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Saturday, January 8, 2005

I don't read Boston Comment much, though I agree with much of what Joan Houlihan has had to say in her series "How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem." For one thing, there's usually not much new to me in her commentary and I'd rather read how people respond to her; for another, I wish her own poetry was better so she could speak with more authority. If she's aware of me at all, no doubt she feels the same about my poems.

Besides, I can count on Denis Dutton at Arts & Letters Daily to let me know when there's something particularly interesting in the series, as he did with her column on the 2004 Best American Poetry, edited by Lyn Hejinian. Both Jonathan Mayhew and Chris Lott blogged their reactions to the poems in the book, and neither tempted me in the least to buy it. Houlihan's comments connect that reaction to what I wrote Thursday:

Alarming, not so much for their lack of meaning as for their critical immunity, such poems are immune not because of any so-called "difficulty," or because the poem can only be evaluated in a "historical context" devised and/or approved under the terms of one or another literary canon; their critical immunity exists because poetry is the only field where its practitioners can openly claim that their products are not to be evaluated by others in the same field. As with any highly subjective, paranormal enterprise, having an "outsider" try to "see" how their poem works immediately invalidates the results. You get it, or you don't. Thus, only a true believer can "read" a poem from the church of new writing.

That's it exactly. When poets no longer believe they must convince a disinterested buyer — whether, as it once was, a wealthy patron at court or, as it is today, an engineer browsing the web at lunch or a tired secretary at a bookstore — that their poetry is worth some tangible investment; when poets don't expect anyone but their friends and their aesthetic, educational, and political clones to understand the poems; in short, when poets expect the poem, the thing itself, out of any relation to anything outside itself, to be an end to itself, it bloody well will be an end.

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