OK, let’s take a break from blogging about economics. OK, I haven’t actually been blogging so much about econ lately, but it just happens that I’m writing this on 19 July, a day after poking a stick into the hornet’s nest by posting “Differences between econometrics and statistics: From varying treatment effects to utilities, economists seem to like models that are fixed in stone, while statisticians tend to be more comfortable with variation” (which in turn was on auto-post as I’d written it a couple months earlier).
As is often the case, I’m on the blog to procrastinate: in this case, my colleagues and I are preparing a new course and there’s tons of important work to be done. I’m getting tired of reading comments on economics and empiricism and so I scooted over to Basbøll’s blog and kicked off a brief comment thread about the academic entertainer Slavoj Zizek. At first I was going to post and continue that discussion here, but I don’t give too poops about Slavoj Zizek, so I followed Basbøll’s blogroll link to “Stupid Motivational Tricks” and right away found something interesting.
The something interesting that I found was a post by Jonathan Mayhew about someone who’s the poet laureate of North Carolina. I had no idea that an individual state would have a poet laureate but it seems like a good idea, a quite reasonable nearly cost-free thing to do, indeed it would be cool to have all sorts of official state art. In reading the post I was mildly irritated by Mayhew’s use of “NC” as a generic replacement for “North Carolina.” The abbreviation is fine in some contexts but I founn it a bit jarring to read, “The literary community of NC . . .” On the other hand, it’s just a goddam blog so I don’t know what I’m supposed to be expecting.
But I’m getting completely off the point here. What happened is that Mayhew quoted a couple of mediocre passages from poems by two of North Carolina’s poet laureates (apparently they just had a changing of the guard).
Mayhew’s reactions gave me some thoughts of my own regarding the purpose of poetry. I’ll first copy what he wrote and then give my reflections.
Mayhew quotes from the previous laureate:
“Joan and I were in Raleigh together
for the first time to take the tour
for new vista volunteers
at North Carolina’s Central Prison…”
and then shares his reaction:
Ouch. It’s fine to use seemingly plain language, etc… but no rhythm, nothing going on in the language. This kind of writing just causes physical pain to me.
Then he quotes from the recent laureate:
“I’m grateful for my car, he says,
voice raspy with hard living.
Tossed on the seat, a briefcase
covered with union stickers,
stuffed with unemployment forms,
want ads, old utility bills,
birth certificate, school application
papers for the skinny ten-year-old
sitting beside him who loves baseball…”
This he characterizes as worse than the first poem (“not much worse,” though), but I don’t quite understand where this ranking is coming from, given that he follows up with, “More is going on in her language, actually. It’s not exactly good, but it’s salvageable, with some concreteness there at least.”
I assume that we can all agree, though, that it’s hard to judge either poem, or either poet, by these short excerpts. Both excerpts radiate mediocrity but of course a bit of mediocrity can do the job in the context of a larger message. I’m pretty sure that, for almost any major poet, you could without much difficulty find passages that, if shown to me in isolation, would not sparkle and could indeed look a bit like hackwork. I mean, sure, “voice raspy with hard living” sounds cliched, but who among us does not grab a cliche from time to time. For all we know from this excerpt, the use of the cliche is part of the point in establishing the narrator’s voice.
OK, let me be clear here. I’m not trying to get all contrarian on you and praise these two poets. I have no problem giving Mayhew the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume he read a bit by each of them and with these excerpts is giving something of a true sense of these poems’ style and content. So I will accept (until convinced otherwise) that these poets are indeed mediocre.
What is the purpose of a poem?
And this brings us to today’s topic. The thing that bothers me about Mayhew’s post (even though I have a feeling I’d agree with him 100% about the strengths and weaknesses of these poems, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we share many tastes about and attitudes toward literature) is the implicit attitude that I see there, which I feel I’ve seen in other discussions of poetry, which is that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful.
Huh? “The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful.” That seems like a reasonable statement, no? Who could disagree with that?
To see my problem with this statement (which, to be fair, Mayhew never said, but which I see as implicit in his post), consider the related question, “What is the purpose of a novel?” Or, for that matter, what is the purpose of a research article? Or what is the purpose of a song?
My point is that I think it’s a bad attitude to think that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful. It’s insulting to poetry to give it such a narrow range. A poem is a sort of song without music and, as such can have many different purposes.
OK, procrastination successful. An hour spent, now time for bed.