“Kind” and “kind”—adjective and noun. They go back to the same root, one they share with “kin.” Family, sex, rank: it’s all in there. An idea of belonging, or not. Enlarging the circle, or not. As I get older, I value kindness more and more. And yet I’ve never been able to get all that excited about my membership in the human family, or the family of all living things, or the family of poets, aspiring and otherwise. Whatever we are, we aren’t one, and spare me the poem that says otherwise. Kindness, for me, is a humbling—not ignoring distinctions, but imagining the ways I am obliged beyond likeness; living in the possible irrelevance of my own unique being, out on a margin of the itself-eccentric world.
For me, the power of words, including their unreliable, enchanting power to connect, rests in their ability to divide. Each word is a grouping, yes, but also a distinction. My mentor, Alan Shapiro, insists: all poetry comes down to pattern and variation. So do our words. There is something comforting in existence, odd as that may sound, and I grow selfish of my ability to be not-you sometimes. It feels protective—encircling. I am in me enclosed. It’s a place to start.
But being a poetry person—it makes me feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. It’s like the joke from Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’” It’s such a big space—poetry—and there are so many people in here, too. It gets ugly on both ends—the too-easy identification of us all with each other in some kind of one-note harmony, and the too-fierce attempt to plant the tallest flag on this tiny plot.
If poetry is a moral enterprise, it’s never moral in its own right. Taste, by itself, has to do with pleasure, not positioning, and our attempts to imagine otherwise often seem to serve unethical ends—the need to denigrate, relegate, refuse. We police each other’s enjoyment with such outrage that there must be some ulterior afoot. The obvious answer: our own identities are encroached on. I’ve written about one example elsewhere*—have written unkindly myself, I realize now, though one of the unkindest comparisons still seems apt. The ways that we want to outlaw each other’s affections remind me of the ways people fear that someone else’s love will somehow impinge on their own.
Of course, the consequences are monumentally smaller here, but it’s still worth keeping in mind that pleasure is partly cultural, and if taste is not itself a moral position (no matter how often certain critics try to make it so), it does have a moral dimension, in as much as it represents other identities that have moral significance in our society: race, class, etc. And so the denial of a given taste—the refusal to allow for its validity—can itself be immoral, and our own attempts to enlarge our imagination of other people’s joy and meaning is a powerful, literary act, one I’m trying to get better at myself.
*David Lehman has since pointed out to me a major and embarassing (though he was very nice about it) mistake in this article: Dove's BAP came out in 2000; Bloom's BEST OF BEST came out in '96 and omitted Adrienne Rich's selections, not (obviously) Dove's.