Criteria: show me yours and I’ll show you mine
Criteria of Excellence. As soon as I hear that, I feel like I’ve been transported to some dark schoolroom in the dark, foreboding past where one is bound to be smacked across the knuckles with something hard at any given moment.
So here’s Anis Shivani’s question for us all, and his criticism of what he sees as a symptom of our time:
“What is it that we expect of a poem today? Are there any criteria at all? What are the standards we expect a poem to meet before we can call it a good poem?
The poems I mentioned [in a review of the 2009 Best American Poetry]—and I could have done the operation for almost any of the poems in the [Best American Poetry] anthology—seem to me to fail to meet any standards. They are reflections of the verbal adaptability of certain masters: look what I can do with words, I can play with them. And that’s fine, too, as a standard, but then it needs to be something truly impressive, and not duplicable with a blindfold over one's eyes, if it is to amount to something. Should a poem be beautiful? If so, how? Should it have political meaning? If not, what else must it do to be a good poem? Should a poem elicit certain emotions in the reader? If the answer is no, no emotional reaction is necessary, then what other criteria make the poem a good one? It's a pretty basic question, and I think the BAP, year after year, fails on this primary level.
I think these poems represent an extreme state of decadence in American poetry. If decadence is the standard, that's fine too, I have no problem with that, but I think the majority of the defense mounted in favor of such poetry does not acknowledge the decadence, it posits other criteria. Such as that Jorie Graham's poetry is politically astute (she, along with Glick and Olds, is one of the worst poets today, or at any time in any place). Or that Olds's poetry is feminist (no, it's positively medieval in its reductionism of the female to the female body). Or that Philip Levine's poetry dignifies the working man (I don't think he knows the first thing about the working man--he has memories of memories of having been a working-class man for a short period of time some sixty years ago).
So if this is supposed to be the BAP, what are some of these poets doing that would make us proud to hold them in comparison with some of the acknowledged greats of the past? Can we say that this poetry is some sort of advance over Bishop, Lowell, Berryman, Merrill? If so, in what way? Is it a retreat? That's justifiable too, but then let's articulate it that way.
I'm open to further discussion, using any of the BAP poems as examples. What is good about the Bibbins poem, to take one example? Is it beautiful? Does it make me think? Does it evoke some feeling (what feeling)? I'd like to hear the defenders' standards for this poem.”
I disagree with Shivani, but I believe his question is posed in good faith. He says the great majority of American Poetry appears to be written without criteria, or criteria that is observable by Shivani, and, by extension, the general reading public.
Are we in a post-“criteria of excellence” age? Of course not. But I did notice a decade or so ago that it seemed most everyone I talked to about poetry was, first, quite ready to talk about what they liked and didn’t like, but, conversely, seemed allergic to having a conversation about what makes a good poem. Criteria. Rules. It’s that whole “criteria” thing which makes me squirm. Criteria smacks of preconceived notions of what is going to be good or great before the encounter. Criteria sounds like a voice over narrative. Criteria sounds like authority standing there with a clipboard and checklist.
One doesn’t want that. One wants to say it’s gut first, and then everything else after. I want to say that. But it’s also true that I know within a couple seconds of reading a poem whether I’m going to like it or not (or at least if I want to keep reading or not). A couple seconds is long enough to know very little about form or content, then, and I’m already in a YES or NO mode. Sometimes I’m surprised by a poem that goes awry (in my estimation) or a poem I’d written off, that for some reason I keep reading, circles back around and gets good. But usually that doesn’t happen.
For me it’s something about the attention to language at the sentence level that will either get me to sign on for the ride or to want to bail out. I like conversational American English sentences that contain a lot of strong images with very little modification. Everything else is secondary, but also important (twists of wit and surprise, the hint of narrative or a suggestive scene, a feeling for the frame). That’s not a full list of “criteria,” but it’s a start, for me. It’s as close as I want to get to enumerating it, for whatever reason.
I get a lot of pleasure from poetry, but not all poetry. Formal poetry does almost nothing for me, for example. Neither does most of the poetry that might be described as the post-confessional, autobiographical poem of the small moment with a thematic epiphany. But the poetry I do find pleasure in, I find it to be a pleasure of language, of speech, and then the pleasure of surprise, as unexpected things occur, and then, finally, a gesture at something to continue to ponder after the poem ends, and that could be a “theme” (something about living now, of getting through our lives) or a way some image has been turned (which can also be something about living now, of getting through our lives). So it could be conceptual (suggestive), formal, or philosophical.
I don't have the Bibbins poem to hand right now, as I don't have a copy of the 2009 Best American Poetry. But the above are the elements I find in Bibbins's poetry generally, and in most of the poetry I admire.