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.


  1. Another good take, Bob. Even in this post-Foetry era, there are very often identifiable similarities between judges and prize winners. It may be ethnicity, gender/LGTB, poetic school/style, or something else. Carl Phillips' choice just isn't going to be much like Ted Kooser's or Louise Glück's. That said, I can usually find and appreciate the aesthetic motivation that leads to the choice.

    Except when it comes to the Dickmans, and then I am just dumbfounded.

  2. I’m honored by your appreciation of this work, Bob— Bob Broad and I continue to work on a prequel essay to the College English article, one that offers further context for our work and suggests that our method is a way to investigate and meaningfully discuss value even in a time when all value is contingent (a la Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s great and relevant Contingencies of Value)—your kind comments are truly encouraging…cheers!

  3. I like a lot of your reasoning here, and your analysis of the state of affairs is quite on target. I recall Foetry rather fondly, since I was peripherally involved with some of those people at the time. I think the situation with poetry contests is pretty much as you've laid it out, although since Foetry I think have become more aware of and alert for blatant nepotism.

    But I disagree with the conclusions offered here, and I think that the attempt to find a solution via analysis is going to turn out to be another list of criteria like any other: local and provisional.

    And that's because it's chasing phantoms. Questing after "value" can lead to insanity; which is the core point of Robert Pirsig's entire book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

    The problem here, as much as it would be nice to find some kind of solution, is fundamental: any attempt to quantify essentially qualitative matters is inevitably going to run afoul of problems of subjectivity vs. objectivity. That's why there may be no solution to the problem of prize judging. That's why we may all just have to learn to live with uncertainty. We can do what we can to insist on fairness and to police against nepotism, but in the end it's not ever going to be subject to certainty or control. It's very easy to go off the rails if you insist on control where there isn't any; ask any cancer patient.

    I've been fairly vocal in my occasional protests against attempts to codify standards of what is "good" in poetry. I've been critical of self-appointed tastemakers like James Woods or Harold Bloom, who try to define what is good but end up basically defining what they like and/or ideologically approve of. The problem is, even if you manage to codify some system, it remains local and subjective. Which takes us right back to where Boulieau started. You can never get everyone to agree with you, even if you come up with a workable set of criteria. Woods and Bloom turn into pedants at precisely that cusp.

    As for Yvor Winters, although he wrote some great poems and taught some great poets, few critics have been more wrongheaded than Winters on poetic quality. (Kenneth Rexroth certainly thought so.) Winters remains the oft-cited darling of a certain class of neo-formalist poets, but when it came to other brands of poetry his vitriol undercut his reason, not to say his credibility. It's not hard to find excellent poems that are exceptions to his every rule.


  4. continued

    Because, you see, here's the fundamental issue: Who gets to define what's good and what isn't? Who gets to set the criterion? No matter what quasi-empirical way we try to define it, or circumscribe it, it always in the end comes back to taste. Granted, it can be larger than just personal taste; but it remains local knowledge, if group knowledge rather than individual. Here we are, having passed through the flames of contemporary postmodern literary theory, having concluded that there is no universal theory, no overarching universal criterion for what is of value—how do you put that genie back in the bottle? I don't think you can. Which is why I say it's chasing phantoms.

    I'm thinking at this point of ancient Sanskrit poetry, where the criteria of makes a great poem are nothing like those that might apply to contemporary American English-language poetry. (Ask Andrew Schelling if you don't believe me.) Sure, there are human universals, and we all can share in our recognition of art that is universally connecting, resonant, even transcendent. Sure, great art connects to us even over the centuries; but can you define exactly how a Vermeer painting is great art and apply that criterion to a pre-Christian Sanskrit poem? Good luck.

    So, the more interesting question is perhaps: Why do people still care about this so very much? Why are people so invested in finding some objective criteria of value in art? Poetry isn't engineering—why do some people continue to act as if it is? Why do poets continue to insist on defining poetry as engineering? Why are we trying to fix what may not in fact be broken?

  5. Interesting stuff! And yes, it does come back to taste -- Hume's essay is very good on talking about how this should be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. For now, I'm just asking that judges acknowledge and attempt to articulate their taste.

  6. Just for the record, Art, the work that Bob Broad and I have done does not in any way try to formulate objective, universal values. We're all done with those. But this does not mean we're left with mere subjectivity--for this, again, I refer to Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who offers contingency as a viable middle ground between subjectivity and objectivity, a middle ground that at least provides some space for fruitful, significant conversation and investigation.

  7. My shot at an answer to Art Durkee's q. ("Why are people so invested in finding some objective criteria of value in art?") is that it comes from Kant. Not only did Kant say, as Bob points out, that judgment should "maintain disinterest," he also suggested that the aesthetic moment aspires to universality--or, I should say, inspires a belief in the universality of the object of aesthetic appreciation. At least I think this is what Kant says; my knowledge really comes from a video Bob posted a long time ago here:

    I know that when I like something--a poem, a movie, what have you--I'm always surprised when people don't like it, and I have a desire to argue them into agreement. That, I think, is what we're looking for when we look for "objective criteria of value in art"--agreement. And control or power, which is probably all the same thing.

  8. Mike, if it's contingent, that's fine, but how does that serve us? I mean, beyond Bob A.'s desire that contest judges acknowledge and articulate their taste; which I agree I'd like to see happen. How is contingent different than subjective? I'm not trying to hassle anyone, I'm genuinely curious.

    Now, I'm aware of fuzzy set theory and chaos theory in math, and of how order is an emergent property of chaotic systems—so rather than either/or states of, say, subjective/objective, things can be organized as partial sets with indeterminate boundaries, as both/and sets (rather than either/or). And if we learn nothing from fractal math, we learn that boundaries are uneven, flexible, and ever-changing. Is that close to what you mean by a middle ground? by contingency? If so, it's interesting to contemplate, but it still will be local knowledge: it will apply over here, but not over there, and not universally. Contingent knowledge is of course very postmodern. LOL But I guess I wonder if it's objective *enough* to be worth it. I suppose that too becomes a matter of personal taste: one's taste in how far to pursue such knowledge.

    Lucas, that's very interesting about Kant. I think it's as equally likely that it's because of the commodification of the art object, in this era when the object is valued more than the process of making. Or, in many cases, than the artist.

    I don't find that I have an urge to argue people into agreeing with me, especially regarding what art I like. I think it's interesting to discuss aesthetics from multiple viewpoints, as is going on here, but arguing about it is often a waste of energy, in my opinion. Nonetheless, I think you're on to something when you mention that looking for criteria of value is a search for agreement. I think the search for agreement turns into an attempt to control, or to have power over, mostly when we try to enforce or coerce agreement. I don't value enforcement or coercion, which is why I lack an urge to argue people into agreeing with me. But as ever, diversity in opinion can be enlightening.

  9. Perhaps the best any judge of poems can do is to articulate our choices of 'best' as poetically eloquent and aesthetically pleasing to a reader as possible. In the English language tradition posterity seems to deliver the final and most detached, objective and accurate judgements. Only after the generations defining any poetic era are no longer around to influence its reception, when the live link is broken, do the audience appraise the poems and personalities who created them, in the ideal state Bob is aiming we judge in. Completely undoable I know, but in the widest possible sense and responsive context of this piece, being honest, how many readers actually 'care' about 'winning' poems unless the poet winning is ourself or colleagues from the same school we can catch a bit of reflected kudos from by reason of aesthetic or personal proximity?

    This may sound a non-normative statement to make, forwardly comedic or plain stupid, but in essence it is the truth of what I think. That poetry prizes usually reveal little beyond the fact that three people choose poems written by A, B or C, over those from the rest of the entrants.

    Foetry, for example, did American poetry business a favor, yet Cordle and co. were not only not thanked by the transgressing cliques, but vilified for daring to reveal the academic class of judge, jury and contestant, as a set of human beings like any other. Imperfect and prey to petty corruption when we can get away with it.

    I am all in favor of prizes as a vehicle of encouragement, but at the top of the tree they mostly seem a spectacle and fortification exercise for, mainly, middle aged people to enact professional drama in the public realm. The whole upper tiers in the English speaking po-biz world consists mostly of a, relatively speaking, very few people networking among ourselves and the higher we go, oftentimes, the less powerful our poems. We only need look at Laureate Duffy's work since she took office. The working class, supposedly socialist cohort who ranted against Thatcher and the monarchy when coming up, when writing their best stuff, displaced the Oxbridge gatekeepers in the 1990's, but have ended up a cul de sac, as they gradually took possession of the offices and instruments of official poetic expression.

    Read Saturday's Guardian 60 years of poetry thought up and executed by the PL, in which a chosen however many from the great and good contribute a commissioned poem to mark Her Majesty's time at the helm of the United Kingdom's psyche, and you will be hard pushed to tell us any of the poems published there are any good.

  10. Richard Elman, a member of Winter's workshop, makes some wickedly realistic observations on him in his book, Namedropping.

    "Yvor Winters was a moralist. He liked poets whose work illustrated his critical exhortations, and they were entered into his lists of best and worsts. He always ranked his students among the other poets who were publishing, as though handicapping horses: Don Stanford, Achilles Holt, Ann Stanford -- these Wintersian products seemed to have much better bloodlines than my own. You were praised a lot for agreeing with Winters... It wasn't very long before I began to feel that every impulse that had impelled me to write was counterfeit.

    ...His patriarchy often seemed lagubrious, he would often have tears in his eyes when elucidating all my failings. He never quite said he was infallible, but I can't remember him disclaiming otherwise.... If you constantly disagreed with Winters, he wrote you out of his cabal, his conspiracy against the poetry establishment. You became one of 'them'.

    Winters was actually able to make you feel your inept poems were high crimes and misdemeanors, treasonous acts. He would raise his voice in anger and tremble and attack you where he knew you'd feel weakest and most insecure. In his thrall we were stripped of the necessary autonomy of error. Hardly the way to encourage creative experimentation, such as one might expect from a workshop.

    Yvor Winters seemed even more afraid of his emotions than I did, and he wrote himself out of the contemporary canon. This took courage at the start of his career and enabled him to survive as an academic. He seemed to wish the same for any student whom he could influence. He was often intimidating, usually insightful, and occasionally lucid, astute, intuitive, brilliant, and imposing. But who was he trying to persuade? Ignoramuses like me> Himself? Others?"


  11. Hi, Art--

    You seem to be an egalitarian and pluralist at a much deeper level than I am! I agree that arguing about aesthetics is a waste of energy, and I try to avoid those kinds of arguments, but I have to acknowledge that I do so in part by fighting my own urges to engage in them, to act as if my liking something is less subjective than just, "I like it."

    I'll have to think more about your suggestion that the claim to universality of aesthetic appreciation has to do with commodification. I like economic-based arguments, but I'm not sure how this would work out. While Kant showed up in the 18th century, right about the time modernity & capitalism were taking over, he may himself have been discussing historically local phenomena under the impression that he was talking about universal features; then again, has the process of making ever been more valued than the object made?


  12. Art: No hassle, at all. And I *truly* don't mean to hassle when I say: read Smith's Contingencies of Value...! I don't have the book on me right now, but I believe one way she would define contingent values is as having arisen from a dynamic system of experiences/exchanges/etc. Subjectivity typically just comes down to: I like what I like. But that's just not right. That "I" has been trained, educated, perhaps indoctrinated to like what it likes, and that "I" likes different things in different situations--the "I"'s values are contingent. This is far more complex and interesting (and, I'd argue, right) than the standpoint of subjectivity. And, unlike subjectivity, the dynamic systems of contingency can be studied...

    One claim Smith makes that is particularly relevant to your last paragraph (above) is that we generally are interested in discussing and sometimes arguing with those whose view have consequence for us. And, thus, if you think a conversation is a waste of energy, don't have it.

    For the record: I've not thought for a second that this conversation was a waste of energy.


  13. Criteria for excellence have been replaced by fashion.

  14. Mike, I will look for Smith's book, meanwhile that definition of contingency sounds like what anthropologists call tribal knowledge. Local culture creates local knowledge; but the contingencies of value that an urban American has do not have full overlap with the contingencies of value of a rural Native American, even one living in the city, much less with a Brazilian rain forest native. (This makes me think of Jerome Rothenberg et al.s book "Symposium of the Whole," about ethnopoetics.) I wonder if Smith also includes Victor Turner's theories of liminality and performance in her definitions.

    What we value is what we grew up valuing, what our birth tribe taught us to value, and what we ourselves as individuals have decided that we value. indoctrination is part of teaching tradition; indoctrination and schooling are how the tribe teaches its young its values, and perpetuates those values. But indoctrination is also what individuals rebel against.

    Many arguments for a canon (cf. Harold Bloom et al.) are based on such tribal-level traditional values. But there is always a tension between the individual and the birth tribe, the latter rarely approving of innovation or deviance. (My awareness of this is colored by my experience of being a multiple outsider from my own birth tribe. I can humorously summarize that tension by stipulating that my birth tribe comes from Lake Wobegon, while my heart belongs to San Francisco.) The birth tribe is almost always inherently conservative in terms of applying value: as it ought to be, as the birth tribe's primary job is to teach the young how to survive and make their way in the world.

    Meanwhile, I can't help but feel that that entirely solipsistic definition of subjectivity is a straw man, because of course the polar extremes ARE extremes, ideational ones, whereas the reality of existence usually lies in the complex, muddled middle of any given set of axes. I would say that subjectivity isn't so extreme, in practice, because what most people mean by "I like what I like" includes their indoctrination and learned tribal values. I do agree that value never exists in a vacuum, there is always a context, and often a bit of relativity (in the original Einsteinian sense). No one makes their opinions up wholly removed from all past aesthetic choices; many (most?) "I like what I like" comments are made in response to someone trying to cajole one into trying something new and different. That is, they are a negative response to stimuli.

    And then there is the level of transcendence, of supra-rational experience. There has to be an exchange between the three levels of power in play here—tribal, individual, symbolic—and it seems to me that art (poetry, etc.) often has its origins in the symbolic level, or along the interface between symbolic and individual. The tribal level is the slowest to evolve, and it can only move at the pace of its slowest member. Once an artists breaks free from the tribe, the pace accelerates noticeably. A lot of art-making happens on that mysterious edge of Something we often cannot name or define.

    One reason I think some of these definitions and arguments are economic, Lucas, is because they still are trying to define qualitative experience using quantitative measures. What is the contingency of value of a mystical experience, whether or not it leads to writing a poem?

  15. I disagree, Art, that "I like what I like" is used in argument to convince others to see things anew; rather, I think "I like what I like" is used more often as a defensive posture. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is great on this, on acknowledging that though our values are contingent we are no less apt to argue about our large part, because there will often be someone whose mind we want to change, whose viewpoint is, in some way, of consequence to us.

    And, yes: the contingency of value does account for the fact that, raised in different and multiple systems, people have different and multiple values--but that's not a problem, it's a truth, and, recognizing that, we can, even though the middle *is* a muddle, engage all kinds of new approaches to examining more carefully how we value what we value.

  16. Mike, I didn't say that "I like what I like" i used to convince others to see things anew, I said the opposite:

    "No one makes their opinions up wholly removed from all past aesthetic choices; many (most?) "I like what I like" comments are made in response to someone trying to cajole one into trying something new and different. That is, they are a negative response to stimuli."

    In my discursive way, I quite agreed that "I like what I like" is usually a defensive posture. I rarely hear it used otherwise. I'm sorry if I wasn't clear enough about that.

    My main point was that one's upbringing and the beliefs inculcated in childhood have a strong, often unconscious, influence on how people value things. That is a truth, I agree, yet I do think it's a problem of negotiating the muddle of the middle precisely in the arena of contests that Bob started off this discussion with: the unexamined, unknown criteria of poetry contests where we don't really know why A was chosen over B. Which brings us full circle.

    1. I totally misread you, Art--my apologies, and thanks for the clarification!

  17. A great post, Bob. I've found Nelson Goodman and Hans Georg Gadamer both to be useful points of access when thinking about the quantified or elaborated criteria of poetic value.

  18. But a good deal of our impatience with the diversity and seeming chaos in philosophies of art is rooted in a remand from criticism for something it cannot do, at the cost of overlooking many of its genuine powers. We still need to face up to the full consequences of the realization that criticism is not a physical, nor even a psychological, science. By setting out from and terminating in an appeal to the facts, any good aesthetic theory is, indeed, empirical in method. Its aim, however, is not to establish correlations between facts which will enable us to predict the future by reference to the past, but to establish principles enabling us to justify, order, and clarify our interpretations and appraisal of the aesthetic facts themselves. [...] these facts turn out to have the curious and scientifically reprehensible property of being conspicuously altered by the nature of the very principles which appeal to them for their support. Because many critical statements of fact are thus partially relative to the perspective of the theory within which they occur, they are not 'true,' in the strict scientific sense that they approach the ideal of being verifiable by any intelligent human being, no matter what his point of view. Any hope, therefore, for the kind of basic agreement in criticism that we have learned to expect in the exact sciences is doomed to disappointment.

    _ _

    The above is M. H. Abrams in "The Mirror and the Lamp" showing (on p.4) how to do the sensible thing prescribed by one of the epigraphs to the chapter: "It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits." (Aristotle)

    Thinking more about this, it occurs to me that I have a habit of treating matters of dispute in poetry as I do matters of dispute in politics, by application of the liberal principle: Where we wish to come to an agreement, we must do so by persuasion rather than force. Hence I think it perfectly natural that our answers to the questions of a poem "Is it good?" and "Why and how is it good?" can only be answered through explication of both the matter-of-fact object (the text) and the contingent subject (me; and, the aesthetic context in which I read). You'd think that my wheelhouse is cognition and linguistics, I'd be advancing a more universal system of poetic value. But no: and in fact I'd say that I argue against the usefulness of such schemes precisely because of my knowledge of those features which are universally found in poetic object and poetic subject.

  19. I don't have it at hand, but I'm thinking too of Barthes in the first pages of "S/Z", where he notes that the evaluation of texts cannot be conducted through science or ideology, but only through the time-extensive practice of writing. Which *almost* seems tautological vacuous, until you check your skepticism against the fact that there are some things in nature which resist decomposition utterly -- e.g., quarks. From quarks to novels? Why not. In view of such a model, the irreducible, epigenetic complexity of poems doesn't seem implausible.

  20. Sorry not to have been responding to this discussion as it developed -- I've been trying to get a new chapter of my book off the ground. But thanks for all the observations, and for keeping the disagreements amicable.


  21. Sorry to burst the quantum bubble, and string theory (M-theory) breaks quarks down into strings, etc. Nothing is really solid or irreducible, all the way down to the quantum foam, smaller than which one is no longer in this universe. Or to use another paradigm, it really is elephants all the way down.

    What that means for criticism, it seems, is that the search for the irreducible is as much a phantom as the other searches discussed here. I don't think that's a problem, I just think that one needs to choose one's paradigms carefully. I really have no problem with the search for a more standardized criteria of assessment, because in the quantum paradigm, it's one aspect of many. To use another idea from theoretical physics, the multi-world hypothesis, in which all choices that affect quantum states create new universes, perhaps some might gain comfort in knowing that somewhere out there in the multiverse, the preference one chooses for oneself does exist as a prevailing paradigm.

  22. Art Durkee writes: “So, the more interesting question is perhaps: Why do people still care about this so very much? Why are people so invested in finding some objective criteria of value in art?”

    These are certainly easier to answer than “What do you mean by ‘excellence’ in poetry?”!

    First, people still care about this so very much because they – the ones who care so very much – want to be recognized as poets, excellent poets, superior poets, poets whose names will echo down the ages, and they think that the notion of ‘educated taste’ is an appallingly subjective one, prone to the vicissitudes of class, culture, gender, religion, color of skin, geographic region, and anything else they can think of that can be blamed for their own exclusion from the magic circle. What such people want – and those people are nearly all the people who write poetry contemporarily – from contests is to find the contest that will reward them, certify them, as an award-winning poet. They are as uninterested in subjective as in objective criteria: all they care about is winning one for themselves, and each one of them believes with no small degree of intensity that all the ones they haven’t won are wrong-headedly biased, for some reason, identifiable or not, against them.

    Second, no one is invested at all in finding some objective criteria of value in art, and few would admit to wanting it if they thought such criteria, together with a scale on which to chart those criteria, and a tool for measuring objective units of art within a piece of art that would register on that art-value scale, could be found. Even if there were such criteria, a scale, and a measuring tool, they would be rejected with more fervor than you’ve seen to date. Any attempt to apply objective criteria would be utterly dismissed by everyone who wanted to win a contest, because it would be immeasurably worse to lose a contest on actual objective grounds: that would mean that your poetic entries had actually been rejected for good sound reasons rather than merely unfairly overlooked by overworked judges, biased judges, or nepotistic judges.

    It’s actually the very subjectivity of the contest system that makes it so popular, you see. Once you have realized that Foetry was right, that every contest is inherently unfair, that every contest comes up with a more or less arbitrary winner, that means that there’s hope for everyone who enters. It’s more a lottery, really, than a contest, you see! Everyone has an equal chance to win BECAUSE the judges are biased.