Monday, June 21, 2010

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.


At 6/21/2010 6:47 PM, Blogger DGW said...

For reference:

At 6/21/2010 7:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Thanks for the link. It was good to see it again.

“It is the custom in Maryland to honor the stegosaurus on Stegosaurus Day” is fabulously inventive and antic. I enjoy the humor of the absurd.

And, for example, “Knock knock who’s there Texas Texas who no just Texas” seems to me to be pretty straight forward and descriptive.

So he’s catching at the spirit of each state in an imaginative and extravagant way, right? Or the speaker of the poem is revealing a way of thinking about the states that reveals something of the family romance of the Union? That all seems pretty trackable to me.

At 6/21/2010 8:15 PM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

My criteria is that I can read my work and feel like I've done a 'good thing.' I don't say that glibly or with malice. I can feel it when I've earned a good feeling from a poem I have written, and that's what I look for when I evaluate my own writing.

In other people's writing, I look for the feeling that I am experiencing something out of the ordinary when I read it or hear it. That word, ordinary' is a big chunk of realestate, but I know when I've stepped beyond its borders, or bettr yet, kicked so hard I fly past.

At 6/22/2010 7:36 AM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

We are all waiting to be astonished (cf. Diaghilev).

At 6/22/2010 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is that Bibbins poem bad? It's quite funny. The last line, in particular, I love: "Connecticut! we're sawing you in half."

At 6/22/2010 10:37 AM, Anonymous Ryan Sanford Smith said...

I think you've answered your own question here, yeah?

Isn't what makes poetry / art in general 'special' or, basically, makes it period, that it's the truest form of the subjective? Let's talk about Duchamp's urinal, blah blah blah.

I have no problem with the word 'criteria' but 'excellence' is about as problematic as a word can get in this discussion. It's a standard, standards have to be judged, and so on.

So the answer always almost sounds like a cop out, but the beauty is that it isn't, that it's as true as any answer can be in response to this question:

What makes a good poem is whether I like it or not. I can talk to you about what I like / dislike and all the reasons for both, but it's only ever an opinion, entirely and wholly subjective and more or less unique (even if we love 'the imagery' in 'Poem X', surely we love it in different ways no matter how complex and subtle...

The criteria is the individual reader. How can it be anything else? It's either that or we're straight to the scene everyone knows in Dead Poets Society with the 'graph' of a poem's 'beauty' or whatever nonsense it was.

I think a lot of people have a lot at stake in saying there's a gray area, some mix between a subjective judgment of a poem and it's 'artistic qualities'. What I've never understood is why so many people who call themselves artists want to rob poetry or whatever other art of the reason it does it's thing.

I once had a fellow MFAer get quite angry at me for harshly criticizing one of her pieces in workshop. I sat dumbfounded as she said 'Just because you don't like it (the poem, an element of the poem, etc.) doesn't make it bad.'

My only response is my honest opinion that...well, no, it does not in any kind of intrinsic, objective sense, but I don't think anyone intelligent is positing any poem is good or bad on those grounds--how can they?

But if I find glaring flaws in a poem, if I dislike it, then to me, yes, it's a bad poem, even a terrible one perhaps. That's the only 'judgment' that matters to me because I'm me, I'm reading this poem, it's my reading of that poem, I'm feeling about it however I am.

At 6/22/2010 1:34 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

An aside: This critic's non-engagement strategy is practically identical to the one practiced on the Boston Comment site -- kick up a meaningless fuss while making sure the fusskicker's name gets repeated over and over. I don't get the point of taking this bait.

At 6/22/2010 4:58 PM, Blogger newzoopoet said...

Agreed, Ryan!

Thanks, Jordan, for pointing me to Boston Comment.

I see the critic's meaning as "not everything goes" in poetry. Standards apply. Don't we tell our students this very thing all the time?

Thanks for hosting this healthy discussion, John. Without such, we'd have the Mutual Admiration Society and the quality of poems could suffer.

At 6/22/2010 6:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


There's a good chance that you are correct.

At 6/22/2010 10:16 PM, Blogger vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


From what I hear,
It sounds like some cry

Baby prodding critic shedding
A crock of tears

Over the decrepit
Still twitching body

Of Jiminy.

At 6/23/2010 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 6/23/2010 6:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Argh I did it again. The above link (now removed by Huffington Post) was posted by me, CJ, not by the infamous "Anonymous" who has been posting here. This and the other one that I signed right after it are the ONLY ones that were posted by me. Not that anyone really cares. :) CJ

At 6/25/2010 11:23 AM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

Oh, we care, CJ. We really do care. We have--we are--nothing, if not care.

At 7/02/2010 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I get a lot of pleasure from poetry, but not all poetry. Formal poetry does almost nothing for me, for example. [WHY?] Neither does most of the poetry that might be described as the post-confessional, autobiographical poem of the small moment with a thematic epiphany. [WHY?]

I'm not even disagreeing, just wondering, John, what your reasoning would be.

Also, I know it's a whole other headache, but, couldn't this whole issue/argument of "criteria" etc. also apply to fiction as well? Novels, short fiction, whatever?


At 7/03/2010 4:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


"Criteria" and "taste" blur, of course, as taste drives criteria. Formal poetry, and poetry written with a strong repeating rhythm, by and large dont' sound natural to my ear. I like the way poetry can investigate the speech act more than how poetry can investigate the rhythmic or chance operations of rhyme, etc. Just my own quirk.

As for the contemporary lyric of the autobiographical "I" leading to an epiphany, I think we've been in this period for so long that nearly every time I come across on of these poems I can feel the gears moving, and it doesn't feel as fresh or surprising as I'd like it to feel.

That said, I have been surprised by some poems in this mode, as I have by some poems using formal devices. It's just my reaction in general.

At 7/05/2010 5:34 PM, Anonymous A. Leahy said...

In any field (say, wine or painting), different experts argue, each proffering and employing a somewhat different set of criteria. That seems to be what this conversation is about, and is a healthy part of the discussion about contemporary poetry. I happen to appreciate a wide range of poetry, using different criteria for different kinds of reading and for a variety of intellectual and emotional responses.

That's quite different than the question of what a person likes/dislikes. I'm thinking about Malcom Gladwell's Blink, in which he describes food tasters. He writes, "The gift of their expertise is that it allows them to have a much better understanding of what goes on behind the locked door of their unconscious. ...When we become expert in something, our taste grows more esoteric and complex. What I mean is that it is really only experts who are able to reliably account for their reactions."

This conversation among John Gallaher, Anis Shivani, and others seems a discussion about poetry among experts in poetry. Expertise doesn't necessarily lead us to agreement, but it does lead us, as it has here, to reliably account for our reactions.


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