I’m currently in a course called Ordinary Literature. I took it because I had no idea what Ordinary Literature was so, I figured I better find out. The truth is, it’s not a genre. I think my professor came up with the term, but Ordinary Language would probably be a better title. The course is about literary critique and how literary critics use language. Much of the discussion revolves around questions of, ‘Why do they say this?’ And ‘Why do they say it like this?’
Many of the readings in this course are concerned with the meaning of a work of writing—What is it? How do we find it? Where do we find it? And so on. But I keep asking myself, do we need to find it? I started thinking about these questions in relation to painting as opposed to literature. Rothko’s Orange and Yellow is one of my favorite paintings but I never once tried to look for meaning in it; I just like it. So, when I kept reading all of these questions and convoluted phrases such as, ‘It is what it can do; it can do and should do what it is,’ I kept asking, what’s the point? As Camus views life as meaningless and yet all the more valuable for being so, should we do the same with art? Embrace its ambiguities and enjoy it all the more?
In Theory of Literature, authors René Wellek and Austin Warren state, ‘The literary work of art has not the same ontological status as the idea of a triangle, or of a number, or a quality like ‘redness.’’ I agree that a literary work is not like the a idea of a triangle or number (an ideal object existing within an abstract state) but the very idea of a ‘literariness’ or the idea of ‘it is what it can do’ makes me think that a literary work can be a quality such as ‘redness.’ In a discussion of the ethical philosophy of G.E. Moore, Mary Wornock writes,
‘[…] nobody thinks that because ‘yellow’ is indefinable, therefore it is impossible to say what things have the property of being yellow. Nor does anybody think that there can be only one thing which is yellow, nor that all the other properties which the yellow thing has are identical with the property of yellowness…Yet, Moore thinks, people have failed to see all these points when they have thought about the goodness of things.’ (Ethics Since 1900)
To put this plainly, I can’t explain what’s good nor what’s yellow, but I know it when I see it. And this also relates to the famous Supreme Court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio where the film The Lovers was judged to be not obscene. Justice Potter Stewart wrote of the ruling, ‘I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (hard-core pornography); and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.’
So, after all of the questions and the attempts to force aspects of literature into specific categories for specific analysis (which I admit I have participated in myself), I can’t help but now think of these examples and ask, why can’t a poem be like the color yellow? Why can’t it be a quality of sorts? I’m not saying it is a quality of sorts but I’m not sure it isn’t a quality; or at least, that a poem can’t be experienced as a quality.
But I know a poem when I see one. I can’t say I really understand Kurt Schwitters’ Anna Bloom but I know it’s a poem and I like it. I could even list off the reasons why I like it, but I don’t think I could fully explain its meaning; if it even has one. Maybe it’s just a quirky love poem, maybe it’s something more. But what about poems we don’t like? What makes a ‘bad’ poem?
Last year I wrote two articles for The Blue Nib analyzing Rupi Kaur and Instagram poetry as well as the obscure genre of alternative literature. They were not critiques attempting to extract or determine meaning, rather they were more anthropological—They were attempts to understand how the genres function differently from other genres, how they exist in the literary world.
The reason I researched and wrote these articles is because I wanted to understand why academics (myself included) possess such disdain for these particular brands of poetry. What is it about Rupi Kaur’s two-line poems that is so offensive to those of us who fancy ourselves ‘serious readers’?
With Rupi Kaur, I discovered that her poems were often not poems but rather poor attempts at aphorisms (the ‘poor’ of course being my subjective opinion). With alt-lit, I merely discovered a list of tropes unique to the genre and an overall attempt to create a new form of literature via Internet culture and terminology, which of course has spread into Instapoetry. While I found nothing to appreciate in either genre, it seems I am still forced to concede that there is no ‘proper’ poetry (a fact, I must admit, I am still struggling with). Despite my efforts, I cannot claim to have explained or shown why or how those genres produced ‘bad’ poetry; I merely succeeded in detailing why I don’t like them.
And so now, I must admit a difficult truth. Studying these works has taught me something about myself—I’m a bit of a lit snob.
Like many others, I turn my nose up at those reading two-line poems on their phones while I saunter pass with my collection of Ginsberg proudly in hand. Standing in line at the drugstore, I scoff at the paperback thrillers on display while flipping through my pocket anthology of Prévert. While my roommates watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster downstairs, I sip whiskey in my bedroom while listening to recordings of Gertrude Stein; it’s quite cheap whiskey, I’m not that much of a snob. But still, there’s no denying it, I am a snob. And maybe you are too.
Of course, we’re allowed to have preferences. After years of reading, it’s inevitable to develop a particular palate, a particular taste for what you think is ‘good poetry.’ I think the work we snobs need to do is to make a great effort to remain open minded. If we don’t like something, maybe that’s on us. Maybe we need to change our perspective. Rupi Kaur’s milk & honey is the best-selling poetry book of all time. I don’t know about you, but I’m no longer interested in making the outrageous claim that everyone who purchased her book is wrong.
So, my fellow snobs, let us make an effort to grow. Let’s read something we think is trash and try to appreciate it. As Rita Felski discusses in her book, The Limits of Critique, let’s be less like detectives in our readings (analyzing everything, looking for clues and meaning) and more like disciples: appreciative and open to the work. For as the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti says, ‘Like a bowl of roses/A poem should not have to be/explained.’