Calling All Taste-Makers
A recent series of posts and the resulting comments stream on Johannes Göransson’s blog has gotten me thinking about the role of the critic in “taste-making.” I’ve not come to any great realizations on this topic, but I have decided that absolutely a role of a good critic is taste-making. Ron Silliman’s advocacy for certain poets on his blog. Johannes Göransson’s posts. Those are all a form of taste-making. Whenever I put a poem up from a book here, I’m really wanting people to go out and buy that book, and to value that poet, hopefully, as I value that poet. We’re all just waving flags, trying to get attention for what we think should be paid attention to.
And then there’s the strong critic who needs the strong poet to talk about. The great example of that in recent memory is how much Harold Bloom had to do with John Ashbery’s ascendance, and, in so doing, Harold Bloom’s ascendance. Helen Vendler, likewise, was instrumental in the late 80s, early 90s reception or Jorie Graham. And, more recently, I think Stephen Burt has been as helpful as Ron Silliman in the ascendancy of Rae Armantrout. Poets of a certain difficulty, or, as I dislike the word “difficulty” in reference to art, poets of a certain unfamiliarity, need, if they are going to be read by a larger community than the already introduced, someone to herald their presence. (And here’s the rub, of course, as that herald will also be heralding his or her presence . . . which brings up all those questions of intention and motivation that any such herald instantly gets smeared with.)
Ron Padgett, for example, could be more popular than Kay Ryan, if only there was someone to wave his work in front of the large audience, and point to it, and say a few introductory remarks.
And then there’s the flip-side. The difficulty in, as one is promoting that which one feels deserves promoting, dealing with all those who do not deserve promoting. For, as we say one poet is doing something of value, we tend to also say these other poets are not doing something of value. That’s very difficult for any writer to wade through, as the poetry community is fairly small, and most everyone who writes about poetry comes from within that community.
But, of course, I feel, as I’ve always felt, that if poetry were marketed more like the way alternative-music is marketed against pop music, then it would be much more popular. Imagine if poetry books were inexpensive, and literary journals (also much less expensive) were placed in the check-out aisles of bookstores and alternative grocery stores… Ah, the perfect-world fantasy.
But anyway, back to taste-making. I was thinking about this while reading Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Bin Ramke’s selected poems (Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems 1978 – 2008) in the current Boston Review. I’ve read and enjoyed Ramke’s work for many years now, and I’ve always thought that his work could have a wider audience. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just wishing it had a wider audience.
As Teicher writes about Ramke: “Bin Ramke has a dedicated readership, but it is not a particularly large one. His work is probably too strange, too difficult, and too huddled around a particular vision of the self and the world to appeal to a broad audience.” That’s probably true of all poets, just about. But, you know, that’s the same thing one could say of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and if one were to be saying it, one would be talking about a greatly larger audience, person by person.
I’m part of that Ramke dedicated readership. And I agree with Teicher:
“Though it collects some of the most intellectually and emotionally authentic poetry written in America over the last few decades, Theory of Mind does less than it could to teach us how to read it. Many readers will have a hard time relating to what Ramke is doing, to how his poems try to make sense of a life’s worth of pains and joys by gently piling shards of experience and reading one atop another.”
That’s a job a strong herald (and Teicher is doing some of that in the small-ish space of the one page review). If there’s a contemporary lit person out there who’s looking for a space to fill, there’s plenty of room in the world of contemporary American poetry to write about fascinating poets who people aren’t writing much about.