So after I put up yesterday's This Week in the Books Section post, with Bob Redmond's 8-point critique of my article, the comments section for the piece went crazy.
Here is my favorite:
paula constant the fat effeminate asshole points out the obvious again....
The Stranger should hire a fucking monkey... at leaast i would enjoy it's articles...
Posted by anonymous on November 29, 2008 at 11:39 PM
Yes, O brave anonymous commenter, but I have already pointed out that I am a fat effeminate asshole. Bring something new to the discourse, please!
So here is my response to Bob's 8-point critique. If you are upset that I am using up so much of Slog to continue the debate, let me point out that it is midnight on Sunday.
Nobody was using Slog right now anyway.
First: To those of you accusing me of bad journalism: This was a piece of criticism. It was not journalism. Second: To those of you accusing me of bad criticism: there are many who'd agree with you. This is why you should read the Weekly's literary criticism.
Here—late, I know—are my comments for Bob's notes.
1. See (2.)
2. Honestly, for the most part, I sat out endorsing in this year's Poet Populist competition because this is my first year as books editor here, and I wanted to see what the program was like before I got involved. I didn't know anything about the Poets Populist Program and wanted to see it in action. So say that I did endorse Geologic. Let's even suppose that my endorsement would somehow result in Geologic winning the title of Poet Populist. So Geologic is the Poet Populist. What does that prove? It proves that he got more internet votes than any of the other candidates. And it doesn't make any of the other bad candidates any less bad. And next year someone else would win, in an internet vote. My complaint is not that Mike Hickey's poetry is bad (although my very small amount of experience with Mike Hickey's poetry has all been bad), my complaint is that you somehow getting a bunch of your friends to vote for you online does not a populist make.
3. Public poetry is almost always very bad because the people who choose it are very often bureaucrats looking for the safest or most generic poetry so as not to offend anyone. It's the same reason why public sculpture and murals are almost always very bad. But this competition, opening it up to a popularity contest, is going to result in some very bad poetry getting chosen, too. The Poet Populist program is as flawed as the bureaucratic public art programs, but in different ways. The best way to present art to the masses is very much in the same way that you all at One Reel bring artists to the people at Bumbershoot: by having one knowledgeable person, or a committee of people who really know their stuff, choosing the artists for us all to see. You all do an excellent job, year in year out, of picking artists for Bumbershoot. An ideal Public Poetry Office would use the same procedures that you all do in choosing your performers and artists. But thanks for invoking Godwin's Law with the suggestions of poetry fascism so early on this comments thread.
4. Look: you want a populist poet? Jay-Z. Li'l Wayne. Geologic. Those are the poets who are doing the stuff that Shakespeare and Chaucer were doing. And, like Shakespeare and Chaucer, their poetry gets better the longer you spend with it. They have unreliable narrators and dense wordplay and allusions to things that you might not know unless you do a little digging. I'm not saying that poetry has to be incomprehensible. But Hickey's poem about Sarah Palin dancing on a table didn't deserve further introspection. Do you know why? Because it was shallow and stupid, as was most of Osel's poetry. Jay-Z is not shallow or stupid. Shakespeare is not shallow or stupid. The best poetry sticks in your head and grows and expands—I'm still thinking about Elizabeth Austen's poem from that night, several weeks later. So we already have a ton of Poets Populist. You can enjoy a sonnet by Shakespeare by just scanning each line, like eating corn on a cob, but it's not until you live with that sonnet that you really get it. And that's what a good poem does.
5. It's ludicrous to say that I need to insist on incomprehension, and I defy you to find four book reviews of mine that demand something become more incomprehensible. I have reviewed pulp novels and a great deal of comic books, memoirs and humor books. A few of the books I've reviewed haven't been for general audiences, but if everything was for general audiences, we'd be living in Mouth-breather's World. The job of a critic is not to decode art. To my mind, the primary job of a critic is to shine a light on the works and artists that he or she determines is worthy of greater inspection. And I did that in this piece—I named twice as many good poets in the piece as I did bad poets. (The secondary job of a critic, I think, is to suggest why something is bad. I do that in my theater reviews, and I usually try to point out a way to improve the bad aspects. And when I spoke of the bad poetry in this piece, I didn't point out why the poem was bad due to space concerns, but in the case of the Poetry on the Bus that I quoted, I put the entire poem in to let the reader decide for her or himself.) But with all due respect to Mr. Tolstoy, not everything that is understood by everyone is good art. Sometimes it's just...well, stupid and shallow. We should rise to meet good art, and good art should come down to meet us in the middle. Otherwise, what's the point?
6. I contend that, like almost everything else, 99% of spoken word is crap. And just because a spoken word poet makes an audience laugh doesn't necessarily mean that she or he is a good poet. It could just be that he or she is very funny. This is the thing with spoken word: A lot of the time, artists who do spoken word are rewarded for being funny, or gross, or having a few good lines. It doesn't mean that they are good poets until they can actually create a good poem. Many spoken word artists don't go that far, because it's not as rewarding as being funny, or gross, or clever. Insofar as your Kenny G metaphor, though: I loathe the saxophone, and if I had my way, I would eradicate it from the face of the Earth, Huey Louis and the News notwithstanding.
7. I love your phrase "language lives among us, and like a good dog, we should treat it better" and I will quote you at every opportunity.
8. This is really the whole point: The program doesn't create a relationship between artists and audiences. It creates a relationship between poets and their e-mail lists. It's an inclusive thing, like a poetry reading. I don't believe that this internet voting is bringing anyone into poetry. And I don't believe Poetry on the Buses brings anyone into poetry. (Although the poems written by children are often hilarious and charming, and I should've mentioned that in the piece.) Hip-hop brings people into poetry. And I believe that putting more good poetry out there in the world, as I suggested in my piece, would bring people in to the world of poetry. Nothing would create more good poetry than more public exposure to poetry. But if Hickey somehow brings good poetry into the world, I think it will be entirely by accident. And the forty people who were there on the night of his coronation were not disinterested people, wandering into a poetry reading. They were all there rooting for their friends. There's nothing wrong with rooting for your friend. People do it at poetry readings all the time. But pretending to be on the side of the people when you're just creating an extended game for a tiny—2,500 votes!—segment of the population in the name of bringing poetry to the masses is not populism, either.
Am I elitist? Am I shallow? Do I not know how to string a sentence together? Do you have a great idea to bring poetry to the people? Argue here, please.