Good Poetry, Bad Poetry, and Good Poetry Read Badly

by G. Kim Blank (February 2015)

“One great poet is a masterpiece of Nature which another not only ought to study but must study.” 
—Percy Shelley, from the Preface to Prometheus Unbound


1. A Life Before Us

Without venturing too far into mired arguments about taste and aesthetics—or fully engaging critiques of canonization that descend from political correctness—is it difficult to recognize great poetry? Were there that many poets in the times of Donne, Herbert, Dryden, and Pope who wrote nearly so well? Robert Southey is obviously not in the same league as his arch-detractor, Byron. Hopkins trumps Patmore every time. How many poets possess Wordsworth’s deep eloquence? 

                                  And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens—their significance is palpable, and more so with every reading. Spender, a decent poet, does not stand up to Auden, an exceptional poet. Then there are a few magisterial figures like Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. Marianne Moore has rightly risen (and may still be rising), while John Frederick Nims (you’re right: who?) seems to have rightly sunk altogether. And in our own time, and still among us, are Derek Walcott and John Ashbery, who unquestionably lean toward posterity, with Geoffrey Hill standing at the gates, despite what seems to be some willful obscurity in his later work. Seamus Heaney, sadly, is no longer with us, but his place among the greats has been certain for some time now. 

Those listed above do not, of course, constitute anything approaching an inclusive list of great poets. And a few swerve in and out of greatness over the course of their writings. But surely it is possible for this to be true: despite the self-congratulatory, inclusive strummings of cultural relativism, practice in reading poetry does tutor us in the value of a persistent reckoning with enduring voices, those masterpieces of Nature to whom Shelley defers. These poets at their best have more to say and finer ways to say it. There is phrasing, a metaphor, an image, an association of sound and sense that pulls you in; there is an idea or a feeling that immediately sticks. To massage Eliot’s pronouncements on the metaphysical poets, great poetry often turns thought into forceful, profound experience, rather than offering mere rumination or sentiment, which is why—and Eliot is surely right—work that may be poetically sincere is not always poetically urgent, sweeping, or reflective in ways that cause sustained reflection and reaction. So too may great poets be motivated by occasion, but the best are never tied to it, and often overheard in their work are intricate, discerning, and sometimes playful conversations struck with other formidable voices and ideas beyond their time and place, anticipating significant conversations to come. And, once more borrowing from Eliot (who suggested that strong literary theft was preferable to weak borrowing), great poetry is often recognized in advance of understanding it.

The greater poem lays out a kind of life before us through its voice, movement, and form, and it invites us to understand and reunderstand it. We should not be surprised by this, since, for example, a great painting seems to demand that we turn to it again and again, to see once more yet once more differently; it never exhausts us, and every encounter seems to be a new encounter—and an often deeper encounter. The same holds true for the best poetry.

Such poetry thus presses us to read in our own here-and-now, and not in or limited to the then-and-there of the poetry’s originating context.

This idea of ever-present reading confronts certain other ways of drawing and establishing significance from the general field of poetry. Most obviously it confronts some historical-materialist templates of reading—that is, styles of reading that often cradle the poetry’s meaning and significance in its own time and circumstances. In its inability or refusal to note quality, contextualist readings are at times limiting: they are often peripheral, strained in their relevance to the work, and maddeningly noncritical. No doubt such readings can be useful in providing serviceable terms of reference or by pointing to practical connections with history and circumstance. That is, context can be valuable in understanding specific terms or the originating conditions of meaning; but, with great poetry, the context is not the meaning. To “recover” meaning seems to suggest that we return the poem to its own time in order to find what it was and can only be, as if to say, “This is what it meant,” rather than “This is what it means.” In the end, to focus on there-and-then poetry means caring less about whether and why the poetry is any good. Yes, perhaps some history lesson can be picked up along the way, but that is not why great poetry is crucial to who we are, to seeing the world—and to (hold your breath) an encounter with great beauty. As humans, we are the expressing creature, and poetry is, in a way, the apex of how we express ourselves . . . all those words, all those sounds, all those rhythms, all those meanings. We are homo loquens, but we are also homo poetica

Equally narrowing, though frequently ingenious, are top-down readings of poetry, which necessarily privilege the discursive thrust of the theory, ideology, or special interest over the possibly expansive power of the poetry. For example, reading Walcott as a postcolonial poet impounds his best work. Reading Heaney as a regional poet restrains his critical and pressing relationship to the work of others as diverse and resonant as Milosz and Hughes. Reading Emily Dickinson through a “gendered” lens narrows her stirring, sharp eccentricity: it does not strengthen her voice but limits it. Elizabeth Bishop, in her famous refusal to have her poetry published in women’s-only anthologies, makes the point: “to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.”

Harold Bloom, at his best when in an inimical mood, has for some time now championed something like this attitude: he condemns “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp-followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists” for diverting us from what strong poetry possesses: “complex imaginings” and “aesthetic and cognitive difficulty.” He concludes, “The only pragmatic aesthetic I know is that some poems intrinsically are better than others.”     

This slides toward the concomitant practice: where Bloom condemns these methods that amount to reading poetry badly, what becomes clear is that these other styles of reading allow for and even invite the reading of bad poetry. Helen Vendler, perhaps the poetry arbiter for our age, has clear views about poetic worth: in a relatively recent review of a major anthology of twentieth-century poetry that included a whopping 175 poets, she dryly suggests that much of this poetry will “seep back into the archives of sociology.” She adds, “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading.” She hasn’t changed her mind for at least a decade and a half, having previously noted, “I think there’s nothing to be said about mediocre poetry.” And Christopher Ricks—never shy in judging both poetry and criticism—has come to make much the same point: “You don’t get great literary criticism about a poet who isn’t much good.”

All of this begs the question: If you read bad poetry or read good poetry badly, can you say much that matters?

2.  A Dirty Little Question

The best poems necessarily reach toward future readings, which means to a moving history, to new readings and to rereadings. Real originality remains startlingly, continuously original. Phillip Larkin, who recognized (and captured) such originality, said that good poems have “the power to inflict their tiny pristine shock long after they have become familiar.” Similarly, Robert Frost believed that a good reader reading a good poem “will never get over it.” As suggested, the best poetry does not belong to readings that seem obliged to plunk it into a certain moment, into particularized sets of conditions that force a curbed significance; not-so-good poetry has nowhere to fall except into those conditions, so that the conditions in a way trump the poetry itself. That is, a good poem always, so to speak, sees beyond itself; a bad poem is merely seen and left behind. We should be grateful that Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” has nothing important to do with the poet’s visits to a certain Florida hotel in the early twentieth century; or that his extraordinary and confounding “Anecdote of a Jar” has little to do with Tennessee—

I placed a jar in Tennessee,? 
And round it was, upon a hill.? 
It made the slovenly wilderness? 
Surround that hill.

—and perhaps more to do with Keats’s Greek urn, an object that, for Keats gets its power by not being tied to the particularities of material history; instead, both the urn and Keats’s poem are freed from history by a capable imagination and by the lasting, deep conflation of truth and beauty, and that is all we need to know: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

Likewise, although theoreticallyand approach-inflected readings du jour attempt to chase down great poetry, they never catch it, themselves becoming dated, and often very quickly, and often because of the miscalculated inwardness of their idioms (a.k.a jargon) and their derivative expertise. Take three of the latest critical fads: environmental, neuroaesthetics, and evolutionary literary criticism. Beyond the obvious, they usually have little to say about form or literary worth, about how the work provokes us to feel, think, and imagine, even if what is happening in your anterior insula can be subcortically measured; they do not help us to profitably, richly, repeatedly read a poem. They only reveal that funneling poetry through some styles of literary criticism may have an insecure, market-driven side, a side often too eager to borrow from other disciplines it knows little about in order to sound like it knows something—well, something seemingly new. A good-enough name for this is over-reaching is trendism—a term William Deresiewicz recently used (and just before he left academia—or it left him): it is, he says, “the desperate search for anything sexy.” Raymond Tallis, in a critique of these “flaky” approaches (and “neuro-lit-crit” in particular), points to what results from such funneling: “the habit of the uncritical application of very general ideas to works of literature, whose distinctive features, deliberate intentions and calculated virtues are consequently lost.” The endgame, he writes, is “a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity.”

This desperation, loss, and reduction has done the discipline of studying poetry little good, inasmuch as it has had at least two contrary results: first, a tendency toward obscurantism, and, second, a desperation for relevance (both of which happen to be much too easy to parody). The odd thing is, the tried discipline of reading poetry—based on, for example, the exploration of big ideas, original insights, and arresting perceptions; on recognizing and understanding form, style, rhythm, expression, genre, influence, and the above-mentioned imaginative capabilities; on grasping what Shelley calls “the before unapprehended relations of things” that poetry often effectuates—has always had plenty of established street value without the need for any overreaching or apology. The fear is that these drives toward the trendy—with the arcane on one side the popular on the other—may force those long-lasting reasons for reading poetry permanently out of favor. And while about thirty years of cries about the “crisis in English studies” seem now to have been co-opted by larger economic concerns, on the shop floor of the Humanities it appears that the promotion of benign inclusiveness is winning the war over open, genuine arguments about what constitutes great work and the value of reading it. The flattening effect of cultural studies (all “texts” are equal) and social constructivism (everything is a “discourse”) has not helped; neither has what someone must have surely called “science envy.” That the issue of value is for some readers—call them “value deniers”—no longer relevant may be an unintended reason why it should be relevant. “But is it any good?” is a dirty little question that strikes fear in some, solicits ignorance in others, and sometimes a certain smugness among the deconstructed and ideologically bent tenured class: “What exactly do you mean by ‘good’?” Lionel Trilling some time ago anticipated that what lurks behind such thinking is not just wrong but potentially dangerous: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”

The other failure comes when we return to the question about the expanding place of bad poetry, and here again the habit of seeking forms of cultural relevance often takes us to work written by some marginal or marginalized group, or to some fad, region, or other “growth discipline.” Despite good intentions, the poetry ends up being buoyed by narrow aspects rather than larger merits. The reading industry in its desire to level the playing field and have everyone join the game gives this poetry its due, perhaps to ward off perishing by publishing something about work no one would really read for its lasting qualities; if need be, journals may even be started in order to perpetuate such narrowness. The trouble is, in both a struggling curriculum and within a larger cultural drift, what can get pushed aside are works that defy fads, regions, and tailored cheerleading from the one of those latest margins. Even the frenzied digitizing and marking-up of every written scrap might not save the day, though it may land a few grants under the amorphous authority of the digital humanities. 

Future readings call the strong work forward in spite of certain “critical” attempts to hold the work. Again, no doubt historical referencing is useful; yes, theory can indeed provide a clever lens (though with, it seems, an eye too much upon its own cleverness); and certainly special interest readings may result in certain feel-good and self-justifying conclusions. But will poetry read through these critical styles and narrow lenses render more than tertiary and passing levels of satisfaction rather than genuine, long-standing insights?

3.  That Other Scaffolding

Perhaps there are a couple of ways to briefly think though a few aspects of this problem of finding meaning in and recognizing great poetry. Let the first be called The Vendler Test. In an interview in the Paris Review in 1996, and responding to a question about an imagined audience for her criticism, she said:

I think of my audience in part as being the poet. What I would hope would be that if Keats read what I had written about the ode “To Autumn,” he would say, “Yes, that is the way I wanted it to be thought of. And, Yes, you have unfolded what I had implied,” or something like that. It would not strike the poet, I hope, that there was a discrepancy between my description of the work and the poet’s own conception of the work. I wouldn’t be very happy if a poet read what I had written and said, “What a peculiar thing to say about this work of mine.”

This seems frighteningly sensible as a means to imaginatively judge the fitness of a reading. If a poet were to say, for example, “That is not what I meant at all,” then one might assume that the critic is either wrongheaded or driven by the kinds of top-down or over-determined styles of reading like those described above. While poets obviously cannot always know or control the exact effect of or response to their work, good poets know what they are doing—they thoroughly understand their poetic purpose and the form required to shape that purpose, and that makes for a good part of why they are good poets in the first place. To think that an Andrew Marvell or a William Carlos Williams is not perfectly aware of the studied and abounding meaning in their work is either naïve or impertinent; and a cursory glance at the manuscripts of a great writer reveals what goes into making a significant work. Even Wordsworth, the originator of the too-easy but too-easily misunderstood idea that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” sometimes made himself sick as he agonized with composition and revision, especially in his earliest, best work; reading, for example, his sister’s journals about his struggle with composing “The Pedlar” and getting it right is, at once, touching, impressive, and instructive. A look at the reading list of a great poet is equally revealing, and often humbling. There is hardly a Grandma Moses among great poets.

The second test brings us closer to the issue of why we read great poetry and how we might recognize great poetry: If a particularized history is removed from a poem, or if a privileging theory or special interest is not employed to solicit the poem’s meaning, do we still have an ever-urgent work, a poem always-already for a profitable reading out of its own originating contexts?

Here we might call into service the poet we began with—Shelley—and a poem of his that we perhaps know too well, “Ozymandias.” We could do worse than calling it The Oz Test. Take away our knowledge of Shelley, of his liberal-radical leanings, of his other poetry, of any conception we have of that sweeping thing called Romanticism; forget that his age struggled to assess the French Revolution, the ambivalent conquering then conquered specter of Napoleon, and the significant economic and social changes after the protracted war with France; take away the information that the figure of Ozymandias may have been based on Ramesses II, that the sources for the poem are both many and uncertain, and that it was written in a sonnet competition with a good friend (who wrote a terrible poem); or forget for a moment that, in the decided spirit of undecidability, the signified is apparently always slipping and sliding under the signifier (when is it not?), and that the poem, read with a certain, slanted cleverness, offers a critique of the metaphysics of presence (what writing doesn’t?)—and ignore that postcolonial, eco, and feminist critics can too easily provide the poem with predictable messages about, respectively, imperialism, anthrocentrism, and phallocentrism. Do we still have a great work?

I met a traveller from an antique land?
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone?
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,?
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,?
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,?
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read?
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,?
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:?
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:?
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare?
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Take just one moment from the poem: “Nothing besides remains.” Coming as it does immediately after the imperious boast by the “king of kings,” the sentence, with its decisive, insistent rhythm and brevity, is startling; it inflicts that Larkinian “tiny pristine shock” we soon won’t forget. The particular irony built up by the poem’s layered drama (and by shrewd maneuvering of the sonnet form) is tempered with and then trumped by universal resignation. In the end we are directed to a “boundless and bare” vista that stretches in all directions beyond the moment and place—to our moment, to our place, in fact. There is, though, something that “remains”: the poem itself.

Back to the question: Do we still have a strong poem when we take away all that other scaffolding? Without question we do. “Ozymandias” joins other works that find striking, original ways to position human power and vanity against time and nature’s power, and it does so in a way so that (to echo Auden) meaning and form profitably, exceptionally meet. In doing so, the poem—a great poem—reminds us of something we shouldn’t forget, and now we won’t.

The matter of great poetry is the way it can so well express ways of seeing and feeling and thinking, new ways that will matter no matter when the work was written or when it will be read. That is why we should read, study, and teach great poetry: it often offers us something greater than ourselves while also offering so much about ourselves. 



G. Kim Blank has published widely in both academic and in popular venues. He teaches at the University of Victoria.


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