Nathan Austin unearthed an antique post of Kasey Mohammad’s on poetic competence recently, proving that yes, Virginia, people do read blog archives. And apparently think about them sometimes, too. Nathan’s article connects Kasey’s suggestion of wit as a contemporary measure of poetic excellence to Arthur Danto’s ideas on the state of art after the Brillo Box, Komar and Melamid’s post-Soviet paint-by-poll numbers kitsch, and Sianne Ngai’s poetics of disgust, which he reads as “the preface to an alternative measure of competence, a new test of poetry, the substance of which has not yet been written.”
Re-reading Kasey’s post reminded me how quickly discussions of “competent” shade into notions of “excellent.” The qualities I keep wanting to ascribe to competent poems—a various diction, surprising turns and torques of syntax, supple use of prosodic effects like alliteration and assonance, awareness of the poem’s generic lineage as signaled by allusion or appropriation or spacing, a knowing relationship to language not normally considered poetic (ads, overheard bus chatter, tweets, you name it), an embrace of humor and its wicked sibling, wit—really belong to the exceptional, the ones that pop out from the herd of the ‘just O.K.’ I can’t think of a poem I’d disqualify from its status as poem for missing any, or even all, of these features.
But that’s what’s tricky about competence—it’s not supposed to decide what is or isn’t a poem, which sets it off to the sidelines of the main action since Modernism. The competent poem is meant to hold down the craft fort, not define the frontiers of “poemness.” In our current poetic culture, where pressing frontiers in all directions is at a premium, an excellent poem and an execrable one share more in common with one another than they do with the competent middle. Both are more “poetic” in the sense that they call attention to—and cast doubt upon—the features that set poetry apart from our 3.4 zillion other varieties of language use. By contrast, a competent poem can never really be “poetic” in that sense—it’s too busy filling in the generic blanks required to achieve its status as “poem.” Copping to a competent poem means disqualifying yourself from having written a poem so outstandingly bad or good that it adds to our sense of what poetry might be.
If competence as a poetic value has fallen on hard times, it’s because we have so little need right now for generic poems of any kind, just as we’ve lost our need for prosody (or do people somewhere still wrangle over prosody?). You might even say that poets themselves in our particular moment show a diminished interest in poetry as a genre; that is, as a set of conventions recognized and presumably admired by its audience, even when it’s being tweaked. Genre films and genre fiction—like genre rock (though rock, too, has trouble owning up to the generic)—win passion and rabid affection from their fans. The rote and familiar are virtues, even requirements, and artists who don’t deliver a car crash or two get raked over fanboy coals. The creator is more trustee than genius, and too much originality betrays the shared commitment to the form.
I can’t think of an example of genre poetry that locks producer and consumer in a similar embrace. You might argue that the poems of a Mary Oliver or Billy Collins owe their popularity to their generic features, but I’m not sure their fans experience the work that way—that is, in the way a fan of Tarantino might appreciate the twist he gives to kung-fu, heist, grindhouse, or WW II flicks. Fans of those films could probably identify fairly quickly and lovingly a half-dozen elements expected from each of those genres. Part of Tarantino’s success stems from his insight that a really, really bad instance of the genre and a really good one both equally affirm the same generic conventions. If you love WW II films, as a genre, you’ll love the great ones and the awful ones—the awful, in fact, can become a precondition for greatness. Is there a comparable phenomenon in poetry? Ashbery’s mined the awful in verse in a way similar to Tarantino, knowingly deploying the most exhausted clichés until the bad stuff comes out as great. But neither one trades much in competence—their value scale runs from execrable to great, or execrable as great, without much indulgence for the so-so in-between.
A competent poem, on the other hand, disappears inside the genre instead of tugging at its edges. Its use of the conventions isn’t awkward enough to spark any awareness of them as conventions, and not remarkable enough to expand our idea of how much life the clichés can still hold. When competent poetry’s popular, it’s not so much because the audience appreciates the poet’s skill in handling the genre’s rules, but because the generic conventions the poem affirms (often those of an older poetic epoch) are mistaken for timeless truths: the clichéd becomes the “time-tested” or “universal.” If it’s boring or familiar, it’s because the boring and familiar are signs that what you’re getting is free of the temporary stain of the present.
Which makes it even harder for poets to cop to competence. The word implies an acceptance of conventions that aren’t supposed to be conventions at all, but yawps from the changeless heart of humankind. In a culture where genre is regarded as a kind of radio static between the poem and its transmission of affect, it’s become easier—more authentic, even—to defend a poem as “innovative” or “original” or genre-busting or whatever than to praise its command of the genre’s requirements. In poetry terms, “competent” has become the strength that dare not speak its name.
8 hours ago