Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Bestest of the Best

Quotation by Sabina Ivascu Posted by Hello

Charles, the Therapist with a Dream Inside, got me thinking. He led me to an essay by Joan Houlihan criticizing Lyn Hejinian’s “Best American Poetry 2004, which concerns one of my weaknesses: understanding the new, contemporary, avant garde, experimental poem. Call it what you will so you don’t get angry at me for using misnomers. There are truths in Hoolihan’s essay. Most, however, are more apparent than real. Houlihan quotes from two poems in the anthology to demonstrate that Hejinian has failed to pick the “best” poems of 2004. That, in effect, Hejinian has simply failed to define what “best” is. According to Houlihan the poems—many, many of the poems in the collection—the so-called “language poems” or “new writings” also fail to define themselves with sufficient grace to please her. Bottom line: Houlihan doesn’t know what these poems mean and she wants to. She desperately wants to know. And here Houlihan’s failure: since she is unable to know—something? what? what is it she so desperately seeks?—she turns on those that do know and ridicules them.

Perhaps there is a parallel, cult-like aura of inviolability protecting this new writing from critical inquiry: such writing, which verges on a kind of liturgy, comes with its own form of worship and its own tenets of faith. True believers do not question its methods; they accept its sacramental texts as the Word.

Now why won’t someone let Houlihan join in on the service? Houlihan’s disregard for the taste of others—hers is apparently all meat and potatoes—is disconcerting. Contrary to what she criticizes, it is she who comes across as the High Priestess of All Poetry. If the Priestess doesn’t understand it—if she hasn’t been invited to the New Language Prom—she is unable to consider the slight possibility that others have certain poetic values and taste. Is there nothing—nothing—at all of value that she can find in these poems? Not even a tiny word? A cool space? Houlihan fails the Wordsworth Test: she is unable to even consider that some poets—she is obviously not one of them—have to define the very taste by which they are to be judged. And here is where we must give Houlihan some slack: I don’t know whether the poems she questions meet the Wordsworth test. I don’t know that any do. I am not prepared to meet that task. I too struggle with some of those poems. Still I try not to let my limitations kill the taste of others, with a lot of salt, the kind you pour in open wounds.

One last thing. If so many people are writing this new, unintelligible poetry and so many reading it, and presumably liking it, shouldn’t we—the Non-Believers—at least step aside long enough to let poetic life take its course? There’s nothing really that new about this, about matters of taste, that is. Poetry comes and goes like traditional wind in sonnets. Let’s not try to bottle it and mark it neatly on a shelf. Come to think of it I’ll send Houlihan a subscription to Ron Silliman’s Blog. (He writes in tongues.)


  • Alberto,
    This what I love about Joan Houlihan--she gets everyone talking about poetry. Houlihan has a whole series of these essays on poetry up at Webdelsol.


    By Blogger Suzanne, at 11:40 AM  

  • Great counterpoints. I really enjoyed reading this post. Houlihan's examples are limited to a few poems, where the book contains a wide range of poetics, from LP and experimental to what many would call poets of Official Verse Culture. Houlihan doesn;t comment on those probably because they don't work as easily to make the points.

    Why Hejinian picked some of those oh-so-very-mainstream voices is another question.

    By Blogger hackzkztv, at 6:57 PM  

  • You’re right, Suzanne. I had read Houlihan some time ago at Web del Sol. She’s actually a good poet in her own right. That’s what bothers me most about her apparent insensibility to forms that deviate from the “norm”, whatever that is. But that may be my own failed expectation. Thanks for reading.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 7:32 PM  

  • Precisely, Michael. She tries too hard to make her point. Houlihan is a good writer, but she’s not a great critic. She lacks sensibility, in my respectful opinion, which leads her to make unfair points. On the other hand it makes for fun / controversial reading, the kind that sells, so to speak. Like a mini-Randall Jarrell with half of what it takes.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 7:45 PM  

  • It seems to me that she doesn't even have an awareness of the point of LP and its cousins--but that, instead of considering options, she decides to disregard's a disappointing failure on the part of a critic, I think, to shrug off anything that cannot be immediately understood or that may not present itself to the untrained eye.

    By Blogger Charles, at 8:31 PM  

  • Hi, Charles. What disappointed me most when reading Houlihan’s essay was that I learned nothing. And I didn’t learn anything—not because I know more than Houlihan, I do not—but rather because she didn’t bother to teach or to convey what experimental poetry might be about. It was easier to derail and make fun. So you’re absolutely right. If she knows anything about her subject she surely kept that a secret to herself. Houlihan fails as a “disinterested” critic, one that endeavors “to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought”, as Mathew Arnold has so wisely said, and conveyed, and taught. That’s the difference between critics and critics.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at 10:25 PM  

  • Hi Alberto--

    Glad to see you've read the background on the Houlihan attacks. She's really gone on aggressive-rhetoric mode a few times in the recent past (check out blog archives from about a year ago at texfiles or at possum pouch, at limetree or silliman's)--always at the expense of someone who can't really say much back to her without incurring more of the same monologic Socratic reasoning from her. Also: very ad hominum. Very rush limbaugh-ish, too, in my opinion. Given the chance to check out the spectacle, Plato and Aristotle would finally have reached a consensus on it, and the medieval rhet guys would have torn it up on taxonomy alone. If you check it out, you'll see a lot of commentary (especially at Possum Pouch last fall--2003) about how, rhetorically, her apparent attempts to school others about what she thinks poetry is or should be (and she seems to assume a certain rigidness in definitions) are really plain old forms of rhetorical bullying. She's harping but not like the angels can, eh? And then of course she put together a panel to discuss definitions of poetry today, but failed to form a diverse group of experienced commentators, tho the group was made of well respected male poets. Good luck trying to figure out what's up with her tactics, however momentarily entertaining--for, that, I think, is mostly what her expository stuff is all about. Poets, and poetry today deserve much more than that. Incidentally, I think Hejinian's intro to BAP 04 outlines some very productive contradictions in poetry today, and does so very inclusively, something I greatly admire. Houlihan might benefit from likewise figuring out how to conceptualize complex topics, definitionally and otherwise.

    Best Wishes,
    chris murray

    By Blogger chris, at 8:32 AM  

  • What can I say, Chris? You are far more informed than I am. Had I known she had undertaken such a conscious, one-sided quest to change the world, I would not have fallen into her Venus fly-trap. Not worth the effort. Houlihan’s is an Oprah, freak-reality show world. She seeks controversy—and maybe that book of essays?—through mockery and frankly disingenuous arguments. Who knows, if she sticks to it she might convert all Coke drinkers into Pepsi drinkers. An accomplishment in today’s America.

    Incidentally, a total disservice to even mention her side by side with Hejinian, who has demonstrated far more sincerity, fairness and talent in one line of her introduction to BAP 2004 than Houlihan in all of her essays on saving the world from LangPo. And this three-penny-mini-Randall Jarrell wanted to interview Hejinian? Let’s be friends? Please.

    Thanks so much for your comment.


    By Blogger A.R.B., at 11:56 PM  

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