Dan Phillips recently started an accidental firestorm when he took it upon himself to criticize modern poetry. In particular, he criticized the poetry recommended by Karsten Piper. I protest that I was not at the center of the storm – I said to myself, “I will not say anything,” but at last the words burned in my heart and I opened my mouth:
Piper made the assertion that “the most important question is, how did you respond to the poem when you read it? Did you feel anything that you weren’t already feeling today? Did you think anything that you hadn’t already thought about this afternoon?” I protested that these are not the most important questions, and that, in fact they are bad questions. I offered instead that you should start with more basic questions, such as “what does this poem actually say?” and “does it say it well?” I was told that these kinds of questions are pedagogically troublesome, because they leave no connection between the reader and the poem. They are “well-suited to argument” but “don’t treat poetry as poetry.” And that’s the point where I really had to say something, and since I have a rule that any writing which takes up a substantial amount of my free time by rights ought also to appear on the blog, you have the argument that lays before you. (Below the fold.)
Please understand, I wasn’t speaking as a Paidion. I’m an adult with an English degree. I actually concentrated on writing fiction and poetry, which is probably why I now sound so bitter. I make these strong connections between creative writing and theology and worship. So when you make a statement about how to read a poem, I hear echoes in the background “how to do theology” and “how to worship God.” From that perspective alone, you can probably get the gist of why I started talking about being led around by feelings. By all means feel! But let me at least suggest that feeling ought to be directed. I can get myself worked up about anything, but should I? Is it worth it? Is it right?
There are philosophical problems with asking first “how did you respond?” That whole approach seems to smack of reader-response theory, which is a part of a reaction against a more traditional understanding of interpretation. If you ask “how did you respond?” before you ask questions like “what does it say?” and “how does it say it?” You are not only teaching about the poem, but also a kind of post-modern understanding of reality which says that the reader is a co-creator of meaning along with the writer.
That kind of idea may be safe (if untrue) in relation to a relatively obscure poem, but it becomes positively dangerous if it bleeds over into other kinds of reading. For instance, a supreme court judge evaluating a law in light of a constitution, should he ask “how did I respond?” before asking “what does it say?” Or should he consider himself a co-creator of the meaning of his constitution? The same problems come up when reading the Bible, history, science documents.
I know we want to say the rules are different when you’re talking about fiction and poetry, but they really aren’t. Either words really mean things or they don’t. Trying to disconnect certain kinds of writing from reality doesn’t make them more accessible and interesting, but less. So of course it’s appropriate to ask “what does the poem say?” To say that it’s an inappropriate question to ask and that it “doesn’t treat poetry as poetry” is to suggest that it’s appropriate for a poem to say nothing at all. Now, there are poems that do in fact say nothing at all, but these are the sort of poems we should avoid. If it doesn’t say anything, why should I be bothered with reading it?
I am also a teacher, so I do understand the need to excite the interest of the learner, the need not to chase away joy. But solipsism, teaching each individual to be the center of his own universe (even a little bit), is counterproductive. Part of a proper pedagogy is the teaching of esthetics – teaching a child to love that which is innately beautiful. This is a skill which must be learned. People don’t naturally take to subtlety or clear-headedness, or thoughts and activities that oppose the sinful nature. We like the easy, the blaring, the obvious, the banal. We like salt potato chips before we like soufflé. So if you have a poem that is genuinely good, but difficult, it may take some esthetic training before you get up to it. Teaching a child to love poetry starts with “James, James, Morrison Morrison” and “How to Eat a Poem”; At an adolescent stage, maybe a poem like “The Female of the Species Is More Deadly Than the Male” before diving into “The Second Coming” and “The Wasteland.”
But once you have a proper appreciation of esthetics, “does it say it well?” is exactly the question you should ask. If it says it well, I ought to be hit emotionally by a poem (or any other work of art). If it says something important and says it well, and the poem doesn’t affect my emotions, then the poem actually judges me and shows me for a callous fool.
That said, I’m really opposed to the idea that a poem (or any other text), to be properly understood, needs a teacher. A child needs a teacher, because he is a child. An adult needs something like a mentor to direct his attention and to challenge him. But if the poem itself needs a specialist to explain what it means, it is fundamentally a bad poem. It’s at least as much a poet’s job to be clear as it is the reader’s job to dig in to understand. If something violates normal conventions in a way that makes it difficult to understand, it had better be for a definable purpose, otherwise it is a display not of the poet’s genius, but of his ineptitude. If the poem needs a teacher, the poem fails. The reader need not feel guilty. I say this, not only as a reader, but as a poet. It took me 20 years to recognize that, when my writing was unintelligible because it subverted normal syntax without reason, or because I made logical jumps that were too broad for my reader to follow, it wasn’t a sign that I was a good writer, it was proof that I was sloppy.
That’s frustrating to read, and the reader has the right to be frustrated when he comes to it. It’s all right for the reader to suppose that, possibly, the reason he doesn’t care for a particular kind of poem is that it actually isn’t all that good.