Monday, November 12, 2012

Stephen Dobyns “On Taste and Aesthetic Judgement”

I have been lamenting for years it seems the narrowing of what defines excellence in this country as a handful of angling critical voices keep making claims for a new cosmopolitan poetry which reads to me like shorthand for poems displaying decorous or ideosyncratic language, formal traditional elements, abstruse imagery, little real human emotion or strong narrative aspects, and a morbid disdain for the first person. 

This is not to say some very fine or even great poems have not been written from such a perspective, for indeed they have, but why the nagging belief any poems written outside such a confined purview or “lens” are slight and without merit? Does this not say more about the critic’s own aesthetic, his or her own tastes, than it does about how well a different kind of poem functions as a poem?

This is what I had been thinking about recently when to my delight I discovered Stephen Dobyns’ book of prose Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry where in his essay “Moral Inquiry” he tackles these issues with characteristic level-headedness. Listen to what Dobyns says about the difference between taste and aesthetic judgment which for reasons unknown to me, is still the subject of a lot of confusion in this country, and any attempt to question why this is the case is apt to get you labelled a critical relativist by the “bow-tie” set. Dobyns contends in his essay:

“To tell the difference between taste and aesthetic judgement it’s necessary to define what constitutes a “successful poem” in such a way that some elements belong and some do not. Critics and reviewers attempt to control the definition of that X. If X is not present, says the critic, then it is not a successful poem. Half a dozen years ago, a reviewer in Poetry magazine lambasted an anthology edited by Garrison Keillor entitled Good Poems. The reviewer found the poems simplistic; to his mind they offered no complexity in either form or content. Dozens of contemporary poets were represented, as well as Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, Blake, and other poets belonging to what used to be called the canon.

The reviewer tried to present his personal taste as aesthetic judgment and failed. The poems in the anthology were all immediately accessible, had strong narrative elements, and reflected Keillor’s taste. What Keillor saw as qualities, the reviewer saw as shortcomings. He saw the poems as middlebrow and pointed out that many great poems are not immediately accessible and are formally more interesting. What he wasn’t willing to admit was the field of poetry is vast enough to encompass both types, and what he was complaining about was their motivating concept, rather than how they were written, because, after all, they were written exactly as the poets wanted“(202).

It is this idea that somehow a poet’s motivating concept can be isolated, diagnosed as malignant, and thus whole poems or books dismissed, which I find particular troubling and business as usual here in Canada. It stacks the deck in favour of the taste-makers, which I suppose is the whole point. Culling the herd.