The graph on the right is “unique visitors” to Rattle.com. I had to crop out the y-axis, but you get the drift. On Saturday morning we went from our usual 1,000 or so visitors a day (is that good or bad for a website? I have no idea) to 20,000, thanks to the snowball effect of online networking. A couple people recommended the poem at StumbleUpon, and “Death and Tacos” by Nathaniel Whittemore went viral.
I love it when that happens, as it did last summer with Brett Myhren’s “Telemarketer.” The only difference is, that poem was posted before I turned Rattle.com into a blog, so there was no comment feature. The tens of thousands of people who read the poem simply read it and moved on. This time around, a small fraction (0.1%?) are tossing in their two cents.
Reading through the comments, it occurred to me that poetry is facing another epidemic not many people are talking about. If WaLS is the Bird Flu, this is the common cold; a less debilitating disease, but extremely pervasive. Or maybe it’s Herpes. Out of 17 comments, about half describe what they like about the poem, while the other half bicker about line edits. It sounds like an undergraduate creative writing workshop: “I think the poem would be stronger if you cut line 22.” “I trip over the syntax.” “Show don’t tell!”
Part of me feels sorry for Nathaniel Whittemore, despite his sudden popularity — his isn’t the only poem that’s being critiqued at Rattle.com right now. The rush of readers would have you think otherwise, but looking back at previous comments as a whole, across all the post, the trend becomes obvious — a large portion of the comments are always critiques.
And that word “critique” is very specific. I think it’s one thing to express a negative reaction to a piece of writing — and those comments are wonderful, as far as I’m concerned — but it’s another thing entirely to pick at a poem and try to offer “constructive criticism.” Who, in this setting, is received advice? This is a poetry magazine, not a classroom. The author is god-knows-where, not on the other side of a laminate table.
What compels us to do this? It doesn’t happen with fiction or other arts. No one reads a short story in The New Yorker and says, “The story was alright, but it would have been stronger if you cut the penultimate paragraph.” No one looks at a painting by Mark Vallen and says the woman’s shirt should be red instead of blue. Maybe you say that stories in The New Yorker are too straightforward and neapolitan, or maybe you say you prefer abstract art to realism. But you never micromanage the artist. So why does poetry produce so many backseat drivers?
Here’s my guess: Poetry isn’t popular. We encounter fiction and visual art everywhere we go. It’s half of every bookstore; it’s hung on every wall. Maybe the frame cost more than the print you bought in bulk at Target, but it’s there. Poetry isn’t ubiquitous. Even when we’re with friends who read poetry, we don’t talk about it much.
There’s only one setting in which we’re used to having a discourse about poetry: the poetry workshop. That’s the only social venue we have — whether the workshop is at a coffee house, in a college class, or online — and I think most readers of poetry have encountered a workshop at some point in their lives, for two reasons. 1) There’s nowhere in our society that poetry is pushed on people except those settings, and 2) the fact is, most poetry fans are poets themselves.
So I think we get used to speaking about poetry in the scripted way, talking about line breaks and imagery and so on, and have never really learned how to talk about it any other way. Call it another symptom of academization, but we’re nothing but a bunch of hypercrits — I’m guilty of it myself much of the time.
And we lose something because of it. The point of poetry isn’t the critique, it’s the poem itself. It’s the spontaneous emotional and intellectual reaction to language. To pick a poem apart is to muffle that reaction. That’s not to say every poem is moving or interesting, of course, or that there is a proper objective reaction to any poem at all. If you don’t like what you just read, that’s perfectly fine — say “yuck” and move on. Just react. There’s no need to dissect it, unless we’re actually in a workshop. Otherwise, what are we gaining from the critique?
Or to quote Edith Wharton, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could probably have a pretty good time.”