4.05.2004

The Tension between Popularity and Art/Criticism

I mentioned or meant to mention the commonalities between SF and poetry. One such is the need for acceptance in the larger culture. Christian Wiman, the "new" editor at Poetry (they appear to be having a half price sale), writes:

"National Poetry Month has had some salutary effects, and I'm all for anything that makes poetry more a part of the culture, part of life. But it's hard not to see the designation as a symptom of illness rather than health."

There's little chance you'll be seeing a National Science Fiction Month or even a rural city's Local SF Day, but then SF enjoys a larger slice of popularity than poetry does. Yet even so, both share a similar problem, as Wiman continues:

"That's not to say that poetry itself couldn't do with a bit of a jolt... to shock us out of the bad habits that develop when any art has abandoned hope of an audience, or begun pandering to it."

Perhaps the problem is two-fold and not either/or. It seems to me that any art should both pander and pull away from popularity to create the necessary energy. Sometimes a work is wholly focused on art, sometimes on popularity. The real worry should not be solely one or the other, but whether the body of literature falls too much into one camp.

My biggest concern for any art or genre is lack of pertinent criticism that somehow encompasses this polarity and tension. The present issue of Poetry looks at this very tension in what is bound to be a popular volume of poetry, Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor.

Two poets take opposite approaches. Dana Gioia, whom you might suspect as having a prejudice for the anthology since he appeared in it (just as Alan feared, asking if I might have a prejudice for Daniel Braum, which I feel I answered in the comments below though feel free to add to the discussion), I find the more objective of the reviewers. For one thing, Gioia actually examines the anthology. August Kleinzahler, while writing a wittier response, doesn't actually respond so much to the anthology supposedly under review as to the symbol of Keillor in his position of oral purveyor of poetry. Moreover, Kleinzahler doesn't seem to want to attempt to grapple with Keillor's purpose in the anthology as Gioia does. The understanding is more of a surface examination.

When we look at Kleinzahler's argument, he's somewhat inconsistent in his insistence of poetry's place in reality: "Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else.... Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not."

So his view of poetry in society is strictly literal, right? But later, to examine the opposite assertion, he asserts a metaphorical position, which is wholly inconsistent with a literal purpose for poetry:

"Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas."

This is certainly funny but ultimately undermines his entire argument. I'm reminded of Clarion critique sessions and those critiquers who were more fond of saying something clever that would find its way on to the workshop's T-shirt, than of saying something relevant to the author's story.

Dana Gioia, on the other hand, announced his immediate prejudice against a book entitled, Good Poems, thinking it'd come off like "Teen Cheerleader Murders or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," but later realizes what Keillor meant by the title:

"[It] now strikes me as a perfect title--simultaneously witty, plainspoken, and gently subversive--rather like its editor, Garrison Keillor. On a library shelf groaning from the collective weight of Immortal Poems of the English Language, Great American Poets, and The New Major Poets, there is something both sensible and reassuring about a collection of dependably good poems....

"[O]ne will be thunderstruck by his merciless candor and opinionated individuality. The politesse and meekness of Po-Biz insiders is blissfully absent from his lively assessments of American poets....

"Some people will find Keillor's pointed remarks offensive and uninformed. I found them refreshing and trustworthy.... trustworthy, even when I disagreed with particular opinions (which wasn't often), because I trust an editor who confides in both what he likes and dislikes. No one trusts a critic who dislikes everything, of course, but only an auctioneer, as Oscar Wilde observed, admires all works of art."

But Gioia isn't all praise. He discusses the limitations of the anthology.

Kleinzahler, on the other hand, seems to feel that a popular anthologizer will ruin poetry. Gioia demonstrates that in his own life and his mother's, popular anthologizers increased their appreciation for poetry--back when the public sometimes read poetry.

I might be inclined to agree with Kleinzahler's conclusions if there were a danger of Keillor's critical approach subsuming poetry's criticism. But that possibility seems awfully remote, considering that Keillor's anthology is presently #34 on the Amazon charts while Harold Bloom's is #1, let alone that almost no one writing reviews or editing poetry anthologies will even pick up Keillor's anthology to skim the contents while browsing for other books in the bookstore.

In genre poetry, on the other hand, a popular anthology could only have deleterious effects. The genre has almost zero critical presence. And, quite frankly, it shows.

The case for criticism in the genre proper fairs somewhat better, but where are all the insightful and incisive commentaries in each every journal? I'm generalizing far too much, but for the most part, we either have auctioneers or snarky fellows who dislike everything. Where are the Gioias who can peer both into what the editor or author was attempting to do and can assess it from that standpoint?

We've got to somehow incorporate the two pulls, the two poles together... to somehow create tension. In physics, one derives energy by harnessing opposite conditions, which William Blake pretty much summarized as "Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence."

Browsing writing books, one finds a similar, as-yet-unharnessed dichotomy, motivated by wholly different approaches to literature because of fundamentally different conceptions of what the purpose of literature should be. Noah Lukeman's The Plot Thickens is "character-based," chockful of questions to help you get to know your character, the first chapter dealing with how the character looks (he does warn against its immediate insistence in a story). Certainly, if your creative gears have ground to a halt, this could be a useful approach, but I wonder if it isn't somewhat misleading.

Madison Smartt Bell notes that Peter Taylor's story "A Wife of Nashville" has "very little physical description of any of the characters." Everybody knows from reading these books on fiction what a dire sin that is... which is, no doubt, why Taylor won a Pulitzer. (If you do read on writing, read widely. Pick what works for you. Compare it to what you like to read and want to write.)

On the opposite extreme, we find that "literary" works are so preoccupied with not pandering to its audience, that it's losing relevance both to art and audience.

We should not worry about whether literature is pandering too much or too little. This puts the emphasis on one pole. We should worry whether literature has created an energizing dichotomy, a polarity between popularity and art.

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