Sunday, January 17, 2010

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.

Just sayin.


At 1/17/2010 6:12 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I thought Craig's piece on Ramke was great (and I'm still agnostic re: Ramke's own poems-- if Craig is right, it's because I saw the later poems first).

Why don't YOU make that case for Ron Padgett?

At 1/17/2010 6:49 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

There might be somethign in that. I went to Ohio University, and had access to Ramke's pre- Massacre of the Innocents first, so when it came out (and the others followed) I was primed, perhaps. Also, I studied with Wayne Dodd, who was a close friend and (I think) teacher of Ramke's there at OU in the late 70s.

I agree with Teicher about the lack of material from Ramke's early work in the selected. If you have them, read them through from the Yale one ( The Difference Between Night and Day, I think? I'm feeling lazy about walking upstairs to check), maybe you'll be able to re-boot?

The Language Student especially, I remember really connecting with at the time. I'm fascinated with how Ramke's work is caught (balanced?) between levels of perception, yes, but also between nearness and distance, so that I always feel like I'm watching a shutter lens go in and out trying to find the proper exposure where things can become clear. It's a remarkable performance in personality and, well, honesty, I guess.

Padgett! All I have is my little blog. But I plan on continuing to hit the Padgett gong, hoping someone with a large audience might catch the wave. He's a recent discovery for me, and I'm just adoring You Never Know and How to Be Perfect.

Good times.

At 1/21/2010 5:52 AM, Blogger rdeming said...

Hey John,

Not only is he a fantastic poet, Ron's been on Garrison Keillor (2 years ago) reading his own poems and he's a current chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. So he's got coverage, don't worry. He's the dean of New York poetry!

At 1/21/2010 6:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


First off, I'd love to hear how you are. I hear so little about how former Ohioans are doing (except seeing all the books, that is). Is there any chance you'll be at AWP?

Re: Padgett:

I think maybe you're part of the East-Coast effect. Or maybe it's the the Two Coasts effect. Or, more likely, I'm experienceing the Midwest effect. Other than a name on a list, I didn't know much at all about him until sometime in the middle of last year, and I thought I was well-read.

How interesting he'd be on Keillor's show. I can see that. Maybe I can interest people in Kansas City to bring him out. That would be very nice.

I was talking to a NYC friend a few years ago about Ashbery, and my need to defend his work constantly, and she had no idea who I would have to defend his work to. At that moment I realized the NY-area (which seems also Boston, etc., unless I'm just kind of dreaming a fantasy place where the kind of poetry I like is beloved) was a much better place for poets.

At 1/21/2010 9:25 PM, Blogger rdeming said...

I'll admit that perspective by region could skew things and having left OH years 12 years ago, I've no real idea what the Midwest (outside of Chicago) digs. And when it comes to Padgett--perhaps since two Brainard portraits of Pat padgett hang on our walls (one of which graces the cover of Nancy's book), his centrality may be my own perspective. Though it had seemed to me that folks trained at Brown, UBuffalo, the New School, Berkeley, and so forth are integrated all over, spreading tastes that might have once been coterie. And the Keillor endorsement and his being a native Tulsan would give him props in the middle of the country, I'd have thought.

Anyway, the good news is that we all get to keep discovering amazing poets with a body of work. I only started getting into David Shapiro about a year ago, for instance.

I won't be at AWP, sadly. It'd be great to catch up (though I've been following your books and lately your blog--one of the very few I actually read because it is indeed worth reading). We'll have to get you to the Haven some time.


By the way, you might consider getting on the listserv of the poetics seminar I help run.

At 1/21/2010 9:25 PM, Blogger rdeming said...

Forgot to give the link.

At 1/24/2010 8:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"The Haven" sounds like a nice place to be. I rarely make it to that part of the world. It would be good.

I'm off to the listserv!


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