Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Against effortlessness

I've noticed a theme in the negative reactions to my book. They've mostly had to do with effort and intelligence or "cleverness" -- I see phrases like "trying too hard" and "pleased with itself." And "the reader leaves the collection feeling like they’ve just read a book written by the smartest person in class" (this last levied as a criticism or a caveat, I guess since everybody hates that guy). I don't find this kind of criticism hurtful because I wasn't trying to write an effortless book (ha, like how would that work). A seeming effortlessness can be pleasing (Matthew Rohrer's work comes to mind), but I generally prefer work that evidently required effort and intellect. (Broken record alert: I always go back to Wallace Stevens when people argue against intelligence or control in poems.)

I recently identified a "heat" scale for "moves" in poetry: There are hot moves and cool moves, cool moves being those that seemingly involve less effort, hotter moves having more apparent intent. When a critic invokes a phrase like "trying too hard" they evince a preference for a cool poetics. But coolness is sort of a facade; you can't write a poem without trying, and writing a good poem that appears effortless usually involves effort. Most of the time, actually trying less hard yields shittier, more forgettable poems.

The thing is, I feel like my poetry uses more cool moves than hot moves. I mean the whole second section (the "blogpoems") was built around the idea of throwaway poems, daily poems, poems as blog posts. Accordingly I wrote them fast and revised minimally. So, like, has the cool poetics thing gone too far? In a world (movie trailer voice) where a blogpoem is trying too hard, can there be room for a sonnet?


  1. right, i wasn't against effort. anybody who tries to write a james schuyler poem because it looks easy (such as myself) is all too aware that it's not as easy as it looks.

  2. of course, in his case, he was just plain better than me, and no amount of effort on my part can change that. which i'm okay with.

  3. Interestingly, my students (one of whom did say you seemed like you were "trying too hard") will get an assignment tomorrow requiring them to write a sonnet.

  4. It would be a surprise if that person turned out to love writing sonnets.

  5. for the record, i don't agree with people who say you're trying too hard. the blogpoem section is my favorite, but i just happen to prefer that "raw" as opposed to "cooked" style.

    an example of a poet who "tries too hard" would be, maybe, adam kirsch? david wojahn? c.k. williams? definitely michael robbins...

  6. I somewhat connect what you're saying about "hot" and "cool" moves (or whatever the best term might be) with Marshall McLuhan's notion from a half-century ago of hot and cool media.

    I'm only familiar with McLuhan's concept second-hand, though as I get it, radio and newspapers might be examples of "hot" media, and television and magazines might be examples of "cool" media. At least relative to each other.

    I've read a couple of times over the years when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated each other in a series of live debates (during the 1960 presidential campaign), when people were polled afterward, of those who had watched the debates on T.V. the majority felt that Kennedy had won the debates, and of those who had listened to the debates on the radio the majority felt Nixon had won.

    Commentators talking about this later suggested that Kennedy's supremely cool public persona was ideally suited to T.V., especially compared with Nixon's tense dark nervousness. Kennedy's performance during the debates was widely believed to have been a decisive factor in helping him win the election. The cool medium of television had superseded the hot medium of radio, decisively.

    Poetry lives, I think, toward the "hot medium" end of the spectrum, generally speaking. One of the reasons I tend to prefer reading poems in print form, rather than on a computer screen, is that computers -- I think -- add a coolness factor to poems that often runs counter to what the poems are doing. On the other hand, I generally enjoy listening to poets read poems live in front of audiences, at least if the poems themselves are any good.

  7. A lot of my poems try too hard, are self-aware about it, and try even harder out of spite.

  8. @Matt: I see what you're saying about those poems, but that kind of stuff doesn't really bother me, unless the "trying to hard" type of word play is the only reason for the poem's existence. I feel like I've read some Jeffrey McDaniel poems like that, which are just a string of puns.

    "Overwrought" is always kind of a judgment call, like "overripe" -- I had a friend in college who only like the white/pink part of watermelon near the rind. She hated fruit at what most people call the "ripe" stage and always thought it was overripe.

    @Lyle: I've always heard that story about JFK and Nixon too.

    At the moment I'm thinking "hot" moves work better on paper and "cool" moves work better out loud. Untested theory.

    @SS: Ha!

  9. I think there are a few things going on in the "trying too hard" put-down. One thing is certainly the old all-american put down of the un-genius (we want our artists to seem like it just flowed out of them); but the other thing is I think how artistic/literary has become declasse, even kitsch. Those things are related but not sure how.

    See Kenny Goldsmith, who rejects "creative writing" because it's common (kitsch) in favor of books you don't need to read (supposedly can't read), books that are usually based on as little literariness as possible (weather reports etc).

    Also: I recently read an article by Aase Berg where she noted that metaphors have become kitsch (she wasn't in favor of this, she was merely noting it). This is of course the most literary of tropes.

    Somewhere in these random ideas there's a more coherent idea but I can't come up with it right now.


  10. Ah, but if your idea was too coherent, someone would drop in and say you were "trying too hard"!

    I've always thought of similes as kitsch, in a way.

    I'm interested in this idea of "un-genius" and how it relates to the obsession with being "cool." Not all poets or readers care about what's cool, but there's certainly a tradition of coolness in poetry, I'm thinking especially of Spicer and his claims that he was merely transmitting poems from some other place like a radio, which would involve little effort on his part, if he were only the vehicle. And Spicer is idolized among many poets as the essence of cool.

  11. it's funny--just like with keats, i like that spicer quote, but i'm not really into his poetry.

  12. I see where you're going with the hot/cold typology but I'm ambivalent about the terms as I think they smush this into another distinction, re emotional immediacy, that is actually different. You can be overwrought in both senses (Millay, e.g., perhaps Geoffrey Hill), overemotional and undercrafted (Sharon Olds), overcrafted and underemotional (John Hollander), or underwrought in both senses (Ashbery). [In each case I'm talking about the experienced texture of the work, not the amount of work/feeling that went into it.] It's useful to think about things this way because there are two sorts of criticisms of "cleverness"; one of them is about the apparent lack of spontaneity, the other about the apparent lack of feeling.

  13. I agree it gets confusing quickly, since some poets are considered "cold" by virtue of being more cerebral and writing idea-driven poems rather than emotion-driven ones. I've been lumped in that camp too. I just haven't thought of a better way to describe this scale yet.

  14. i think good poems tend to make effort irrelevant. who cares if hopkins was 'trying too hard' because what he was saying was amazing and almost incomprehensibly beautiful. or like nature, who isn't trying at all. it's still awesome. i don't know what i'm saying. my ideal poetry pits extreme intelligence against extreme "emotion" so that no side can be said to have won, they both lose, i die, the idiom lives forever

  15. Elisa,
    Have you read ON KITSCH by Odd Nerdrum? It's a fun read if you get the chance.

  16. I'm intrigued by this idea!
    Hot = trying too hard (i.e. hot for teacher) and Cool = not trying hard enough (i.e too cool for school.) I think this could be useful.


    Brenda Shaughnessy

  17. Does this have to do with the perceived value of craft vs. inspiration? Or is it coming from something else again?

  18. @Liz, I haven't read that. Thanks for the link!

    @Brenda, thank you! Those expressions are good support for my theory.

    @Beloved, I think it is related to the suspicion of "craft," the idea that visible seams or identifiable "moves" are learned/received and not the product of innate genius.

  19. "trying too hard," lol. don't cut yrself on the ressentiment, matt.