Monday, April 6, 2009

The Pot Calls The Kettle Black

How about the implications of that metaphor? Still, the writer writing the following deplores the situation that he describes below and believes to be true:

I also think poets are no longer taught the art of “judgment”, or evaluative criticism…”good” and “bad” are simply not supposed to be the way we look at things—they are more apt to look at how poems work, the various contexts behind poems and at poets themselves, as, perhaps, one big happy family of the like-minded engaged in a collective project which will lift them all equally to whatever degree of importance poetry can still have in public life.

Huh. The above does not seem to me to be a comment that shows an understanding of the art of judgment. It seems general, willfully subjective, and totally lacking in evidence. Did I forget to mention pompous and wrong?

A lot of poets obviously know how to judge poetry and spend a lot of time doing it, whatever they were or weren’t taught and by whom. Anybody think I’m wrong about that? Sure, many people—maybe most—have poor judgment, when it comes to poems or anything else. But does anybody think that poor judgment is a recent development in the history of literature or that it’s something that has been created by recent changes in what aspiring poets learn in school, unlike the good old days when people were really taught how to read poems?

I’m not going to say, here, who this writer is, since my goal isn’t to insult anyone but to encourage all of us wonderfully trained evaluators to evaluate just a little more carefully what we ourselves are saying. You can find out easily enough who said this if you want. Let’s just say that he takes himself to be a commentator of some significance upon contemporary poetry, and that other people seem to believe he is one.

It’s not that I expect every person writing a blog or participating in a blog discussion to avoid big statements or resist generalized accusations addressed to the aether. Let’s face it: they’re all over the place. It’s just that I’m thinking, were I to receive an undergraduate student paper with comments like this in it, the paper would look like C material to me. “On what grounds do you make this claim?” is one of the main comments I make about weak undergraduate paragraphs.

Note to well-respected literary critics: please evaluate contemporary writing well enough to get at least a B in an undergraduate lit course at Cal State San Marcos, okay?

Guess my spring break’s over.


Chris said...

Wait, what?

I mean, I think I agree with the quoted speaker, or rather, I'd like to agree with the quoted speaker -- I wish fewer people were invested in issues of "good" and "bad", but rather saw poems as working inside of particular contexts, yadda yadda, yadda yadda. I don't think "judgment" in the sense of "declaring a poem to be good" is an "art", but rather a bit of ego-puffery, unhelpful and meaningless and rather beside the point (if occasionally bitchy and fun).

I do think it's problematic to call "judging something to be good or bad" as "the art of judgment", rather than thinking critically about its function in a historical context, etc.

But I can't tell whether you are disagreeing with the quoted author about this or not, or whether you're just disagreeing about the level of judgment (of whatever) in poets today?

mark wallace said...

I think you have the quote's intentions backwards, Chris. That could be my fault, but the writer is deploring the situation he describes. I'll clarify that now.

Chris said...

I took the quote as wishing people still judged texts as "good" or "bad".

I wasn't sure whether you were saying "yes they do!" (which is what it sounded like you were saying) or "that's not what judgment is at all!" (which is more like what I'm saying).

mark wallace said...

Hi Chris:

I was emphasizing the former more, but you're also right about the later.

So: Yes they do, and that's not necessarily what judgment is.

sandrasimonds said...

This quote is strange. I don't understand how anyone can believe that judgement about art could somehow be divorced from context? (historical, sociological or whatever). It sounds to me (and I have no idea who wrote this) like someone who is fairly conservative, or longs for a time/space in history---or outside history---where good and bad art reveals itself to be itself without a person to judge it--- This, to me, is a fantasy.

Dave King said...

I go along with what you say, up to a point. I just would not like all comment to be restricted to the academic.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these further comments.

Sandra, given the comment in question, it's actually hard to know anything about how this writer thinks poems should be judged, other than that they should be judged and writers don't know how to do that anymore. I don't think the comment shows much understanding about how to contextualize readings of poems. So you're right that the main thing the comment seems to do is to long for some kind of authority that seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

Dave, good point: obviously every comment should not have to be academic. Not that you could know, of course, but the writer is an academic. And perhaps more to the point, I myself would hope that the non-academic is not the same as "mouthing off like an authority on something I apparently know nothing about although I have a deep conviction that I do." The value of the non-academic, I would think, is that it would enable worthwhile perspectives and approaches that the academic shuns or has missed or refuses to acknowledge; it's a bigger world out there than the academic might know.

Academic or non-academic, foolish generalizations in the guise of authoritative insights don't do much good for anybody.

Nicholas Manning said...


During said essay I thought I was reading a F. R. Leavis, or a parody of same minus the Eliot teasing.

I share your concerns Chris, but what with all the amusingly Pyrrhic stylistic wars, such a "big happy family of the like-minded engaged in a collective project" seems to me a false argumentative crutch. Is it not one of these recurrent puppet Bogeymen whose strings one wiggles in order to have something to yell at?

I'm with you Mark. Though I may personally have erred on the side of a C minus.

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