Friday, July 8, 2011

what I like helps you figure out what you like

I've been thinking a lot about the essay I found earlier this week, "In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking," on Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless.  Both are books that, as essayist Joel Brouwer says, "have things to say about how to read poems in general, as opposed to this or that specific poem." Both are also books that I would never read, although of course I'm intensely interested in how good poems do what they do, in what makes a poem "good."

Why wouldn't I read them? Because I know what I like and what I don't, what combinations of words tingle the tips of my synapses (flowing all around into every sensory cell not to mention my spiritual human heart) and what combinations leave me flat, bored or even exasperated at the waste of perfectly good words. In other words, I don't need any help to figure out what is a good poem; it's a fairly black-and-white situation. (I think most kids who have any opinion would say the same thing.)

But wait! Didn't I read Brouwer's essay with the same tingling delight as a really great new poem? Why? What did I get out of it that made me want to share it? What has kept me thinking all week about it?

Oh. Heh. Brouwer writes illuminatingly about why he likes poems but doesn't like Poetry, and about his experiences of reading poetry criticism as well as poems, and about his reactions to these two books.  Because his whole point is that there is no point in telling people what to like or why, in reading his critique of poetry criticism, I'm free to decide how I agree, or disagree, or agree with reservations, or agree resoundingly, as with:

"By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself." *

In reading about another person's inexplicable personal preferences, exquisitely explained, I come to a renewed and refined understanding of my own inexplicable preferences, which leads me to want to try explaining them as exquisitely, in case what I like helps you figure out what you like.  It is a strange and ambiguous process--not very black-and-white but certainly not grey--which leads directly to my first rule of poetry teaching: "Share Only Poems That You Love," and its corollary: "Don't Expect Every Child To Love Them Like You Do."

With a new appreciation for the purpose of criticism, later this week I'm going to compare two zebra poems previously referenced here thanks to Andromeda:  one that I love and think is good, and one that I think is a waste of perfectly good words.  It'll be a good challenge for me, and maybe it will help someone else better understand what they like when it comes to poems.

The sweet and searing round-up is with Elaine at Wild Rose Reader today.

*This passage is enlightening as it is, but try substituting any number of  items in place of  "lovable criticism"--poem, teacher, spouse!

9 comments:

  1. Thanks, Heidi, for pointing me toward this essay and these two books. I love your first and second rules of teaching poetry. I'll try to recall the second one next time I'm leading a poetry workshop.

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  2. So true!

    "My first rule of poetry teaching: 'Share Only Poems That You Love,' and its corollary: 'Don't Expect Every Child To Love Them Like You Do.'"

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  3. This reminds me of Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry"...your corollary is so true - as I've found upon occasion in my classroom.

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  4. Oh Heidi, I love your little footnote at the end! And yes, it's alwya good to be reminded that poetry is essentially a very personal genre, I would generally go straight for the primary text myself, but do recognise that sometimes deeper appreciation only comes from being led by someone who has already tapped the depths...

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  5. I'm ready to learn more about why I like the poems I do!

    (Not finding the zebra poems you linked, tho...)

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  6. Yes for lovable criticism, and words that start conversations, not end them.

    I did read, or really browse my way through some of, Beautiful and Pointless, and found myself in conversation. But that is reading in a hammock when it was very hot -- I could let things run by.

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  7. I'm smiling over the words "lovable criticism" smooshed together - I very much appreciate that paragraph! Thanks for all this verbal food for thought.

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  8. Interesting. As a writer, when I read criticism (not often), I don't do it for it to tell me what's good and bad writing; I do it because a good critic (rare) helps me see a good poem in a new way....

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  9. Heidi, I'm back in Vermont doing one one of my twice-a-year residencies, and I just lectured about "making menaing" and how personal it is. You love something when it means something to you, for whatever reasons, no doubt about it. I think I might share your post with my workshop people tomorrow afternoon. We can offer opinions and advice, we can be precise about the reasons behind those opinions, but the bottom line is always a matter of aesthetics, right? Thanks for the link to the essay....

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