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Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry

Discussed on Harriet, BOOKFORUM has an article by Adam Plunkett on contemporary difficult poetry, & how criticism is unable to, or refuses to, separate the bad poems from the good.

To quote the first paragraph:

Pay attention to the poetry world, and you’ll notice a kind of false advertising: most of published criticism is positive even though so much of published poetry is bad. (This is probably why a lot of people don’t pay attention to the poetry world.) One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools. They misinterpret what they malign, they butcher what they slander. A way to acknowledge the problem without giving in to it is to qualify criticisms with an implicit “unless I’m missing something.” As in, unless I’m missing something, the line “At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness” sounds like a parody of a pop song. It describes an emotion without conveying it, exaggerates images without making them interesting. “His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and pinned together by stars.” Unless I’m missing something, that’s vaguely whimsical but impossible to visualize at all. Blood, toil, sweat, and tears are also ethereal, I get it, but the words are tossed together like a collage I can’t actually imagine—is there oil and bloody garbage floating near the Milky Way, in which case how can the poet see it? How does it look to him like a superhero’s outfit? How is the line not sappy, trite, and nonsensical?

It’s an interesting read, as Plunkett contrasts some poems by Michael Dickman with Katherine Larson, in favour of the latter. There are two ideas which come out:First, the trouble of fairly criticising difficult poetry is a topic I have been thinking about recently, as Plunkett’s suggestion

One reason for the dearth of critical comeuppances is that even bad poems are often hard to understand and harder to understand conclusively, so negative critics risk missing something and looking like fools.

matches something I wrote recently: “When judging them, difficult poems press themselves upon one’s self-confidence”. The answer to this is is a brusque one, but, I think, obvious: we need better critics. (Before continuing, this is not a sly way of implying “we need better critics than Plunkett”; I am only using him as an example.)Plunkett shows this passage of Larson’s as a comparison to Dickman:

The Milky Way sways its back across all of wind-eaten America like a dusty saddle tossed over your sable, lunatic horse.

He responds to the passage with:

There’s no simple literal sense to the simile (The Milky Way is to America as a saddle is to a mad-horse), but the visceral descriptions draw the objects together (“back,” “saddle,” “dusty,” “wind-eaten,” “lunatic”) with an associative certainty the final rhyme secures (“tossed” / “horse” is a Yeats rhyme, imperfect but accruing). Her image of the Milky Way is a perfect point of comparison with Dickman’s, which is literally incoherent but frustratingly rather than breathtakingly so. Hers is so charged with a depth of sensuous associations that it feels raw and unconscious, dreamlike and primeval, exciting precisely because you can pleasantly think it over endlessly without ever making sense of it or having it lose its mystery.

After an apparently token gesture at analysis, looking at a loose association of words & a “Yeats rhyme”, Plunkett seems to assume that we will agree that the lines are ‘good poetry’. He suggests that both Larson & Dickman’s lines are “literally incoherent”, & the difference is only if this is ‘frustrating’ or ‘breathtaking’. His terms — “sensuous”, “unconscious”, “dreamlike” — look suspiciously like a cover for a refusal to demonstrate the actual machinery of the image, a refusal to to show why, exactly, it is good. It is a curious omission, as Plunkett’s analysis of Dickman’s bad poetry is perceptive & thorough. It should be taken instead as evidence of how, since all effects in poetry should be accessible to analysis, the difference between ‘good’ & ‘bad’ poetry is generally how much is going on in a given passage, & how much can be said to describe it. Plunkett can concisely account for Dickman’s failures but not for Larson’s successes because Larson’s successes have much greater depth. If critics are going to be able to distinguish between good & bad poetry, & show their evidence for this distinction, they need to be more exacting, or else they will be unable to persuade their readers.Second, to what extent is negative criticism fair? We should all be supporters of poetry. We should, in the face of much mainstream indifference, be finding new readers & ‘spreading the word’. On the face of it, this mission would seem to be incompatible with labelling published work as ‘bad’. However, as Plunkett says, “so much of published poetry is bad”[my italics]. If we believe that some poetry is good & some bad, we should also believe that an indifferent reader would be more likely to be won over to poetry by a good poem than by a bad one. Therefore, it is possible to be a ‘supporter of poetry’ & to be unafraid to name bad poetry when one sees it. All poetry does not deserve praise purely for being published (especially since there are an increasing number of places to do so).