As with all things, I attend to this blog sporadically. As a result, it doesn’t really do any job other than record my occasional thoughts, and the odd success or writerly activity here and there. Most recently I’ve had work published in the US magazine San Pedro River Review, accepted by Cake and Interpreter’s House (as has Rosemary, co-editor of Antiphon, by pure coincidence, so that’s pleasing), rejected by Magma, and placed on a shortlist for possible acceptance by another mag I’d better not mention in case they decided against it.
Yesterday Roy Marshall posted an interview with me on his blog. I was very pleased to be asked, and, as always, went way over the top in my response. He’s edited a good thousand words from it, and it’s still very long. And, wouldn’t you know it, the responses address things that were commented on in the original but have been lost in transliteration.
One poet in particular noted that poetry is all a matter of taste and that, consequently, there can be no real agreement about what constitutes “good” poetry. I’ve written on this before, and probably will do again, and I find I’m also doing it now. Yes, poetry is a matter of taste, and so what particular people feel is “better” or “worse” in poetry depends on their taste to a large extent. And the same could be said of all art forms, and perhaps all pleasures. But this reductive oversimplification does not mean that there are elements one can look for in art, or poetry, or music, or cake-making which are more likely to get more people to think that it’s “good” rather than not.
In cakes, for example, sugar is often good, as are eggs, flower, flavour, chocolate, icing, cooking at the right temperature for the right period, firmness of texture, decoration – there’s quite a long list, when you come to think about it. Having any of these things is more likely to lead to a decent cake – one that is at least “acceptable”, (tasty) in many people’s views. Having all of them may be too much – one wouldn’t want a chocolate cake that was also a lemon cake and a carrot cake and contained nuts and raisins, and was iced with marzipan and royal icing and had a buttercream and jam filling, for example. (Or would one? I find I’m somewhat tempted by the idea…) It would be over the top, trying too hard and, fundamentally, based on the assumption that, if some ingredients are good, then all ingredients must be better.
This might work, but probably won’t. Most of the time, at least, it won’t work, though a genius in cake-making might just pull it off. Nor does it necessarily follow that a cake with none of these elements would not be a decent cake. Bakers vary many of these elements, making (for example) cakes with vegetables and savoury cakes, cakes without flour or sugar or eggs, and can produce wonderfully different things. I guess there may well be avant garde cake makers who experiment with every dimension of cake-making, and produce things which are still edible, and possibly delicious – though perhaps many people would not call them cakes any more.
But the majority of tasty cakes require some of these things. And the best of them require the right combination of the right selection of them. A few we might regard as essential. For example, the ingredients of a cake ought to be edible. Similarly, a poem needs language. Now, we can deny this, as John Cage did with music in 4’33” – where silence is performed as if it were sound. But the denial is made in the context of the essential element. There is no genre of “silent music”, made up of dozens of pieces which deny sound for many different periods and in many different guises. Once the point has been made, once that essential characteristic has been noted, and given meaning by enacting it, there’s nothing more to say. So a blank page as poem makes a point, but it still does so in reference to language. Language is an essential constituent of the “blank page as poem”, because if language was not implied, it could not be perceived as missing, and so the significance of the blank page would be lost.
I’m not a musician, but I am a writer. So, whilst I can’t see different ways one could meaningfully play or compose silent music, I can see different ways that a blank space can be a poem. It can also be a piece of visual art, where it implies an absent image, for example, where erasure has taken place, or where an empty frame is hung in a gallery. These are signals that the thing you can see (or “read”) is to be understood in relation to a thing you can’t see, or read, or hear.
But a blank piece of paper skittering on the pavement, caught on my shoe, is not a poem unless I come to think of it as a poem – that is, I place it in reference to something else, in this case, to the language it doesn’t possess. (I can think of the image of it as having significance, of course, but that’s a different thing). We don’t typically think of blank pages as poems unless we come to attend to them in a particular way. No-one goes into W H Smiths and browses the empty notebooks for all that they might (but don’t) convey!
Language, therefore, is essential to poetry. That might seem a rather obvious assertion, a laboured point, but it’s a critical one, because “essential” does not mean the same as “sufficient”. If it did, then every use of language would be poetry, which renders the distinction between them meaningless. Poetry is a special case of language.
I think most linguists would argue that all language in use is a “special case”. Speech Act theory suggests that all uses of language are performative, are doing something, and functional linguistics is grounded on the assumption that language is something we use, not something we simply have. Language is a tool with which things are done, not a set of rules to be learned and adhered to. Language, therefore, is manipulated, changes, evolves, alters according to situation and need. As each speaker or writer decides what they want to do with it, they may alter, abuse, misuse, invent, deviate, twist, create, change the language for the particular, current purpose they have.
So one couldn’t claim that there was a definitive set of rules that made good poetry. But that doesn’t mean that anything at all which uses language is necessarily a poem. Somewhere between those two extremes are some uses of language, some manipulation of its many ingredients, which are more likely to lead to more effective poem-like uses than language use without them. There are some things which, if found in a specific use of language, are more likely to be felt to be “poetic” than texts without them.
However, a poem is not a dead thing on a page. Or it shouldn’t be. It is a bridge between someone somewhere who created, found or transmitted it and someone who has turned over a page, or turned up at a reading, or found this thing blown against their instep in the street. A poem is necessarily something that can be read or heard as a poem, i.e. it is a function of how a reader or hearer is willing to react to it. This does not mean that the writer had to intend it as a poem. But one of the signals that commonly disposes a reader to attend to it as a poem is the knowledge that the writer intends it as a poem. “I’ve used this blob of language as a poem, and I’d like you to attend to it as if it was.”
Neither the writer’s intent, nor the reader’s willingness to receive, a text as if it was a poem necessarily makes it a good poem, but it’s probably sufficient to regard it as a poem. In other words, a poem is a text that someone, somewhere is willing to regard as a poem, and treat in the special way of using language that we would call “poetic”. Whatever that special use is, it’s the defining characteristic of poetry: that which someone is willing to hear as a poem, is by virtue of that “special use”, a poem.
But it might not be any good as a poem. Something I’m willing to taste as if it was a cake, might make me call it a cake (or maybe a “potential cake”) and condition my reception of it, but it doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy it, nor agree that it offers the special experience I look for in Battenberg, Lemon Drizzle and Victoria Sponge. Cup cakes, for example, Cup cakes can be splendid in appearance, with all the signals that suggest “here is a cake. Experience this as a cake”. But one mouthful tells you it’s merely a whipped confection of sugar and cream put together by someone who has no sense of what works, what doesn’t, and what true cakeness might actually feel like.
True cakeness suggests an elite of cake makers and, I think, poetic communities as can operate in such a way – probably do, in most cases. “Elite” is perhaps a misleading word, in that it implies a privileged minority with power, control and authority. I know that some people see the poetry world this way, but these are most often those who feel they lack such power, control or authority, who feel they have been excluded from the privileged group, and who resent that exclusion. Whether they are truly excluded by virtue of elitism, or merely by virtue of being unable to subscribe effectively to the uses that “elite” group constitute and perpetuate in their position, is probably impossible to determine, but I guess it’s a mixture of both: there are poetry cliques it is difficult to penetrate, and that’s partly because they are exclusive (i.e. they operate practices which necessarily exclude others) and partly because those outside that clique are unable to replicate what those within the group possess.
The more democratic voices in the poetry world proclaim a “poetry for all” where anything goes, and the practices and preferences of the elite are ignored, derided or actively worked against. At its worst, this can lead to an “anything goes” view of poetry, which will accept any text uncritically as a “poem” and, in doing so, be unable or unwilling to apply any standard to it or critique it in any meaningful way, for fear of subscribing to elitist, exclusive manifestos or poetics.
I think both these tendencies in the poetic community are necessary, even desirable, but I don’t think either of them are right (in the sense of correct). If the implication of the democratic, inclusive approach is that anything goes, that all texts seen as poems are equally good because someone somewhere is willing to assert that, then the implication is that all texts are equal, no poetry is any better than any other, and nothing in any text is of particular value, when placed against any other arbitrary text you care to nominate as a possible poem. The arbiter between them is merely a matter of “taste”, with the implication being that there can be no “good taste” or “bad taste”, merely different personal preferences.
To me, this is nonsense and, at its worst, veers towards dangerous nonsense. To maintain that my shopping list can be seen as a poem of equal status and value to, say, a Shakespearean sonnet or The Four Quartets or Paradise Lost is to remove all notions of worth, talent, ability, experience, understanding, insight, emotional value, learning, development, intellectual challenge from literature. The writers of Hallmark gift cards are producing work as good, as worthwhile as anything every written by Rimbaud or Carlos Williams. No amount of practice or reading or learning will make you a better writer. Every text you ever produce will be of exactly the same worth. There’s no point in trying, just write anything at all.
All poems are not the same. They are clearly and palpably not the same. As poetry, some texts are better than others. Some have power, impact, value, worth. Others have little or none.
So there will always be cultural “elites” – groups of writers or artists who are more likely to produce those “better” texts. However, they elevate different criteria or practices, implicitly or explicitly in what they do. The best poets understand their own practices (if only intuitively, through repeated, learned experience) and seek to improve them, which means they recognise, or believe they recognise, what works, and they seek to do it again and again. What “works” is those elements of their practice which produce texts that people respond to – and the writer is one such respondent – I don’t always know how I’ve got to a particular line or image but I do know when it is “working” (resonant, interesting, affective, effective, testing, challenging, rich, apposite, entertaining, powerful, evocative) and when it isn’t. I think hope others will feel the same way, and, with luck, some of them do. That doesn’t mean we constitute a power group elevating those practices over all others, but it does mean we are a particular subgroup of people with inter-subjective agreement about what works in a poem, and therefore, perhaps, a degree of agreement about what poems (of this kind, considered in this way) do and should be doing.
“Taste” is not a matter of unique, individual preference, because no-one exists, grows up or learns in a cultural vacuum. Taste is formed by the cultural experiences we have, the other people we interact with (and what we think of them) and by the cultural ambitions we have in relation to our own artistic practices. The mere fact that one person thinks a poem a “good poem” does not make it so. It makes it a text which one person is prepared to regard as a poem. If lots of other people agree, then almost certainly it is carrying some characteristics which they all recognise as markers of “good” poetry – intersubjectively, they see similar things. These might be musicality, emotional impact, originality, creative use of language, craft in the effective use of form, intellectual stimulus, striking ideas, powerful imagery, intriguing metaphors, succinct phrasing, subtle use of syntax, a recognisable voice, spiritual resonance. They are less likely to be cliche, weak grammar, redundant or superfluous expression, trite imagery, inconsistent form, language errors, prosaic expression, plagiarism, trivial subjects.
Good poetry is more likely to have more of the first list, and less of the second.