Thursday 3 December 2009


I've been wondering whether the "I don't like it" vs "I don't get it" distinction is if not artificial then at least unknowable (to self and others). Or which predispositions and situations make people say one rather than the other, what the motives and consequences might be.

"I don't like it" vs "I don't get it"

Can the distinction be made? Sometimes surely, but it depends on the context.

  • Social situation - In the tutor/pupil situation perhaps it's easier for the tutor to say "I don't like it" and the pupil to say "I don't get it". In judges' reports you might not often see lines quoted that the judge admits to not understanding. Of course contestants are happy to accept that judges have preferences, but if they have unadvertised biases it's more awkward. Perhaps judges should be more upfront about their blindspots beforehand, or return the entry fees of poems that they feel unqualified to judge :-). As a ploy they might be prepared to say that a particular poem is "good of its type" but then dismiss that type for reasons they don't explain.
  • The Artist - it's easier to admit to blindspots about some artists than others. Stockhausen, Larkin, Prynne, and Olds are fair game. However a dislike or incomprehension of Neruda might be viewed with more suspicion. Perhaps there are poets for whom the only acceptable reason for disliking them is that you don't understand them - to know them is to love them, though they may be difficult to get to know. Shakespeare? Geoffrey Hill?

In practise the distinction might just be another way of saying something else - whether you'd bother re-reading the work, for example. Maybe "I don't get it" can mean "I don't like it but famous people do, so I'm inadequate".

There are some poets' work I find easy to like but hard to love (Glyn Maxwell maybe). There are poems I'd rather read about than read (Les Murray's maybe). If I understand and like a poem I may not agree with it (it may be a Political poem, for example) but that's a different matter.

Attitudes to Blindspots

I heard Philip Hensher (novelist and reviewer) being interviewed recently, saying that he didn't get Ian McEwan's work and hence didn't review it. I think he said he was happy to accept that people had blind spots - big ones even. But perhaps he doesn't really like McEwan's novels. Such meta-judgements are going to be error-prone though. I'm not keen on Olson. I'd go so far to say that I think he's more important than good, that I don't have a blindspot as far as he's concerned. Whereas I think there's more to Heaney than meets my eye.

Moreso than judges, magazine editors can afford to have blindspots - they're what give their magazines character. Practising writers perhaps have the most license. Even so there may be repercussions. Nabokov said - "[music] I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds". With the benefit of medical advances we'd tend to label this as a medical condition, a handicap. But Nabokov's admission didn't affect his work's reception. Larkin's dislike of modern jazz is treated more as a personality defect, though some people read aesthetic limitations into it. I prefer even "Frankie goes to Hollywood" to Mozart. Ok, so I like some JS Bach, Barber's Adagio, Bartok's quartets, but surely my statement exposes a lack of taste.

Career poets had better not advertise too many of their poetry blindspots if they want to judge competitions, or if they don't want to discourage people coming to their workshops.

How to fake it

Whether the blindspot's related to emotion, empathy or intellect there may be remedies. Firstly there may be an underlying perception problem - if you're totally colourblind you're not going to be able to respond to blue or even "blue". Readers won't see syllabics unless they count the syllables, and some readers don't listen to the sound of the words. Sometimes these perceptual deficits are due to inattention and can be remedied.

But the problems may lie deeper. Psychology tests nowadays can reveal all kinds of individual quirks in our visual and language processing. The effects show up in contrived laboratory conditions. In everyday life we manage to compensate for them - e.g. the face-blind pay more attention to gait, clothes, etc. It's not surprising that poetry would reveal individual differences in apprehension. I think my poetry appreciation is a patchwork of blindspots - from poem to poem or even from line to line. I approach texts with a mishmash of innate and learnt behaviours, but usually act as if the unevenness is all in the text.

How can one compensate? Give a computer enough examples of so-called good and bad art (in a limited field) and pattern-matching software can often judge future examples pretty well (though it may not be able to give explanations). You can train yourself in the same way - working by analogy and general principles. In poetry, where there's a wide range of tastes anyway, it's not too hard to bluff one's way through one genre or facet of poetry, especially if you've acquired credibility in other genres. Indeed, opinions by newcomers and outsiders might prove valuable. If I were to judge Mr World I might well make a less controversial decision than if I were judging Miss World - fewer hormones and idiosyncrasies get in the way, and I'd use more general principles and cliches/archetypes.

Can fakery be detected? It's not as simple as that. For a start, some people think that any use of the intellect rather than the heart is "faking it". Also one can begin by faking it then end up loving it. But if poets on R4's Saturday Review or BBC2's Review Night say that some Art Exhibition's "Extraordinary" (inarticulate gushing being a common enough strategy to cover ignorance) it would be interesting to see if they subsequently go to similar exhibitions. Maybe. Maybe eventually it's possible to reach the stage when one can say (as amateurs also do) "I like all sorts of poetry as long as it's good" and get away with it, but I don't see the point.

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