Poetry: the difference between objective and verifiable

Verifiable — which is also popularly characterized, imprecisely, as "objective" –doesn't necessarily mean numerical, as Belle Randall reminds us in a great letter to Poetry

To put it another way, judging poetry (or writing, or human beings, for that matter) is not purely a matter of opinion. Not if the points can be proven. Mathematics is not the only form of logic. 

To get every nuance of Randall's brilliance, you will have to go back to Michael Robbins explosive review of the book in question, a collection by former poet laureate Robert Haas, and the outrage that the review provoked. But it's not necessary! Randall brilliantly sums up both the review, and the book in question. Please see below.

Dear Editor,

Regarding Michael Robbins’s criticism of Robert Hass [September 2010] and the letters that followed [November 2010]: those on both sides of the debate seem to have difficulty keeping their focus on the language of the poems. “This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen,” Robbins declares. “The Haiku masters . . . are behind simple but elegant passages like this,” John Matthias replies. One feels caught between two small boys arguing is too, is not. The danger is that both positions—perhaps all strong opinions about poetry—begin to seem arbitrary and subjective. Yet verifiable observations about poetry can be made:

        On the oak table
   filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
        on a bone-white dish.
              —From Song

Of this, one may say: it begins with a capital and ends with a period but is not a sentence. Lacking a predicate (the implied “are”), it isn’t a complete thought. Instead, as Robbins observes, it is a list. In a list, every item has equal weight. Because of this, a list lacks the focus of Haiku.

The passage is fairly representative of the “period style” of the seventies, with the omitted verb showing the influence of Gary Snyder, who often omits verbs and articles for the sake of compression (“Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies”). Yet the fragment by Hass, compared to Snyder’s, is notably adjectival, while introducing the unwelcome but inevitable association “stewing in one’s own juices.” A peculiar weight falls on the final three syllables—“bone-white dish.” Thud, thud, thud. This sounds profound, like a gavel falling, but is it? If I were to tell you that the fragment was lifted from a restaurant review in Sunset magazine, could you believe it? Isn’t this an accurate description of the language? When Robbins says, “This isn’t poetry,” maybe he means: This is journalistic rather than poetic, descriptive rather than evocative. It’s not bad writing, but, like professional “food writing,” it ain’t poetry.

Amen. Food writing is to poetry as lyrics are to a song.  

After a week at a science conference, it's refreshing to experience precision…in articulate English. 

3 thoughts on “Poetry: the difference between objective and verifiable

  1. KIT:

    How strange (to me) that you picked out this opinionated diatribe to admire! It’s full of unsupportable assumptions. To enumerate a few: That “description” isn’t Poetry. That “lists” aren’t Poetry. Yipes… stop to think…

    Description: surely a weighty and delicious aspect of most good poetry in the canon. Tennyson. Keats. Wallace Stevens. Shakespeare’s sonnets. (And of course Homer, Dante…etc etc).

    Lists: again, an absurdity to make this arch declaration that lists are journalism, not poetry. Homer and Whitman come to mind. And “How do i love thee? Let me count the ways…” etc etc. Catalogues are among the most ancient devices of poetry.

    And then, just to round it out, the absurd pseudo-learned declaration (declamation, really – in a Lady Bracknell voice) – that a line of Hass “lacks a verb” and thus isn’t… of course… Poetry. So how about this two-line bit of description-lacking-a-verb – the most explosively influential short poem of the early modernist kick-off era:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    Oh Nos! Not Poetry!!!

    Strange how closely these lines of Ezra Pound resemble the offending not-Poetic Hass passage, isn’t it?? Complete with the offending “thud thud thud” of the plus-sized spondee ending (wet black bough).


  2. Hey, no “distress” intended – my beef is with Randall’s letter(I wrote from some stored-up frustration with the letter from earlier in the month in Poetry, rather than with your your always-readable site!) FOR AN ANTIDOTE to Robbins/Randall ‘rangling, I advocate two truly humane and sensible articles by Tony Hoagland: “Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness” (Poetry Sept ’10) and “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of our Moment” (March ’06). These are (like Hoagland’s poetry) balanced, appreciating, nuanced, discriminate. And… Thanks for opening this topic in your space!


  3. I agree that Hoagland offers a way out of this poetic wilderness, and actually linked to his essay about fear of narrative in the past…he is one of sanest voices to be heard today, methinks, which makes his sharp humor all the more impressive.


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