Monday 25 February 2013

Pretending to like poetry

There are many reasons why people might say they like a poem, but if someone says they like a poem of yours, think twice before asking them why - it's likely to be embarrassing for both of you. The odds are that inter-personal expectations of behaviour affect what people say more than the desire for aesthetic authenticity. This isn't easy to prove, but if everyone who said they liked a poem read the book that the poem came from (or even bought it) the world would be a very different place.

How much does the public - or even poetry audiences - understand about poems?

  • Jon Stone wrote on his blog "I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity"
  • Wayne Burrows in his Thumbscrew article suggests that "'Most people', quite simply, don’t know about poetry".
  • Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".
  • Harold Munro wrote "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true".
  • In the Rialto they said that "During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry"

If anything, I think that experienced poetry-readers (even reviewers and judges) have more reason to dissemble. If they don't understand/like something that for career, personal or reputation reasons they feel they should praise (e.g. Rilke's poems), what else can they do?

A combination of ambiguous statements and use of the Forer effect can effectively mask blind spots and inconvenient opinions (the Forer effect - used by fortune tellers - is when a person who's described in a phrase that could be applied to many people, think that it's especially applicable to themselves). How about "A sensitive, controlled writer"? Or a writer "with understated insight"? Suggesting that a work has "subtle irony" (or subtle anything, because "subtle" can mean "just a bit of") is safe, as is "deceptively deep" or "repays rereading". Then there are the unfalsifiable phrases that one might find in wine reviews - "muscular yet silky".


  1. I was reading your comment on Jon Stone’s blog and I have to agree with you: most people can’t explain why they like a certain poem. Even fellow poets struggle and it’s far easier to criticise, at least I find that to be the case. I don’t like most of the poetry I read. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, well-written, worthy; I just don’t like it. Nature poetry in particular bores the pants off me. Of course there’s no need for me to be rude about it and if I run across poems like that online I pass by on the other side. I have a terrible habit, as I said to Dave King recently when offering a friendly critique of one of his poems, of wanting to “me-ise” every poem I read. Understanding and appreciating are two different things. My problem with… let’s just call it “difficult” poetry for the moment… is that I don’t know how to approach it and I find—and this applies to artists and composers too—their creators aren’t too keen on explaining how to approach their works so if I don’t get it then it’s my fault. Someone explained to me how to decode sentences, what periods and commas and semicolons and all that crap meant. Thank you. Armed with that knowledge I can read prose and have a fighting chance of understanding it. Then I come across something with no punctuation whatsoever (unless you count a line break as quasi-punctuation) and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. What are the rules for reading? I bought a book of essays by E E Cummings hoping he’d explain how he arrived at his unique typographic layouts but it really wasn’t much help. I distrust things that can’t be explained or, and this applies especially to art, have to be explained.

    I can see why reviewers might say they like stuff when they don’t and all I can say is shame on them. I’ve just written a review of a book of poetry by Stephen Nelson, some of which I liked and some of which I wasn’t crazy about, like this tiny poem:

            mo( )on

    I think I get it but I’m not sure there’s much to get and I said as much in my review. I don’t hate it but it’s nothing I’d write home about. I’d more to say about his forty-page Ginsberg-esque diatribe but one of the first things I said was how much I (thought I) hated Ginsberg. I have to qualify that statement because I’d really not read much Ginsberg that I hadn’t given up on after a page or so. After researching Ginsberg (specifically ‘Howl’) to write my article I can honestly say I get where he’s coming from (‘understand’ is probably too strong a word) but I still don’t like his poem. Maybe I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did but if someone unearthed a folder full of new poems by him I don’t think I’d get all hot under the collar about it.

    I do believe very strongly that poetry is a collaborative endeavour and a great poem can be let down by a poor reader just as an uninspiring poem wouldn’t give even the best reader much to work with. I like Marion McCready as a person and I faithfully comment on every draft poem she posts online but, and she would agree wholeheartedly here, I am far from being her ideal reader and she often comments on the fact I read (or at least try to read) her work literally. Others don’t have that problem. The cynic in me thinks they’re just less demanding. Or maybe it’s me that’s uncomfortable with ambiguity—actually ‘dissatisfied’ is probably a better word—and doesn’t bring enough to the poem to make it a more satisfying experience.

  2. You've anticipated a point or 2 that I'm going to make in my next post, so I'll wait until then.