I’m picky. Not such an unusual quality in a writer, but I mean picky, to the extent that my parameters for a good work of literature often preclude me from getting past page 10 of a collection, maybe page 15 of a novel. This can be a real problem when trying to enjoy myself. But it also means that those collections I love receive my full attention and that I feel compelled to champion them to whomever will listen forever after, like a shipwreck survivor extolling the virtues of the lifevest. Lately, I have been trying to talk myself out of the self-made predicament of pickiness. Does uncritical enjoyment really rise to the level of acute moral failing? What’s wrong with shrugging off a bad line and moving on? Why can’t I let it go?
Here’s why: It seems to me there are many sins afoot in poetry—an undisciplined profusion of adjectives, a poetry that relies exclusively on sonic relationships or non-sequitur—but the most egregious is the poetry of egotism. Any first-person poem (singular or plural) must include a sense of its own role in human drama, a necessary distance, in order to deserve our consideration. This is not to say that all such poems must be facetious or self-deprecating—just that, on balance, a little humility/awareness is in order. This shortcoming might be called intellectual boorishness, and too many contemporary poems seem guilty of it, encouraged as they may be by the narcissism of internet self-branding, the selfie culture, etc. Successful poetry must be exquisitely attuned to the world—essentially outward-looking, even if it entails rigorous introspection.
What makes you keep reading? What makes you snap a book closed?