When it comes to the evaluation and criticism of poetry, all is opinion and personal taste. Taste, it is true, can be developed, but who can say that a man’s liking for a painting of waterlilies by Monet is any more sincere than the liking of some people for plastic or silk flowers?
I have always had a great deal of difficulty in trying to initiate people into the appreciation of the hokku as opposed to modern haiku, precisely because of that difference in taste. To me the preference for modern haiku is akin to those who are still on the plastic flowers level, but in spite of that one must recognize that people will like what they will like, and even the old Latin saying tells us that there is no arguing about taste.
Nonetheless, people will argue. And of course people will criticize, whether the work in dispute is a painting or a poem.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully and adequately defined poetry. Alfred Edward Housman made a useful distinction between poetry and verse: he said that the former is literature, the latter is not. So William Blake may present us with poetry, while Hallmark is likely to give us only verse.
As for the nature of poetry, Housman fell back upon his version of the common saying of the uneducated buyer of antiques: “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.” Housman, however, put it this way when asked for a definition:
“I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.”
And that is indeed how most of us recognize what we call poetry — because of its effects on us. Yet that leaves us back where we started: individual ability to recognize poetry is a matter of education and taste. Generations were moved by Trees, written by Joyce Kilmer, verse that to me is unquestionably on the “plastic flowers” level, and unbearable to read.
So there are differences in taste, and these differences are largely a matter of personal preference and education. An unsophisticated taste in verse will leave one liking Trees. An educated taste will find it appalling. That is just one of the realities of life. We may say that one who dislikes Trees has good taste while one who likes it has bad, yet that again is just a matter of personal taste and personal opinion. It simply means that to us, “good” taste means educated and experienced taste, while “bad” taste means uneducated and inexperienced.
That is why I look on the bulk of modern haiku as simply bad taste. I have had the benefit of knowing what hokku once was, and can recognize that modern haiku is just a mutated offshoot, the distorted creation, largely, of mid-20th century would-be poets who misperceived and misunderstood the nature of the hokku, and so created the “haiku” according to their own misconceptions. If I had not had that education and experience, however, I might likely hold a different and less “advanced” view.
Housman tells us that poetry is not dependent upon meaning; that in fact there is much writing that is poetic yet devoid of real meaning. And indeed, he tells us, some of the most poetic writers — among them William Blake — were actually mad to a greater or lesser degree.
I have to say that Housman is correct. There are some works that have the logic of bedlam, yet are very poetic, such as the lines from Xanadu,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
We should not be surprised to learn that Xanadu is forever unfinished because Coleridge, while writing down the poem, which had come to him in an opium dream, was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, and the remainder was forgotten. It is mad poetry, but poetry nonetheless, and that is why it persists in finding a place in college anthologies.
Not all that appears in such anthologies is poetry, however. Some of it is merely prose disguised as poetry, and that can be said of a good part of what has been written in the 20th century. There is, for example, a good deal of attention given to the “rediscovered” verses of Lynette Roberts, but quite honestly I can find hardly more poetry in some of her writing than in a waiter’s description of the lunch menu, for example the beginning of her Poem from Llanybri:
If you come my way that is …
Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank
In the village when you come. At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,
In the old way you’ll understand…
Yes, it has some Welsh terms like cawl (a kind of Welsh version of Irish stew) and “savori fach” — her spelling of Welsh safri fach — “little savory,” which is the herb Satureja montana, Winter savory in English), and mention of the traditionally Welsh “lover’s spoon,” but in my view that hardly qualifies it for the acclaim it presently receives. So even though I have a weakness for things Welsh, I cannot, using Housman’s criterion, recognize “Llanybri” as poetry because of the absence of symptoms evoked by it. So for me, it is merely verse. “Swank” by the way, is used here as a verb meaning to “ostentatiously display.” Oddly enough, Roberts eventually gave up writing after converting to the fundamentalistic, mind-controlling sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Much of what has been written as poetry in the 20th century onward remains for me merely verse. It has become too intellectualized, too consciously clever, too conventionally “poetic” according to what fashion at present considers poetry to be. And the real poetry has been lost in the process.
What passes for poetry these days is little advanced from what it was in Louis Macneice: a kind of over-intellectualized verbal assembly that seems to come from too much association with other “poets,” who encourage each other unhealthily into more and more writing with less and less poetry in it, for example these lines from Snow by Macneice:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
All intellectualism, no poetry. Macneice only talks about the “drunkenness of things,” but Coleridge, in Xanadu, gives it to us directly and unmediated.
All too often, modern would-be poets think that merely dividing prose into the lineation of poetry makes poetry. It does not. Yet this kind of pseudo-poetry, found often in the writings of Gary Snyder and many others, in my view, has even made its way into present-day college anthologies. One can only hope that young poets will remain uninfluenced by their example, but so far that does not seem to be the case. More and more genuine poetry has given way in English-language writing to mere lineated prose or surrealistic constructions of words used in odd ways.
One may bemoan what has become of poetry, but then poetry has a very limited space in modern life. It has become largely the province of those who want to think of themselves as poets or as poetic, a very ingrown little society that appears to be securely walled off from the rest of the world. Would-be poets seem to write for, and be read by, other would-be poets. That means a particular negative trend, if found in poetry journals and anthologies, can grow and overwhelm a period of writing like a tsunami. It seems we are at present the victims of such a flood of bad taste in the “world of poetry,” and we can only hope that a recovery and reconstruction will come soon.
That, however, requires education. It requires experience. It requires stepping out of the limited and limiting circle of present-day poetry, so that the individual may rediscover what Housman found to be true –that poetry is recognized by its effect on us. But there are effects and effects, and all too many people seem to have lost or forgotten the symptoms created by genuine poetry, and are settling for mere intellectualism and peer approval. Both are death to poetry.
But again, that is personal taste and opinion. So I encourage readers not to think they must like a poem simply because it is printed in a college anthology, or dislike a poem because it finds no place in such a work. Educate your taste. Experience poetry from all periods and of all kinds. Do not rely merely on the opinions of “authorities” for your taste in poetry. Take them into account if you will, but do not accept them uncritically.