12 jun. 2011

Ethics and Aesthetics, or, Why Do Good People Like Bad Poetry?

People who like Mary Oliver poems have two problems, one ethical and the other aesthetic. On the ethical front, the problem is that her poems invite the liberal subject to take self-congratulatory positions. The poem in which she buries the one-eyed stillborn kitten, or the one in which she congratulates herself for recognizing the humanity of a janitor in Singapore, are both ethically vile. They theatricalize acts in which the speaker is allowed to demonstrate her "sensitivity." Someone who recognizes that Baudelaire's "Let's Beat Up the Poor" raises ethical issues often has no problem with poems that seem to dramatize the supposedly correct ethical posture, but in a nauseatingly self-serving way.

Aesthetically, the problem is that the poems are poorly written and over-explicit in the attitudes they propose. They have nothing going on aesthetically at all, since the main point is always the superior moral attitude of the speaker.

Mary Oliver is one of the most celebrated and beloved poets in America. She has won prizes galore and has many devoted readers. I don't know how this is even possible.

16 comentarios:

Casey Massena dijo...

Ick, see what you mean about the kitten poem. She's holding a cat fetus, her head spooling for readership. It's almost as if the writing of the poem dictated how she experienced burying the cat.

Vance Maverick dijo...

In theory I like plain language, but evidently there's plain and plain. She just refuses to do anything interesting with it -- the only effect is the significant pause. Compare e.g. Lorine Niedecker or George Oppen for much sharper flavors of plain (not to speak of the house favorite poet).

Vance Maverick dijo...

I followed your link and had fun Googling the snippets you had posted without attribution. At least twice they led me to "Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor" (e.g.). And you've convinced me to read Kenneth Koch.

Jonathan dijo...

I know longer remember who wrote those poems.

Andrew Shields dijo...

I'd never read "The Kitten" before (and never much Mary Oliver, as her work has never done anything for me), but I just looked for it, and I think your claim that it is "ethically vile" gives it more weight than it deserves. It's just a flat little piece of nothing, not even close to interesting enough to be "vile" in any way!

Andrew Shields dijo...

I just read it again and it's worth noting that creative-writing workshops must be good for something, as this poem would be ripped to little bits in any halfway decent workshop.

Jonathan dijo...

I stand corrected. It does not rise to the level of the vile. Will you give me grotesque?

Andrew Shields dijo...

Yes, grotesque and insipid at the same time.

Or perhaps it's an example of the banality of the vile.

I found a bunch of sites referring to what a wonderful poem it is, which does not explain but at least in a sense confirms that she is very popular.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, she is immensely popular. I've been warned that people I know and like might even like her poetry.

Professor Zero dijo...

"Why Do Good People Like Bad Poetry?"

Because they don't really like poetry, but they do want to have buenos sentimientos.

Vance Maverick dijo...

I can testify there are good and interesting people who like Mary Oliver a lot. Even people who have good taste in other respects, like art. The cautious thing to say, I think, is that none of us is equally committed to each of our interests -- that we don't go equally deep everywhere.

Jordan dijo...

The dead animal poem is peculiar to American literature. (Maybe I'm misremembering the Confucian Anthology? Manyoshu? Tamil love poetry? Mahabharata? the whole of European and African letters? Some Latin American poets?)

Americans, I want to theorize, prefer animals to humans.

We are not in competition with animals.

When we come across a dead animal that we have not personally made dead, then we have access to the feelings people in other cultures experience at the memento mori.

If the dead kitten poem is taken at face value, then, yes, grotesque it is. But if it's a symptom of an underlying refusal of respect for other humans -- if only out of the paranoid fear that other humans will not respect us -- both the poem and our responses to the poem take on another even more depressing light.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, Eberhardt's Groundhog, Stafford's deer. That is a whole genre unto itself.

Jordan dijo...

The Library of America Anthology of Dead Animal Sublime.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Durs Grünbein has some dead animal poems, and I bet Gottfried Benn does, too, and probably Georg Trakl as well?

Jordan dijo...

You're probably right. I'm vaguely remembering a Stefan George poem now, and maybe all of Rilke is one big dead animal poem.