Two memories, on the topic of taste, from two of my favorite teachers.
First, when I was a poet in graduate school, a thousand years ago, J. D. McClatchy taught a poetry workshop. Among his many striking lessons in pedagogy--the raised eyebrow, the outrageous aside, the telling, mercurial quip--this assignment stays with me: "Whenever you walk into a gallery of art, scan the paintings and choose which is the best. Then look at it, long and hard, and figure out why." Whenever I remember that advice, and take the challenge, I remember how vivid my sense of quality can be--and how vexing, how delightfully vexing, it is to articulate what I so immeidately and intuitively sense.
Second, this, from my days as a punk kid at college. William Corbett, another wonderful poet, was my freshman composition teacher. One week, he gave us an assignment out of Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry. We went home with three translations of the same short passage from the Odyssey: one from the Renaissance (in blank verse? fourteeners? I don't have the book handy), one in heroic couplets (presumably from the 18th century), the last in free verse. Our job: to write a 3-5 page paper on which was the best. Not the most accurate, mind you, but the best as epic poetry in English.
As I recall, the class split roughly down the middle between the Renaissance and modern versions. The argument that ensued got us talking about genre--what is an epic? what should it sound like?--about phrasing, about diction, about the whole project of translation. Bill's goal was not to get us to agree, or to bring us around to his tastes; rather, he wanted to hone our ability to pass judgment, articulate the grounds for that judgment, and respond to criticism of those grounds and their consequences, preferably with confidence, intellectual depth, and aplomb.
One last lesson, from both of these splendid teachers: whenever you declare that this is better than that--this poem, this poet, this poetic, this task for poetry--you make another, implicit declaration as well: "poetry matters." Maybe even another, behind that: "quality matters." And another behind that: "something actually matters to me. There is some world out there about which I just can't say, like (shrug), ''Whatever.'"
Too many students come into my classes with their give-a-damns busted. If I can fix them, in whatever context, I've done them a favor that lasts.
P.S. Starting tomorrow, I'll be blogging about my NEH summer seminar for schoolteachers, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry." If you know a teacher who might want to follow along with our readings and discussions, please spread the word!