Friday, January 12, 2007

Personal Preference and Aesthetic Judgment

In one of my previous posts I wrote that I would like to like all good poems, but I don’t. A commenter asked the very pertinent question of how one can recognize that a poem is good and still not like it. The answer hinges on the distinction between personal preference and aesthetic judgment.

As Wallace Stevens writes in “Adagia,” “Poetry is not personal.” But obviously our responses to it are, especially our initial responses. Ideally, one should be able to separate one’s personal response to a poem from a more objective consideration of its merits and shortcomings as an aesthetic object and an aesthetic experience. But that doesn’t mean that the personal response disappears. It only means that one doesn’t use a merely personal response as the basis of an aesthetic judgment. One’s personal response to a piece of literature is the starting point, but it cannot be the end point.

Kant wrote that aesthetic judgment requires the renunciation of interest (in the sense of investment, desire, the wish that the object do something for one, that it satisfy one) in favor of a disinterested perspective (disinterest is of course not the same as lack of interest) which sees the object for what it is, not for what one wants from it or even for its effect on one. As Adorno writes, "the traditional attitude was one not of enjoyment, but of admiration--admiration for what those works are in themselves, regardless of their relation to the viewer" (Aesthetic Theory).

There are many poems I can recognize as excellent examples of their kind without being engaged or attracted on a personal level to that kind of poetry, or to that particular poem. For example, I have very little interest in narrative poetry. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize Frost’s “Home Burial” as a powerful example of the genre. Similarly, I recognize Milton’s Paradise Lost as an amazing verbal and intellectual achievement, while finding the poem both repellent and dull on a personal level. Most of Elizabeth Bishop's work strikes me as well-written prose masquerading as poetry, but I admire her descriptive skills and her carefully calibrated deployment of significant detail. As in one’s dealings with people, it’s possible to respect and even to admire without liking.

Conversely, there are poems to which I have a positive personal response, poems that I like, that I also recognize are not particularly well-achieved aesthetic objects, are not particularly good as poems. I have a personal interest in poems about gay nightclubs and gay cruising, because I have a connection to that material: as my students say, I “relate” to it. But I can also recognize that, while many such poems engage me on the level of subject matter, they are not necessarily good poems because they’re about something in which I have a personal investment. Some are; some aren’t. Mark Doty writes very well on the topic (“The Vault,” which takes place in the sex club of the same name, is wonderful), as did the late Ed Cox (see his lovely little poem “Cruising”), and D.A. Powell writes splendidly, extravagantly about the world of gay clubs and gay cruising, especially in his extraordinary first book, Tea. Aaron Shurin is an ecstatic, quasi-sacramental poet of gay sex; “City of Men” is a contemporary masterpiece.

Nor, of course, is a poem a bad poem because I don’t respond to, or even actively dislike, its subject matter or its style.

I have learned a lot as a writer and as a reader from good poems I didn’t like, and also from bad poems that I didn’t like. (From bad poems that I’ve liked, I’ve learned to be very careful about what I allow to influence my work and my reading habits.) I think it’s very important that one read things that one doesn’t like, both because one never knows what a work can teach both about what one could do and about what one may not want to do, and because something one dislikes at first may became something one loves. As also in our interactions with people, it’s always best to err on the side of generosity and to be ready to offer a second chance.

Again, aesthetic value and personal preference are not the same thing, or even the same kind of thing. Aesthetic value is a quality of the artistic object. Personal preference is a matter of individual response to the artistic object, of an individual’s relation to and experience of that object. Obviously one has to have the relationship with the object in order to experience its qualities, but one’s experience of the object is not equivalent to the object, just as our thoughts about the world are not equivalent to the world. (Wallace Stevens writes, again in his "Adagia," that it's important to try "To live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it.") Consciousness pushes against the world, and the world pushes back. As Frank Bidart writes, “If it resists me, I know it’s real.” Poems are real things, and as Stevens writes, they resist the intelligence almost successfully. In that sense, they help defend us from ourselves.


Anonymous said...

An appreciative *sigh, your right* from the college student.
Thanks a lot for clearing that up. After I had posted my comment I thought about it a little more and came to the conclusion that it might be possible. Now, after reading your response, I am fairly convinced.

It's what you said: "the distinction between personal preference and aesthetic judgment."

Let me draw on an example from the world of film. While I certainly agree that the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is 'superb' on a cinematic level, I despise it for personal reasons which I will not attempt to explain. (Apologies for moving out of the world of poetics.)

It took a figurative smack on the back of my head to realize that.

Kasey Mohammad said...

Hi--enjoying your blog. I just posted a response to this post at {lime tree}.


Joan Houlihan said...

The critic (or teacher) is often faulted for using personal preference as a means of aesthetic evaluation, even to the point of comparing the critic's own work with the work he or she evaluates ("If it's not like her work, how can she evaluate it?"). For a critic like Helen Vendler, who is not also a poet, this is not an issue, but for most other critics,it is--at least in the minds of their readers. The simple fact is that reading a poem cannot help but be a subjective experience---and it should be. It's not meant to be a scientific treatise. But between "it can mean anything I say because I see it that way" (as beginners in poetry often say, and often in frustration) and "there are only these time-tested, pre-approved ways to interpret this poem" is a spectrum of responses and intrepretations provoked by the "artistic object," or poem. I'm not sure such a clean break can be made between the subjective experience of the object and the aesthetic value of the object as you make here:

"Again, aesthetic value and personal preference are not the same thing, or even the same kind of thing. Aesthetic value is a quality of the artistic object. Personal preference is a matter of individual response to the artistic object, of an individual’s relation to and experience of that object."

The perception of beauty is an aesthetic experience but also a subjective one, I think. For example, is it "personal preference" to respond positively to a beautiful face? Or to certain aspects of nature, unmediated by the artist? I think it is reflection on the subjective experience, analysis of one's response, and comparison of this artistic object with others that forms the personal preference, not the other way around. To the question "why is your response to poem x, y or z somehow better than mine?" (a question spoken or unspoken for every teacher of poetry), the answer can only be the same as it is in any field of knowledge: the more informed the reader, the more informed the response to what is read. That means intelligence as a given and experience as a necessary condition. It does not mean the reader must blindly accept the critic of the day's evaluation of any particular poem, only that the reader needs to know at least as much as that critic in order to reject it, or accept it with qualifications, etc. When mere scholarship masquerades as knowledge, it makes the reader's task more difficult, but not impossible. Intelligence and experience work as well, if not better, and anyone can read widely, study closely and discover how to articulate their subjective responses to a poem and, in doing so, become aware of their "personal preferences."

Thanks, Reginald, for this terrific post.

Anonymous said...