Poetry, asters to zeppelins

I started to comment on Tyler’s post, “Preach on, Sister Meyer.  Preach On.” But–look out–the comment mushroomed.  Adam G’s comment especially caught my attention. His question seems to be, is it possible to talk about poetry–especially in terms of hierarchies and other high-falutin’ standards for determining a poem’s worthiness–with language that doesn’t float above us like a leviathan, bomb-totin’, gas-filled bag of pretension?

If that’s his question, I think it’s a good one.

Tyler quotes the following from Casualene’s editor’s policy (as published in 2009–perhaps she’s somewhere else in her thinking now):

The task, then, of the poetry editor for BYU Studies is to try to discern among all the poems received which are the stronger, and even the strongest, and recommend them for prizes and publication.

During my hot-dogging days as a novice poet, a contestant for poetry’s laurels, a poetry editor and a managing and then founding editor of a literary journal, I cherished similar ideas about my roles.  Nowadays, however, I hear disquieting undertones in the close parallels Casualene draws between judging whether or not a poem is publishable and the ranking of strength and intelligences.

For one thing, applying a strength-and-intelligence quality scale to poetry (or any language) runs risks of reducing it to another consumer product–a thing–whose quality is judged by how effectively (“strongly,” “intelligently”) it meets my consuming needs (“healing,” “nourishment,” “pleasure,” etc.). Some poetry is only or mostly a consumer product (“Ach der lieber! Sick you are? Hope you soon feel wunderbar!”), and some language does abide in the get-it-done, “thing to use,” tool or product marketplace of communication (“I’d like two, chocolate Oreo shakes, please,” “Somebody call 911!”).  But much of human expression is a relational act (i.e. an act of reaching for relation, of forging relation) in the unbounded exchange of connection.  Usefulness scales don’t work in this highly charged and often unmanageable flow of energetic “getting across to”–or if I do apply valuation scales there, they whittle relation down to the means by which I get what I want, and only that. I may be more or less well intentioned in using a poem’s language to get what I think I want and need.  But instead of being caught up in encounter with another and with the world as expressed in what might possibly be the writer’s very best language, instead I’m beating the poem into a tool or assortment of instruments to use to my liking or advantage. In the strength-and-intelligence scale of poetic quality, the strongest poetry becomes the “most effective thing I use” to get nourishment, healing, or whatever I crave.  Bad poetry is poetry that doesn’t do anything for me or doesn’t do what I insist it should.  It doesn’t support me.

For another thing, the strong-stronger-strongest valuation scale casually orders the strength or intelligence of poetry readers, too.  If I, as a reader, like and seek out “middlebrow” verse like that of Longfellow and Benet, but not Milton or Goethe, whom some might consider “highbrow,” then may I be presumed less strong or less intelligent?

Younger poet-and-editor me used to think so. It took my becoming the mother of a child whose brain a clever virus rendered “severely disabled” to shed excesses of luxury living from my beliefs about what made for strength and intelligence.  And speaking of discerning, I began also to discern shadows in my valuations of others’ words–specifically, my indulgence in valuation’s dark, down-scale side, devaluation.  Yes, I, too, admired poems on the basis of how well they supported my needs and positions–whether or not they provided me “a portion of their power and virtue,” gave me healing, nourishment, or pleasure, as Casualene’s essay says they ought to do. I ignored or cast them aside if they didn’t tickle my strength-and-intelligence fancy. And there also lurked in my thinking the jaundiced implication that what I valued as strong and intelligent was strong and intelligent by virtue of my thinking it so.  Education failed to take the edge off that particular old circular saw.

But since those early, high-minded days, and in the wake of my daughter’s birth and nearly two decades of caring for and seeking to get across to her, my editorial stance has shifted. Certainly I see the historical and cultural importance of the diversity of artistic language that literary journals provide for. And I get that a wide variety of lit journals come and go, and that while they’re around, I can choose as I see fit and avoid contact with verse that doesn’t do it for me.  And yes, I believe that some language is more fertile and recombinant than other language is. In fact, some poetry knocks me silly with desire: Oh oh oh, I want to have your poetical baby! But, nowadays, I accept a lot more responsibility for my depth of response to poetry of all rhetorical walks of life rather than place the whole burden for proof of fitness squarely on the work at hand as if I were a football coach assembling a winning team: “You, you and you–you’re strong and intelligent, you make the editorial cut.  The rest of you–consider taking vows of silence.”

In his book, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, John D. Niles quotes Walter Ong’s observation that calling people “illiterate” “”¦ suggests that persons belonging to the class it designates are deviants, defined by something they lack” (Niles, 1999:23).  Ong and Niles’ interest in the use of the term “illiterate” relates to their studies of oral literature, where historical and modern populations not considered educated have developed sophisticated performance (oral) literature.  Of course, Casualene’s 2009 BYU Studies essay doesn’t call anybody illiterate.  But can we discern in a critical position that assesses poetry and its readers according to a value scale tied to “intelligence” and “strength” a similar, lower-down-on-the-yardstick marking out of writers and readers on the basis of what they’re thought to be lacking or unable to serve up? If so, this is, perhaps, an haute monde position, one that elevates itself at the expense of other meaningful narrative strains. In the past, as an editor, I was complicit in this stratification of language.  As a mother, I’ve faced off against strength and intelligence models applied against any idea of my daughter’s being a viable expression of human potential.  But wow!  How that severely developmentally delayed child, as the cognoscenti pronounced her, has rocked my world.

Nowadays, I consider language more than an instrument shaped for getting yummy ant-crunch out of a log, or a hem out of which I may absorb healing, or a commodity suited to sorting based upon its perceived value, usefulness, or ability (or inability) to meet my needs.  Language can be and do those things (or fail to do them), but it’s also up to so much more.  And no, I don’t think that language is inherently ineffectual.  And I no longer believe language a broken artifact of our fallen state.

In Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, Derek Bickerton reflects upon Darwin’s intuition about how people got smart.

Darwin knew a century and a half ago that the Encyclopaedia had it backward–that it wasn’t a “highly developed brain” that gave us language “¦  and abstract thought, but language that gave us abstract thought and a highly developed brain.  “If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language” (Bickerton, 2009:5).

Setting aside the valuation phrases in the last sentence (“Highly advanced,” “highly developed”–yeah, compared to what? At this stage, we may be two-left-footed novices in the unfolding dance of brain and words), I find Bickerton’s point that language gives rise to what we call intelligence compelling.  And I’m also thinking that being too choosy about which language rates as artistically strong or intelligent or nourishing could well create and perpetuate poverties of expression.  And yes, I’m beginning to think the word “intelligent” in such qualitative and/or quantitative statements problematic, believing language that gives rise to connection and relationship more creative at its soul and less self-congratulatory.

So circumscribing the scope of what’s artistically viable–designating exclusively what’s “strong” or “intelligent”–might therefore be pretty risky business and result in all kinds of unintentional effects, including the snubbing of undiscerned beauty, the nailing shut of doors opening upon the possible, or the dousing of never-before-seen creative fire.  Rhetorical diversity could turn out to be as important as bio-diversity; perhaps it is a form of bio-diversity.  Human language might just be taking the human brain with it as it trips along to its next best expression, and the transforming human brain in turn might be giving rise to new movements in language.  As I hazard to say in my essay “Embrace the Pure Life” (Parts one, two, three, and four), in a dance of symbiosis, human “intelligence”–however it expresses in the diversity of minds on this planet–in turn dips and spins language, creating newer and more intimate and daring steps.

So increasingly, I’m thinking that, rather than imposing my pet valuation scale on the developing and actually quite sensitive realm of human expression, as an editor (of an admittedly marginal publication venue), I ought to be at least as creative and attentive in my response to the language others bring to me as I try to be to the world when I write poetry about it, or even as engaged as I am in my care-giving to my special needs daughter.  Rather than deciding this poem or that one worthy of continued life through publication and these ones non-viable, I’ve found myself leaning more toward a questioning stance in my editing: “What is going on in this person’s language?  What does he/she mean when he/she uses this word this way?  What does this person’s way of wording him- or herself tell me about language’s nature in general?  Is there something I can do, as an editor, to help this poem speak?”  “Is there something I’m not seeing?”

Increasingly, editing, for me, has become an act of engagement and exchange rather than a culling of the herd to advance my latest idea of what defines its fittest–i.e., its most utile–members. I’m glad that the internet provides boundless space so that I can experiment with breadth of inclusiveness.  Arguably, print journals face greater restrictions.

But, hm, even were I editor of a print journal, nowadays, I’d shuffle to find a way to discern and then publish something of the spectrum of language rising in a culture striving for words to get itself across–its wild blue asters, its violets, even its yellow dandelions, as well as its black orchids, blue roses, and Pot of Gold lilies.  A spectrum, rather than the upper quarter or third of a scale.  I keep sayin’, language is trying to do stuff to and with us, folks. If we can resist the urge, let’s try not to be too hasty to fix in mind what we suppose to be its most valuable assets. We people–Mormons included–are just beginning to find our tongues. I’m very interested in hearing what questions roll off those tongues.  And if we could possibly scroll back on treating language as if words are only a set of instruments that we use to reach the loftiest heights of what we want or need, that might just open us up to greater depths of real connection. The wowza of losing myself in the not-me, be that not-me God, the extraordinary soul of a fellow human, another creature, or spiritual or natural environs–that moment of becoming and becoming bound up in “being with” that in acts of cosmic anarchy blows up dams containing my notions of what I think is or what I think I want and need–that power flashfloods and dissolves, in sudden and unlooked-for moments, the bounds of the heavens.  As perhaps the Tower of Babel story illustrates for us rather strikingly, those heavens are unreachable through even the most determined and elaborate tooling.

Our same, instrumentality-based relationship with the physical environment bought us a load of trouble. Why do we imagine that it’ll work any better in the equally sensitive realm of human expression?

Oh, and, if this is just another Zeppelin of pretension, roll out the dogfighters and shoot me down–please.
Zepplin down! _____________________________________________________________________


1.    Derek Bickerton, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How
Language Made Humans
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2009).
2.    John D. Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

7 thoughts on “Poetry, asters to zeppelins”

  1. For me, someone who is still a neophyte with all this writing/editing stuff, the most powerful language is specific language. Poetry or stories or novels that evoke a specific feeling or communicate a specific sense are powerful to me. I feel like the best experiences I have had with editors are the ones that can help me narrow down my language and push me towards specificity. Of course, saying what I actually mean is difficult but so worth it.

    I think what I hear you saying in this post really jives with what you’ve posted before about reciprocity in writing and reading.

    And really if reading/editing a piece becomes more about relationship building and understanding then I think it also grows nearer to that “sustainable language” that you seek.

  2. Hi Laura. I appreciate your taking the time to wade through this piece. I know time is, as they say, “of the essence” for everyone and don’t take for granted a person’s hanging around my words for any span of it.

    Specificity in language does deepen a piece, providing readers material that engages their senses and perhaps illuminates their own experiences. A really fine, specific, audience-interested piece can even provide readers with material they take into their own narrative stances. By “narrative stance” I mean not only the approach readers take to creating in language, making poems or prose themselves, but also I mean their approach to forming the story of their lives as they live it.

    The older I get, the more I see happening in language. To borrow from the “sustainable agriculture” concept, “sustainable language” is language that enables the people plying it to thrive while being mindful of and responsible for the condition of language’s sensitive environment. Adopting a sustainable presence in the logosphere involves becoming aware of how our behavior in language affects other people and the world at large, including natural environments. To me, the condition of human language is an environmental concern.

    But beyond that, I think language’s nature has been and is changing. Some regions of its sphere are becoming highly creative and actually produce new “species” of expression or new “flowerings”. That we behave now in the rhetorical environment in the same ways that we behaved historically in natural environments–you know, those ways that brought us various pollutions and their effects, including the sterilization of some creatures living in waters where we dump our effluvium–seems pretty obvious to me, and I see the same problems rising in human expression.

    But to many eyes, language appears to be an endlessly self-renewing resource. In this post and others, I’m just trying to add other possibilities to what we already think we know about language, what it is, what it does. (As well as continue to figure it out myself.)

  3. But actually I don’t reject that some poetry is better than others. I don’t think quality and middlebrow/highbrow quite line up, but yes, Milton is better than Longfellow even though I find Longfellow more congenial. Its just that when I try to talk about why, I hear the bleating coming out of my mouth and want to punch myself.

  4. That goes treble for talking about the value of poetry in general as opposed to specific poems.

  5. I don’t reject that some poems are better than others, either. My interest here is in the valuation scales we apply to poetry. Some poems are better than other poems, and some Zeppelins of pretension are better than other Zeppelins. I think justifying literary preferences by tying criteria to what’s basically a utilitarian scale is risky, both to the wielders of such scales and to the development of personal and cultural voice. I think language is up to things that lie outside of and beyond the scales.

    Also, your comment was just so flashy I had to riff off it to talk about language, which is what I always want to talk about. Apologies for using you so callously.

    Its just that when I try to talk about why, I hear the bleating coming out of my mouth and want to punch myself.

    That’s the kind of literary criticism that would draw a crowd.

  6. I am such an inexperienced writer. I honestly can’t say what I think good poetry is. There is poetry that really evokes feeling and imagery, and poetry that, when I read it, I have a hard time seeing anything specific. I admit, I love poetry that evokes very specific, strong feelings or memories in me. And I love poetry that surprises me, too. I love a poem (or a writer) that seems to laugh at itself (or him or herself) a little.

    I guess I better go read me some Goethe. At least I know how to pronounce his name!

  7. Sarah, maybe it doesn’t really matter what you read–Goethe or A. A. Milne. A poem’s effectual energy resides partly in the reader–not just in the poem, as if it were a jar containing a seemingly acceptable amount of qualities we value, and all we have to do to get at them is unscrew the lid.

    Possibly, this idea that a reader’s brio can change the effects of a poem means that a reader can have a “good experience” with poetry of just about any quality. Me, I can imagine reading an awkwardly composed poem and being knocked off my feet by a percussive wave of heart-stunning insight. Actually, I don’t need to imagine it. I’ve been there. Bad poetry well read can and will open up those heavens mentioned above, just like “bad experiences” can provide thresholds to sacred … stuff.

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