Joan Houlihan is going to make me nuts.
Her last column before the current one, "Post-Post Dementia," actually kept me up nights, in anguish at the simple wrongness of her presented arguments. Wrong on so many levels! I'm not sure I believe those who say that good criticism is all that can save poetry from obscurity and mediocrity, but I know for sure that bad criticism does poetry no favors. Because bad criticism is a false account of how poems work, so if bad criticism comes from a place of authority, people are left either to reject the purported authority or to reject their own experience of reading poetry. Amazingly, this latter is what most people do! They end up thinking that thinking rightly about poetry means recounting abstrusely or polemically a story with little resonance with their own experience or anyone else's; and that people who "understand" poetry are those who can tell these wooden tales. Typically, they subsequently give up on the exercise altogether. Even worse, people who claim to love poetry end up deciding that telling wooden tales is the right end of appreciating poetry and suffocate their own prior experiences. And worst of all, heaven help us, people who claim to write poetry end up deciding to write poetry with a wooden tale in mind.
So, anyway. I realize that her columns are meant to be polemics, but I am sorry to say that the following is not an argument: "Here, read this. [Poem follows.] Wasn't that awful? Let me make fun of it some more...." Where I come from that's called "begging the question," if it's any argument at all. Houlihan seems unable to believe, or even to consider, that someone might be able to take pleasure or form a coherent experience from these poems. I think it's a little uncharitable to say that the reason she takes this position is that she can't come up with a story to explain such pleasure or such an experience, but I struggle not to come to that conclusion.
I think simple chauvinism is much more likely. "I don't like spinach, and I'm glad I don't, because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I just hate it!" It's a much more human response: you find something you don't like and don't understand, and so you denigrate it. But, of course, this response is also intellectually void. Equally void is the argument that the artist or editor is pretentious, self-conscious, or a jerk. (Contributing even less are ignorant, bigoted jabs at ASL poetry.)
Thankfully, Houlihan only engages in this mode of ecstatic excoriation for about two-thirds of the column. The final third is devoted to evidence for the argument (now more clearly stated) that poems such as she cites from Fence actually have no meaning whatsoever. (This is the part that kept me up at night.) If the argument for the first part has been, "I don't know what it is, so it must not be anything," the argument for the second part is "Since it isn't anything, mutilating won't make any difference. See?" She takes Coleridge's saying "the best words in the best order" and applies it surgically, transplanting words one by one to see if, as in the old joke, the frog with all its legs amputated becomes deaf. Nope, she concludes, it doesn't make any difference at all. To prove her point, she swaps in the words "testicle" and "spinning jenny," for a snarkily comic effect.
Wait. Read that again.
After spending the whole column arguing that the poems mean nothing and have no effect, her rhetoric undercuts her own argument by contrasting the overly earnest, pretentious, surreal original with her ludicrous, parodic revision. Her revisions did make a difference, after all. As anyone can read for themselves.
The fact is that everything has an effect, and that includes all poetry. Even bad poetry has an effect, usually unpleasurable. If Houlihan had just been honest from the start by saying, "This poetry causes me pain, and here is the part that hurts me, and here is how it hurts me," even if said pain were merely boredom, then she'd have at least gotten to the end of the column with her argument intact. Though likely without a sweeping statement on poetry qua poetry in its objective essence. At least she'd have engaged with the reality of her own reading experience and the text and its actual effect on her. After that, even if we didn't agree with her--even if we turn out to like spinach--we'd at least know why she hates it. And maybe we'd have learned a little bit how words work and how we read in the process.
Instead we had to watch an aesthetic standard I call "The Rephrasability Standard" get madly overapplied. Yes, it aids understanding of how a poem works if you can articulate the why. Yet failure to articulate how a poem works, by itself, proves nothing but our own fallibility. For if the poem works, it works whether we can explain it or not. That's why the Rephrasability Standard isn't an aesthetic standard at all! It's like saying that only marriage therapists can have meaningful relationships, or that only biographers can have meaningful lives. And wouldn't Houlihan agree that the most compelling and beautiful things about a poem are not easily expressed, or even expressible, in other words? Isn't it possible to imagine a poem that gives someone pleasure from head to toe without any obvious connection to what it "means"? I have heard "Who wants to read a dumb poem about nothing?" leveled at just about every poet you can think of. Leveling the charge at yet another poem is just a failure of imagination. It's a narrow understanding of poetry that attributes poetry's magic to denotative meaning.
(More quibbles: the word "revolving door" is also used idiomatically, unlike the rest of Houlihan's suggested substitutes. Moreover, a throat is more like a revolving door than an axle because things go in and come out of a throat. A throat is a passage from outside to inside--like a door! This isn't rocket science here. But a sincere reading of a poem should at least attempt to lay these things out.)
So after all that wailing and gnashing of teeth, I am disappointed but not shocked to see that she's at it again in her latest column, "I, Reader." It's the same old formula. First, question begging. Here, I'm again dumbfounded that Houlihan assumes that if she doesn't like something, you can't possibly like it either. I bet somebody likes it. Maybe even the editor. Or the poet. It could be that they like it despite what their MFA professor thinks. Guess what, Joan Houlihan, you are not the final arbiter of human experience. You may think you know what's universally human, and pay it lip service, but you've just demonstrated that you don't. How else can I explain the fact that you refuse to even consider that there may be pleasures you are not party to, that don't concern you, that have no mind of you, that put you off, that even deliberately alienate you, while remaining deeply meaningful among others?
I also suspect that "kids today" are learning a different English, a different way of arranging words and symbols, even in everyday usage, thanks to mass media's pervasiveness, growing internationalization, graphical symbols and icons, increasingly mediated socialization, and the Internet's mutability. They're fluent in it. Again, language that is not yours (remember the Deaf poetry from the first column?) is not nobody's.
I would also like to note that nothing, nothing, nothing I am saying here depends on whether the poems Houlihan cites are good or bad, or whether I personally like or dislike them. I actually don't like any of those poems very much. I am calling her out for the failure to analyze the poems in their specificity. Instead she encourages you to junk a whole school of writing without thought. I don't think you have to read a poem for very long to know whether you'll get something out of it, but Houlihan's dishonest rhetoric advances poetic prejudice and genre fear as virtues. Don't buy it: maybe the next "avant-garde" poem will be the one that blows your mind!
Finally, you may be interested to know that I've read computer-generated poetry that's actually quite compelling, in a traditional, narrative, denotative kind of way. I don't think the computer was trying to "communicate" anything, yet I still learned something from it. I wonder what Houlihan would say about that? "DOES NOT COMPUTE."
By the way, I don't think there's any sense in which Fluxus could be said to "follow" concrete poetry, but that's another story.
UPDATE: Fixed some typos. Also, here is the "frog becomes deaf" joke.
--Melissa O, at 02:02