This is interesting and I certainly trust that it's true, though I really don't know what that sophisticated point might be, if it's not that poets and readers of poetry are frauds. (Reading a Seidel poem in The New Yorker feels something like a Sokal hoax, the poems published therein are so often doggerel of the unintentional type.) But I noted that knowing this didn't really make the poems more enjoyable to me. This took the conversation to a different place -- we were no longer talking about how good or bad Seidel is, but whether or not "enjoyment" should be a factor in what one reads:
I agree with Michael in principle. Art shouldn't simply make us feel good! It should challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it should hurt. I've used the exact same argument to convince people to read things they claim not to like. And certainly, the problem with most literary criticism is that it revolves around the "Did I like it or not" question, as if it were just a glorified recommendation system. I agree with Daniel Mendelsohn that good criticism teaches us how to think.
But in practice, when it comes to how I live my actual life, it's more complicated than that, for all kinds of reasons:
- "Pleasure" is fuzzily defined, especially for highly educated snobs like ourselves. There are simple pleasures (like trash TV) and there are complex pleasures. By choosing to read poetry at all, I'm already choosing a complex pleasure (a more active, challenging, and intellectual kind) over a simple one. Is that enough? Do I need to further complicate matters by choosing poetry I don't even like? What exactly would be motivating that choice? A pure desire for self betterment? (I doubt it.)
- When I say I "like" a poem I mean that I find it stimulating in a very specific way that is both aesthetic and philosophical, and it's difficult to tease apart how much is aesthetic and how much philosophical, because both arise simultaneously from language. If something doesn't hit this particular spot for me, it's almost like it's not even poetry. Not only is my experience of reading bad poetry nothing like my experience of reading good poetry, the experience of reading poetry that I know to be "good" but don't especially like is nothing like reading poetry I do enjoy.
- If I'm not in the right mood/mindset to read poetry it will be lost on me entirely.
- As an adult, a number of my interests, hobbies, pleasures, whatever you want to call them, exist in a space that is part pleasure and part obligation. This is true of both reading and writing. At times I can fall into the much-sought-after "flow state" where you are so absorbed in what you're doing you lose all sense of time and self outside of that activity, but 90-95% of the time it feels at least partially like work, and I can't stop myself from glancing at the clock. Cooking falls into the same category; I love cooking but it's also an obligation (as they say, you gotta eat). Perfume is an almost-pure pleasure, but because I'm a writer, I often feel obligated to write about perfume. Honestly, drinking is one of the few things I do for pleasure that is completely free of any sense of obligation. Choosing and opening a bottle of wine requires almost no effort, and if I intellectualize the experience at all (describing the taste of the wine to myself), I feel no need to commit my impressions to paper or memory.
- I work 8 hours a day at a job that requires me to read and write a lot. This makes it even harder to choose "difficult" pleasures when it comes to picking up a book. I can't help wondering if my "extra-curricular" reading patterns would be different if I had a different kind of job. My attention span often feels shot at night, my tolerance for words of any kind stretched thin.
Do you read purely for pleasure? And how is that pleasure different from what you get out of, say, music or movies or ... ? Do you find your hobbies are often tainted with a sense of obligation?