February 3, 2023

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

The Pro by Austin Allen

Editor’s note:
This is the second part of a three part essay. To read the first part, visit this link.

Here’s a distinction I try to respect: criticism may sometimes have a professional agenda, but poetry should never.

Occasionally I use essays to encourage the poetry that means most to me, the poetry that I model; I make a plea for what is the hardest thing to do in poetry and who did those difficult things well. I used to think of this kind of criticism as “referee’s work,” like a cunning basketball player. Then I realized that my metaphor was flawed because poetry has so few independent evaluators. Almost all judges are also practitioners – everyone has their skin in it. And the game is not two-sided. So this kind of criticism is more like tilling the soil for a crop that you hope will thrive. (Let’s assume it’s a harvest of pumpkins, since they resemble basketballs, and imagine that prize ribbons, presented by small juries of fellow farmers, are pinned to a couple of pumpkins at the county fair every year. Is the metaphor correct now? Only a seasoned critic could tell you.)

However, in most essays I am not consciously working to promote anything. As in poetry, I work my way through a tangle of feelings, impressions and questions.

In poetry, any professional agenda is deadly. A social agenda? Be sure to entertain or provoke your friends. A romantic agenda? Go ahead and write that flirtatious sonnet. A moral agenda? If you have the depth of character and lightness of touch, you can pull it off. But the day you put your poetry at the service of your career, their hearts will shrink while your resume blossoms.

This is a particular danger in the age of “professionalized” poetry. Poets are constantly applying for jobs, grants, awards, and so on, and all of these applications require writing samples. A natural temptation, therefore, is to tailor poetry to committee standards rather than your own, and even to write entire books as a candidate rather than an artist.

Poetry that yields to this temptation becomes dutiful and cautious. It follows trends in the field. It takes on “projects” that sound appropriately utilitarian. It treats taboo subjects formulaically, if at all. It ceases to imply the poet, except in a minor way. It’s similar to those applicants who say their biggest weakness is caring too much.

I’m trying to stay away from this little patch of quicksand.

Of course, “professionalization” has helped many writers over the years. i am one of them I cannot suggest any other utopian system under which poetry should function. Poets often find needed and meaningful work by writing programs. But I think poetry should avoid affiliation with programs, professional or otherwise. You should even avoid programmatic rebellion. Art is the underground of the underground, and its belonging should correspond to the truth as the artist sees it. That will be the source of any value it might have.

So: It is best for poets to play the “professional” only outside of poems. Even then, the role will be uncomfortable. Good professionals respect decency; Poets fight back. Good professionals radiate self-confidence; Poets live on doubt. (Some poets aren’t even sure they have a self.) Submitting poetry for professional purposes should always feel a little weird: the cover letter’s demeanor should be immediately shaken by the frivolous, irascible, rushed, or just plain wild voices will follow.

Poets seek “assumptions,” but poems should not attempt to be acceptable. You should try to be honest so that what is eventually “accepted” is some kind of truth, no matter how many rejections come first. It helps when many of the peers in your imaginary audience are long dead – quiet, floating judges with no prizes to hand out. That way the focus is on becoming a decent writer, not a respected Fellow.

As soon as I circulate these rules, I have to change them. What about the ars poetica? This is a way of introducing criticism – and thus a professional agenda – into poetry. Even then, it’s best to import the stuff as contraband, hidden somewhere below decks.

These days I’m more tempted to bring poetry into the critique. Not versification, but other techniques of poetry, such as fragmentation and disjunction. I believe a critical essay can also be a lyrical essay, a personal essay, or an unclassifiable journey. Zadie Smith once wrote a tribute to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, in which she riffed on jazz records, Tintern Abbey, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a dozen other things, but never quite got around to analyzing Blue. Her detours said all there was to say.

What I’m getting at is: Criticism doesn’t need a professional agenda. It may decide that its only agenda is pleasure. It can move away from the conference panel, the scientific symposium, like Whitman diving out to look at the stars. But it can walk back in at any time. Poetry, I think, is better off staying away. It should be more convenient to deal with salmon than with symposiums.

This is not to say that poetry should shy away from the public eye. Poets and critics (and poet critics) are members of our broader communities. We have every right to appeal to the proverbial town hall. Others might giggle at us – other writers even. Our words could be misheard or unheard. Still, we can step forward, speak our minds, and hope that we come off more like the upstanding guy in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech than the weirdo addressing the mayor about files at the art museum.

And what could we have to say in this context?