Knowing Better: On Sentimentality and Criticism

After my Martin Luther King day missive over on popcorn, I received some nice comments about the timeliness of the post and reports that others had also loved Richard Blanco’s poem. But on Facebook, a poet friend of mine was bashing it. Specifically, he said:

I-N-S-U-F-F-E-R-A-B-L-E. Somebody please point me to a contemporary poem that a) is competent; b) tells competency to f*** itself and transcends to something sublime; c) has a real poetic “voice” behind it, even if that voice is not that of the poet’s; d) does not elude, evade, or avoid; e) tells the f***ing truth– about something, anything beyond the speaker’s narrow view of the universe, i.e. ‘my f***ing father died and here I am comparing his death, vis-a-vis my grief, to this violet (though ‘violet’ is ALWAYS better than ‘flower’)’; and g) makes readers–and not just fellow poets, especially Ivory-Tower poets–CARE. I f***ing dare you.

I should say right off that I adore this friend, and admire his strong positions, and plan to share this blog post with him, but nonetheless, there it was. On Facebook. Where others piled on and piled on and piled on.

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

And it got me thinking.

I didn’t, actually, “love” Blanco’s poem, and I’ll admit that the only line that stays with me is the one I used as my blog title: thank the work of our hands. But I loved that the poem existed. I think beyond its efficacy as a piece of writing I felt the symbolism of its being a poem by a gay Cuban man in America on the inauguration day of an African-American President on what also happened to be Martin Luther King day–wow. King would have been proud. That the identity of the poet was politic is undeniable; and maybe, as a writer, I’m not supposed to accept politic. I’m supposed to demand excellence. But man, I know as well as the next poet how difficult it is to write “occasional” poetry; I wrote a wedding poem for my own wedding and can’t remember any of its lines, either. (I wrote one for a friend’s wedding, however, that was pretty great–only then he got divorced.) So I guess, on MLK Day, politic and symbolism and the fact that millions of Americans actually read a poem that day was plenty for me.

But nonetheless I’ve been thinking about this since: have I gone soft in my old age? I once, writing a book review for the Willamette Week, absolutely bashed a book. I think I said something to the effect of, “as a graduate of Iowa, Ms. X should frankly know better.” I felt powerful when I wrote it, like I knew something she didn’t, like I was a “real” critic. But now when I think of how I committed that snarky comment to paper I absolutely cringe. A large part of this is that someone once wrote a caustic review of a poem I’d written. And it made me feel terrible. And I realized that it is very easy to sit in a corner and sling arrows rather than support the work of other writers even if you don’t care for what they’re doing. The more I’m in this game the more generous I become, I guess because generosity is the only thing that’s liable to get any of us read, published, and admired.

But I also realize–and this is the part that scares me just a bit–that I have become more sentimental in the past few years. I find myself disregarding writing not because the writer should have known better but because I can’t find the heart in a piece. Some of the arguably most impressive books of the last decade–like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and even Infinite Jest (okay, that was 1996) were books that to me were technically impressive but not entirely likeable, because I didn’t connect with the characters enough to care. I seem lately to value above all else writing that shares the common human experiences of love, loss, and sadness. Not very intellectually interesting of me, I suppose.

So have I become a big sap? Was my friend right that Blanco’s poem was insufferable, unchallenging, limited, and lame? Have I become so sentimental that I can’t discern good writing from plonk? I hope not. But I don’t think I want to sling arrows.

Not just yet, anyway.

An End to Rationing Joy

An End to Rationing Joy

A few people reported that they found my last blog post depressing. "Is it just the end of hope??" one asked, but that...

7 Comments

  1. B

    What was the statistic someone told me once, that more people watch greyhounds race than read poetry? I think that was it. Criticism is, in some ways, a defense of the integrity of a particular medium. If that’s the case, does poetry need or want the kind of rigorous (bombastic?) defending your friend subjects it to? I think that question is related, in some way, to the comparison with dog racing.

    Reply
    • Susie Meserve

      Well that’s a good question. Because on the one hand I really admired his discerning attitude and commitment to excellence. On the other hand I guess I kept thinking about the dog racing–like, who even reads poetry anymore? Is it better for people to read some than read none at all?

      Reply
  2. Jeffrey Blount

    I don’t think you are a sap at all. Just older and wiser. A review can be critical and constructive without having to become a personal put down. When I read reviews like that I automatically set them aside, because the vitriol is not helpful. I want to hear that the book or the poem didn’t connect with you and I want to know something about you that explains how you came to that conclusion, which might lead me to say “she sounds a little like me. Maybe that one isn’t right for my kindle.” Because the reality is that people often trash something and get really personal about it and in the meantime, one hundred other people have loved it. And when a person gets personal, I have this feeling that the critic is compensating for something or just an angry person. When I was much younger, I read a truly personal and vitriolic review about the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” That movie, of course, went on the win the Oscar for Best Picture of the year. A wiser, more thoughtful review is a help to the artist and earns respect for the critic. Carry on, Susie.

    Reply
    • B

      And then you have Facebook (the source of the “review”), where the mix of personal and public jumbles things, right? On the one hand, a post to facebook about a movie, book, or poem is a personal reaction. On the other hand that post can be viewed by, potentially, millions of people, depending on the vagaries of a meme. Perhaps we don’t take enough responsibility for our comments on Facebook because we don’t view it as public discourse or reporting, per se? Or perhaps social networking sites have gained an out-sized importance in the array of (social) media-outlets we use to gather information about our world, and somehow needs to be reigned in?

      Reply
      • Susie Meserve

        This of course makes me think about online teaching and some of the things people say in the online forum that they would NEVER say in a classroom. So yeah, maybe you’re right.

        Reply
  3. avecina college budapest

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