Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is It Wrong to Criticize Poets?

I don’t advocate ad hominem attacks, though many deserve lengthy floggings, but according to some, to criticize a poem or poet is an act of frustration & jealousy committed by those whose own work is, ironically, worthy of condemnation.  Is the offense primarily about who's making the criticism?   The hell if I know.  But I do know that a discussion--whether about literature, philosophy, movies, music, the taste of turnips, or whatever--should permit a diversity of views, not merely those echoing the prevailing opinion.

I routinely criticize other writers, as readers of this blog have learned.  At times, as crazy as this may sound, I may have spoken wrongly. However, my intent is not to discombobulate the alleged artist, but rather to state my opinion about the work & why I don’t like it, all with the ever lofty hope of increasing public understanding of aesthetics–well, my aesthetics–in order to achieve the foolishly idealistic purpose of improving literature as a whole. Most of all, though, I like to think that others find my half-assed "reviews" amusing. It’s fun to write about what I read, to give my impressions about books without regard to literary politics.

Generally speaking, I try to steer clear of taking potshots at unknown poets. Whenever I’ve broken this rule, I’ve felt bad about it & I apologize wholeheartedly to anyone I’ve offended.  Those who know me personally will attest to what a sweetheart & pussycat I am–or they’d better if they know what’s good for them.  On the other hand, I have occasionally stated less than glowing opinions of books by some of today’s upper-tier poets. Jesus However Christ, if the views of an unknown, such as myself, can knock them from their poetry perch, it must be a pretty precarious limb they’re preening on.   As to whether I'm frustrated by my lack of success & jealous of theirs, believe me, you don’t know the half of it, but I don’t condemn them on these grounds, for there are many other acclaimed poets for whose work I hold nothing but admiration.

Besides, if I were atop the poetry world & some no-name shmuck launched verbal volleys my way, I'd like to think I'd have the mental wherewithal to take criticism, however harsh, without committing sepukku.  As a bottom-feeder with aspirations, I listen to criticism of my work–even published poems–with the hope of improving not merely my poetic lot, but also my poetry. As a rule of thumb, I pay attention to criticism supported with textual reference & dismiss the rest. I suppose once you reach a certain level, though, you don’t have to listen anymore because you know so much stuff already.

Most of the time, however, I limit my truly scathing reviews to dead poets. It’s hard to imagine that such criticism would upset anyone, but if, for example, you disagree with my assessment of Robert Creeley, you might at least admit you found it humorous. If nothing else, I hope that I’ve caused you to read the poet in question–well, I don’t know if I’d go that far–& consider my criticism. If you disagree with me, I’m fine with that–unless your view is that I have no right to state an opinion because you’ve never heard of me–& I’d love to read your comments.

Some may argue that I should write only about those writers whose work I enjoy, but I disagree. For one thing, you’d tire of my rattling on & on about myself, but seriously, such a seemingly innocuous idea suggests, among other things, that one creates art for the sake of creating art & for no other purpose. That's not even a defendable position for those strictly into macrame, which may serve multiple purposes, such as a hanging plant holder, but that position may strike--not unlike a potted plant falling from a poorly constructed macrame--a serious artist as particularly daft. According to this theory, all art is good art by the nature of it being art. Therefore, if you don’t like, say, a poem or painting, you shouldn't verbalize that viewpoint because somebody else may like the velvet Elvis. If you think it blows shitbits, you should simply ignore it because it’s "just art," so it doesn’t matter.

Shouldn’t art matter?

It’s trendy to believe that negativity in all forms, which includes criticism, leads to bad karma. To begin with, karma is a myth. The rich keep getting richer, etc. In reality, one complains to draw attention to a problem in hopes of causing a positive change--in the case of poetry, for example, better poems. Let's apply this rule outside the art world. Should Consumer Reports never issue negative reports on products, but rather, limit their reviews to products they like?  (Actually, some complain that it already does this, which, if true, is a shame, because I like to know what products NOT to buy.) In politics, should we talk only about policies & legislation we like because to complain about immoral, illegal wars or illegal, immoral NSA abuses serves only to empower the terrorists & weaken national security?  To put it simply, bullshit.

Some advocate the notion that you should never complain but talk only in positive terms as a way of life, for if you never say anything negative, so it goes, your life will improve, Q.E.D.  These folks may believe that if you can bottle your emotions, you're guarenteed to, I don't know, make a million gazillion bucks, but from a purely psychological standpoint, it's preposterously unhealthy advice.  This applies to literature as well. 

While poets often lament that nobody reads poetry--hello, I'm nobody--it's now considered inappropriate to discuss what may be part of the problem, i.e., the poems. To be fair, I doubt the overall lack of readership is owed entirely to any one cause. A host of possible reasons, including the way it's taught in schools, comes to mind, but allowing an open debate on the state of poetry seems prudent. It’s more than irksome if certain writers believe they are above criticism & that any negative comments about their work come from unmitigated personal malice; it’s downright un-American. Actually, it’s far too American, if you know what I mean.


Please note that I neither endorse nor participate in verbal sniper attacks of poets who post links to their publications via Facebook.  While such sniping isn't a crime against the humanities, it is tacky.