Friday, March 18, 2011

At a conference in Orono, in 1996, I heard Robert Von Hallberg disagree with Ann Charters about Langston Hughes' poems, arguing that Hughes' poetic achievement may be overstated. Her response: "The poems weren't written for you." In other words, the audience Hughes imagined did not include white literature professors, but a largely uneducated urban black one. In other words, poems written for such an audience can't be compared to those written for an audience imagined by, say, T.S. Eliot, according to the same critical criteria. Von Hallberg was right to counter: "That's not a defensible intellectual position." In other words, you can't promote the aesthetic value of one work over another based on exceptional reasoning; for one thing, it's condescending to the poet and the poems. Yet she wasn't wrong: people value the poems, regardless. The poems make their impact outside the arena of responsible evaluative criticism.
      --Joshua Weiner

Many poets and critics have responded to Claudia Rankine's call for statements on poetry and race. Highly recommended. Read them here.

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