Becoming the Living Poet

Poetic Value Vs. poetic value

Posted on: May 1, 2009

Near the end of Thursday’s incredibly therapeutic freakout post in which I started working through my fear that my poetry would never be useful to anyone other than myself I talked about the concepts Value and value.

A Valuable poem with a capital “V” is a poem that can save, alter, or at least validate a life. A Valuable poem is the sort of poem that a person carries around in their pocket or even memorizes just to make sure that they’ll have it on hand at the exact moment it is needed.

A valuable poem with a lower case “v” is a poem whose quality is immediately recognizable by relevant experts such as literary magazine editors, contest committees, literary critics, and other poets. A valuable poem can win a contest, impress a fellowship committee, or be bundled together with other valuable poems and published in a poetry book that can then win literary prizes and inspire universities to offer teaching and visiting writer positions.

So the basic distinction between Value and value is that the first is a metaphysical/ existential concept and the second is a monetary/ professional respect concept. Value and value are not always mutually exclusive, though it should be noted that a poet who has written 100 valuable poems has probably only written maybe 5 Valuable poems and that’s being optimistic.

A prominent example of a poet who has written Valuable poems that were also valuable would be Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou wrote the often quoted poem, Phenomenal Woman that helped a generation of women recognize that they could be beautiful and desired at any shape or weight. She also read a poem at President Clinton’s inauguration.

A poet who wrote Valuable poems that were not valuable within her lifetime was Emily Dickinson. Because of her unusual syntax and word choices, Dickinson published very little in her lifetime, and the few poems she did live to see published were altered by editors to such a degree as to be almost unrecognizable. I included Emily Dickinson on my list of the Top 5 Over-Read Poets because nowadays Emily Dickinson is recognized as one of the greatest American poets ever to have lived. If she were alive today she would undoubtedly be another Maya Angelou (maybe not undoubtedly, she was notoriously bad at marketing herself).

Poets who produce poetry that is valuable, but not Valuable are what Donald Hall in his famous essay, Poetry and Ambition refers to as writers of the McPoem.

We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.

Donald Hall puts the blame for the phenomenon squarely on the shoulders of MFA programs, which I think is rather unfair (to be fair, I’d better think that), but the phenomenon is nevertheless a real one. While this may sound like I’m passing the buck, it seems to me that the fault lies more in how poetry is marketed – as something quaint, cute, and ultimately irrelevant – rather than with poets themselves.

A few years ago contemporary poet Charles Bernstein wrote an amusing poem/parody titled Thank You for Saying Thank You that was essentially both a model and an instruction manual for how to write the perfect McPoem. In it the poem’s speaker explains that this poem represents the hope for a poetry that doesn’t turn its back on the audience, that doesn’t think it’s better than the reader, that is committed to poetry as a popular form, like kite flying and fly fishing.

Although, by bringing Donald Hall into the conversation, now I worry that the concepts of poetic Value and poetic Greatness are going to become conflated and I’m almost positive (yes, only almost) that these two concepts are not synonymous. I’m going to devote an entire post to the concept of poetic Greatness pretty soon, but for now I’ll give a very abbreviated definition so that no one (including myself) gets lost.

For a poem to be Valuable it merely needs to have found its “right people” (it’s a Havi Brooks concept). A poem’s right people are those whose lives have been improved simply by having read that specific poem.

For a poem to be Great it needs to live on in the literary canon inspiring other writers to ever loftier poetic heights.

Value and Greatness have frequently coincided for the simple fact that Great poems reach more people. Great poems are read in high school English classes and taught in college courses. Great poems are the poems that are trotted out during National Poetry Month.

Theoretically at least, the more people a poem reaches, the more likely a poem is to reach its right people. This opens up a larger issues of how many right people a poem needs to have before Value kicks in. If you only ever read your poems to your mother, but reading your poems gives her prozac-esque levels of personal contentment, does it then follow that your poem is Valuable even if no one else ever sees it?

If you give a person a Hallmark card at the right moment and they find the card’s sentiment especially comforting does it then follow that the 4 line rhyming couplet in the card has Value in the capital “V” sense? Suppose a thousand people received the same card and were all equally moved by its sentiment, however saccharine? If Value isn’t just a combination of emotional intensity and number of people impacted then it would have to follow that the concepts of poetic Value and poetic Greatness are more intertwined than I initially assumed. Unless Value indicates a specific kind of emotional impact, i.e. one that produces personal growth rather than mere comfort…

Complicating everything (in a good way, sometimes things need to be complicated) is the fact that in recent times with deconstruction and post-modernism (which I’m definitely not going to explain right now) the idea of the literary canon as arbiter of greatness has fallen out of fashion. Some of the unflattering adjectives that have been applied to the concept of the literary canon include, but are not limited to: racist, sexist, and colonialist. African American literature classes, women’s literature classes, and world literature classes are all attempts by universities to make up for the limitations and prejudices of what is commonly recognized as THE LITERARY CANON, but this implies that there are either multiple literary canons or that a great deal of undeniably high quality literature falls outside of THE CANON. As with any institution with a deeply entrenched history of oppression, the question of whether the canon can/should be reformed or abandoned, is a debate that remains alive and contentious.

In a future post I want to do a (probably not exhaustive) survey of poems that I personally have found Valuable in my life and see if they share any common characteristics.

Whether this will give me insight into the nature of Valuable poetry or simply into the nature of my own preferences in poems, I’m not sure. Either way I think the information will prove useful.

In many ways I feel like this post has created more questions than it has answered. Rest assured this will not be the last post on this topic. Not by a long shot.

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1 Response to "Poetic Value Vs. poetic value"

[…] ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… And very far in this blog’s past I mentioned wanting to revisit some of the poems I liked in high school to try and figure out what makes a poem Valuable in the sense that it touches someone’s life. […]

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