On In-Fighting

I'm looking through this neat-o list of area poetry readings sent out by Dan Bouchard and then jogging my memory or learning of new people for the first time off of it. Joan Houlihan is on the list and I remember going to see her back in Feb 2007 as part of Grolier's poetry series from that year. Here's a link to her review of The Best American Poetry 2004 (yes, I'm very late to this party), which was edited by Lyn Hejinian.


I could smell the wryness coming from the opening paragraph. Too put it mildly, Houlihan isn't too keen on some the of the avantgardish experimentally language stuff in there that she quotes from, being skeptical about what's "best" about it.

Then she goes on to discuss, "the first-person-anecdotal-narrative-confessional (aka “mainstream”) poems" and what makes certain ones better than others, "such as non-clich├ęd phrases, use of momentum and pacing, lack of unintentional ambiguities and other grammatical problems, as well as evidence of an organizing intelligence, a sense of inevitability, a convincing and/or compelling style and voice and so forth are at least available to the reader in, for lack of a better word, the “mainstream” poem."

Further, she says it's hard to discern what's good or bad amongst the avant garde since, "there is no way to discern any purpose or aim."

ZING! I wrote about "purpose and aim" in a previous post, quoting a review in h ngm n about John Coletti's (frickensewnspine)"Same Enemy Rainbow." From that comes this quote from Patrick Dunagan, "The act of writing is exploratory—or better be, given what reality we face assigned the task of sorting out our endeavors." And then I quoted something from Robert Duncan, ""[W]hen I speak of form I mean not something the poet gives to things but something he receives from things" etc.

And I cite this quote not just to stop the argument there, though. Not like, "Well Duncan said this so that's the end of the argument," but because when I read that quote and the other ones along that line that I quoted in the linked post above, a light bulb turned on, a patch of clouds parted and the sun beamed on me. It makes sense from my cell walls and outward that poems aren't necessarily to have a purpose or aim but instead to be exploratory digs into the earth of creativity. Here's a piece of obsidian, and then a bunch of igneous, some granite and slate that I pull out and examine and clean and study and show. That what the words are when it comes to writing poetry for me.

After stating that there's no way to judge whether the "avant garde" types of poems are good or bad because you can't tell what their aim is, Houlihan then goes on to judge instead the movement as a whole. She uses the metaphor of old Latin in Catholic masses being the "speaking int tongues" of new poetry and likens herself to Martin Luther for criticizing that avant-garde poetic establishment. As if she's announcing the emporer has no clothes and getting chastised for it. Then she goes on to harshly judge the poems as having no literary value unlike the mainstream poetry she mostly likes. (Paradox?)

What annoys the fricken hell out of me sooooooo much is this in-fighting. The "A Poem Is Good Because of ______ and Poems Unlike that Are Bad."

Yo. Cool it man.

Maybe it's because my fiction bookshelves contain chick lit, James Joyce, Dan Brown, Jane Austen, Harry Potter, Flannery O'Connor, Zadie Smith, Janet Evanovich, Henry Miller...You get the picture. But I find the derisive nature of criticism maddening. Why do we feel the need to discredit those whose aesthetics we do not agree with? (Especially, as is the case with Houlihan, we don't seem to really understand them, but I'll get to that in a minute.)

I am not often moved by what Houlihan described as "the first-person-anecdotal-narrative-confessional (aka “mainstream”) poems." I am not moved by them because for me, they often lack energy. They do what quite a bit of that fiction I listed above does, but the fiction does it better, most of the time. That isn't to say all of it is bad. Who am I to say what is bad and what is good? PBS's Bob Ross always made happy trees in the mountains with a stream. It was nice. That's how I feel about the narrative poems I like, they're Bob Ross's nice happy trees. The ones I don't like are poorly done regarding the standards that Houlihan put forth. But all in all, there's certainly a place for the mainstrean narrative poems just as there's the Bob Ross Landscape Painting Poems.

There's also plenty of room for Rothko, Picasso, Monet, and Andy Warhol and their likes. So YOU may not be moved by something, YOU may not "get" it, that doesn't make it bad. That makes it merely unliked by you.

Houlihan wondered what there is to say about this excerpt, from Mark Bibbins, which is in Hejinian's edited Best anthology:

Stacked circles (rain down) say green it releases nothing. Bundled wires. Ellsworth Kelly strides from one red iceberg to the next. Each face projects onto antennae forging a domain expressed as a skewered pod. Transparency behind a desk elusive plunge. A dissection of thought into its components the weight of meat up the wrong street the wrong backdoor. The blazer missed too as the wiry one observed. Someone slipped him diet Orangina and he went ballistic. The whole staff cray-oned their names onto the good luck card while unwitting partygoers waited for the elevator. Mogul and musician separated at birth one suggested. Hubris. The directions very specific and yet so many stood idle. She ravished in black. He charmed in lime.

Well, to start, I can use some of the criteria for a "good" poem that Houlihan uses to talk about this selection. Pacing and momentum - sure this isn't a narrative poem with a story arch but there is no denying there is a pace, a rhythm, a sense of motion going on in the passage. This passage may not unfold like a narrative poem, but there's something tingly that happens in my brain when I read it. Like when you're running up the stairs from the subway thinking about what's going on at work, how your left knee hurts, that girl's weird shoes, the smell of the pretzel vendor, a memory from high school not to mention everything you're actually seeing in front of you. I get that momentum, that sense of energy, that snapped pace when I read this passage.

But wait, there's more! There's the musicality of the words and tweaking of meaning. "She ravished in black. He charmed in lime." What does that mean? I can't say right off the top of my head, but it rings true to me - reminds me of something I've felt or thought but didn't realize it until I read it. It's a "compelling style" for me, even if it isn't for Houlihan.

The moral of the post here is that I am not too keen on the whole essay-length bashing of unliked poems that can occur from time to time. Why waste your energy? The only thing that I have ever taken time to criticize here is the critics, with the exception of the section of my critical thesis where I closely read a poem I did not like. It was important so I could be a better writer. But I wouldn't do it again; there's no point in wasting my energy, especially when there's so many things out there to like and write about. However, I do like to write about the in-fighting and make requests for it to cease because I think there's plenty of room for everyone in the Big Tent of Poetry and even bigger Fairgrounds of Literature for everyone and every type.