Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Know It When I See It

It is interesting to me what people consider to be "good" poetry and how strongly they voice their views regarding said poetry--or literature, or movies, or whatever medium we happen to be dealing with. I'll admit that I've been guilty of this, myself--a friend of mine was dating a girl who happened to mention at a party that she thought Byron's poetry was "so beautiful, so romantic." Little did she know that I was hip-deep in a Later Romantic Literature class taught by a radical feminist scholar and had developed very strong views on the Romantic poets--Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth, and, of course, Byron.

I could actually feel the whiplash in my neck as I spun around and pointed an accusing finger at her, shrieking, "You think Byron is romantic? He had sex with something like 2,000 women! The only woman he might have loved was his half-sister with whom he had an illegitimate child! Have you actually read anything Byron wrote? God! If you want romance--real romance--try Keats. That's romance." Then, disgusted with the world in general and her in particular, I sniffed and turned back around, finished with the conversation.

I must point out, however, that we were not debating the quality of Byron's poetry. I'll be the first to admit that the man was a genius, both in his writing and in the cultivation of his public image. He was the equivalent of a modern-day rockstar. He was witty and charismatic and complex. Don Juan is the only book that had me so enthralled that I was willing to call in to work to finish reading it (insofar as one can finish reading an unfinished work). I enjoy his poetry, but I also recognize that it is not romantic in the Valentine's Day sense of the word; I wouldn't want Byron quoted to me by someone on bended knee, if only because I would get a distinct uh-oh feeling from the experience.

Some people, on the other hand, draw good/bad lines in the sand about poetry and expect me to fall blithely onto one side or another. My cousin's boyfriend is taking a 19th Century American Poetry class and asked me if I had ever read anything by Emily Dickinson. He let me ramble for a bit about "I heard a fly buzz" and "Stormy, Stormy Nights" and the fact that she is such an interesting character to study before he finally said, "You liked her? I think she sucks." (Point of interest: other "sucky" poets, in the eyes of this young man, include Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, and William Shakespeare. I asked him to name someone he liked, but I unfortunately had never heard of any of them so I don't know quite what his criteria are for a poet to not "suck.")

How can we so blithely attach good/bad labels to poetry? I'll admit that I've been known to claim that a poet is overrated, but even that is based on the assumption that there's value to the poetry and it is just over-emphasized in curriculum. (For example, as much as I love Shakespeare, I've read Hamlet nine times. Reading a play nine times seems like an awful lot when there's so much more out there that still remains to be explored, but it is also the most beautiful example of literature I can think of.) But there are very few poets who I will say are "bad." Do I like all poets? Hardly. But do I feel qualified to single-handedly declare a poet's work to have no value for any reader and to therefore be "bad"? Not very often, no.

That is not to say that all poetry is "good." Trust me, I've seen some pretty rank examples of verse, the most notable being a twenty-page epic that started with, "She went into the house / and cleaned until not even a mouse / could think of setting up house / with a louse" and ended with the main character going to the beach to drink a bottle of bleach. I'm probably misquoting that slightly, since I think it may have been in pentameter, but it definitely wasn't, "She walks in beauty..." I would hesitate to call that real poetry--verse, yes, rhyming lines, yes, but poetry? I'm not so sure.

So the real problem for me is not determining if poetry is "good" or "bad." It's determining if a particular piece can even qualify as poetry. I've taken literary theory classes and learned philosophical takes on poetry from Aristotle to Benjamin, but I guess I've still never heard a definition better Justice Potter Stewart's from 1964: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . "

So, no, I don't think Emily Dickinson "sucks," because there's never been any poetry that I thought was so bad as to deserve the verb-like adjective. I've read sucky would-be poetry, but having aspirations toward poetry is not the same thing as being a poet.

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