The Hermit Poet

June 27, 2005

Good and Excellent – Little Emerson Revisited

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 1:07 pm

Barbara Reyes comment on my last post triggered this further line of thinking…

Essentially the problem is our inability to agree on what exactly makes a poem “good”. Our aesthetic and internal sense of what is “good” or maybe more appropriately, what is “excellent” is largely a product of our social-historical-cultural context. Often the educational system and the media tell us what we should think is good — this leads to some sort of homogeniety, but tends toward mistaking “good enough” or “barely sufficient” for “good”.

When someone says a poem is a good poem, what do they mean?

This poem is good because:
1. It has certain qualities that I find admirable — ie. I like how it sounds / looks on the page / etc
2. It does something technically difficult very well
3. It is a well-crafted and thought-out expression of language
4. It appeals to me on a cultural, political, nationalistic, or religious basis — ie. I agree with its message
5. It reminds me of something else I really like — ie. It’s a poem about dogs, therefore it must be good.
6. It teaches me something new and surprises me.
7. It’s something I wish I had written
8. It describes my life and fits my thinking
9. It makes me rethink my assumptions about the world
10. It makes me feel better
11. Someone important/famous said it was good.

… and undoubtedly many others

I don’t agree with all of these, but I think that some combination of these factor into everyone’s definition of what is “good”

In the end, poetry is itself a form of rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion. As such, it makes its appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos — the poem tries to make a connection with us through a sense of authority, whether it is from some reference to another well-respected poet or poem, or to an easily recognized person. Whether we feel the poem is good or not, may depend on our own reaction to this appeal. (Narrative poems are usually strong on appeals to ethos)

Pathos — the poem makes an appeal to our emotions – it makes us angry, happy, sad. It tries to move us emotionally to a new place. (Lyric poems tend toward pathos — not bathos).

Logos — the poem makes an appeal to our sense of logic – it reasons with us, draws us down a line of thought, a case and its evidences. (Language and formal poems appeal strongly to logos)

However, any given poem consists of a combination of these.

Perhaps how we individually determine if a poem is good is by its success in making its appeals to us.

How well any appeal succeeds is more than just a function of our background and context, it also is a reflection of who we are at a given moment in time. Each time we revisit the poem, we return as a different reader.

In response to the Little Emerson challenge, I find the likelihood then of any set of nine editors to come to consensus on what is truly “good” to be highly unlikely. What is “good enough”? Perhaps.

Any thoughts?

June 24, 2005

Little Emerson and the Problem of Consensus

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 6:17 pm

Alberto Romero Berto is running an interesting poetry challenge over at his blog Little Emerson. Essentially he’s inviting anyone and everyone to submit poetry to be judged by a panel of 9 independent, unaffiliated, and unknown editors. Even the editors do not know who the other editors are. For a poem to be published (ie. win the challenge), it must be accepted by all nine editors — the first dissenting vote throws out the poem.

So what really is at stake is the idea of that great poetry will be recognized regardless the editor’s personal style or biases. By eliminating the possibility of discussion between editors, each individual editor must stand on his/her own judgment and aesthetic without needing to negotiate or settle for sake of larger consensus. However, this also means that there is an extremely low probability that anyone will actually be published.

Given that editors will be even more selective than usual, we can probably expect a 1% acceptance per editor. If they have no congruent tastes, we should expect the likelihoood of acceptance to be a product of these probabilities.

0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 x 0.01 = 1 / 1,000,000,000,000,000,000

Yikes. A 1 in 1 quadrillion chance.

However, there are bound to be some areas of overlap — certain qualities we generally admire in poetry. Moreover, most poets can trace their influences back to a much smaller set of poets. But, these are all variables for which we have no known values and no means of determining them given the unknown status of the editors.

Which essentially means, Alberto must be posing the question as to whether or not there exists such a thing as the perfect poem. I’m anxious to see if anyone succeeds, but am not surprised that nothing has passed thus far.

Another Pointless Quiz

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 5:47 pm

Ok, so I took another pointless quiz. This one is the What Tarot Card Are You quiz which I saw on a few of the poetry blogs I follow. Where some poets come out as the Fool or the Moon, I had the “fortune” come out as….

The Death Card
You are the Death card. Death is a stage in the
cycle of life. Without death, there would be no
room for new things to grow. When you receive
the Death card in a tarot reading, fear not;
Death is only an indication that transformation
is about to occur. Death allows us all to
evolve by removing that which is no longer
needed. The end of one cycle makes way for a
new one. Old behaviours and patterns which have
tied us down are released. Death cleans house
so that we don’t have needless drains on our
energy. In Death’s ruthless destruction there
lies compassion. Image from: Danielle Sylvie

Which Tarot Card Are You?
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While it’s probably not a great icebreaker for me to use when meeting new people — “Hi, if I were a tarot card, I’d be Death. How about you?” — I will admit that I’ve always loved the character of DEATH in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Evidently we have some sort of natural affinity…

June 15, 2005

Into the Summer

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 11:35 pm

Spring quarter has finally ended and I am through with classes and assignments. It’s a welcome release to spend my days without the constant pressure of delivering new work for workshop — although to be honest, most of that pressure comes from myself and not the professors.

The plan for June is to finish up my sorting and editing of my thesis manuscript (at least bring it to a rough draft). I have enough material (40+ pages), but still feel there is room to expand. I also have a few other manuscript ideas I’d like to try once this one is done. I figure I’ll be able to breathe a little easier in the second year of my MFA if I’ve already got my manuscript done. I also need to start sending out more work.

July is full of running around. I will be heading off to the Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat in Virginia and following that with a trip to the Idyllwyld Summer Poetry Program. Oh, and housesitting for one of my professors. Hopefully it will be a very productive month for me — new work and new friends.

August promises to be hectic in its own way. I have legal matter which will occupy the first half of the month but should result in a much happier me soon afterward. Once that is settled, I plan on taking a road trip up the PCH, following the coast to Oregon and Washington. I’m not certain yet of the length of my trip, but currently plan on about two weeks. I’ll pack my laptop, my camera, some clothes, and plenty of books — I want to write most of the way, stop when I feel like it, keep no strict schedule, just go. Almost a drifter (but with a car).

It is strange to think that once September rolls around, I’ll be entering my second and final year in the MFA program. How swiftly it goes. Already I have friends who have graduated and are moving away this summer to parts unknown. Soon it will be me dressed in cap and gown again, heading off to receive my diploma — though hopefully this time I’ll remember to push not pull on the doors of the building!

The Campus at Night

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 9:45 pm

Some nights the way the light falls on concrete is its own poetry. The empty walkways and abandoned cars their own form of soliloquy.

At night, after all the students and faculty disappear, the campus is a strange foreboding landscape. And eerily beautiful.

A few instances:

1. The ramp leading upward to the Art Building
UC Riverside at Night

2. The curve just past the Theatre Building.

3. Sidewalk leading towards the clock tower.

4. Sidewalk looking back toward the traffic bend at one end of campus.

June 10, 2005

What American Poet Am I?

Filed under: General — Neil Aitken @ 12:13 am

Evidently I’m Wallace Stevens…

You are Wallace Stevens

You are Wallace Stevens. You love everything,
especially the sound of things. Too bad you
are so obscure that at times even you don’t
understand what the hell you have written.

Which Famous Modern American Poet Are You?
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