Because of some comments about a month ago on Johannes Görannson’s blog, in which Johannes was accused of being an “ideologue,” I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to be a poetry ideologue and to what extent I and other people I know are or are not poetry ideologues.
I would define a poetry ideologue as someone who can only like poems if those poems express ideas (whether in theme or aesthetics) that the person approves of or agrees with. The true ideologue cannot like any literature that does not fit with what the ideologue believes literature should do. Pure ideologues would think that the literature they don’t like is so harmful that in fact it shouldn’t exist.
So now it’s time to explore whether I’m a poetry ideologue.
Someone who has no standards or set of values at all regarding literature would not be particularly interesting to me, and of course anyone who says they “like everything” probably just isn’t being honest with themselves. The most interesting critical takes on literature always have some sort of defined perspective. It doesn’t have to be rigid or narrow but it has to exist. So key questions for me are both how one defines what one values and whether or not one can like work that does not fit those values.
I must be at least partly an ideologue (if to say “partly” here is not already inherently a contradiction). I have strong ideas about what I like and what I don’t and why. I don’t think that literature I don’t like shouldn’t exist though, although I can think of the work of a few poets that, if it did not exist, wouldn’t bother me much.
Still, here’s a partial list of some poets from about 1800 until now whose writing I really like and who don’t fit well with my usual ideas of what I think makes for the most worthwhile poetry or whose ideologies or aesthetics are very much different or even opposed to mine.
Ai John Berryman Samuel Taylor Coleridge H.D. Ezra Pound Robert Frost (North of Boston only; the rest, yuck) Gerard Manley Hopkins Laura Riding Algernon Swinburne James Wright
The list is actually pretty short, isn’t it? That may be partly because my ideology regarding poetry is fairly broad-minded, while I clearly prefer risk-taking aesthetics and poetry not afraid to explore social and political problems. I don’t feel like I have to choose my interests too narrowly (none of this “Language poetry is great! New York School sucks!” for me, as just one for instance) and so there are probably a fair number of writers who wouldn’t like each other’s work while I like both just fine. Nor am I putting writers like Audre Lorde or Nazim Hikmet on the list: as a writer I have nothing much in common with their social or political struggles or aesthetics, but I love their ideas as well as their work. And I suppose the list would be longer too if I was including poets whose aesthetic I don’t really feel much commonality with and whose work I like well enough without deeply liking—Plath or Sexton or the Life Studies/Union Dead-era Lowell, for instance, or earlier figures such as Yeats and Stevens. Similarly there are many poets whose poetry and aesthetics I really love while not entirely agreeing with their poetics. For instance I could probably quibble with almost everything Steve McCaffery or Ron Silliman has ever said about poetry while at the same time I think their writing is fantastic and it has been crucially influential on how I think and write. And needless to say perhaps, there’s a very long list of writers whose ideas I don’t like and whose poems I don’t like either. As one example, I’ve read a few Robert Pinsky poems that I like well enough, but the rest strike me as so much Dead Text.
Just as an aside, Silliman, whose sometimes murky yet still useful School of Quietude notion sends so many people into bemusement or teeth-grinding anger, and who is perhaps more often accused of being an ideologue than anyone else in contemporary poetry, in fact writes frequently and admiringly on his blog about poets whose aesthetics he does not share. I sometimes wonder if many of the people who accuse him of ideological narrowness actually consider how much narrower their own aesthetic range is.
Anyway. It turns out to be true that I find it difficult to really love poetry that goes against my own ideas about poetry. But my guess is that I’m not alone in that problem. My guess is that there are more Poetry Ideologues out there than there are people who will acknowledge that they too don’t like much poetry that isn’t in accordance with what they want out of literature. Frankly, I think Poetry Ideologues are much less of a problem than people whose preferences are guided by ideologies that they have never tested or become conscious of having.