Friday, June 24, 2005

Pleasure, Taste, Discrimination, 2

More thoughts this morning about the Donald Davie quote from yesterday, and why it troubles me.

What use is it, really, to say something like "there are sheep and goats--achieved and unachieved works--in art"? A serious question, this: how do we use such ideas, such discriminations?

There was a time when poetry education consisted of teaching students to have good taste, which meant, essentially, the poems in Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Or the parts of poems: Palgrave was known to leave out stanzas here and there from Shelley, on the grounds that they were less "achieved," less noble in language or sentiment, than the rest of the poem at hand.

More recently, in my own education, Perrine's Sound and Sense boasted chapters on "Telling Good Poetry from Bad" and "Telling Good Poetry from Great." Step lively, children! There's livestock to sort!

Now, I know that we all do, in fact, pass such judgments all the time. Maybe the virtue of Davie's remarks lies in reminding us of that simple fact: we pass judgments, and we should be prepared to articulate and defend them. Maybe this is one of the "things to do with poems" we should add to our list. On the other hand, do I really want to spend class time trying to convince a student--or hallway time, to convince a colleague--that he or she shouldn't like something he or she enjoys? "It is impossible to reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into in the first place," says Jonathan Swift somewhere.

Debates over sheephood and goatishness are among the great pleasures of life in the arts, or indeed of life in any realm taken seriously. Listen to sports fans argue, or heavy metal fans; log on to a romance-readers website and listen in on the back-fence arguments over this and that genre, novelist, or scene. But surely we should teach how to engage in those debates with gusto and relish and flair, and not kid ourselves, not be such fools, as to think we could teach their conclusions!

Examples of which to follow next week, when we read a poem or two my teachers have asked for at the "Say Something Wonderful" seminar.

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