Lately a lot of intelligence and energy, along with some generosity and honesty, has gone into commenting on a kind of writing which first appeared through social media and then as books that are selling in large numbers. Copywriters and critics are causing confusion by calling it poetry, but the controversy only affects one side of the discussion, because marketers don’t worry about terminology until the market reacts.
It’s a sign of the times. Poetry developed into a profession more recently than most kinds of art, but poets belong to a subclass of intellectuals so they have the same bias as the rest. And like other new industries—journalism, for example—poetry has its polemicists, people who figure out how to evaluate a product or a service or a member under the dispensation. It’s understandable. Our moment offers increased opportunity, but privilege is a zero sum game, and everyone wants to compete for treasure and prestige.
The problem is that the critics are using the wrong concept to decide what’s beyond the pale. Their arguments rest upon the premises of taste. Articles by Soraya Roberts and Rebecca Watts on Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish and R.M. Drake assume that a critic is supposed to decide the quality of an artwork, and because of this, they don’t actually describe the differences among kinds of poetry at all, but instead among the very market categories they claim to be challenging. Rather than argue against the way things are, in other words, these critics say that we should keep the same scale of values and just turn it upside down. It’s outside the scope of this post to ask whether the discrepancy between the assertion and the subtext is a matter of integrity or knowledge.
Art has nothing to do with taste. As soon as it enters the conversation, you’ve changed the subject. To put it another way, there’s no such thing as good art or bad art. As the poet wrote, “God, I hate / simplistic logic like— / I like it. Who cares.” Instead of an assessment on those terms, there are two possibilities. Either the critic is under no obligation to write or talk about the object—in her capacity as a critic, anyway—or else the full range of techniques comes into play, including methods of interpretation that don’t exist yet and have to be invented as a response to something new. The job of a critic is to try to understand the qualities of an object, and to communicate them to a public. But the cultivation of pleasure is difficult, so poetry critics are scarce.
Kitsch incurs hostility because it blurts out the secret of art and exposes the affinity between savagery and culture.—Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 145.