Thursday, April 26, 2012

And the Best Poet is...: Poetry Prizes and Normative Criteria

How does one decide which poet, or which manuscript, should win any of the ever-growing number of poetry prizes?  Peter Riley, in an article in the Fortnightly Review, remarks on the obscurity of prize criteria.  Awards tend to be given out to poets who are “the best” or to collections of poems that show “excellence,” but very little is ever said by way of clarifying “the best at what?” or “excellence in terms of which criteria?”  In this, poetry competitions are quite unlike cattle shows.  As Riley points out, cattle shows have clear, objective, and normative criteria for excellence:

If at a county show you are one of the judges in the section for Aberdeen Angus cattle, you will have a comprehensive list of points which must be fulfilled. There is the carriage of the creature’s head, with even teeth and broad muzzle. It should have a long body and strong legs with the joints well set. The back should be straight with a slight dip at one end. It should be well and evenly muscled with not too much fat. Viewed from behind the rump should be rounded, the legs straight and the hooves correctly positioned. When it walks its hind hoofs should enter the marks of its front hoofs without overstepping or understepping. If it is a cow its udder should not be pendulous and the teats should be of the right size and placement. If it is a bull the testicles should be large and the sheaf firmly attached and not pendulous. But all these distinctions should be weighed against the proportions of the whole animal and the aim is to assure that both it and its progeny should fulfill their commercial function. If all these boxes are ticked, you have your winner.

For poetry prizes, though, we have no clearly articulated normative criteria — and even though Riley says “surely some version of this schemata could be devised for judging poetry competitions,” one suspects his tongue is in his cheek.  Much as one is tempted to simplify matters of judgment by simply taking the cattle competition criteria over into the literary sphere (the winning poet should be “well and evenly muscled without too much fat” and “viewed from behind the poet’s rump should be well rounded,” if male the poet’s “testicles should be large,” etc.) no version of overtly normative criteria is likely to appear in the judge’s guidelines for any competition.  Not even if the norms had to do with meter, imagery, and syntax rather than body fat, rumps, and testicles.

In fact, revulsion at the thought of normative criteria for poetry runs deep, and even manifests in our popular culture.  Consider the first two minutes of this clip from Dead Poets Society, in which the teacher played by Robin Williams offers a strongly worded condemnation of the normative criteria for poetry outlined by the fictitious critic J. Evans Pritchard:

A few critics have laid down fairly clear normative criteria for poetry. Yvor Winters, for example, comes to mind—and it is perhaps worth noting that in addition to being a poet and critic, he bred show dogs and had them evaluated by criteria much like those applied to cattle.  But the rare exceptions prove the rule: normative criteria for poetry are unusual, and generally perceived as crackpot-ish at best, philistine at worst.  Despite what Dead Poets Society would have you believe, such criteria are unlikely to appear in any textbook, except perhaps surrounded by apologetic statements, qualifiers along the lines of “this will help get you started as a poetry reader but shouldn’t be taken too seriously” and other semi-retractions.

Why is this?  I’m not asking in order to say we ought to come up with criteria for poetry.  I’m asking because a sense of the origins of our current anti-normative way of thinking may cast some light on what is actually happening when poetry contests are judged.

The notion that the things that make poems excellent can’t be defined is at least as old as the seventeenth century.  It was then that the French poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux put forth the idea that what distinguishes truly sublime work from lesser poetry was “a certain je ne sais quoi”— that is, a certain “I don’t know what.”  Boileau’s ideas were immensely influential, and the notion that excellence could be felt but not defined gained currency across Europe.  The nature of good writing, a believer in the je ne sais quoi says, is something I know and I can't explain.  Inherent in the idea is the notion that there's no point in trying to explain one's criteria, since it is inherently elusive.  

Boileau's ideas are connected to the reception of art, to what goes on in the mind of the reader.  In the nineteenth century, there's a new turn of mind, toward the art object itself, and thinkers like Coleridge begin to argue that the internal qualities of works of art resist normative judgement.  When Coleridge talks about organic form, for example, he tells us that poems, like all works of art, cannot be held up to some external standard.  They generate their own rules from within.  In this way Coleridge dismisses those who would criticize Shakespeare's tragedies for deviating from the formal criteria outlined in Aristotle's Poetics.  He opens up the theoretical pathways that justify a great deal of artistic innovation.  He also makes it much more difficult to offer a theoretical justification for the normative assessment of poetry.

Both Boileau, with his sensitive reader who detects the undefinable, and Coleridge, with his hyper-individualistic artist discovering his personal path in art, can be seen as symptoms of modernity, of the gradual replacement of old, collective, authoritarian ways of thinking with new, atomized, individualistic ones.  Fredric Jameson gets at the nature of the shift they represent when he writes, in "Criticism in History," of the difference between the rhetorical and the stylistic.  The former, Jameson says, is normative and conformist, while the latter is deeply bourgeois and individualistic:

Rhetoric is an older and essentially pre-capitalist mode of literary organization; it is a collective or class phenomenon in that it serves as a means of assimilating the speech of individuals to some suprapersonal oratorical paradigm, to some non- or preindividualistic standard of the beau parler, of high style and fine writing.... Style on the other hand is a middle-class phenomenon, and reflects the increasing atomization of  middle-class life.... in its emphasis on the uniquely personal, in the etymological sense of the stilus, the inimitable and wellnigh physiological specificity of my own handwriting.

So when we shy away from normative criteria for poetry, we're simply being who we are, participating in our modern or postmodern individualistic identities.  But this leaves us in a tricky spot when it comes to poetry contests, and our position is made all the trickier by virtue of the fact that poetry prizes and contests have become a bigger and bigger part of how poetry in Western countries is published and rewarded.  There was a very brief period in the middle of the nineteenth century when poets were rewarded well by the market, and after that there were a number of decades when to be a poet was almost necessarily either a bohemian (Yeats lived for most of his adult life in a two room flat) or someone with a day job (Wallace Stevens as insurance man).  Now many poets live in the publish or perish sphere of academe, and poetry publishing is often done via the contest method, with poets submitting manuscripts to prize-givers.  At the more senior end of things, the big prizes given out by foundations and (less often) government agencies play a significant role as sources of income and, more importantly, as badges that give one clearance into the more prestigious clearings in the groves of academe.  Prizes matter now, but we live in a poetic culture inimical to clearly articulated, objective, normative criteria of judgement.

What to do?  One path that's been tried, both in the past and in our own time, involves moving away from criteria for the poem to criteria for the person judging the poem.  David Hume's great essay "On the Standard of Taste" argues that we may not be able to define beauty, but we can describe the sort of person who is likely to have a good sense of beauty. Such a person must be familiar with many art objects of the kind under consideration, for example—you wouldn't want someone who'd only read fifty poems to be the judge of a poetry contest.  Such a person would also have an un-agitated mind at the time of judging, and (among many other criteria) would give due attention to the object of judgement.  

Kant's Critique of Judgment takes Hume one step further, and tells us that a true judge of beauty must, above all else, maintain disinterest.  That is, he shouldn't let personal connection to the artwork, or its maker, or its moral sentiment, get in the way of his judgement.  Good judgement of beauty, for Kant, is essentially a manner of screening out all non-aesthetic criteria and looking at what's left.  In our own time, the emphasis on high-profile expert judges for poetry competitions is, in essence, an adopting of a Humean or Kantian position: we may not be able to define what the best poems are like, but we know what sort of expert can make a good judgement.

The problem, of course, is that this solution doesn't always work.  First of all, the proliferation of different styles and schools of poetry means that the familiarity with tradition upon which Hume's good judge depends becomes difficult to attain: no one has mastery of the entire spectrum of poetic styles.  A Helen Vendler covers one corner, a Marjorie Perloff covers another, and the room has many, many corners.  In addition the criterion of "due attention to the object" is trickier than it sounds in our present context: I've been a judge for a poetry prize, and found myself with literally hundreds of manuscripts to read, all while teaching, grading papers, looking after my kid, and trying to do my own writing.  It wasn't easy.  Indeed, I don't think I was fair to every manuscript, and I don't think I could have been.  The day has too few hours, and the world too little caffeine.  And with regard to the Kantian notion of disinterest—well, it was given a good sharp kick in the teeth by multiculturalism, by the claim that so-called disinterest was simply a screen behind which certain entrenched (white, male, bourgeois, heterosexual) norms lurked.  It never really recovered.

Even more discrediting to the notion that choosing qualified judges will save us from having to articulate normative criteria was the whole unpleasant business exposed by the people at Foetry some years ago.  They looked for nepotistic patterns in the awarding of prizes, and they found them.  Far from being disinterested, many prominent contest judges proved all-too-human, awarding prizes to friends, lovers, and former students.  The score of the game, it seemed, was: self-interest 1; disinterest 0.

Another path, one worth trying, would be the one suggested by Michael Theune and Bob Broad in the November 2010 issue of College English.  Theune and Broad began with the premise that people who care about and work with poetry have internalized certain criteria of judgement, and that those criteria can be made explicit through conversation about particular poems.  Their work involved conducting sessions in which poets and critics discussed poems they admired, and gave reasons for their admiration.  From this, Theune and Broad began to tease out things that the poets themselves might have been unable to articulate before.  They moved from je ne sais quoi to mais oui, je sais quoi—a movement many more of us should follow.  In fact, it might be worthwhile for contest judges to do some long hard self-examination before agreeing to act as judges, and then make public some kind of statement about what they love in poetry and why they love it, including all of their ambivalences, their contradictions, and their openness to surprise.  It would be strange, at first, but it might begin to take us forward from our current situation, where so much rides, for so many, on such vague criteria.

Friday, April 13, 2012

BlazeVOX vs. the NEA, or: Ezra Pound's Shilling

Those of you residing in the little teacup that is the contemporary American poetry scene may have noticed something of a tempest a while ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts issued a statement saying that it would no longer consider books published by BlazeVOX legitimate items on the curricula vitae of writers seeking grants.  In the eyes of the N.E.A., BlazeVOX was nothing but a vanity press.  There's a sliver of truth to the charge, in that BlazeVOX had, in some limited instances, asked authors to fund a portion of publication costs — but this didn't apply to all books, and not all authors asked for funding ended up having to contribute in order to be published.  The situation is complicated, really, and Anis Shivani has done a service to all of us teacup-dwellers  in publishing an interview with BlazeVOX's Geoffrey Gatza at the Huffington Post.

A more energetic inquirer than I would want to ask, and answer, a number of questions arising from the situation. Should all BlazeVOX authors be tarred with the same brush?  Doesn't the now-common fee paying contest model of publication amount to a kind of subsidy publishing system, since all authors submitting to the contest pay a small fee, collectively covering the cost of publication?  Does it matter that Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and a host of others were first published under what amount to vanity press conditions?  Should decisions about financial matters really be taken into account when judging art, or is this just a way to make the N.E.A.'s job easier?  Should we look into the way universities sometimes subsidize the publication costs of their faculty?

I'm not the energetic inquirer we need.  But I do want to note that a simple comparison of BlazeVOX's publishing model with the model of Elkin Mathews—who published many modern greats a century ago—reveals that, technological differences aside, the models are essentially the same.  Here's BlazeVOX's Gatza describing how his press works:
I would like to make it known that in our offer to publish books with a co-operative donation, if the author did not want to participate in this we also made an offer to publish their work as an ebook in Kindle and EPUB and PDF format and have it available on and iBooks. And if that was still not acceptable, we could wait until our financial outlook was stable and we would then publish their book without a donation. I think that this is a fair arrangement, as do many writers. I think that this is a very successful program and we were able to promote good writers.

Compare this to the time when Ezra Pound, freshly arrived and friendless in London, took the manuscript of Personae to Elkin Mathews, whose Bodley Head had published Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds and the two anthologies of the Rhymer’s Club, the most important documents of British aestheticism.  Pound dramatizes a “touching little scene in Elkin Mathews’ shop” this way in one of his letters:

Mathews: “Ah, eh, ah, would you, now, be prepared to assist in the publication?”
E.P. “I’ve a shilling in my clothes, if that’s any use to you.”
Mathews: “Oh well.  I want to publish ‘em.  Anyhow.”
In both instances the publisher asks for help.  When it isn't forthcoming, he does what he can for the poems he admires anyway.

I don't think the juxtaposition of Gatza and Elkin Matthews answers any of the big questions about the BlazeVOX/N.E.A. tempest, but I do hope it gives a little perspective on what it means to be a publisher of innovative poetry, and on the importance and generosity of such people.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lives of the Philosophers

“People always talk about Nietzsche’s childhood, about how ideas like the death of God can be explained away by the fact that his father and grandfather were ministers,” a young philosophy professor told me not long ago, “but they only do that to Nietzsche, never to someone like Hume or Kant.”  As a Nietzschean, he found this frustrating, and he continued by asking why it was his guy always being treated as if his ideas weren’t propositions that could be true or false, but symptoms of some psychological condition.  Surely, he argued, this said something unpleasant about the people willing to treat Nietzsche this way.

I found the comment fascinating, but it took me a while to understand why.  Eventually, I concluded that two things had struck me as odd. Firstly, there was the emphasis on interpretation being correct or incorrect.  I expect this sort of thing from people in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, but I was surprised to hear it from someone specializing in continental philosophy.  I’d always taken John Stuart Mill’s distinction between the kinds of questions asked by Bentham and Coleridge as a good way of distinguishing between the English-language tradition and the continentals (Coleridge was educated in philosophy in Germany, and was among the leading English continental-style thinkers of his generation, though, to steal a phrase from Mill, his prominence in that field was due in large part to the flatness of the surrounding terrain).  Bentham, said Mill, was interested in whether a text was or was not true; given the same thing to look at, Coleridge was interested in what the thing meant.  If we get a bit anachronistic, we might explain Mill’s Bentham/Coleridge distinction this way: confronted with Darwin’s theory of evolution, Bentham would want to know if that’s how things really worked, but Coleridge would want to know what it meant to think of life in terms of evolution.  Bentham’s way of thinking would take you in the direction of verification and falsifiability.  Coleridge’s way of thinking would take you in the direction of significance and, I suppose, cultural impact.  Both paths can take you to interesting places.

Anyway.  This second, Coleridgean way of looking at things allows for much greater latitude of significance, beyond the binary of true/not true, and I’d naively assumed that people emerging from a training in continental philosophy would be in sympathy with it.  But it seems I may have been wrong: perhaps American philosophy departments are an interpretive community more in line with Bentham’s norms, and we in the English departments are the interpretive community with Coleridgean norms of understanding.

Just as surprising to me was my colleague’s notion that a biographical or psychological explanation didn’t so much explain as explain away, a distinction I’ve never really been comfortable with.  I suppose the idea of the explaining away of something entails that the proffered explanation is somehow total, that it accounts for everything that needs to be accounted for, and therefore one needn’t trouble oneself with any further questions.  “Why did Nietzsche claim God was dead?  To tick off his preacher daddy.  Next question!”  That would, indeed, be an irksome attitude to encounter.  But I’ve known a few biographers, and I don’t think they see their task as being to reduce their subject’s works to symptoms of certain biographical events or psychological trauma.  Indeed, I think they see their work as adding a dimension to how we interpret writings, rather than as taking dimensions away.

My guess is that it’s the tendency toward Bentham’s, rather than Coleridge’s, way of interpreting texts that makes so many philosophers wary of looking to the life of a philosopher.  Even Ray Monk, who wrote a splendid biography of Wittgenstein, expresses a great deal of caution about the biographies of philosophers.  “Can knowing the facts of a philosopher’s life, or gaining an insight into his or her personality, somehow shed light on their work?” he asks in a recent issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, “I think it can,” he continues, “but, in spelling out how, one has to be very careful, for otherwise one risks allying oneself with some pretty crass points of view.”  And what are these crass points of view?  Monk cribs some terms from James Conant, “reductivism” and “compartmentalism.”  The reductivist, in this view, is the explainer-away of things, the guy who thinks that once we know enough about a philosopher’s life, we’ll be able to (in Conant’s words) “see why he wrote what he did and thereby discover the real meaning of his work.”  In contrast, compartmentalists believe that the facts of a philosopher’s life have nothing whatsoever to do with the correct understanding of his work. For both reductionists and compartmentalists, there seems to be a tendency to want to reduce the pertinent frames of reference for a work, to see it as either only conditioned by the life, or as a set of contextless propositions with no connection to the life.  This is not how we read in English departments, not lately: we tend to look for a plurality of significances, some contextual, others not.  Which is not to say that we don’t come up with some loopy and imbecilic readings.  I mean, the price of our kind of freedom is an eternal lack of vigilance.

Conant himself advocates another path beyond that of the reductionist or the compartmentalist: he says we can turn to the lives of philosophers in order to avoid certain misunderstandings of their work.  One thinks, for example, of Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, which argues that the logical positivist take on Wittgenstein is misguided, and that his life (as opposed to his published texts) proves the case.  Long story short, many positivists have interpreted the last statement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent” as meaning that mysticism is empty.  Monk points to Wittgenstein’s statements to his friends to support the view that Wittgenstein meant something quite different: that mysticism and the holy were real and powerful, but were beyond our capacity to voice, and that any attempt to paraphrase the ineffable was doomed to fall so short as to constitute a lie.  On the one hand, I find this quite convincing.  On the other hand, I find the whole debate that runs “he meant this,” “no, he meant that” sort of naïve.  Haven’t we learned enough from Freud (and, for that matter, from Marx, from Jung, from Lacan, from Surrealism, from…) to see that what we think we’re saying is only the small, visible part of a much bigger iceberg of meaning?

Biography, of course, is not an art limited to the recording of someone’s off-the-record statements, and one of the great things it can accomplish is to give a sense of the concrete situation out of which an idea or set of ideas emerge.  This needn’t be the absolute limit to the significance or meaning of those ideas, but it can provide a sense of the problems initially being addressed: both (the great) Karl Popper’s theories of tolerance in The Open Society and its Enemies and (the odious) Leo Strauss’ sense that liberalism paves the way to nihilism and eventually to fascism take on more significance when we note how they were written by men whose lives were scarred by the Holocaust. 

Or consider Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and the concept of identity and difference.  Deleuze argued that we have traditionally considered difference to be something that derives from, or comes after, identity: things have essential identities in themselves, and we compare them and note how they are unalike.  This isn’t really the case, though: for Deleuze, identity is constituted by difference: something is what it is because it differs from one thing in one way, from another thing in another way, and so on: identity is negatively defined, not something with an unchanging essence.  If you read François Dosse’s excellent, exhaustive dual biography Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: Biographie croisée, you see why the mild-mannered Deleuze hit it off with the extraverted, manic Guattari so well: the kind of thing Deleuze had been theorizing was a conceptual version of something Guattari had been putting into practice at the experimental LaBorde clinic, where he was revolutionizing French mental health care.  The French had been treating mental health problems fairly crudely, more or less keeping patients locked up in isolation.  Guattari felt that this only allowed mental health problems to continue.  Instead, he put patients into constantly shifting group environments, and into different roles, having them perform many tasks at the clinic (the same went for the medical staff, who would rotate into dishwashing or social group leadership roles or whatever).  The notion was that these patients didn’t have a set identity as ill people, but that they were who they were in relation to others, and that their identity would be different if they were in different groups.  It’s not just that you’d be person X wherever you were.  You’d be defined by your relation to those around you, and the differences constituted your (contingent, changeable) identity.  Deleuze took to this immediately, and together Deleuze and Guattari developed, from this notion of difference, the concept of identity as a desiring machine connecting to other desiring machines.  Much later, when Deleuze is interviewed by Claire Parnet, he insists that the resulting text isn’t the product of his own contextless intellect: it is the product of what he is when he is connected to Claire Parnet: hence he says the author of the book of interviews is Deleuzeparnet (something the publishers did not honor, by the way).  This is clearly something with connections, and to a degree roots, in Guattari’s clinical practice.

But why is the biographical information about what Guattari did at LaBorde important?  My historian pal LeMahieu put it better than I could when the question came up at lunch a while back.  “So,” he said, “it’s an example of that French philosophical tradition, where they take something concrete and specific and convert it into something as abstract as possible.”  He’s right, I think, and right in a way that shows us both the strength and weakness of the continental tradition in philosophy.