To date, I've seen two reviews of my book that suggest its intelligence, or braininess, is ultimately its downfall. Though I absolutely appreciate any reviews and readings of the book (and don't expect, or even want, really, everyone to like it), I admit to being a little perplexed and a little disappointed by these types of comments. There are worse things than to be called "smart" as a kind of backhanded compliment; I'd certainly rather my poems fail for being too smart than for being too stupid. But it's hard for me to understand this mentality. My favorite poets are often intimidating in their intelligence (Wallace Stevens, Anne Carson); I've never read a poem and thought, "This would be better if it weren't so smart."
Take this passage in a review on a blog called 52 Songs:
Wordsworth described an affliction of an “almost savage torpor,” caused by political upheaval, the growth of cities, and the “craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.” (What would he have made of the 21st Century?) For him, poetry was to defend and preserve all that’s good in the world, was to carry forward with it “relationship and love,” and it would do this by using the language of common men and the subjects of common life, reminding readers of a shared humanity. Even as his diagnosis remains sapient, his prescription has come to feel quaint, as much of the Romantic project has, in the face of lightning-quick change and rampant ecological destruction. This may explain why poets like Gabbert retreat into their own heads, describing the distorted view of the world perception affords, like the backward, very limited vision provided within a camera obscura (which happens to be the subject of one of her poems): It may not be an accurate picture of things, but it’s mine. A blurb on the back of the book makes this very point, describing the work as “obsessively interior.”I want to stress that I find this to be an intelligent (in a good way) and careful review, whether or not we agree on what makes a good poem. But we do seem to disagree, because I don't see any way of escaping my own head or the view of the world my own perception affords. I don't see how anyone can. But I can glimpse the view from other people's cameras. Part of the reason I go to poetry (or any art) is for unfamiliar perceptions and unfamiliar ideas. Though there's often pleasure in recognition and validation, what awes me is the perspective, the thought, I've never seen before. By writing from my own perception, I don't presume to suggest the view is not distorted; I only hope to make those distortions interesting.
I've been thinking about how certain hobbies seem to entail or at least encourage an interest in being an "early adopter." (I use the scare quotes because it's not like being among the first to see Sex and the City 2 puts you on the bleeding edge of consumer technology.) In high school and college, I was really into movies and restaurants--which, I now realize, are not hobbies so much as variations on consumerism--and I often felt this desperate panic, usually triggered by reading a review, to see a new movie or try a new restaurant as soon as possible. Like it killed me that other people in the world had been there/done that and I hadn't. I assume it's the same feeling Mac people get when a new iProduct comes out.
I don't get that feeling much anymore and I don't miss it at all. I stopped caring about movies sometime in the mid-aughts when even indie movies were starting to feel self-parodic, like late Seinfeld. I stopped caring about restaurants after living in Boston for a couple years and realizing most of them are bad here. (I could do a whole separate post on why the restaurant "scene" in Boston sucks. LMK, I take requests.) TV breeds a similar feeling, like you can't leave the house if your show is on that night, God forbid your coworkers see it before you, though I guess this is maybe less true in the DVR era. Giving up TV actually helped me stop caring so much about movies, since I never see the trailers anymore. Even music--I used to invest a lot more time (and money) into keeping up with new artists and albums. Again, there was a sort of fear (a variation on FOMO, Fear of Missing Out) that went along with being actively interested in music, a strong need to be able to hang with the other snobs. I still like music, duh, but I don't even try to keep up with what's cool, it's too much pressure.
I'm not sure if I've lost interest in those hobbies because they inspire that feeling or if it's just a coincidence. Maybe I'm just Old Enough to Know Better? A lot of perfume freaks go into conniptions every time one of the niche firms launches a new scent--maybe I'd be flipping out too if I'd gotten into perfume 10 years ago. But I have a lot more disposable income now than I did then, and I still can't afford $200 bottles of perfume. So why even smell them? Clearly you can enjoy music, food, perfume, and movies without even bothering with the Hot New Shit with Buzz, although you can go too far in the other direction and obsess about owning every classic jazz album or whatever.
Poetry seems sort of immune to all this desperate consumerism. Even when a book has "buzz," it's (almost) never enough that anyone I know is pissing their pants to pre-order it and be the first the review it. Maybe those people are out there, but it's certainly not the norm, as it seems to be among serious music/perfume/food nerds. Are there just not enough of us to cause that kind of mass hysteria? That's probably part of it, but I feel like writing, and even reading, aren't inherently about consumption. (I read way more books than I buy, via the library, borrowing, trading, review copies, etc.) I think focusing more of my energy on hobbies that are more private and personal (e.g., cooking instead of eating in restaurants) has made me happier, maybe, kind of. Less competitive.
I realize this sounds self-righteous. But look, I still buy wild amounts of shit I don't need on a weekly basis. Baby steps.