reverse--that's everybody here is stupid--doesn't carry the whole weight of the poem, either. The word "But" at the beginning of the eighth line seems to take at face value the praise they offered to each other in letters; and the penultimate line seems to want the reader to supply an image of Richard Burton drunkenly quoting Shakespeare as he hurls his imprecations at the Helen Mirren mother staggering through a Plath-litany of disgust as she's handcuffed off to jail. Too much of this poem has to be supplied by the reader; and if you invoke a meta-argument, and say it's a piece of damaged work emanating from a damaged consciousness, I just don't buy it. This leads me to feel that the last line is, in fact, sentimental and manipulative. On the other hand, I applaud Beers for trying to talk about important subject matter; and I suspect that that's the chord, or one of them, she touches in readers who are just as dogmatic as the naysayers in the comments column. So much of our poetry these days seems "faked"--in the sense that W. S. DiPiero means, or I assume he means--that readers are hungry for language that addresses their real lives.