“...was it fair for me to believe that I didn’t think something was good writing even if I let myself like it?”
Maggie: I know poets who don’t really like poetry, though they love the idea of *great* poetry. I don’t think that’s what your doubts imply. After all, this blog celebrates the minor poet: we’re not eating a steady diet of Wallace Stevens here (“There are not leaves enough to crown,/To cover, to crown, to cover—let it go—”). (Then again, rereading “The United Dames of America” before a crisis election does take the top of my head off.)
To quote one trustworthy poet on this question: “But he has exactly what’s missing in ‘the poetry should be written as carefully as prose’ poets: sensibility and heart.” Quoth James Schuyler, quoted of Hart Crane, quote quoting Ezra Pound.
To be steeped in Schuyler’s letters—just published—is to find one’s own world suddenly wearing his colors; and it is a more marvelous world for being all heart, sensibility, *and* well-written. It overflows with references to books, movies, and music. It conjures a world where people want to give one another pleasure, especially verbal pleasure. It is, finally, a lost world, and one measure of how far we’ve fallen is the recent shrinkage of what’s intelligent to what’s intellectual.
“Anti-intellectual” is a word much bandied about. Even I implied, in my post on Mayer, that that she was intellectually correct by introducing Barthes, et al., to Poetry Project workshops.
But Schuyler’s letters—a window into his friendships with Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, Ashbery, O’Hara, and Koch—aren’t even proto-Barthesesque. What theory was for poets in the 1970s-90s, novels, music and art was for them. They educated their sensibility (feelings + mind), not just their mind.
This sort of poetic training is, I think, being massively repressed by the post-avant critics of our generation. Is it intellectually correct, or simply emotionally arrested, to speak of New York School poets—lovers of Balanchine and Hollywood, Firbank and Pasternak—as political poets, say? By what pretzel logic does one recuperate O’Hara, let alone Schuyler, for an Adorno-steeped post-Language critical agenda? I’ll tell you where to begin, actually—begin by completely ignoring what the poets actually thought and wrote about, for example O’Hara’s essay on Dr. Zhivago. No contemporary poet who wants to be properly “intellectual” would dream of making an entire poetics from their love of Dr. Zhivago.
So let me backtrack and say it’s not the critics’ fault poets are scrambling to seem narrowly intellectual. It’s our own fault for buying into it. I have no quarrel with poets reading Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Adorno. Poets should read *everything*. I do have a quarrel with how far intelligent has become equated with intellectual, how loosely the invective anti-intellectual gets thrown around, how capital accrues around scholarship at the expense of poets’ unique perspectives. (Even Ashbery’s Other Traditions, it seems to me, got short shrift by the post-avant scene.)
So to bring this back around to your question, Maggie—which is, to paraphrase: “Can I trust my taste?” There’s something about our educations that has made us skeptical to everything, even (or especially) ourselves. (Self-interrogation, comrades!) Let’s reclaim what we have lost. Nobody else can tell us what’s good. What do we believe in? Good writing for its own sake? Heart and sensibility? Or do we judge primarily by political relevance and belief in Hegelian historical necessity (avant-garde progressivism?). This is one issue a good poet can’t afford to muddle.