I started to comment on Tylerâ€™s post, â€œPreach on, Sister Meyer.Â Preach On.â€ Butâ€”look outâ€”the comment mushroomed.Â Adam Gâ€™s comment especially caught my attention. His question seems to be, is it possible to talk about poetryâ€”especially in terms of hierarchies and other high-falutinâ€™ standards for determining a poemâ€™s worthinessâ€”with language that doesn’t float above us like a leviathan, bomb-totin’, gas-filled bag of pretension?
If that’s his question, I think it’s a good one.
Tyler quotes the following from Casualeneâ€™s editorâ€™s policy (as published in 2009â€”perhaps sheâ€™s somewhere else in her thinking now):
The task, then, of the poetry editor for BYU Studies is to try to discern among all the poems received which are the stronger, and even the strongest, and recommend them for prizes and publication.
During my hot-dogging days as a novice poet, a contestant for poetryâ€™s laurels, a poetry editor and a managing and then founding editor of a literary journal, I cherished similar ideas about my roles.Â Nowadays, however, I hear disquieting undertones in the close parallels Casualene draws between judging whether or not a poem is publishable and the ranking of strength and intelligences.
For one thing, applying a strength-and-intelligence quality scale to poetry (or any language) runs risks of reducing it to another consumer productâ€”a thingâ€”whose quality is judged by how effectively (“strongly,” “intelligently”) it meets my consuming needs (â€œhealing,â€ â€œnourishment,â€ â€œpleasure,â€ etc.). Some poetry is only or mostly a consumer product (â€œAch der lieber! Sick you are? Hope you soon feel wunderbar!â€), and some language does abide in the get-it-done, â€œthing to use,â€ tool or product marketplace of communication (â€œIâ€™d like two, chocolate Oreo shakes, please,â€ â€œSomebody call 911!â€).Â But much of human expression is a relational act (i.e. an act of reaching for relation, of forging relation) in the unbounded exchange of connection.Â Usefulness scales donâ€™t work in this highly charged and often unmanageable flow of energetic â€œgetting across toâ€â€”or if I do apply valuation scales there, they whittle relation down to the means by which I get what I want, and only that. I may be more or less well intentioned in using a poem’s language to get what I think I want and need.Â But instead of being caught up in encounter with another and with the world as expressed in what might possibly be the writer’s very best language, instead Iâ€™m beating the poem into a tool or assortment of instruments to use to my liking or advantage. In the strength-and-intelligence scale of poetic quality, the strongest poetry becomes the â€œmost effective thing I useâ€ to get nourishment, healing, or whatever I crave.Â Bad poetry is poetry that doesnâ€™t do anything for me or doesnâ€™t do what I insist it should.Â It doesnâ€™t support me.
For another thing, the strong-stronger-strongest valuation scale casually orders the strength or intelligence of poetry readers, too.Â If I, as a reader, like and seek out “middlebrow” verse like that of Longfellow and Benet, but not Milton or Goethe, whom some might consider “highbrow,” then may I be presumed less strong or less intelligent?
Younger poet-and-editor me used to think so. It took my becoming the mother of a child whose brain a clever virus rendered â€œseverely disabledâ€ to shed excesses of luxury living from my beliefs about what made for strength and intelligence.Â And speaking of discerning, I began also to discern shadows in my valuations of othersâ€™ wordsâ€”specifically, my indulgence in valuationâ€™s dark, down-scale side, devaluation.Â Yes, I, too, admired poems on the basis of how well they supported my needs and positionsâ€”whether or not they provided me “a portion of their power and virtue,” gave me healing, nourishment, or pleasure, as Casualene’s essay says they ought to do. I ignored or cast them aside if they didnâ€™t tickle my strength-and-intelligence fancy. And there also lurked in my thinking the jaundiced implication that what I valued as strong and intelligent was strong and intelligent by virtue of my thinking it so.Â Education failed to take the edge off that particular old circular saw.
But since those early, high-minded days, and in the wake of my daughterâ€™s birth and nearly two decades of caring for and seeking to get across to her, my editorial stance has shifted. Certainly I see the historical and cultural importance of the diversity of artistic language that literary journals provide for. And I get that a wide variety of lit journals come and go, and that while theyâ€™re around, I can choose as I see fit and avoid contact with verse that doesnâ€™t do it for me.Â And yes, I believe that some language is more fertile and recombinant than other language is. In fact, some poetry knocks me silly with desire: Oh oh oh, I want to have your poetical baby! But, nowadays, I accept a lot more responsibility for my depth of response to poetry of all rhetorical walks of life rather than place the whole burden for proof of fitness squarely on the work at hand as if I were a football coach assembling a winning team: “You, you and youâ€”youâ€™re strong and intelligent, you make the editorial cut.Â The rest of youâ€”consider taking vows of silence.”
In his book, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, John D. Niles quotes Walter Ongâ€™s observation that calling people â€œilliterateâ€ â€œâ€¦ suggests that persons belonging to the class it designates are deviants, defined by something they lackâ€ (Niles, 1999:23).Â Ong and Nilesâ€™ interest in the use of the term â€œilliterateâ€ relates to their studies of oral literature, where historical and modern populations not considered educated have developed sophisticated performance (oral) literature.Â Of course, Casualeneâ€™s 2009 BYU Studies essay doesnâ€™t call anybody illiterate.Â But can we discern in a critical position that assesses poetry and its readers according to a value scale tied to â€œintelligenceâ€ and â€œstrengthâ€ a similar, lower-down-on-the-yardstick marking out of writers and readers on the basis of what theyâ€™re thought to be lacking or unable to serve up? If so, this is, perhaps, an haute monde position, one that elevates itself at the expense of other meaningful narrative strains. In the past, as an editor, I was complicit in this stratification of language.Â As a mother, Iâ€™ve faced off against strength and intelligence models applied against any idea of my daughterâ€™s being a viable expression of human potential.Â But wow!Â How that severely developmentally delayed child, as the cognoscenti pronounced her, has rocked my world.
Nowadays, I consider language more than an instrument shaped for getting yummy ant-crunch out of a log, or a hem out of which I may absorb healing, or a commodity suited to sorting based upon its perceived value, usefulness, or ability (or inability) to meet my needs.Â Language can be and do those things (or fail to do them), but itâ€™s also up to so much more.Â And no, I donâ€™t think that language is inherently ineffectual.Â And I no longer believe language a broken artifact of our fallen state.
In Adamâ€™s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, Derek Bickerton reflects upon Darwinâ€™s intuition about how people got smart.
Darwin knew a century and a half ago that the Encyclopaedia had it backwardâ€”that it wasnâ€™t a â€œhighly developed brainâ€ that gave us language â€¦Â and abstract thought, but language that gave us abstract thought and a highly developed brain.Â â€œIf it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed languageâ€ (Bickerton, 2009:5).
Setting aside the valuation phrases in the last sentence (â€œHighly advanced,â€ â€œhighly developedâ€â€”yeah, compared to what? At this stage, we may be two-left-footed novices in the unfolding dance of brain and words), I find Bickertonâ€™s point that language gives rise to what we call intelligence compelling.Â And Iâ€™m also thinking that being too choosy about which language rates as artistically strong or intelligent or nourishing could well create and perpetuate poverties of expression.Â And yes, Iâ€™m beginning to think the word â€œintelligentâ€ in such qualitative and/or quantitative statements problematic, believing language that gives rise to connection and relationship more creative at its soul and less self-congratulatory.
So circumscribing the scope of whatâ€™s artistically viableâ€”designating exclusively whatâ€™s â€œstrongâ€ or â€œintelligentâ€â€”might therefore be pretty risky business and result in all kinds of unintentional effects, including the snubbing of undiscerned beauty, the nailing shut of doors opening upon the possible, or the dousing of never-before-seen creative fire.Â Rhetorical diversity could turn out to be as important as bio-diversity; perhaps it is a form of bio-diversity.Â Human language might just be taking the human brain with it as it trips along to its next best expression, and the transforming human brain in turn might be giving rise to new movements in language.Â As I hazard to say in my essay â€œEmbrace the Pure Lifeâ€ (Parts one, two, three, and four), in a dance of symbiosis, human â€œintelligenceâ€â€”however it expresses in the diversity of minds on this planetâ€”in turn dips and spins language, creating newer and more intimate and daring steps.
So increasingly, Iâ€™m thinking that, rather than imposing my pet valuation scale on the developing and actually quite sensitive realm of human expression, as an editor (of an admittedly marginal publication venue), I ought to be at least as creative and attentive in my response to the language others bring to me as I try to be to the world when I write poetry about it, or even as engaged as I am in my care-giving to my special needs daughter.Â Rather than deciding this poem or that one worthy of continued life through publication and these ones non-viable, Iâ€™ve found myself leaning more toward a questioning stance in my editing: â€œWhat is going on in this personâ€™s language?Â What does he/she mean when he/she uses this word this way?Â What does this personâ€™s way of wording him- or herself tell me about languageâ€™s nature in general?Â Is there something I can do, as an editor, to help this poem speak?â€Â â€œIs there something Iâ€™m not seeing?â€
Increasingly, editing, for me, has become an act of engagement and exchange rather than a culling of the herd to advance my latest idea of what defines its fittestâ€”i.e., its most utileâ€”members. Iâ€™m glad that the internet provides boundless space so that I can experiment with breadth of inclusiveness.Â Arguably, print journals face greater restrictions.
But, hm, even were I editor of a print journal, nowadays, Iâ€™d shuffle to find a way to discern and then publish something of the spectrum of language rising in a culture striving for words to get itself acrossâ€”its wild blue asters, its violets, even its yellow dandelions, as well as its black orchids, blue roses, and Pot of Gold lilies.Â A spectrum, rather than the upper quarter or third of a scale.Â I keep sayinâ€™, language is trying to do stuff to and with us, folks. If we can resist the urge, letâ€™s try not to be too hasty to fix in mind what we suppose to be its most valuable assets. We peopleâ€”Mormons includedâ€”are just beginning to find our tongues. Iâ€™m very interested in hearing what questions roll off those tongues.Â And if we could possibly scroll back on treating language as if words are only a set of instruments that we use to reach the loftiest heights of what we want or need, that might just open us up to greater depths of real connection. The wowza of losing myself in the not-me, be that not-me God, the extraordinary soul of a fellow human, another creature, or spiritual or natural environsâ€”that moment of becoming and becoming bound up in â€œbeing withâ€ that in acts of cosmic anarchy blows up dams containing my notions of what I think is or what I think I want and needâ€”that power flashfloods and dissolves, in sudden and unlooked-for moments, the bounds of the heavens.Â As perhaps the Tower of Babel story illustrates for us rather strikingly, those heavens are unreachable through even the most determined and elaborate tooling.
Our same, instrumentality-based relationship with the physical environment bought us a load of trouble. Why do we imagine that it’ll work any better in the equally sensitive realm of human expression?
Oh, and, if this is just another Zeppelin of pretension, roll out the dogfighters and shoot me downâ€”please.
1.Â Â Â Derek Bickerton, Adamâ€™s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How
Language Made Humans (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009).
2.Â Â Â John D. Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).