Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Waterloo train of thought: recognising a good poem

Walking through the pedestrian underpass by Waterloo Station I was thinking of the crap poem I hated and despised that used to be on the wall but is now largely painted out, thank God -- some sad, happy-hippy effort.

I was thinking that most of my English colleagues would agree it was crap. Equally we’d mostly agree on which poems were any good.

Which doesn’t mean there is such a thing as a good or bad poem poem, and that it’s a matter of recognition. The fact that we share some sense of what a good poem is doesn’t mean goodness is a feature of it per se. This sense is something we’ve got from a particular training or socialisation and is, in that trite phrase, ‘socially constructed’.

That doesn’t, however -- this was the following thought -- make our judgement purely subjective. What we share is a really shared thing, a real thing, a thing per se; it exists all right, between us, and enables certain performances. Of course it’s a mental, virtual and cognitive reality, but it’s real in its effect. It’s real specifically in enabling skilled performances.

It enables any one of us, independently of anyone else, to make a valuation, to evaluate a poem as good or not when we encounter it for the first time. But not only that: it’s also a resource of perception, having which means that we notice certain features and find things presenting themselves in particular ways, with certain features perhaps ‘salientised’, others appearing in finer detail than they would to a reader who lacked this shared resource, and so on. With it we observe distinctions and samenesses, and also recognise a certain field of external allusion, to other works and to the world. It makes what we read more significant, more interesting, more subtle or bold and more artful.

I suppose this is what Eliot’s longed-for ‘tradition’ was supposed to supply, or a shared literary culture. No doubt, it’s a real resource, a powerful cognitive amplifier, and much of what it enables us to see is real. So, it’s good to have this sort of ‘cultural capital’ in our kitbag.

The thing, though -- and this where the Eliots, the Leavises and most English teachers of the 1950s and earlier were at fault -- is to be humble with it. The thing is to recognise that other groups too can have their equivalent shared resource, and that what those resources make appear in works is as real as what ours do. The two ‘socially constructed’ ways of seeing are simply incommensurable -- it doesn’t normally seem possible (perhaps I'm wrong here?) to slide from one way of seeing to the other.

Thus: the said English teachers despised pop culture and TV as ‘meretricious’ (a word they loved but never defined and which appears simply to mean they didn’t like it). Along comes another generation, brought up with soaps, kids cartoons and comics but equally well educated and they love this despised stuff stuff and make endless discriminations (that favourite Leavisite word) between the different examples. Their resource (what shall we call it? template? model? standard? none of those seems right) makes things which we find poor, thin and trivial rich, complex and interesting to them.

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