Saturday, June 21, 2008

Being Earnest

I always enjoy reading Patrick Kurp’s blog, Anecdotal Evidence, and this post on Herbert Morris, a poet unknown to me, was no exception.

Kurp quotes Eric Ormsby, who contrasts Morris’s work with the “career-building narcissism” and “sameness of tone” he detects in many poets. The rather discomforting quotation is worth pondering:

Earnestness is a splendid virtue; while essential to social workers and scoutmasters, it is, however, of limited value to poets who usually prove to be better writers when they are shifty, unscrupulous, and shamelessly insincere--in matters, that is, unconnected with their craft. Earnestness, by contrast, deadens; it homogenizes the sentiments; it may flirt with irony but never dangerously so; it subordinates magic to agenda; it seeks to please rather than to charm; it hankers after acceptance and respectability, however much it may squawk the opposite--and was any great or good poem ever truly respectable?


roddy said...

Rob, this is too big a subject to follow up in comments boxes. How about posting it as a thread on PoF?

Rob said...

Yes, OK. I'll try to post something over the next few days - maybe tomorrow morning if I manage to get other things done first... Otherwise, Thursday.

Rachel Fox said...

It is a beautifully written quotation but what always bugs me about such lovely, well-argued declarations is that they are so keen to know best, to tell everyone how things should be, to know when poets are 'better writers' and when they are not. Can there not be different types of poets, different types of poetry, different types of reader?

Plus the quotation itself sounds fairly earnest in its own chestbeating way...'damn those earnest poets who might even care about something as well as art...don't they know I am the only one who's allowed to build a career around here...yes, me! I said me! Narcissistic, how very dare you'

Just a thought or two.

Rob said...

Sock it to him, Rachel.

As for different types of poets/poems/readers - yes, there are obviously many types. That doesn't alter the fact that Shakespeare is a better writer than Catherine Cookson, nor does it alter the fact that many readers would prefer to read Cookson.

Critics, especially in the U.S., want to put their case for what's good and bad. That's their job. Ormsby is suggesting that the "world of poetry" - its prizes, awards, and self-appointed gatekeepers - has a disproportionate influence over which poets are lauded, and leads many other poets to emulate them - that "sameness of tone".

Of course, that's because he thinks many of those most praised (Graham, Dove etc) are mediocre and that poets like Herbert Morris and Charles Wright are more worthy of attention.

The article was written in 2004. I'm sure Charles Wright won a major prize a couple of years later - was it the Pulitzer? or the Griffin? In either case, I'm not sure what that does to his thesis!

Rob said...

It was the Griffin prize - in 2007. But Wright had already won the Pulitzer in the late 1990s. May Ormsby would see that as a blip - you know, occasionally someone good sneaks through...

Rachel Fox said...

This seems to be the way this circular argument goes...I defend (and ABJ) throw out names like Pam Ayres, Catherine Cookson, and snort 'shopping lists' and that's me put back in my place! When I talk about variety that doesn't necessarily mean I'm saying give Chris Martin the Nobel Prize for Literature for Coldplay lyrics...but that's how you seem to interpret it.

Could it be possible that we agree...but from very different directions...and with very different favourites and biases? Anything's possible...I liked the bit about 'sameness of tone'...I'm all for different tones...

p.s. Shakespeare wrote some right old crap too. If I ever have to sit through one of those 'comedies' again I may well not survive it..(no cheering please)

Rob said...

Rachel, don't worry about it. No one has a problem with variety - I just want quality, and to argue for some poets over others. I appreciate other people will differ from me - fair enough - but I'll make my own pitch too.

And you are quite right that Ormsby is pretty earnest himself.