Friday, September 04, 2009

The Age of Incompetence 2

Last time, I wondered if poetic competence is a useless concept right now; if “a baseline level of craft viability,” as Kasey puts it in his original post, is no longer necessary or desirable to aim for in poetry. Competence might even be inimical to contemporary ideas of poetic excellence—having one, it would seem, means you can’t have the other. The “step beyond competence,” as Kasey points out, isn’t competence plus a little extra fairy dust. Instead, it jumps off the graduated scale of “good/better/best” that the O.K. poem implies and becomes something else entirely. “Thus,” writes Kasey,
if a merely competent verse exhibits certain qualities of rhythmic smoothness, controlled diction, and so forth, we would appear to be justified in thinking that the step beyond competence consists in some added quality or ability. This added factor, however, cannot simply be increased competence—hypercompetence, if you will—in metrics or any other mechanical aspect of craft; it must be something that introduces a new evaluative category. Any number of nebulous terms leap up for consideration: genius, feeling, heart, soul, brilliance, panache, pizzazz, oomph, etc.
Kasey’s characterization of competence starts with the poem’s metrical and formal features—he uses Victorian poetry as an example of an era when prosodic minimums for poems were more clear-cut—but quickly zips ahead to what he calls “middle-class white American confessional free verse in the 1970s,” with its negative definition of competence as something more like “avoidance of cliché.” His post implies that the confessional impulse still more or less ‘owns’ competence, given that today it’s “much easier to point out things one should not do in writing poetry than to say what one should do.” He considers an alternative, avant-garde standard of competence in various kinds of procedural writing, where meeting the rules one sets for oneself becomes its own kind of “craft viability.” This turns out, by his own account, to be a rigid and ultimately limited measure though, since it exists for just that single procedure—either thumbs up, you followed directions, or thumbs down, you didn’t—and since the procedures themselves (Fibonacci, mesostics, n+7, etc.) resist ideas of competence even more fiercely than their confessional free-verse counterparts do. You might even think of procedure in poetry as a broad-based attack on the whole idea of competence and the evaluative system it enforces. I’m guessing most “anti-poetries” are really “anti-competence” at heart; it’s craft standards they have in their cross-hairs more than poetry stretching back to Sappho or Ur.

Apart from formal and procedural features, I wonder how much subject matter underpins our contemporary sense of what counts as a “competent” poem. Are there certain topics important enough in their own right that even a generic handling of them is felt to be a good thing? Anti-war poems can use familiar formal strategies but still be valued as helpful to the cause. Poems that address questions of ethnic, class, or sexual identity can do so in familiar ways and still be seen as delivering worthwhile information. Political poems rarely shade further right than Democrat—a poem expressing Republican sentiments, whatever its formal features, would be likely to violate our unspoken sense of competence. A generic slam poem, if it deals with a generic slam topic, may not win any competitions, but can still get applause for its competent handling of the conventional delivery and subject matter of the form. (Slam, in fact, might be an instance of competence working in its old-school sense—you’ve got to achieve it first before you can hope to move on to the prizes.) In the “middle-class white American confessional” genre Kasey identifies, poems about how happy one is with one’s middle-class white American life have a harder time looking competent than ones about its shortcomings.

In nearly all these cases, the criteria for judgment aren’t strictly formal or procedural, but essentially social; we evaluate the poem according to our sense of how it relates to the world off the page. Which makes me wonder if competence in poetry—Kasey’s “material features … that differentiate a ‘competent’ poem … from an ‘incompetent’ one—has disappeared entirely into the current interest in poetry and politics. Why go to all that trouble evaluating a poem’s competence, and spelling out your standards for doing so, when what you’re really evaluating is contemporary life, and the poem’s ability to reflect or intervene within it? It could be that politics has replaced competence as a valid poetic concern. Or maybe the intense interest in the intersection of politics and poetry is the old wrangle over competence waged by other means. Poets who don’t lose much sleep over questions of formal or technical mastery may be anxious to show off a kind of political competence in their poems, demonstrating a basic familiarity with the range of attitudes, values, and sentiments that fit our present notions of positions appropriate to poetry. Each literary period has its characteristic poetic subjects, and its corresponding taboos. Competence in the poetry of any era may involve a minimum facility in recognizing the right poetic subjects and handling them in the conventional ways. Given the huge diversity of styles, formal approaches, and poetic filiations right now, it may be this shared sense of affective or political competence that binds together poetry as a genre most effectively.

If that’s true, I’m curious about the political valence a “competent” poem might carry. Does it suggest political complacency—an inert, unreflective upholding of the status quo? Or is it used to screen out poems whose extra-poetical values we dislike? The teapot tempest around Frederick Seidel relies partly on a case for poetic competence, understood in the “mechanical craft” sense Kasey’s post explores. The “horrific” nature of his subject matter is supposed to rub against the formal accomplishment of his rhymes or technique or whatever to produce an exciting frisson. But Seidel’s also pitched as a throwback to an earlier poetic era, a wild man outside the trammels of fashion, so dusting off competence to talk about his verse might be part of the antique effect.

Maybe the real role of competence in poetry right now is to disappear entirely behind other evaluative metrics. One appeal of poetry as a genre in our rapidly professionalizing world is that it defies any common standard of competence. Even the MFA doesn’t pretend to do basic “quality control” in the way a CPA or a JD or a Ph.D. does. We’ve got subjects, sentiments, traditions, institutions, procedures, politics, filiations, contests, career paths, degree programs, and publishing houses. But do we have anything like competence? And is it a good thing that we don’t?


knott said...

speaking of incompetence,

i don't know why you have a SOQ like me on your blogroll,

but it's listing my old defunct blog

and not my current one:

please either delete me or update me


about your post: isn't it just the sheer number of USAPO now active that raises these questions—

the more poets the better i've always said . . .

phaneronoemikon said...

why couldn't it just be 'weird information'? you can't really prove what feeling anything evokes, or that it does.. its like saying

you high?

uh, yeah sure,
really wasted,

at least you can check it
and there is always a kind of
objective buzz
to learning something.

mongibeddu said...

I think your phrase "evaluative metrics" is just right. It isn't the quality of a poem's sound that tells us how to judge it; our criteria of judgment tell us how to hear. And those criteria vary from scene to scene, context to context. This is another way of saying that value no longer inheres in the thing itself (if it ever did), but instead reflects the reader's interest. Like one of those man-made crystals used for costume jewelry, which reflects a different color when a different angle catches the light. And maybe this gives another meaning to competence: it's no longer how well you make the thing that matters; it's how you play the angles.