Sunday 17 May 2020

Mixed opinions

Many years ago I.A. Richards wrote "Practical Criticism" (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929) in which he analysed the comments of a group of students who blind-read poetry. P.Hobsbaum in "Theory of Criticism" also covered this issue. He suggested that a good poem can support many interpretations (indeed, benefits from them) whereas a bad poem can't.

In a local poetry group I'm involved with, we've been anonymously exchanging poems. I like the variety of types of comment that such an exercise produces.

Orbis Magazine prints many reader comments about the poems in its previous issue. More interesting is when (as in our exercise) the entries are anonymous and there's more than one opinion. Disagreements are inevitable and instructive.

  • Years ago, Stand ran a poetry competition with two judges who disagreed with each other so much that in the end there were two sets of prizewinners.
  • The North Magazine has a section where 2 poets comment on an anonymous piece by a published poet. They can strongly disagree too. Sharon Black, in The North No.57, wrote of some stanzas "To be honest they leave me cold ... I'm not moved, I'm not touched, it's telling me nothing that I couldn't get from switching on an old episode of East Enders”.

Famous writers also disagree about each other -

  • "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective", Evelyn Waugh
  • "[Tennyson] had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest", W.H. Auden
  • "You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse", Tolstoy (to Chekhov)

One wonders what really goes on behind the scenes when there’s a committee of judges. My guess is that judges are carefully chosen, and they’re aware that if they cause trouble they won’t be asked to judge again.

See my Mixed reviews article for more.

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