What We Find Interesting . . .
(In the first part of this post I’m going to be using a lot of stuff from Daniel T. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School. I’m working from notes, so there might be times I quote from the book without quotes.)
I’m thinking about artistic reception, specifically the reception of poetry, and why some people react the way they do to some art.
Take this as a given: “We evaluate situations as interesting if they are novel, complex, and comprehensible.”
Admit this: “When we can get away with it [consciously or unconsciously], we don’t think. Instead we rely on memory.” Background knowledge then, is key. Context, then, is key.
To be more specific about memory: “Our memory . . . stores strategies to guide what we should do.” This also guides our reaction to artistic situations. We rely on what we remember of previous artistic encounters (and/or previous encounters in general) when encountering art.
We like to solve problems (there is pleasure in solving problems) and we want to be curious (there is pleasure in curiosity). And in this, the term “problems” refers to “any cognitive work that succeeds.” For some SUDOKU is pleasurable. Or crosswords. Etc.
In regard to problems: “It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem.” Which is: “We like to think if we judge that the mental work will pay off with the pleasurable feeling we get when we solve a problem.” And if we look at something and judge that the mental work will not pay off, we quickly bail out.
Being interested in something, however, is at least partially separable from content. There are numerous examples each of us could think of regarding times we’ve been interested in things that, as content, held little prior interest to us, and conversely, things in which we’re highly interested can be presented in ways that do not interest us. So saying “I like poems about birds” might be true, but that doesn’t mean birds alone will thrill you. Or saying “I like formal poetry” will not indicate whether you like the next formal poem you read.
Can people be taught to “get” say, John Ashbery or Rae Armantrout (here their names are standing in for a host of poets deemed “difficult” or “experimental”)? Absolutely. Of course they can. But how? By and large, schools that teach poetry, that teach what poetry is (especially in High School, but also at most colleges and universities) do not teach ways to approach a John Ashbery poem. They usually (are there any exceptions to this? If so, I’d love to hear of them) teach ways to get at the sort of poem typified by, say, Robert Frost, where there is something of a “problem” that is encountered at the content level that is then turned by Frost in such a way that a clever general reader, through reflection on the rhetoric, images, and form, is able to come to in a pleasurable way. But even in that, there is usually a crack left open to variant readings that can continue to turn people back to the poem, for example, the final image in “The Road Not Taken.”
A person brought into poetry through the lens I just described (or, in a different way, a “gettable” Stevens poem such as “The Snow Man” or “The Emperor of Ice Cream” or “Anecdote of the Jar”) is going to want to read Ashbery or Armantrout as a poetic argument. In Armantrout that reader will have only limited success, not enough to sustain interest, most likely. And in Ashbery, that reader will be nearly completely, and almost instantly, frustrated.
What we need is a different way to talk about “complexity” and “comprehensibility,” one that includes the sort of complexity one finds in Ashbery (etc). The sort of complexity one finds in Frost (Etc) is all well and good. I’m not saying we should dump those conceptions of poetry. They are a valuable and valid way into many poems, perhaps even the majority of poems. But what I’m saying is that there are other ways into poetry than just this way, but this is usually the preliminary way into a poem, the main focus of exegesis, explication, and prose reading. Some people come by this naturally.
I was never much interested in poetry, or much in school at all. I was a competent, though completely undistinguished student. And then something changed. In my junior year of High School, I took the only honors course of my life: Honors English. In it, we read T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, H.D., Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. For me, the poetry that I had read up to that time had been boring, that is, it didn’t feel novel or comprehensible. I had resisted and not paid much attention to the poetry of Shakespeare or Wordsworth or Dickinson or Whitman. I didn’t want to read them. Now, with the Modernists, I found something interesting. Why? I ask myself. Is it simply context? That I don’t see the world as giving the kind of answers those earlier poets gave? That the questions of (mostly) the Modernists felt more like how I saw the world? Maybe we’re predisposed to a certain type of art?
That sounds obvious to me, looking at it. But I do think one can be taught, or that one can learn, how to experience contemporary poetry such as Ashbery, even if one is predisposed not to care for it, in much the way that I’ve been taught to appreciate Frost and Dickinson, and to a degree Whitman and contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan. I will never love them, or even like them much, but I see why others do, and I find some pleasure in reading some of their poems.
Understanding how a poem operates (what its contract with the reader is) is one thing. People often ask how Ashbery’s poetry is working, and there are many explanations. They are usually quite good, general explanations, but they don’t ever seem to answer the question to the satisfaction of the people asking. No matter what they are, they’re not good enough, because a reader who doesn’t find Ashbery’s poetry interesting isn’t going to be convinced to find it interesting. Explanations don’t help. What then often happens is a renewed wall against Ashbery’s (etc.) poetry with a renewed belief that it’s somehow a fraud.
Poetic reception reveals a cultural difference, as it always has. It’s just that now the cultural turn is more pronounced and the sides further apart (and they seem more hostile, but I don’t really know how hostile they were in the past—I mean, there aren’t riots or anything like there were at the premier of The Rite of Spring). Lovers of Ashbery’s poetry tend to be critical of Billy Collins’s poetry (I’m fishing for a name here) because of a lack of complexity whereas lovers of Collins’s poety (again, his name, as Ashbery’s, is a placeholder) are critical of Ashbery’s poetry due to its perceived lack of comprehensibility. Ashbery’s poetry (Armantrout’s poetry [Hejinian, Ronk, Swensen . . . ) asks people to approach what poetry is for differently than Frost’s poetry does (or that contemporary poetry that adheres to the straightforward presentation of pseudo-autobiography that, while it differs from the poetry of Frost, it uses ideas of what is complex and comprehensible in ways most readers are already familiar—W.S. Merwin, perhaps, would be a current high-profile poet in this idiom, but there are legions).
Stephen Burt talks about this in both his essay for Wilkinson’s Poets on Teaching anthology and his book Close Calls with Nonsense. For him, it’s a version of transference. One must have a contextual readiness for a new experience of art. How William Carlos Williams helps prepare one for Rae Armantrout, say. Or how Pop Art helps prepare one for John Ashbery. I agree. But, even so, the trio of NOVEL, COMPLEX, and COMPREHENSIBLE is going to be different for different people. This is not a new thought, but it is, I think, one worth repeating. One can be aware of Pop Art (or Abstract Expressionism [or a combination of the two?]), and even like it quite a bit, and not transfer, or see the connection, to Ashbery’s poetry (C.D. Wright, Mary Jo Bang, Timothy Donnelly, etc).
At AWP in D.C. in February there will be an opportunity to see this in action. On Thursday, Rae Armantout will be the focus of a reading and conversation, and on Saturday, Kay Ryan will be the focus of a reading and conversation.