Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.

Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.