What I hope to do over the next month or so is build toward a practical criticism, some guidelines about how to evaluate a poem, a book, a poet. There needs to be an antidote to today's anything-goes relativism, if only (as suggested in an earlier post) to address the problem of arbitrariness when decisions are made concerning support for artists. Which impinges on public policy, considering that not only the NEA but private foundations offering funds for the arts ultimately pass on part of the bill to the taxpayer. That’s the “hard” part of the question, and so may interest more people than the “soft” part—aesthetics itself, which is my real interest here.
The way to begin is by saying what is NOT a proof of lasting value. You’d think that every intelligent person would already be aware that fame per se proves nothing. But, judging by the evidence, I’m afraid the arguments have to be reconsidered. I don’t know if any psychologist has done research on the psychology of fandom. But even without it a few observations can be made. People like to herd together, they like to be bound up in a community (if only for a brief period) of participatory admiration. The most extreme current example of this is the rock concert, which borders on collective delirium. Elias Canetti, among others, wrote powerfully about the phenomenon of the crowd, a whole that is scarier than the sum of its parts. Fandom of any kind, at a milder level, can partake of this same community excitement and affirmative group admiration. Hence contemporary celebrity culture, which can seize on any individual, turn her or him into an “icon,” and guarantee a large fan base, irrespective of any outstanding qualities the “icon” may be discovered to possess or not. Apparently collective adoration of any given figure—from Princess Diana, to Tiger Woods, to Anna Nicole Smith—provides a deep sense of pleasure and security, intensely desired in a world where solid ground is hard to find. The single individual has trouble making decisions about which thing or person has real value; and relinquishes private judgment in favor of groupthink as a way of feeling safe. If you adore a star, you partake, in some small degree, of the radiance of that star, even one so insignificant as Paris Hilton.
And guess what: the process operates in the arts as well as media culture. The more famous you become, the more fans you acquire and the more famous you become. The herd instinct takes over. A given individual, encountering a new work by the reigning star might secretly find the work unsatisfactory—but then is afraid to admit to doubts in the face of the surrounding sea of approval. When there are no reliable standards of judgment, people rely on the shortcut of fame to decide which work and which artist to admire. After prominent figures in the arts achieve a certain level of fame, it becomes impermissible to question or even qualify their achievement—impermissible because “mean-spirited,” “ill-mannered,” “part of an agenda.” So much for J.S. Mill and the ideal of free debate.
How reliable a guide is fame? Not reliable at all. The most famous American novel of the 19th century wasn’t Moby-Dick, it was not The Scarlet Letter, not The Awakening, not Portrait of a Lady: It was Augusta Evans’s St. Elmo. Ever read it? Ever even heard of it? Probably not. Contemporary fame is a poor preservative. True, there are instances where great fame in an author’s lifetime continues on in subsequent centuries. But much more typical is the picture of neglect and even derogation. Dickinson’s poems were known to less than a dozen readers in her life, including a devoted fan named Helen Hunt Jackson, who was very famous as a poet in that day. When Melville died, he was out of print, utterly forgotten, or if remembered, remembered as a failure. Billy Budd survived in manuscript only. And so on.
How does individual fame begin and how does it increase? A huge question. To keep it manageable, let’s narrow it down to poetry and poets in the United States in the last several decades. First of all, reviews. No, back up. The editorial assigning of reviews. An editor cannot assign all books that come in and can’t possibly read all of them, either. A review assignment is based on either word of mouth (in short, connections) or publicity materials sent with a given book, including jacket comments (also a product of connections). Usable connections for a poet starting out can range from a professor in an MFA program, a mentor (however acquired), a family member who is already an established writer or editor, or a partner who is that. It was always rare for a poet with no connections of any kind to make her or his way; in the current scene, where there are thousands of contenders for any available niche, it is a practical impossibility.
Reviewers may or may not have the training that suggests they have the ability to make sound judgments about new books. Looking at the “credentials” for reviewers often featured in poetry publications now, I’m struck by how thin most of these are. You sense that they are often personal friends of the editor, and there would be nothing necessarily wrong with that if other solid qualifications could be found. Soon, very soon, a reviewer’s qualifications become that she or he has reviewed, and that seems nowadays to be enough, especially if reviews appear in spotlit magazines like The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry.
No matter. Reviews are taken seriously. A rave in the Times almost unfailingly leads to a nomination for one or more of the three main book prizes, the NBCC, the NBA, or the Pulitzer. Sometimes the nominee wins; and such laurels are avenues to fame at the national and international level. If you look at the list of prizewinners, you will see that many of the names appear several times. Winning one prize increases the chance of winning another. Several authors have won all three. Meanwhile, prize committees are faced with the same problem of faction and disagreement about aesthetics. Forced to compromise, they often take the safe way out and pick someone who has already gone gold in previous competitions. Prizewinning, like fame in general, is a self-reinforcing process. The more you are perceived as a winner, the larger the number of your admirers--some of these reviewers who will reinforce the group evaluation. Each time a book is not awarded prize increases the probability the author will not receive a later one. A first-rate poet (like Robert Pinsky) can move through most of his career and never receive any of the three major prizes, even though there is ample evidence of his value elsewhere, including the Poet Laureateship.
I wish I were able to believe that prize committees made their choices without reference to what that choice would do for the committee itself. But, sadly, over the years, I've seldom discovered much that resembles impartiality (as, for example, the possibility that a prize might be given to someone belonging to a rival faction). Most often a book is selected not for what it actually is, but instead what it suggests. At least we are moving toward full disclosure in the matter of the awarding process. In the old days, Pulitzer composition of the judging committees was kept secret, a feature perhaps lending an extra mystique to the oldest and most lucrative American book prize. The decision could seem like a decision made by American poetry itself, and as such unchallengeable. Now we have disclosure; we know who the judges are and can adjust our sights accordingly, which is as it should be. But there are other holdouts, for example, the MacArthur and the Lambda Book Award.
Another avenue to fame is having a famous critic as your champion. Beginning in the Sixties, this was Harold Bloom, who greatly advanced the fame of poets like Ashbery, Ammons, and Merrill. In the mid-Seventies he began to review less and his own pre-eminence came under fire, so that an endorsement from him (say, in a jacket comment) counted for less. Since around 1976, the critic most listened to has been Helen Vendler, a monopoly based partly on her skills as a close reader of poetry, partly on her clear, easily readable prose, and partly on the fact that she wrote—and not just occasionally—for the Times, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, and then for a while was the only reviewer of poetry at The New Yorker. When she joined the English faculty at Harvard, her prestige rose a bit further. She is a passionate and tireless advocate (and this speaks well for her) of the poets she admires—Ashbery, Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Milosz, Charles Wright—and a formidable opponent of those she doesn’t like. She has sometimes championed a poet and then later on changed her mind—two such examples being Dave Smith and Rita Dove. But during the period of her partisanship, any poet she writes about will prosper. Nor are reviews and critical essays the only way she exercises influence. She is famous for writing lengthy, enthusiastic letters of recommendation and for sitting on committees that determine which poets will be funded. She is a careful, sensitive critic when she writes about the classic poets, who do not need to be discovered—Shakespeare, Herbert, Keats, Stevens. And former students of hers tell me that she is a marvelous teacher. I share her liking for some members of her group of favored contemporary poets, but not all; and there are many poets of unmistakable value she has no use for. (Derek Walcott and Adrienne Rich, to name two.) She is only interested in lyric poetry, preferably lyrics of Stevensian difficulty. Any whiff of political content disqualifies a poem for her, including feminist content. She dislikes narrative poetry, dramatic monologues, comic poems. She saves her highest praise for grave, philosophical rumination, especially when abstruse. This might not matter; we’re all entitled to the taste that we can support with cogent, text-based argument. Unfortunately, what it has meant is that the poets she doesn’t like only in rare cases move into the glowing center of public recognition. This allegation has been made before now, and it is always denied. Professor Vendler says that she does not make reputations, that only poets can establish the reputation of other poets. But the evidence suggests a different view. Professor Vendler has earned the right to her opinion where contemporary poetry is concerned. It should not, however, be the only opinion that counts. American poetry is too large and varied to be contained within the Vendlerian aesthetic. And it’s time that less famous critics like Adam Kirsch, Langdon Hammer, Joan Retallack, Reginald Shepherd, and D.H. Tracy should be heard.
Once fame has been established by reviews and prizes, the famous poet becomes a new source of fame for others--through recommendations, jacket comments, the judging of prizes, and participation in hiring committees. And if you have patronage of any kind to dispense, your fame index is likely to rise, for obvious reasons. Finally, institutions like the Academy of Arts and Letters will step in to add the final endorsement. They remind me of the velvet rope put up outside smart restaurants and cool clubs: they stimulate the desire of those outside to get inside. And admission is never free. We know that membership in the Académie Française is secured by courtship; aspirants call on each existing member and try to establish a sense of solidarity. It’s like canvassing for votes. Nothing so blatant is required in the American equivalent, but, as said, membership isn't donated.
There is another way to become famous: Start an aesthetic movement. When you do that, you move literature out of the fiction-world and into the fact-world. Movements can be written about in non-fiction articles, which will interest readers probably even more than the fictive works themselves. (See the earlier post on autobiographical writing.) Experimental poetry has been around for a long time but it really got going once all the diverse experimental approaches could be lumped together under the heading of LANGUAGE poetry. Meter and rhyme was never not being used in English-language poetry, but no one made anything of that fact until the so-called “New Formalism” got started in the early Eighties. We now seem to be living in a period like the teens of the early 20th century, when almost every season heralded a new poetic movement—Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Imagism, Ultraism, Dada, Surrealism—and the hoax movement Spectrism. And why not? Movements can be written up in the media, they launch careers. Eventually any given movement dissolves, either because it no longer is news or because the diverse artists lumped together under the heading decide they have nothing much in common, now that they are famous. Aesthetic movements can be said to belong more to the history of publicity than of poetry itself; but never mind.
The question, “Is fame (or the lack of it) a reliable gauge for the value of a poet?” can be answered simply by listing. On one hand, Southey, Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest; on the other, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins. We need a more reliable way of deciding what has lasting value.