The September 2007 issue of Poetry has an essay by Brian Phillips on "Poetry and the Problem of Taste." It's a good piece, but like many other articles about the culture of contemporary American poetry, it puts too much emphasis on the extreme factions. I got so worked up about it I wrote a letter to the editor. Who knows whether they'll print it, but I will, right here and now:
I appreciated Brian Phillips’ exploration of taste and beauty in the context of contemporary poetry (“Poetry and the Problem of Taste,” Sep. 2007). Mr. Phillips’ careful articulation of this inherently abstract issue is especially praiseworthy. It’s one of the few essays I’ve read recently that made me think about a much-belabored subject (the problem of poetry, call it) in a new way.
However, I wish that Mr. Phillips had more steadfastly resisted the pull of the prevailing narrative about the American poetry community, which insists on dividing its members into two neatly oppositional camps; in his words, the “poetry activists” and the “anti-activists.” I understand that he embraces this structure in part for the sake of argument, in part because that’s how everybody else talks about it, and in part to save time. But like so much other rhetoric that relies on rigid binary relationships for its foundation – “red states and blue states,” “you’re either with us or against us,” and so on – the end result is oversimplification.
I think it’s fair to say that, in real life, most poets, poetry critics, and poetry readers are somewhere in the reasonable middle, watching the volleys arc far overhead with bewilderment. They don’t really care which side you’re on, just whether or not you’re writing good poems. That takes me back to the issue of taste and the central question of Mr. Phillips’ essay: how and if anyone can make such a judgment. Well, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart on the challenge of defining pornography, those of us in the middle may not always be able to articulate what a good poem is, but we know it when we see it.