On Taste: You and Society (part two)
On Taste: You and Society
Canonized taste in the matter of poetry.
“A poem has to make me think…contain one striking image…illuminate the struggle of existence through intimate experience…”
Such statements may be gropings after a true value. Your own values are solidified—made apparent to you—by the means explored earlier: by choosing something indisputable, and contrasting it with another thing, equally indisputable, within its categorical limits.
Would I flout the speed limit if I were certain to be ticketed? No.
Would I commit murder if I were certain to be undetected? No.
Any condition I want to test, using this scale—
Would I do something I know to be wrong, if a friend urged me to?
—must fall between the two established values: obedience from fear of punishment, and obedience from moral conviction.
Would I do something I believe is wrong, if an authority figure insisted it wasn’t?
Would I not do something, though I believe it would be right (such as intervening in a stranger’s verbal assault on another), if a family member insisted I shouldn’t?
Would I put myself at physical risk to save a trapped animal?
Would I drive by someone at the side of the road trying to flag me down; would I stop to help, or fear a trap?
And so on and on.
Returning to art, then: to like or to not like, as a member of the lay public, is fine, but if one seeks to arbitrate (what gets published; what wins an award), one must do so from authority. Authority is a set of defensible principles, applied consistently. Any deviation from consistency, has to be the exception that proves (tests) the rule—
(Can we accept a contestant outside the prescribed age range? Presumably yes, if the purpose is to reward talent.)*
—and is not situational:
(Can we give a slot to someone who entered late? In this case, the question would hinge on what can be helped and what cannot.)
Let’s find some poetry values.
Good or bad?
A rainbow grows to paint the sky above the fields
I raise my eyes, and deeply in my heart I feel
God’s promise lives and hope is not forlorn
“Bad” is a state that has to exist in contrast with some measurable notion of good, so it’s worth questioning what a lot of people have trouble articulating:
Are rainbows a thing not to make poetry about? Or only modern poetry? Or only non-ironic rainbows? Is rhyming bad? Is a species of rhyme riche worse for being pseudo-ambitious? Is it therefore worse in an amateur poet? Is there is really such a thing as an amateur poet? Is it a flag to mention God? (Is there an inherent assumption that the God, in this case, is Christian?) Can this be done cynically but not sincerely? Is sincerity itself wrong? Is a simple virtue forgivable in a simple person, but not in one aspiring to significance?
Blood like licking fire spider-webs the fields
I raise my eyes and feel in my heart
In the way of an auger once god lived and hope was not forlorn
Most critics would like, I think, not to claim themselves more attracted to a poem merely because it has blood and apostasy, but that there are stronger, more supportable reasons. Yet unpleasantness is often conflated with toughness, “real life”.
A scratch ticket that takes two dollars away from you, and one that puts eight back in your pocket are equally real. The loser can be given metaphorical import (the placing of hopes in scratch tickets), but its objective virtue over the winner has to come from some quality other than “realness”.
Values for these contrasting snatches of poetry:
Imagery (literal vs metaphorical, tough vs tame, unusual vs commonplace)
Devices (lack of punctuation, line drop, rhyme riche, syncopation, metaphor and double meaning, invented verb)
Complications (blooming out deeply into concept, auger/augur, double meaning of bored, altering field/feel position in line to change beat, breaking for emphasis and drama, potential red herring in word “once”—is this speaker rejecting or embracing god?)
Urgency (level of dramatic tension that culminates from the use of imagery and language)
Signifiers (blood, rainbow, fire, fields, eyes, heart, auger, God/god, hope, sky, promise…each noun not a factual thing merely, but a trigger for mental-pictures and ideas)
Weight (in conceptual usage, dark things, grim or tough things, weigh more, and we call them “heavy”. Rainbows, blue skies, butterflies, etc., weigh less. But taking values objectively, we want to avoid the notion that unhappy is somehow more valid than happy; worse, that feminine qualities are less vital or worth the expressing, than masculine qualities. If we hate the rainbow because it’s girly, we need to stop this.)
Snobbery (Do we allow that a religious magazine might publish the first poem, but feel that serious people would never read a religious magazine? Do we suppose a young person or beginner might write such lines, but the “important” poet would not?)
We’ve talked about society making a claim on various enterprises, in which taste factors. That is, if you visit your local art museum, you may like one painting or another, but you haven’t arranged for either to hang there. The control the museum’s directors have over your taste, is franchise. One hallmark of franchise is exclusion by the use of categorical definitions.
Anyone who sits down to make a piece of writing is a writer, but when the title of “writer” becomes enfranchised, stakeholders may claim proof of being “a real writer” is a matter of sales, of recognition, of mentoring, of networking…none of which defines quality or giftedness.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)
*But why does the idea of “The Twenty Best Artists, Writers, Poets, etc…under the age of 30”, appeal as a concept? This is a saleable proposition that can win sponsors and draw website clicks.